Guidance following the EU referendum result

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I was asked by the group The 48% to write a piece for the UK’s MPs following the EU referendum of 23rd June 2016.

So, I did.

The piece has now been sent to every UK MP, and will be sent to every one of the continent’s MEPs in the next few days (today being 1st July 2016).

So, I thought I would share it with you here:

We understand that, like almost everyone in the UK, you have been able to think of little other than the result of Thursday’s referendum on our country’s membership of the EU, and the likely effects of that vote.

And after deep consideration, it is with some regret that we must ask you to prevent the initiation of Article 50.

We have not arrived at this conclusion lightly. The will of the people is not something which should be ignored – though that is not what we ask you to do here – and as representatives of the people we do understand that you correctly feel a responsibility to carry out that will.

But there are a number of reasons why this course of action – not leaving the EU – is not only what is best for the country, but is also a fully justified decision for you to take.

First of all, the referendum was always held not as a legally-binding decision, but as an advisory plebiscite, to guide and inform the Houses of Parliament of the mood of the people, rather than as a direct and irresistible instruction from the nation to its politicians.

This may seem a small point, but it is not: if – as we all accept – those who refuse to vote in an election understand that the decision taken by others is the decision by which they must abide, then certainly those who vote in a referendum must abide by its rules: to demand the suggestion from an advisory vote must be followed to the letter is an unreasonable demand.

Of course, this alone should not be enough to convince you not to do what the referendum requests, it is simply to remind you that the decision on whether or not to leave the EU has not been made: it is for you, as representatives of the people, to make such a decision. The referendum must feed into that decision, but so must your own expertise and judgement: that, after all, is the responsibility for which you are paid.

Secondarily, the result itself, as Boris Johnson, the Leave campaign’s de facto leader has publicly conceded, is hardly overwhelming.

We should also note here that Nigel Farage, the man whose career has been built on ensuring this vote took place, stated in his (unnecessary) concession speech that the loss in the referendum for Leave would not mean the end of ‘the fight’. The same man specifically stated in May this year that he would ‘fight’ for a second referendum in the wake of an ‘inconclusive’ 52-48 victory for Remain: Thursday’s vote ended 51.9-48.1 in Leave’s favour.

There is agreement even from the Leave campaign that a close result should not be accepted as conclusive, and we feel the result could hardly have been closer.

Equally, statistically-speaking, the result was inconclusive by definition. The margin of error allowed in statistical modelling would mean any experiment or model which produced such a result would have to be re-run many times before anything close to acceptance and credence was given to it, and we should also note that in this purely literal sense, the result indicates at least as much as the ‘will of the people’ that on another day, we could expect that the outcome would have been different.

Of course, the vote was held on the day on which it took place, but we advise that decisions of such national – and international – importance should not be based solely upon such an outcome.

Thirdly, the vote itself. Slightly more than 17m people voted to Leave the EU, while slightly over 16m voted for the UK to Remain. But there are 62 million people in the UK. If you are to accept the result of this referendum as the sole factor in whether we leave or remain as members of the EU, you will be accepting that the correct, sensible and just course of action is to allow the (certainly heartfelt and strong) desire of 17m people to dictate to 45 million others the future of the UK, of the continent and to a certain extent the world.

We should note here also that while some 28 per cent of people simply did not vote (and so must be regarded as being content to leave others to advise the government), there were many others who could not and who arguably should.

For example, there were many thousands of UK nationals living in overseas territories – most in the EU itself – whose votes were cast but unheard because of problems with the postal voting system; others never received their polling cards in time to cast their postal vote. In both cases these are people who by the rules of the referendum were entitled to vote, but who were prevented from doing so. This does not add legitimacy to the idea that the government must accept the outcome of the vote as a conclusive order from the people.

A large number of young people who urgently wished to vote were also unable to. This is not the time or place to cavil over the electoral rules set for this referendum (even though the immediate precedent set by the Scottish independence referendum had been that in cases of unusual importance, 16- and 17-year-olds could be offered a voice) but it does underline the fact that even just outside those legally-entitled to vote sit a large number of UK citizens who overwhelmingly support the UK Remaining in Europe.

You have received guidance from (some) who could vote, but your responsibility goes beyond that: it is to the UK and all of its people. Please do bear in mind that the vote is – as all public plebiscites must be – only a limited cross-section of views on the issue across the country: your job is to ensure that this cross-section is part, not all, of what you base your decision on.

Fourthly, the vote itself reveals not only widespread division – and effectively that the UK’s population as a whole has not made up its mind – but serious constitutional crises ahead.

Not only is Scotland almost certain to leave the Union if Article 50 is initiated, there are signs that Northern Ireland may seriously consider its own position.

But the matter goes further: all four of the UK states’ capital cities voted overwhelmingly in favour of remaining members of the EU, as did most other major centres of population: Birmingham; Bristol; Liverpool; Manchester; Glasgow to name but a few.

The reason that we note this is not to ‘threaten’ crisis: it is that crisis is already here. We care deeply about the UK as well as its position as a part of the EU, and we do not wish to see it fall to pieces as a result of an advisory referendum. We implore you to factor the UK’s future existence into your decision.

It is also impossible to communicate this message to you without touching upon some other, inter-connected, factors.

You will be as uncomfortably aware as we are that the Leave campaign made a series of promises – most notably that £350m per week would be spent on the NHS; that we could ‘control our borders’; and that we would ‘reduce immigration’ if we were to leave the EU. In the immediate aftermath of the result’s announcement, the Leave campaign’s leading figures have announced that none of those three promises will be kept.

Though we do understand that in elections people say things which they are later unable to live up to, we must seriously question whether a vote cast based on the three central and most-often repeated promises can still be considered valid if those who attracted that vote and made those promises then withdraw each promise immediately after winning those votes?

The word ‘democracy’ is easy to use, and has (understandably) been used often by the Leave campaign since Friday morning. But we must request that you consider whether winning votes by making promises and withdrawing those promises immediately after the result is announced can truly be part of any model of true democracy?

Connected to this is the worrying fact that many of those who voted to Leave have since stated that they were mistaken to do so, and expressed a wish that they could vote again, this time differently.

We do not, here, write to you about our own reasons for wishing to Remain. Those are important, and include the UK’s place in the world, its attitude to and experience of people from different nations and cultures from our own, our financial welfare (and that of our children and grandchildren), the opportunities granted to us by our membership of the EU, the fact that the mere threat of Leaving has caused a collapse in the value of our currency, the fact that we believe the UK is a state which should care about and be engaged in wider international issues – that it and its people are better as a result of engagement and the benefits it brings.

But while they are important, we are not campaigning to win a referendum here. We are simply reminding you that whatever your – and our – view on the UK’s membership of the EU may be, this referendum, for a number of reasons, should not be the only thing you consider when making a decision about what to do next.

Your decision is of course your own. But we would also remind you that you were elected to make this choice; that you have greater access to the realities of our situation than any member of the general public; and that a range of options remain open to you, including a re-run of the referendum, a General Election or an outright vote to Remain or to Leave. That decision is yours. It is literally what we elected you to do, and what you are paid to do.

The referendum was an advisory exercise. It is almost literally (and actually statistically) inconclusive. The major piece of information that we can gain from it is that the public – as a whole – simply does not know whether it wishes to leave the EU or remain within it, albeit that some in either camp hold strong, regularly-voiced opinions on the matter.

It was also flawed – more so than referenda need to be – and it is a decision with immediate and long-term implications for the UK’s future situation, the UK’s entire future existence, and the welfare and lives of millions across Europe, and billions across the world.

We ask that you bear all of this in mind when making your decision. The referendum is advice from the people. It should not be ignored. But neither should it be allowed to erase all other considerations. This is an enormous decision, and a real turning point in the history of our nation.

Please ensure that when making it, you do not ignore any pertinent and relevant fact, including all those set out above.

We truly hope and believe that you, as our representatives, will choose not to initiate Article 50. We believe we have outlined the reasons why you are not forced to do so.

Many thanks for reading.’

Murder, racism and Nigel Farage: where we are today, and how we got here

Farage poster

On Thursday, a serving UK politician was assassinated for peacefully expressing a desire that the UK should treat Syrian men, women and children in a more human and humane fashion.

I know some people will already be opening their mouths to say ‘…but…’ but the facts are as follows: Thomas Mair was seen by witnesses to shoot and stab Jo Cox, an MP whose major contribution to UK national politics was to campaign for the rights of Syrian refugees to enter the UK.

He was heard by several witnesses to shout either ‘Britain First’ or ‘Put Britain first’ and had taken active part in Britain First rallies. In court this morning (Saturday 18 June) he gave his name as ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain’.

The door has closed on any hope that he was not politically-motivated or inspired. Mair is a far-right assassin and/or terrorist. And he murdered a serving, peaceful, democratically-elected representative of the people – a woman who was also a wife, and a mother of two – because she had dared to suggest that the fifth-richest nation on Earth should welcome desperate men, women and children into its safety and security.

Now. I am pro-EU and hope we stay in, and I’m aware that what I am about to say will be criticised as ‘political point-scoring’. But I am not here to make a ‘political’ point – or even a pro-EU point. And I am not aiming to ‘score points’.

I am genuinely horrified by the fact that we live in a state where a real person, an elected politician, has been murdered for campaigning on an issue she felt strongly was important, and was a position which sought not to divide, or to vilify anyone – certainly no-one in the UK – but to encourage greater openness and acceptance between people.

I am deeply miserable – and a little worried – that the United Kingdom is now a country where ‘political debate’ so openly seeks to divide people into the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ and that one result of this has been the murder of an innocent woman.

And so I think it’s time we start naming those who are responsible, and talking about what we can do about it.

And that means naming – amongst others – Nigel Farage, and the politics of horror he stands for.

Before we get into Nigel, however, it’s worth starting with Mair himself. Because I have met Nigel Farage a few times, and prior to our appearance on This Week in April, we had a short conversation.

I can definitively state that Nigel Farage does not want people to shoot one another. And – though it may seem unpleasant for me to say so – he particularly does not want white women to be shot dead.

So we must begin with Mair: no-one else has (yet) killed anyone for suggesting that it might be nice to help people not be slaughtered in Syria. He does have responsibility for his own actions, and we must not ignore that.

But that is not the whole story.

Because regardless of whether he shouted ‘Britain First’ or ‘put Britain first’ as he murdered Jo Cox, (a distinction with which Britain First has busied itself on Facebook for the last three days) Mair was a sympathiser with Britain First, and certainly took part in demonstrations with the group in Doncaster (it remains to be seen whether he was a ‘member’ and which other – if any – rallies he had taken part in).

Britain First organises rallies to make Muslim people feel uncomfortable, rides around in armoured vehicles to ‘protect’ people who never needed or asked for such protection, ‘intervenes’ (for which, read ‘acts violently and to intimidate civilians’) at mosques and never uses the word ‘Islam’ without the word ‘radical’.

Its name is extraordinarily poorly-chosen because Britain – my nation – is a place where Muslims live alongside Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Jewish people, atheists, agnostics and pagans: where religious difference is far less important than the fact that we all live here and have a part to play in what makes Britain good (as well as what makes it bad).

Though I might not say we should put Britain ‘first’ (it really needn’t be a competition) I am at least confident that what I believe in is Britain – something with which Britain First appears to have a serious problem.

Britain First’s recruitment and support approach is based on two major threads – scaring people about Muslims, and seemingly pro-animal rights messages (which often turn out to be anti-Islam images) posted online. As a result, its ‘likes’ total on Facebook is not necessarily a mark of the popularity of its outlook.

And in fact, it is a fringe band of maniacs, who have taken it upon themselves to force their hopes for a UK uniform in colour and outlook, where dissent of any kind is to be met with threats and violence, upon the rest of us.

But they have increased steadily in popularity. And the reason for that is not Britain First and its members per se – they simply don’t have either the reach or the talent to be anything other than a rag-tag fringe outfit – but a wider, far better-publicised ‘political’ argument. And that’s where Nigel Farage steps in.

Because Nigel Farage is a political phenomenon. He is a former public schoolboy, former stockbroker, former Tory Party member and since 1999 an MEP who claims to be ‘anti-establishment’ and who criticises politicians for being on a ‘gravy-train’ but claims expenses on top of his own wages despite having one of the EU parliament’s worst attendance and voting records.

He has used his media access and the vast (really astonishingly large, considering it had never had an MP before 2014 and is only the fifth-largest political party in the UK) media budget of his UKIP party to drag political debate in the UK to the Right.

By this, I do not mean that he has campaigned to leave the EU, but the way in which he has done so.

Because Farage has two major messages – and both directly fed into Thursday’s political assassination of Jo Cox by the right-wing murderer Thomas Mair: that immigration; and therefore people who enter the UK, are bad for the UK; and that ‘politicians’ are self-interested, self-serving succubi, uninterested in and disconnected from the lives of ‘ordinary people’.

On migration, it’s extremely difficult to know whether Farage genuinely believes what he says, or whether he has simply decided that the best possible way to persuade people they would be better off leaving the EU is by scaring them with the prospect of a mass ‘invasion’ of the UK by people from EU member states.

If it is the former – and it may well be – he has been a particularly dedicated messenger for the most successful form of racism: arguing that foreign people threaten your welfare and in some cases your life. If it is the latter, he has done an exceptional job of being convincing.

In the last few years, UKIP and Farage have been responsible (2013) for claims that more people than actually lived in Bulgaria and Romania would come to the UK as soon as the states became members: UKIP said 29 million people would come, the combined population of the two states was 27.2 million.

During the 2014 EU Election campaign, UKIP ran a poster claiming that 26 million people in the EU were after YOUR job (with a finger handily pointing towards the readers of the posters, presumably to ensure they didn’t think the poster might be addressed to some other ‘YOU’).

In the run-up to the 2015 General Election – an election in which the active scare tactics and racism of Farage and UKIP were shown to have impacted on the wider political system: Labour showed their weakness in its face by issuing a mug promising the party would be ‘tough on immigration’, while the Conservative Party continued to show its sympathy with UKIP’s racism and xenophobia, but in more traditional, non-mug-based ways (specifically, promising an undeliverable migration ‘target’ which would in fact damage the UK if it were ever achieved) – UKIP ran posters blaming not austerity, the global economic crash or the desire of private businesses to cut expenses, but foreign people, for low wages and unemployment in the UK.

Now. At this point, I think it’s worth taking a moment to explain something. Because there may be some readers of this piece who are thinking ‘Farage isn’t a racist.’ Or ‘It’s not racism to want to protect British jobs.’

So. I know that not every UKIP supporter is a racist. I am even more certain that not every person on the Right is a racist. But it is racism to divide people by race and to claim that because of race some people in one part of the world are entitled to more and/or to better lives than others. It’s the definition of racism.

I also know that some voters for UKIP would never dream of displaying or practicising racist behaviour to anyone they met – most people are not naturally racist, and most people are actively open to meeting new people: at the very least to being polite to one another.

But that very point is an illustration of exactly what has happened here in the UK: people who are not racist by nature are voting for an openly racist political organisation and are being told by that organisation, by sections of the UK media and by one another that they are not racist and that the organisation is not racist.

I am sorry to say this, but UKIP is openly and deliberately racist. Its most successful political campaigns have been based on racist ideas and messages, and in the end, racism is about the dividing of people based on their race and geographical considerations, arguing one group is more entitled than another to a lifestyle and its trappings.

And that is the UK in which we now live: a UK in which open racism is now a successful campaign strategy and is ‘covered’ by people lining up to excuse racism, and deny that it is what it is. Most people are not racist, but more and more are being persuaded by these excuses and this covering to engage in racism, and/or to vote for racist policies.

And in recent months, it has got worse. In May this year, Nigel Farage said in a BBC interview: ‘I think it’s legitimate to say that if people feel we have lost control completely – and we have lost control of our borders completely as members of the European Union – and feel that voting doesn’t change anything, then violence is the next step.’

Those words – an open and deliberate justification of the use of violence if ‘the people’ don’t get what they want through democratic means – are lifted straight from the playbooks of 20th century fascist groups: ‘forget about the fact that in a democracy the majority of those who vote make the decisions, and that the rules are the same for everyone; if some angry people do not manage to win a vote, they will use violence. We think that’s understandable and don’t say we didn’t warn you.’

And this absolute, terrifying disregard for peaceful political process, and justification of violence to force one small group’s political will on the rest of the nation is part of a wider trend for Farage.

Because despite his public school education and career as a stockbroker and then politician, Farage has been consistent in criticising a ‘political elite’ – people at Westminster and in Brussels who he claims (despite never having been a member of the UK parliament and having an abysmal attendance rate at the EU) to ‘know’ and ‘understand’ are ‘disconnected from’ and ‘uninterested in’ representing ‘the common man’; that politicians are deliberately incapable of representing people in the UK, and that despite the fact that UKIP has never received more than one vote in every eight cast at a General Election, he and his party are the representatives of the ‘silent majority’ of UK citizens.

Farage is not the only man responsible for this divide and rule – racially and between UK citizens (eleven-twelfths of whom have never voted UKIP), and the people they do elect to represent them. But he is its major proponent, who is regularly on TV and in newspapers delivering the message: its popularity is his responsibility.

And its result has been astonishingly caustic to the UK. Not only has it damaged democracy in general, it has also built a wall around Farage’s allies (including Britain First) through which inconvenient fact, logic and reasoning cannot pass. Because Farage and others’ argument is not even that those who disagree with him are wrong but that whether they are right or wrong is literally irrelevant: their view can and should be ignored because they ‘do not represent them’.

It is the closing down of any debate: if you agree, you are one of ‘us’. If you are not, you are something else, who does not ‘understand’ – you are different and to be ingored at best, railed against at worst.

And in June, Farage stepped up the process. On 5 June, in a statement condemned by Brexit and Remain supporters alike, the UKIP leader and MEP claimed that sex attacks on UK citizens would increase if the UK remained as an EU member.

It was a shocking statement – a clear argument that ‘foreigners’ are rapists; that if an English person commits a sex attack (and they do) that is unusual, a statistical freak event, but that it’s somehow standard behaviour for foreign people.

And of course, the condemnation of the statement by those of us – Brexiteers and Remainers alike – who still have respect for human beings around the world, went largely unheeded by Farage’s supporters, including those of Britain First, because of the argument that the opinions of critics of Farage’s fact-free racist scaremongering are not ‘wrong’ and to be disproved, but irrelevant, and to be ignored.

And on 16 June – the morning of Jo Cox’s shooting and stabbing to death by the right-wing assassin Thomas Mair – Farage posed for photos in front of his latest campaign poster: an image of men, women and children fleeing death in their homelands emblazoned with the message  ‘BREAKING POINT: The EU has failed us all’.

Many news sources have already pointed out the clear similarity to Nazi propaganda used in the run-up to World War II, and I can only add that this man – and this poster – does not represent me, does not represent my Britain and he will never be anything more than a despicable, divisive and deeply unpleasant human being attempting to create a nation of either extreme division or extraordinary and dull uniformity, neither of which I would want to be part of.

But the point is also that the poster’s message was yet another warning of emergency: ‘foreigners’ are after YOUR job; ‘foreigners’ cause unemployment; the UK is at BREAKING POINT and no-one other than you and the others we agree with are able or willing to see it.

It was a clear call for action, a demand for those lucky few who understand the ‘crisis’ to do something.

It was not a call for a man to shoot and stab to death a politician. But it is ridiculous to pretend that it – and the wider arguments of racism, division and emergency continually shouted by Farage; the pretence that if only people understood or cared they too would be panicking and preventing foreigners from entering the UK under fear of collapse and/or rape – did not play a part in Mair’s act.

The United Kingdom is now a state in which innocent and peaceful democratically-elected politicians can be murdered not for breaking laws, not for preaching hatred, but for arguing for desperate men, women and children to be better assisted by the world’s fifth-richest state.

Nigel Farage is not the only person to blame for that – and as noted already, Farage certainly does not want white women to be killed on England’s streets.

But Farage is the major carrier of the messages that foreigners are dangerous to the UK, that the UK is under attack and needs to be defended, that politicians are selfish and do not represent the UK’s best interests unless they agree with him, and that therefore anyone who attempts to use logic or reason to address his concerns can and should be ignored.

Thomas Mair heard that message, and he responded.

The UK – in part thanks to Farage – has fallen a very, very long way. It will take us a long time to climb back up. But for those of us who do believe in Britain, we must start now, not by dismissing those who fear the EU and foreign people, but by engaging and embracing them.

Opposing Farage is our only option, and it is the right thing to do. But demonising those his vile message has seduced is not. We can, and must, reopen communication with those people. The alternative is a further fall, violence, mayhem, more damage to our democracy and a nation in which no-one can feel comfortable again.

Money, or: The Fallacy of UK Economics

Central to debate in the run-up to the 2015 General Election was the ‘economy’.

There’s a certain irony to this (though also a grim predictability: the Conservative Party has played this tune at every election since 1979, when it formed an administration which tripled unemployment, squandered the North Sea oil windfall on the increased benefits payments which resulted, and began to inflate an unsustainable housing bubble) as in fact there is little difference in economic outlook between Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dem and UKIP.

Though they certainly differ in the details, all four now fully adhere to a capital- and market-centric system, in which policy is driven (and also dictated) by money.

In this way, we hear arguments from Conservatives that we ‘cannot afford’ services (not only is this untrue in the most simple sense, inasmuch as the UK is the world’s sixth largest state – if we cannot afford something then who can? – it is also untrue in the conceptual sense: for a developed state, the words ‘cannot afford’ are literally nonsense, provided one is committed enough to the provision of what is best for its people to change its own rules).

We hear from Labour that we must ‘work with’ private enterprise to ‘fund’ hospitals, schools, and infrastructure projects (even though in effect this meant the state running up debts which must be ‘repaid’ to those private firms many time over – a little like claiming the £5 you borrowed off Bermondsey Dave at 1,000% weekly interest was a ‘partnership’ to help you ‘meet your immediate housing need’).

The Lib Dems are led to well-meaning but in the end self-defeating money-led initiatives which look progressive only until one spends a moment actually thinking about them (lifting the poorest from tax is a warm-hearted idea, but if one reduces the tax-take in our current system, those who are poorest suffer most, as they are the people who rely most upon tax-funded services).

And UKIP present us with ‘Tory Max’ – the arguments Conservatives might like to make, but have so far shied away from: ‘we can’t afford it’ combined with ‘…and it’s the fault of immigrants and the EU which allows them in’ (even if UKIP’s immigration figures were correct – and it is distressing that a party whose entire raison d’etre is immigration is so often so far from accurate on that – they would still not plug the central, howling gap in all of their arguments: if immigrants are stealing jobs, and tax pays for social services, how can immigration possibly be the reason we ‘can’t afford’ anything?).

In the face of such uniformity of approach (the Green Party comes closest to an alternative – underlying most of its policies is the necessity for a new economic approach – but so far has struggled to articulate it in the face of the blank cliff that passes for economics in the modern UK) it’s easy to forget the central question: why?

It’s a useful question in part because of the direct answers it suggests (perhaps the Conservatives govern for their friends, Labour in fear of the market, the Lib Dems under a mist of misunderstanding of the model and its parameters, and UKIP is literally nothing without the 10 per cent of people who look back rather than forward, always forgetting that like the Doppler effect, the echoes of history may not reflect any truth so much as distance and direction of travel).

But it’s also useful because asking it – perhaps only asking it – opens a new line of inquiry. If we can ask ‘why are things done this way?’, we must then accept that there is another.

From there, we can ask a series of questions ‘how did we come to this model?’ ‘what would happen if we altered this, ditched that, tweaked a third thing?’ can we, in short, innovate our way to a better system?

Because it’s hard to argue that what we have is the best we can do as a species. In the world’s sixth-richest state, the current argument is that we ‘cannot afford’ to improve services – indeed that we must make them worse – even as one million people here rely on charity food hand-outs to survive.

The UK’s five richest families own more money than its 12.8m poorest people, and the former more than tripled their wealth in the years 2010-2015, even as the latter suffered the longest consecutive fall in living standards in recorded UK history.

Some of this is deliberate. The political Right is driven by an economic belief that inequality is good for society, driving production and therefore national wealth (though the current government appears to have forgotten that that wealth is supposed to be used for the good of the nation’s people). But the Tory Party did not invent Capitalism, and far less is it responsible for the existence of money.

In the end, while it may give us a sense of dizziness and shortness of breath to think so, we should conclude that we are not where we are because of some kind of grand plan (whether benevolent, as the Tories claim, or malevolent, as conspiracy theorists everywhere are simultaneously angered and reassured to believe) but by a sequence of unthinking, unconscious accidents.

The discovery of this raw material, at this moment, by a state following this model, led to this outcome. Another material, in another time and place, could just as easily have led us somewhere else.

It’s useful to recognise this because the idea that we are where we are because we ‘must be’ or as a result of some grand plan, prevents thought. It prevents imagination, and it prevents innovation. And those three things are the human race’s greatest characteristics – they must not be shut down in relation to the most important matters facing us as a species.

When it was first used, money was a token. It represented goods, and could be exchanged for goods and services. It was not wealth in itself, nor was it the point of goods and services. It was simply a means to make their exchange simpler and easier.

Yet today, as noted above, money has become something else. It is at the centre of – and is a major determining factor within – all of national and international policy. A tool has become the central purpose of society.

It’s as if we had allowed hammers to become the fundamental purpose and point of all craft and construction – as if we were refusing to build because that cannot be done with hammers, and because all our activity should be about the collection of hammers, and in some cases the free movement of hammers across borders and social boundaries.

It’s absurd. Because it’s the process of exalting a tool to a position way beyond the sensible limits of its abilities and usefulness.

It’s probably not fair to level blame for this. The average politician is generally no more or less intelligent than the average voter (though of course some have been, and have changed the game in sometimes quite striking ways – and they are employed to be more focussed on exactly these issues than anyone else is) and if we have been caught up within this error, perhaps they have been as well.

Even in those cases where some blame could be attributed, it will do us little good now to attempt to hold the dead responsible for the struggles of the living.

And it’s easy to see how in a system in which money has become the central societal element; where everything literally relies on it, is driven by it, and is shaped to suit it, rather than the other way around, politicians and the rest of us are dictated to by it to the extent that even the innovators are trapped within the system and so create debt or come up with ideas which are undermined by the system itself.

But there is an alternative. And we have a responsibility to work on it. To spend our time, rather than blaming the dead, working to improve the lot of the living.

And the first step is to question what money is for.

The fact that this seems like an odd question is central to our problems as a species at this point in our history. The fact is, when someone tells us they want to be rich, instead of simply nodding, or – at best – saying something along the lines of ‘money isn’t everything’, we ought to be asking ‘why?’

Not because there’s no reason, but because the reason, not the money, should be the driving factor. That is, what we do with money is surely more important and enjoyable than simply sitting, staring at figures on a screen, or notes in a pile, and smiling to ourselves – at least, if we are not fetishists (and some of us are).

And this works at a national and international level. What is the point of money? Surely, the only point, if there is any at all, is to provide a decent standard of living for people, to provide housing, food, water, heat and light, to prevent people living on the edge of starvation and death. It’s not to say ‘look at all the money we have’ or to leave it glistening in a pile in the living rooms of the extremely rich.

Because that can’t be the point of humanity. The collection of bits of metal and paper we created and we have assigned value to, cannot be what we aspire to as a species, and cannot be how we judge our success or failure.

And in the end, that is what is missing from the argument about economics – not who is best at saving money, but what is money for, and how can we assure it is used to that purpose?

Who cares?

I very nearly didn’t write this post at all, because I am reading a book on the Spanish Civil War (entitled, imaginatively The Spanish Civil War) by Paul Preston.

It’s so shocking, in its deadpan description of the atrocities of the ‘rehearsal for WWII’ (not a direct quote) that I genuinely began to think ‘compared to this, what’s the point in talking about anything else?’

On the other hand, nothing in the entire course of human history stands alone, and today is a product of every day which preceded it. It’s also worth remembering that things being worse in some other place, or at some other time, is no reason to ignore what’s where you are.

After all, if my leg was on fire, I probably wouldn’t say to myself ‘that guy over there’s head’s ablaze, so rather than complaining I’ll just sit tight and count my blessings…’

So, after that insightful metaphor, I feel I have definitely justified what’s to follow. Any disagreements to the usual address, and I promise I’ll print them out and pin them to my bedroom wall, as usual.

(As a sideline, one thing I learned about the Spanish Civil War was that a popular fascist slogan read ‘Franco – Austerity’. So it’s comforting to know that the Conservatives and Lib Dems are both fully aware of and paying the appropriate respects to the world’s glorious political history…)

Mandate

So a couple of weeks ago, I got into a conversation about the Eurozone (bear with me). I complained that our glorious leader, man of the people ‘Dave’, had told the Greeks to form a government ‘as quickly as possible’.

I can only imagine that before this piece of political gold, the politicians of Greece were chillaxing in togas, eating moussaka and dashing plates to the ground, without a care for the future.

Alternatively, our PM was deliberately commenting on a crisis situation which could affect the entire global economy solely in order to justify his own decision to form a coalition government.

I fear that with just three years until the next General Election, Mr Cameron’s belief that any occasion, no matter how serious, should be used by him to justify his own actions is set to grow, however glaringly stupid the statement he makes to do so.

I am particularly looking forward to hearing him draw a comparison between a cease-fire in Somalia and his own choice to end the ‘years of bitter struggle between my party and that of the deputy Prime Minister, call me Nick’.

Anyway, I got away with this. So I also criticised his statement that the EU must ‘act fast’ to sort out its debt crisis.

In many ways, it’s hard to imagine why no-one had thought of this sooner. I guess it must be because everyone knows about the Germans’ notorious laid-back ‘why do today what can be left to next week?’ approach, and refused, through sheer cowardice, to take the bull by the horns and make the Germans just jolly well sit up and do something for once…

I added that the only thing which let down the new Churchill, undisputed leader of global insight, was that he had refused a package proposed to do exactly that, several weeks earlier.

This, apparently, was a step too far. My Lib Dem-supporting friend asked ‘what mandate did he have to support that deal?’

I magnanimously set aside the argument that it would have been impossible for the Conservatives to have gained a mandate from the people on the Eurozone crisis because they had spent the entire election campaign (not to mention the 25 sundrenched, pleasure-filled months since) telling everyone the UK’s financial position was far worse than everyone else’s (we will DEFINITELY be looking at this another time) and it was all ‘Gordon’s fault’.

Instead, I responded that I wasn’t sure Cameron had received a mandate to do anything at all.

After the police had left, the broken glass had been cleared away and the blood hidden with mats and cushions, I decided I should make sure I hadn’t just invented a definition of ‘mandate’ with which no-one in their right mind could possibly agree.

thefreedictionary.com, who I can only assume will be paying me handsomely for this plug, describes a mandate as: A command or an authorization given by a political electorate to its representative.’, a definition which I’m sure is as exciting to you as it is to me.

The Oxford English Dictionary, meanwhile, probably winking as it touches the rim of its Homburg, prefers the rakish: ‘Political authority given by electors to party in parliament.’

Now. The Conservatives received slightly more than one third of the votes cast in the last election. Which equates to very little more than one fifth of the total number of votes which could have been cast if everyone old enough to vote had done so (the Conservatives are by no means alone in being at fault for the damning indictment of the UK political system that led to two fifths of the electorate not bothering to vote during a global crisis, but they certainly share some of the blame).

It’s true that no political party has won a majority of the popular vote since Baldwin’s coalition of 1935 (the coalition had been formed in 1931, as a result of the Wall Street Crash and Great Depression), but the Conservatives failed to secure a high enough vote share to form a majority government (this has happened once before, in 1974, though Callaghan’s Labour government later that decade relied on a ‘Lib/Lab’ pact. When it fell apart, Labour was removed by losing a vote of no confidence by one vote).

Added to that, the Conservatives stood at the last election as the only major Right-wing party, with the Lib Dems and Labour regarded as Left-of-Centre. The latter parties took a total of 15.4m votes, against the 10.7m the Conservatives won. Despite the coalition, the fact is that after the population of the UK voted overwhelmingly in favour of Left-of-Centre policies, the nation has Right-wing politicians as PM, Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary and in 14 of the remaining 19 cabinet positions.

For the record, the cabinet contains 23 members. Eighteen are Conservatives, with five Lib Dem MPs making up the numbers. The Conservatives won 10.7m votes at the last election, the Lib Dems 6.8m.

Cameron undeniably has permission to govern, given to him by the Queen, but given the above, the idea that the Conservatives have a mandate from the people is stretching things beyond any kind of credibility.

On the other hand, he DOES lead the government. And it’s perfectly reasonable to say he can’t just sit on his hands for five years, waiting for another election.

So what should he do? Well, perhaps he could respond to emergencies, and assist the country to recover from the global recession. Or maybe he could stick, scrupulously, to his pre-election promises, and those made in the coalition agreement. That way, no-one could whinge that he has no mandate, because he would at least be able to point to the fact that his is the largest party in the House of Commons, and he’s doing what his voters requested, with the support of his partners in crime. Sorry, government. His partners in the government.

But Dave is a man of action. A man who likes to keep the nation guessing. A man who thinks what the UK needs in its hour of need is a towering colossus, who will dedicate himself to dismantling the state so his new, ‘improved’ version can start on the worst possible foot –with no cash, the unadulterated loathing of most of the people within it and the blank incomprehension of the rest of the world.

Logically, he chose to start with the NHS.

Health of nations

The NHS has a rather unusual place in the UK’s political system. Introduced in the last period of ‘austerity’ (the one caused by a world war in which more than 50m people died, as opposed to the one we’re in now, caused by the inability of a few expensively-dressed men to behave themselves with other people’s cash, combined with a government which perhaps feels put out it didn’t experience it the first time around. Austerity, by the way, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, breathing softly as it runs its finger, lightly, against your cheek, as ‘harsh, severely simple.’ Far be it from me to extend the description to its greatest fans) it has run for 64 years, providing life-saving treatment costing nothing at the point of delivery.

It’s the envy of the rest of the world – a genuinely trailblazing idea (at least in the capitalist world) – and one which has operated with spectacular success throughout its history.

As recently as 2010, an American report (it’s here: http://www.commonwealthfund.org/~/media/Files/Publications/Fund%20Report/2010/Jun/1400_Davis_Mirror_Mirror_on_the_wall_2010.pdf go, look at it!) analysed the health-care systems of seven nations; the USA, the UK, Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and New Zealand.

The NHS was rated first in terms of ‘efficiency’ and second overall. The USA was last. (the Netherlands finished first. No, me neither.). Not only that, the NHS did this on the second lowest ‘spend per capita’, at $2,992. New Zealand spent less, at $2,454. But I’m pretty sure that’s where hobbits live, and they’re smaller than us, so…

Fortunately, though, we have Andrew Lansley as Health Secretary. He is a man who is certainly not just a chap in a suit who holds a position not because of his knowledge of health, but because he happens to be in government. In fact, he is a man who knows more than those who are paid to rate health services. He is more knowledgeable than health workers and specialists around the world. And he has made it his business to let YOU know that the NHS IS inefficient, no matter what so-called ‘experts’ with decades of ‘experience’, ‘learning’  and ‘knowledge’ say.

We are really very lucky to have someone as intelligent and dedicated as him. And we are even more lucky to have Dave and Nick, both of whom have backed him up with their OWN assertion that the NHS is ‘inefficient’.

If you can be bothered, type ‘Lansley, NHS, inefficient’ into Google. I must admit I was going to count the number of different speeches which came up, but I lost count twice. In any case, Lansley, Dave and Nick have been making speeches claiming – or mentioning in other speeches – that the NHS is ‘inefficient’ since early 2009. (in fairness, this is pretty good going on Mr Lansley’s behalf, as the rest of his party didn’t really start making any policy announcements until November that year. And Nick was pretty quiet about the NHS’ inefficiency until about, ooooh, June 2010. I’m really not sure why).

And up and down the country, people agree. Even those who say they support the NHS will come out with the phrase ‘…but it IS very inefficient…’ at some point.

Why?

Well, in part, it’s because of the efforts of Right-leaning newspapers – particularly the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Express.

Weirdly, their own criticisms of the NHS seem to have begun in the 1980s, just after Margaret Thatcher’s introduction of monetarism – a doctrine which claims that the ‘interference of the state in the lives of the people’ is the worst of all possible activities.

Now, to be fair, I CAN see areas in which state interference could be a bad thing. In a bar, for example, chatting to my mates about the football, I’d rather not have Vince Cable popping up to make sure I don’t say something silly about the Brazil side of 1970 as opposed to today’s Spain.

But as lovely as liberty is, I’m not sure I want it to extend to the freedom to die because I can’t afford to have a gaping wound taped up, or pay for a polio jab.

And of course, newspapers LIKE the odd story here and there about a hospital mix-up. It’s their job to hold politicians and service providers to account.

But in every case, there’s a reason why that’s news. Because it’s unusual.

To put it another way, the NHS employs more than 1.7m people. That includes cleaners (numbers cut because of successive – three – governments’ cuts in its budgets), cooks and other support staff, but it also includes thousands of GPs, surgeons, specialists, nurses and therapists.

It treats more than one million people every 36 hours. And in fact, roughly 98 per cent of people born in the UK have experienced at least one successful NHS treatment process and operation. Including you. (I’m assuming you HAVE been born. If not, well… I might stick around where you are for a bit. You know, see how things turn out…)

Compared to that, the maybe ten stories per year that actually turn out to be true AND down to NHS malpractice seem rather a small amount.

But anyway. I know nothing. Lansley’s your man.

Because it appears the NHS IS inefficient, despite all the so-called ‘evidence’ and ‘facts’ which prove the exact opposite.

And he’s driven a solution through Parliament.

There’s a lot that’s been thrown at the Health and Social Care Act, which was passed by the House of Commons by 328 votes to 246 on March 20 2012, and received royal assent from Dave’s fifth cousin, Queen Elizabeth II, seven days later.

One of the major accusations is that it will ‘privatise’ the NHS. I’d like to make it clear that that’s not my view. But it IS very close to the view of Kingsley Manning, director of Tribal Newchurch, a private healthcare ‘provider’, who said he ‘welcomed (the Act’s) denationalisation’ of the NHS.

In fairness to Kingsley, and the opponents of the Act, who include the Labour Party, some Lib Dems (not one of whom voted against it) and all the assorted halfwits you’d expect, like GPs, nurses, surgeons, midwives, you know, people who actually know what the NHS is and how it works, AND the 52 per cent of the public who opposed the Act in an ICM poll in February this year (just 33 per cent said it should become law, which I suppose explains why Dave felt he had national approval), it’s quite easy to see how someone could make that mistake.

See, what the Act actually says is that all hospitals can now raise 49 per cent of their income through private health care, through ‘renting out’ bed and hospital space to private healthcare companies, or, perhaps, by charging for treatments themselves. The cap at present is just below two per cent.

So it’s obviously not privatisation. Just a 25-fold increase in the amount of private health care provided in hospitals up and down the country.

So why would this be a good idea? Well, it’s pretty clear that hospitals can benefit financially from charging more people for healthcare (though this is NOT what the NHS exists to do). And the government fears, with some justification, that the overall cost of healthcare provision will increase massively in the next two decades, as the number of older people, who generally need more regular, and more intensive, health and fitness care, increases.

At its simplest, given that the NHS budget in 2010-11 was £106bn, this could effectively see the service benefit from an extra income of £51.94bn.

But there is, perhaps, a potential problem. See, when Labour introduced the idea that some hospitals could make money by charging for some treatments (with that two per cent cap), it was also involved in a massive building project, in which 157 new hospitals were built, or construction was begun, between 1997 and 2010 (this was, of course, performed under PFI contracts, a disastrously expensive idea. Ironically, one introduced by the previous Conservative government, and OPPOSED by Labour when they were in opposition. But they WERE at least built. The number built in the 18 years of Thatcher and Major was roughly 35). So if there was an impulse for hospitals to fill more beds with private patients (and there was) at least there WERE more beds to be filled.

Under this plan, up to 49 per cent of beds will be filled with private patients. And no new hospitals are planned. So where do the NHS patients get treated?

The debate about whether this is ‘privatisation’, sadly, is one it’s too easy for the government to bat back. It CAN deny it, with some justification, although whatever way you look at it, telling the NHS it can make almost half of its money from charging the population for treatment IS a massive step towards the FULL privatisation of the service. And it is no accident that 49 per cent was the figure chosen. After all, if the financing of ‘demographic change’ is the reason, why not say 60 or 75 per cent of NHS cash-raising can come from private care? One per cent less than half is a thin screen behind which the government can hide.

A far better argument is about WHY levels of privately-charged treatment are a bad thing, and it comes down to a very simple fact: if the NHS is as inefficient as the government wrongly claims, then where will people who can’t pay be treated? Why remove bed space, if your interest is ensuring the public can continue to benefit from free healthcare?

In the end, what is the point of a public healthcare service, which is free to use at the point of delivery (never forget that all of us, you and I included, pay for the NHS out of taxes. It is OURS. We pay for it and we are the ones who are supposed to benefit from it) if the only way to guarantee being treated is if you pay for it?

It is worth here revisiting the ‘mandate’ issue we started with. Because in the run-up to the election, Call Me Dave was pretty clear about his plans for the NHS, or more accurately, about what his government would NOT do.

Speaking to the Royal College of Nursing in 2009, for example, he said: ‘First, let me tell you what we are not going to do. There will be no more of those pointless re-organisations that aim for change, but instead bring chaos.’

As the election campaign, in which ‘Change’ was the Conservatives’ watchword, got underway, he promised: ‘No more top-down reorganisation of the NHS.’

And this promise was repeated in the May 2010 coalition agreement, the document which ensured, after an election in which his party failed to win enough seats to govern, that Cameron could lead a Tory government, the first in 13 years.

The promise reads, simply: ‘We will stop the top-down reorganisation of the NHS.’

Lansley’s bill came just two months later.

A second controversial section of the Act is its proposals for the commissioning of care.

The Conservative Party, and the Lib Dems, at least have some justification here in terms of delivering what they promised. Indeed, when I interviewed Nick Clegg in the 2010 election campaign, he repeated his belief that Primary Care Trusts should be abolished four times, perhaps fearing that otherwise I might focus more on his plan to abolish tuition fees.

Primary Care Trusts are seen by many as a layer of pointless bureaucracy and management in the NHS. Their role included commissioning healthcare in the region they operated, and they had responsibility for spending  roughly 80 per cent of the NHS annual budget.

They were pretty unpopular, among NHS staff, but particularly among the Daily Mail, The Sun and The Express’ ranks of editorial heroes, who claimed this was no more than the pointless introduction of managers to ‘meddle’ in the operations of public healthcare.

I have some sympathy with this view, but it would be remiss of me not to point out that a) the NHS does NEED managers. They are not ALL parasites, attempting to steal from you, the Great British Public, and b) there is a certain disjunct between the view that the NHS is terribly, hopelessly inefficient and that measures to reign in its ‘terrible inefficiency’ (Blair’s Labour Party was always a sucker for making policy based on the outlook of Lord Rothemere, Richard Desmond and good old Rupert Murdoch) were somehow an affront to the very foundations on which the NHS rests.

Either way, there were 152 PCTs, and they were pretty unpopular.

So, Lansley proposed to scrap them.

Astonishingly, he appeared to expect that this would win him unquestioning praise. But there WERE questions. Namely, who on Earth would commission services instead, particularly given his idea that 49 per cent of services should be allowed to be provided by non-NHS providers.

His plan was to replace them with Clinical Commissioning Groups. But surely these would just be the same as PCTs?

Not so, he countered. Because they would be run by GPs (in fact, they won’t JUST be run by GPs, but because of the way Lansley announced the idea, aiming to get as much popular support before revealing the rather murkier elements of the proposal we will return to that in a moment).

Lansley said that scrapping PCTs would save £5bn per year (not counting slightly more than £1bn to be paid out in redundancy deals for those who lose their jobs as a result), and that his plans would instead see GPs, who after all know their patients and so can judge best what treatments are most appropriate for them, commission services.

He said the proposal would: ‘Give patients and health staff more power.’

Savings of £5bn, the scrapping of an unpopular layer of management and more power to GPs and patients? It all sounds too good to be true.

And the problem is, it is.

First of all, GPs don’t want these new powers. The Royal College of General Practitioners joined the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Midwives and the British Medical Association in outright opposition to the Act.

Some medical staff have had a slightly bad press in recent weeks, after their decision to strike over pensions. The Conservatives, hoping they had at last found an issue on which many thinking human beings could agree with them, seized upon this, pointing out that GPs are already very well paid, and why should they withhold services when we are, after all, ‘All in this together’?

But let’s not fool about. These are people who are often well paid, but they also work very very hard indeed, and without them focussing properly on their jobs – to make the rest of us better if we’re sick – we’d be in a much worse place.

And they pointed out, not unreasonably, that if they were to treat patients properly, they wouldn’t have time to chase ‘healthcare providers’ to ‘commission’ their services. It is just about possible, I’d suggest, that when Nye Bevan created the NHS, he considered that IT would provide healthcare services, thus removing the pointless ‘commissioning’ process altogether, but then what do I know?

But this is how £5bn is to be saved: sack the PCT employees and make other people – in this case the people on whom we rely for our health – do their jobs as well as their own.

In effect, then, Lansley was telling GPs ‘you will have the power – whether you want it or not!’

The second problem is that there were 152 PCTs, packed to the rafters with time-serving, money-leeching managers, brutally commissioning services as if it wasn’t tantamount to the biggest fraud ever committed against the UK population.

This number had to be slashed. Because it was wasteful. And probably evil.

Unfortunately, there are now 240 CCGs.

So, there are more commissioning bodies than before, and the GPs who run them fear they won’t have time to treat patients and commission care for them.

Not to worry, though. Because almost as if he’d anticipated this exact eventuality (not that he told anyone. Remember he said he would give ‘patients and health care staff more power’?) Lansley had also made it possible for company directors, including, of course, the directors of the very private health care providers who stood to benefit directly from the increase in the levels of private health care provision within NHS hospitals, to be part of these CCGs.

Even more helpfully, he also made it possible for CCGs to ‘outsource’ the commissioning of healthcare services, and the decisions as to which treatments should be provided by private firms, to, er, the private firms which would earn cash by providing them. Which, I’m sure you will agree, clears that little problem up with no potential ‘conflict of interest’ whatsoever.

Combined with the ‘autonomy clause’, which allows CCGs (or the firms which perform the role instead of them) to decide which services should be provided by the NHS, and which must be paid for, the claim that ‘patients’ are to receive more control looks difficult to justify.

Max Pemberton, a doctor who writes for the Telegraph, used his column in that revolutionary, anti-establishment publication to highlight his concerns about this process.

In an article which began with him saying he is not a supporter of the NHS for ‘ideological’ reasons, but because it does its job well, he said: Services such as mental health provision, facilities for pregnant women, preventive medicine, aftercare and services for children could be substantially reduced by this power to save money, generate revenue or redirect patients into the for-profit sector.’

There are many other concerns raised by, well, more or less everyone outside of Lansley and his closest friends, all of whom know more, but this is a very long piece by now, so we’ll take a brief look at just two of them.

First, the Act changes the law on healthcare provision as applied to the Secretary of State for Health, or ‘Andrew Lansley’ as he is also known.

Previously, the law stated that the Secretary of State, and other Ministers in the Department of Health have a ‘duty’ to ‘provide a national health service’. Under the Act, Mr Lansley’s duty is to ‘promote’ a national health service.

You may argue that there is very little difference between the two. In which case, one may ask why make the change at all? In an Act designed to ‘reduce inefficiency’ (though which has actually caused the number of NHS statutory organisations – those not directly involved in providing care and treatment to patients – from 163 to 521 ‘health and wellbeing committees’, ‘clinical networks’ ‘clinical senates’ etc) of the NHS, why add a change in the status of the Secretary of State for Health?

Provision of a national health service certainly suggests the Health Secretary must provide such a service. That it is his/her responsibility and any failures within it are his/her responsibility. Promotion sounds rather more like a duty to make sure a health service exists and that people are aware of it. If this isn’t a move towards privatisation, it certainly sounds like it.

Connected to this, the Act also removes responsibility for public health campaigns from the NHS.

One justification for this is that, for example, local authorities have responsibility for many things which impact on health, including housing. So, the argument goes, local authorities can set out ‘joined-up’ campaigns to improve public health.

But local authorities only cover small areas of the country. So, depending on where you live, different aspects of health may be focussed upon, rather than the ‘catch-all’ approach practised at present.

Just as importantly, where will the money come from for this? With their budgets slashed by the government, local authorities are already laying off hundreds of thousands of employees and are having to choose between shallow fripperies such as ‘children’s homes’ or ‘care for the elderly’. What would have to be dropped so Manchester City Council could tell Mancunians not to smoke?

Finally, a note on the Lib Dems.

At the party’s Spring Conference, the Bill was discussed. Much to party leaders’ dismay, delegates voted in favour of an emergency motion to ‘kill the bill’.

This meant that not only had the party’s voters never voted for the comprehensive alteration of the NHS, the party membership, at a Conference where policy is set, specifically voted against it.

Many Lib Dem MPs spoke out against the Act in the House, and the party’s response was perhaps the most outrageous in its history.

Senior Lib Dem MPs briefed their party members in the House that the party voting to drop the bill would be ‘a Labour win’. That’s ‘a Labour win’. Not ‘missing an important opportunity to improve the NHS’, or ‘blocking the provision of better healthcare for the population of England’. The party told its MPs to vote against the wishes of their voters, and against the democratically expressed wishes of their own party members, because otherwise it might appear that Labour had won.

A less understanding man than me might ask exactly what Nick Clegg had been talking about in April 2011, when he criticised ‘the old politics of tribalism backed by dinosaurs on all sides of the political spectrum.’

But I might instead simply suggest that the Lib Dems have lost the only thing which made them attractive to voters – the possibility to change the way politics is prosecuted by those within it.

And repeat doctor and journalist Ben Goldacre’s judgement on the briefings.

On March 20, when the final votes were to be cast, and the senior Lib Dems spread their ‘Labour win’ warning, he tweeted: ‘is this a FUCKING PLAYGROUND?’

Of course, some Lib Dem MPs abstained. None, however, voted against the Bill.

The future

As we know, the Health and Social Care Act became law, officially, on March 27 this year. Originally, it was hoped that the policies within it would be in full operation by April 2013, though in recent weeks, Call Me Dave has admitted this is ‘unlikely’.

So what, if anything, can be done?

The BMA’s Annual Representative Meeting voted on June 25 to campaign for the repeal of the Act, while other groups, including campaign group 38degrees, have set up petitions to show public opposition to the Act (38degrees’ petition currently has more than 600,000 signatures, while David Cameron has promised ‘any e-petition which gains more than 100,000 signatures will have its topic debated in Parliament’).

Meanwhile, Labour Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham has pledged to repeal the Act ‘at the first opportunity’. It is unlikely his party will be alone in campaigning on the NHS at the next election.

Finally, on April 29 2009, David Cameron told the nation that if elected, he would ensure that politicians were accountable to the public. That if they went back on pre-election promises, or acted irresponsibly, the public would be able to call for a by-election to replace them. He repeated the promise several times, both before and after the election, and the idea was repeated often by Nick Clegg.

Perhaps now is the time to put that pledge to the test?

Promises, promises

Hello.

First, an apology.

I originally set up this blog to be a site where I could talk to people about my experiences working for Save the Children in Tunisia and Libya, where the charity is attempting to bring some normality back to the lives of children and young people in refugee camps or ruined cities following the Libyan Civil War.

While I was in Tunisia, this was relatively easy, but for many reasons (lack of internet coverage, sheer weight of work), it became impossible when we were transferred to Sirte, Ghaddafi’s birthplace and the place of his ‘last stand’ (though stories at the time suggested he was killed after being found hiding in a drain, this is disputed by former supporters and opponents of his regime).

Those of you who have seen me in the time since I returned will be aware I have a fair amount to say about Libya (apologies for that) but at present I’m writing it for a book which I expect will enable me to experience rejection by publishers first-hand (another of the things to do before you’re 50 list crossed off). I will post it as and when, but possibly not for a little while.

In the meantime, I have been re-acquainting myself with UK politics and generally winding up and annoying people about it on facebook and several newspaper comment sites. While also writing a book about national politics/recent UK history (I’m really determined to get that rejection thing boxed off) it’s been a way to sound off about stuff, and weirdly also to take a break.

But one thing which has occurred time and again, in researching the things I’m writing, talking rubbish online and having conversations, is that someone will pop up and deliver the line ‘It makes no difference what you do or say. Politicians are all the same. They’re all corrupt, lazy or inept, and even those who aren’t are consistently stifled by those who are. It makes no difference who you vote for, nothing ever changes because they’re all the same.’

Now most of you are well aware of my own political opinions, and I make no apology for them here. At first, I wanted to present this view as being particularly damning for the current government, made up of two parties promising ‘change’ and ‘to do things a different way’. But that would be spectacularly unfair, as it would completely overlook the actions of Her Majesty’s Opposition while they were in government (not just the last time, either) and they deserve just as much credit as the Tories and Lib Dems for the hard work they have put into helping this be the overriding view of national politics.

There is more to being in government than waving a wand and changing everything to the way you want it. We must bear in mind that there are businesspeople – and to some extent unions – who for very different reasons oppose different policies aimed at ‘change’. This is not a value judgement in either case, just a statement of fact. And those interest groups hold power and sway outside of that granted to governments by the electorate.

We must also understand that if we exist in a globalised monetarist system (there are many many conversations to be had about that. I promise I will have as many of them as possible until one of you strangles me to death) politicians simply can’t have control – or even very much influence – over some of the issues which affect people’s daily lives, particularly when it comes to employment of those working for multi-national companies, or firms which are bought by others based overseas.

But these things are only part of a much wider problem – fundamentally, people don’t trust politicians.

Some of the reasons include the fact that a small number of politicians ARE corrupt (a small number of people in every profession are corrupt) while others are willing to ‘push the boundaries’ of corruption, to see what they can get away with. Sadly, the latter is human nature, and in all honesty the legal system has to take some responsibility for the amount of time the ‘grey area’ is encroached upon by politicians and others without consequence.

But in far more cases, politicians have actually lied, or are guilty of gross negligence and/or ineptitude. In making this allegation, I refer specifically to the parties’ seeming inability to hold to their manifesto promises.

In covering the last election, I was lied to twice by the current PM, and promised things which have not been delivered by the leader of the Lib Dems – including policies they have enacted, but not in the way they told the electorate they would.

Again, I do not, under any circumstance, want to fail to applaud the Labour Party for its own breathtaking manifesto failures and U-turns, it’s just that they have not been in power since 2010 to go back on the promises they made to the electorate, so the sting of deception is less raw for me than that practised by the coalition to date.

Either these people deliberately sat there and lied through their teeth so I, a journalist, would pass on a message to the people whose votes they wanted, or they were so inept, indeed lazy, that they had failed to research the state of the nation’s finances before striding out to offer the country an improved education system, NHS, police force, Navy, indeed anything they could think of.

And the latter would be ineptitude and laziness, as every single member of parliament, from independent backbencher to government minister, is entitled to the same information about the topic of their choice, by law. There are no ‘hidden facts’ kept from MPs, as all they have to do is ask, and the information must be provided to them, by law. The excuse ‘things were worse than we thought’ is, therefore, simply an admission that in opposition, a party has failed in its most basic duty – to use the facts to hold the government to account.

As a result, far from attempting to defend the system from accusations of laziness, ineptitude, and a lack of ability or desire to keep the promises made to the voter, I have to conclude that the people who make this point are correct: the system isn’t working, and politicians are at least in part to blame for its failings.

But the result of this has been for people to turn away from politics. Voting figures are falling to such a level that the current majority party in government received 10,703,000 votes from a possible (based on registered voting figures) 47,000,000. The party in government in this country was voted for by just over a fifth of the population of voting age.

This is in part because the voting system in this country is designed for a two- rather than multi-party competition (though AV was a pale imitation of the system with which it should have been replaced) but the fact remains that out of 47m people who could have had a say in the governance of the UK in a period of international crisis, just 29m actually did so.

And the election does make a difference. The coalition has tripled levels of student debt, and its economic policies have caused the country to fall into a second recession (now realistically a depression) with rocketing unemployment. Again, decisions like this were taken by the previous government, which took us into two illegal wars, risking the lives and health of thousands of UK-born troops. Government DOES matter.

Not only that, refusal to take an interest in politics is not only damaging – allowing a tiny minority of energetic voters to change the face of the UK for at least five years at a time – but also of direct benefit to only one group of people: the politicians themselves.

If the view of the electorate is that politicians are lazy, inept or corrupt, then turning away from them only allows them to continue to be so. If you say ‘it makes no difference who we vote for, when they get into power they will only do what they always do, lie, cheat, seal and/or fail’ and that’s the genuine expectation, then nothing happens when they DO lie, cheat, steal or fail, and who benefits?

Politicians are paid huge salaries to represent us. I don’t begrudge them that, as it’s a difficult job, and as is often trotted out many of them could earn more in business. But they’re paid that by us. To do the things they promised to do, which we told them to do by voting for them. So vote, and then hold them accountable.

If someone lies to the electorate, or fails to do what you voted for them to do, tell them. And call for them to be removed, or at the very least to explain themselves at a by-election.

On a grander scale, the system should be altered so that, if a party reaches government and fails to live up to its manifesto promises, or if, as in the current (and some previous) case actually does the opposite of what it promised to win your vote, we should be able to extend the current ‘petition’ system (in which if 1m people sign a petition, the matter they raise must be debated in parliament) to include the following: if 4.8m people (just over ten per cent of the current UK voting population) believe a government is not doing what it said it would in its manifesto, a General Election must be called. This gives the party in government a chance to explain its actions, and the opposition a chance to tell people how it would do things differently (if indeed it would).

We keep preaching about the benefits of a democratic system over all others (actually a view I generally agree with) and even going to war to ‘prove’ we’re right.

But politicians of all stripes are failing in their most basic duty – to do the things they promised they would if they were elected. Don’t excuse them by saying ‘they’re all like that.’ You pay them. Demand better.