Friday, June 3, 2011

Vote for Who?

originally written 26/04/2010

This book will change your life
If you can get through some of the rather juvenile humor, that is.

I wanted to know more about the general election in Britain that will be held on May 6th. I won’t be able to vote in it, not being a British citizen, but I have wanted to know for a long time more about the political system in my host country. J lent me Vote for Who? by Jonathan Maitland. It’s not, as you might expect, a book about Doctor Who and voting; it’s kind of a dummies’ guide to the British political landscape, not exhaustive but put in simple terms that everyone (even me) can understand.

This is what I learned:
1) Where does your council tax go? If you live in Britain and aren’t a student and aren’t on benefits, you have to pay council tax. I found this out the hard way during a long and protracted battle between three renters (two of whom were students), their landlord, and Swansea City and County Council Tax Office. No one likes paying council tax, but everyone benefits from it so that is why it is tolerated. One of the points Maitland makes in the book is to paraphrase Colbert and note that it is the job of all governments to tax the people as much as they can without the people putting up too much of a fuss. Britain, as you’re no doubt aware, is taxed differently from the US. Is it a better system? It depends on what you think a government should provide. The money generated from council tax goes into these separate pots:
a) Education
b) Social Services
c) Housing
d) The environment
e) Culture
f) Planning
g) Highways

2) The money you pay in governmental taxes then ends up back in your local councils, but it’s apportioned out more evenly so that poorer councils still get an equal amount of the overall pot. This leads to a “Big Political Question”: how do we want to be governed, locally or nationally? From my experience in the US this is always a tug-of-war: how federalized do we want to be? How much decision-making power do we want to grant individual states?

3) Almost a third of all government spending goes to welfare. It was William Beveridge who decreed that the welfare state should be there for Britons from cradle to grave, and it’s a situation that I seesaw on all the time. I’m in favor of national health care (see below) and pensions. I’m in favor, up to a point, of benefits and dole money. I have found, in my experience, that it’s really easy to work the system so that benefits become a way of life rather than a safety net. There’s a streak of good ol’ American “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” in me that feels like benefits should be limited, but who decides and how? Maitland says in the book that “slashing people’s dole money, or pensions, or cancelling benefits would of course be unthinkable.” Would it?

4) “Two-thirds of those who didn’t vote in 2001 said that if they’d been allowed to do it by phone, they would have.” While I’m pleased to accommodate people to be able to vote if they want to, it seems . . . weird to imagine votes for the running of a country being sent in the same manner people vote for The X Factor, etc. Maitland later suggests voter turn out might be increased by holding elections on a Sunday rather than a Thursday or by doing it over a three- or four-day period. I think these ideas have merit, but I wonder if the latter would present problems for counting accurately? I don’t like the conclusion that Maitland comes to, that he will be a non-voter but an “intelligent non-voter.” He later gives a chapter to other ways you can influence politics other than voting, but I still passionately believe one should exercise the right to vote. He trots out the chestnut that if a certain candidate gets 5,345,000 votes, it wouldn’t make a jot of difference for that candidate to get 5,345,001. However, the basic point that escapes him is that if everyone thought that way, no one would ever vote! I realize that’s a very distant possibility, but metaphorically it makes the point.

5) Our parents influence the way we vote. Obviously, but when you stop to think about that, it’s very true. It’s almost a crutch we can use instead of being informed.

6) Recently someone told me she wasn’t going to vote because all candidates all the time were interchangeable, it wasn’t worth voting in one or another, and they were all liars and crooks. Maitland’s assessment of dishonesty in politicians is very pragmatic: politics by its nature is predisposed toward little white lies. This is because politics is about gaining and keeping power. If you want to keep power, you can’t continually expose when you’ve made really big mistakes, because no one will vote for you. Ergo you have to keep quiet about the mistakes. This makes a lot of sense, alas, and I wonder about all those who enter politics with idealism. Are they all trumped by cynicism like this? Is there no other way to be a public servant other than to eventually succumb to deception?

7) At any one time, there should be around 660 Members of Parliament. This seemed like a staggering figure to me. For such a geographically small country (though with a large population) it hardly seems conceivable that there should be so many MPs, or indeed, the need for them. Like Harriet Jones, MP for Flydale North, most MPs spend their lives as backbenchers, not really getting to influence policy and very few of them ever become Cabinet Members. I was a bit stumped by the fact that they aren’t encouraged to pursue parallel careers, and the money isn’t great (though when Maitland says “60k is peanuts” WTF??). He does add, however, “the expenses are good.” Ohhh, hindsight is 20/20.

8) MPs are still among the 17 most powerful groups of people in Britain, according to the book. The Queen, I was rather surprised to find, still tops that list. I found out that in a neck-and-neck result in a general election, the Queen has the right to choose the PM. Is that a situation we might see?
a) Another group is the unions. As you may have guessed, they are not as strong as they were thirty years ago. One thinks about the struggles of the unions getting started in the 1850s as detailed in North and South. How things have changed . . .
b) The House of Lords is another holder of power. Maitland mentions their system of checks and balances with the House of Commons. Yet, as I learned later in the book, judges aren’t elected—to me, systems of checks and balances have always meant the executive, judicial and legislative branches of the US government which have checks and balances so each branch doesn’t have too much power. Does it work the same?
c) Civil servants, though what they are exactly I’m still not sure.
d) Focus Groups and Bright Young Things
e) Quangos. WTF is a quango? A Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisation.
f) National Parliaments and Assemblies (such as the Welsh one)
g) Big Business
h) The Bank of England—which only fairly recently was given the power to set interest rates.
i) The Cabinet
j) Ministers
k) The Press
l) Europe
m) America
n) The Prime Minister
o) The Chancellor of the Exchequer . Interestingly, the book talks a lot about Gordon Brown and mentions that only three (now four) Chancellors since the War have gone on to become Prime Ministers.

9) I always counted it in Britain’s favor that it didn’t follow a slavish two-party system like we have in the US. Well, according to Maitland, “The system is biased in favor of one or the other of the two major parties . . . It can put you in the strange position of voting for a party whose policies you dislike.” While I have been assured that you shouldn’t let this lead to so-called tactical voting, it seems to be what is encouraged to happen. I have quite a hard time accepting this vote-for-the-party, not-for-the-person situation. Then again, as Maitland says, “The party system over there [in the US] is much weaker and more open than ours.”

10) Maitland gives some half-serious, half-tongue-in-cheek suggestions for influencing politics without voting.
a) Kill yourself. It worked for a suffragette.
b) Write to your local MP. But it won’t get you anywhere. Yet it’s hard to find another nation where so many people take writing strongly-worded letters to officials as a real course of action.
c) Try to become an MP yourself. Only attempt if you have money.
d) Start your own political party
e) The McBroom Method
f) Start a Consumer Boycott
g) Start your own pressure group
h) Take over your local council
i) Organise a rally
j) Lob a few bombs
k) Start a riot
l) Publicity stunts
m) Get a celeb on board
n) Help write the laws yourself. This seems to be Maitland’s favored choice, as laws are all available online for ordinary people to comment on, and their comments are actually read, logged, and mulled over. I admit, in theory it has some merit.

11) His assessment of political Islam in Britain and in other countries is interesting, though somewhat forced into a footnote at the end. “In several countries, hardline and intolerant interpretations of the Sharia are being challenged and even shelved.” A cynic might also write a corollary for the US, “Among American Christians, hardline and intolerant interpretations of the Bible are being challenged and even shelved.” In any case, I think Maitland makes an excellent point in noting how to bridge the traditions of Islam with the Western 21st century: “In Morocco . . . the religious scholars were consulted, and cooperated, every step of the way.”

12) I learned recently from a work colleague that a mixed economy system is what Britain has used, with certain aspects of capitalism (free enterprise and private money-making) and socialism (keeping tight rein on the economy, running a very generous welfare state system). In theory I think this is very smart and has worked well. But you can see my objections up in #3.

13) Have you heard of the West Lothian Question that has come about since Scottish devolution? How can it be right that Scottish MPs at Westminster can vote on English matters, while MPs from England have lost the right to influence Scottish affairs? I think it’s something worth thinking about, though Maitland does anticipate some of the possible answers to this, pre-empting with: too bad. The English have dominated Scottish politics for so long, doubtless the West Lothian Question doesn’t worry too many Scots overmuch.

14) I don’t know how I feel about the fact that Britain does not have a written constitution. People who prefer it didn’t say that it’s worked fine for hundreds of years and if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Coming from a country where we constantly go back to our Constitution and Bill of Rights, finding new ways to interpret them and still struggling with things like the Second Amendment, I feel uncomfortable that so much of British law can just be magicked out of the air using tradition and unspoken rule. I’m with those in favor of a written constitution; it would make things clearer and protect the country if mad extremists ever took over. It’s a possibility!

One thing I wish Maitland had included was a “Further Reading” section so I could continue to improve my knowledge of British politics.

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