Is the UK’s democracy in decline?

Interesting – and slightly worrying – piece in The Guardian this evening about the sorry state of democracy in the UK. It’s illustrated with a photograph of Boris Johnson, but I’m sure that is nothing to do with the actual story!

Anyway a group called Democratic Audit has shared the findings of its report with the Guardian, and the conclusions paint a bleak picture. While devolution and Parliamentary select committees were welcomed (because the latter does a good job at holding the likes of Rupert Murdoch to account), it’s concerns were over how much parliament really represents us and how much power corporations hold over us.

Now, in the last few years Parliament has had enough scandal to turn most of the country away from politics. The expenses saga showed us that a lot of our so-called representatives are more concerned about lining their own pockets than their constituents. The state of the economy and the worries over cuts to services mean that the public see a government full of wealthy young men, out of touch with the majority of the population, who never have to worry about Workfare or the closure of their local libraries. The Phone Hacking scandal and the subsequent Leveson Inquiry showed us just how close big business, government and parts of the state really are. The question the report’s author asks is,

Britons could soon have to ask themselves “whether it’s really representative democracy any more?”

Is the government representative of the whole country, or just the interests of Murdoch and Eton Old Boys?

That said, there is a strong civil society opposition to the public spending cuts, like the local opposition to the closure of Friern Barnet Library and the UK Uncut group which plans sit-ins against corporations known to be guilty of tax evasion. The internet and twitter are full of active bloggers and politicos – though these might be the kind of people who aren’t ever going to be disillusioned by politics, no matter how many Eton Old Boys are thrown into government. Indeed, politics is becoming an interest for the minority, while most people look from the outside and see back-stabbers, expenses-fiddlers, careerists and out of touch rich boys arguing amongst themselves, whilst making sure they steer well clear.

The sad thing is, if we don’t reach out to the people alienated and fed up of politics, then the democratic deficit is only going to get bigger.

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The morality of bankers

A couple of new stories about the financial sector caught our attention this week. The first was the LIBOR scandal – Barclays and other banks deliberately fixing the inter-bank lending rate for profit. Then there was the scandal that banks were forcing them to take out Interest rate protection insurance with crippingly high repayments. Proving yet again, that banking is the business of cowboys.

As is understandable, the public reaction has been one of outrage. While millions of people are struggling with the austerity measures and recession, here are the people who caused the crash cheating their way to wealth and celebrating with bottles of Champagne. Ed Miliband has called for a public inquiry into the corrupt practices of the banks, Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian called for the bankers involved to be punished just like last summer’s rioters (the difference between rioters and bankers is the latter have stolen a lot more). Meanwhile, the chief of Barclays, Bob Diamond, called it “inappropriate behaviour” carried out by “a small number of people”, as he tried to deflect the blame from himself and his company.

What is obvious to most people – even, I suspect the Time and Telegraph readers – is that the banking sector have basically been allowed to do what they want for far too long. Not enough regulation has meant they have been free to bully small businesses and individuals, and not enough control has allowed them to get away with activities that are blatantly criminal. A footballer found guilty of match fixing would be banned from the game and jailed. A public sector worker caught stealing from work would be sacked and prosecuted. Why not punish the bankers responsible as well?

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Rio +20: Give us 20 more years to talk about it

So, the International Hot Air bandwagon returned to Rio for a twentieth anniversary talking shop about the environment. In the end the produced a document called The Future We Want which has been attacked by pretty much everyone with an interest in looking after the planet as not actually doing anything.

While politicians from Ban Ki-moon to Hilary Clinton patted themselves on the back and said, “isn’t this document wonderful” (well, not exactly in those words, but along those lines), environment activists such as Greenpeace and Tearfund said it didn’t actually set out what they are going to do.

Greenpeace were scathing in their criticism of the document;

“We didn’t get the Future We Want in Rio, because we do not have the leaders we need. The leaders of the most powerful countries supported business as usual, shamefully putting private profit before people and the planet.”

It’s like they want to be seen to be paying attention to the fact that the world’s finite resources aren’t going to last forever, but don’t actually want to do anything to change their lifestyles. It’s easy to see why Greenpeace have come to this conclusion – it takes ten pages for the document to start a bullet point with something other than a recognition or affirmation, and half-heartedly “encourage” countries to develop green policies. Yes, encourage green policies and job creation – while most of Europe imposes job cuts and austerity on the poor. I can’t really see any of them keeping to that point in the document.

Reading through the document, it’s obvious that the discussions were little more than an academic exercise for the delegates, rather than a serious attempt to actually formulate policies for sustainable development. And it makes me despair for the future that we actually want.

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Why Cameron can’t sack Hunt

Baroness Warsi: Takes family member on official trip, and fails to disclose business interest.
Jeremy Hunt: Responsible for overseeing the BskyB takeover (which would have required impartial judgement). Sends texts and makes phone calls to James Murdoch, congratulating him whenever the bid made some progress.

Now, who did David Cameron refer to the Ministerial Code Advisor? Only Baroness Warsi. Hunt, who was clearly too close to The Murdochs to judge the BskyB bid impartially – something that we all knew then, and was confirmed with his appearance at the Leveson Inquiry – survives for now. Both have done wrong but the Prime Minister protects one of them, and it’s very obvious why.

1. Andy Coulson – Ex News of the Screws editor, Ex communications chief at Number 10 and just this week charged with Perjury by a Scottish court for lying under oath during the perjury trial of Tommy Sheridan. Coulson resigned from NOTW, remarkably claims to know nothing about phone-hacking and later resigned from his job at Number 10. Cameron refused to send Coulson away with his P45. You could argue that Coulson might not have known about phone hacking, but that would just make him an incompetent boss. Incompetent or criminal – neither justify keeping him at Number 10 for so long.

2. Rebekah and Charlie Brooks – Close friends of David Cameron who were recently charged with perverting the course of justice. Rebekah Brooks was the editor of another Murdoch tabloid The Sun, has been described as like a daughter to Murdoch and last year resigned from her News International position as the Phone Hacking story really blew up.

So, you might say. Cameron’s surrounded by ex-Murdoch employees, doesn’t mean he’s close to Murdoch. Well, a quick Google search for “Cameron and Murdoch” reveals,

The PM met a News Corp board member secretly in November 2009. If there was nothing untoward in this meeting, why did he not disclose it sooner?

Rebekah Brooks mentioned in her evidence to the Leveson Inquiry that Cameron had met her and the Murdochs at social occasions. Also, James Murdoch discussed the BskyB deal with Cameron over dinner.

It’s worth remembering that Hunt was handed the responsibility for judging the BskyB deal after Vince Cable had been recorded saying he had “declared war on Murdoch”, and was deemed to be too partisan. Interesting then that they should choose someone partisan towards Murdoch. They couldn’t have Murdoch’s bid for domination of the sky halted by some old man who hated Murdoch.

So it’s obvious that Cameron is so deeply involved in the Murdoch family, that he can’t possibly refer Hunt to Ministerial Codeman or remove him from the cabinet. In this case, they really are all in it together.

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Misogyny Online: Mensch and Mary

I was reminded of this song by Christina Aguilera last weekend, and the lyrics made me think of the abuse that the Conservative MP Louise Mensch suffered for contributing to a debate on a parliamentary committee.

Now, I don’t normally agree with Louise Mensch – we are at opposing sides of the centre ground to have much in common – but I was very uncomfortable when I read some of the misogynist abuse she received after voicing her opinion on Rupert Murdoch. There’s nothing wrong with disagreeing with her views on the subject of News International, but why single her out for abuse (not debate) when there were two male Conservatives who took exactly the same line as her? Is it easier to attack a woman?

Then there was what the sneering, Times columnist AA Gill said about TV Historian and Cambridge professor, Mary Beard;

‘The hair is a disaster, the outfit an embarrassment. If you are going to invite yourself into the front rooms of the living, then you need to make an effort.’

Firstly, Mary Beard may not be conventionally attractive (by which I mean, clear skin and no wrinkles) but she’s not so hideous that she should not be allowed on television without a paper bag. Even if she was, does it matter? She’s presenting a history documentary, not American’s Next Top Model. Secondly, would AA Gill ever criticise David Starkey for his appearance on a history documentary? It comes back to the same point I made about Louise Mensch. Why single the woman out for abuse, when the same comment could equally be made about some men?

The Guardian conversation this week got me thinking about the level of misogyny online, and is there more misogyny now? Part of it comes down to the fact that on the internet you are hiding behind an avatar and a username, as I am doing right now – although my username is my initials and my last name, so unimaginative am I. Basically, this anonymity makes some people believe they can say what the heck they like, including racist and sexist comments. Also, the fact that the internet is so open means that you don’t need to be particularly tolerant to sign up to twitter or facebook and start posting bile. You just need a computer and an ISP. The hatred and misogyny has always been there, but they now have an audience of a couple of hundred rather than a few close friends. What’s said on the internet is a reflection of what’s said in society. So perhaps we should ask, why is society so misogynist?

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François Hollande: A rejection of Austerity?

It was interesting reading the twitter reaction to François Hollande’s victory in the French Presidential Election yesterday evening.  Those on the Right complained about the high tax rate that he might impose on the rich (fairness is a concept lost on the Right), while Lefties cheered and welcomed M. Hollande as a rejection of the austerity projects being carried out by many European governments at the moment.

Now, I’m not in the position at the moment to determine the exact factors surrounding Nicholas Sarkozy’s ejection from the Elysée Palace, but if you look at the reaction of people across Europe you get the impression that austerity isn’t popular.  From here in the UK were the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats took a battering in the local elections, to Greece where the radical, anti-austerity parties received a lot of support, to France with Hollande’s victorious, pro-growth campaign.

Surely this spells out to David Cameron, Nick Clegg and George Osborne that people do not like losing their public services to pay for the mistakes of the financial sector. People are a little angry that their local library has been closed down, while the likes of Vodafone and Goldman Sachs are avoiding paying their multi-million pound tax bills. The Right might say “the people have voted for financial irresponsibility”, but the reality is people are fed up of governments supporting the rich and squeezing the poor.

Is François Hollande’s victory a rejection of Austerity? I hope so.

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