Monthly Archives: May 2010

How many more lives, relationships and careers will we ruin?

I’ve been offline for about twenty hours and have just come back to the news of David Laws’ resignation. I am incredibly sad. Here’s why.
Imagine you have to live two lives. Imagine you wake up in the morning next to your partner, you get up, have shower, have breakfast, kiss your partner goodbye, and then go and live your other life. In your other life, your partner doesn’t exist. You have colleagues. You see them every day. You work with them, socialise with them. You go for lunch, or for drinks after work. They tell stories of what they did with their family at the weekend, show you pictures of their kids. You nod and smile. You stay silent. Perhaps you make something up about what you did at the weekend by yourself or with friends. You get well-meaning questions and suggestions about finding a partner. You nod and smile. You stay silent. You go out to the annual company do and everyone is there with their partner. You are alone. You nod and smile. You stay silent.
In your other life, you have friends too. You meet up with them for dinner, you get invited to parties, you maybe even go on holiday with them. They start settling down with partners. They offer to set you up with a date. You nod and smile. You stay silent. Your friends start having kids. You watch them growing up. Your friends are still inviting you to parties, still taking you on holidays with them, and sometimes they ask whether you’ll be bringing someone with you. You nod and smile. You stay silent.
In your other life, you have a family as well. Parents, bothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, grandparents, cousins, nieces and nephews. You get together once or twice a year – Christmas, maybe a bank holiday weekend. Your siblings and cousins start bringing partners to these family gatherings. People ask, how come you haven’t met anyone yet? You nod and smile. You stay silent. Those partners start becoming husbands and wives. You get invited to weddings, which you attend alone. Not met anyone yet, ask the family again. You nod and smile. You stay silent. You start getting invited to christenings. And your parents start dropping hints – they would like to be grandparents too. You nod and smile. You stay silent.
And at the end of your day, after work, and drinks with colleagues, and dinner with friends; after perhaps a weekend seeing your family; you go back to your partner – to your first life. You kiss them as you enter the house. You share drinks over late night television, or they cook you a meal. You tell them you love them as you fall asleep in their arms. But your partner isn’t happy. They want to meet your friends, be introduced to your family. You keep going off to family weddings, or dinner parties with friends while your partner is left behind. Unacknowledged. A secret. Someone you’re ashamed of. You look at them with sadness. And you stay silent.
Imagine you are living these two lives for years, decades. Imagine you live in constant dread that one day, your two lives will intersect. A friend will meet a colleague or a family member, will figure out that you weren’t where you said you were at the weekend. Or perhaps one day your partner will realise that they can’t make the compromise anymore – that they deserve better than being your dark guilty secret for the rest of their life.
Surely, you ask, no one has to live a double-life anymore. Surely we are a tolerant enough society by now that people should just be able to be themselves. It’s not a big deal, right?
And yet, that’s not true. Kids leaving school even today will have spent some of their school lives in an education system dominated by Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which stopped teachers from even being able to intervene when they saw homophobic bullying in schools. It was only in 2003 that Section 28 was repealed, and not nearly enough work has been done since then to address the issue of homophobic bullying which has become endemic in the British education system. It was also only in 2003 that it became illegal to sack people for being gay. Think about it – that was only 7 years ago. Before that people could be and were sacked simply for who they were. If your whole life’s experience tells you that it’s not safe for you to be open about who you are – that you may get attacked verbally and physically, that people in positions of authority will not step forward to help you, that you may even lose your job – would you choose to be open about your sexuality? Or would you try to find a way – any way – of hiding it?
Social change doesn’t happen overnight. We have the legal framework, and in some parts of society we even have the cultural framework. But the situation is still patchy, and there are still far too many pockets of overt and hidden homophobia out there. Saying that it’s all fine now is not enough. We have to take an active step forward to support lesbian, gay and bisexual people – to make them feel safe, supported and included in our society, so that they too can live happy and fulfilling lives and simply be themselves.
David Laws is not the first victim of this, not even the first high-profile victim. I fear he will not be the last. I may disagree with him on policy. I may even think that the way he handled his expenses was not right. None of this stops me, however, from being incredibly sad for him as a person. The one thing I can hope for is that we all learn something from this so that we can stop ruining lives, relationships and careers. After all, one in ten of us is lesbian, gay or bisexual. That’s a lot of lives to ruin.

The national curriculum is your friend

Michael “I am a banana” Gove [1] appears right now to be doing his best to privatise the UK’s primary and secondary education system. He wrote to all secondary schools yesterday, inviting them to apply to become academies; additionally, he will be pushing legislation through Parliament allowing parents to set up so-called “free schools”. All this is in the name of the “new politics” – a significant pillar of which is to devolve things ever further down: from central to local government, from local government to “the people”. Other buzzwords in this trend include “decentralisation”, “Big Society”, “individual choice”. But really, all of this is code for dismantling the state as much as possible – surrendering control also means surrendering responsibility. And in the current economic climate, with the deficit and debt we’re facing, surrendering responsibility to the mythical Big Society, or to the private sector, is a tempting proposition for any government. In the case of education, this seems like a spectacularly bad idea.
As someone on Twitter pointed out when I first commented about this there, academies were a flagship Blairite Labour policy. I didn’t think they were a good idea then either. Under Labour, the academy structure focused on poorly performing schools. It allowed wealthy individuals or organisations to spend a relatively small amount of money and essentially acquire control of a state school. For a modest investment of a million or so, you could turn one of those “failing” schools into an academy, acquiring control over pay and conditions of staff, teaching and most importantly the curriculum, while the state continued to finance the running costs of the school. This in turn allowed those newly-fledged academies to ignore key parts of the national curriculum which didn’t suit their wealthy benefactors. Don’t like sex and relationships education because the kiddies might learn about contraception or *gasp* that gay people are okay too? Easy – have an academy. Don’t like evolution? Here – this academy teaches intelligent design on a equal footing; or even that the Earth was created 6000 years ago, like the three schools run by the Emmanuel Schools Foundation, sponsored by Sir Peter Vardy. Mr. Gove’s vision for future academies is that they will have complete control over the curriculum.
Let me say this very clearly: I believe that state control of the curriculum – within a democratic society – is a good idea. It allows us to do a number of things: Firstly, it allows us to have a common standard. This is not about league tables and SATs. But it is about knowing that a pupil with a B in maths from one school has a similar level of achievement to a pupil with a B in maths from another school. Secondly, the national curriculum also allows us as a society to democratically determine some key things we feel it’s important our children are taught: things like citizenship, sex & relationships education, and yes – that evolution is scientific fact while intelligent design is a fairy tale. I am particularly passionate about that latter part. I believe the best way to determine what we value sufficiently to teach our children is through public debate and the democratic process, at a national level. Anything else leads to unjustified local variation, potentially disadvantaging whole communities where the local school is controlled by people who, say, happen not to believe in evolution.
Devolving control of the curriculum to the local and school level is not a good idea. Ultimately, as a future parent, I don’t actually want “choice” in my school system. I don’t want to have to check the curriculum of every school in a 20-mile radius to make sure they’re not teaching my child to confuse scientific facts with fairy tales. I want a school system that works – one where, regardless of which school I send my child to, I can be confident that they will have a good-quality, wide-ranging, exciting and engaging education experience and they will learn the things that we as a society have democratically decided are important. Again, this is not about taking creativity away from teachers, or standardising and regimenting everything, testing pupils to death to make sure they conform to some standard. It’s about having an education system that works for all.
Another issue with academies and “free schools” is around access. They would more than likely end up diverting money from local state schools, having a negative impact on them, while having a more selective admissions policy (up to 10%, says Mr. Gove). While initial results of this approach in Sweden were encouraging, more recently free schools have been found to lead to increased social fragmentation and segregation.
Ultimately, the UK education system is already more than sufficiently fragmented. Between public and state schools, academies and faith schools, my future parent self already has more choice than I’d ideally like to have to cope with. I’d much rather see some real effort being put into making sure that the state education system works consistently for all, than see education in Britain broken up further.
[1] Mr. Gove declared publicly on the Today Programme that he was a banana. I have a recording of it. I’m also trying to get as many people as possible to habitually start referring to him as Michael “I am a banana” Gove. Go on. It would make my day.

Violence against women is endemic – and ConLib isn’t helping

There is, sadly, a fair chance that I may get more flack for this than I did for my BigotGate post. But it needs saying.
This trigger for this post was the ConLib government’s announcement yesterday as part of the full coalition agreement that they are looking to restore rape defendants’ right to anonymity, and a subsequent conversation I had with my partner about violence against women. It turns out men, even wonderful men, are not terribly aware of the facts surrounding this issue.
Let’s get one thing straight right from the start: violence against women is absolutely endemic in our society. I’m talking about rape (at least 80,000 women suffer rape in the UK every year), domestic violence (1 in 4 women will suffer this in the course of their lives), sexual abuse (32% of children are abused – mostly girls). 45% of women in the UK have at some point in their lives been victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse or stalking. (White Ribbon Campaign) A quarter of girls aged 13 to 17 have experienced physical violence from a boyfriend and a third have been pressured into sexual acts. (NSPCC survey quoted by BBC)
Those are the high-level national statistics. Let’s take it down a notch – let’s take it down to a personal level. Do you personally know any women who’ve been victims of violence? Well yes, you do. About seven years ago I wrote about being a victim of sexual abuse. So that’s one woman you know. When I wrote about my experiences, a shocking number of women among my personal friends and acquaintances came forward in private to share similar stories. Among the women I know, I know of 3 rapes, 3 women other than me who were abused as children, 3 victims of domestic violence. And those are just the ones I know about, just the major incidents. As far as I know none of these women have made an attempt to take legal action against their abusers. We all just walked away.
Add this to the picture: the endless list of small insidious incidents that violate women’s minds or bodies – the things that, given all the big stuff that’s going on, just aren’t worth making a fuss about. They include verbal harassment and a range of physical incidents from groping to flashing. I can already hear half of you shouting that that’s not violence. But it is. It violates women’s bodily or mental integrity, it objectifies them, it negatively impacts the way women feel about themselves.
Let’s take that down to the personal level again. I have been on the receiving end of sexual harassment in the workplace once (not in my current job, I hasten to add), and of small incidents of physical violence four times. While I have talked in public about being an abuse victim, I have never before told anyone about those smaller incidents because compared to my and other women’s more harrowing experiences, they pale into insignificance. But here’s how those incidents made me feel: angry, ashamed, blaming myself, and yes – violated. I said earlier that we – women – don’t make a fuss about this type of low-level violence. Only three other women have ever talked to me about similar experiences. I really don’t believe we are unique. But we just let this kind of thing go. For an insight into the psychological impact of this ubiquitousness of violence on women you could do worse than reading Schroedinger’s Rapist over on Kate Harding’s blog.
Are you convinced yet that violence against women is endemic in our society? Here are some more stats (Amnesty UK): Over 1 in 4 people believe a woman is responsible for being raped if she is wearing revealing clothing; over 1 in 5 believe she is responsible for being raped if she has had many sexual partners. (Nick Clegg has had 30 sexual partners. Is he asking for it?) Again, the impact of constantly being told – subtly or not so subtly – by society around you that being a victim of violence is your own fault is that sooner or later you start believing it. The first reaction most women will have after a violent incident is to ask themselves what it was they did to deserve it, or what they could have done to stop or prevent it.
So not only is violence against women endemic (You know many women who have been victims of it.); not only is it socially acceptable (How many of you thought my experiences of being harassed just weren’t a big deal? I did.); but now the first action our new government has announced which will have a direct impact in this area will make it worse.
It’s taken me 24 hours to pull this post together because I wanted to go away and do some fact checking. I wanted to know how people charged with other crimes are treated in terms of identification. I honestly didn’t know, so I asked Twitter for some help and @gwenhwyfaer found the official document on reporting restrictions in the criminal courts for me. Here’s what it says:

In recognition of the open justice principle, the general rule is that justice should be administered in public. To this end:

  • Proceedings must be held in public.
  • Evidence must be communicated publicly.
  • Fair, accurate and contemporaneous media reporting of proceedings should not be prevented by any action of the court unless strictly necessary.

Therefore, unless there are exceptional circumstances laid down by statute law and/or common law the court must not:

  • Order or allow the exclusion of the press or public from court for any part of the proceedings.
  • Permit the withholding of information from the open court proceedings.
  • Impose permanent or temporary bans on reporting of the proceedings or any part of them including anything that prevents the proper identification, by name and address, of those appearing or mentioned in the course of proceedings.

There are exceptions: Children’s identities are generally protected; the identities of victims of sexual offences are protected (though the defendant can request for the identity of the victim to be made public if there is reason to believe that witnesses for the defence will come forward as a result); hearings can happen in camera (in secret) “where the hearing of the case in public would frustrate or render impracticable the administration of justice.” The document, however, explicitly states that “The fact (…) that hearing evidence in open court will cause embarrassment to witnesses does not meet the test for necessity.”
Given how clearly the principles of open justice are stated, one does have to wonder why the ConLib government is looking to extend anonymity rights to defendants in rape cases – a proposal that was in neither party’s election manifesto. What is it they’re trying to achieve? There have been some high-profile cases where men have been falsely accused of rape. And of course this has had a negative impact on those defendants. However, the current system offers sufficient safeguards for this already: a woman who is is found to have made a false claim will generally be prosecuted (and publicly identified). What this move is likely to achieve instead is to decrease both the reporting and the conviction rate for rapes even further (and let’s face it, those rates are already abysmally low). It sends the message that women and their safety aren’t valued. And it will prevent other victims of the same rapist from coming forward.
If you don’t want your life to be negatively impacted by being falsely accused of rape, the answer is not to give anonymity to defendants. The answer is to work towards making rape – and any other violence against women – history. We have a long way to go. Women need to feel safe to speak out about their experiences; we need to make it clear to everyone that violence against women (or anyone for that matter) is not acceptable; we need to raise awareness of all types of violence against women – from rapes and murders right down to groping and flashing; we need a fundamental cultural shift, not cosmetic legal changes.
And right now, I as a woman do not feel safe in the hands of the current government. So when this legislation comes before Parliament, I will be writing to my MP (useless though he is), and I will be asking all of you to do the same, to make sure that it does not pass.
Here are some additional references/materials on the subject:
The White Ribbon Campaign aims to get men involved in the fight against violence against women. Go and sign up.
Women’s Aid is a national charity working to end domestic violence against women and children.
Unfortunately, instances of domestic violence against men are also rising.
Hidden Hurt has a page specifically for male victims of domestic violence.

This is no way of implementing constitutional reform!

One of the things that tend to give away the fact that I didn’t grow up in the UK political culture is my habit of sniggering every time someone mentions the UK constitution. One of my earliest political memories is the Bulgarian Grand National Assembly being convened to create a new constitution after 45 years of communist rule. I was nine years old at the time – it was a formative experience as far as my political consciousness is concerned. And so, whenever someone mentions the UK constitution – that messy collection of laws, precedents and customs which seems to govern the UK – I am bound to exclaim “What constitution!?”
A constitution is that part of a country’s legislation which establishes how the state works, where the limits of the state are, what rights and duties the state and the citizen have with respect to each other, and often what core values the state is based on. Most countries (bar three) have what we call codified constitutions – i.e. constitutions which are explicitly set out as such generally in a single document. Most constitutions, or at least parts of them, are entrenched – i.e. they require a different, more onerous procedure before they can be changed. A constitution is pretty fundamental to a state – it is to be treated with respect.
Constitutions tend to be created after disruptive change: revolutions (peaceful or otherwise), wars, declarations of independence. Those are generally the times when states take a step back to reflect on their values, rights, duties, institutions and structures. They are also the times when people are more willing to set aside political differences in the name of principle. Not that constitutions aren’t huge exercises in compromise, but they tend to be a different kind of compromise to the normal day-to-day horse-trading of politics.
Thinking about the history of the UK, the state has been fundamentally constitutionally the same since 1066. There has been incremental change (expansion out of England, Empire and decline thereof, the very gradual waning of the power of the monarchy and rise of democracy), but the UK has not really seen disruptive change in nearly 1000 years. The closest this country has had to it was the English Civil War, and the disruptive part of the change initiated by that didn’t last.
And so the UK is stuck with a messy collection of laws, precedents and customs instead of a formally set out single legal document which enjoys special status among the country’s laws. This has all sorts of interesting side effects.
Constitutional change in the UK is difficult to achieve – not because, like in other countries, the constitution is entrenched and changing it requires special procedures, but precisely because it isn’t. Therefore constitutional reform becomes part of the same kind of day-to-day political horse-trading as everything else. Equally, this also makes it easy to play fast and loose with the constitution.
Changes to the UK constitution are often incomplete, inconsistent with other parts of the constitution, unclear. The West Lothian Question is a classic example of that. In any other country, when power was devolved in one part of the country, a full constitutional review would have been required to ensure the changes were compatible. As it is, devolution of some powers to national legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do leave a number of open questions about the exact constitutional make-up of the United Kingdom. This is not just about why England has no national Parliament; it also covers issues such the huge variations between what powers are devolved to the different national legislatures, as well as more practical matters.
And then we get to the downright paradoxical. Take, for instance, the much talked about introduction of fixed-term Parliaments and the associated 55% rule. Because the UK constitution is not entrenched, even should the 55% rule pass, it would only take a simple majority to repeal it even a few months down the line. This is no way to implement constitutional reform.
So if Nick Clegg really is serious about initiating the biggest shake-up of UK democracy since 1832 – or ever for that matter – here’s where to start: create a constitution. Create one single formal document which sets out the values and duties of the state, the rights of individuals, and defines how the structures and institutions of the state work. Ensure that that constitution is entrenched: require special procedures and a qualified majority to change it. Ensure it is coherent, consistent, complete.
It would not be an easy task – it never is. Arguably it shouldn’t be undertaken by this or any other ordinary Parliament. Convene a special body – elected, ideally by PR – with the sole and explicit purpose of drafting a constitution to be adopted through a referendum. Ensure that the constitution is taken seriously and treated with the respect it deserves. That would be a true shake-up of democracy.
Just a thought.

Shaking up democracy

I spent my lunch break today reading Nick Clegg’s big speech and dissecting it line-by-line on Twitter. This is a slightly more coherent/elaborate version of that initial reaction.
I guess it goes without saying (and I didn’t say it on Twitter) that the whole preamble about how this is the “biggest shake-up of our democracy since 1832” can be safely ignored. The Channel 4 News Fact Check blog does a pretty good job of debunking that one in a couple of paragraphs. The one part of the preamble that’s worth mentioning is where Clegg praises those 19th century politicians who introduced the reforms he’s referring to for standing up “for the freedom of the many, not the privilege of the few.” One does wonder what his coalition partners think of this one. Anyway, let’s get to the actual content.
The first thing that struck me was this quote: “Britain was once the cradle of modern democracy. We are now, on some measures, the most centralised country in Europe, bar Malta.”
This seems to suggest a dichotomy between democracy and centralisation. It appears to imply that one is the opposite of the other. Now, we can argue quite happily over whether centralisation is good or bad, over whether it’s desirable or not, but I wouldn’t go as far as framing it as the opposite of democracy. Lazy rhetoric, Mr. Clegg.
Here’s another one: “My starting point is always optimism about people. The view that most people, most of the time, will make the right decisions for themselves and their families.” There’s nothing wrong with a bit of optimism or idealism. I’m occasionally prone to it myself. However, at this scale, Mr. Clegg appears to be ignoring a substantial body of scientific evidence. People are not rational, they are bad at evaluating risk, they tend to be fairly short-sighted, and thus rarely make the right decision. If people were rational, economics and psychology would be hard sciences. They are not. The second cognitive error here is the implication that just because I make the right choice for me and my family and you make the right choice for you and yours, those choices will necessarily be harmonious and compatible with each other. They are not. I can make choices that actively harm you and vice versa. It’s not always a zero-sum-game, but a lot of the time it is.
Let’s take the Tory flagship policy of free schools as an example. I may be in a position – both financially and by virtue of my education, qualifications and skills – to get together with a bunch of parents and create our own “free school” where we can have smaller class sizes, better teachers, and get state funding to boot. This may well be the right choice for me and my family. And yet, if I do that, it takes money away from the local comprehensive which may be already struggling, thus further undermining it and the children of the people who don’t have the money, free time or skills to establish a school. So while you and I may both be able to tell which option is right for us personally, where our interests and priorities diverge, we need to use the tools of society and the state to resolve that conflict. I am not convinced that devolving everything down as far as possible helps with that. I think we have choices with regards to what level best to deal with particular issues at, and I am not convinced this government will be making the right choices for the majority of people.
Clegg sets out the actual policy agenda in his speech in three parts: civil liberties, political reform, and decentralisation. Let’s take them in turn.
There is very little for me to say on the civil liberties section. It’s spot-on as far as I’m concerned. It’s rolling back Labour’s excesses in this area: ID cards, national identity register, all of those criminal offences the last government created out of the blue (one for each day they were in office!), restrictions on peaceful protest, etc. In some ways this is low-hanging fruit as Labour’s record in this area is so appallingly poor, but it needs to be done and it’s good to see this work is a high priority. The one additional item on my wish list is the Digital Economy Act, and currently it’s looking quite promising that that, too, will get looked at by some sane people. (Incidentally, Eric Joyce, MP for Falkirk, is looking to pull together a Parliamentary Group on the Digital Economy Act. From what I hear, he’s still short some Tory MPs, so if you have one, drop them a line and ask them to contact Eric. For that matter, drop a line to your MP and ask them to contact Eric, regardless of their party affiliation.)
Next we get to political reform. Nick Clegg would like to drag Westminster into the 21st century. There is a longer and more serious blog post in the pipeline on this, but here are some of my flippant suggestions on how to drag Westminster into the 21st century:

Clegg’s own shopping list for political reform is slightly less flippant. He wants a proportionally elected second chamber. Broadly I think I agree with that, but would like to see some more detail. (Incidentally, for some really good arguments against an elected second chamber, go read this post by Nicholas. Certainly food for thought.)
Next, he talks about a fixed-term Parliament and the 55% rule. I really like the quote “We’re not taking away parliament’s right to throw out government; we’re taking away government’s right to throw out parliament.” It’s a good summary of the intention, and I have already written at great length about this. For me, the devil on this one will be very much in the detail of the implementation and it could either go very right or horribly wrong. We still don’t have enough information to judge.
Another one under political reform is the power of recall. I am on the fence here, and I asked the Twitterverse to convince me either way. I got a lot of examples of MPs in safe seats who are corrupt, unrepresentative and do not engage with their constituents. I fully sympathise. I am stuck with the right honourable Mr. Nicholas Brown, MP (Lab). I may have already remarked on his record. However, I am not convinced that the power of recall will address the root cause of this issue. The only thing that will is an electoral system which makes every seat worth fighting for. (And here’s a hint – AV ain’t it.) So I’m still on the fence about the power of recall. Nick Clegg does give examples of other countries where this works so I may go read up on those.
Clegg wants to regulate lobbying and make it transparent. Awesome. Go for it. Do it now!
Clegg also wants to get real. To be honest, I prefer my politicians complex. But they rarely are.
I was struck by this: “David Cameron and I are determined to reform party funding.” I do wonder what Lord Ashcroft thinks of it. I suspect that on this one, too, the devil will be in the detail.
Then we come to electoral reform, where the buzzwords are AV and larger, more equally sized constituencies. I have said before and I will say it again (and again): AV is a scam. It is in no way more proportional, it still leaves us with large numbers of votes which don’t count. And if implemented, it is likely to block further reform for decades because “we’ve only just had reform”. Having said that, when the referendum comes, I will be out on the streets campaigning like hell for AV, because scam or no scam it’s what we’ve got and we’ve got to work with that. Fewer MPs/larger/more equal constituencies are not just a scam but a Tory scam. I’m not overly impressed with those.
And finally, on decentralisation, I already said that I’m not convinced it’s the answer to everything. What worries me is that that whole section sounds like Mr. Clegg has swallowed the Big Society hook, line and sinker, and I’m not happy about that. Here is the thing about the Big Society that no one’s actually asked you: If the government cut large chunks of your public services and a small chunk of your taxes, which of those formerly public services will you personally commit to being responsible for and providing? Because if the answer is none – and it is for most people – then there is no such thing as the Big Society. The one sentence that gives me hope is this: “We know that devolution of power is meaningless without money.” The glaring omission of course is any indication as to what the government intends to do with that knowledge.
To sum up (this was only supposed to be a short post): Clegg’s three-step programme:

  • Civil liberties: Two thumbs up!
  • Political reform: Tell me more.
  • Decentralisation: Was he wearing a blue tie?

55% or the First Hurdle to Political Reform

Perhaps the most badly (as in confusingly and hysterically) covered part of the Con/Lib coalition agreement this week has been the so-called 55% rule. To recap, this is what the coalition agreement says, in the section on fixed-term Parliaments:

“This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55% or more of the House votes in favour.”

The coverage was so confusing that that I spent a whole day raging against the 55% rule before having it explained to me properly and have since come out saying 55% is actually too low. This is a complex constitutional issue and bears some further discussion.
Me? I’m on the fence. It’s important to remember that (as far as I know) all we have from the coalition at this point is that one single sentence above. That sentence is so vague, and so widely open to interpretation, it’s hardly surprising that everyone is confused. So let’s have a look at some of the key concepts involved here and the possible interpretations of that one pesky sentence. (I knew that politics degree would come in handy one day…)
I guess the first question is why we might want a fixed-term Parliament, as opposed to the current system where it is the Prime Minister’s right to ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament and call a general election. There’s a good reason this little oddity of the UK constitution is referred to as a “right” of the PM. There is a certain amount of advantage to incumbency in politics. The way elections are called in the UK, however, magnifies that advantage significantly. It allows the ruling party to pick the time for a general election based on how well they are doing in opinion polls, thus significantly disadvantaging any opposition parties. Currently the only limitation on this is that an election has to happen no later than 5 years after the last one. The keen-eyed among you may spot that the last two times an incumbent party has lost the election (1997, 2010) that election has been held at the 5-year limit. A fixed-term Parliament would mean that the ruling party can no longer find the best moment for them during a Parliament to call an election. They would have to take their chances every 5 years, just like everyone else. In my book, this is considerably more democratic than the current system. YMMV.
Next, let’s look at two important concepts: the legislature and the executive. And while we’re at it, we might as well include the judiciary for the sake of completeness. Those are the three branches of power. The legislature makes laws. The executive puts those laws into practice. The judiciary ensures laws are consistent with each other and are applied consistently across the board (the rule of law). The idea for most modern democracies is that these three branches of power keep an eye on each other – checks and balances. Each of the three has some powers to control the other two, none has absolute power. From the people’s point of view, this is basically divide (your rulers) and conquer. And it’s a good thing.
In the UK, Parliament is the legislative branch of power. The government is the executive. And yes, the government tends to be more or less a subset of Parliament, i.e. MPs from the party with the most seats in the Commons, led by the leader of that party as Prime Minister. Nevertheless, it’s really really important to understand that the two institutions are separate, have different interests, and have very different functions. They usually have a symbiotic relationship, as well as one of checks and balances; but they are different.
So now that we have established that Parliament and government are two different things, let’s look at the two concepts of a vote of no confidence in the government and the dissolution of Parliament. The former is one of the powers Parliament has to keep the government in check. If for some reason the government stops commanding a majority in Parliament, Parliament can declare that the government no longer has its confidence, and the government falls. The latter is a power government has over Parliament, a right of the PM to dissolve Parliament when it suits them. We’ve established above that I think this right is undemocratic because it disadvantages opposition parties in elections. There seems to be a misguided perception among commentators over the last few days that the government falling and the dissolution of Parliament are the same thing or somehow go hand-in-hand. They do not.
Parliament consists of the people’s elected representatives. If we, the people, have a friend among the three branches of power, it is Parliament. If a no confidence motion is passed by Parliament, that means the people’s representatives have declared that they will not support the government. That clearly puts an end to that particular configuration of the executive. This in no way means that the legislature has to be dissolved. There is no reason to think that the legislature is no longer representative of the people and a new election is needed. Under some circumstances it is still possible for Parliament to find someone who can command a majority, perhaps under a different coalition, and therefore form a new government within the same Parliament. This is not a bad thing and, as fas as I’m concerned, in no way undemocratic. They’re still your representatives, they should be trusted to be able to sort it out.
Obviously, we need some sort of safety measure. If a government loses the confidence of Parliament halfway through a five-year term, and Parliament cannot produce someone who can command a majority, we can’t go for two and half years without a government until the fixed term expires. Most systems handle this with a time limit. The Scottish Parliament, for instance, has 28 days to form a new government. If that doesn’t happen, a new election is called, regardless of the fixed term.
So having covered the basic concepts and constitutional theory here, let’s look at the numbers. And let’s first of all remind ourselves what the coalition agreement says:

“This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55% or more of the House votes in favour.”

So, it clearly says dissolution. A lot of commentators, however, seemed to think at least initially that it applied to no confidence votes as well. That would clearly be undemocratic, it would be an artificial prop for an unstable coalition that was sold to us as the only “strong and stable government” which could come out of this Parliament. I am inclined to believe that the agreement does mean dissolution only, and that the traditional 50% + 1 MP would still apply to votes of no confidence. (Incidentally, this does not mean 51% of MPs.)
Once we had established this, the next set of commentators came along and said “Don’t be absurd, that would mean that if the government lost the confidence of Parliament but there wasn’t the required 55% majority to dissolve Parliament (Tories only have 47% of seats by themselves, for instance) things would just go on without a government and nothing would get done.” Jack Straw is a key proponent of this argument. And aye, therein does lie the rub. As the statement stands, we currently have no idea how the coalition intends to handle the case above. I believe there is no other way to do it but to introduce a time limit in which another government can be formed. How long this time limit should be is still open to debate as far as I’m concerned.
And finally, here is one more point about the numbers game. The 55% threshold appears to be very cynically designed for this particular government. It means that if the Lib Dems and the Tories agree, they can still between them vote to dissolve Parliament, yet the Tories can’t turn around and shaft the Lib Dems by calling an election as soon as they have a chance of obtaining a true majority by themselves. While this is all well and good in the next five years, it is no way to make a fundamental change to the constitution.
After all, this country still has a first past the post election system and therefore generally tends to produce large single-party majorities. If in the next Parliament either Labour or the Tories have more than 55% of the seats, suddenly you don’t have a fixed-term Parliament anymore, and we’re back to the old extremely exaggerated incumbency advantage. In Scotland, the majority required to dissolve Parliament and call an election (other than when there has been a vote of no confidence and no new government has been formed within 28 days) is 66%. This seems like a much more reasonable number.
In summary, I think decoupling votes of no confidence from dissolution of Parliament is a good idea and certainly necessary if we want to achieve fixed-term Parliaments. I believe it would be genuinely more democratic, as it transfers power from the government to Parliament (remember – the legislature is your friend!). However, for this to be a. practical and b. sustainable, two things need to be true:
1. There needs to be a time limit to handle the situation where a government falls.
2. The threshold needs to be much higher than 55%.
These are the two things you might want to start asking your MPs awkward and difficult questions about now.
If you’re interested in further reading, here are some reactions from both sides of the spectrum. The second one is especially worth a read.
Vikram Dodd declares 55% undemocratic in the Guardian.
loveandgarbage from LJ on the other hand, writes a piece that is both informative and amusing about the constitutional implications over at Liberal Conspiracy.

Holding Them To Account

Today has been an emotional day for me, as well as for a lot of friends. So, we have a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government. I have been mostly angry all day, but here’s a list of some of the other emotions I’m seeing around me:
– Anger is a big one.
– A sense of betrayal, especially among Lib Dem voters.
– A lot of people looking for justifications – it was the only choice, it was the only stable configuration in the current Parliament. Whether they genuinely believe this, I don’t know.
– There is a fair amount of worry and concern: what will a Tory government do to us?
– And a few people looking for a silver lining – the sense that this is the least bad option we could have ended up with, hoping that the Liberal Democrats will moderate some of the worst Tory excesses. I can see where those arguments are coming from, but whether I believe them I don’t know.
So here’s where I’m coming out after about 16 hours of knowing that David Cameron is Prime Minister: I don’t like it. I don’t trust the Conservatives as far as I can throw them. I can see the line of argument that led the Liberal Democrats to make the choice they made. I can see how they might think that this is the best chance they have to actually influence something, put some of their policies into practice, limit the damage the Conservatives can do on their own. I don’t envy them for being in this situation.
So I will suspend my disbelief. I will give them the benefit of the doubt. I will judge them on outcomes, not on beginnings. But I think it’s only fair to lay out what I will judge them on. So here is my list of things that I will hold the Liberal Democrats personally accountable for over this Parliament, regardless of whether they formally have that portfolio in cabinet or not. This is what I expect them to deliver.
Women’s Rights
(Has anyone else noticed that so far diversity – of any kind! – in the cabinet seems to extend to Teresa May and one of them being ginger?)
Here’s what I expect: No reduction on the time limit for abortion. Significant steps to address the gender pay gap (paying women £3 a week to stay at home once married doesn’t count). No reduction in the availability or affordability of childcare.
Gay Rights
Civil partnerships must not become in any way significantly different to marriage. That includes tax breaks. Bonus if you manage to turn civil partnerships into marriages but I’m not holding my breath. No reversal of any equality legislation so far passed – on any of the six pillars.
Political Reform
Some of this is already in the coalition agreement, but it’s worth spelling out. Coalition agreements have a tendency to fall by the wayside when the going gets tough. Fixed term Parliaments. Fully elected upper house, with no reserved seats for, say, bishops. Upper house elected by proportional representation. Commons elected by AV at a minimum. (No, not a referendum. The real thing.)
Every single child in every single school must receive high-quality sex and relationships education. No opt-outs. No child in no school must be taught any form or creationism on an equal footing with evolution.
Civil Liberties
Some of these are low-hanging fruit that both parties in government have already successfully identified and started to move on. It is also actually a real opportunity area – the one area Labour got consistently and deeply wrong for over a decade. Scrap ID cards. Scrap the National Identity Register. Remove innocent people from the DNA database. Repeal the Digital Economy Act and start from scratch, involving some people who actually know something about the digital economy, rather than people who would like it best if the whole digital economy just disappeared.
No repatriation of powers. Not the social chapter, not criminal justice, and most definitely not human rights.
Work & Pensions
I do not expect this government to make the minimum wage a living wage. But I do expect the Liberal Democrats to ensure that it does not fall in real terms. Not by a penny.
Strong and Stable Government
We, the people, were sold this deal on the narrative of it being the only one which could produce a strong and stable government. I will be judging both parties on whether they make it work. If there is a general election before May 2015, I will consider the deal a failure and a con.
Make no mistake. These are incredibly low expectations. The Liberal Democrats are essentially tasked with maintaining the status quo in the face of the full-blown return to the 1980s that would be Conservative government. It is also far from an exhaustive list and I may add things to it as I think of them. I’d encourage everyone to make a similar list of the things they care about. And then maybe we can mail them to Lib Dem MPs.
Looking at the above, I am increasingly less convinced that this coalition is in any way an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to put some of their policies into action. It is only an opportunity for them to curb the worst of Tory excesses. Whether that is good thing remains to be seen, and whether the Liberal Democrats ever recover their credibility as a political party, let alone a progressive one, is also for history to judge.

The Elephant In the Room

I’ve been watching the coalition talks unfold over the weekend, paying particular attention to the way the message track from the Liberal Democrats has evolved. And something struck me.
Yesterday, the main message track was “we are listening to what the Conservatives have to offer, we are consulting with all parts of the party, there is a triple lock in place which stops Nick Clegg from doing a deal without the full support of the party, some of our senior MPs are still not convinced, and we want our supporters to tell us what they think”. I emailed, copying one of the co-editors of LibDem Voice. I spread the word on Twitter and even texted all my friends, especially those in the South West with LibDem MPs, letting them know and urging them to make sure the LibDems were aware of their views. (One upside was that I actually re-established contact with someone I hadn’t spoken to in a while – you know who you are. 🙂 Yesterday, everything was still to play for.
Today, the message has been evolving. Lord Ashdown came out saying the LibDems’ instincts pulled them one way, while the maths of the hung Parliament pulled them the other. I got an email from the co-editor of LibDem Voice:

“I don’t disagree with any of what you say – but I don’t see how the votes will stack up for a Lib/Lab coalition that will last. And I can’t see Lab backbenchers actually deciding to vote for PR.”

The rhetoric of stability, of trying to build a coalition government that will actually last, of not having to go back to the country in 12-18 months’ time has become more prominent over the course of today.
And here is the elephant in the room: The maths of the hung Parliament we have ended up with is such that any coalition coming out of it, short of a Grand Coalition, is highly unlikely to last more than 18 months. Even if the LibDems and the Tories reach some sort of agreement over the next couple of days that would give them the majority the Tories want, there is too much dissent in both of those parties for them not to fall our over some of the policies where they don’t have common ground. The hardline Tory backbenchers will walk out, or half the LibDem MPs will at some point realise that they can’t quite square the circle anymore. Whatever coalition we finally get is highly unlikely to be stable or last.
And having addressed the elephant in the room, here is the question: Are we being stitched up by a narrative of a mythical stable government to accept a LibDem/Tory coalition which ultimately will not only not last but will also not address some of the key issues we are facing, especially electoral reform? I’ll leave it to you to make up your minds.

My Year Without the PBI (and RIAA) – First Update

For those of you new to this particular party, about a month ago and in response to the Digital Economy Act I started an experiment in which I will spend the next year living without the BPI and their US equivalent the RIAA. As part of this I’m keeping track of what music I do buy, but also what music I find that is on those labels and I regret not being able to buy. I said I was going to do roughly monthly updates, of which this is the first.
The two big discoveries of the last month are BPI Radar and RIAA Radar which very helpfully tell me if a particular album was released on a label that is affiliated to the two odious organisations. This should make research on the subject a hell of a lot easier, though there still are grey areas. For instance a particular album may have a Japanese release on a label that’s not a member of either RIAA or BPI – but its US and European releases are affected. In that case, I’ll still not be buying the album this year.
So, since my last update I have made the following music purchases:
1. I have pre-ordered the new Zoe Keating album. It comes in two versions, one for $14 and one for $20. I splurged $20 on the posher version with the extra tracks and I’m very much looking forward to it.
2. I have also pre-ordered the the new Bitter Ruin album. I bought it for the cover price of £10. Again, can’t wait!
I’ve also read a review of a house concert with @solobasssteve and will be looking into his music in the near future. And my research on BPI Radar seems to indicate that VNV Nation are safe to buy, and I’m at least two albums behind on them, so I may well end up returning to my bleepy goth phase.
The biggest item to file under regrets is Melissa auf der Maur. She’s another one of those artists I discovered through the Volcanic Ash Cloud of Doom, as she ended up stuck in London and played a gig with Amanda Palmer which was webcast. From what I can tell, even though she’s experimenting with distribution models for her new album, she is signed to a BPI member label. If anyone knows otherwise, please tell me – I’d love to give that lady money!

It’s Europe Day! Some of my defining Europe moments…

Those who’ve ever asked me where I’m from will know that I tend to give one of two answers to that question: either “It’s complicated” or “I’m European”. People never seem to be satisfied with either of those, so I then end up launching into a lengthy explanation of my origins, legal status and history, after which they reach the conclusion that either “It’s complicated” or “I’m European”.
Today is, apparently, Europe Day, and as a European, I almost feel an obligation to post something about it. A lot of people have been posting about their visions for a future Europe, but I thought I’d have a look into the past instead. I’d like to revisit some of my defining European moments – some of the things that have happened over the last 30 years that have made me European.
Age 10, changing my watch as I crossed into a different time zone
I left the country of my birth – both for the first time and permanently – at the age of 10. My grandmother was a staunch Bulgarian patriot. Her grandmother had fought in an uprising against the Ottoman Empire. And so she had imbued me from an early age with a strong sense of pride in my country. Bulgarian was the greatest language, Bulgaria the most beautiful country, etc. This was probably just as well as it gave me a kind of confidence in myself, a sense that I didn’t need to justify myself for being Bulgarian, which would serve me well over the years to come.
So leaving the country in the back of my father’s car, moving somewhere where I didn’t speak the language or know the first thing about how things worked, was an interesting experience. I remember thinking that this was a momentous occasion in my life but not being really sure how I should feel about it. I remember driving through the border regions which really are extraordinarily beautiful, crossing the then-Yugoslav border and finding that the landscape was still the same – and still beautiful – on the other side. And as I changed my watch to CET, I remember my father saying how privileged I was to be doing this for the first time aged 10. He’s picked up some East German hitch-hikers in their 20s recently and that had been the first time they’d crossed into a different time zone.
The final thing I remember about that long drive from Sofia to Bruck and der Mur in Austria, through a war-torn Yugoslavia and the wide Hungarian plains, is getting to the Austrian border at 9pm on July 31st 1991. “I’m sorry,” said the border official to my Dad, “your family’s visas don’t actually start until the 1st of August. We can’t let you into the country before midnight.” And so we slept at the Austro-Hungarian border for three hours, before finally being allowed into the country that would be my home for the next eight years.
“But Mili’s different.”
My relationship with Austria had its ups and downs.
I picked up German fairly quickly, and was generally accepted by my classmates. When my German still wasn’t that good, they did all they could to help me out. Once it became better, the main emphasis changed to making me speak the local dialect. It was entertaining.
We moved to Austria at the same time as a very large number of refugees from the various wars that marked the demise of Yugoslavia. The town we lived in had a significant refugee population and there was a refugee centre where they lived, were looked after and were taught German. As the staff there knew Austrian immigration laws inside out they had been involved with helping my Dad and his employer sort out our paperwork when we originally moved there. We kept in touch with them and a few years later my mother ended up teaching German to the refugees as her first ever job in Austria.
Bruck and Kapfenberg – more of a conurbation than two distinct towns – aren’t exactly big. Between them they had about 70,000 inhabitants at the time, and the influx of refugees was visible. I remember a discussion starting one day at school – we would have been 11 or 12 at the time, and it was of all things in the equivalent of a home economics class – about the refugees. The teacher didn’t start the discussion, but clearly felt the obligation to guide it to some sort of constructive place. I sat to one side of the class listening silently as my classmates – my friends – went on for a good quarter of an hour about the lazy refugees who had everything handed to them – food, clothing, housing, and a daily allowance to boot – who couldn’t be bothered to work or even learn German. With hindsight a school trip to the refugee centre would have been a good idea, but what preoccupied me at the time was that the word my friends used, “foreigners”, included me too. Did they see me in this way? I certainly wasn’t going to draw attention to myself at that point and ask them, but my teacher did.
I will never forget the answer: “But Mili’s different.”
“My Dad spent all last night pacing up and down waiting for the referendum results.”
Austrians are the most apolitical people I have met in my life. Out of the 65 years since the end of World War 2, Austria has been governed by a Grand Coalition of the conservative People’s Party and the Social Democrats for 37 years. Yes, that would be like Labour going into coalition with the Tories. Only in Austria. Politics isn’t something that is overtly discussed in Austria, and admitting interest in it is almost like showing people your porn stash.
When in 1994 the country conducted a referendum on EU accession, I had pretty definite views about it. For me, EU accession would sooner or later open more doors, give me more opportunities. I was for it. I found it really hard to judge the popular mood though, because no one was showing me their porn stash. So all I could do was sit there and await the referendum results. When they finally came in – a resounding Yes – I was happy. What surprised me was that my friend Petra came into school that day and said “My Dad spent all last night pacing up and down, waiting for the referendum results, hoping it would be a yes.” Maybe some of them did care about politics after all, and maybe they weren’t quite as insular as I’d originally thought.
Austrian citizenship
The process of getting Austrian citizenship was an interesting one. We applied well before the official minimum timings, after about 6 years of living in Austria. We thought we had a chance. We had integrated well into Austrian society. Both my parents worked, my Dad was a competitive sportsman, my friends’ efforts to make me speak the local Styrian dialect were paying off to the point I almost sounded native.
I remember the day our application was approved. We were asked to attend an appointment with the official who’d been working our case. The paperwork was completed. My parents were asked to swear an oath of allegiance. I was still a minor so they swore it on my behalf too. We were advised we had to give our Bulgarian passports back to the embassy to be invalidated. And we walked out of there with a piece of paper declaring us Austrian citizens, with official stamps worth 12,000 shillings (about 700 quid, more like a grand in today’s money) attached to it. It’s the most expensive piece of A4 paper my family own.
I remember my mother feeling slightly iffy that day, trading in one citizenship for another. Austria’s not a fan of dual citizenship – something which plagues me to this day. For me, being Austrian meant a whole new set of doors opening.
Meeting William Hague
Not one of my finest moments. I was a little preoccupied with other things. Funny though.
I was at the Vienna International School by that point. I came in one morning, 2 hours late as I’d decided to skip the first two periods to have coffee with someone who was later to become my boyfriend. I was asked to the office of the Head of the Secondary School (who was also my philosophy teacher). “Bugger, I thought. I’ve been caught this time.” (Skipping class was an activity I had a lot of practice at – I’d had a couple of near-misses at previous schools but never been caught.)
When I went to see Mr. D, though, he didn’t even seem to know that I’d only just walked through the door. Or possibly he was willing to turn a blind eye to it. What he did say was that we had the leader of the UK Conservative Party (newly in opposition) coming to visit, with a team from the BBC, and would I be willing to be part of a group of students asking him – and I quote! – “difficult questions about why Britain is so awkward in the EU”. Mr. D, who was British but whose political leanings I wouldn’t even want to try to guess, clearly had me pegged as a European even before I started calling myself one.
To this day I’ve no idea what Mr. Hague was doing at an international school in Vienna, what the programme was about or whether our bit ever got in. And to be fair when the next day I sat in that room with him and my classmates I was still far too preoccupied with having met Oliver the previous day to say anything intelligent. But the experience did give me a glimpse into UK political culture and attitudes to Europe. Didn’t put me off moving here though.
My first 5 Euros
On January 1st 2002, shortly after midnight, I walked to the local cash machine and got my first ever five Euros. The intention was to keep that five Euro note at the back of my wallet for all eternity, to take it out and show it to the grandchildren, all that faff. A couple of years later a friend I’d given my wallet to to buy drinks spent it. Ah well, nevermind.
But I do also remember the first time I did extensive travel through the Euro zone. I’d done a fair amount of travel before and juggled currencies all over the place. Rather unexpectedly in mid-2002 I found myself in the course of one weekend going from Austria to Germany to the Netherlands and back to Germany, and not having to faff with currency. It was a strange realisation.
EU enlargement to the East
I must admit I wasn’t always in favour of EU enlargement into Eastern Europe, particularly not as quickly as it happened. I was studying European politics at the time, up to my eyeballs in treaty texts and the working or otherwise of EU institutions, and really didn’t think the EU could cope with an additional 10-12 members before it had had a chance to implement fundamental institutional reform, for which there was little appetite. From an Eastern European point of view, I also thought those countries should be given a chance to stand on their own and develop their own structures and identities for a little longer before becoming part of the EU. They had been under Soviet influence for half a century and less than 10 years later they were joining another international political bloc. I would have liked to see what they would have done on their own for a while.
Having said that, I believe EU enlargement has overall been a success, and has been beneficial for both sides. I lived in Prague for three months in 2003, about a year before accession, and the excitement among my Czech colleagues was palpable. It was great to see.
My personal Europe moment when it comes to enlargement is an article on BBC News covering the accession of Bulgaria and Romania. The BBC have since replaced the photo, but the original photo used was of a man waving Bulgarian flags and wearing an extremely nationalistic Bulgarian t-shirt.
Voting for the first time
I was just the wrong side of the age cut-off to vote in the notorious Austrian elections which put the Freedom Party in government and caused the first ever mass political demonstrations I had seen in Austria. I had actually also left the country by that point. I promised myself I’d make sure I got an absentee ballot for next time round. By the time the next election came round, though, I had done the research and found the absentee ballot process to be hideously bureaucratic, and I had been living in the UK for three years. My connections with Austria were few and far between (I had split up with Oliver 6 months before), and I was so out of touch I couldn’t make an informed decision, or one that would affect me directly in the foreseeable future.
So the first time I actually ever voted was in the UK, not too many years ago, in a local election. I make it a point these days to exercise my right to vote in local and European elections, and I continue to hope that one day EU citizens living in an EU country other than that they’re citizens of will be able to vote in their country of residence.
I am European
Time to nail my colours to the mast, in case the above was too subtle.
All of these experiences, and many many more, have contributed to my strong feeling that I am European. I’m not a fan of golf, but the Ryder Cup is about the only sporting event that I actually support a team in – because that team is European. I firmly believe in, in the words of the Maastricht Treaty, “ever closer union”. I am one of those weird people who would actually love to see a federal European Union. I certainly believe that there is still a lot of scope for EU institutional reform before the institutions are fit for purpose in a 27-member Union, and that recent waves of enlargement haven’t helped with that. But equally I hope and believe that somehow we will muddle through.
Personally have benefited hugely from the European Union. But I believe it has also brought a huge number of benefits to everyone living within its borders. The global political and economic environment is increasingly such that individual nation states find it difficult to face it on their own. The nature of the challenges we face is such that we all – as Europe, and as a world – need to look at them together.
So yes, I am a fierce internationalist, and above all, I am European.