Banning the opinions of others shows the insecurity of our own beliefs

“We’ve all got to learn to be a lot less bloody touchy”, asserted Times journalist and political commentator, David Aaronovitch last week in a debate entitled ‘The Right To Offend?’ Though his phrasing was more acerbic, Aaronovitch’s argument put me in mind of similar statement made over a century ago by the Victorian philosopher John Stuart Mill in which he said: “The beliefs which we have most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded.”

Now, 125 years later, and the explosive expansion of social media have indeed made such an invitation truly global. Software like Twitter and Facebook means that anyone in the world with a smartphone now has access to a potentially global platform for their opinions – the reach of which, just a few years ago, would have been mostly restricted to those in immediate earshot. This vast proliferation, Aaronovitch argued, will continue to cause such a ‘cacophony’ of ideas and opinions that it could render futile those laws designed to curtail free expression on the basis that it might offend people.

This is a good thing. Freedom of expression is sign of a free, open and progressive society – progressive in that it allows for the constant refinement and growth of new ideas. Freedom of speech sets the course for the collision of opinions and the emergence of new truths. To compel opinions to silence and deny the possibility they might be true, Mill said, would be to assume our own infallibility.

However, there is a sinister side to social media software too: in that it increasingly plays an active role in assisting the state prosecute those whose opinions it deems ‘offensive’. An opinion expressed in the pub will be heard by those nearby and then vanish into the ether; a tweet or Facebook wall post can be photographed via screenshot, printed out and then used as documentary evidence against its author.

As I have written before, embracing free speech means swallowing the fact that much of what is said is disagreeable and in bad taste. We may find others’ opinions to be utterly execrable – sick, even. That is our opinion. Who is to say who is right? With the caveat that they are not inciting violence or making a threat, offensive opinions should be ignored or, better still, demolished in argument. It is certainly not for the state to embark in the messy, authoritarian business of deciding what opinions should be permitted and what should be prohibited.

And yet this is precisely what it is doing. Under section 127 of the 2003 Communications Act, an individual can be prosecuted for sending by means of a public electronic communication network a message that is deemed “grossly offensive”.

In recent months, this oppressive law has been put into full effect. A few weeks ago, Azhar Ahmed was prosecuted for writing a message online that said: “all soldiers should die and go to hell.” The 20 year-old from Ravensthorpe was fined £300 and sentenced to 240 hours of community service. Needless to say, I do not in any way condone Ahmed’s vile comments, but I find it more offensive that he received more hours of community service for expressing an opinion, than the comedian Justin Lee Collins did for a sustained campaign of domestic abuse against his partner, Anna Larke.

Around the same time, 19 year-old Matthew Woods was jailed for three months for making explicit comments and jokes regarding the missing five year-old, April Jones, and Madeleine McCann, the three year-old who in 2007 disappeared from her family holiday home in Portugal. The “reason for the sentence”, Chairman of the Bench, Bill Hudson explained, “is the seriousness of the offence, the public outrage that has been caused”. Wood’s comments were abhorrent, certainly; but causing ‘public outrage’ by posting a ‘joke’ online does not deserve a jail sentence. It was on this basis – that of making a joke and not a threat – that the conviction of Paul Chambers – who had joked about blowing up Robin Hood airport should snow cause it to close and prevent him from seeing his new girlfriend – was this summer overturned and rightfully so.

The Crown Prosecution Service is now looking at how to treat social media and electronic communication in light of these cases in which people gave received significant sentences for posting ‘offensive’ remarks. It should repeal section 127 of the Communications Act. It is absurd that in this day and age people can be imprisoned simply for having opinions others find ‘offensive’. A society based on free-speech is not always a pleasant one: people will say vile, disgusting things, but we should be confident enough in our own beliefs that they can withstand this test. Ultimately, all that banning the opinions of others achieves is to reveal the insecurity of our own.


Leo McKinstry should be glad there isn’t a fit for work test for journalists. If there was, he’d fail

Over the last few months we have seen a continuous drip-feed of stories which have promoted a range of inaccurate and generalised accusations against disabled people with long term health conditions. As a result disabled people have faced greater hostility from the public, with many claiming that they have experienced hostility, discrimination and even physical attacks from strangers.”

So starts the National Union of Journalists’ opening statement on media coverage of disabled people.

Last summer, a report strongly criticised some sections of the media for the way in which they reported stories on disability benefits. Specifically, the pejorative language such as the use of terms like ‘work shy’ or ‘scrounger’. The fact that this report came, not from a ‘usual suspect’ disability charity or campaign organisation, but from the respected, cross-party Work and Pensions Select Committee is an indication as to just how serious the problem has become.

The 2012 London Paralympics is a wonderful opportunity to openly celebrate disability and difference. But, a change in our social narrative is badly needed. As I have written before, disability hate crime – which itself is under-reported and often ignored by police – remains a vile and stubborn stain on our social fabric.

This goes not just for adults, but children too; a recent academic study of disabled children found a fifth of them had been attacked physically, sexually, abused emotionally or neglected.

It is worth bearing this all in mind, when you read this spiteful, professionally weak and woefully misleading article, titled, ‘The Paralympics show up a corrupt benefits system’ by Leo McKinstry in the Daily Express. It is not that Mr McKinstry’s view of the welfare state differs to mine, which vexes me most; I fully accept that people will have different views on what the role of the state should be in providing disabled and vulnerable people with financial support. It is the fact that Mr McKinstry’s tendentious argument is based on un-checked, un-picked and inaccurate assumptions; he presents fiction as fact and fact as fiction.

Let the dissection begin.

He says: “One particular target of the activists’ fury is the international firm ATOS, which, under the coalition’s new, more rigorous, benefits regime, carries out assessments to decide if individuals are fit to work and what level of support they might require.”

He is correct in so far as Atos – which, with a note of sad irony, also sponsors the Paralympic games – does conduct the government’s fit-for-work assessment, the WCA. But this is a test that is not fit for purpose. Were it fully functioning it would not have been the subject of several internal and independent reviews; nor would experts like Paul Gregg – who designed some of the welfare-to-work support packages connected to the test – have spoken out against it; nor would almost a third of those decisions that are appealed then be successfully overturned in favour of the claimant. But no matter. Let’s move on.

He writes: “[Benefit] claims have rocketed in recent decades because the system is so lax. In fact, the definition of incapacity has been remorselessly expanded to widen the scope for dependency.”

I presume he means when in 2005 the Disability Discrimination Act was expanded to include conditions like Multiple Sclerosis, cancer and HIV? So, none of these conditions could have adverse impact on a person’s ability to work or give rise to any additional costs? Right. There’s a reason you’re not a doctor, Leo.

He goes on “claims for incapacity benefit are dominated, not by the physically disabled, but by those with mental health problems like depression, stress and behavioural disorders.

Read this again. What he’s suggesting is that people with mental health issues should not be entitled to state support, or that they’re all fakers who should just snap out of it. I myself am not an expert in mental health conditions but I’m pretty sure my colleagues over at Mind and Rethink would know of some people who would take serious issue with this.

He goes on:

“In this chaotic world, it is no surprise, that the total number of people on Disability Living Allowance has gone up from 1.1 milllion in 1992, when the benefit was first introduced, to 3.2 million today…”

See what he’s done here? All he’s done is point out that the caseload for DLA (a vital benefit that acts as a contribution to the extra costs disabled people have to pay as a result of living in our society with an impairment or condition) has increased. The ‘chaotic world’ and ‘no surprise’ bits helps frame it in a way that leaves readers with the impression that the only explanation for this rise in claims for DLA must be because people are fraudulently claiming it. Not because, oh I don’t know, that it’s well established that our society is getting progressively older and disability increases with age? Or that more people with critical needs are surviving into later life? Or that medical advancements are enabling many disabled people to live longer? Or that academic research shows that survival rates of very premature babies are, thankfully, improving, which suggests the number of people born with severe disability has increased. But these things are of no consequence right?

But wait, here comes the best bit. McKinstry writes:

AND the anti-reform campaigners are in denial about the extent of this costly failure. They are fond of telling us that fraud represents just 0.5 per cent of disability claims, but that is a completely bogus figure.

In the courts there is a constant parade of cases involving serious benefits fraud, like the conviction last week of serial cheat Barry Brooks, who grabbed £1.8 million from the taxpayer by pretending to be confined to a wheelchair

First, is the claim that the 0.5% fraud rate for DLA is “bogus…” Funny that, when you consider the figure comes from – wait for it – the Department for Work and Pensions. But more to the point, his only evidence for his claim that a Government statistic is ‘bogus’ is that there have been court cases of benefits fraud brought to his attention – of which he cites just one. And even then he fails to pick a case of DLA fraud. A quick Google search of Barry Brooks shows that he was jailed for fraudulently claiming support from Access to Work, and not DLA.

Mr McKinstry, you can lambast the welfare benefits system all you like. All that I ask is that, as a journalist, you do it accurately and check your line of argument. It’s a shame there isn’t a fit for work test for journalists and social commentators. If there was, you would fail it miserably.

This article was first published on Hynd’s Blog, courtesy of Steve Hynd. Many thanks to him.

Romney’s Paul Ryan Paradox

Of America, New York Times journalist Brooks Atkinson once said: “This nation was built by men who took risks – pioneers who were not afraid of the wilderness, businessmen who were not afraid of failure, scientists who were not afraid of the truth, thinkers who were not afraid of progress, dreamers who were not afraid of action.” Earlier this month, Mitt Romney – the Republican Presidential candidate – took to the stage in Norfolk, Virginia, to announce his much anticipated running-mate: 42 year-old Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan. As a man who made his millions in venture capital, Romney will be no stranger to risk. Selecting Ryan is exactly that.

Paul Ryan grew up in Wisconsin. His family, descended from Irish-Americans, owns a large construction firm, Ryan Inc., which could explain why construction groups were among his key financial backers at the start of a career spent almost entirely in politics. A fitness fanatic, Ryan is known for his morning workouts, his penchant for hunting deer and his alleged ability to catch fish with his bare hands (Putin, who?). Following the unexpected death of his father (Ryan found him in his bed after he had suffered a heart attack in the night), the young would-be Congressman developed a voracious appetite for books – including Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and, most notably, Ayn Rand, whom Ryan credits as “the reason I got involved in public service”.

He was elected in 1998, aged just 28 and rocketed through Washington’s ranks. Ten years later, now the top Republican on the Budget Committee, Ryan set out his ‘Roadmap to America’s Future’ as an alternative to Obama’s spending plans.

Already, the addition of Ryan has dynamically altered Romney’s campaign. Unlike previous Vice Presidents who saw out their terms in office in relative obscurity, should Romney win in November 2012, Ryan and ‘Ryan’s plan’ – which Romney described as ‘bold and exciting’ – will be extremely influential. That is, of course, assuming Romney does win. His choice of Ryan as a running mate puts him in a paradoxical position: in the short-term, it will boost his chance of becoming president; in the long-term, it could also kill it completely. For better or worse, Ryan’s selection is a game-changer.

Before August 11th, when Romney selected Ryan, the election was a referendum on Barack Obama. It must be admitted that Obama has been deeply disappointing to many at home and abroad. Given the impossible height of expectations following his election, he was always going to fall short. Much of his foreign policy – especially his reliance on extrajudicial assassinations for which he personally selects the targets – is disturbing. Nevertheless, as columnist Michael White points out, the campaign slogan “General Motors is still alive and Osama Bin Laden is dead” will resonate strongly with many in the US. The man remains a master orator, even if this novelty has worn off, and looks equally at home buying a round of beers at a bar as he does making the State Of The Union.

Mitt Romney, try as he might, does not exude the same charisma. For a man seeking perhaps the most powerful office in the world, he is staggeringly gaffe-prone. Highlights include: telling voters he “likes to be able to fire people” (this will not have gone down well when unemployment is over 8%); touting the number of cars he and his wife owns, including two luxury Cadillac cars, to a crowd in Michigan, the home of US car industry, after he opposed the bailout of the automobile industry; insulting the hosts of the 2012 Olympics, the UK, when he doubted London’s capability to host a successful Games. He even introduced Ryan as “the next President of the United States” – forgetting this is the very job for which he himself is running.

More seriously, Romney’s selection of Ryan highlights a real chink in his own armour: fears over his lack of appeal to far-right conservatives. Here, there are echoes of 2008, when the Republican candidate John McCain selected Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin – a highly polarizing figure – to be his running mate, in a move that helped cost him the election. Ryan is no Palin. For one, he is more experienced and clearly more intelligent. He brings with him a rich network of relationships with conservative think thanks and media outlets outside of Washington. But, while his presence on the ticket has enthused far-right members of the GOP, he too is a controversial and polarizing figure in his own right.

In May, Romney was polling well with women – a few points above Obama – but his appeal to female voters could be greatly damaged by Ryan, who is alleged to have 100% pro-life voting record and opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest. He co-sponsored a Bill that states the life of each human being begins at fertilization, which would render certain forms of contraception like IUDs and IVF procedures (which have been relied upon by at least three of Romney’s sons) murder. He co-sponsored the Ultrasound Informed Consent Act, which contains the provision that nothing in the law “will prevent a pregnant woman from turning her eyes away from the ultrasound images”. “What we cannot do”, remarked Amy Goodman, investigative journalist and host of Democracy Now! Radio show, “is turn our eyes away from just how radical Paul Ryan’s plans are for more than half the US population”.

The potential impact of Ryan’s policies on women will surely be seriously scrutinised over the coming months. More attention will be paid, however, to his fiscal plans – his Roadmap. Inspired by Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, Ryan is a true deficit hawk. The New Yorker describes his budget as “a comprehensive plan to reduce the welfare state and radically curtail the Government’s role in protecting citizens from life’s misfortunes.” He has proposed ending Medicare, a government health insurance scheme for older people, and replacing it with direct payments for people who could buy private insurance. He has suggested abolishing Medicaid, the healthcare programme for people who are poor, and instead giving state authorities this money to use as they see fit. He would like to end tax breaks for employers who provide health insurance and cut spending on food stamps. As writer James Surowieki points out, Ryan’s budget plan is essentially a statement that “there’s very little the federal government has done over the past hundred and fifty years, apart from fighting wars, that the House Republicans approve of”. Perhaps the most devastating critique comes from those, like the Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman, who point out that – even after eviscerating the welfare state – Ryan’s proposals would actually increase the US deficit…by about $2.6 trillion.

Before his selection, the election was to be referendum not just on Obama’s record but also the state of the US economy, which continues to struggle. With Romney’s selection of Ryan this will now change completely. Obama’s team will set out to savage Ryan’s budget plans and draw their draconian consequences to voters’ attention. It is no longer about assessing what Obama has done; it is about analyzing what Ryan would do. Ryan’s own record will quickly unravel. While he now advocates an extreme slash-and-burn budget, during the Bush years Ryan was a reliable voter on policies that increased the national debt. Just days after being selected as Romney’s running-mate, Ryan admitted that he had lobbied the Government for millions of dollars from Obama’s stimulus package – after twice denying that he had done so. These contradictions will be key pressure points on Romney’s campaign.

Having selected Ryan, Romney may well be enjoying a boost in support from The Tea Party, but he faces a messy dilemma: does he accept Ryan’s plans and the consequences they will have for federal spending – not to mention millions of low-income and older Americans (it is worth noting that the two states with the highest ratio of people on Medicare – Florida and Ohio – are key swing states); or will he distance himself from them and invite accusations of a poisonous fracture. Selecting Ryan was a risk – a huge one. Contrary to Atkinson, it is a risk that will eventually ensure that Romney does not play a part in building America – at least, as President.

A New Social Narrative

Amid a mass of measures – unemployment statistics, credit ratings, borrowing figures – with which a Government’s performance can be evaluated, one test in particular stands out. For any action undertaken by Government, English philosopher T.H. Green proposed, one should ask: “does it liberate individuals by increasing their self-reliance or their ability to add to human progress?”

The Coalition is fixated with self-reliance; individual personal responsibility is the lifeblood of conservatism. References to that familiar and yet vague group – people “who do the right thing” – pepper the Prime Minister’s speeches. The best example of putting this principle into practice is undoubtedly the benefits system – specifically, disability benefits. Within months of coming to power, the Coalition set out £18 billion worth of welfare cuts. At the time of writing, calls to cut another £10 billion have got louder. Witnessing the Government undertake its welfare reform agenda has felt akin to seeing youths rush, rob and strip an elderly man – once a respected by his contemporaries, now chastised and marginalised by his community – all the while watching from a distance, powerless to stop it.

Few would argue that the Coalition’s rapid unravelling of the welfare safety net will not increase self-reliance. But it is the second part of Green’s test – whether it increases a person’s ability to add to human progress – that is the most important. And it is in this respect that, for disabled people across the country, the Government is set to spectacularly fail.

It is when we begin to really unpick the Government’s welfare reform agenda that the callousness of it is fully revealed. The Coalition is set to cut benefits for disabled children. It distracted attention from other reforms by proposing to cut a benefit that helps care home residents get out in their community (certainly a tactical device, this plan was later dropped but its very suggestion is indicative). Come next year and support provided to disabled people with complex needs with no adult to care for them will no longer exist. Emergency payments for families in dire crisis – including disabled people and women fleeing domestic violence – could be replaced with supermarket store cards – vouchers for the destitute. Plans to increase a person’s self-reliance look very different when that person is a mother – perhaps with children in tow – escaping a violent partner.

A recent report by disability charity Scope and the think tank Demos reveals the profound impact that the cuts are having on disabled people. For the last two years, they have followed the plight of six disabled families as the cuts have come into effect, and have documented declining mental health, increased fear and anxiety; financial instability and a desperate struggle to make ends meet. One family, an elderly couple were left without money to fix their broken windows for almost a year – using towels to keep out the cold and rain. It is stories like his that shows – with startling clarity – the true human cost of austerity.

The argument put forth by MPs and Ministers alike that it is better to work than languish on benefits is solid. Nobody wants to squander their potential. But, here the narrative fuelled by politicians and the press is often toxic and frequently fails to show the whole picture.

First, it is often assumed that benefit recipients make the choice not to work. “For choice to be real”, authors Richard Reeves and Phil Collins state, “there has to be a range of options.” It would be naïve to deny the existence of some who do actively choose not to work, but so too are there many disabled who desperately want a job but are unable to secure and maintain employment.

The second assumption is that for those who are less able to work, this must be due to the limitations imposed upon their body and mind. To the public this may seem entirely reasonable, but it overlooks the crucial interaction between impairment and society. The ‘social model’ of disability sets out how practical and environmental barriers render people with impairments ‘disabled’. Many disabled people find ways to manage their condition, but still face real social barriers – inaccessible transport, unsuitable housing, social isolation, discrimination – that prevent them from working and leading the lives they value.

Finally, these problems are compounded by the lack of jobs in the midst of a double-dip recession. There are over 2.5 million people unemployed. It is against this hostile, competitive backdrop that the Government recently confirmed the closure of 27 Remploy factories that employ disabled workers. There are good arguments for ending sheltered working; it is not conducive to the ‘mainstreaming’ of disability our society badly needs. But the choice of timing is poor and charities have expressed real concerns about the level of support that former workers will receive. The Government’s woeful lack of tact here was illustrated by the contemptuous comments of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, who remarked that Remploy staff – who provide equipment to our police and armed forces – were “not doing any work…just making cups of coffee.”

Above all this, however, is an issue vastly more important than any benefit or work programme: our social narrative. It is becoming worrying venomous. Much of the tone is set by our media – sections of which were lambasted by a cross-party Select Committee for the “irresponsible” use of “pejorative language” like ‘work-shy’ and ‘scrounger’. Major disability charities warn that the Government’s focus on alleged fraud (and it is alleged – the benefit Disability Living Allowance has a fraud rate of 0.5%) to justify welfare cuts has caused an increase in abuse directed at disabled people. Many disabled people have said they are taunted in the street about ‘faking it’ and are concerned this Salem-like climate of suspicion might result in violence. A recent academic study of disabled children found a fifth of them had been attacked physically, sexually, abused emotionally or neglected. Experts have warned that disability hate crime remains under-reported and often ignored by police. This is not the atmosphere in which we can prevent another tragic story like Fiona Pilkington, who, after years of abuse from local youths, killed herself and her disabled daughter. 

There is a desperate need for a new narrative in our society – a new, serious and in depth discussion about the role of the state in supporting disabled people to become self-reliant, exercise their capabilities to lead the lives they value and add to human progress. Politicians of all colours have failed to stem the poisonous tide that is now saturating our social fabric. Further retrenchment of the state will only raise these water levels higher. Distinguished disability campaigner Jenny Morris is right when she says that we need a value system which values diversity and in which disabled people are treated as belonging and contributing to their communities. Which politicians, and of which party, have the bravery to stand up and say this remains to be seen. But it can happen. Even with further cuts still to come, we must remain hopeful. As the deafblind radical Helen Keller once said: “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope or confidence.”


This article first appeared in The Occupied TimesAugust 2012. With thanks to Michael Richmond and his team.

The Tory right are telling Cameron to be prepared to end the Coalition. Nick Clegg, take note.

Rumours always come connected to a catch-22. That is: say nothing, and speculation spreads; say something, and you admit the existence of the very problem you seek to dismiss. So it is with efforts exerted by Messrs Cameron and Clegg – who this week made a joint appearance at a railway depot in the West Midlands – to brush aside growing rumours of the Coalition’s early demise – giving weight to the rumours themselves.

But cracks there are – big ones; each week it seems like the paper-thin-plaster is becoming more and more transparent. The Prime Minister failed to come good on his promise to his deputy that he would deliver plans to reform the House of Lords. The Conservative leader was instead forced to watch the embarrassing spectacle of 91 of his MPs defy the party line on the issue and rebel.

Only, on this issue, the junior partners of the Coalition have a serious card they play in return. Up on the policy-making horizon are plans to review MPs’ constituency boundaries and reduce the size of the House of Commons. If realised, these plans could give the Tories another dozen or so seats. (As the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley rightly points out: that the Conservatives have their hearts set of securing this small number of seats speaks volumes about their own prospects at the next election.) It is now widely reported that if Cameron fails to delivery House of Lords reform for Clegg, Clegg will see to it that his party kills off the boundary review. “All Lib Dems”, Rawnsley predicts, “ministers included, will vote against the changes.” This is not just another reporter’s rumour; senior Lib Dem figures like David Laws, Sir Menzies Campbell and Lynne Featherstone have hinted at a similar threat.

If this happens, Rawnsley says, some Conservatives predict “the anger among Tories will be so intense that it will be the death knell of this government”. Just this week, Graham Brady, chairman of the prolific 1922 Committee announced that the Coalition partners should have “a moment of separation”, well before the next election, so as to carve out a distinctive identity. There has been much talk of late in the right-wing press that this moment of separation should come sooner rather than later. On the influential Conservative Home blog, Andrew Lilico declares himself to be “almost certain” that at some point in during 2014 the Liberal Democrats could withdraw and grant the Tories a minority government.

The Liberal Democrats are all but dead. They now poll in single digits, often neck-to-neck with the UK Independence Party. Almost three in four members of the public say that Nick Clegg is doing badly. Whatever you think about the cuts, tuition fees or the environment, the Lib Dems have actually already achieved a lot of what Nick Clegg desperately wanted to do: show that they can be a party responsible and mature in Government. On this, they have done well. They have been disciplined to the point of suicide in putting aside their own desires and voting through coalition policies on welfare, healthcare and immigration. And the Lib Dem backbenchers, unlike some of their Conservative counterparts, have refrained from openly criticising the Coalition.

There are real parallels between the liberal conservative Cameron claimed to be, and the Orange Book strand of liberalism that Clegg champions. Nonetheless, he must have known that going into bed with the Tories would result in people leaving the Lib Demos in droves. And it did. But it could well be the case that although Clegg wanted to show people the Lib Dems could be a party of government, he never expected to govern again. Instead, he put all his money on delivering two major changes to our democracy and leave, in his wake, a long-lasting Lib Dem legacy. These are: introducing the Alternative Vote to Britain and reforming its upper chamber of unelected peers and bishops. Having already failed to deliver the first, it now looks very likely that he will fail to deliver the second. All the while the Tories boast that they have now implemented around 80 per cent of their manifesto.

Having failed to deliver this legacy, there is little that Clegg can give his party to reassure them that their time in Government has been worth it. “We made Tory reforms less bad” is not exactly a message to fire and fuel public appetite when it comes to knock on doorsteps in 2015. In the next election it is highly unlikely the Liberal Democrats will form yet another coalition with the Conservatives and show the world they are just an add-on to the Tory machine.

But they could begin to set out their own agenda in the hope of another Coalition – only this time with Labour, who are consistently leading the polls and, for the first time in two years, shown to be considered by the public as the most competent political party. This would first require some serious efforts to detoxify currently poisonous relations between the two parties.

Having set out an incredibly radical programme of reform – to education, welfare, healthcare – the Government is now in its implementation phase; most of its big ideas have already been declared. But the Government is still failing to fully achieve its biggest goal of all: reducing the deficit, cutting borrowing and the public debt. Debt has increased from £1 trillion to £1.4. The Office for Budget Responsibility says another £17 billion worth of cuts are needed by 2017. The age of austerity has only just begun and the lights have dimmed on any hopes of a long-lasting liberal legacy.

Perhaps it’s time to leave, Nick.

Why reform the House of Lords? Why not abolish it completely?

Last week, the Government published plans for a reformed House of Lords. Explaining the principle behind a mainly elected upper chamber, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, said: “at the end of the day this just comes down to a really, really simple idea; and it’s called democracy”.

Over the next three elections, the Government proposes, the House of Lords will reassemble as a chamber in which 80 per cent of its members will be elected; the remaining 20 per cent will be chosen by an Appointments Commission. The new ‘lords’ (although they won’t be allowed to call themselves that) will be restricted to serving single terms of fifteen years. They will be elected via Proportional Representation into seats covering whole regions – bigger than the constituencies covered by MPs in the House of Commons.

On the surface, Clegg looks well positioned to push through what could well be the defining legacy of the Lib Dems’ time in government. The public agree with Nick; 76 per cent support reforming the upper chamber, which, as YouGov President, Peter Kellner rightly points out, “defies every democratic principle”. The parties agree with Nick; all three leaders support reform; all three included it in their manifesto and all three are pressuring their own MPs to back change. The Prime Minister is reported to have told Clegg that he’ll do everything in his power to deliver House of Lords reform. For more than a century, politicians have pursued the same goal and failed. It is “time to make progress”, insisted David Cameron.

A little deeper, and Clegg faces a slow, savage slugging match. No. 10 sources are reported as saying they expect “blood on the walls, floor and ceiling” in the form of a fierce rebellion from backbench Tories, who will viciously defend the status quo, and Labour opportunists, homing in on a perfect opportunity to derail the Coalition. Some Conservative backbenchers have described the plans as a “constitutional monstrosity”; others have said they will resign over the issue. News outlets report that the very timetabling of debate could be sabotaged, derailing any hopes (if there ever were any) of a clean, quick win.

Among the public, attitudes are actually a little more nuanced than statistics suggest. Yes, the majority of people care about an elected lords, but – as I’ve written on these pages before – they don’t care very much – less than a fifth believe it is an urgent matter right now. Moreover, while Clegg is insisting reform is premised on the principle of democracy, most of the public think they should have a say in the matter – only a quarter think that change should be enacted without a public vote. The prospect of reform costing us money in an age of austerity is another turn off. Finally, as Kellner says, come polling day, and people will become much more interested in details than they are now. Indeed, scrutinise the small print of Clegg’s plans, and a real risk emerges – that, in pursuit of democracy, an elected upper chamber will be both more powerful, and, in the eyes of many voters, more legitimate than the current Commons.

First, newly elected members of the House of Lords would serve longer terms than their Commons counterparts, allowing them more freedom to pursue their own agenda without being held to account by voters. Second, they would represent larger areas – and most likely more people – than MPs in the lower chamber. Third, they would be elected via the PR system. At the moment, MPs – including Nick Clegg, of course – are elected via the First Past The Post system – the “choice of dinosaurs”, according to Clegg. There is not space here to explain in great detail why so many – including this author – see PR as more democratic than the current system, but the risk remains that members of an elected upper chamber could claim a more legitimate right to be there than MPs like Clegg and Cameron. This is, in all probability, a key goal of Clegg’s. After the landslide ‘no-to-AV’ (Alternative Vote – or PR-‘lite’) last year, embedding PR within the House of Lords could well reignite debate about introducing it to the House of Commons.

Nick Clegg should be applauded; his plans to abolish the House of Lords throw up some much-needed questions about the state of our democracy. But, when it comes to Lords reform, the biggest question of all is one that few are asking: why have a House of Lords at all?

British prisons, foreign courts: the implications of prisoners voting

 The prickly issue of prisoner voting has raised its ugly head again. Just last week the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) reaffirmed its ruling that prisoners in the UK must be given the right to vote (although ministers could still determine the inmates to which this would apply). The UK’s outright ban on prisoners voting, the ECHR ruled, is illegal. Britain now has a 6-month window in which it must bring about a policy shift.

Currently in Britain, all prisoners in custody – that is, serving a sentence in prison or in a similarly closed institution – are not allowed to vote. Prisoners on remand – awaiting trial, but who have not been convicted – have been eligible to cast their ballots since 2000. The ban on prisoners voting has been in place since Victorian times (1870). Across Europe, some fourteen countries, including Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, have no ban on prisoners voting; in Greece, only those serving life sentences are removed from the electoral roll.

The real row over prisoner voting in the UK began in 2004. In the now famous case of John Hirst, who killed his landlady with an axe, the ECHR ruled the automatic ban on prisoners voting was unlawful. The Government, then under Labour, lost a series of appeals against the ruling, and later said it would implement the court’s decision. It launched two consultation papers, but then did nothing before being voted out of office in the 2010 election. Even now it is still against giving inmates the right to cast their ballots and has said it will back the Government’s decision. In December 2010, the Government announced it would bring forward legislation allowing prisoners serving four years or less the right to vote. In February 2011, MPs voted overwhelmingly – 234 to 22 – in favour of keeping the 140-year ban on all prisoners being on the electoral roll. The idea of giving the right to vote to prisoners, David Cameron said, made him “physically ill”.

There are good arguments both for and against giving prisoners the right to vote; it is a messy issue – one in which public perceptions, principles, practicalities and politics are inextricably entangled.

In terms of perception it’s no surprise that the thought of giving the vote to violent offenders like Hirst (Hirst’s particular offence was outlined in gruesome detail in a heated debate on Andrew Neil’s popular BBC politics show) makes people feel uncomfortable. The prospect of someone like Stephen Barker casting his ballot will undoubtedly spark outrage. Past polls (at the time of writing there appears to be a dearth of more recent data) show most people are against putting prisoners on the electoral roll. As The Telegraph points out: even limiting reform to those prisoners serving less than four years would still include 1,000 sex offenders as well as several thousand violent offenders.

In principle, however, there are two very good arguments in favour of putting prisoners on the electoral roll. The first of these is citizenship. It is absolutely right that people who have committed crimes lose particular freedoms, but voting remains integral to being a British citizen. Going to prison might prevent a person from being an active member of society – and restrict their freedom of movement, for example – but it does not nullify a person’s citizenship, nor should it. According to the Prison Reform Trust, people sent to custody must lose their liberty, but not their identity. In 2005, Charles Kennedy, boldly called for prisoner enfranchisement, stating: “we believe that citizens are citizens if you take the view…that an individual citizen is an individual citizen that means you have the entitlement that goes with it in terms of voting”. As pointed out by Francis Cook, Director of penal justice charity The Howard League for Penal Reform, how the frame in which the issue is presented to the public is important. She says:

‘When you ask, “Do you think prisoners should get the vote?” there is a sense that prisoners are not us, they’re dangerous and we don’t want to give them anything. When you talk to the public in more depth and say, “Do you think prisoners ought to be encouraged to be responsible citizens, live a good and useful life afterwards?”, everyone says yes. Citizenship is part of that.’

The second is rehabilitation. It is argued that by penal justice charities and prison staff alike that having the right to vote would help inmates maintain a connection to society; it should be a key part of the resettlement process. Far from being ‘soft on crime’, putting prisoners on the electoral roll would be a good step towards recognising they still have a stake in the society and can engage with their responsibilities as citizens. Underlying this is the aim of reducing rates of reoffending and cutting down on crime over the long term – not letting them off the hook.

However strong the principles are – and these can be contested like any others – these are destabilised by practicalities. Many people in prison have been incarcerated some distance from where they once lived – often only for short periods of time (in Brixton Prison, London, this is just 35 days). The administrative burden of re-registering hundreds if not thousands of people is formidable. Second, in some jails, the voting power of the inmate population could outweigh that of the local community. This creates the potential for prisoners to swing an election. (The flip side of this is that it would create a whole new demographic that canvassing politicians would seek to engage, after they’d gone through security of course).

Even if these practicalities are resolved (no doubt they can be – 14 other countries in Europe have already done so), overriding all of the above issues is the political fallout from putting prisoners on the electoral vote. Any Member of Parliament who suggests, seriously, that prisoners should have the right to vote invites the backlash of the right-wing media – as Charles Kennedy found out. Added to this, for Cameron, the outcry from Tory backbenchers – already angered by Cameron’s push on Lords Reform.

The most important political consideration, however, is this: the judgement that prisoners should be allowed to vote has come not from a British but a European (or, as David Cameron describes it, “a foreign”) court. This is not so much an argument about prisoners’ right to vote (although penal policy has always been a key issue for Conservatives) as it is recoil from an unelected court in Strasbourg dictating law above the powers of our own politicians and policy-makers in Westminster and Whitehall. In repealing the ban, the Prime Minister would be giving into a European institution, and at a time when public attitudes are becoming more hostile to Britain’s place in the EU.

David Cameron is now faced with several options. He could do nothing (indeed it is already suggested that Ministers will be able to put off the ban). But meanwhile the list of prisoners – currently over 1000 – lining up to demand compensation from having the right to vote denied. He could be seen to do something, like Labour did, in the form of consultations and public enquiries. But this, like last time, could spark yet another backbench revolt. Or he could bow to the ECHR – a “foreign court” – and introduce a change in policy that puts prisoners on the electoral roll. This would undoubtedly risk him being portrayed in the right-wing media as impotent, unable to stand up to orders from Strasbourg. But this, if done carefully, might even play to his advantage. Anti-Europe sentiment is already high; even Labour are suggesting offering a referendum of the EU, in the hope of outflanking the Tories on one of their own bread-and-butter issues. If spun and framed the right way, the Government could concede to the ECHR, appeasing their Coalition partners – the Liberal Democrats (who have been much more quiet on the issue this time around than they were in late 2010) – while placing the majority of blame on a European institution, fuelling anti-European sentiment that could well play to their advantage in the long run. To do so would be clever, but carries enormous risk. The headline will end with “…gives murderers and rapists the vote”. Whether it starts with “Europe” or “PM” remains to be seen.

What do you think? Should prisoners be given the right to vote? Join in the debate and leave your comments below.

Why Labour cannot rely on Anti-Tory votes alone

“Compassionate Conservatism is dead. Contemptuous Conservatism has taken its place,” declared Liam Byrne MP, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary and, until recently, coordinator of Labour’s policy review (a small-scale reshuffle by Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, resulted in Byrne being taken off this brief and replaced with Jon Cruddas).

Byrne’s statement came in the midst of his second Beveridge lecture, entitled ‘Making Rights a Reality for Disabled People’, hosted by the independent think tank Demos. Byrne used the speech as an opportunity to provide a lesson in history and philosophy – taking his audience on a journey through post-Second World War Britain and the creation of the welfare state – “one of the greatest achievements of British civilisation.”

He set out Labour’s commitment to universal welfare provision and full employment. Full employment, he suggested, would allow for a more generous welfare state with universal benefits. Key to this achieving this aim will be supporting more disabled people into employment. Ultimately, this ties into a strategy that centres on people’s ‘capabilities’ – an approach Byrne adopted from the Nobel Prize-winning economist, Amartya Sen. Rather than focus on people’s limitations, a capabilities approach looks at what people need to live the types of lives they value.

Byrne did not waste the chance to slam the Government either. Had a Labour Minister made the same comments as Work and Pensions Secretary and former Conservative Party Leader, Iain Duncan Smith – who recently claimed that disabled employees in Remploy factories were “not doing any work at all…just making cups of coffee” – they would have been sacked, Byrne asserted. The Government “have quite simply crossed the threshold of decency.”

No doubt many would agree with such an assessment of a Government that is cutting benefits for disabled children and destabilising the future of emergency payments for women who have escaped domestic violence. As Claudia Wood, Deputy Director of Demos, rightly points out: quoting philosophers and economists like Sen and Martha Nussbaum is all well and good, but what people really want to know is what would Labour do differently? When asked what policies in the Welfare Reform Act, which became law in March 2012 and sets out many highly controversial policies like the abolition of Disability Living Allowance (DLA), Labour would reverse, Byrne stopped short of giving such details – at least until the next election, he responded.

In the meantime, he and others will be “taking evidence around the country from people with disabilities, from carers, from campaigners, from public service and business leaders about how we renew the universal in the universal welfare state by turning rights into reality.” In other words: a listening exercise (hopefully, one more effective than that carried out Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, seeking – and failing – to convince the country of the merits of the Government’s NHS upheaval).

Disability activists and campaigners following the speech on Twitter celebrated Byrne’s announcement of a co-produced policy review. Editor of the popular Liberal Conspiracy, Sunny Hundal, asked: ‘Has Liam Byrne discovered his conscience over disability benefits?” One of the authors of the excellent Spartacus Report – which just a few months ago spread across the Twitter-sphere like wildfire after exposing the Government’s staggering dismissal of highly critical responses to a public consultation on a key disability benefit – hailed it as “a huge significant shift”.

The prospect of Labour carrying out a co-produced policy review, with disabled people’s voices at the centre of it, is indeed a most welcome development and the praise outlined above is rightly placed. However, it should be taken with a pinch, if not several handfuls, of salt for a few reasons. First, because there is already a wealth of information – including the Spartacus Report and Demos’s own series, Destination Unknown – out there detailing the real life impact of the cuts on disabled people and their families. Second, because Labour is already more than a year and half into the policy review and seem to have surprisingly little to offer. In some areas, Ed Miliband’s famous “blank piece of paper” is, eighteen months later, still blank.

Third, and most worryingly, is the thought that Labour believes they don’t actually need policy details. Not yet, anyway. As the recent council elections showed, people are turning to Ed Miliband’s party in their droves. At the time of writing, the polling company YouGov put the Opposition 11 points ahead of the Conservatives; almost two thirds of people disapprove of the Government’s record to date; 63% think David Cameron is doing badly as Prime Minister. With over a third of people worried that they could lose their job in the next year, it would seem that the Government’s own programme of austerity is turning people against them, and towards Labour.

Before Ed Miliband’s election as party leader, a friend and I argued over the two contenders’ credentials as leader of the opposition. At the time, I supported Ed and he David. His main concern was this: that should Ed be elected, he would bury himself in policy reviews and similar soul-searching exercises and, as a consequence, could not become the credible and vocal opponent of the Government’s ideologically-driven cuts that the people needed. The strategy would be to rely on anti-Government – and not actively pro-Labour – sentiments driving people into the Opposition’s arms. Eighteen months later and Labour might be enjoying a big boost in the polls, but more than half the public think that Ed Miliband is doing a bad job; a similar figure say that Labour cannot be trusted to run the economy.

Welfare is a particularly tricky area for Labour; reform of the benefits system is popular with the voters and Labour needs to show where they would get the money to fund alternatives they come up with. But the Government has also had much to do with turning public opinion against the welfare system; a well-planned programme of selective media briefings have fuelled the poisonous ‘scrounger’ and ‘workshy’ rhetoric that is now so widespread in many popular newspapers. A key task for Labour will be to shift this narrative and challenge media-fuelled assumptions that disability benefits are rife with fraud (the Government’s own statistics show that DLA has a fraud rate of 0.5%).

Relying on anti-cuts/Conservative/Government opposition makes sense, strategically. Why go out to voters if you can get them to come to you? But without an answer to the question ‘What would Labour do?’, and soon, Byrne et al will fail to provide an articulate and meaningful challenge as the Government sets about dismembering the very welfare state Beveridge created all those years ago.

Into office, out of touch

Labour are looking like a credible contender once more. In last week’s local elections, the party, which had been enjoying a significant lead in the polls, won 38% of the vote. This is still short of the 40% watermark, which, it is often accepted, needs to be reached if a party is seen to be in a position to form a majority Government. Meanwhile the Conservatives won 31%; the Lib Dems 16%. The Tories are nine points down on 2008; Labour are up 16.

But amid all these points and percentages, perhaps the most important figure is this: voter turnout is estimated to have been just 32%. In other words, only a third of people who are registered to vote turned up to cast their ballots (in some wards this was as low as 8%). This is the lowest turnout in English local elections since 2000.

Is this indicative of endemic apathy across the country? Or deep disillusionment with the current political system?

The answer is both.

The question whether, at a time when central government has imposed, top-down, deep cuts to public spending (the deepest since World War 2), people perceive their local council to be impotent is a highly pertinent one. But 32% also speaks volumes about people’s perceptions of politics and the ‘Westminster Village’, which, as its name suggests, is increasingly seen as isolated, out-of-touch and disconnected with people’s real lives and concerns. Recent polling by YouGov and the influential, centre-right think tank Policy Exchange revealed that 81% of people believe that politicians don’t understand the real world at all. Almost two thirds of people said that political parties were all the same. As the think tank’s deputy director points out “the ‘Westminster Village’ is seen as a bubble that doesn’t really understand the concerns of ordinary voters who are struggling to make ends meet.”

The majority of people think that neither the Prime Minister David Cameron nor the Chancellor George Osborne understand the problems faced by ordinary British people (70 and 74% respectively). Two thirds of people see the Conservatives as a party of the rich.  And while this, coupled with the big local election gains, should be good news for Labour, they too are also thought of as disconnected with people’s daily lives (albeit, more in tune than the Tories). Over half of people say the same for Eds Miliband and Balls as they did for Cameron and Osborne above; a similar number doesn’t trust the party with their money or the economy.

There are few excuses for not voting; people died (and, in many countries, still do) to secure this as democratic right. In Australia, voting is a civic duty and has been a legal requirement for the better part of a century. Australians who fail to vote, and without good reason, can be fined. There are good arguments for implementing a similar policy here. But while it will certainly incentivise people to go out and cast their ballot, it does nothing to alter people’s perception that the politicians voted in are out of touch.

What do you think? Should people be made to vote? Do politicians understand the concerns of ordinary citizens? Join in the debate and leave your thoughts below.

House of Lords Reform? Meh

Earlier this week, The Guardian splashed on the results of a new YouGov poll, which showed that 69% of voters support a reformed House of Lords – a key policy favoured by Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister. The poll, commissioned by Unlock Democracy, revealed that just 5% of the public favour the status quo – a fully appointed second chamber.

The Guardian hailed the results as a ‘boost’ (and a much-needed one; Clegg’s party is polling at a woeful 9% – neck and neck with the UK Independence Party) for the Lib Dem leader. For many Lib Dems, battered from the rise in tuition fees for university students, bruised from losing a previous referendum on changing the voting system in the UK, reform of the House of Lords is one of the few flagship Lib Dem policies remaining intact, if not yet realised.

However, scratch beneath the surface and this ‘boost’ is more of a bump, if that; the key difference being not how many people support reform, but how much do they care? In an article for The Observer, Nadhim Zahawi, who co-founded and is a former CEO of YouGov, drew attention to private polling that the number of people who thought House of Lords should the main priority for this government over the next year: 0.

The president of the Lib Dems, Tim Farron, has acknowledged that House of Lords reform isn’t seen by voters as a” top campaigning issue”. Elsewhere, respected commentators like John Humphrys have flagged the dangers of the Government being seen as spending considerable effort on something many people feel doesn’t actually matter. At a time when over two and a half million people are unemployed and with Britain in a double-dip recession, which economists warn could last until summer, the prospect of spending £100 million on a referendum – and even more if actual reform is to be brought about – won’t have people rushing to the ballot box or picking up placards.

There are good arguments for and against reforming the upper chamber. Many are opposed to the very principle of an unelected House of Parliament – a practice present in only 15 other countries worldwide. Others are concerned that an elected second house would result in US senate-style gridlock, and highlight the good – if mostly invisible – work of peers like Jane Campell and Dee Doocey in opposing the Government’s regressive welfare and legal aid cuts. Some like Polly Toynbee have called for the abolition of the House altogether.

Now is certainly not a good time to press on with a reform that is not a priority for voters. But, as Steve Richards rightly points out, ‘now’ is no better or worse than any other. With the public behind him (if not very strongly), Nick Clegg has a chance to push through on a reform that will change the very make up of British democracy. Considering that so many people support the policy, but so few (9%) support his party, it is a chance he will almost certainly never have again.

What do you think? Should the House of Lords be reformed? Is it a priority for Government? Join the debate and leave your comments below.

%d bloggers like this: