Grieve knows what we need for civil liberties – up to a point

Before I start, I should point out that the other morning I re-joined the Labour Party. I say ‘re-joined’ because as a debt-ridden student, at one point, all the direct debits had to go, and so my Labour Party membership went with them.

I wanted to spell out my political allegiances because in an odd way they lend an extra dimension, I hope, to the comments I make here.

I think The Coalition may well be disastrous on many fronts for British society. But that’s my personal, political opinion. However, on the legal front I’m most concerned with, there has been a positive move in the form of an appointment to the Coalition Cabinet.

A prominent Conservative (now Attorney-General), Dominic Grieve, in a Conservative policy publication, has co-authored something I wish I had had the same kind of platform and backing to suggest. This policy publication does a lot to suggest that in terms of society, and the control of society, small and local is beautiful.

Reversing the Rise of the Surveillance State has stolen my thunder; I don’t mind admitting it. It was published some months ago; and it suggests many of the things my own research has suggested for the way that civil liberties should be protected from escalating, and intrusive, electronic governance. Electronic governance is by its very nature intrusive, and threatens our informational privacy and self-governance and self-determination. It should not do so unlawfully; which in legal terms means that it must be authorised with due attention from Parliament… and our civil liberties are eroded, yes, but with utmost care.

The Ministry of Justice under Brown’s Labour government asserted, for example, that Section 2 of the National Health Service Act 2006 allows for the NHS to construct huge, national databases as part of programme to improve patient care. There are also, supposedly, efficiency savings to be made in the longest of terms. However, NHS databases are hugely expensive. Many people and organisations – at least those informed on the subject – are hesitant about the intrusiveness inherent in these programmes. Some health practitioners are strong in their support and more closely involved, but these issues are lost amongst many others. But there are also issues of legality, or rather, unlawfulness here.

The lawfulness or unlawfulness of NHS IT and electronic governance initiatives is a matter of legal doubt, and therefore of legal opinion. If you are following me up to this point; it comes down to the bland degree of wording found in Section 2 of the NHS Act 2006. The wording in legislation that intrudes into our rights, or ‘infringes’ and ‘engages’ them to use the legal parlance, cannot be bland. Our own courts have interpreted the Human Rights Act 1998 in such a way as to establish this ‘anti-blandness’ idea, or an ‘anti-ambiguity’ principle. (It is better known as the Simms principle, after the case in which Lord Hoffman outlined it most definitively.)

Back to the politics.

Dominic Grieve, of course, is a Conservative MP and has been appointed as Attorney General. And I hope he carries out all but one of the electronic governance policies he has outlined.

Reversing the Rise of the Surveillance State articulated eleven policy and/or legislative proposals, each one trying in some way to highlight how civil liberties might be strengthened for all people living in, and visiting, the UK. 

They are mostly sensible changes, with one exception that I’m concerned about, namely the idea of “Reviewing protection of personal privacy from the surveillance state as part of a British Bill of Rights.”

Given that it is our own courts that have determined that our rights cannot be stripped away from us without, is it really sensible to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and replace it with a less-flexible (though better defined) set of ‘British right that do not depend on our courts interpreting the European Convention on Human Rights? That’s if we can establish exactly what ‘British rights’ are?

My overall point is that the current Simms principle-based rights framework keeps Parliament sovereign, so that difficult decisions legitimising the infringement of people’s rights can be made – but does not limit the scope of when and how rights can be protected in our courts.

Dominic Grieve needs to make sure that he does not help to leave the UK with a narrowly-prescriptive piece of constitutional legislation that leaves rights ‘gaps’ for any future authoritarians to exploit; even if in so doing he is the anti-Orwellian A-G we deserve, and helps persuade Cameron and Clegg on sensible ways to roll back the (poorly planned) database state. 

 Jamie Grace, author of ‘Behind Closed Doors’, is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Derby, School of Law and Criminology.

On Burnham and opposition

Alistair Darling winces on television noticeably more often from the dislocated position of Shadow Chancellor than he did from the luxurious comfort of No. 11, but it’s not all doom and gloom for Labour and wearers of the red rose nationwide.

Harriet Harman addressed an email to Labour Party members today in which she said:

“I said today in the House of Commons that we will not oppose for the sake of it – that’s not what the public wants.  But we will not pull our punches.  We will be vigilant – to protect jobs and businesses.  We will be determined – to prevent unfairness. And we will speak up for the public services that matter so much.”

It is late in the day to be concerned with what the public wants; such things were to be considered in the years and months leading to the election.  But what’s worse, these are the words of a party well and truly in opposition and it has only been a matter of weeks.  The party representatives, particularly the leadership, must be more driven, more focused on plugging the gaps in both the ruling coalition’s rhetoric and the empty verse spooned out by Labour while in government.

This is not a bad time to be in opposition, if such a fate must befall the Labour Party.  Maurice Greene, former 100m world record holder, always used to say to be #1 you had to train as if you were #2 (look at the Bio, not the open-shirt picture); if you train like #1 you had no place to go.  And Labour undoubtedly did that – complacency was their reward.  The results of the election showed simply that the nation didn’t want Conservative or Liberal Democrat government, but that it didn’t want Labour in charge either.  The problems that existed still do and though time has eased them, as a public we still wait for corrections to be made and no government can sit comfortably until such a time as this happens.

So Labour need change and Andy Burnham has stepped into the leadership race in entirely the correct way.  His speeches bristle with the same intent and purpose as did those of Nick Clegg when making such broad impact during the televised debates.  Burnham approaches the race as if it is incidental to his will to make change, not vice versa, as was the overriding sentiment of the premiership of Gordon Brown.  He talks and acts as a man with an aim and this is what the Labour Party has lacked since the golden days when Tony Blair was popular.  It seems a simple solution to politics that for some reason politicians become more blind to the more seasoned they are; popularity wins votes and what makes politicians popular is to draw close to the people and their needs.

Burnham has critiqued both his party and its policies, closing in on the concerns of the electorate and at once distancing himself from the cobwebs of the last government.  He has time to garner support, if done well, and to build this start into a platform of real substance.  Not much stock was put in Conservative policies before May 6th and should reality unfold the same way, Labour may be in the favourable position of appearing to be the clean-up act to their own mess soon enough.  But what must be avoided are the mistakes of the past.  The whole affair that brought Brown into power reeked of every bad cliché of cronyism that there is; the party must learn, ironically, from Cameron and Clegg and inject life, not just shuffle the same cards and act like the hand is different.

The Miliband brothers, Diane Abbott, Ed Balls; all were senior enough in their own spheres to have had their chance to initiate change from within.  Waiting for the inevitable fall of Brown before stepping from the shadows to take his place, is the same typical tired story of the bland continuance of political mire that strangled the Labour Party government long before any recession did.  It’s not enough anymore.

Ed Miliband reaching the level of internal votes needed to stand for the leadership is all well and good as a start, but alone it is simply a sign of recognition from members of a failed and fallen government that had its chance.  More must be done in order to gain any further ground than that internal recognition and sooner rather than later is the time for them all to realise this if a return to power is truly to be earned.

Exeter’s plans for independence are Pickled

The election month of May isn’t even done with yet but the Liberal-Conservative alliance has already dealt a hefty blow to localism in Exeter. Plans to allow Exeter to ‘break away’ from Devon County Council and form a unitary authority have been quashed by the new minister for dealing with all things local, Eric Pickles. Opponents to the new unitary authority i.e. the Lib Dem-Conservative dominated County Council argued that the unitary authority was all for the benefit of Labour (even though it’s actually run by the Lib Dems), so the new government’s response has been to rise above such narrow-minded power grabbing by reversing the decision made by parliament, and giving the Tories and Liberals in Devon what they wanted instead. So much for a move towards localism by Pickles!

I know that there are some on the left who are not keen on unitary authorities, and this is understandable. There is always a fear that it will result in job cuts and large amounts of money being spent on the changeover. But with the national deficit as bad as it is and the new regime looking to make ‘savings’, there’s nothing to suggest that the County Council won’t cut jobs anyway, and it seems unlikely that the Lib-Cons were going to allow Exeter City Council to throw money around redesigning logos and letterheads. Locally focused services are more likely to make it clear to local communities and the powers-that-be in town halls or Whitehall exactly what the frontline of public services actually consists of: schools, road maintenance, housing, street cleaning, and the administration that such services ultimately require. You name the service – its frontline; but what does frontline actually mean if such services provided in your area are very different to the services in another part of the county which falls under the same authority?

Exeter is a distinct community from rural Devon. Living here, I can never quite get over how huge the county is. Exeter to Barnstaple is about the same distance as Brighton to south London (and that’s only half the county); but in the South East, you’d pass through several local authorities on your way. It seems unreasonable to expect a farmer living fifty miles away on the moors of West Devon to care about congestion (which is pretty bad) or social housing demand (even worse) in an urban area like Exeter when he comes to vote in the County Council elections. People are asked to think of the bigger picture in general elections, but local election decisions are rightly based on our local experiences. But that’s the current set-up, mad as it is. It’s hard now to imagine Torbay or Plymouth being part of Devon County Council and it was only a matter of time before Exeter went the same way. If the government are serious about devolving power to local communities they could do worse than make a decent start by letting Exeter have its independence.

The myth of the national interest in the Cameron coalition narrative

The launch of the Lib-Con’s ‘Programme for Government’ saw Prime Minister Cameron appeal not for the first time to the ‘national interest’, a concept that seems to be gaining increasing currency in anticipation of the possibility that established party differences might create embarrassing obstacles in the era of the ‘new politics’.  You will have noticed, and will continue to experience, the authoritative invocation of this handy phrase from the leaders of the government.  I would advise any optimistic Coalitionists out there that ‘the national interest’ does not lend itself to much objective usage.

It is establishing itself in Cameron and Clegg’s vocabulary with good reason too.  While the Coalition will continue to portray a convergence of values based on a thoroughly legitimate concern for the ex-government’s erosion of civil liberties, Labour’s statism will become a bit of a straw man after a while.  Obvious ideological differences between the Lib Dems and the Tories will be exploited to full effect by Labour in opposition and the media, and the idea that these can be rendered benign by a higher cause has obvious appeal to both sides of the Coalition.  

Putting aside party interests’ is a particularly banal tautology; at what point would the Conservative Party concede that their principles do not reflect what’s best for Britain?  Are we to assume that the past two weeks have revealed some happy coincidence between Tory fiscal policy and the national interest?  If we had a Labour government right now, the national interest would be defined as maintaining fiscal stimulus, and protecting the recovery.  Instead Britain’s interests are best served by immediate cuts.  The pliability of the term exposes the absurdity of any attempt to use it seriously.

The Coalition, existential proof of the diversity and representativeness of British politics, rests on the fiction that Cameron will objectively defend the national interest, which logically implies that the national interest must be seen as threatened.  Immediately after the scale of the Conservatives’ underachievement in the election had been recognised, Cameron began the public rationalisation of a deal with the Lib Dems. His post-election speech, ‘National interest first’ will be remembered for its ‘big, open and comprehensive offer’ to Clegg.  But it is also indicative of the kind of alarmist, apocalyptic rhetoric which will be essential to the success of the Coalition government:

‘[Britain] did not vote for party political bickering, grandstanding and point scoring – our country’s problems are too serious, they are too urgent, for that…We must sort things out, as quickly as possible, for the good of the country’

So Cameron dutifully assumes the traditional paternal vestige of his party, clearing up Labour’s mess and administering the painful but necessary policies that serve the interests not of a self-serving elite but of the nation.  I’m not saying this sort of negative cohesion is anything new in politics – it is as old as the hills. This makes its usage by Cameron in suggesting that we have entered the ‘new politics’ even more nauseating.

Over the rainbow, are the skies blue? Can the Conservative government deliver on gay rights?

The new cabinet is the least socially representative since the by-gone era of top hats and gentleman’s clubs. Oh wait, I just described the Bullingdon. The least socially representative since before the first world war, to be more precise. Cameron’s cabinet has only four women, one of whom is a minister without portfolio and Baroness Farsi is also the only BME member in the new cabinet. It seems the face of British politics is once again white and male.

Of course, representation does not have to be descriptive, one can advocate for a group without being a member. However I would insist that the person appointed representative believes in gaining rights for that group. Herein lies the problem with the new Minister for Women and Equalities. Theresa May is an inappropriate and frankly dangerous choice for this crucial role. A brief review of her voting record on gay rights demonstrates her evident unsuitability. She opposed the abolition of section 28 (as did most of the front bench). She voted against lowering the homosexual age of consent to 16. She voted against gay adoption rights. She voted against the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which would give lesbian couples the ability to receive fertility treatment. How can we have an equality minister who doesn’t believe in equal rights?  

How could our new Prime Minister, he of hope and the Big Society appoint her, doing such a disservice to the gay community? Perhaps because his true views are not dissimilar to hers. David Cameron voted against an amendment to the Adoption an Children Bill which allowed unmarried couples (both heterosexual and homosexual) to adopt children. This could be passed off as Victorian Values, upholding the institution of marriage, until he voted for the same amendment, this time specifically worded to exclude homosexual couples. He also voted against gay rights, advocating the need for both a father and mother to be present to gain fertility treatment.

This is disappointing, but not surprising in a party that continues to allow people like Chris Grayling into its inner circle after the B&B fiasco. No, Chris Grayling, ‘I was just recalling (the bigoted, homophobic and appallingly offensive) views I used to have’ is not a good enough excuse. This is also the party whose social policy was largely authored by Phillipa Stroud, who founded a church which attempted to ‘cure’ gay people through prayer. Although she didn’t win her seat, I doubt her influence will decline due to her position at the Centre for Social justice.

Hopefully, this is an area in which LibDem influence will temper the endemic homophobia in the Conservative ranks. Lynne Featherstone has been appointed junior equality minister. She has a positive record on gay rights and is one of few MPs who actively champion trans rights. I just hope she will be heard as she is clearly in the minority.

Challenging the bailout economy

The inherent instability of the current financial system, largely to blame for the recent credit crisis, has raised its ugly head once again. What began in October last year with Greece admitting to a budget deficit exceeding 12 percent of its gross domestic product  (well beyond the EU’s supposed limit of three percent) has burgeoned into a Europe-wide sovereign debt crisis threatening to split the monetary union apart.

When it became clear that the €110 billion bailout loan to Greece had not placated market fears that the crisis would spread to other weaker economies such as Spain and Portugal, EU leaders and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) constructed a €750 billion emergency fund to restore market confidence. The fund is not actually intended for use, but rather to protect eurozone countries from speculative attacks and to ensure that they can continue borrowing from the private sector.

While many commentators are quick to blame overblown government budgets for the current crisis, more measured assessments recognise that there are structural factors at play. Like most of the world, these governments had their excesses during boom years of easy credit, but they can hardly be blamed for the downturn that sent their national deficits skyrocketing. The fact that private banks, a number of which were implicated in the credit crisis, willingly lent vast sums to supposedly profligate and corrupt governments is hardly mentioned (for an exception, see C.P. Chandrasekhar). In what is becoming a familiar pattern, the burden of adjustment has fallen not on the financial sector, but on the Greek people and the taxpaying citizens of Europe.

The Greek public are now facing austerity measures of eye-watering severity – pay and pension freezes, public spending cuts and tax increases – the effects of which will be ongoing declines in income and employment. The IMF has admitted that even if the program ‘works’, Greece’s debt will rise from 115 percent of GDP today to 149 percent in 2013. In other words, the economy is likely to enter into an even deeper recession, with devastating impacts for the working and middle classes.

Why not just restructure Greece’s debt and let the international money lenders swallow the losses? According to economist Jayati Ghosh, this is the most obvious solution. Austerity measures will not correct the existing imbalances but actually worsen them. The problem, she argues, is that “the power of finance – in politics, in media and in determining national and international economic policies – remains undiminished despite its recent excesses and failures.”

Here lies the crux of the matter. The EU/IMF bailout is not intended to ensure that Greek workers will be able to pay the bills, but purely to restore confidence in the markets. Of course, the justification spouted by the IMF‘s managing director Dominique Strauss-Khan is that market confidence will “deliver the growth, jobs, and prosperity that the country needs for the future”, but the underlying assumption is that a placated international finance sector is a precondition for this future prosperity. The same can be said of the new EU stability fund. Markets may be reassured that Spain and Portugal are safe from default for now, but they too must implement harsh austerity measures that will negatively affect incomes and employment.

The Greek bailout and the EU stability fund are merely temporary solutions to the underlying problem of privatised finance. Neither addresses the structural faults of a system in which the health of the real economy – the part concerned with actually producing goods and services – is entirely dependent on the conditions of an overblown financial sector whose only purpose seems to be fattening the pockets of speculators and bankers. Austerity measures and bailouts may keep the banks happy, but what about the people? Popular protests, which have already caused three deaths in Athens, are likely to spread as other governments across Europe cut spending.

Perhaps for once, governments should start listening to their citizens instead of the financial lobbyists, market gurus and policy technocrats. The process could yield some surprisingly common sense results. Rather than frantically shoring up an unravelling economic system that has proven inherently unstable, unsustainable and unjust, policy-makers would be forced to address a fundamental question: how can we build and economy that best serves the needs of the people whilst protecting the environment upon which we depend? With the inequality gap widening, unemployment rising and the world’s ecosystems on the brink of collapse, one thing is for certain: throwing more money at the bailout economy is not the answer.

Anna White represents Share The World’s ResourcesThis post was originally published here under a Creative Commons license

Bringing it all back home

The past first: the obituaries are beginning to trickle in for New Labour, but it’s unclear, at the moment, how New Labour will be remembered colloquially. Despite Cameron’s best efforts so far, the ghost of the Thatcher years still hovers around the Conservative Party; in popular memory, rightly or wrongly, the years of her government are predominantly told as a horror story, scaring away potential Tory voters, functioning as a narrative framework (nasty party do nasty things out of nastiness) into which Cameron’s opponents are itching to place his Liberal Conservatives. Same old Tories and all that.

It seems unlikely to me, though I may be wrong, that the story of New Labour will be so easy to appropriate into a single negative narrative. One angle cropping up quite regularly in various hysterical comment threads on various semi-hysterical articles goes along the lines of ‘Same old Labour, inherit an excellent economy from the Conservatives, cock it up, and then hand it back to the Conservatives to fix and make excellent again’. The words ‘quangos’, ‘bureaucratic’ and ‘top-down’ also seem to be heavily associated with the New Labour project (words that, to my mind, don’t in themselves necessarily imply something either good or bad, but which seem to be popular battle cries for the anti-Labour forces). 

However, the New Labour historians have themselves been out in force, defending the last 13 years in qualified terms. David Miliband, in his recent speech re-declaring his leadership bid, unapologetically declared “New Labour did fantastic things for the country”. Labour lost the election, according to Miliband, because “we were neither proud enough of our record, [nor] humble enough about our mistakes.” I wasn’t around at the time so I’m not sure if the Tories in ’97 acted like this. I suppose we’ll just have to wait a few years to see how New Labour’s records and mistakes are balanced by the voters (as opposed to the special kinds of people who comment on newspaper articles and blogs).

Moving on, from the past to the future, it’s been interesting to note how the three likely contenders for Labour leadership (Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, and David Miliband) have all been placing emphasis on listening to people since Labour’s defeat. It’s nice to know that Labour want to listen to people outside of Westminster but it’s already starting to sound a bit like a platitude (even Balls’s version of filming himself literally listening to people in his constituency). And with the leadership election potentially slipping into bland agreement voiced with non-specific sentiments, I felt a fair amount of disappointment when Jon Cruddas declared he wouldn’t be standing for Labour leader.  

Some people question Cruddas’ cheerleading of Blair and Purnell, and his voting record is admittedly far from spotless. That said, unlike Miliband, Miliband, or Balls he comes out with some unusual, thought-provoking and inspiring things. One of the most interesting things I’ve ever heard a politician come out with is this extract from a speech Cruddas gave to the June 2009 Compass conference, No Turning Back:

“Labour’s lost its language of generosity, of kindness, of community, as it’s lost its touch with the enduring character of this country. Britain’s culture has never been socialist in the specific ideological sense, but it has always exhibited a strong attachment to an ethic of fairness and solidarity. In neglecting this, we lost our ability to build a politics beyond the market, to mold a radical hope for the country. We’ve lost our language”

For anyone to whom language (as opposed to words) is the most vital thing we have, the idea of losing a language is incredibly powerful; our language is who we are, it’s our way of sharing meaning with people in our community. A political party without a language is a political party that has nothing to say. The desire of Miliband etc to listen to people at least shows an awareness that there is a gaping hole in the Labour party where its mouth should be. But just as languages aren’t lost over night, nor are they found over night. Nor is there any guarantee that the words we cobble together will make any sense to anyone. Take ‘fairness’, a word much fought over and liberally used these days (both in the sense of lots and in the sense of by the Lib Dems (lots)). I’m not entirely sure what it means anymore. To me it’s become little more than a sound effect. I liked that Jon Cruddas anchored it either side with “ethic” and “solidarity”, two words little used by Labour and so not yet worn out of meaning.

One of the most moving pieces of writing I’ve ever read came somewhat improbably in an essay in The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein (by Naomi Scheman):

“… it would be a mistake to bring our words prematurely home, to claim that the set of practices we now have for them are all right as they are. There are no other homes for our words than the ones we create in and through our practices, nor any predetermined ways of specifying what it is to have gotten those practices right, but that does not mean that there is no sense to the idea that we might not be going on as we should be”

I’m fascinated by this idea that words need to be constantly brought home through our practices. Labour were acting presumptuously when they thought that their favourite words had  found a permanent home with them; the meaning of their words may have left them before the end but it was pretty clear by the end that Labour had nothing left to say. We’ll have to wait until the leadership debates, and perhaps after that, to see whether Labour can build a language worth at least listening to in the future.

The voters should choose the government, not Nick Clegg

In 1955 Isaac Asimov published a short story, Franchise, in which the result of United States presidential election was decided by a single voter, chosen by a computer as the most appropriately representative person – demographically speaking – in the country.

The story was set in 2008, so Asimov’s prediction wasn’t too far out. It became reality in Britain last week. Instead of the computer, however, we have the peculiarities of the British political system to thank for choosing the single, all-powerful elector. Who was the person given absolute power to decide the result of the election? Nick Clegg. 30 million votes were cast, but in the end it was Clegg and his closest advisers who had the power to decide between a Labour government and a Conservative government, and chose the latter.

No-one can deny that, in consistently winning a fifth of the popular vote and less than a tenth of seats in Parliament, the Lib Dems have been unfairly treated by the electoral system over the years. But if the past few days have been Fate’s way of correcting that injustice, surely the correction was never meant to go that far.

Clegg has done his best to justify his choice, in the name of providing “strong and stable government”. We can’t dismiss that entirely – the risk of meltdown in the financial markets as a result of a hung parliament was grossly exaggerated, but the country did need a government sooner rather than later. The trouble is, nobody asked Nick Clegg to play this role. Nobody asked him to take on the mantle of guardian of stable government – and certainly not majoritarian government (which is the only way we seem to be able to understand stability in this country).

Britain could have had a new government the moment Clegg said he wouldn’t go into coalition with Labour. Cameron would have been asked to form a minority government, assuming all of the executive powers Prime Minister have, which only rarely require a vote in parliament to exercise. Where laws and budgets had to be passed in the Commons, Cameron could have done what every American president since George Washington has had to do on every piece of legislation they ever wanted to implement – argue, persuade and negotiate his way to a plurality of votes in the legislature.

Many have said that Clegg – reflecting the broadly centre-left policy programme in his manifesto – should have formed a progressive alliance with Labour. My occasional Left Central colleague Elder Stateswoman has argued exactly that in these pages. That might very be true, but it does involve quite a big leap, to suggest that a combined 52% vote for Labour and the Lib Dems really does represent a progressive majority in Britain. I do hope it’s true – but to use that as the basis for forming a government involves too many assumptions about voter intentions, rather than taking the election results at face value. Labour and the Lib Dems had given no indication whatsoever before the election that they were minded to form a combined centre-left bloc in the event of a hung parliament – it would be a great thing if they had, but we have no idea if that would have changed the way people voted in the first place.

So, I don’t think Clegg was wrong in rejecting Labour. But that doesn’t make him right in embracing the Conservatives. We can only speculate as to whether he had other motivations for choosing to do this, beyond providing Britain with stable, majoritarian government. My guess is that the offer of Cabinet posts and a referendum to introduce a voting system that he expects to directly benefit his own party was a temptation he could not resist. (The rest of the deal between the coalition partners is pretty much a whitewash for Tory policy – on taxation, deficit reduction, defence, immigration, foreign policy, banking, health spending, education.) The fact that the coalition has a majority in the Commons and Cameron was prepared to commit to a fixed five-year term meant that even if Labour tried to match the deal, the Tories looked the safer bet.

And that’s really the point. This election came down to who could convince Clegg to support them. I don’t think Clegg has done too much wrong at all in promoting his own and his party’s interests. But he should never been in that position. This is especially so when you consider that the Lib Dems did no better in this election than the previous one, but it would have been true even if they’d done significantly better.

What’s the answer? Well, I’m sure many people will be prepared to accept the fuzziness of politics in a parliamentary system. After all, it’s not very often we get a confusing and inconclusive election like this one. I can’t accept that. There is much debate to be had on the issue, but for me this election shows clearly that we need to introduce a presidential system. Or rather, we need to redesign our political institutions to reflect the reality of presidential politics, and give voters real power over it. Because that’s what people really voted for in this election – to choose a government. A presidential system means that people vote directly for the executive, rather than voting to populate the legislature and letting MPs decide who the executive should be.

And for all those who argue a presidential system places too much power in the hands of one man – a flawed argument in many ways – I ask you to remember that it was effectively one man who decided the outcome of this election.

Why local economies matter

Around the world, there is a growing movement to pull back from the relentless march of corporate globalisation by re-rooting economic and social activities at the community level. From the burgeoning popularity of farmers’ markets and food co-ops to the revitalisation of community banking, people are organising themselves to reclaim the economy from large profit-driven corporations and instead build sustainable, local alternatives.

While the term ‘localisation’ has never gained popular currency (perhaps because it is so easily misunderstood), it is worth considering a broad definition for this trend towards small-scale, community-oriented businesses. In Localization: A Global Manifesto, Colin Hines defines localisation as “a process which reverses the trend of globalisation by discriminating in favour of the local”. It is important to note, however, that this does not mean “walling off the outside world” through nationalistic protectionism (see Micahel Schuman, Going Local: Creating Self Reliant Communities in a Global Age). Nor does it mean creating communal autarky, with self-sufficient groups cutting themselves off from the monetary economy. International trade, travel and cultural exchange would continue, but locally-controlled, diversified economic activity would reorient production and service provision towards meeting the needs of the community first.

Why Localise?

Individuals and organisations who are already working to strengthen their communities and local economies are doing so for a multitude of reasons. This is not an ideologically driven movement that fundamentally rejects the global in favour of the local, nor is it based on one blueprint solution or economic model. Rather, it is an organic process motivated by a number of interrelated factors.

Economic globalisation has gradually increased the power of multinational corporations and ‘too-big-to-fail’ banks, not only over the means of production and distribution of goods and services, but also over the entire democratic and social process. In light of the recent financial crisis, where governments spent billions of taxpayer dollars on bailing out the banks that were partly responsible for causing the crisis, the  overbearing influence of the corporate and financial services sector has never been clearer.

In response, people around the world are moving to reclaim local control over the economy through alternative business practices and banking. Campaigns such as Move Your Money aim to revitalise community banking so that finance is redirected towards local needs rather than speculative profits and bonuses. Alternative business structures such as cooperatives and community-supported agriculture also encourage local ownership and production, thereby closing the divide between owners and workers or producers and consumers upon which the corporate model thrives.

A growing awareness of the ecological impacts of a globalised, fossil-fuel dependent economy is also inspiring people to ‘go local’. With the twin spectres of climate change and peak oil looming, people are recognising an increasing need for localised production and distribution in order to build a viable alternative to the current environmentally destructive, export-driven model. Projects such as Transition Towns and Ecovillages are largely motivated by a belief that sustainable living requires resilient, diversified local economies. Many of the strategies adopted by these communities are not new; community gardens and local currency schemes, for example, have long been used to ensure local resilience.

For many people, the motivation to rebuild local economies goes beyond practical concerns about the unstable and unsustainable nature of the globalised economy. It is rooted in a deep dissatisfaction with the lifestyle and values promoted by a system obsessed with efficiency, competition and consumerism. Re-rooting economic activities at a local level offers a way to rebuild the community ties that have been eroded by a tendency towards competitive individualism in society. In the words of David Korten, author of Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth, the broader goal of a localised economy is to shift “its favoured dynamic from competition to cooperation, and its primary purpose from growing the individual financial fortunes of the few to building living community wealth to secure the health and well-being of everyone.”

Promoting Small-Scale on a Large-Scale

Currently, the shift towards the local remains a fringe, grassroots process, made up of small-scale initiatives as diverse as the cultures and environments in which they are taking place. As Helena Norberg-Hodge argues in her contribution to The Case against the Global Economy: And For a Turn Toward the Local, for these efforts to translate into a wholesale shift in the mainstream economy, they must be accompanied by policy changes at both the national and international level.

With politicians pandering to the interests of corporations in the never-ending pursuit of economic growth, policy support for local economies remains near to nonexistent. Many government policies, such as ensuring the availability of cheap fuel, liberalising markets, subsidising agribusiness and bailing out the big banks, essentially act as a form of corporate welfare in support of large-scale, profit-driven multinationals at the cost of small-scale community ventures. The same is true at the international level. Agreements under GATS and the World Trade Organisation bar governments from discriminating in favour of the local, all in the name of free trade and the logic of economic competition.

Yet if economies are geared towards meeting local needs first, rather than becoming ever more efficient at producing goods for export-oriented trade on international markets, the logic of competition and ‘comparative advantage’ flies out the window. The only question that remains is how to untangle government priorities that currently favour of big business and globalised finance, and to gain political and popular public support for a more diversified global economy geared toward localisation. In order to build a new paradigm for development, one that empowers communities and works within the ecological limits of the planet, the rules of the game need to fundamentally change.

‘Going local’ offers a way for people to push for transitional economic alternatives from the ground up, but individuals, communities and civil society must come together to form a powerful political movement demanding that the necessary shift toward local empowerment takes place through national and international policy measures. As multiple and interrelated global crises reveal the socially and environmentally destructive nature of the current globalised economy, the time for such a movement has never been more propitious – an opportunity that we all must make the most of.

Anna White is editorial assistant at Share The World’s ResourcesThis post was originally published here under a Creative Commons license

The Trouble with Technocrats: China’s Xinjiang region

Lest we forget, we’re not the only ones doing a bit of political spring cleaning: China’s restive Xinjiang region has a new boss. A couple of days after the initial rioting in July 2009, ex-head honcho Wang Lequan’s face appeared on giant screens around Urumqi, Xinjiang’s largest city, telling people to calm down and return to their houses.  He was ignored by the Han Chinese who armed themselves with improvised clubs and iron bars and patrolled the streets.  When, several months later, rumours spread of syringe attacks on Han Chinese, angry protestors called for Wang’s removal from his post as Secretary of the Communist Party in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

China’s autonomous regions have a sort of dual power structure: the Chairman of the regional government comes from the largest local ethnic group (the Turkic Uyghur in the case of Xinjiang), while the Party Secretary, in fact the more powerful position, comes from the Han Chinese majority. So it was Wang Lequan, rather than the Uyghur Chairman Nur Bakri, with whom the buck stopped when things went wrong. Now he has finally been demoted and replaced by Zhang Chunxian, formerly Party Secretary in Hunan (a long long way from Xinjiang.)

So what did Wang do wrong? That depends who you ask. He was certainly no friend to the Uyghurs, instigating ‘Strike Hard’ campaigns against perceived separatist threats. He also made bizarre comments on the ‘backwardness’ of the Uyghur language (related to Turkish), suggesting that economic development would always elude the Uyghurs if they continued to use their mother tongue. To remedy this he encouraged Mandarin-medium education at the expense of the Uyghur language. A recent, much-satirized propaganda video has brought one Uyghur word (‘Yaxsi’ – ‘good’) to the attention of many Chinese, but this is about as far as the government goes in promoting the Uyghur language.  With the recent large-scale migration of Han Chinese to the resource-rich Xinjiang province, many Uyghurs feel that their culture and language are under threat.

If the Uyghurs resented Wang’s cultural chauvinism, many Han Chinese felt he wasn’t firm enough. The riots in which many Han Chinese died happened on his watch, and there was a strong feeling that the government was not doing enough to protect its people from ‘terrorists’. (It is interesting to note the effect that the War on Terror has had on the way people in China conceptualize ethnic conflict. ‘Terrorism’ is also an extremely useful term for the Chinese government, since it denies any possibility of legitimate grievance). The demonstrations against Wang Lequan after the syringe attacks showed the depth of feeling amongst Han Chinese.

Xinjiang’s new leader, Zhang Chunxian, was of course appointed by Beijing, not elected by the people. He appears to be a classic, post-Reform Era technocrat; just as it’s odds-on that the members of a Tory cabinet all went to top public schools, so is it highly likely that if you played Chat Roulette with the upper echelons of the Chinese government, you would end up face to face with an engineering graduate. At the risk of offending those more capable of building hydroelectric dams than I am, I want to suggest this ‘rule by engineers’ lies behind some of Xinjiang, and China’s, problems.

In the late 1990s a railway was built linking the city of Kashgar with the rest of China. A journey by train from the regional capital Urumqi still takes over 20 hours, but this new line has hastened the Sinification of this most Uyghur of cities: it is Han Chinese, for the most part, who use the train. The huge infrastructure projects that can be seen all over Xinjiang employ mainly migrant workers from China proper. Many Uyghurs resent this ever-increasing Chinese presence in what they see as their homeland. But according to the particularly one-dimensional idea of modernization which is fostered by the Chinese technocracy, roads and railways, runways and dams can only ever be a Good Thing. ‘Uyghur culture’ under this kind of technocracy becomes little more than colourful exotics doing appreciative dances on a newly-built motorway (see the video above).

It is of course difficult to argue that infrastructure projects are necessarily a Bad Thing. My point is rather that when a ruling class is made up almost entirely of technocrats, there is a danger that such projects are seen as an end in themselves and are divorced from their cultural implications. When this is combined with a blatant disregard for local languages and cultural practices, such as those of the Uyghur, there is clearly the potential for unrest.

Zhang Chunxian is apparently fond of using the internet to communicate with the masses. It is fitting, then, that he has been posted to Xinjiang, where the internet was shut down for months following the riots. One suspects that he is going to need more than New Media skills and an engineering degree to ensure the quiescence of the local population as China seeks to maintain its firm grip on this strategically important region.

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