Thursday, 11 June 2009

A Tale of Moloch and Belial

We are now governed by a viceroy ─ a direct appointee of the Queen who rules as monarch over a subject people. His court is filled by lords and ladies ennobled at his command and by various other temporary appointees. It is not a happy place. His food is tasted to prevent poisoning and there are guards at every entrance searching those who seek audience. Banished courtiers plot in their country houses whilst, in the taverns, bolder citizens talk of uprising. The viceroy maintains a parliament which meets occasionally to acclaim his decrees and has recently sent a delegation to request audience with him. Accept our solemn vows of allegiance, sire, they say but please listen to the grievances of your devoted subjects. And, with a smile, he graciously accepts their petitions, promises to consider them most carefully and rewards them with permission to spend the summer relaxing at his country estate. Meanwhile, on the borders, an army assembles raised by a pretender to the throne. It is said that it will invade next year and few of the court would survive the slaughter. Some send him discreet messages of support. Other avail themselves of the plentiful wine in the cellars and plan their escape to happier realms.

Gordon Brown is now presiding over the second crisis of his premiership. The first was the economic recession, the second is a crisis of legitimacy over the fundamental processes of democracy in Britain. Like the economic crisis, the seeds of this legitimacy crisis were planted right at the start of the New Labour regime in 1997. It needs to be remembered that Labour’s landslide victory then was based not upon a massive popular vote but upon a drop in voter turnout from nearly 78% in 1982 to just over 71%. You have to go back to the Depression year of 1935 to find a comparably low turnout. It has dropped every election since.

From the very start, Tony Blair made clear his general contempt for Parliament and developed a style of government which was increasingly distanced from Parliamentary involvement, a process in which Brown was a willing participant. The processes by which this was accomplished included rigid control over the party, in particular the selection of candidates which gradually cut back the number of potential rebels; expansion of the ‘payroll’ vote with more nondescript junior ministers; the introduction of huge portmanteau bills with limited time for scrutiny and the use of panic tactics to rush through bills based upon public anxiety. The turning point was undoubtedly the use of biased evidence and outright lies to force through acceptance of an unpopular war and the subsequent cover-up. Once Blair had survived that scandal, it became clear that Parliament could be sidelined with impunity.

Immediately after his coronation, Brown started further down the same path by his use of appointing peers to take over government jobs. Something which began as a vague PR stunt ─ remember Lord Jones, the ex-CBI boss ─ became a serious tool of governance with appointments like Lady Vadera and Lord Myner and has now reached new heights with an unelected peer becoming effectively the deputy prime-minister. Lord Mandelson now presides over eleven junior minsters, six of them peers. Or is it seven? What actually does Lady Kinnock do? Is Lord Sugar in government or not? Who cares. Government ministers, government advisers, party spin-doctors, all have become mixed up into a general melange in which the House of Commons is but a sideshow. The House of Lords, once derided as an hereditary nonsense has been transformed into a vast pool of executive power.

Taken together with the almost total removal of discretionary powers from local councils, democratic process in Britain has been, if not destroyed, then hugely limited. The exception is Scotland where an independent democratic process has been set up which, although not perfect, does maintain levels of independent scrutiny and control of executive power.

It is this process which has precipitated the huge furore over MPs expenses. Most people can see that many of the individual claims are little more than goes on in many private businesses. If MPs were seen as useful parts of government then the fuss would have been much more muted. Ironically, Brown himself could easily have defused the whole business months ago had he allowed openness and scrutiny just as he could have won a general election a few months after he received the call to Buckingham Palace. In both cases, he failed to take notice of a wider public voice, once to his disadvantage, now to his disgrace. Brown, who understands how to control the Labour Party, has only a vestigial knowledge of a wider world.

The new proposals he has introduced in response to the furore have vague references to reforming the Lords, to give MPs more power and to electoral reform. Don’t hold your breath. The definite idea is to create yet another regulator, this one to supervise MP’s expenses and salaries. Remember Oftoff, set up to regulate entry into universities. Well now we are to have Ofpal to keep MPs up to the mark. In other words, another appointed agency with a redundant banker probably heading it, responsible to the executive. They may deserve it but the result will be another diminishing of MP’s power, this time over their own income. Just where this process will end is unclear but it looks increasingly unlikely that democracy will triumph.

Moloch and Belial? Well, in Paradise Lost, Milton imagines a council of the fallen angels banished from heaven for rebellion against God. Living out their lives in a dreary limbo, they are gathered to discuss their future action. Moloch is the big beast with a loud voice, much given to shouting and biffing. We have already met him. Belial is a much lesser devil given over, according to Milton, to the vices of lewdness and peculation. His argument is, in effect, to do nothing but wait and hope for better times. After all, he says, suppose we did something and it made things worse, if God called down all the fires on our heads. It’s not so bad really, Belial argues, and it could be a lot worse. It is left to you to decide just which bunch of craven Labour MPs most match up.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Salford politics

The television cameras and journalists who crowded around Hazel Blears at the recent council bye-election in north Salford were after a juicy quote about her expenses on various London homes. They got little but smiles and bland words from the ever-smiling Blears and missed the real political story around them.

Irwell Riverside is a typical bit of the Greater Manchester Labour heartland; large council estates, closed factories and mills, few shops and a sense of not quite being anywhere. People here mostly vote Labour and have done for many years, since 1917 to be precise when Salford North elected Ben Tillett, a prominent union organiser in the docks. In 1945, there were three Salford seats and each turned in Labour MPs. Salford North gave Labour 60% of the votes on a turnout of 72%. In 1997, when Ms. Blears got her chance, Salford was down to one seat and gave her 69% of the vote on a turnout of 56%. In 2005, when Salford had been merged with Eccles, Hazel Blears still got 57% of the ballots though on a turnout of only 42%. On May 21 this year, young Matt Bold was elected to Salford Council with just 606 votes ─ a turnout of 17.6%.

The fear running around the count was that the BNP would make big gains here, possibly even win the seat. A bye-election in February in a north Manchester ward had seen them jump to second place and that before the Parliamentary expenses scandals had begun to bite. What happened was less spectacular but still wounding to English democracy; the voters just stayed at home.

North Salford is a place where the council ought to matter. Housing waiting lists are long and growing. The recession is biting hard here in an area where unemployment is high. But the fact is that people have long given up on the local council as a source of support or turned to local councillors for advice on housing or social problems. In the ward in north Manchester where I stand, vainly, for the council they also weigh the Labour votes rather than counting them. Taking leaflets round a tower-block, a couple of residents said they would vote Green just because it was the first time they could remember anyone bothering to distribute election material. I hope they did but it is more likely that they stayed at home like 75% of other local voters.

The electorate are not stupid. Councils in Britain have ceased to have much in the way of a democratic function. They have, apparently, large budgets but almost no say in how they are spent. A detailed survey of council expenditure in Burnley showed that only 8% of its budget was actually discretionary, the rest was dictated by the rules of a central government which in any case supplied most of the funds. The councillors who are elected to govern communities actually do very little apart from rubber-stamping decisions taken by officers based upon central diktats. Even their role in looking after the interests of their electorate has been largely taken over by MPs who, in the words of a retiring MP, Tony Banks, act mainly as second-rate social workers employing their family to reply to the hundreds of letters they receive. We have slipped into a degenerate political system in which the majority of elected representatives, locally and nationally, are useless or perhaps, more accurately, pointless. It is little wonder that many devote such time to concocting their expenses. For me, a low point of all the political interviews which have cluttered the news recently was with a Labour backbencher who doubted that there would be a leadership contest as MPs would soon be off on their two and a half month summer break. Two and a half months with, officially, nothing to do. Words really cannot do it justice.

Hazel Blears is now ready to square things with her constituency executive and make ready for life in opposition. One doubts that she will gracefully stand down in acknowledgement of any mistakes even though she has jumped from the Cabinet. And when the time comes, Salford will re-elect her unless there is a political earthquake. The only question is whether the turnout drops below 40%. They value loyalty and solidarity there, virtues which Ben Tillett would have understood and which once saw Labour supporters through hard times. Not any more. In Salford, Labour wins. And everybody loses.