Libya needs the West’s help

In 2011, swept by the revolutionary tide of the Arab Spring, Libyans vowed to rid themselves of Muammar Gaddafi, the country’s long-standing brutal dictator. Soon, protests would degenerate into gunfights, and then outright civil war.

With the Gaddafi regime threatening indiscriminate reprisals against its own people, the international community decided to act to protect civilians. Under United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1973, an international coalition was forged to implement the resolution through military intervention. Led by NATO, and by the United Kingdom and France in particular, the intervention would last for seven months and would ultimately spell the end of the Gaddafi regime with opposition forces on the ground able to defeat regime forces and set in motion a transition to democracy.

Since the conclusion of the civil war and the beginning of the democratic transition, successive Libyan governments have struggled to establish the authority of the state. The principal impediment in establishing state authority has been the continued existence of numerous militias which had fought together against Gaddafi during the civil war. Rather than disband after having achieved the downfall of Gaddafi’s regime, many militias simply remained in their positions. They have often posited that their continued existence is necessary to ensure the success of the revolution.

The Libyan government has attempted to establish its authority by co-opting some of the militias, paying them salaries in exchange for their service in support of the state. Probably the most notable manifestation of this effort is the Libyan Shield Force, an organisation comprising a collection of militias, established by the government in 2012. However, this effort has also failed to establish state authority. The organisation’s constituent militias have pursued their own agendas, separate and contrary to that of the government, and many are now considered terrorists by the Council of Deputies, Libya’s parliament.

The lack of state authority in Libya has produced something resembling a slow motion descent into anarchy. In 2012, the United States’ ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed alongside three of his colleagues in an attack on an American diplomatic compound in Benghazi by Islamist militants. In 2013, militants seized control of several major ports connected to the country’s oil industry, producing an oil crisis that only recently saw some relief. Later in that same year, the then Libyan prime minister, Ali Zeidan, was abducted by a militia, and held for several hours before being released. In 2014, the beginnings of outright conflict emerged between militias primarily aligning themselves with one of two factions, either a nationalist alliance, or an Islamist one. Thus far, fighting has focused principally upon Tripoli and Benghazi. As fighting has intensified, most Western embassies have been closed and diplomats evacuated from the country. The parliament has been forced to leave Tripoli owing to security concerns. It now convenes in the eastern city of Tobruk.

Libya is not without hope, however. Following the conclusion of the civil war, the country’s wartime decision-making body, the National Transitional Council (NTC), passed power to the newly-elected General National Congress (GNC). Over time, the GNC became characterised by infighting and for various reasons was for much of its time unwilling to challenge the power of the militias. The GNC’s mandate expired in June, leading to fresh elections to a new parliament, the Council of Deputies. While turnout dropped compared with previous elections, likely in connection with recent instability, Islamists, who had held sway in the GNC, suffered a significant defeat. In their place, more liberal representatives now hold sway in the new legislature, and they are not afraid to be bold. The new parliament recently voted to disband the militias and called for the United Nations to protect civilians from the violence perpetrated by the militias. This is in marked contrast to the GNC, which was unwilling to take such a bold stand against the power of the militias.

Western nations have, for a considerable length of time now, pursued diplomacy as the sole means to ease tensions and return the democratic transition to a stable trajectory. It is clear now, though, that following the bold stance taken by the new parliament, there is no absence of political leadership pursuing the moderate and democratic path. Rather, Libya is being held hostage by competing forces which prefer the rule of the gun to the rule of law. Democratic politics and the rule of law cannot prevail in Libya unless state authority is established. The new parliament, and the Libyan government, are in no position to establish state authority so long as the militias continue to hold all the cards when it comes to the use of force. Therefore, it falls upon the West to help Libya in the manner only it is able to.

Backed by Western air power, ideally under the auspices of NATO, the new parliament would be able to forge a political strategy to disband the militias. The threat of force alone would act as a strong incentive for the militias to lay down their weapons and pursue their interests through political, rather than violent, means. It is probable that some militias would, at least initially, ignore the threat of force, and in these cases force would need to be employed, so as to ensure that state authority not be undermined.

As these efforts progress, the state would be able to begin to establish its authority throughout the country. With militias dispersing, police forces would be able to return to duty, upholding the rule of law and protecting civilians. Similarly, the military would benefit, enabling it to develop its capability to a point where it would eventually become sufficiently able to challenge the militias itself.

One could envisage that sufficient support could be achieved such that a resolution could be passed in the United Nations (UN) Security Council, thereby broadening the multilateral nature of this effort. Ideally, such a resolution would mandate the presence of UN observers throughout the country to monitor and facilitate peace. Observers could also potentially be joined by peacekeepers if it is deemed necessary in particularly unstable areas of the country.

If the West continues to employ diplomacy as the sole means to resolve the growing instability in Libya, the country’s democratic transition will remain significantly imperilled, with the potential for its complete collapse. There is no doubt that a political solution to the instability in the country is integral to its future, but in this situation political and diplomatic efforts must be supported by efforts to address the lack of state authority. The West and the wider international community must pursue a holistic effort to establish democracy, the rule of law, and state authority in Libya. It is simply not enough to watch from the sidelines – the West must be active and engaged in helping Libya in every way it can. The alternative would be disastrous for Libya.

As an aside, for those who wish to follow events in Libya more closely, I recommend Foreign Policy’s Mohamed Eljarh as a great source for news and analysis on recent events in the country.

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Credit: Karoly Lorentey - http://www.flickr.com/photos/lorentey/1438477358

An Encompassing Parliament

The UK Parliament, in its current form, is anachronistic, and needs to not merely reform, but transform entirely. Parliament needs to change from being composed of two separate chambers, to being composed of three distinct but collaborative representative bodies: national politicians, nonpartisan civil society envoys, and regional envoys.

The House of Commons is elected through an archaic, and in many regards arcane, electoral system which fails consistently to reflect the political and social fabric of the country. The system also makes it immensely difficult for political movements to produce substantial change outside the scope of the two primary parties.

The introduction of mixed member proportional representation (MMP) to the House of Commons would fundamentally alter and enhance the tenor and character of politics in Britain. It would empower every single voter, as currently millions are left essentially disenfranchised. This is owing to the nature of first-past-the-post elections and safe seat constituencies, wherein the votes of those who opt not to support the predominate political party within their constituency have virtually no effect on the wider national election result. MMP would also herald in coalition politics as a mainstay of our democracy, and in doing so ensure that a greater cross section of our society is represented in government than would be the case under a majoritarian electoral system. Majoritarian governments almost invariably represent a minority of the population, while coalition governments generally represent over half of all voters.

The House of Lords is, quite simply, not elected at all, and has virtually no substantial democratic mandate. While its nominal role as being a measured and nonpartisan collection of specialists, experts, and leading lights in all walks of life is an admirable and vital one, its composition must have democratic foundations which can only be achieved through democratic elections. The recent phenomenon by which governing political parties seek to, as it were, “pack” the Lords with partisan peers is also deeply disobliging in relation to the Lords’ aforementioned nominal role.

Owing to the immense dislocation in legitimacy experienced by the Lords, it should be abolished and its responsibilities assumed by two new representative bodies: nonpartisan civil society envoys, and regional envoys.

Civil society, in the form of charities, pressure groups, think tanks, and other similar organisations, have never been truly represented in the legislative process, and are often sidelined by governments. The transformation of Parliament would allow us to address this problem directly, with the most favourable solution being the creation of a representative body of civil society. This body would be elected nationally, preferably under the single transferable vote (STV) electoral system, possibly with staggered elections, with each candidate being a nonpartisan organisation. It could potentially be the case that individuals, alongside organisations, could be elected, with a share of the seats being allocated to organisations, while another share is allocated to individuals; for instance, a 75/25 allocation of the seats between the two types (organisation, individual) of candidate. In the allocation of seats to individuals, decision makers would need to be acutely aware of the dangers of personality politics. The imperative should be to ensure that this body effectively represents civil society in a measured manner.

Devolution has established a seismic shift in British politics, placing much more power in the hands of regional representatives. Devolution will almost certainly be extended in the future to the remaining English regions which currently lack the same degree of regional representation that their fellow Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish, and London counterparts enjoy. However, there is no institutional representation of regional interests at the national level. This should be resolved by the creation of a representative body of regional envoys, each acting as a delegate for their regional government. This body of delegates would be similar to that of the Bundesrat of Germany.

Ultimately, the Commons would preserve its legislative supremacy, with the other two bodies scrutinising legislation emanating from the Commons, just as the Lords does currently. It could also be the case that legislation pertaining to devolution would require consent of the regional delegation body, though this is an area where discussion will be needed.

Significantly however, this model of Parliament would depart from the traditional concept of there being two bodies residing in two separate chambers. Instead, this model would establish ubiquitous and extensive interbody and intergovernmental collaboration. All three of the bodies would, for instance, attend Prime Minister’s Questions, rather than only the national politicians. Moreover, the bodies would often share the same chamber and debate. This would cultivate a much more fluid, flexible, and open legislative and deliberative process.

It is vital that we recognise that we have long passed the point of reform in Parliament. We cannot simply tinker around the edges in a piecemeal manner. We must tackle the issues and anachronisms of Parliament directly, in a cohesive and cogent manner. Anything short of a total transformation of Parliament will fail to produce the change in politics that is desperately needed in Britain.

(Featured Image Credit: Karoly Lorentey)

Labour is entertaining the concept of negative campaigning, a dangerous endeavour

Labour have released a political advertisement on their YouTube channel with the title “You can’t trust David Cameron with the NHS”. While I would agree with this title, the contents are wholly reprehensible and have the potential, if left unchallenged, to signify a dark turn in British politics and Labour campaign practise.

My discomfort with this advert stems from the fact that it is a form of negative campaigning. At no point does the advert outline Labour’s own policies in the health arena. It merely lists the failures of the coalition government. More than this though, it also teeters precariously close to being an attack ad. Government is not run by one person, it is run by a cabinet of ministers and supported by political parties, but this advert attacks David Cameron personally. The advert was likely created in response to the Conservatives having published a similarly distasteful advert of their own, which took aim at both Ed Miliband and Ed Balls. Clearly, though, stooping to the unscrupulous level of your opponents is never a positive campaign strategy.

The British electorate has been mostly shielded from the practise of negative campaigning, as political advertising on radio and television is strictly regulated, allowing only occasional time slots for party political broadcasts. The situation is manifestly different in the United States, where negative campaigning forms a central part of political campaigns, is essentially unregulated, involves billions of dollars, and cultivates a very dark and petty political culture.

The advent of the web, and its rapid ascent to the upper echelons of media consumption, while a positive thing for political discourse in many ways, has the potential to diminish the tempered and healthy state of political advertising enjoyed in Britain up to this point. General spending constraints are placed upon political parties and election candidates, but the legislation which regulates political advertising only does so for radio and television, leaving political advertising on the web essentially unregulated. Political parties, if they wish to do so and are able to raise the necessary funds, have the capacity to publish any type of political advertising on the web with no strings attached.

In order to prevent British political advertising from degrading into the obnoxious form present in the United States, the major political parties must come together to establish a cross-party consensus on how to move forward in adapting regulation in this area to respond to the innovations of new media. For instance, web-based political advertising could be limited in its quantity and restricted to only being displayed during particular periods of time. What is ultimately important, however, is that all parties recognise that the rise of negative campaigning in any significant quantity will considerably damage the tenor of debate, damaging all parties equally and substantially diminishing the quality of political discourse in Britain.

Credit: The Prime Minister's Office - http://www.flickr.com/photos/number10gov/4600963461/

The coalition has, inadvertently, made the case for proportional representation

If, for one moment, we divorce the coalition government from its oft-controversial policies, and assess the government’s political stability, we unearth a startling discovery. British politics, having had a modus operandi of two-party majority politics for the better part of a century, is fully capable of dealing with the complexities and shift in political culture that is intrinsic within coalition politics.

It’s very easy now, after three years of coalition politics, to forget the challenges faced by the coalition as they entered government in the summer of 2010. Coalitions are never easy, and there are innumerable examples of them crumbling and fracturing political systems throughout the life of Western democracy, such as Weimar Germany’s troubled fledgling democracy and the more recent difficulties in Greece and Italy. The coalition’s survival, and its apparent strengthening as time goes on, is remarkable. The last time Britain was governed by a coalition was during the Second World War, and to stack the odds against the coalition further still, the junior partner, the Liberal Democrats, had not walked through the corridors of power since its predecessor’s (the Liberal Party) decline during the 1920s. The ideological chasm between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats is also, arguably, notably greater than that between the Liberal Democrats and Labour.

Against the backdrop of such daunting odds, the coalition remains and has persevered through challenging episodes of disunity which would even be discomforting in political systems where coalitions form part of the status quo. The Liberal Democrats, lacking any experience of Downing Street prior to 2010, are now able to boast a showcase of truly ministerial personalities such as Vince Cable and Danny Alexander. And while not all elements of the coalition agreement have been achieved, the central tenets upon which the coalition was founded remain at the heart of government policy, with little prospect of this changing in the future. The coalition’s stability must also be seen as a crowning testament to the truly world-class nature of this country’s civil service, without the quality of which the coalition’s survival would have been much more tenuous.

In terms of the political reality of support for the coalition’s policies, the atmosphere is patently less rosy, and rightfully so. But the coalition’s political stability is hugely significant for British politics. Coalitions form a central part of proportionally-elected parliamentary systems in practise, and as a result the coalition’s political stability is a ringing endorsement for introducing proportional representation into British national politics.

(Featured Image Credit: The Prime Minister’s Office)

Parties should be funded by the state

Ed Miliband’s recent foray into Labour’s funding by trade unions has brought the question of state funding of political parties to the foreground, once again highlighting the reluctance on the part of the political class to consider state funding, due to fear of public opinion.

While it is true to claim that money yields far lesser clout in British politics than the infamous multi-billion dollar campaigns of the United States, our current system of party funding is not ideal.

State funding of political parties is commonplace in countries like Sweden and Germany. The amount of funding that parties receive from the state is usually relative to the share of the popular vote which they receive in elections. State funding helps parties in these countries focus on reaching out to the electorate and crafting policy for the population, rather than spending time chasing around and attempting to entice and impress potential donors.

Some commentators strongly deplore the concept of state funding, as they believe that parties with public support should be capable of raising funds independently. As for the public’s apparent disdain for state funding, it is understandable. The idea that technically a small fraction of your taxes will be helping to fund a political party you do not support appears rather unfair and unpalatable.

Funds raised through membership fees and average member donations account for only a small fraction of the total expenditure of modern political parties. The shortfall is primarily made up for by wealthy donors such as Lord Salisbury and Lord Ashcroft, alongside funding from groups such as businesses and trade unions. While British politics is by no means corrupt, the current system of party funding could be said to be democratically disproportionate in some cases (the Conservatives have greater campaign funds than Labour, even during Labour’s time in government between 1997-2010), and to some degree exposes parties to minor influence from individuals and organisations with considerable sums of money.

Parties are a pivotal and essential component of functional democracy. They organise broad but similar standpoints into cohesive groupings with clear agendas. The modern political party is in a near-constant state of campaigning, participating in elections for public office and also supporting local movements and issues. They mobilise activists, hire advisors and political staff, craft comprehensive policy, and commission and conduct opinion polls and studies. These are all crucial aspects of any liberal democracy, but all come with a hefty price which must be paid for by someone.

Of course, smaller parties such as the Greens and UKIP would receive minimal state funding due to the fact that our national electoral system is majoritarian, rather than because of state funding itself. Within a proportional system, smaller parties would enjoy greater representation in Parliament and subsequently receive proportionate state funding.

To conclude, in the grand scheme of things, no other scheme rivals state funding in its ability to tackle, and depending upon the extent of the funding provided, eliminate the role of monetary influence in the political process. There really are only two options when it comes to party funding: either continue to have parties rely upon wealthy donors, or have the state support electorally-successful parties, thus establishing a neutral revenue stream and greater transparency in policy-making.

Credit: Xavier Häpe - http://www.flickr.com/photos/vier/192493917/

Europe must move together

French President Francois Hollande recently called for a eurozone economic government with the power to raise taxes, borrow and have a budget. This is not really surprising, with the almost-unanimous agreement amongst economists that for the euro to survive, it needs a strong fiscal union in order to better handle future crises in the currency.

What is worrying however is the speed at which Hollande has advocated the idea. Clearly, there are 16 additional opinions to be heard on the matter, though there is a very real risk that a fiscal union could be implemented without a broader vision for the entirety of the EU. Many have termed this possibility as being a two-tier Europe, one in which the inner circle of eurozone countries move towards ever-greater integration both fiscally and, significantly, politically, while non-eurozone members become an afterthought on the sidelines. This would be a terrible course of action.

We are currently undergoing a substantial challenge to the EU, with minority and mainstream parties alike speaking of reform – a general spell of isolationism in an economic depression, hardly to be expected – a foreign enemy is always a convenient scapegoat. In some ways, it’s interesting to note that with all the integration up to this point, there seems to be a distinct lack of solidarity on the European level – Europe just isn’t together in fighting in the same corner against common adversity.

Of course, I would love to see dramatic reform of the EU, but only in a constructive and progressive manner with a unified vision of solidarity and compassion, and of sharp critique of isolationism. Following the same disjointed path as the United States would be disastrous – a situation where two catch-all centrist parties are at each other’s necks constantly, a constitution so entrenched that common sense need not raise its hand, and a federal government system where nothing gets done and the people with popular support are hamstrung by those without.

My key point is that we cannot rush reform, and more importantly we must not retreat from integration as a way to resolve the democratic deficit. Instead, we should work to strengthen the democratic heartbeat of the Union, the Parliament, by truly making it the absolute authority, discarding the Commission and other messy and undemocratic intergovernmental relics of which the Union is in abundance. Crucially, we, all 27 member states, must move together. We must look at the bigger picture, move away from technical issues and seriously ask ourselves the question: what do we want Europe to be?

(Featured Image Credit: Xavier Häpe)