The Strange Death of Liberal England – all over again!

150509_DeathofLiberalism - again

Nick Clegg made a speech on 19th December 2013 to a conference organised by the Open Society Institute and Demos which spelled out what Liberalism is about. It was poorly reported by the media which focused on criticisms of the Conservative policies on tax benefits for married people. But, it was an important speech in that Liberalism – the real third way of British politics – was, for the first time in many years, made the key topic.

In “the Strange Death of Liberal England” written by George Dangerfield in 1935, the twin political opponents of workers and capital were seen to squeeze out the rights of the individual as two opposing armies took over. This death was correctly seen as liberalism and the niceties of that philosophy were sacrificed to economic imperatives. Economic supremacy and economic growth (as measured by wages and GDP) became the real determinant in our politics and economics – a natural result of the economics of the 19th Century.

Now, western economies are relatively wealthy in pure economic terms despite the travails of the last eight years. It is the squeezed middle classes that have faced economic peril – with real antipathy to the financial “class” that seem to have acquired all the economic power. However, “austerity” economics has imperilled the lower paid and the poor on the altar of “balancing the books”.

In 2013, and in his recent resignation speech after an election that punished the Liberal Democrats for much more than cosying up to the Conservatives, Nick Clegg made the case so well. Liberalism stresses the balancing of the needs of individuals against power blocks – against totalitarianism of all kinds. “The values of the open society – social mobility; political pluralism; civil liberties; democracy; internationalism – are the source of my liberalism. And reflecting on the events of the last year, it is clear to me that they have rarely been more important than they are today.” Clegg said in 2013.

In his more recent speech made yesterday, Clegg stated that the loss of liberal values from recent politics spoke of a real risk to freedoms and the pursuit of life over entrenched interest groups. Unfortunately, this message had not been made by Liberals for 5 years (except in the odd speech like in 2013) and the mistrust held by the electorate over the decisions to become part of a Tory-led coalition along with the about-turn on University fees caused enough of the electorate to dismiss the Liberal Democrats. This party became “Tory-light” in the eyes of the young who had voted for them in 2010.

As economies struggle around the world, modern politics should be looking beyond the cul-de-sac of entrenched self-interest and power blocks to the values of the open society called up in Clegg’s 2013 speech. We should measure our rights to exist in ways that are more suitable than GDP or income measured in such straightjacket terms as numbers of £’s or $’s or Euros. Open society should be the way we measure our lives – this requires satisfactory income levels but there is more to what humans need than income to buy things that have diminishing returns to our well-being. Clegg’s speech should have been a useful starting point for what politics should be about beyond the next tax break. I hoped at the time that many would read it, that the press would begin to re-establish itself and begin to help lead the way to a new politics and economics for the 21st Century.

My hopes were dashed by a Liberal Democrat party that forgot its true centre (probably lost anyway when it joined with the Social Democrats thirty years ago) and only remembered it when it had lost.

Where does liberalism go now in the UK?

Perhaps the election throws up another route. The Labour Party’s dismay at it abject failure to ignite interest in the whole of the UK may be seen as an early stage in a change there, too. Born on the back of the struggle of the working class to assert itself in 1900, Dangerfield in his 1935 book showed clearly how that movement of labour was bound to kill off the party that had tried to represent labour up to then (the Whigs and then the Liberals) but from a middle class perspective.

Now, working people have succeeded in asserting their rights and many now aspire to middle income status. The struggle is now for all employed people to struggle in a world where the top 1% seem to be capturing the economies. They also have a mission to improve the lot of those outside of work.

For the Labour Party, this means that their traditional block of supporters seeks different outlets – Scottish Nationalist or UKIP, Green or even Conservative – where aspirations stretch from pure economic to the type of society for our children. Labour has to change to reflect aspiration – not just Tory-light (which Blairism was too close to) but something motivational. Ed Miliband talked about One Nation (a Victorian memory) that David Cameron repeated in his victory speech. This needs to be taken forward to the 21st Century and maybe Labour needs to reach out not go back into itself.

In the past, this was spoken of as a “realignment of left wing politics” but it needs a new 21st Century definition. Liberal thought as Clegg made so clear in 2013 and briefly referred to on 8th May, 2105, could be what drags the Labour Party kicking and screaming into a new mission for this century.

“The values of the open society – social mobility; political pluralism; civil liberties; democracy; internationalism” allied to safeguarding the poor and those who find it difficult to gain traction in that society, providing opportunity for all, motivating all to achieve both economic benefits and quality of life – these could be the new liberal values of Labour – and Liberals. Maybe the realignment is overdue – but, not just with left-ish ideals from the 1930’s, but liberal ideals for the 2020’s.

The Strange Death of the Party System (A Siren Call)

In 1935, George Dangerfield published “The Strange Death of Liberal England”. This book has been much discussed recently as it analysed the combination of women’s votes, Ireland and rights for workers and showed how the traditional and paternalistic politics of the world in 1914 and before was radically changed by those events.

One hundred years’ later, and this country (and much of the Western world) has a different problem. Except where a sudden (and usually short-term) issue arises, political parties are progressively being shunned by voters.

As a report in The Spectator showed in September, 2013 (mainly using data from the House of Commons Library report from December, 2012), membership of the traditional political parties has collapsed in the last 50 years – true of all the three, main parties. Only about 1.5% of the electorate are now members of the three, main parties – less than ¼ of the rate that existed in 1964.

This trend seems inexorable and, while it does not portend the end of democracy, it shows that (in the absence of possibly short-lived parties like UKIP in the UK Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Party in Italy) the gap between the political parties and real people grows daily.

Single Issue Politics

Dangerfield’s three shifts in politics that were in place when the First World War struck – Ireland, emancipation for women and workers’ rights – have, progressively and with much work, been largely dealt with. After that, the Second World War saw the forces of fascism and nazi-ism smashed. The end of the Cold War saw the attempt at Communism dismantled (China not representing anything like communism after the death of Mao – or probably before).

The world has new problems but economic prosperity and the global economy have shifted focus. Sure, immigration is a hot topic in the UK and the Scots are understandably excited by the prospect of independence, but, with a seemingly stable revival in economic fortunes, the public is not engaging with politicians – outside of single issues.

The older parties in England especially seem to have no vision of the country they aspire to lead or at least no ability to convey one. This lack of vision has disenchanted those who should be engaged. For others, who are far more focused on short-term economic necessities, politicians long ago lost their interest.

The Sirens (Seirenes) of Civil Society

All this was brought into focus at the ACEVO (Association of Chief Executives in Voluntary Organisations) Leadership Conference on 7th May. With exactly one year to go to the next UK General Election, the conference began with a tour around the electorate from Ben Page, CEO of Ipsos MORI and there were also talks from Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, Lisa Nandy MP, Shadow Minister and John Cruddas MP, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Head of Labour’s Policy Review.

Understandably, there was indignation from the audience of charity leaders about the Lobbying (Gagging) Bill and Liz Hutchins of Friends of the Earth especially. She claimed that the political parties wanted the restrictions on charity lobbying because they were concerned at the effect that such campaigning has prior to elections. It appears that the pressure groups within Civil Society now have Siren-like qualities and the Gagging Bill was introduced as a sort of earplug with which to render their song silent.

This insight was, for me, a central theme of the day. Politicians tried to assuage such concerns but Sir Stephen Bubb, ACEVO’s CEO, was not so comforted. He was foremost in wanting charities and the sector as a whole to raise its voice.

Now, charities and NGO’s may not be single-issue bodies but they are singular in context to political parties. In a digital age, they also, in some ways, replicate the more focused requirements of the internet – for short stay issues. From discussions that I had with several of the attendees, they have no intention of being silenced as they give voice to people who are otherwise disenfranchised by a system of politics that is too remote and where the “political class” (as John Cruddas himself called it) has fostered that remoteness.

From this conference, a clear message is that political parties are too focused on short-termism and on presenting a wide range of policies that may have engaged fifty years ago but do not now. John Cruddas, who is working to re-energise the Labour programme, pointed to his party’s desire to rid itself of a top-down, centrist mindset that was no longer suited to the 21st Century. In itself, this is fine, but the positive ability to reach out to people with real needs is, perhaps, too great a reach.

Are Charities a sign of a new Politics?

The Lobbying Bill gained most of its publicity as a result of the attempt to gag charities – a ridiculous aspect of the Bill that the Labour Party has promised to revoke. It showed a worry amongst politicians that charities (especially vocal NGO’s like 38 Degrees) offer a voice to people that is being taken very seriously. Amongst the 166,000 registered charities, there are many established to challenge society. Many others see the need to campaign in order to enhance its aims for beneficiaries. The charity sector, despite its quantifiable size relative to the rest of the economy, has a clear voice on many issues but has to fight its way in a society dominated by corporate and public sectors.

It is an understandable situation where politics is dominated by the sectors that seem to dominate our lives economically. We mainly work for the two dominant sectors and receive most of our quantitative benefits from them. Between them, they dominate. The battle between them, as J K Galbraith showed in “The Affluent Society” is between the quantity of life and the quality of life – both required to some limit but where a social balance is needed.

Unfortunately, we all appear to see the debate between public and private sectors as a battle – not as a need for social balance. Libertarians believe that the market economy will meet all requirements – there are others that believe in the ownership of all economic producers by Government. In between, the battle lines persist: private vs public.

However, there is another battle line where charities and NGO’s exist. It is not all about economics – although it is linked. This battle line is about serving those who are not covered by the armies of private or public sector or where the issue is more quality vs quantity. The debate about the future of our habitat – where the eco-warriors exist – is mainly an NGO battle (in the UK at least as Greens have, to date, low votes cast on their behalf despite them being perceived as single issue). Elsewhere, charities run the whole gamut of causes – medical, social, humanitarian, ecological.

It is into this wide range of causes that people may be engaging. In a world where politics is remote and bland, where politicians are not trusted, charities and NGO’s are seen as trustworthy recipients of funding but also as voices. Unlike the sirens, political earplugs will not cause the charities to give up. The word at the ACEVO Conference was the opposite – a louder voice was needed.

It may be that organized groups such as charities and NGO’s (aided by the digital facilities now available – which suit individual issues) will lead to a different type of political environment. Allied to the extraordinary power of economic (quantitative) sectors such as public and private sectors, the sector that represents the quality of life will likely be seen more and more as a real player in the life of politicians. Maybe the so-called Third Sector will get a Minister in the Cabinet; maybe there will be an annual budget for this area – linking the quantity of our lives (measured through GDP – life by numbers) to the quality of all our lives.

 

 

See-through Society – transparency

Cleaning Up

Chuka Umuna, the Shadow Business Secretary, recently called for companies in the UK to declare their tax payments to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC). This followed the widely reported, bad publicity surrounding the minimal tax payments made in the UK by Amazon, Google, Starbucks and many others. Whilst not wishing to name and shame, he believes that all companies should glory in the tax they pay. Justin King, head of Sainsbury’s, one of the big four food retailers in the UK, made a similar statement, suggesting that consumers could make change happen through their custom. International Corporations have been cleaning up by transferring their tax liabilities to low tax regimes and tax havens – they can virtually choose where to pay tax.

Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister, states in his most recent letter to LibDem members: “The idea of combining a strong economy with a fair and transparent society is something that will also be seen in an international context this year when we host the G8 in Northern Ireland.”

Transparency is becoming the mantra of the well-meaning in society and many would say “about time, too”. While not the answer to all of societies’ ills, it is a precursor to re-directing society towards solving some of the greatest problems we have – because transparency of key information allows people (civil society) to make informed decisions – either on their own (through the marketplace) or through their government.

Sweeping away the leaves

For years, organisations like Transparency International have campaigned for dramatic improvements in the way governments, publicly owned organisations and companies provide important information. The danger with secrecy (and the UK remains a very secretive country) is that beneath the opacity of information lie secrets that those with vested interests wish to keep hidden. Whilst secrecy is always claimed by Governments to benefit all of us where they wish to enforce it, the evidence is usually to the contrary. The benefits of secrecy accrue to vested interests and results in economic mismanagement at best – at worst, in countries which are, for example, resource-rich and economically poor, it leads to mass corruption, impoverishment of the mass of people, illness and suffering.

Economics and economies thrive on the open availability of good information and only monopolies thrive on secrecy. It is only when information is made available that proper judgments can be made by the mass of participants in the marketplace.  In a world population of billions, markets can only work where information is not controlled from the top down. Stockmarkets and financial markets depend on the freest possible flow of information to the widest audience and there has been a progressive move towards freer access to information along with the spread of technology that enables it to be used. The driving force is the same human one that drives freedom and democracy. There is an inherent motor behind individual freedom and the right to self-govern and the same motor drives transparency because it is with transparency that the potential can be seen and with transparency that informed decisions can be made.

Transparency is not closing your eyes when the wind blows

In the UK, a nation that always appears to be governed by a conservative mindset where change is difficult, where the Official Secrets Act dominates, where GCHQ and CCTV appear ubiquitous, where the challenge to maintain a fairness between an open society and a society that bears down on terrorism often seems so far weighed in the latter’s direction, the motor for transparency often seems to be running in neutral. Conservatism (especially in England) means keeping things the same and with direction from the centre. This often means that vested interests operating from the centre or with the centre will disallow the move towards more openness. The Labour government provided a Freedom of Information Act, for example, to the chagrin of its then leader, Tony Blair., who was and remains a centrist. In a sense the provision of the Act was odd, because Labour remains as much a centrist party as the Conservatives. Nevertheless, the human motor for more transparency was stronger than the urge to opacity in this case – even if the Act is not itself allowing the freedoms desired.

Yet, it was a step towards a more open society and towards transparency that many countries would relish. A free press (the subject of so much discussion following and before Leveson) has helped to unearth the secrecy in banking, for example, that has plagued the UK for centuries. Manipulation of LIBOR, money laundering, sub-prime casino banking and support for tax havens may have helped to make London a key banking centre but it did not insulate the UK from the collapse in 2007 – it made it far worse – and “only when the tide goes out do you discover who was swimming naked” (Warren Buffet commenting on naked transparency). Sometimes, opening our eyes hurts.

Nothing to Hide?

One example of eye strain concerns the opacity of the banks and their cozy relationship with Government (not just in the UK). The secrecy allied to the special relationship has hindered the UK to an intolerable degree. Under Nigel Lawson (one of Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellors) the post-manufacturing society was hailed as the future as banks gained more freedoms and we all kept our eyes closed. Yet, we now see Germany as Europe’s economic motor because of its manufacturing prowess and the revitalization of the British motor industry (although hardly any it owned by Brits) is now lauded much louder than our “success” in financial services. The illusion of banking remains, though – as a key driver of the economy rather than what it really is – a provider of services that should assist the real economy. And the illusion has been propped up by a lack of real transparency which enables banking to remain a secret society.

Transparency is the ability to be strong enough to reveal information because there is nothing to hide. The true strength of transparency is the confidence that it portrays. So, the opportunity for companies and Governments to be open, to be transparent, only exists where there is not much to hide. Clearly, international companies that are paying virtually no corporation tax on sizeable UK earnings have something to hide; clearly, those (companies and individuals) who put money into offshore tax havens or to secrecy jurisdictions may have something to hide.

If banks and individuals had nothing to hide, Wegelin, the oldest Swiss bank, which is closing as a result of its plan to take on all the clients of Swiss banks that had decided to be more transparent with the US authorities over tax evasion would still be open for business. Their clients, who wished anonymity, made their way to Wegelin – which had been founded in 1741. They knew they were doing wrong and Wegelin knew the same – and the bank is closing after a hefty fine from US regulators and after 271 years. Secrecy was in the bank’s DNA – it could not evolve to the realities just beginning to dawn in the 21st Century. It became extinct.

So, lack of transparency in a world with eyes opening can be also hurt and be expensive and the US executive is now proving to be vigilant on  behalf of transparency on a world-wide basis – as is the US Congress which passed legislation in 2010 called Dodd-Frank. Part of this related to section 1504 which requires extractive industry companies registered with the SEC (Security and Exchange Commission) to disclose their revenues and taxes paid on a country by country basis worldwide. This includes all companies registered on the NYSE no matter where they are based. The EU looks to be following this example so that the people of resource-rich, economically poor countries will know how much money their precious natural resources raise in annual income and then can follow through what their Governments do with that money.

However, the American Petroleum Institute and the US Chambers of Commerce (vested interests if ever there were) are trying to fight back and have initiated a law suit in the US to nullify section 1504

How curious that libertarians fight on behalf of secrecy – the proponents of a free market arguing against a main tenet of economics – free information.

Battle lines are being drawn – the light and the dark.

21st Century Schizoid Man, King Crimson’s take on Spiro Agnew, was written in 1969 but the 21st Century does even now witness such schizoid tendencies characterized by corporate and governmental secretiveness, emotional coldness and apathy that typifies the illness. The lack of openness is world-wide and exhibited by the Chinese authorities’ suppression of its Southern Weekly newspaper when an editorial criticizing Chinese leadership was thrown out and one supporting the leadership was superimposed. Anyone reading Martin Jacques book “When China Rules the World” would not be surprised at the suppression. It characterizes the central leadership of this “civilization state” but Jacques argues that we see it too much with western eyes. But, what if we in the West are right and democratic freedom and openness are the motors that drive our human endeavours? What if the Chinese have, for 2,000 years, actually got it wrong. As China grows stronger, the move away from freedom for information will intensify and Chambers of Commerce will battle against laws for transparency that they will argue provides Chinese firms with advantages. This is a battle that has to be fought world-wide.

Our pursuit of progressively greater freedom (whether press freedom, open markets, democracies, freedom of speech) and equality (of race, religion (or non-religion, sex, sexual orientation and more) appears to be the real motor rather than the schizoid tendencies of the centrist control of monopolies, dictators, and vested interests. Transparency is a hugely important base upon which this basic human drive can persist. In a post-2007 world where the risk is that wealth is being driven to the top 1%, the drive for transparency is fundamental.

Institutionalized!

Will Self’s excellent new book “Umbrella” (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Umbrella-Will-Self/dp/1408820145/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1348396331&sr=8-1) brilliantly describes the torture of individuals put into “mental institutions” and how (until very recently in the UK) they were appallingly treated.

 

Old people in Care Homes have similarly been shown (one example had a miniature camera secured in the room of a care home) to have been malnourished, beaten and generally abused.

 

Maybe it is improper to use these examples of Institutions that have become uncaring and out of control to symbolize the problems faced regularly by all of us, but it is no coincidence. We have all become “Institutionalized” by the edifices that society has created to carry out the basic functions of society. This is not new. Ossification of institutions is a regular occurrence in society. The reason that monarchs are overthrown, for example, is because the institution of monarchy – the rule of society by one person or clique – becomes, eventually, intolerable to society in general.

 

Cracks in the Institutional Wall

 

We are all confronted by Institutions throughout our lives. From hospitals to school, from government departments to businesses, individuals live their lives working in and being confronted by Institutions.

 

Institutions have been defined as: “An institution is a system of rules, beliefs, norms and organizations that together generate a regularity of (social) behavior” (Greif, Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade).

 

They provide “equilibria” to society as a method or ordering our behavior. Greif also developed notions of dynamic institutions to show how institutions change through time.

 

Common Threads’ focus is that the institutions developed in the 19th Century for politics, economics, education and other key areas of society don’t work well in the 21st Century. The aim has been to generate some discussion of where the problems may be and look at some potential solutions rather than try to develop a theoretical analysis (when this is being done elsewhere – for example, in the area of economics at ESNIE (European School on New Institutional Economics – http://esnie.org/).

 

Major economic dislocations as we have seen since 2007 in the West – the banking disasters leading to huge debt problems leading to depression in Greece and the potential for this throughout Europe – could presage major changes in the way institutions develop. Often, the cracks in the wall have to be very large before we either build a new wall or try to fill in the cracks – which is what is being done now.

 

The changes in our institutions that are being made – small changes in banking (mainly in terms of individuals) are akin to deck chairs being moved around on the Titanic. Whether in our political institutions or our economic ones (or wherever large organizations have been set up to provide societal equilibrium) the danger is that they do not change enough to enable society to prosper – rather, built on the foundations of the 19th Century, they fail to deal with the issues that face them (and us) today.

 

Building Order out of Chaos – Challenging Entropy?

 

Just like the walls of Jericho were built to keep out intruders (subject to the odd trumpet) and we build firewalls in our computer systems to keep our systems secure, society builds our Institutions also to have effective walls against change and to build ourselves a cover against the outside world. Maybe we are genetically primed – our cells work within walls that allow us to withstand the chaos that would otherwise ensue. The Second Law of Thermodynamics essentially describes entropy – the natural tendency for good energy to dissipate into bad (useless) energy. Our life on this planet is a constant grind against the power of entropy and, maybe, our desire to build this equilibrium is a natural and instinctive drive for order within chaos.

 

This natural tendency to build order exists throughout civilization and can produce stability and contentment. But, as Darwin wrote: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” (Origin of Species).

 

The key is that Institutions cannot be left to ossify but have to change to meet the changes in environment that exist externally. New order has to be developed constantly.

 

In business, in relatively free markets, businesses come and go on a regular basis. The FTSE 100 started in 1984 and today only three companies from those 100 remain in the FTSE 100 – GKN, Rolls Royce and Imperial Tobacco. This is because the FTSE 100 reconstitutes itself every three months. The Dow Jones started in 1896 – who remembers American Cotton Oil or National Lead or United States Rubber? That is not to belittle business – there is a tough economic law that works hard to reward success and punish failure. Companies that don’t work hard to change to meet the needs of the external environment simply fail. Apple is a great example of a company that was close to collapse in the 1980’s but (under Jobs) completely redirected itself so that it is now the highest valued company in the world. But, for how long? Most companies fail (70% in the first three years).

 

Taking Down the Walls

 

Within the rest of society, change is harder. In our fight against the ravages of chaos, we allow pressure to build up, often learning the wrong lessons. This so often leads to an explosion as pressure gets too much. Society is not very good at understanding where the pressure is building. We defend the status quo for too long and then find ourselves unable to contain the whirlwind that attacks us.

 

In the UK, we have prided ourselves on our ability to change gradually so as to release the pressure before it gets too much. Not since the middle of the 17th Century has England fought a Civil War. This is held up to be the result of the changing democratic scene – from Magna Carta through rule by nobles to rule by the Commons (elected nobles); constant enlargement of the vote from 1832 onwards to women in 1918 (as long as they were over 30 and lived in a decent house) to 18 year-olds in 1969.

 

The walls have been dismantled brick by brick and most democracies follow a similar path.

 

The challenge now is that, in an age where developed societies have reached a decent level of economic wealth, politicians are losing any connection with those they are supposed to represent. Only around 50% of the voting population bothers to vote in general elections. More are now linking up with one-issue groups who they believe will push agendas on their behalf rather than hope that a political party will (by the mere casting of a vote every five years) carry out a manifesto that cannot meet most aspirations.

 

This means that the one issue lobbyists are getting greater powers to influence. Their techniques and ability to make change happen is developing constantly. Originally, such groups were primarily labour organizations (Trades Unions) and, in the UK, this developed into the Labour Party. Now, there are groups within the Third Sector that campaign on any range of issues from the environment to health, from taxation to education, from peace campaigners and human rights to fox-hunting (both sides). Organized campaign groups now operate as a key part of society so that individuals are now useful only at elections.

 

This means that more Institutions have been developed to challenge the political parties (it happens throughout the world). This is not a challenge to the political process – it may even solidify it by shoring up the political process within a wall of campaigning institutions.

 

What role for Society?

 

It is in this context that several have questioned the future in which we grow Institutions to work with other Institutions to govern (or run other aspects of our lives). This response to the walls around politics and government may be a natural one but is questionable as the new Institutions (of the campaigners and lobbyers) are run by a small number of people and funded in many ways. They are not accountable in the same way as political parties are supposed to be (and continue as long as they are funded). Their funds come from a variety of sources and confusion exists amongst society in separating out charitable work from campaigning and lobbying. In the UK, there is no register of lobbying so there is no transparency that is at least attempted in the US (which has its own problems owing to funding regulations that allow companies to fund to whatever level).

 

There is a real danger that the way we are evolving the democratic process is anti-democratic. Democracy is supposed to be government by the people. We have a three-tier system now whereby professional politicians are influenced by a small number (relative to the population) of professionally-run organizations throughout a term of office – remembering the individual citizens only when elections loom.

 

Is this the best we can do?

 

Building the Walls from the Bottom Up

 

In Australia (as I have mentioned in an earlier post), The Centre for Civil Society (under Vern Hughes) – http://www.civilsociety.org.au/ – has developed some new insights and a challenge to the norm in http://www.civilsociety.org.au/CivilSocietyPolitics.htm.

 

This is worthy of investigation as one means of providing greater involvement in our own future.

 

Also critical is the use of technology. Changes in the means of communication have always brought with them the means to radically change society. The printing press, the telegraph, the telephone, the TV, the computer and the internet, the mobile phone, wireless comms – all lead to more and faster information and an enabling of the individual.

 

This is a critical cause of concern for leaders of legalist states such as in China but also offers challenges (and opportunities) to so-called democracies.

 

Individuals are now empowered by technology by dis-empowered by institutions. This means that empowerment is taken up by online shopping or social networking rather much more than for social change or betterment. It means that civil society will continue to be badly served by national and international institutions that meet lobbyists in the corridors of power but are insufficiently grappling with society itself (rather the funneling through funded organizations).

 

Yet, power exists. Libya is a exciting example. Just recently, armed militia groups (a powerful central non-government organization) were ousted by people – civil society coming together to say, “thanks for toppling Gaddafi, your work is done!” In Egypt, Tahrir Square was the centre of civil society’s success to overthrow a dictator. Here, the Military Institutions delayed the correct response and we will have to wait to see if the elected President, Morsi, will serve his citizens or other Institutions (including religious).

 

Civil society (we, the people) should see the 21st Century as one where we are allowed to deliver. The forces for 19th Century equilibria often stand in the way of progress – and are standing in the way of serious climate change policies on an international scale. Institutions set up to effect change may be set up for the right reasons but we are now institutionalized and should seriously re-evaluate our reaction to the new Institutions just as we challenge the old ones. If we need a wall, then we should be blowing that trumpet to unsettle the existing ones.

 

Crude Awakenings – Funding Politics

Nothing changes

And nothing stays the same

And life is still

A simple game

(Moody Blues – Nothing changes)

Another scandal over funding political parties – it is now a game of equals – Tory, Labour and Lib Dems are all exposed. Funding of political parties in the UK remains mired in a 19th Century lack of principles.

It is not what you know or how good you are, it is down to what you are willing to pay. Political favouritism may not be quite so prone to nepotism, but in an age where money talks – where privilege is money-driven – the ability to pay gains political favour.

It may be OK for our top football clubs to be bought by the wealthy (we don’t care how they made their money – whether from the gangster-ridden break-up of the Soviet Union or from family-owned oil wealth), but it is not good enough for our political parties to be “bought” in the same way.

If today’s allegations concerning Peter Cruddas (over which he has just resigned as co-treasurer of the Conservative Party) mean anything at all, it is that, despite any other misgivings, large donations from whatever direction have to be curtailed. In the same way that our royals are paid through the civil list, our political parties need to be similarly driven with a basic payment that provides the ability to survive. Any top-up should be via small donations from individuals. No corporates nor trades unions nor other organisations should be allowed to contribute.

Our senior politicians (so lacking in the ability to reform themselves) need to make some real progress on party funding. With expenses scandals still sounding in our ears, our political system is too brittle to be allowed to deteriorate any further. A cross-party / non-party team needs to address the issues quickly – by the next election at the latest – and a result that kills off the crudest of funding techniques needs to be implemented for the trust in politics in the UK to start to rise again.

Liberalism and politics – short-term thinking or the fight for ideals?

In the UK, the Liberal Democrats are holding their Spring conference this week. I declare an interest. That party represents the closest thing to the ideals that I hold – the belief that monopolies of any type are bad in principle and that the state (and other potentially totalitarian groupings) should be limited in scope and the individual in society provided with the best chances to succeed.

This overly-simplified outline of Liberalism (probably not social democracy) – at least to a British formula – where society is seen as individuals and groups that must be enhanced and where over-bearing accumulation of power is to be resisted – is nevertheless a strong reason why I pay my annual subs to the party.

Against the centralist doctrines of the Labour party (where state is still seen to be the best judge of everything) and Conservatism (difficult to assess but primarily a “market is best” doctrine allied to a notion that old institutions must be conserved no matter what), Liberalism should be the politics of the 21st Century. It shouts for the spirit of individuals and civil society making changes for the better against the rigid institutions set up in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. It should be capturing the spirit of the internet age – where freedoms to communicate should be elevating transparency and openness to a new generation (and convincing the old as well). It should be screaming about how the UK fits into the future of a world that continues to change (and not always for the better), where the rise and development of China threatens the drive to democracy and transparency that has been in place since the defeat of Nazism and totalitarianism after World War II and since.

Today’s Politics

Tragically, politics in the UK is all about shopping baskets. All our attention is drawn to GDP and austerity. These issues are important – especially to those living (or just about surviving) on low incomes. The drive to change taxation at the margin (and we always talk about changes at the margin – not true in the US where a real debate on dramatic changes in taxation are taking place – see John Mauldin’s latest on this) is a proper argument but the focus on taxation and its short-term impact blots out everything else.

Liberal Democrats believe in a wide range of issues. Moving in with the Conservatives as part of the Coalition Government has been a brave move that is hitting the party hard – based on recent polls. Shifting the tax burden to free those earning low salaries to a wealth tax (although the shift is tiny) is seen by senior Liberal Democrats as working to define the party.

Ask a voter what the Liberal Democrats stand for and they will probably answer with comments about university tuition fees or other short-term decisions made during this parliament.

Today’s politics, the politics of short-term economics and counter-terrorism (or long-standing views on how to counter the perceived threats that international terrorism poses) is our staple. Politicians (and we are not blessed with the cream of intelligence in that area – they usually became bankers in the 1980’s) are hooked on short-term ideas and the next election. It was ever thus.

GDP slaves, taxation dummies, election addiction, five year parliamentarians that act like five-year olds.  In the UK we may have been better off than our EU colleagues in Greece (we do have a society that respects to a greater extent tax collection as a cornerstone) but minor modifications to our lives emphasize the conservatism of the nation –  conservatism that is likely to propel the UK backwards and means that our influence is greatly lessened as the 21st Century progresses.

Tomorrow’s politics

Political parties are under threat. Their short attention span means they are missing the evidence that is before them. People and groups in society are pursuing single initiatives to great effect. Whether these groups are organized as NGO’s or small societies or other types of organization, civil society (propelled by new technologies) are able to have a greater influence on politics than ever before. Politicians and government has to be aware of that change and make efforts to respond to it

That response has to mean that decisions must be allowed to take place at the lowest level possible not at the highest.

It must mean that politics has to “open up”and be more inclusive – that means helping those in society to understand what parties stand for – really stand for – and the world that they see ahead.

It must mean that the political parties must continuously work to make themselves relevant.

For Liberal Democrats fighting to show themselves as sufficiently different so that voters provide them with a future beyond this parliament, it seems pretty important to use the remaining three years to do two, crucial things.

First, sure – secure the short-term changes that (even if at the margin) show benefits to that area of society that is bleeding because of the poor economic conditions.

Second, and far more important in the long term, ensure that Liberal Democrats shout about the society that the party wants to have in place and the UK’s place in the world. This is not about minor taxation shifts. This has to be a society where individuals and groups have a bigger say but also where the opportunities to develop (in terms not just of how many makes of designer trainers one can buy but in terms of real education opportunities, real quality of life from birth to death, a society where large, monopolistic groups which threaten that society from inside or outside are not tolerated) are maximized.

Liberal Democracy (or at least the Liberal part of it) has a strong tradition in all these areas. The message has been obscured in its pro-Europe and pro-euro fervour and over-reliance on short-term tax issues and the obscuring of its longer-term reason for existence and how it should want to change the world.

Nick Clegg’s speech back in December at the Open Society Institute made an attempt to voice some of these issues (see https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/2012/01/01/liberalism-and…e-21st-century/).

Politics needs to motivate and excite in the 21st Century as large movements (such as the labour movement in the late 19th Century and early 20th) are not so obvious – that does not mean it is not happening.

The movement is now about individuals and groups within civil society using whatever tools are available (and which technology is supplying) to make their case. For Liberal Democrats, the aim should be to show how it supports that key change in society and can help and nurture it and maybe lead it and make it work.