Thursday, 25 March 2010

Does Silvio Berlusconi have more class than Gordon Brown?

You’d need a heart of flint to suggest that the recent announcement of Samantha Cameron’s pregnancy were nothing more than a Tory political ruse with which to win voters’ affections. Nonetheless, it must be admitted that family sentiment has served politicians well since it became acceptable to allow them to slobber over our children during election campaigns. That is just a nauseating fact of the modern polity we have to endure, (I bet no-one ever had to pass their kid over for a kiss from Disraeli or Gladstone), and in these post-Diana times there is regretfully little we can do about it.
What is not tolerable, however, is a politician’s use of public money for spending, purportedly in the nation’s interests, when it is to the betterment of a political party facing a serious challenge at the ballot box in a little over one month’s time. The editorial in this week’s Spectator takes issue with Gordon Brown’s use of the public purse, to the tune of £34 million in February alone, in funding ‘public service’ advertising on radio and public transport billboards, covering a bewildering array of government services aimed at helping us ‘lose weight, buy a car, claim more benefits, deal with door-to-door salesmen or stop smoking’.
Of course one might defend the funding of this campaign, extolling the virtues of big government, as comprising the cheapest way of communicating the availability of these public services to potential ‘customers’. However, this merely begs the question at issue, and does nothing to explain why such spending this year is 24% higher than the figure for February last year.
But what must be of greater concern was the top headline in the BBC radio news on Wednesday that the government has controversially awarded a £4 billion defence contract to build a light tank for the British Army in Afghanistan, to an American manufacturer, rather than BAE Systems, which may now have to shed up to 500 jobs.

On the face of it, this might not appear to lend any electoral benefit to Gordon Brown’s government. Why should anyone think the better of it for losing hundreds of British jobs during one of the worst recessions of modern times? But what is a far greater concern for Brown’s government, as it seeks to shore up public support before May, is the frequent, damaging criticisms concerning underequipped British soldiers (‘the borrowers’) since the invasion of Iraq seven years ago. These criticisms over underresourcing have become even more profuse over the campaign in Afghanistan in recent years – specifically over deaths which greater armour could have prevented - from all ranks in the army.

Labour must be sensitive to the effect the weekly drip-feed of news articles ending with the words ‘the relatives have been informed’ has on the collective subconscious. So one can see the logic in turning that on its head and putting the story of greater provision of armour to troops in Afghanistan on the news agenda. So the question is, would the country’s media have felt the same obligation to report Labour’s plans to better equip British troops in Afghanistan, had BAE Systems won the contract and those jobs remained intact? And the answer must be no, given Labour’s pledge in 2008 and 2009 to reflate the economy through ‘fiscal stimulus’ aimed at increased domestic productivity. It was the very loss of those jobs which made this a good news story for Gordon Brown.
There was a very good documentary about Silvio Berlusconi on BBC2 on Wednesday night. Now there’s a man who can ruthlessly exploit the media to his advantage. And, (despite the expenses farce and the ‘cab for hire’ nincompoopery of late), while no-one could say there is a single politician in Westminster who could better Berlusconi for corruption, links with organized crime, abuse of office and general howling-at-the-moon, prostitute-hiring vulgarity, at least he uses his own media channels for political advantage, and at least he pretends to use his own money for political advantage. Neither of which can be said to apply to Gordon Brown.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Enter my competition and win a vote in the 2010 British general election

Many years ago, I was berated by a friend for my plan to abstain from voting in a general election on the grounds that none of the political parties fielding candidates in my constituency held views similar to mine (perhaps of little surprise, given how little sway anarcho-syndicalism held in Tebbitt’s Essex of the 1980s).

My friend told me that if I did not exercise my vote, I had no right to complain about the actions of the elected government. The converse of which was, presumably, if I did vote for a party which represented none of my political views, I had every right to complain if a government formed by that party acted in a way I objected to, even if it were completely in keeping with its pre-election manifesto, which I had previously read, understood and disagreed with.

Well, Nick East, pick the bones out of this. The ‘give your vote’ campaign wants abstainers to donate their vote to those in other countries who have more of a view on British political life than the many jaded, underwhelmed ballot-casters which make up a good part of the British electorate.

The driving concept is that British citizens vote for British governments, which make decisions that affect many people in other parts of the world, who do not have a vote in Britain’s general elections. Which, considering the Iraqi military adventure debacle or the waste-dumping in West Africa super-injunction farce, seems a fair point to raise.

Egality, the activist group driving the campaign (and, I like to imagine, the bitter enemy of thinktanks Liberty and Fraternity), points out that there are many thousands of people who are entitled to vote in British elections who, for one reason or another, do not cast their vote.

Indeed, it is one of the ironies of the modern democratic system in Britain that the right to influence how we are ruled should be treated with as widespread indifference by the many, that the principle of universal franchise is routinely reduced to the diktat of the relative few who can be arsed to generate an opinion and go to a polling station to express it once every five years.

But here comes the crunch: Egality is urging us to give our unused votes to people in other countries – specifically Ghana, Afghanistan or Bangladesh – to use for their own political agenda.

Technology provides the means: Would-be abstainers sign up via the website, and receive a text message on polling day directing them who to vote for. Predictably, there are Twitter and Facebook elements.

(Actually, why leave it there? With the internet, the possibilities are endless: For example, what is there to prevent a vote-exchange system – the Multi-Coloured Swapshop of Suffrage, if you will – where a voter in, say, Sutton Coldfield swaps their May 2010 vote with a freedom-lover from California for a future Presidential contest, with comments moderated by Noel Edmonds? Or a ballot auction clearing house, (a new Ebay category of franchise, for example) where one can sell one’s vote to the highest bidder? Or indeed a combination of the two models, based along similar lines as the carbon credits offsetting scheme?)

When I first heard about the ‘give your vote’ campaign, on the radio in the kitchen, I cheered aloud for the sheer obtuseness of it. It’s not often you get this kind of high-browed imbecility. But when I came to set down exactly what I found so deplorable about it, I could not put my finger on one single reason. So many tried to muscle in at the same time, none could get through the front door.

Even now, after I’ve had a while to think about it, I cannot settle on one of the many reasons why one should object to the prospect of, for example, a Pashtun nationalist in downtown Kandahar casting a vote in, say, my south London constituency, where one of the most pressing political issues in recent months revolved around what should be done with a piece of graffiti (or is it art?) personally spraycanned by Banksy.

Indeed, I find myself in the bizarre position of wondering whether the ‘give your vote’ campaign is a perfectly reasonable idea, and it is merely my knee-jerk, mid-life reaction to it that prevents me from understanding this.

So here’s the deal. I will freely give my vote to the party of choice of the person who gives me the most salient argument as to why the ‘give your vote’ campaign is such an abhorrent betrayal of the principles of democracy, (or, if you’re feeling very persuasive and optimistic, why it is a good idea).

There are absolutely no restrictions and anyone may enter regardless of nationality, political belief or organisational affiliation/membership (although, obviously, I reserve the right to change this at any time, should it turn out I’ve crossed some constitutional line or another and the rozzers pitch up to sling me in the Tower).

The constituency is a former Liberal stronghold, which only held the Tories at bay by 1,000 votes or so last time. Given the neck-and-neck polls between Labour and Conservatives, this could turn out to be decisive.

Answers in the comments section please.