Saturday, 22 August 2015

Accountable to no-one? Why citizens should revolt

Much of the current incompetence and arrogance in government can be laid at the feet of the evil twins of Thatcher and Blair.  The subversion of accountability and citizen rights has been ongoing for the last thirty-five years, exacerbated by the elevation of private capital and profit-skimming by government cronies throughout the process of administration.  What was amusing in Yes, Minister has become a Kafkaesque nightmare for even the most articulate and informed citizen.

One of the earliest lessons learned by any of the third-rate incompetents who pervade local and central government is to dispose of the most difficult issues at the time of defining the issue.  The passage of the Freedom of Information Act under the last Labour Government was a positive step, but the opacity and occult nature of most decision-making and public authority behaviours, and the restrictions around which FOI is based, make it difficult if not impossible to define the correct questions to extract information that reasonable people should be entitled to.  As a discriminatory process against those without the time, patience or the scheming mindset to second-guess the ghoulish parasites this is sans pareil.

Central government (both UK-wide and devolved nations) has tended to be slightly more rigorous in its application to accountability, principally because there remains a small number of investigative resources that hold it to account.  The emasculation of local government's powers, the privatisation and outsourcing of essential services and the decline of conventional media means that it is purely fortuitous where citizen accountability shines a light on the pile of foetid dung that usually indicates the presence of local councillors and their fourth-rate officials.

Once the stink emerges, it is often impossible to challenge or even understand the rationale behind the process by which decisions are made.  Be it the bunging of cash to mates to run a Cameron-inspired free school, the sale of land to cronies to push forward development proposals that run counter both to published policies and the platforms on which the charlatans have sought election, to petty incompetence on a routine basis, the concerned citizen has very few opportunities to challenge. 

The statistics for the Local Government Ombudsman, set up by the Local Government Act in 1974 to provide some form of citizen redress, suggest that it is not toothless, nor had its mouth sewn up but has no desire even to do anything beyond provide a fig-leaf for venality, incompetence, maladministration and worse through distraction tactics - probably because many of its scions are brought in from local government, rather than actually capable of investigating and exposing.  This repeats itself throughout the escalation and scrutiny process across the whole field of government activity - it protects and it deflects rather than allowing citizens to challenge.  Paradoxically this makes the entire process even more compromised, as the rational tendency, based around inductive reasoning and observation, is to assume that the whole system has been corrupted.

Insurgency in politics may start redressing this balance.   Leaving aside the need for a constitutional settlement based on the individual citizen rather than the magnanimity of feudal relics, the left needs to start defining an agenda which holds both officials and bodies to direct scrutiny.  If decisions are dubious and made by fourth-rate and fifth-rate underpaid and overworked staff, then there will be more injustice and more mistakes made.  Starting with local government, where there are more poor officials and more bizarre and unnatural relationships hidden from view, this should flow out to all services used by the citizen.  Officials who are incompetent and maladminister, secure in the knowledge that the process of winkling out their malfeasance is so difficult, need to be on their guard - as do their managers and the elected members who rubber-stamp their misbehaviour.

One of the opportunities for the new radicalism has to be to redirect anger from the frustration of the victim to the desire for restitution.  This requires public accountability - and this may require the renegotiation of outsourced contracts to mirror exactly what would be required from a directly-controlled service or their prejudicial termination if the incompetent, skimming leeches refuse to be prised loose.  When councillors were volunteers, rather than paid, they had some excuse for being amateurish in their approach, but now they should be held to account and subject to financial penalty for the misdeeds of those who are contracted by them to deliver services - no different to any other group administering and spending other people's money.

The challenge for this is that it undermines the mindset of the inadequate and the arrogant.  The rest of us are little people, either not in the right clubs, Lodge or union, or too poor to be considered - and the psychological flaws of many local government officials would take many years to dissect.  The snouts and the stupidity (particularly in many of the single-party administrations that a non-democratic electoral system presents) are entrenched, and removing their fingers from the tills and the liferafts may take more than mere exhortation.  Perhaps there is an opportunity for the left to co-operate at a local level before stepping forward to a constitutional revolution at the next General Election - I can but dream.

Eventually incompetence meeting impotence will result in an explosion.  When that happens, the important thing is to be on the side of those challenging the cosy corruption and incompetence that seems to have become entrenched since "business" and buzzwords replaced the centrality of citizen rights and accountability as the basis on which we are ruled.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

The ghost of David Owen yet to come

The apocalyptic language being used by the Blairites at the moment around the prospect of a Corbyn victory is risible.  At the very least it demonstrates the contempt that they hold both for their own party and for the function of an opposition to a government, one hundred days in power, that is exploiting the divided opposition to force through an agenda that, held to scrutiny, should curse its protagonists into the furthest abyss.

Most of Blair's acolytes are pathetic in their assumption that they have a legitimacy not merely to put forward their arguments but to prevail even against what looks like an electoral landslide.  Wheeling out their remaining talismen, as well as the Unregretted Leader himself, to announce that Labour is heading for disaster if the membership don't obey them shows quite how close to Tory paranoiacs they have morphed.  Now there is huffy talk, egged on by some in the Liberal Democrats who should know better, of breakaways and hissy splits should the current trend continue and Corbyn be elected.

It says very little for them that they have so little confidence in their own party, bearing out the theory that they regarded the membership as necessary idiots to secure power for their own technocratic clique.  The idea that there is somehow a great appetite for a second SDP, predicted by Baroness Williams, which could in some way recreate the "glory days" of the 1980s, shows an unwillingness to learn from history as well as crass stupidity in the context of the SDP's own immolation around ideological purity and hatred of the party which many of them regarded much as a parasite contemplates its host.

The Liberals, following the experience of being ravaged first by the SDP and then by the Conservatives, with a side dish of Blair's hypocrisy and cant in the 1990s, should be very wary of any new Owenites.  For the Blairites are not social liberals and pursuers of the freedom and interests of the individual, and whatever Corbyn's personal weaknesses, most of his supporters in Labour are probably closer to radical Liberal thinking than the washed-up and entitled remnants of the neo-conservative putsch.  Any defector would be a Trojan Horse, trying to push the Liberal party into an amorphous centre ground, which, in the experience of annihilation, demonstrates that the electoral tactics of becoming a squashed hedgehog remain as suicidal now as then.

For every unspoken pact between the three shades of grey managerialism opposing Corbyn, his chances are boosted.  For every citation of "resistance" and a sulky refusal to participate in their own party processes the attraction of clearing away dead wood must be increasing for Labour members, anxious to redefine a left position that is not purely calibrated by whether it will cause the front page of the Daily Mail to implode in a paroxysm of dishonest invective.  However, the planks should not be exported to become a cuckoo in the nest of other parties.

Increasingly Blair's messianic streak resembles that of David Owen, another megalomaniac who considered pragmatic politics and the reality of an electoral system to be beneath his contempt.  Perhaps there is an opportunity for them to align in the kind of aggressive authoritarian party that Owen wanted the SDP to become - and which many of his former acolytes and boot-lickers have discovered within the Tories.  A breakaway New Labour would inevitably end up suffering the kind of humiliation that the continuing SDP enjoyed at the hands of the Monster Raving Loony party in the 1989 Bootle by-election, which would provide both a measure of amusement and justifiable schadenfreude.

The failure of Labour at the General Election was not about left and right, but around competence and emotional disconnect.  For all Corbyn's faults, the latter is not a tenable accusation to lay at his door - and at least it would provide an alternative narrative to the bland, bipartisan consensus around the desirability of minor changes to the status quo.  Much of what he is proposing sounds like a practical, populist agenda, even if the detail will be open to scrutiny, which is where the disconnect from Labour's implosion in the 1980s is at its starkest.

However, monomaniacs have long memories, and the spectres now being exhumed are those of entrism and Trotskyism.  While it is true that Corbyn's policies are more attractive to the far left than those of Kendall and Cooper, the idea that wider participation in politics is a bad thing if it delivers the result you don't like, and that those who engage in it are subverting the process is a curious proposition.  New members and supporters should be welcome in any party, particularly when the atrophy of all mainstream membership numbers has been so precipitous.

For the Labour right, not rooted in principle or sentiment to the party, the future does not look bright (but then nor do they).  If there was an alternative position not based around being a slightly humanised version of the Tories, then they would deserve to be heard.  The function of a leader is to inspire, and at this stage of an electoral cycle to set out values and the principles upon which tactics can be based.  It looks as though Farron has grasped this on one side - if Labour don't elect someone who is not a smug continuation of the Blairite failure then they will be landed both with launching their very own SDP coup in the party and alienating the people who might be persuaded that Labour is part of the solution rather than a blob of historical curiosity heading in the same direction as the Orange Book Liberals.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The outsider paradox and the prize for the left

Most traditional members of political parties have mindsets akin to those of acolytes of particularly virulent religious sects.  The process of identification with one cause or another results in a myopia that does not just result in partisanship but a denial of not merely the logic but the right to exist of any group that challenges them.  The Tories have always been like this, with a nasty strain of virulent but gormless fools whose aim is to bludgeon the remainder of the country into submission.

For anyone who grew up in the binary world of Cold War paranoia, this was one of the phenomena that might have disappeared alongside the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the need for demonisation and the focusing of hate disappeared.  The nuancing and the moral relativism that was the real backdrop for the period, and which inspired many of us who continue to oppose the politics of military blocs, did not really translate into mainstream discourse.

The toxic politics of the Thatcher period in Britain were emphasised by a number of recurrent motifs, including "not one of us" and the slightly-paraphrased "no such thing as society".  In building a binary discourse, and one which enthrals the shallow drivelling inadequates that dominate the Tory front bench today, this has in effect cheapened politics into being a position of relativism to a dominant position.  Thus the chorus of the Blairite zombies excoriating Jeremy Corbyn as he won't tack to a place defined by being one step left of the Tories, rather defining his socialism as based around views, prejudices and principles that are familiar to those of us who remember the Labour party before it became a diluted mouthpiece for the London coterie.

Ironically, it is an MP whose very existence in the centre of the New Labour world must have caused sleepless nights to the image-centred marketeers who is leading the charge.  The response from the semi-dead has been to warn that with Corbyn as leader, Labour will not win the General Election in 2020.  The problem is that even with Tory-lite policies and a set of focus groups determined to play back ignorance and prejudiced views as mainstream, this is a fanciful concept.  Corbyn as leader might be prepared to accept that the fragmentation of anti-Tory forces may need a slightly different tack to the Polly Toynbee "either shut up or join Labour" sectarian screeching.

Tim Farron, in taking over the Liberal cause at a time when the previous leadership clique had demonstrated that positioning yourself in the Tory shadow makes it much easier to then desert to the full-fat version, may be better placed to articulate the realities of opposition where there is no geographical distribution able to provide a springboard for a change of power.  Labour's inability to progress outside English cities and its Welsh and English heartlands should act as a wake-up call - Blair's victories were achieved with Liberals and National parties harrying at Tory flanks, and there is now a wider Green and disaffected Labour/Liberal community looking for leadership.

2020 needs to be fought by the opposition parties as outsiders - with a recognition that there may well be a messy result which will require co-operation if not coalition.  Before then there is the chance to work cross-party on European referenda and resisting the evidently-deranged elements of the Tory programme, breaking down the boundaries.  There is no point in ideological or partisan purity if there is no achievement of political progress and constitutional modernisation - nor is there any worth in engagement if the damage done by the current administration is now identified, shouted down and an alternative put forward.

Corbyn, by his intransigence and throwback to a pre-Blair era, may be better placed than most to take this opportunity.  In putting forward policies and values rather than tactics, he provides something that realistic progressives could use as the basis for dialogue and potential co-operation.  There is a large group of disaffected idealists looking for a vision - and, to return to the religious motif briefly - there may even be evangelism waiting in the wings.  Being outside the disasters of neo-liberal economics and collusion of the last two decades might even turn out to be an advantage and a shrewd electoral move.