Sunday, May 9, 2010

Layer 302 . . . Tales of Two Cities, Enchantment, Politics, Peace Camps, Demos, PR, and a Progressive Alliance

Paddy Ashdown, now pushing 70, showed this morning how to wear an open-necked shirt and still look funky. These younger politicians who wear their normal suit shirts without a tie just look - stupid.


Here's my recommended viewing for today:

Crisis Capitalism - Naomi Klein and Raj Patel


There was a very funny moment on TV this morning when Dame Anne Leslie, the notorious right-wing hag, argued against PR electoral systems on the basis that they let into parliament undesirable parties such as Austria's neo-nazi Freedom Party and BZO. A fellow panellist then pointed out that these are exactly the kind of parties that Cameron and co have joined up with in the European parliament. Brilliant.


Tales of Two Cities

1. Venice - by Francesco da Mosto; BBC4

"Not just beautiful. Enchanting."

So said a guy who's been sweeping St Mark's Square at dawn every day for 22 years. Venice is enchanting.

So here we have it: there's something beyond beautiful. There's something more than aesthetically pleasing and visually stunning. There's another dimension where aesthetics trigger . . . the divine. The transcendental. The spiritual. The realm of satori that lies beyond the merely physical. The connection with the metaphysical; the one-and-all; the source of all meaning and ultimate joy and delight. The source of our higher being. This is what the street sweeper connects with, every morning in Venice, as he watches the sun rise.

This programme is a visually stunning, brilliantly conceived, wonderfully edited, superbly written and beautifully narrated essay on an amazing city.

Now available on DVD.


2. London

Is London enchanting? Er . . . no. On the whole. London is something else. An amazing place in its own right, but not a place which of itself produces transcendental enchantment; though parts of it can, on certain days.

Arriving in Trafalgar Square yesterday I found it full of Morris dancers and their entourages, plus passing tourists, and this was only an hour after there was supposed to have been a massive demonstration in favour of PR and electoral reform. Hardly an Athens-like scenario.

Walking down Whitehall it was clear that the majority of people were tourists, speaking a variety of languages. This is a weird and not very wonderful street - though it's very impressive. All the financial and political pomp and power of the State is on architectural display. I'd really love to see there, every weekend, parties of visitors consisting of neighbourhood groups giving their young people an educational tour. Children and young people from all over the country should have a right to a guided tour of the throbbing heart of government, in order to stimulate their interest in politics, government and citizenship. How many schools, especially London schools, even bother to do this? You have to experience it, to begin to understand it.

Parliament Square yesterday was full of tents belonging to a peace camp set up as a 'democracy village' by activists who want to see our troops pulled out of Afghanistan, amongst other things

 (c) Oxzen Pics

I noticed Sally Bercow had said she'd go to live in a tent in the Square when she was told to move out of the Speaker's flat for the duration of the election. An interesting character.

(c) Oxzen Pics

There's now an amazing media village on the green opposite parliament, which is dominated by a two-story black-glass prefab belonging to the BBC. This is the studio that was used for the BBC's political broadcasts this morning.

I finally came across the "Demo for Democracy" in Smith Square - which had been organised by POWER2010 and its Take Back Parliament campaign. They gave a huge cheer when Vince Cable emerged from Transport House, which was fronted by a row of police officers, and made his way on foot back to the Lib Dems HQ a couple of streets away, accompanied by chants of "No sell out!"

(c) Oxzen Pics

Walking back past Millbank Tower and Parliament an hour later, after a visit to the Tate - the Westminster village's very own art gallery - I came across Chris Huhne and David Laws on their way to LibDem HQ, deep in conversation. These guys, in terms of influence, appear to be in the top six of the Lib Dem hierarchy. In our current circumstances they are therefore in the top six power brokers in the entire country. Their backgrounds are very interesting - both of them public school and Oxbridge educated politicians who were originally investment bankers, operating deep in the throbbing heart of the City.


Helena Kennedy said on TV this morning that political tribalism is in decline, and her own record in the Lords shows she's always focused on issues and principles, not Party bickering and manoevering. PR allows us to have a more mature and intelligent democracy.

Which is pretty much what Oxzen wrote in response to Henry Porter's article on PR today.

Is this really the end of Punch and Judy politics?

The adversarial system we have lived with for so long is outdated and a bar to true progress

During the election, I took part in a dozen or so public meetings. I was struck by the incredible focus of the audiences. People were paying attention in a way that was quite new to me and was also rather moving. They wanted to believe; they wanted the best for those around them, particularly the new generation of voters, which is what makes the failure in all those polling stations such a scandal. The idea that people in those audiences were divided into first- and second-class voters because of their political allegiance was appalling.

We rediscovered the wonder of free elections last week and saw its potency and that is where we should start on the issue of PR. Two hundred-odd years ago, you might have met a stout man of affairs, probably a Tory, who would have deplored the idea of extending voting rights and abolishing rotten boroughs: he was swiftly consigned to history by the Whigs and their Great Reform Act of 1832. A hundred years ago, you would have met the same type spluttering at the mention of votes for women; he was swept aside by the suffragettes.

Today, that very same conservative voice will tell you that first past the post is the only system that can produce stable, decisive governments. But the view that says we have to tolerate an unfair voting system will go the way of all that self-serving opinion of the past.

The election seems to be telling us to settle on PR as a principle and then find a system that suits our politics. Neither of the main parties properly concedes this need, because it threatens their power, but a hung parliament is the clearest possible hint to them that we demand changes in the political culture that are more than spin.

Part of the British genius for progressive reform is that we used to understand that with each advance in people's rights and enfranchisement, government improved. PR is not a threat to government, but the only way to renew its legitimacy and improve its performance. PR means progress as well as equality at the ballot box.

Oxzen commented:

Good article, but

    . . . with each advance in people's rights and enfranchisement, government improved.

There have been important advances, but it's not clear that government has always improved. Would you say that the Blair/Brown government was an improvement on the Attlee government, which was arguably our one and only socialist government? Would Attlee have left it to the markets to dismantle, asset-strip, sell off, and cease to invest in British industry, and inflate property bubbles?

The reason that PR is essential, and has been adopted by more enlightened countries, is that it encourages and enables government on the basis of coalitions around ideology, and not just personalities and parties. The age of 'broad church' parties such as Labour and the Conservatives, which mainly provide career paths for professional politicians, has to come to an end. People need to know what and who they're really voting for when they take the trouble to vote. The New Labour brand fooled far too many people for far too long. A trade descriptions act is needed for politics as well as retailing.

Government on the basis of which party has the biggest share of seats and/or votes, even though their share of the vote is way below 50%, is almost as childish as government on the basis of personal popularity contests between individual politicians. This is what now enables the Tories to claim they have a right to govern when they know very well that the majority of voters are against them ideologically, and probably always will be.

The nonsensical neoliberal theories of market efficiency have been tested to destruction, trickle down economics have been shown to be a deception, and only government by coalitions of social democrats and others on the left is going build a better Britain based on social justice and sound economics. It's time for our politics to grow up and for politicians to persuade people to vote for them on the basis of where they really stand and who they'll work with in a balanced parliament. This is what happens in mature democracies.

The Tories have nothing to offer this country - certainly not PR - but New Labour are little better, unless they now admit they've been seriously going down the wrong road for the past 13 years.


Alex Salmond has said that the country now needs a "progressive alliance" consisting of all the anti-Tory parties coming together. Can't argue with that.

(c) Oxzen Pics


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