Monday, May 03, 2010

"who does the wolf love?"

posted by k

In my brief and ineffectual period of political involvement – back in the 1970s - I learnt some of the rules about elections. I saw how counts were conducted and scrutinised, I discovered that there were limits on party spending in any constituency – and that they started the moment a candidate stopped being called the “prospective party candidate” after his official adoption for the seat, and I learnt the rules on treating.

“Treating” is regarded in electoral law as a form of bribing the electorate. I learnt that the rules were so strict that if I was working in a committee room on election day, I'd have to pay for any coffee and biscuits I consumed, even though the committee room was in the house of a personal friend. If I didn't pay for my mid-morning snack, that could either be regarded as a bribe to vote for the candidate I supported or as payment for my services, in which case it could topple the allowed expenses for the constituency over the permitted maximum.

Things seem to have changed, according to Craig Murray's account of Jack Straw's campaign in Blackburn. Jack Straw, the Secretary of State for Justice, seems happy to invite 700 people for free, sit-down dinners. It sounds like the sort of practice that led to laws against treating. He's been getting away with it for years so, unless the rules have changed, I suppose he's found some way round the law. I wonder what it is.

All politicians offer bribes to voters. The party manifestos are full of them. There are promises to help you if you're poor, rich, old, young, married, officially partnered. There are even bribes for the dead – the Conservative Party's rhetoric talks of a “death tax,” as though people would rather pay more in taxes when still alive. (Nobody seems to have noticed the way the conservatives' proposed marriage allowance deprives the widows and abandoned, whose taxes will rise by £150 a year, as if to punish them for the loss of a partner.)

There's something disturbing about this focus on bribing the electorate. Media stories repeatedly tell voters that it's fine – even praiseworthy – to vote entirely out of self-interest. Self-interest is bound to play a part. I know the world most vividly from my own experience and that is bound to influence my decisions. But there's more to it than that. As citizens in a democracy, we should also be asked to consider the good of the whole. I want to vote for more than “bread and circuses.”

There's nothing indecent in caring for the well-being of others – even people I haven't met. Most people are more generous and unselfish than they realise. If I look around, I see daily acts of kindness and courtesy – cruelty and selfishness are still unusual enough to be shocking. People who can barely afford it give money to charitable appeals. Marathon runners ask for sponsorship – often to help people they don't know – and their friends are happy to sponsor them. People who express hatred or mistrust for a minority group (Muslims, asylum seekers, gay people) rarely live out that hatred in their daily lives but make ever more exceptions for the likeable individuals they encounter.

Away from elections, citizens also care about big political questions and international responsibility. At the lowest estimate, 1 in 50 members of the entire British population made their way to one of the big anti-war demonstrations on 15th February, 2003. They were supported by millions more. This wasn't a selfish impulse but a real political concern which the government chose to attack, misrepresent and finally ignore. Huge numbers of people are concerned about poverty overseas and pollution of the environment. Beside the concerns of the people, the scope of the leaders' debates and media reporting seems rather narrow, as though voters are being encouraged to vote only from self-interest.

Even if we were all to vote from self-interest, we don't have the information we need. The three candidates for chancellor agreed in their debate that cuts would be brutal – harsher than under Thatcher – but none of the leaders is prepared to turn to the voters and explain precisely what they plan for us. The Financial Times on 26th April laid out the kind of cuts we might expect; according to their simulator, using government figures, cuts of £30 – 40 billion, which all parties agree we need, would require the following cuts or their equivalent:

" a 5 per cent cut in public sector pay; freezing benefits for a year; means-testing child benefit; abolishing winter fuel payments and free television licences; reducing prison numbers by a quarter; axing the two planned aircraft carriers; withdrawing free bus passes for pensioners; delaying Crossrail for three years; halving roads maintenance; stopping school building; halving the spending on teaching assistants and NHS dentistry; and cutting funding to Scotland and Wales by 10 per cent."

None of the parties is talking about cuts on this scale – and no-one seems to be addressing the knock-on effect such cuts would have. If large groups of people have less money to spend, a large number of businesses will collapse – and that will lead to more unemployment and, presumably, higher spending on benefits. It's a nasty cycle and no-one is talking about how we shall ever get out of it – or whether we need to adjust our way of life.

This election should have been an opportunity to discuss questions of equality and the distribution of wealth. These are vital questions in a democracy. Wealth buys influence – and that may be the strongest political argument for its more equal distribution. There are also important ways in which the poor are not free.

During this election, the media have encouraged us to see the political parties as purveyors of treats and promises. What they offer sounds more alluring than a cup of instant coffee and a biscuit – or even a plate of curry. But the rewards we're offered may prove insubstantial – and they're a pretty poor substitute for a grown-up and thoughtful political debate.

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Saturday, May 01, 2010

"He loved Big Brother now."

posted by k

I'm waiting for the knock on the door.

My largely law-abiding life won't save me. They've invented new laws and then, just in case they've missed something, there are ways of personalising the law – devising special laws to get just one person. And I'm not talking about Brian Haw, who got the honour of a special clause in an act of parliament (which turned out not to work in his case after all). I'm talking about laws which might get me – or you. It wasn't always quite so bad.

Of course, there have been plenty of laws to trap the unwitting or foolish or honest. Don't tell a soldier you think he or she should have a change of career. That breaks the Incitement to Disaffection Act (1934). (I've broken that one a couple of times. I'd rather they arrested me for that because I did it deliberately - I think it's wrong to deprive anyone of freedom of thought and conscience.) And there are bad laws which have been repealed. Section 28, which scared teachers out of saying that Oscar Wilde was gay or that most of Shakespeare's sonnets were written to a fair young man, is no longer on the statute books. I'm pleased about that.
But there are all those new, apparently well-meaning laws which seem to be used in unpredicted ways.

Take the law on stalking. One individual stalking another is a nasty, threatening matter. I've known young women in particular – though it's not only young women who are affected – really frightened by phone-calls in the middle of the night, threatening letters, displays of covertly-taken photographs. When victims complain and nothing is done, I'm angry. When victims, who may have been stalked for years, are beaten up and even killed, I start asking, “Why didn't they listen to her? Why don't they do something?”
So the government responded. A minister could have pointed out that there were already laws against harassment or proposed a slight adjustment to existing laws. Instead we were offered a brand-new, shiny law which would protect the vulnerable from harm – and even from mild distress.

But it wasn't just used against stalkers. It was one of those all-purpose, catch-all laws which could be used against anybody who talked to or wrote to someone more than once. If I encounter an arms manufacturer on the train – it could happen; making weapons is big business in Britain – and find out about his profession, I might express myself strongly, even enter into an argument with him. And if I see him the next day, I might continue that argument – and he might be annoyed. Under the law, that would count as stalking and I might find myself in jail. If I were handing out leaflets and offered one to the same person twice, that might be considered a crime. It seems to me that if a friend and I had a row in a pub and one of us phoned the other to continue the row, that might be considered stalking.

The law is being framed to prevent awkward behaviour and mild distress – and the government seems quite pleased that it sweeps up political protesters and non-violent dissidents as well.
Bu you don't have to break the law to get an ASBO. Anti-social behaviour legislation has been so widely framed that it's possible to construct a special law to limit the freedom of speech, action and movement of one individual who hasn't broken any law. That idea was controversial when it came in but now everyone's used to the idea that if your neighbour annoys you enough, you might be able to stop the annoyance with an ASBO. Sometimes ASBOs are used instead of charging someone with a more conventional crime. ASBOs allow magistrates to impose sentences that they make up: people can be banned from places and forbidden to act in a way that is perfectly legal for anybody else.

ASBOs lack the legal safeguards of conventional criminal laws and injunctions which protect individuals. If you break an ASBO – a law constructed just for you – you can land in jail. It's another convenient tool for dealing with protesters and dissidents.

Freedom of speech is being eroded too. I'm not an absolutist about freedom of speech. I'm not in favour of inciting hatred against anyone. Incitement to violence is dangerous. (I sometimes wonder why politicians are never charged with either offence.) There are many individuals and groups who suffer because of what is said about them – that's important for everyone to remember. Politicians and the people have a responsibility to counter a climate of hate. Silence won't achieve that. Nor will the competitive xenophobia of politicians.

Of course I'm sometimes hurt and offended by people's attitudes and what they say. I'm human. But my first action isn't to ring the police. I can see why an airport chaplain was offended by anti-religious cartoons, clipped from Private Eye, left in the airport chaplaincy – they were probably left there to offend. Leaving them there might have been a silly action but it surely doesn't deserve a criminal record. The church wasn't damaged. God wasn't damaged. It seems particularly ludicrous in a nominally Christian country where – archaically – bishops vote as unelected members of the second chamber of parliament and the Archbishop of Canterbury plays a key role in the coronation of the monarch. And – oh -dear! - I've made tactless and ill-judged jokes at times. Will the police come round to get me?

With any luck, the police won't kill me, though since the death of Juan Charles Menenez and the case of David Mery I've felt a little less confident on the tube. I usually find the police polite, even though I was caught in a kettle once and found my experience rather different from the police's official account.

But what would happen if the police came round and arrested me? According to the the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, the police keep 25% of the goods and money they confiscate and the Crown Prosecution Service keeps a further 25%. The law was meant – so were told – to deal with major criminals and drug traffickers using threats and violence – and the standard of proof of how the money was obtained was changed, so that the “criminal” had to prove a legal right to the money. It sounds great when dealing with international criminals. It's more troubling when the police seize the jewellery – and even the life savings – of prostitutes working together for their own protection. Prostitutes are not .likely to go to court to recover their money, as the law requires. So cash-strapped police forces find that pursuing a particular crime is a nice little earner for the force, so long as the police forget that they are now living on immoral earnings – the usual definition of a pimp.

I could go one. I could go on. There are so many liberties trickling away. I've committed so many offences that might be arrestable. I even took a photo of the House of Commons – with a policeman outside. Governments don't usual restore the liberties they have taken – unless the people insist. And all around me are people who have forgotten the liberties they lost and adjusted oppressive, intrusive laws. I'm adjusting too. This time next year, I may have forgotten what liberty is. What liberties have I forgotten already?

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