Tuesday, 20 January 2015

38 Degrees and Political Engagement

I enjoyed watching the hour-long grilling that David Babbs (Executive
Director of 38 Degrees) was given by the "Political and Constitutional
Reform Committee" in March 2014 [1]. He acquitted himself well. But so
did the chair (Graham Allen, MP), who acquitted himself perhaps even
better.

Graham Allen repeatedly pointed out that there is a great difference
between negative and positive comments, criticism is easy but what we
need are constructive ideas; and he pleaded several times for a more
'nuanced' approach from 38 Degrees. He emphasised the distinction,
often overlooked by the media and the public, that Parliament is
weaker than generally thought, and Government is much stronger. In our
form of parliamentary democracy we elect MPs, the Queen counts heads
and selects a Prime Minister to form a government, which then governs
for the next 4 or 5 years. The MPs do essentially nothing. It seems
that David Babbs' position is that "MPs are pompous, self-indulgent,
self-interested people who ignore their constituents." This may be
true of MPs in 'safe seats'. But it is certainly not true of marginal
MPs, who work fantastically hard for popular approval. So the proper
objective for 38 Degrees is to turn safe seats into marginals. Perhaps
we need proportional representation. (Or see 'weighted members' [2])
In the rare cases where the election of an MP depends on their
reputation for listening to their constituents during those 5 years of
a parliament, there might be some point in the 38 Degees position; but
in most cases MPs are voted in very largely on party lines and party
manifestos, even in marginal seats. But not every citizen wants his
voice heard in Parliament; some would be quite happy if the MPs were
indeed delegated the task of doing the thinking, and analysing, and
weighing up.

We are told that to fight a seat at a general election costs some
£34,000 [3]; not of course in direct election costs for that is capped
at under £1000, but in lost salary, and the 2 years traipsing that
precede the election. Such a cost will put most people off standing
unsuccessfully more than once. This makes the backing of a party
machine an essential allay, with all the evils that this entails.

Most of those on the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee who
attacked 38 Degrees (in the person of David Babbs) showed up rather
badly as self-important and unable to listen to criticism. But there
were one or two exchanges that suggested that David Babbs also was a
little deaf in that regard. Tracy Crouch (MP) pointed out that with
power comes responsibility, and asked that 38 Degrees use correct
nomenclature to show that they were attending to detail; she objected
to the use of slang terms like "Gagging Law", and "Bedroom Tax".

David Babbs replied adequately on "Gagging Law", to the effect that he
thought it a more exact name than "The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-
Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill". Yet it is an
over-simplification to say that this is a bill designed to 'gag' lobby
groups like 38 Degrees. Most democrats would strongly approve of a
limit to the promotional expenses permitted [a] candidates, [b]
parties, and [c] lobbies. The proposed legislation limits the amount a
lobby group can spend on a campaign to £450,000. The novel positions
of 38 Degrees is that it can mobilize the support of enormous numbers
of people. They argue that with 1.5 million members the £450,000 limit
represents only 26p per member; in other words the gross cost of a
campaign should be divided by the number of citizens involved. Good
point. Nuanced, if you like. "What" (someone asks) "does the proposed
legislation mean for Free Speech?" Nothing, I would suggest, provided
citizens speak for themselves, and do not simply add their signatures
(or email addresses) to the ideas of others.

As to 'Bedroom Tax', that seems an even more acceptable shorthand for the "under-occupancy penalty" than the "Gagging Law" case just discussed. But I am not against the penalty in principle, though I see that it causes hardship in the short run and in many special cases. Councils suddenly need smaller houses at their disposal, and that will take time. On the other hand, failure to cap the 'bottomless pit' of the Social Service budget plays straight into the hands of the 'cutting party'; the party of small government. I suggest we have to
think much harder about our fundamental rights before we go
protesting. Do we have a fundamental right to a free house? It sounds a very funny idea to someone who can just about remember the workhouse system of poor relief. We certainly have the right to offer assistance to a needy neighbour, but it is not so clear that we have the right to force others to pay; that is up to them, surely. The difficult job of Government is to find a level at which a majority of the country is willing to pay. The current method in Britain is the occasional general election. It might well be that great lists of email addresses, for and against each issue would be a more focussed method. But I have not yet seen an online campaign that attempted to lay out one tenth of the necessary argument.

So, please: nuance, accuracy, thought, particularly positive thinking, and thinking for oneself. And beware of sloganizing.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GforkpduUNg#t=140
[2] http://occidentis.blogspot.co.uk/2010/04/weighted-members_07.html
[3] http://www.spectator.co.uk/columnists/politics/9287782/could-you-afford-to-become-an-mp/

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