Sunday 15 June 2014

The last chance for democracy

One of my chief complaints about government is that it is slow to respond, slow to act, and prohibits any meaningful change. But with our democratic mechanism putting the "power" in the hands of our political parties, that is not altogether a bad thing. It is better to have a system that dilutes the power rather than enabling extremism of any stripe.  I no more want the extremes of the Labour Party running things any more than I would want the hang-em and flogg-em Ukipists in total control. Government at all levels has to muddle through on consensus within the many constraints placed upon it. That's life I'm afraid.

But as our system has creaked on through the years it has acquired its own brand of much more pernicious extremism. Rather than being a system that pleases some of the people some of the time, we now have a system that pleases nobody ever. In the name of efficiency we have seen services growing ever more distant and computerised to the point where decisions affecting our lives are made entirely by computer algorithms, where good sense never enters the equation. Soon enough I expect to have bailiffs banging on my door for the want of nine pence. We are drifting into a new tyranny.

As governance becomes more data driven and more standardisation is written into the system, its failures are magnified and replicated many times, with no democratic recourse as one is merely directed to a junior administrator, who may sympathise, but has no autonomy to act. It all adds to the growing feeling that we have no influence in the decisions that affect our lives directly - and nor do the people we elect. This is the age of managerialism.

This is why I refuse to engage in the empty voting rituals we have to replace those people every four years. If we are merely electing apologists and press officers to the system who cannot (and in most cases do not want to) change it, why have them at all? We need to drop the pretense that this system is a democracy.

A reader sent me something that inspired me to write this post and the views expressed here very much mirror my own...
The 36% UK turnout tells its own story. People are giving up on conventional democracy because ticking a box once every few years doesn’t really constitute a conversation between equals. And that’s what they get in most other areas of their lives. Only the way they’re governed (and, less so, the way they’re employed) is still so autocratic.

Politicians aren’t talking about what voters are interested in and voters aren’t interested in what politicians are talking about. And when people do talk, politicians don’t listen. Letters get batted back with delegated, form answers and the real questions unanswered. The results of consultations seem pre-decided. Protests are increasingly ignored.
My own campaigns in the last few years confirm this.  I have a cupboard bulging with form letters that say absolutely nothing, but the subtext is always the same: "go away little pleb and stop bothering us". I have lately found that Twitter is the only way of addressing these people directly, but one must now be careful who you criticise and how because saying the wrong thing to the wrong official, in the wrong way, can land you in jail. One would like to have a free and frank discussion with this politicians but they do not speak our language. They are in transmit mode only. They speak, we must listen.

Whenever you read social media content by our politicians you find that what they are transmitting is entirely divorced from the day to day concerns of voters. None of it speaks to my world, not least the witless prattle of Bristol mayor George Ferguson.  If it isn't "Fair Trade", recycling, green energy, cycle paths and street performances, it's something equally banal. There is no point of entry for a serious discussion about serious matters because they simply don't engage in serious matters. It is precisely this kind of banality that makes me want to take up arms and slaughter them all to the last man. There is nothing left in my moral inventory that says we shouldn't.

I would very much like to take someone to task this week having learned that two hovercraft could be given or loaned to voluntary rescue groups in Gloucester-because they have never been used in an emergency. They were bought by Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service for a total of £110,000 in 2008, using money from Severn Trent Water’s community recovery fund. It followed the disastrous floods that hit the county the year earlier when an Italian hovercraft search and rescue team helped out with the relief effort. But the two craft, one of which is based in Dursley and the other in Newent, have been virtually redundant.

As a friend points out, "In fairness, if someone saw fit to firehose me with money and not hold me to account over how it was spent, I'd buy a fucking awesome hovercraft too." And therein lies the problem. I don't recall the public being consulted, and nobody will be to blame - and nobody will suffer consequences. For sure in government terms £110k is chump change but when viewed through the prism of council tax (and the grubby means of extortion they use to get it), that's one hundred households who were deprived of a big chunk of their income. I can protest, but that's all I can do.

Similarly, I have written at length on what is happening to our police forces as they become ever more remote and corporatised. Apart from those within the power structure I've not happened upon anyone who thinks it's a good idea, and for all the protests, it's going to happen anyway regardless of who we elect.  It was decided long ago and we did not get a say.

For sure I can join the Ukip fun for a bit of token resistance. Last week Councillor Philip Garrett hit out at cash being spent on Wednesday night's £2,700 celebration of the investiture of a new mayor.  He was voted into the Princes End seat in Tipton in last month’s elections. His decision followed fellow UKIP members on Dudley Council acting similarly. Fair play to him. It is rare to see politicians who have a healthy understanding of where this money comes from. But the system is designed to prevent such people making any real difference.  This testimony from a Bradford councillor really hits home at what an utterly futile position it it, having no power to speak of.
The truth of all this is that 80-90% of the spending and activity undertaken by your council (or councils if you live in the shires) is simply given - determined by regulation, set out in statute or otherwise required by central government. And three-quarters of what your council spends comes in the form of central government grant - with all the strings and restrictions that come with this. Ministers and bureaucrats down in London will always want to make sure that, wherever possible, the agenda of the national government is met by the local council. As a result we have had restrictions of borrowing, limits to tax-raising powers such as rate capping, the use of regulation or ring-fencing to direct spending and, if all else fails, simply removing any power for councillors to control or change what the council does. We even got an instruction this year to hold a 'named vote' on setting the council tax!

So when, as we did in Bradford yesterday, councillors get together and "set the budget" bear in mind that what you're seeing is a finely tuned political row about a few million quid out of a budget totally over a billion. The budget debate - "we've found £200,000 to invest in saving kittens", "the Tories are casting old people into the darkness by reducing the walking stick budget by £50,000" and "Labour are failing youngsters by removing the swing seat cleaning service" - this debate isn't really about the budget at all, it's about the tiny bit of the budget that our system of local government allows us to control.
This is why I can't get too excited about the Ukip "surge". If voting made a real difference, they wouldn't let us do it.  As much as that party has won respectable local gains, the game is so rigged that it will not change a thing. But supposing it did make a difference, unless the system is reformed, there is nothing to stop us arriving here again with bad and wasteful people at the helm.

I can only echo the words of MMC. "We don’t really need elected representatives. We are now better informed, educated and connected thanks to the internet. Direct local democracy is possible and indeed, becoming more common. People can contact their local representatives, take part in consultations and lobby as never before. But their participation is still very much for form’s sake and, because of that, only a minority take part. Worse, most politicians seem to either fear or ignore this participation." He continues...
"We’ve moved on in so many other areas. We choose our own direct, fragmented media, the news we read, the subjects we engage with, the style of reporting we want. Why shouldn’t we do the same with politics? Labour, LibDems, Conservatives – even UKIP – are becoming as irrelevant and archaic as just four channels of terrestrial television.

Democracy still consists of a pre-internet model where a few groups of people give pre-determined answers to a set of vague, general questions and ask people to elect them on that basis. Doesn’t it make more sense to ask the people the real, live questions directly and let them answer? If we don’t begin to do this and educate the electorate (that’s all of us) to do so, ‘four channel’ party politics will continue down its slope to irrelevance. "
I agree entirely. Our politicians idea of more democracy is more politicians. We now have elected police commissioners, an elected mayor in Bristol, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament but these are all outstations of the same oligarchy, where overpaid stuffed shirts can make decisions over the heads of the people without ever facing consequences for being wrong - and swan off into the sunset with a fat public pension. I don't want to be represented by any of these people. None of them can represent me nor do I consent to it. Anything short of direct democracy simply isn't democracy. We now have the technology whereby these questions can be asked and answered directly - and that voice needs to be binding. And that is why we need The Harrogate Agenda.

My tolerance for being robbed blind by the government machine is wearing thin. We have taxation but no representation, and we have no voice in how our money is spent. I am wholly sick of being told by a machine to pay up, and I am wholly sick of the persistent reply given to us taxpayers, which is invariably "Foxtrot Oscar". I know I am not alone.

We cannot go on like this, and unless we get the six demands of The Harrogate Agenda then there will be no choice but to disobey in every conceivable way. If the police work of the oligarchy and put the states interests first over those of crime victims, then the police are the enemy. So too are the politicians who squander our money and are rewarded for doing so. They are slowly tightening the noose, affording themselves ever more control to spend ever more of our wealth without consultation or consent.

We have to start saying no to their demands for tax, we have to stop obeying the rules and we have to stop asking for permission to live our lives. We have to prevent them from making laws and prevent them from enforcing them. They have no moral authority to govern.

Voting simply isn't going to get us what we want. We will have to force the issue. We can do this because there are more of us than there are of them. They know we are coming for them. Why else would the police be retreating from our neighborhoods and into mega fortresses out in the sticks? We could bring government to a standstill if we all went on tax strike. That would get their attention more than voting Ukip, which is in itself an empty gesture.

The coming general election to me represents the very last chance to avoid unrest. There is a chance of an EU referendum which is the fist stepping stone on the road to democracy, and if we don't get that referendum (and win it), then it spells the end of even the "representative democracy" as we know it. After which I will have voted for the last time and, like our local police force, I will be gearing for war. Think it could not happen? Ask a Ukrainian.

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