Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Welcome aboard Comrade

Quentin Davies' letter to David Cameron laid out what was - for me - the most respectable of all possible reasons for leaving a political party. Cameron neither understands nor cares to provide decent or responsible representation.

It's a detail that should obscure any debate on actual policies, and it's refreshing that Davies has chosen it as the public reason for doing what he has done (whatever the real reason may be).

While I was never very enthusiastic about other Tory defectors, I think that there is - at the moment - a place for pro-democracy Tories in The Labour Party, and if it helps us to make responsible representation the battleground that Labour fights the next election on, this can only be a good thing.

Tony Blair's early years (with the obvious exception of his resolution over Kosovo) were terrible, precisely because of Labour's disregard for many of the basic standards of liberal democracy. That this is an attack on them for staking out ground that Brown is thankfully abandoning makes me very optimistic about the future of my party.

(Just before hitting 'publish', I notice this in my RSS reader. Great minds...)

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Template applied again

The other day, I made the case for developing a simple template that you can use to cover every problem you encounter instead of having to come up with arguments on individual issues.

So, here's the latest. There seems to be a consensus that - while Freedom of Information is good idea in principle - it is reasonable to filter out the vexatious and avoid the abuse of the system for commercial purposes. The problem, of course, is that - in order to distinguish the wheat from the chaff - the Sir Humphreys have to set up a panel of the great-and-good with a secretariat comparable to the odious and useless Standards Board to sift the vexatious from the sensible.

Like almost everything else, it seems that FOI wasn't a liberalising reform at all. It was just the latest in a massively long line of job creation schemes for bureaucrats.

Before the current legislation came in to force, dozens of £500-a-day conferences were packed out (at public expense) with paper-pushers learning how to be as uncooperative as possible in the face of requests, and as a result, the 'freedom' is hardly being recognised as such.

Why not - instead - insist that every request should be routed through a local MPs office (and only the local MP to the requester).

FOI requests should be justified in a respectful and sensible way. Any that aren't get spiked. And MPs would be able to insist upon actual answers instead of the context-free data that civil servants have been trained to respond with.

MPs allowances can be slightly increased to compensate for the inconvenience.

Problem solved. Freedom of Information achieved. And if you think that your MP is stifling reasonable requests and can make the case for this, you can damage their prospects at the next election.

Next?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Trawl your archives

I know, from memory, that a few other bloggers have written posts in the last year or so with advice for the next Prime Minister.

If you have, now would be a good time to reprise it. Me? I'd still stand by everything I said here about nine months ago.

Also, I'm not as relaxed as Tom is about Gordon Brown's opacity. As I said before, if Brown swallowed a sixpence, I suspect he'd shit a corkscrew.

To the river.

There’s a supportive link on Baggage Reclaim back to this post. And beneath it, the comments have turned largely into a debate about the rights and wrongs of protest restrictions in Westminster in general, and Brian Haw in particular.

As regular visitors may know, I have a template that I use to determine my position on almost everything; In a nutshell, if you continually improve the quality of representative democracy, all other aspects of public policy will improve by themselves (see section 4.1.22 onwards here).

So, applying it, I think that there is a case to be made for treating Parliament more like a court of law than we have done in the past. The nature of representative democracy in this country is like lots of other aspects of the unwritten constitution - a bit ambiguous.

We have over-powerful political parties, pressure groups, journalists and bureaucrats because we use imperfect means of electing politicians, and imperfect means of influencing them once they are elected.

So, we should elect people who have personal qualities that appeal to us, instead of attempting to imagine how their manifestos will translate into action. In my case, I’d always vote for someone who generally understands democratic socialism and is at least lukewarm towards it. The warmest candidate gets my vote, but you can chose your own yardstick, however stupid it is – don’t let me stop you.

Once elected, all lobbying should be conversational. The rest of us have a duty to support MPs by providing conversational forums that they can eavesdrop upon. Their actual decisions, however, are their business. This is an old theme here.

In this sense, I think that MPs should be treated bit like jurors. They should be constantly invited to use their skill and judgement to spot the interests of the nation as a whole. And as jurors, they should conduct their deliberations free from the harassment of twats with megaphones and personal shanty towns.

This position is, of course, open to the criticism of being based upon an unattainable ideal. MPs aren’t jurors at all. They are, for the most part, unimaginative middlebrow party bureaucrats who want a combination of a quiet life, local celebrity, career advancement and (in the case of male members) a damn good blowjob ASAP.

I would reply that any form of political campaigning that doesn’t pressurise MPs to behave like jurors – and that doesn’t oppose the rivals that MPs have in seeking to tilt the playing field in their favour (lobbyists, journos, bureaucrats etc) is ultimately an attempt to damage democracy. Someone has to make the first move, and this is one responsibility that the voters should shoulder.

So, returning to my template, I should add that it’s not one that should be over-simplified. For example, I’m in favour of public protests in general, mainly because they backfire and undermine the case that they purport so support. Under normal circumstances, I’m all in favour of helping Brian Haw to weave whatever length of rope that he needs to hang his own brand of pacifism with. But Parliament Square is the one place that he shouldn’t be allowed to do it on.

A country that understands and values representative democracy would have kicked him into the Thames a long time ago.

I hope this clears up any confusion.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Impartiality is over-rated

Again, I’m just too distracted with other stuff to do much original here. But two questions occur to me today.

Firstly, everyone* is hand-wringing about BBC impartiality like it’s a good thing. Reprising this, why is this assumption never challenged?

And secondly, Chris Dillow is continuing to showcase his ‘managerialism-cause-of-all-ills’ thesis (not that he's necessarily completely wrong on this, btw), but in this post, he discusses the civil service, and you can hear the phlegm hit the ground as he says ‘politicised.’

Surely, thoroughly politicising the civil service would solve most of the problems that Chris complains about? It would certainly change the attitude of politicians to public administration, and – as far as I can see – managerialism is largely the result of a dysfunctional relationship between politicians and civil servants in which both have been allowed to fetishise the generalist for far too long?

We could even use elections to decide who should govern us. What a fantastically utopian concept that is, eh?

*Note that all links go to The Guardian or the BBC ;-) Liberal bias or what?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

In defence of bossyness

This post designed to annoy most of the bloggers that I agree with on most things (though, I suspect, not Pootergeek).

Like most people, I find it hard to resist the impulse to complain about ‘nannying’ or to question the predilection of most liberal democracies for banning things, but it is worth bearing in mind that – in focusing upon it – one is leaving oneself open to the charge that you are fetishising liberty and the expense of democracy. See Mr Bobbio for details*.

I dislike the smoking ban, for instance- and I say that as a recently reformed ex-smoker. And if I cared either way, I’d probably object to the hunting ban as well. But I can defend both – the former with plain reason, the latter with a defence of representative democracy (paraphrase: you have to accept the flaws in the least-worst system available to you).

Most perceived liberties fulfil the role of a constitutional safeguard (they're all unwritten here, thank da lord) – they are an exception that has been put in place to safeguard minorities. A bit like the cultural exception in other debates. They are often unwritten and cultural, and they are the hidden wiring (like public service broadcasting, and the ability of the state to invest in culture, to ride my own hobby-horses into this argument) that makes democracy better than every other system of government.

So liberties are important. But if you constantly carp on about the loss of specific liberties (hunting, smoking, putting feet on bus-seats) without – at the same time – acknowledging the fact that technology, secularism and globalisaton provide us with many new liberties as well as relatively small restrictions, then you are – objectively – a conservative.

Most of us enjoy many many more liberties now than we did, say, twenty years ago. To think otherwise is to either be looking at the world through a glass darkly, or to be a conservative propagandist.

So, reader, which one are you?

*apologies for sending you off to read a book in order to reinforce an argument. Pressure of time, and all that. It is a very good book though.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Friday, June 15, 2007

Hazel's campaign

Hazel always gets people to stand on boxes before being photographed with her.

I've now voted in Labour’s deputy leadership contest. I didn't spend long considering it, and I’ve made my choice on fairly superficial factors (the candidates with the backers that I most identify with, the odd half-remembered policy position, a kremlinologist’s judgement on ministerial experience, etc).

And that’s the way things should be. It is - I would argue - the most responsible way for any voter to behave, and I doubt if most voters will have done more than engage with the superficial qualities of any of the candidates, even those that have attended any of the various hustings.

None of the candidates are in the position to be mandated about anything anyway, so it doesn’t really matter if I chose exactly the right or wrong candidate. Because of my relative uncertainty about their suitability (and I’m surely not alone in that), I’m certain that I’ll have no right to feel betrayed if a candidate that I’ve supported makes decisions that I don’t approve of.

Everyone else's misjudgements will even things out. The important thing is that there is an election. The quality of the policies in the manifestos aren’t even massively important either. The fact that they have conducted themselves in a conversational manner, and that they haven’t taken up positions that would make it difficult for Labour to govern is what matters.

I did, however, find the election literature interesting. Hazel Blears was never likely to come top of my list – she’s a roundhead, and I think that roundheads make an absolutely fundamental mistake about the nature of politics and government – one that I couldn’t endorse. I would very rarely vote for a candidate based upon specific policies, but misunderstanding the basics of democracy is another matter entirely.

So my initial instinct was to place Hazel in last-place (it’s one of those transferable vote systems). But Hazel’s literature went to town on who she was. It showed her out-and-about with people, and it attempted to communicate her essential character in a way that none of the other candidates would. The biography was detailed and it attempted to show us who she is, and how her background impacts upon the way she does her job.

Of all of the candidates, Hazel presented herself in the way that I think politicians should. Others concentrated on specific policy positions that they will unable to deliver upon, and that voters will be incapable of properly assessing.

I still didn’t give her my highest preference votes, but the way she presented herself made me think that the Roundheads – even though their understanding of representation is flawed – are the only ones who have even considered the matter in their campaign.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Usurped - in a good way

I've been doing about as much reading of other blogs as I've been doing writing here lately. So I missed this eight part (yes, eight part) post on the godlike genius that has appeared, in some form, in almost every dream that I've ever had.

By the looks of it, there's plenty more to come as well.

He's found a YouTube clip - in Part One - showing Ian Bowyer scoring the only goal in the second (away) leg of the European Cup Semi-Final (the first leg was an electrifying 3-3 draw).

I remember watching it at the time (not live - I'd managed to avoid hearing the score until the late-evening screening), and I really can't think of a moment in my life that I was happier than watching that goal go in.

The interview with Brian is just gorgeous as well. In fact, it's so good, I'm nicking it. Sorry James ;-)


Neutral observation

I heard Cass Sunstein speak a few weeks ago.

Very good he was too. He's written this, and it's top of my birthday present list.

That's on the 21st of June, just so that you know.

Longplayer

Jem Finer's Longplayer.

God: Latest.

A good Michael Bywater quote on ‘The Wisdom of the Ancients’ in here.

(Found via a comment at DSTPFW.)

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Technology as it applies to democracy

For some reason, I missed this - even though I attended the event that Bryan Appleyard is discussing here. At the event, there was...
"... much talk of “deliberative” democracy. This is a tricky word. It seems to imply that with one comfortable-sounding bound, the technophiles are free. But deliberative must mean somebody is applying wisdom to the process, applying cultural norms, doing the spadework on the background. Somebody, in short, must be standing outside the technophile bubble and passing judgments."
Nothing much to disagree with in that, is there?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Swansong

He's right you know.

Proof:
"The associate editor of the Sun newspaper, Trevor Kavanagh, said Mr Blair's comments were rather "sour" and "ill-advised" and out of character."

Update: 14/6/07: In the interests of completeness, I enlarged on this in the comments here and Shuggy has picked it up here (cross-posted here)

Monday, June 11, 2007

2012 counterproposal

Argumentation here.

I don't mind the one they chose though. I've got better things to get worked up about.

(ta Ben)

A short critical defence of opinion

Quote of the day:
".... opinions are like arseholes - everyone's got one, and I don't want to hear any of them."
In the case of newspaper columnists, I'd largely agree, though one value of published comment is that commentators sometimes present bits of information by way of telling us what their conclusions are.

And, in doing so, they provide information that their employers no longer bother providing - having sacked most of their reporters in order to hire more tedious commentators.

In fact, for the most part, I'd agree with S&M's general disdain for the inflated value placed upon opinion.

However, I don't understand the objection to people who have been elected being given the latitude to act upon their opinions.

I'd accept the argument that British Prime Ministers are able to do so without having to justify their decisions sufficiently - but surely the cornerstone of representative democracy is that we select people to exercise their judgement on ...
  1. what is best for their constituents,
  2. what is consistent with their duty to offer coherent government,
  3. what is - according to their conscience - the right thing to do?
Point one involves doorstep work, a bit of research, and an occasional resort to the dark arts of opinion sampling. But mostly, it involves the illiberal pursuit of deciding what's good for other people, no matter what they think.

Point two, above, is covered by a critical adherence to the policies of a political party, and surely, point three guarantees the quality of government - it's thoughtfulness, decency and creativity as well as the usual mumbo-jumbo about distributed intelligence being a good thing.

For this reason, it is surely vital that we support the right of elected individuals with relatively few resources with which to draw conclusions to gainsay the dictates of their political parties? This can only happen if the public are given more exposure to individual MPs (and other elected politicians) at the expense of party mouthpieces.

Now, I would argue that the correct role for non-elected individuals in a representative democracy is that we should co-operate to create a valuable evidence-heavy civil conversation that elected representatives can eavesdrop upon before they legislate on our behalf.

This can only happen if there are more opinions being voiced. The question is not whether these opinions should be voiced, but how do we filter them - and why do we have to read the same old arseholes spouting on fresh topics every day?

I move that newspapers should stop paying for opinion and start spending their cash on more reporting. That would solve this problem completely.

Friday, June 08, 2007

To be going on with

Not having any time, I'm only able to publish the thoughts that would normally precede a fully thought out post at the moment.

So, here's the latest:

Is it possible to credibly argue for a Basic Income without having an ID Card scheme in place first?

Let me know what you think?

Good grief



(Ta Annesley)

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

A sensible position

If I wasn't flat out at the moment, you'd be reading a fantastic post here challenging the general assumption on almost every blog I read (including the ones that I like) that people always know what is good for them better than the government do, and that it is 'illiberal' to disagree with this view (like that's a bad thing).

But I'm too busy to write it at the moment. So you'll just have to imagine it for yourselves before you congratulate me on taking such a sensible position.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

In the absence of anything much to say...

This post is just here to confirm that I don't have anything that is very original or interesting to say at the moment.

Sorry about that now.

I've had a post in my drafts folder for some time provisionally entitled “open source? What about cars then?” but I can't even use that now.

The idea - the one that I thought was spectacularly (such a good simple idea that I'm amazed no-one has thought of it yet) good, runs like this:

I reckon that large groups of people could specify and source a white label basic car that aims to strike a balance between low emissions and affordability (the two are mutually exclusive at the mo). They would collectively create blueprints for components – ones that would be designed with interoperability in mind - that would have a suitably loose copyright arrangement, so that people could overcome the ‘£100 for a wingmirror because only OUR wingmirror fits your car’ problem.

But, I mentioned this to Pootergeek, and it seems that someone is working on this idea. It's here: http://www.theoscarproject.org/

NB. It has three wheels :-(


Friday, June 01, 2007

Pointage

More Stumbling & Mumbling sycophancy, I'm afraid.

It's probably wrong to use your own blog to highlight something you've said in someone else's comments boxes, but, damn it all, I said that this is a good post in the comments under it. And I'll say it here as well.

Go and read it. Off you go now.

Markets, loyalty and the theatre of my dreams

My favourite blogger (apart from you*, obviously), S&M, offers a free-of-charge no-nonsense daily course in 'how to think like an economist' - and, by implication, how to think like a trader or a stockbroker. He does it from a left-wing perspective which means that I don't have to question any basic assumptions, which is a bonus.

Naturally, as a non-trader, I don't agree with all of his conclusions (the price of everything = value of nothing, and all that), but one of his regular lessons is that we should hold our views lightly and ironically, and I'd go for that generally.

Chris would have us cast our net widely, spread our bets, don't throw good money after bad, look at results, apply a Bayesian watchfulness to cultivate successful ideas and drop bad ones, etc etc.

These may be good general rules for the management of our lives. But I'd suggest that they make loyalty difficult, and this can't always be a good thing.

Take the everyday object of my affection, for example. The helping hand to the widow, the light of reason to the child. Mankind's highest achievement. The theatre of my dreams, Nottingham Forest F.C. Currently languishing in ignominy, their most recent appearance marked what may be the historical low point of one of the world's oldest clubs (we were the third professional football team to be established after Notts County and Stoke).

This opinion piece is representative of the Forest fans everywhere. As with all fan-authored opinion pieces, the chairman, the chief exec and the manager should be sacked, obviously. No alternative is provided of course. As far as I know, the boardroom is not currently being besieged by monied alternative owners. But still, what the fuck. Sack them all.

I'm not generally a sacker in these circumstances. Yet I can't help thinking that the roots of Forest's problems are in the owner, Nigel Doughty. Doughty has squared an un-squarable circle in his own soul. He is evidently a successful venture capitalist. He's almost certainly made his money by embodying the virtues that S&M promotes. But - by getting involved in a business that doesn't allow for 'ironic attachment' - he has locked himself into something that requires more caution and dedication. More loyalty. And, ironically, he is performing this disservice because he is a loyal surporter of the club.

If you read that opinion piece (linked to, above) you can see how he has played a number of gambits that haven't paid off. Hiring David Platt as manager is the obvious one. Platt was undoubtedly a gamble. The kind of player that should make a good manager in theory. In Platt's case, this was a long-odds bet because there wasn't much form to go on. That made him the type of long-odds bet that some gamblers thrive upon.

If giving Platt the job was a gamble, giving him the job and a fortune to spend on useless Eyeties was a bigger one. Years later, Forest are still paying the price.

Unlike a choice of stock, if your football team underperforms, you can't just cut your losses and shift your allegiance to this weeks' climber. If football had smart money over the last few years, all of it would have deserted Forest (the most notable underachievers - even Leeds haven't yet sunk to our depths) and leaped onto Colchester United (probably the most startling over-achievers at the moment).

Doughty can't really do this. If he did, he'd probably end up dangling from Trent Bridge one dark night. So, unlike most VCs, he has to sit in his own shit without much of an idea of what to do to get out of it. But for all of the moaning about having to play Cheltenham in the league (I didn't even realise that they had a league team!) I wouldn't have it any other way. There are some things that you have to stick with through thick and thin. Some things that you have to be long-termist about. Your football team is one.

Other things need more loyalty as well. There are some convictions that need to be clung to through the hard times. For me, democratic socialism is one, and the republican values of mutual duties that the state and the individual owe each other are another. The latter argument is one that would never survive any market measure of popularity, but without it, we'd all be speaking German today.

And until we can scrape together enough cash to actually buy the club, we need Doughty where he is. Sitting there, smelling his own jobbies.


*Where you = a blogger