Friday, 30 April 2010

The ecclesiastical establishment and the election: 1

As an alternative to reading bloggers and the main stream media, I thought I’d find out what members of the ecclesiastical establishment are saying. As reported at ekklesia, the Church of Scotland’s magazine, Life and Work invited some religious leaders in Scotland for their opinions. Here are the thoughts of the Rt Rev William Hewitt, Moderator of the General Assembly.
“I would want to stress the importance of taking part in the democratic process. Voting is not only a civic duty, but is a right we should cherish. We remember those people in the past who won the right to vote, and those around the world who envy us for having the freedom to choose our own government."
Not controversial, and I’d basically agree. But I would want to add that I think that deliberately abstaining, whether by spoiling one’s ballot or by not casting a ballot at all, because one believes that none of the candidates is worthy of a vote, is not a failure to do that civic duty.
“Some people say that there is no point in voting because the parties are all the same. This is unfair, as we elect individuals, whose values and opinions will always be different. We have a responsibility to discover what our candidates are saying and what the party manifestos are proposing.”
Important points, and I agree (though it is true that there is not much difference between the main parties). How many people actually bother finding out about candidates and the content of manifestos? Not many.
“We all know that the major issues of economic recovery, education and health will dominate. However the Church is pushing for an end to Trident, both from a moral and an economic point of view.”
In other words, the Church of Scotland thinks you should probably vote for the LibDems, the Greens, the SNP (we’re talking about Scotland, after all), or one of the smaller socialist parties. It would rather that you didn’t vote for Labour, the Conservatives, or UKIP - or the LPUK.

I, personally, don’t have strong views on this one. I can see that an independent nuclear deterrent is expensive, and it is possible that our defence budget may be better spent in other ways. However, I tend to go with the maxim “If you wish for peace, prepare for war.” In other words, I believe in deterrence, and while I believe strongly that we should not invade other countries, make pre-emptive strikes, or initiate violence, the UK should be heavily armed to discourage other nations from attacking us - and that probably includes having a nuclear deterrent. If we do not have our own nuclear deterrent, we are basically either asking our friends to shelter us with theirs - in other words passing the buck, and freeloading off someone else - or we are saying that only knaves, outlaws and terrorists should have nuclear weapons. And both of those positions seem unacceptable to me.
It is also particularly important to vote for a party that respects human rights and to make sure that no racist or fascist candidate can be elected.
This is interesting. There are two things that are particularly important - i.e. more important than scrapping Trident. One is that we should vote for a party that respects human rights. This is, to put it mildly, vague. What human rights does he have in mind? He doesn’t say - which is odd, considering this is particularly important. So I must assume that this is related to Mr Hewitt’s belief that it is important “to make sure that no racist or fascist candidate can be elected” - i.e. that parties that respect human rights are those that don’t contain racists and fascists.

The use the word fascist concerns me. I agree with George Orwell that it is almost “impossible to define fascism satisfactorily”, and that “the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless,” and also with the Rev. John Richardson that “the use of the word 'Fascist' is (still) an excuse for not thinking, not defining and not engaging.”

In this case, it seems that Mr. Hewitt means the BNP, but doesn’t want to actually mention them. And I’m not impressed when he says “we must make sure that no racist or fascist candidate can be elected.” The use of the words “can be” instead of “is” implies that he wants a ban on racist and fascist candidates. I hope he doesn’t mean that. But even if he doesn’t, this still strikes me as silly. Who cares if a couple of BNP candidates are elected? We have a couple in the European Parliament, and it hasn’t brought about the end of civilisation as we know it. A couple of effectively BNP MPs in Parliament would inflict a lot less damage on the country than the Labour Party has over the past 13 years.

I’m not a fan of the BNP, but I find the view that the BNP are uniquely evil to be somewhat questionable.* In fact, I suspect that the BNP are the modern equivalent of the prostitutes and tax-collectors in the gospels - the really evil people that all good Pharisees and respectable folk should avoid like the plague.

*Edit: I notice that the YouFundMe website says "YouFundMe is a project open to candidates from all registered UK parties (except the BNP)." That seems odd to me. Is it for legal reasons, or is it just a bit of self-righteousness?

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Bigotgate, Cleggmania and the PR election

I woke up this morning and discovered that Gordon Brown was still leader of the Labour Party. I thought he probably would be, but after yesterday, I wasn't certain.

Yesterday wasn't good. His conversation with Gillian Duffy and the aftermath was politically disastrous. I don't know the future, but I suspect that he will not be leader of the Labour Party in 10 days time, and that his unfortunate remarks will cost several Labour MPs their seats.

Let's be honest. The PM came over as two-faced, as holding voters in contempt, and as viewing anyone who has concerns about immigration as being a bigot. His attempted clarification - that he had misunderstood what Mrs Duffy said to him - only made matters worse, since it looked like an admission that he was slow on the uptake and out of touch with voters. When in a hole, stop digging.

In a way, it shouldn't matter. Two-faced? To be honest, a lot of people I know are two-faced and what they say varies enormously with the company they are in. So I'd expect it of a politician. Holding voters in contempt? I'd expect most politicians to do so, at least some of the time. Viewing people who have big concerns about immigration as bigots? Most middle-class progressives do.

Interestingly enough, I first heard the story not from the media, but from a friend - and he clearly felt a good deal of sympathy for Gordon Brown. (To the best of my knowledge, he's not a Labour voter.) But I think that's going to be a minority reaction. Labour's hope of winning the election ended yesterday.

I suspect that this will turn out to be one of the two key moments in this election. The other, of course, is the first "prime ministerial debate"*. And both moments were not really about policy - but about personality and image. The Prime Minister's image is probably at an all time low, Mr Clegg's at an all time high. And, to be honest, image is what really counts with the majority of undecided voters.

And so it's 1997 all over again. A young, fresh face - untainted by high political office - and, effectively, an unknown quantity - talking about change and offering something new and different - is ready to take up his appointment with destiny. Because a lot of people are ready, if not to believe him, at least to give him the benefit of the doubt.

* I must confess that I am very uneasy about this. There is no question that these debates played a large part in creating the LibDem surge. All credit to Nick Clegg, he performed well. But surely it is also true that the decision about which parties should be included is, in itself, a contributory factor to the surge. Which means that the LibDems have been given publicity that was denied to parties like UKIP and the SNP.

To exclude Nick Clegg would have been unfair - even though no-one seriously thought of him as a potential prime minister a month ago. To include UKIP - who beat both Labour and the LibDems in the recent European elections - would have really meant that the Greens and the BNP would have had to be included, not to mention the SNP, and probably Plaid Cymru.

Should the debates have been allowed to take place at all? I don't have any answers - just uneasy feelings. And the shocking way that the BBC behaved at the Norwich North by-election (see here and here) makes me even more uneasy.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Philip Lardner and press misrepresentation

The BBC, the Times, the Independent, the Telegraph, the Scotsman - and, for all I know, several other news providers as well.

All, without exception, have printed a sub-headline which is not true - at least not according to the stories they printed underneath. All say that the Philip Lardner, the Conservative candidate for North Ayrshire and Arran was suspended by the party for describing gay people as "not normal". All then proceed to quote the remarks which Mr Lardner apparently made. Nowhere does he say that gay people are “not normal”.

He says “I will support the rights of parents and teachers to refuse to have their children taught that homosexuality is 'normal' behaviour or an equal lifestyle choice to traditional marriage.”

He says “I will not accept that their behaviour is “normal.'”

Notice the difference. Mr Lardner says he does not accept certain behaviour as normal; the newspapers and BBC all said that he described certain people as “not normal.” Those two things are not the same. There is a significant difference. I do various things which might well be described as “not normal” - but that is not the same thing as saying that I am not normal.

I'm curious about three things: 1) Do these people not see that their story isn't strictly accurate? 2) Was the inaccuracy a deliberate attempt to make Mr. Lardner look worse in the eyes of readers? And 3) Will they spot the inaccuracy and correct it?

There is also, of course, the matter of the Conservative Party. Mr Lardner does seem to be a rather accident prone candidate - a couple of years back he was in hot water for speaking enthusiastically about Ian Smith, the former Rhodesian Prime Minister. Why the Conservative Party allowed him to be nominated for North Ayrshire and Arran this time is beyond me.

But that is not the only thing that concerns me about the Conservative Party in Scotland. I am even less impressed with the way it has reacted to this incident. The Chairman of the Scottish Conservatives, Andrew Fulton, is reported as saying "These views have no place in the modern Conservative party."

These views? The view that homosexual behaviour is not normal has no place in the modern Conservative party? That seems remarkably close to saying that the view that homosexual behaviour is morally wrong has no place in the modern Conservative Party. And that, effectively means that traditional Christians have no place in the modern Conservative Party.

Edit: A key phrase in that post was "at least not according to the stories they printed underneath." I have now seen the Pink News report (thanks, Stewart) which includes the following words from Mr. Lardner:
Christians (and most of the population) believe homosexuality to be somewhere between 'unfortunate' and simply 'wrong' and they should not be penalised for politely saying so – good manners count too, of course.
So while Mr. Lardner does not actually say that "homosexual people are not normal" - he does, in that sentence, give the impression that he himself fails to distinguish between homosexual people and homosexual behaviour. Such a failure is unfortunate. And, dare I say it, 'wrong'.

We get the politicians we deserve

Or at least that was the conclusion after reading Dan Hannan’s tale of a chat with a voter. (I suspect we get the governments we deserve as well.)

But it did make me think of some of the worst reasons for deciding who to vote for.

1. The candidate is local.
Yes, I can see that carpet-bagging career politicians are not ideal, and that a local candidate may have local knowledge, but there is no guarantee that a local MP will be any better than someone who has no connection with the area.

2. The candidate is one of us.
Evidence suggests that in US Democratic Party primaries in 2008, a lot of black people supported Barack Obama because of his skin colour, and a lot of women supported Hilary Clinton because of her sex. Not intelligent. I still remember hearing women who said that they voted Conservative in the 1979 General Election because Margaret Thatcher was a woman, and were then horrified by the policies of her government.

3. The candidate is a Christian.
(Not unrelated to the above.) Many Christians believe that a Christian will usually make a better MP that a non-Christian, and will basically vote in a way that reflects their own views. In reality, this is often not the case.

4. The candidate seems nice.
Or is a good family man. Or is young and good looking. Or has lots of charisma. Or comes over well on TV. Yes, otherwise intelligent people think like this.

5. The candidate is a good constituency MP.
The legislation that MPs pass in parliament is what will determine the kind of country we live in. Constituency work, in the end of the day, doesn’t really matter. But a lot of people haven’t realised this.

As Dan Hannan implies, there is one, and only one, intelligent way to decide how to vote - and that is according to political principles and policies of the candidate. It’s not always easy to find out, but some people don’t seem prepared to even try.

Monday, 26 April 2010

What’s a bear to do? Spoil the ballot?

The other day I was chatting to a friend. He volunteered the information, without me mentioning the subject, that he probably wouldn’t vote in the General Election. This is not because he is apolitical or apathetic. (He’s actually very political, and has stood for the local council as an independent candidate in the last two elections. He didn’t get in, but he got a respectable number of votes.) It’s just that he has no confidence in any of the major parties.

So what will I do on election day? That’s not easy. The temptation to vote tactically has been removed by the fact that I live in a safe seat. For all practical purposes, my vote will make no difference, because everyone knows who’s going to win. I can vote according to my conscience.

But this doesn’t help much. If there was a Libertarian candidate, or a libertarianish independent, in my constituency - that’s who I’d vote for. But there aren’t many libertarian candidates, and none around my neighbourhood. If there were a UKIP candidate in my constituency, I’d settle for that. But there are over 100 constituencies that UKIP isn’t fighting, and I live in one of them. I might even be prepared to vote for a Hannanite Tory, but our local Conservative candidate does not impress me. What do I do?

The obvious answer is to spoil my ballot. I’ve done it before several times. My wife plans to do so. But I’ve decided that I don’t want to. A spoiled ballot does not communicate anything at all. Have a look at historical election statistics on the internet. You can find out what how many votes each candidate got; you can find out what the turnout was, but you won’t find the number of spoiled ballots. The number of spoiled ballots is a statistic that nobody is interested in - which means that spoiling one’s ballot is pointless. And in my case, people would just assume that I spoiled it because bears aren’t very good with pens, and I just wasn’t able to make the mark I intended to make.

So I have come up with an answer which I think might be a little better. If no candidate is much good, one should vote for the least dangerous person on the ballot paper*. Many constituencies have one or more fringe candidates - independents, supporters of local hospitals, Official Monster Raving Loonies. And fortunately, mine does. I may not agree with him about much, but if he were elected, he would not be part of the government in the event of a hung parliament. It’s a protest vote, pure and simple. Not great, but I think it’s a better option than spoiling my ballot or staying at home.

*Hat tip to Tom Paine at the Last Ditch for that one. And, at the risk of grossly over-simplifying, doing the least damage means not voting in favour of passing more laws (and, of course, voting in favour of repealing ones that we already have.)

Friday, 23 April 2010

The General Election: What is a bear to hope for?

Confession time. I just can’t get up any enthusiasm at all for the General Election. Why? I simply cannot see anything good coming out of it. All the likely outcomes seem, from my point of view, to be bad.

Another Labour victory? The Labour Party’s record over the past 13 years has been absolutely terrible. Old freedoms are fast disappearing.

A good showing by the LibDems and a hung parliament? The Liberal Democrats, despite having some good points, are, on the whole, no better than Labour.

A Conservative victory? The Conservative Party is, in my opinion, better than Labour or the LibDems, but not much. I continue to hold the view that I have held for many years, that the Conservatives have the potential to be OK, but in the end, they always disappoint. And under David Cameron, they are less promising than ever.

My estimate of David Cameron is that other than a loyalty to his party, his country, and his own poltical career, he has no strong political beliefs or convictions. I may do the Mr Cameron an injustice, but my guess is that Simon Heffer’s assessment is accurate. It also seems to me that Mr. Cameron is one of the less libertarian figures in the Conservative Party. Of the likely election results, an overall Conservative majority would yield the most palatable goverment. But this would serve to bolster Cameron’s leadership, and weaken the hand of those in the Conservative Party who love freedom and distrust government. So in some ways, a disastrous result for the Conservative Party might, strangely enough, be a more hopeful result.

The minority parties don’t fill me with hope either. This is partly because none of them are likely to make a breakthrough, so they are all fairly irrelevant. Plaid Cymru and the SNP have the potential to win some seats and be in a position of power in the event of a hung parliament, but they seem to me to be no better than Labour and the LibDems. The Green Party and the BNP are no better. They both talk about freedom, but one gets the impression that it is their kind of freedom, freedom on their terms, that they are dreaming of - and if you want other kinds of freedom, you are out of luck.

UKIP have their faults, but they are easily the best of a bad bunch. And because of that, since I’m not a political purist, I hope that they do well. I’d love them to get 7 or 8% of the popular vote - and win Buckingham. Alas, I can’t see it happening.

And Libertarians? There are a couple of LPUK candidates - Nic Coome in Devizes, and Martin Cullip in Sutton and Cheam - as well as a handful of independents who are standing on a platform of upholding freedom. I hope they do well, but even if they do spectacularly well, they are not going to be a factor in the next government.

So what am I hoping for? Oddly enough, that all of the big three parties do badly. Ah well, I can dream.