Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Why I'm thinking about not voting at the next UK general election

In the UK a general election will be held soon (6th of May). We are told that this is our chance to have our say on how we are governed and that it is our civic duty to vote. In the UK there are many political parties but historically it has only ever been the Conservative Party or the Labour Party that have been elected to form a government and there are no signs that this is about to change. But what are we to do if we do not like either of these two options? This article is a discussion of why the two main political parties have become unpalatable for voters and offers some suggestions for what might be done to rescue the public trust in government and politicians which has never been at a lower ebb.

There are four main reasons why the public believe that neither Labour or the Conservatives should be elected.

1) Dissatisfaction with the behaviour of MPs/HM government.

In 2002/2003 millions of people marched on the streets of the UK to protest at government plans to invade a country that had never attacked the UK or any of its citizens, a crime of agression under international law that was opposed by the United Nations. This was in support of a country (the USA) who had been attacked by people from another country (Saudi Arabia) on whom they depend for oil. Quite what this had to do with Iraq or with the people of Britain was another matter. Lies were told and the war happened anyway. Many 100'000's of people died and the reasons we were given for going to war were shown to be a willing lie (WMDs were shown to never have existed and the evidence that they existed was shown to be very dodgy). The will of the people of Britain was ignored.

Before they were elected the Labour government published a manifesto of things that they 'promised' to do if elected. One of these was a promise to ask us if we wanted them to sign the EU treaty on our behalf. The referendum was never held and they signed the treaty anyway. Other countries such as Ireland, France and the Netherlands have held referenda and the vote has been a no in cases. In each case the referenda were re-staged again and again until the voters got so bored with voting that a yes was given. There are times when the public cannot be allowed to dictate the law and government policy - e.g. the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the 1960s. But the law should represent the will of those who have to be subject to it. The people of Britain have a right to choose how deep our involvement in the European Union should be. Should it be a simple cooperative effort on trading and foreign policy (to help our mutual economies and to improve our negotiating position on the world stage) or should it be a federal superstate wit a president and a constitution. The latter represents a significant change in our democratic rights and we have a right to veto it. The real reason a referendum was not held is that (a) the EU means politicians (MEPs) become much more powerful and more beuarcay means more for the political class to do and (b) big business controls the government and it wants an EU superstate with a single currency and cheap migrant labour. The democratic will of the people that they represent does not figure in the equation. Manifesto pledges should be binding and it should be clearly set out in the manifesto those circumstances under which the pledges could be broken e.g. spending on the armed forces would have to increase if there was a war. Otherwise a manifesto is just false advertising.

But there is another issue that has damaged the standing of politicians far more than the two examples given above. The expenses scandal consistently shocked the British public for most of 2009. MPs made the situation much worse by insisting that they did not break the rules. They just didn't get it. They didn't see that the things they were putting on expenses were quite clearly taking the piss. Most of the public now see all MPs as being in it only for their own gain. (An interesting question that was never raised was how far back this has been going on. We only know about the last parliament. Are there greater scandals in the mists of time. What dodgy expenses claims were made in the sleazy days of the 1990s?).

2) MPs are powerless.

They cannot represent us properly because they have no power. The deregulation and privatisation that has continued since the 1980s has left MPs with little control over the system. There are two main areas where this has reduced the power of our government and diluted our democracy;

The Credit Crunch and the banking crisis were directly caused by the deregulation introduced in the 1980s. This has cost the state billions of pounds and has cost millions of job as we enter recession. I rest my case on this issue.

National assets were sold in the 1980s. We were promised an free market and open choice as to who we paid to provide our services. A great idea. No more late letters and late trains. The Post office was opened up to competition and private companies soon moved in and cheery picked the most profitable parts (business mail). The Royal Mail was left with the loss making parts of the business (ordinary letters and the Post office). The profitable areas once subsidised the loss making areas that provide a community service. The result has been a shocking decline in a service on which we all depend with post office branches closing en masse and it being impossible to get a parcel delivered to the door (we pay to have it delivered to the door but the postman is too pushed for time to bring it on his rounds and attempt delivery so he leaves it at the sorting office where we have to go and collect it).

The railways are another good example. Tracks were ripped up by successive governments and the service declined due to lack of investment. Privatisation brought companies willing to run the profitable parts of the business (carrying passengers) but not the unprofitable parts (maintaining the tracks and the stations) which eventually fell back into state ownership. The service has not improved with all of this choice. Operating companies pull out of unprofitable contracts. Ticket prices continue to rise. And the trains are simply unpleasant to travel on. Crowding is the major problem. The train companies know which services are busy but they refuse to put on extra carriages because this costs more and reduces their profit margins. This is where the government should step in. How about a law that says that a ticket cannot be sold for a train if there is not a seat available? The number of fares that could be collected by a train operator would then be proportional to the number of carriages they provide. Simple economics. Why does no such common sense rule apply? The government are toothless and powerless.

Train tickets are offered in a bewildering variety of prices and types. There is no choice on offer except when to travel and whether to sit in first class. We cannot choose whether to travel with company A or company B based on price because no such choice exists. We often see this where there is no choice offered by the free market or where the choice is blurred. Consider mobile phone tariffs or gas/electricity tariffs. Instead of simple side by side comparison of prices we have a large range of complex tariffs. How about laws that force companies to produce directly comparable tariffs for low, medium and heavy users in each area?

Some of the practices of the gas and electricity companies have been a disgrace. Estimated bills have been a good trick. Gas and electricity meters are deliberately left unread for a long time and the reading is deliberately underestimated. When the meter is eventually read the customer needs to pay for the shortfall in units. The provider can charge at current rates for gas and/or electricity instead of asking the customer to pay the cost of the gas/electricity at the time it was used. How about legislation to define a minimum interval for reading a meter. Or compulsary investment in smart meters? Another trick is where prices do not track wholesale prices and the gas companies recklessly profiteer. How about a rule where the domestic gas price cannot be more than 5% above the wholesale price at any given time? This would have prevented the scenario that happened this winter (a particularly cold one for Britain) where the wholesale price dropped sharply just before the winter started but the providers did not drop domestic tariffs to reflect this until after the winter had ended. It is estimated that each UK household overpaid by £105 over this winter.

Operators are given the contract to run the service for a set number of years. They often lie to get the contract and then do/charge what they want when the have the contract. Investment simply does not occur. How about a rolling investment pot that all contract holders must contribute to? The other problem with privatisation and free markets is that monopolies can emerge if the government does not prevent this. The First company has a near monopoly on bus travel in the UK and the ticket prices that they offer and the cuts in routes they have made are simply unfair.

The other area where British political power has weakened is with the EU. As an example I pick jobs. At the start of 2009 four thousand oil refinery workers went on strike in fear for their jobs as the French oil company Total decided to subcontract an Italian firm which employs Italian and Portuguese workers to carry out maintenance at a refinery in Grimsby.

The state pays Grimsby folk unemployment benefit whilst a company employs people from the other side of europe at a slightly cheaper rate to carry out work in Grimsby. This is effectively the state increasing the profit margins of large foreign companies by paying the local workforce to do nothing. Gordon Brown came out with the empty line 'British jobs for British workers' but he didn't actually do anything because he is powerless to act under EU law.

I suggest the following rules to make a truly fair and open labour market across Europe.

A company cannot draft in migrant workers from within the EU unless the jobs in question have been made equally available to local workers. A worker cannot be paid less than the local minimum wage.

3) Bad government.

One can always find examples of mistakes made by government. For example the Home Office lost the personal details of all child benefit claimants in the UK. It also lost the files of thousands of criminals. Gordon Brown sold off part of the UK gold reserves when gold prices were at rock bottom. If he had waited we would have made £5billion extra.

The biggest scandal of all is in how the government is hiding the true amount of national debt. Large scale long term construction projects like schools & hospitals cost money. Lots of money. One way for MPs to get around this is to go to the private sector for finance - a PFI company builds the thing and leases it back to the government. If the cost of the building project rises then the PFI company takes all the risk. Seems sensible. Only this never happens. When costs rise the PFI they are added to the bill. The costs are also extortionate and PFI has been compared to buying a house using a credit card. Monbiot has written about this at length and it regularly features in Private Eye. The PFI scheme to run and widen the M25 for 30 years will cost £6.5 billion. To run it as is and just use the hard shoulder at busy times would cost just £478 million. MPs like PFI because they can invest massively now and they won't be around to pick up the debt which is tens (if not hundreds) of billions of £s.

4) Party Politics does not work.

What if I agree with the Tory policy on how they would reduce the unemployment figures but I agree with the labour policy on inheritance tax? Who should I vote for? Should I rank issues in order of importance to me and weigh up which party I agree with most on balance? What if both parties have the same policy on most areas and what if I disagree with this? What if my MP ignores the will of the many on an issue (how do MPs truly know what public opinion is on any particular issue anyway?) and just votes along party lines? What can I do? The truth is that the two main political parties are so similar as to render the choice meaningless. The Labour government of the last 13 years has essentially continued the free market /deregulation /privatisation policies of the Tory government that was incumbent before it for 17 years (with some extra public spending thrown in). We are told that there is a real difference between the parties now in how they would deal with the budget deficit (Labour would wait until we started to come out of recession before making public spending cuts). This is essentially a recipe for how they would clear up the mess that they have created between themselves and not a clear choice of which package of rules they would put into place to make society a place fair for all.

Party policies are now defined not by what they think is best for us all but by the demands of business. How can it be democratic for private donations to be made to political parties? How can a government make objective decisions about what is best for the country when they rely on the donations of those with vested interests to run for office in the first place? I suggest that donations to individual parties should be banned and that donations should only be allowed into a general pool which would be shared out equally amongst all parties that won more than a certain number of seats at the last election. Small parties and new parties would then share a general pool of second tier donation money in the ratio of the number of seats that they are competing for. This system is not perfect and I am certain that political donations would dry up completely if there was nothing to gain by making a donation to British politics in general.

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