Friday, 27 November 2009

Demarchy - can the people rule?

This article was first published on 23rd November 2009 in openDemocracy

In a small nation on the Western margin of the British Isles, amidst sheep and rocks and old mines, the world’s first popular movement for demarchy is beginning to test its strength.

As the indigenous political establishment manoeuvres to wrest control of its developing parliament away from a Westminster Select Committee, a revolutionary party is rallying the people towards a participative assembly that will reform the nation into the world’s most progressive democracy.

And as its professional politicians stumble from crisis to scandal, as record unemployment continues to bite into quality of life and as the electorate increasingly disengages with the confrontational style of modern party politics, so events seem to be conspiring in its favour.

The nation is Wales. The party is Newid (pronounced neh-wed, ‘change’ in Welsh). It’s prospects of success look to have improved significantly this week with the publication of a report by the All Wales Convention, a body set up by the Welsh Assembly Government to gauge public support for further devolved powers.

Such a move is clearly not popular in all quarters. Battle lines were drawn up long before the Convention came to the blindingly obvious conclusion that a ‘yes’ vote in a referendum on law-making powers is ‘obtainable’ but not a ‘certainty’. Indeed, the opening shots had already been fired in what looks like being a protracted internecine conflict.

Leading the charge is Tomorrow's Wales, a pro-devolution alliance of establishment interests marshalled somewhat incongruously by the head of the Church in Wales, Archbishop Dr Barry Morgan. Its executive reads like a who’s who of the ‘crachach’, the unelected ‘elite’ whose members chair Wales’s business, cultural and sporting organisations. Devolution has brought this group wealth, power and influence. They also have hospitality suites at the Millennium Stadium to protect.

Ranged in opposition are the shadowy forces of True Wales, a reactionary organisation that claims ‘grass-roots’ credentials but appears to be an alliance of Monmouthshire Tory gentry, remnants of old Labour that still cling to the dream of a Fifth International and supporters of UKIP and the BNP, both unionist parties that are not yet represented in the Assembly.

Fighting on a separate front to defend the personal fiefdom he has prostituted himself to obtain is the Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain, who launched a pre-emptive strike on the Convention before its Chair, former diplomat Sir Emyr Jones Parry, could present its report.

Needless to say, Hain does not think he should have to give up power. The crux of his argument is that the Governance of Wales Act 2006, of which he was the architect, is adequate while the Welsh government matures. After all, he can veto any ‘bad legislation’ it might foolishly or carelessly propose. He has already had to neuter the Welsh language ‘legislative competence order’ (LCO) and force Welsh councils to continue selling off their social housing stock in line with New Labour policy. More powers for the Assembly would be ‘dangerous’ and, anyway, a referendum would fail.

The needs of the people of Wales seem to be entirely irrelevant to the interests of the political class. But their accession is necessary if Plaid Cymru, the nationalist ‘Party of Wales’, is to achieve its political ambitions. ‘The Plaid’ has been governing Wales in coalition with Labour since it was swept to power in 2007 with the votes of fully 9% of the electorate, slightly less than the Conservatives managed. A condition of the ‘One Wales’ coalition agreement was that a referendum be held before the next Assembly elections in 2011. The agreement naturally assumed the people would approve.

So, on the face of it, the All Wales Convention looks like a classic New Labour outflanking manoeuvre aimed at keeping its ally close: appoint a safe pair of hands, an establishment Taff who looks and sounds the part but knows on which side his bread is buttered; form an executive committee of people who are for the most part committed to the cause; give it a name that sounds inclusive and consultative; spend a lot of money (£1.3 million) buying a bus and handing out chicken curries and generally creating a lot of smoke and noise while doing nothing remotely thorough or scientific before reaching the desired conclusion having delayed the inevitable for as long as possible (18 months).

Since the only referendum options the Convention considered were ‘more of the same’ or ‘the same’ – not ‘less of the same’, ‘something completely different’ or ‘none of the above’ - they could just have recommended giving each voter their bus fare to the polling station, thereby saving a lot of trouble and ensuring a marginally better turnout.

The issue is that the Welsh Assembly has a fraction of the law making powers of Scotland or Northern Ireland. It is dependent upon asking the Welsh Affairs Select Committee at Westminster for individual powers as and when it needs them to meet specific policy objectives. The resulting legislative process is frustratingly slow, especially since MPs have a habit of redrafting proposals to maintain their superiority in the pecking order.

The Assembly that New Labour imposed on Wales is based on the elected representative confrontational model established by the ‘Mother of all Parliaments’. There weren’t any options. They didn’t think to ask, for example, whether the people might prefer a deliberative assembly in which everyone could participate, an Assembly perhaps more in keeping with Welsh Nonconformist traditions and the realities of the world in which we now find ourselves.

Maybe that’s why Wales has never shown more than a half-hearted commitment to devolution at the ballot box. The turnout for the 1997 referendum that led to devolution was so low (50%) that barely one in four of the electorate actually voted in favour (75% either voted against or abstained). But since all of the main political parties had a manifesto commitment to devolution, and since marginally more votes were cast in favour (50.3%) than against (49.7%), it went ahead anyway. This is what passes for ‘democracy’ in Wales.

Most Welsh ‘voters’ aren’t because they don’t. Only 43% were sufficiently enamoured with devolution to participate in the 2007 Assembly elections. A clear pattern has developed since; only 38% voted in 2003 and 46% in 1999 when devolution was still new.

Do people not vote because they think the Assembly doesn’t have enough powers? The Convention doesn’t say. There’s no evidence to suggest that a referendum held in the next year or so would achieve more the 43% median turnout for all Assembly elections held to date.

And when the majority abstains from voting, it means there is something so seriously wrong with the political process that a referendum on more of the same would be considered unconstitutional in anything other than our electoral dictatorship. We should first consider what alternative political systems might appeal to the majority.

It might be popular to believe that all politicians lie, embezzle their expenses, break promises and pursue nothing but their own careers but the chief failure of the political class is in putting its own interests ahead of the people’s need for real democracy.

Even the All Wales Convention can smell the coffee. In its executive summary there is a prominent line that reads, ‘Democracy requires that information be provided, the arguments be presented, and the electorate given the opportunity to be better informed.’

If Wales is to be a democracy, if the nation is to govern itself rather than be governed by a remote political elite that has little sympathy for the Welsh condition and little interest in improving the quality of our lives, the people should be able to decide from all of the possible options, not just the one that suits the political class.

The battle is about to be joined. Newid is about to step out onto the Welsh political landscape with all guns blazing. Its ‘single purpose’ proposition (as opposed to ‘single issue’) gives it some unique advantages.

Newid is campaigning for a deliberative People’s National Assembly based on a progressive form of democracy called ‘demarchy’ where decisions are made by ordinary people selected at random (sortition), like jury service, rather than by professional politicians chosen in elections. Such a system will remove the need for political parties, eradicate political expediency, eliminate the almost perpetual state of electioneering and greatly reduce the corrupting influence of vested interests.

People’s assembly members will be guided by an independent judiciary and civil service and will hear evidence presented by advocates. They will select a professional executive to deliver policy in specific fields of expertise rather than have their ministers appointed by political patronage.

Newid can legitimately claim to be representing the interests of all the people of Wales because it can accommodate a wide spectrum of political opinion rather than that of a narrow interest group. Its constitution makes clear that the party will disband in favour of a people’s assembly as soon as that objective has been achieved.

Newid is fully in favour of a referendum on a written constitution that sets out the rights and responsibilities of all Welsh citizens. The key question to ask the electorate is this: which is more likely to give Wales a fresh start, the Assembly it already has with more powers or the world’s most progressive democracy?

Newid will give the people of Wales fresh hope. They’ll have the opportunity, at last, to build a sustainable economy with full employment, to establish a better education system, a more efficient health service, affordable housing and a more secure environment with a better standard of living and quality of life.

Peter Hain, Welsh Labour, Plaid Cymru, the crachach and rest of the political class will of course dismiss these proposals as utopian. They’ll no doubt issue dour warnings to the Welsh electorate to do what they say or suffer dire consequences. But then that’s the only defence they can offer, isn’t it?

Monday, 23 November 2009

The referendum question

Ahead of First Minister Rhodri Morgan’s pronouncement on the findings of the All Wales Convention and to help with the lengthy debate that Assembly Members will no doubt feel the need to have about the wording of the question for the ballot, here is Newid’s initial suggestion:

Choose from either A) or B) below. Tick only one box.

A)

Would you like to continue being told what to do by politicians who have little understanding of, or sympathy for, your situation; who have stolen your taxes, lied to you and patronised you; who will do whatever is necessary to get themselves re-elected; who will vote to further their interests and their parties’ interests ahead of yours; who are funded by businessmen and other vested interests for commercial and political advantage; who are good at argument and presenting themselves but have no actual experience of running anything? (If so, put an ‘X’ in this box).

Small print: your ‘X’ in this box will be taken to mean anything politicians want it to mean including the right to appropriate more powers whenever it suits them or to ignore anything they might have promised before you ticked the box.

B)

Would you like to have the opportunity to be selected at random to sit as a member of the National Assembly for a few months, guided in making important decisions by advocates and civil servants; having public services run for you by a team of management specialists that you hire, manage and, if necessary, fire before returning to your job a better informed and more confident person? (If so, put an ‘X’ in this box).

Small print: Take as much time as you need.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Who wants a referendum on more of the same?

The attempt last week by the Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain, to undermine the All Wales Convention before its Chair, Sir Emyr Jones Parry, has had a chance to present its recommendations, was contemptuously undemocratic and disrespectful of the will of the Welsh people, whatever the Convention believes that to be.

Yet, ironically and for the wrong reasons, if Hain manages to stop a referendum seeking primary law-making powers for the Assembly being held sooner rather than later, he might do the Welsh people a favour, although it won’t suit the short-term objectives of the political elite in Cardiff Bay.

Hain reckons there’s no point in holding a referendum because the present settlement with Westminster, of which he was the architect, works well enough, needing only “fine-tuning to make it quicker and better”. Anyway, he warned the Western Mail, a referendum would only be lost, potentially setting back the devolution cause, of which he is the champion, by years.

In the opposite corner, Dr Barry Morgan, Archbishop and Chairman of Tomorrow’s Wales, a cross-party, pro-referendum, pro-devolution political pressure group whose members Hain dismisses as “the chattering classes”, countered with a statement that the current settlement is “unsustainable and should be replaced by a proper parliamentary government”.

He may be right, but the point at issue here is not the effectiveness or otherwise of the Governance of Wales Act 2006. It’s whether the respondents who were motivated enough to give their opinion to the All Wales Convention are really an accurate barometer of demand for a referendum given that Wales has never shown more than a half-hearted commitment to devolution at the ballot box.

The turnout for the 1997 referendum that brought in devolution was so low (50%) that barely one in four of the electorate actually voted in favour (75% either voted against or abstained). But since all of the main political parties had a manifesto commitment to devolution, and since marginally more votes were cast in favour (50.3%) than against (49.7%), it went ahead anyway. This is what passes for ‘democracy’ in Wales.

Most Welsh voters are, to use the political vernacular, ‘disengaged with politics’. Most are not 'voters' because they don’t vote. Only 43% voted in the 2007 Assembly elections, barely 33% voted in the European elections and it’s likely that less than 50% will vote in next year’s general election.

When the majority abstains from voting, there is something so seriously wrong with the political process that a referendum on more of the same would be considered unconstitutional anywhere else. We need to understand this problem and address it before holding a referendum.

The Power Enquiry, part of which was conducted in Wales in 2005, dismissed ‘political apathy’ as a myth. It found that the way politics is structured and conducted in Britain had not kept pace with the needs of our society and the values, interests, expectations and lifestyles of ordinary people.

In a BBC poll conducted on election night in 2005, 77% of non-voters said that voting would not change anything and 65% said they did not trust politicians. A recent Guardian poll reported that 67% believe that big business has more influence than government over their daily lives whilst 71% of 16 to 25-year-olds believe that voting will make no difference to their lives at all.

Although it might be popular to believe that all politicians lie, embezzle their expenses, break promises and pursue nothing but their own careers, their real failure is in whittling away our faith in democracy.

The Assembly was founded on the confrontational representative model established centuries ago by the English ‘Mother of all Parliaments’. We weren’t given a choice. The political class didn’t think to ask whether we’d prefer a deliberative assembly in which we could all participate, if we chose to, an Assembly perhaps more in keeping with Welsh Nonconformist traditions and the realities of the world in which we now find ourselves.

But if we’re to call ourselves a democracy, if we want to govern ourselves rather than be governed by a remote political elite that has little sympathy for the Welsh condition and little interest in improving the quality of our lives, we need a different model. Why settle for a second rate Assembly when we could strive for the world’s most progressive democracy?

I’m in favour of a referendum but not the one sought by the Welsh Assembly Government and not under the present circumstances. I’d like to see a more wide ranging referendum on a written constitution that sets out the rights and responsibilities of every Welsh citizen and establishes a demarchy, an inherently fair, dynamic and stable form of democracy that does away with professional politicians, political parties and even elections.

Decisions in the Assembly would then be made by ordinary people selected at random to serve for a temporary period, rather like jury service, guided by an independent civil service and judiciary and with policy implemented by a professional executive.

But first I’m looking for volunteers to re-engage the Welsh electorate with this fresh approach to politics. Candidates will be selected by lot to contest every seat in the 2011 National Assembly elections. First we’ll win a majority in the Senedd and then we’ll then hold a referendum. Assuming consent from a majority of the electorate, we’ll conclude a final settlement with the Westminster government before disbanding.

Achieve all this and we'll have given the Welsh people a fresh start. There will be the opportunity, at last, to build a sustainable economy with full employment, to establish a better education system, a more efficient health service, affordable housing and a more secure environment with a better quality of life.

Peter Hain and rest of the political class will no doubt dismiss these ideas as utopian and warn you against anything but their way of thinking. But then they would, wouldn’t they?

Monday, 21 September 2009

Peter Hain is my anti-guru

Although I’ve never met him, Peter Hain inspired me to get involved in politics after 30 years spent avoiding it like the plague.

A year spent as president of the student’s union at Hornsey College of Art in the mid-seventies was enough to put me off participation in politics for life.

Ideological warfare between the (Trotskyist) Revolutionary Socialist League - later known as the Militant Tendency, and the Broad Left - an anti-Trotskyist alliance of just about everybody else of a red-hued persuasion including a group calling itself ‘Operation Icepick’ [sic] - Leon Trotsky was assassinated with the pointy end of an ice axe - destroyed my political ideals as completely as the Spanish Civil War did for those of George Orwell.

Elsewhere, Peter Hain was committing himself to ‘social justice and equality’ by leaving the Liberal Party (he had been Chairman of the Young Liberals) to join the Labour Party (then in government) and by ‘sponsoring’ (presumably with money) the Anti-Nazi League, a front for the (Trotskyist) Socialist Worker’s Party that, as I recall, organised rock concerts and was ultimately the subject of claims of financial impropriety.

I was fighting my own war of conscience at the time, but my battles were on the streets against the boot boys of the National Front. Whilst my NUS comrades were arguing over the exact form of words to be used in letters expressing our union’s solidarity with political prisoners in Chile, I was charging around Hackney and Southall exchanging blows with racist skinheads. I never once saw Hain on the front line, nor in the magistrate’s court the following day.

Contrary to ‘Hainist’ mythology, support for the National Front was in decline before the Anti-Nazi League was formed. After the ‘Battle of Lewisham’, in which local youths broke up a deliberately inflammatory march through a predominantly black and Asian area (with little help from the anti-fascists who were too busy laying into the police), the NF’s supporters deserted in droves, many joining Margaret Thatcher’s slightly more respectable Tories. Hain’s original Anti-Nazi League had long since collapsed, bankrupt, when the Tyndall-led Front finally imploded.

With the benefit of hindsight, my direct action was pathetic. But it was no more or less effective than my comrade’s interminable points of order or whatever it was Hain did to take credit for the Anti-Nazi League. My excuse is that I was 18 years old and na├»ve. I thought I had all the answers. I wasn’t afraid to mix it up with a bunch of mindless thugs and there didn’t seem to be anything worth debating with racists.

If I learnt anything, it was that politicians have a symbiotic relationship. They depend upon each other for reasons to get up in the morning. They feed each other and off each other. The right defines the left and vice versa. The needs of the proletariat are merely coincidental.

At a time when, incredible as it might seem now, Peter Mandelson was a communist and Charles Clarke, Trevor Phillips and Jack Straw were the leading lights of the Broad Left fraternity, Hain was employed as a researcher for the Union of Communications Workers and was already set on a political career. So it makes sense that he would desert a party of ‘also-rans’ (Hain’s words) like the Liberals to join a party with career opportunities like Labour.

He’d earlier achieved notoriety as leader of Stop The Seventy Tour, an organisation that campaigned against apartheid by disrupting a rugby tour by the then all-white South African Springboks. But it still took him 14 years to find a safe Labour consistency that would accept him as its candidate.

Since I don’t live in Neath, I wasn’t aware that Hain had won the by-election in 1991. I didn’t notice him becoming Secretary of State for Wales in 2002 either. But when he wrote an article in the Western Mail to coincide with the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union, threatening the Welsh with ‘Balkanisation’ and the loss of ‘£1,000 a head per year in public spending’ if they failed to vote Labour in the Assembly elections, I woke up.

Now I define my politics by those of Peter Hain. He inspires my efforts because he represents everything I find abhorrent in our morally bankrupt, unrepresentative, undemocratic political system. In common with so many of his peers, Hain is a charlatan and a careerist, venal, self-serving and mendacious. A quick glance at his voting record dispels the myth that he has even the slightest commitment to social justice and equality.

Even when the shit sticks to him, he keeps calm and carries on regardless. He hasn’t struggled up through the ooze to become the biggest fish in our small Welsh political pond to let a few accusations of impropriety stand in the way of his glittering career. When he was found guilty of a ‘serious and substantial’ breach of the rules regulating political donations, Hain appeared on television claiming he had been ‘exonerated’. He went on to blame his campaign director who was subsequently given no opportunity to dispute Hain’s version of events.

And Hain deftly sidestepped the inconvenient revelation that of the £103,000 improperly declared, £82,000 was laundered through a non-functioning ‘think tank’ called the Progressive Policies Forum. This included money from Willie Nagel, a South African diamond broker and Isaac Kaye, a South African-born businessman with an Irish passport and an extensive Israeli business portfolio, who had previously bankrolled the pro-apartheid National Party in South Africa.

After the briefest possible period in the sin bin, Hain elbowed out his blood replacement, the hapless Paul Murphy, to claim his old fiefdom back. Last week he wrote a letter to the Guardian as the de facto Governor of Wales, warning the Welsh to do what they’re told unless they want another taste of the dragoons.

His letter informs the Welsh electorate that if they vote for any party other than Labour they’ll end up with a Conservative government. His message amounts to: ‘you’ve got no choice, that’s the way the system works, so tough’. He then goes on to claim, inexplicably, that either Labour or Wales won the Ashes, it’s not clear which because he uses the word ‘we’ rather liberally.

My contribution to Welsh politics is Newid, a ‘political party’ that is the antithesis of the Labour Party, the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the United Kingdom Independence Party, the British National Party and even the Green Party. It’s objective is to establish a demarchy, a simpler, more efficient, more progressive form of democracy that will mean we’re no longer under the thumb of manipulative individuals like Peter Hain. Once its aims have been achieved, Newid will disband. Politicians and political parties will no longer be necessary and ordinary people will be able to govern themselves.

Peter Hain may have provoked my involvement in politics but I still have no interest in a political career. I may be Newid’s ‘leader’ but I have no intention of standing for election myself. And although I grudgingly have to admit that Hain has done rather well for himself, I may yet turn out to be a late developer and do well for others.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Beware of MPs promoting electoral reform

You’d have to assume that when Ogmore Labour MP and UK government minister Huw Irranca-Davies proposed in the Western Mail last week that a switch from the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system to an alternative vote (AV) system would ‘help restore public engagement with politics’, he was either being ironic or disingenuous.
Under the AV system, MPs would be elected in single-member constituencies as they are now. But instead of placing a single ‘X’ against their preferred candidate as in the FPTP system, voters would rank all the candidates in order of preference (1, 2, 3, etc).
If no candidate achieved more than 50% of first preferences, as is often the case with the FPTP system, second preference votes would be redistributed, then third preferences and so on until one candidate achieved an overall majority.
Under the current system, a candidate can win by a single vote even though he or she might have polled as little as 25% of the total votes cast. With AV, a candidate who finishes a close second in such circumstances might win on second or third preferences. The winner would be able to claim legitimacy having achieved a majority of overall preferences.
On the face of it, AV would be of greatest benefit to the Liberal Democrats since polls consistently suggest that both Labour and Conservative supporters would be more likely to back them as a second preference. So what’s in it for Labour?
Irranca-Davies rambles unconvincingly about his constituents being able to send him messages but the real answer lies in the second preferences of Liberal Democrat supporters. Liberal Democrats are more inclined to give their second preference to Labour than the Conservatives meaning that some second-placed Labour candidates would be able to defeat first-placed Tories.
Although the Tories enjoy a double-digit percentage lead over Labour in all the opinion polls, they would only manage a majority of around 50 seats under the present system. With AV, the Tories might find it impossible to win any kind of majority at all since Labour and the Liberal Democrats might expect to win a dozen or so extra seats each on second preference.
Having found what looks like a get out of jail free card, the challenges for Labour now are how to hoodwink the electorate into believing that AV represents the sweeping electoral reform the party promised before it won such a massive majority in 1997, and how to get away with holding a referendum on the issue before the next general election. Hence the bit of puff in the Western Mail.
The Electoral Reform Society, meanwhile, is pressing for a referendum on the introduction of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, which also works on a preferential basis but is far more equitable in that it minimises ‘wasted votes’ and provides an outcome of proportional representation.
Labour is strongly against STV. It doesn’t suit the interests of Labour MPs like Irranca-Davies whose seemingly impregnable seat in Ogmore, whether under the current system or AV, would appear to give him a well-paid job for life.
He claims he works hard to represent the interests of his constituents, irrespective of whether they vote for him or not. No doubt he works hard, but junior ministers don’t climb the party ladder by representing the interests of their constituents. They make themselves useful to the leadership by putting their consciences aside and slavishly supporting the government in whatever it chooses to do. If proof of this were needed, take a look at his voting record. Are the people of Ogmore strongly against transparent government do you think?
The recent expenses scandal proved that MPs can’t be relied upon to regulate themselves, but there is an alternative system that would remove the need for politicians and political parties altogether. It would help restore public engagement with politics by giving every citizen an equal opportunity to make decisions in government. It does away with self-interest and political corruption. It’s called demarchy and it’s the principle on which Newid is founded.