Thursday, 30 August 2012

Voting for Plod

On 15th November the people of England and Wales (excluding London) will vote for their Police and Crime Commissioner for the first time. The idea behind this is to make the police directly accountable to the communities that they represent, and allow those communities to set the priorities for their police force.

The new Commissioners appoint and remove the Chief Constable, write the strategic plan and set the budget for the force, giving them control over where police activity is directed. They will be accountable not only to the electorate but also to a Police and Crime Panel, made up of representatives from the local authorities in the area.

The idea has been criticized by the police federation, who argue that political pressure could have damaging implications for the operational effectiveness of the police. Ian Leyland, secretary of Merseyside Police Federation, argued that the public desire to quickly conclude high profile cases, such as that of the murder of Rhys Jones, could mean that elected Commissioners put pressure on the police to cut corners in their investigations.

Of more concern is the type of candidates who will be elected. The high cost of running in the elections favours candidates with the backing of established political parties. In Sussex, my own area, there is a spending limit of almost £220 000, which is unrealistically high for independent candidates. The candidates put forward by the major political parties are all ex councillors or failed parliamentary candidates. The sanity of the independent candidates is highly questionable, one running a campaign to expose three local MP’s for being jointly involved in a murder. It seems likely that the party candidates will both present better arguments than this and also outspend him, pretty much guaranteeing them victory.

If the result of these elections is to hand strategic control of the police to local political parties, what are the likely implications? Local parties are not well known for their ability to actively engage their communities-can you name your local councillor, or say anything about what they do? People will likely vote based on party allegiance, effectively making the elections a referendum on the national government rather than a real choice about local policing. In areas which are highly partisan, for example North East England for Labour or the Home Counties for the Conservatives, the most interesting politics will be internal to the favoured party. After all, Police Commissioners will be paid up to £100 000 per year, which is a very tempting reward for a long term party hack. Are long term party hacks really the best people to be running the police? We may be about to find out.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Trouble in the Shires

David Cameron has a backbencher problem. The more right wing elements of his party do not think that he is a ‘real’ Conservative, and that he is in government for the sake of governing rather than to enact dramatic changes to the way the country is run. They accuse him of pandering to the Liberal Democrats in order to sustain himself in this position, to the detriment of the country at large.

It has reached the point that these grumbles do not happen behind closed doors, but in public, in order to better entertain and enlighten us all. Brian Binley M.P. has set out the case that the government is drifting aimlessly, and that in order to address the very real challenges that the country faces, David Cameron must “put his foot down and assert his position, firstly, as Prime Minister, and secondly, as leader of the Conservative party”. He goes on to suggest sacking Vince Cable and implies that the number of Lib Dem ministers in the government could be reduced.

Putting aside the questionable nature of Binley’s analysis of what has gone wrong since the coalition came to power, it should be immediately obvious that his prescription is pure fantasy. The Conservative party does not have a majority in parliament. It requires the Lib Dems to sustain it in government. The Lib Dems may only hold 57 seats, but those 57 seats are what keep the government in power. The argument is often made that the Lib Dems will not withdraw support for the coalition, because doing so would force an early election in which they would be massacred. It is often conveniently forgotten that the same is now also true of the Conservatives. Based on current opinion polls, if an election were to be held tomorrow, Labour would win an overall majority. The Conservatives need the Lib Dems as much as the Lib Dems need the Conservatives.

The willingness of Conservative backbenchers to embarrass and even vote against their party leadership is reminiscent of the ‘Tory Wars’ of the 1990’s, which destroyed both the government of John Major and the long term credibility of the Conservative Party, a trend only (partially) reversed when Cameron became leader. Their disloyalty is revealing. Backbench loyalty is usually the result of said backbenchers wishing to one day become ministers, which can only happen if the Prime Minister appoints them. By so openly defying Cameron, these backbenchers are indicating that they have no desire to serve in a Cameron government, presumably because they do not believe that a Cameron government is a worthy project, and that a better option, presumably under a new tory leader, will soon be available. If they don’t believe in a Cameron government, it is hard to see why voters should be expected to at the next election, yet that is exactly the question that will be asked at the ballot box. If Cameron cannot get a grip on his party, it may well doom his already slim chance of re-election. 

Monday, 27 August 2012

Barack's Challenge

There is feeling, bordering on disbelief, in left wing circles in the UK that simply cannot grasp why Barack Obama may have a fight on his hands to win Novembers election against Mitt Romney. The argument runs that the modern Republican Party is so extreme, and so offensive to huge segments of the population, that nobody in their right mind could ever vote for it. The fact that the race seems very close and could still go either way is mystifying, and sometimes wrongly blamed on crude caricatures of the wisdom of the US voter.

A closer look at the situation in the USA reveals a different picture. Put simply, Barack Obama has a decidedly mixed record as president, and is paying the electoral price for failing to meet the needs and expectations of the voters. Although Mr Obama took over at the exact moment that the global economy experienced its worst shock since the 1930’s, it is impossible to conceal or excuse the fact that four years later the US recovery is anaemic at best.

At present 48% of Americans disapprove of the overall Job President Obama is doing, while 45% approve. While the President scores well on foreign policy and education, he does badly on traditionally right wing issues such as deficit reduction and immigration. His real difficulties are on economic issues, where around 60% of Americans believe that he is managing the economy badly and failing to create jobs. At a time when the unemployment rate is 8.3% these are worrying figures for the President. Mr Obama’s predecessors knew that at times such as this “it’s the economy” that decides elections.

A sitting president cannot run on a platform of ‘hoping for change’. He/she must explain what they have been doing for the past four years, and hope that the voters think it shows that they are a better bet than their untried challenger. If you are an American voter, fearful about your economic future, possibly unemployed or probably knowing people who are unemployed, and unsure about the direction the country is heading, then you are likely to have serious questions about Mr Obama’s presidency, and at least be ready to question whether you wish to extend it.

If I were an American citizen I would still vote for Obama, on the basis that I believe the Republican economic position is Hooverite nonsense, but I would certainly understand the reluctance of others to do so. There is nothing inexplicable about being dissatisfied with a president after four years of poor economic performance, with little prospect of improvement.      

Sunday, 26 August 2012

State Funded Politics?

When impeccably connected Conservative journalists start reporting that David Cameron is considering introducing the state funding of political parties in return for Lib Dem support for the boundary review it is time to take notice. What would be the implications of such a policy? What risks does it pose?

At the present time, political parties are financed by voluntary donations, either made by wealthy individuals, or organisations including large companies or trade unions. A fair argument can be made that these donations are given in order to influence the political direction of the recipient, in a manner which subverts the democratic principle that wealth should not buy political power. In theory, if the state removed the need for parties to rely on these sources of finance, then parties would act in the interest of the electorate rather than in the interests of their financial backers.

There is, however, a serious problem with this in practice. If the state is to remove the influence of private funding, then private funding must be abolished altogether, otherwise the state will only be providing top up funds and private finance will retain its influence. In order to work as intended, all parties will have to become 100% state financed. If the state is funding all political parties then the state will have to decide what constitutes a legitimate political party. Will the Monster Raving Looney party receive state funding? It should be obvious that they would not, because they do not represent a legitimate political interest. How is this decided, and more importantly, by whom? On what criteria would a political party be banned?

Let’s move on to a more difficult example. The British National Party stands and has won elections in the UK. The act of doing so tragically proves that they do represent the views of a segment of the population. If this is the case then how could they be denied funding? Yet how can the state fund a vile organisation which is actively hostile (to the point of violence) towards millions of Britons? The answer is that it cannot.

Even if the problems associated with fringe parties are ignored (they cannot be resolved), state funding would damage mainstream centrist politics. The argument for state funding implicitly recognises that money buys power in election results. So how would state funds be divided between the parties? Allocating resources based on previous election results would have the effect of entrenching the present order, retarding the ‘kick the bastards out’ function of democracy. Allocating resources equally amongst all parties is an open invitation to anyone who can get 650 Facebook friends together, then say that each intended to stand in a constituency, to claim millions of pounds of state funds, without any benefit for the electorate at large. Party memberships would count for nothing, as the requirement for them would have disappeared. Incredibly, state funding is likely to produce a politics even more disconnected from the public than the one we have now.

The current form of party finance allows wealth to buy political power, and is in dire need of reform. To attempt to do so by introducing the state funding of political parties would be a grave error and if enacted would prove very difficult to reverse, as few politicians will be willing to give up easy finance. Yet this is the course of action the David Cameron is considering in order to change the electoral boundaries. He risks permanently damaging British democracy by doing so.       

Friday, 24 August 2012

Responsibility in Syria?

The civil war in Syria grinds on, with little hope of a quick conclusion and a return to peace. The human cost of this conflict rises inexorably, and yet no humanitarian intervention is forthcoming. Why is this? The members of the United Nations have agreed that they have a legal ‘Responsibility to Protect’ the citizens of states who are being killed by their rulers. Why is it not being applied?

In truth, the weaknesses of the Responsibility to Protect have been evident for some time. It is a general moral principle which does not adapt well to real life conflict, and has the potential to cause serious division within the international community.

The chief concern is that the Responsibility to Protect advocates starting wars without any clear idea of how to end them. It is impossible to realistically envisage a situation where a state is killing its citizens, a foreign military force intervenes to stop it, and the original regime remains in place. Putting a new government in place will require an act of nation building. The examples of Iraq and Afghanistan show the difficulties with this, and how wrong it can go. There is nothing humanitarian about creating a failed state, and that is assuming that the intervention is even possible.

The doctrine takes as read that the option to launch an international militarily intervention is available. It has been argued that the war in Libya proved that this can be the case. A closer inspection shows that this is questionable. Although calls for the intervention were led by Britain and France, without the military might of the USA it would have been impossible. The gap between the desire of many countries to intervene and their ability to do so was noted by outgoing US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, who saw it as a threat to the viability of NATO, realistically the only organisation willing and able to perform such military operations. Calls for intervention made by states that lack the ability to perform one amount to little more than empty posturing, and run the additional risk of jeopardising their own interests, and that is before other international considerations are taken in to account.

Wars have consequences beyond the place that they are fought. However murderous a regime is, it has a place in the international order. When the regime falls and is replaced by a new government, possibly even a new system of government, then that order changes. Observe how Israel watches nervously as Egypt transitions to some kind of democracy. The Responsibility to Protect advocates making these changes without giving consideration to the international effects. If a tyrannical government is deposed, but the cost is regional instability which leads to greater bloodshed, then the humanitarian aims of the intervention have obviously failed. It is possible that this could be the outcome in Syria, where Sunni/Shia conflict risks spreading to surrounding countries.

None of these arguments precludes military intervention, if circumstances allow it. What should be clear is that this is not the case in Syria. The US is not going to involve itself in another Middle Eastern war with no clear objectives and no clear exit scenario, even if it could get the backing of Russia and China in the Security Council, which it can’t. No other state has the military capacity to decisively directly intervene, and so they won’t. Even if they did, the risk of the conflict spreading would make this course of action too risky to be considered wise. None of this will come as any consolation to the Syrians, who find themselves in an ever worsening civil war with no prospect of decisive assistance.  

Adrian Montague vs The National Trust

Have you noticed how expensive it is to rent in the UK? House prices have doubled since the mid 1990’s, while people’s incomes have remained stagnant. The cost of renting has followed suit. There is a simple reason for this; there are just not enough houses to go round.

The problem is approaching the critical level, with young families the hardest hit. The idea of bringing up children in a secure home is becoming an unattainable dream for many, leading to claims that the older generation, who got on the property ladder before the boom, are exploiting their wealth at the expense of the young.

If people need houses, and house prices are high, why are developers not building more in order to meet this demand? Why has the market failed in this instance? The answer lies in the planning system. Put simply, the effect of government policy is to prevent new accommodation being built, restricting supply in the face of rising demand, thus raising the cost of housing.

With long waiting lists and short supply, social (i.e. subsidised) housing is unable to meet the increased demand, while high prices and the limited availability of mortgage financing preclude most potential first time buyers from joining the property ladder. This leaves private rented accommodation as the only option for many young families. However, the cost of this option has also begun to rise above the level that many can afford. This week the Department for Communities and Local Government released the Montague Report, which aims to address this problem, by finding ways to encourage developers to build large scale rental developments of 100 units or more.

The report’s recommendations include local authorities encouraging the development of rental accommodation through the planning system and freeing up public land for development. The most controversial proposal is that the requirement for new developments to include an affordable housing element to be waived in certain cases in order to make development more profitable.

In the face of an impending crisis it is noticeable how timid the report’s recommendations are. If there is a need for more rental accommodation, why not set local authorities quotas which they must achieve? Why is only public land to be put forward for development and not the large amounts of countryside available around most towns and cities, which could be re-zoned at the stroke of a pen?

The answer is that the report shies away from taking on the vested interests which are against development. Organisations such as the National Trust have successfully lobbied the government against making any changes that favour development. Since it has become politically impossible to favour development in planning law, inadequate small scale measures are the only options left.

This situation cannot be sustained forever. Without development the housing shortage can only grow more acute. By surrendering to the anti-development lobby, the government has stored up greater problems for the future and done nothing to alleviate the social costs of the housing crisis. It is a classic example of the worst type of short term thinking.