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)

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Economic growth is no longer enough

The growth rate of a nation’s gross domestic product, or GDP, has long been heralded as the automatic solution to all of society’s ills.

The concept is simple enough to grasp: employment usually increases in tandem with economic growth, with labour being required to drive such growth. With increased employment and a competitive labour market, wages increase, as do living standards.

This has largely proven true for nations transitioning to and developing industrialised economies, with relative affluence spreading amongst the population, establishing the exalted middle class.

However, for today’s most developed nations, economic growth is increasingly becoming a facile obsession for those who extol free market ideals with little substance. The standards of living that we, in the developed world, have rightfully come to expect, are no longer being met by the automatic effects of growth.

Instead, society is becoming stagnant. Wealth inequality shows no sign of receding from its horrendous level, the megre minimum wage leaves millions of workers earning less than the living wage, and dismal zero-hour contracts have proliferated in many sectors of the economy.

The combination of a meagre minimum wage which is nowhere near the living wage and the ascendance of workfare policies which in essence force the unemployed out of the welfare state and into underpaid jobs produces a situation worryingly analogous to a modern, subtle, concealed and quasi-voluntary form of slavery.

I am aware that such an assertion, with all the very negative historical connotations of the term “slavery”, sounds strong. But, take a step back for a moment and think about the lives of the lowest paid in our society.

Their jobs often entail menial and demoralising tasks. They are paid well below the living wage. There is often minimal prospect for finding a higher paying job in the future. They suffer the stress and anxiety incurred as a result of high living costs for food and bills, the continuous spectre of overwhelming debt, and the disheartening position their life is placed in. Further, the state, stung by the misguided populist stigma of “scroungers and skivers”, has effectively abandoned them.

Clement Attlee’s welfare and public services consensus established following Allied victory in the Second World War has done much to counter many of the societal imbalances caused by dizzying wealth inequality. But, short of the state paying all citizens the living wage they deserve, there is little more the state can fiscally or institutionally do to offset the inequitable wage realities of millions of citizens.

While Ed Miliband’s concept of predistribution hardly struck a chord with people outside academic circles, it is highly apposite to the problems described previously which modern society faces. The idea of predistribution, put simply, is that fundamental changes can be made to the way in which the economy functions, which in turn builds a fairer society, even before redistribution provides more tangible effects such as public services and the welfare state.

We must maintain and continue to advance the idea of strong public services such as the National Health Service. Additional public services, such as trains and utilities, should also be integrated into the public sector. However, we must equally recognise that within a capitalist system, the capitalists must also play a role in improving the quality of people’s lives, as oxymoronic as such a proposition may sound. The state should not in effect subsidise and tacitly approve of people being underpaid for the labour they provide to businesses. Instead, government should be much firmer on the rights of employees and more statutorily active in ensuring not just the volume of jobs, but the quality.

Labour’s Chuka Umunna recently recognised the systemic issues of employment, by stating that “any old job won’t do“, in response to the government’s pursuit of raising employment regardless of the quality of employment.

The value of a job should not be seen from a purely macroeconomic standpoint, but rather from the perspective of the person occupying that job. In a developed society such as ours, the mere fact that someone is employed does not automatically translate into higher living standards for them, far from it.

Finally, we must also pay much greater attention to the happiness of the nation. In recent times, it has become increasingly clear that a distinct chasm exists between the economic productivity and happiness of the nation. This touches upon the need to transform not merely wages, but also the conditions in which people work, in order to reduce stress by building more relaxed and productive workspaces.

To summarise, while in the past economic growth has automatically led to an increase in living standards and the establishment of a burgeoning middle class which enjoy high living standards, in a developed nation such as ours it is no longer enough for growth to be the primary source of the reduction of wealth inequality and the advancement of people’s living standards. Instead, we must shift our attention as a society towards people’s wages, working conditions and happiness, and then act to combat the issues which arise from these metrics, rather than relying upon traditional conceptualisations of growth trumping all else and being the panacea for all of society’s ills.

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.

Let’s be rational: Syria is not Iraq

Following further evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria and the ratcheting  up of involvement in the crisis by the US, there has developed a trend to refer back to and in some cases draw parallels with Iraq when discussing the crisis in Syria. Drawing such a conclusion is deeply simplistic, and jeopardous for the people of Syria and the surrounding region.

Principal among the very distinct characteristics of the Syrian crisis is the clear and hugely widespread humanitarian crisis which has left thousands of innocents killed, millions internally displaced, and an increasingly large diaspora of refugees leaving the country, many of whom are living without adequate sustenance or shelter. The UN has made unprecedented calls for humanitarian relief funding, appealing for $5 billion to support UNHCR operations in Syria’s neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. Due to the conflict’s absence of any prospect of conclusion, and the long-term post-conflict humanitarian implications of the situation, this cost will inevitably rise in the future, while at the same time current appeals are failing to be met by the international community.

Alongside the humanitarian crisis is the origin and spirit of the conflict. The dawn of the revolution was not marked by Islamist militant attacks, but instead by peaceful protests hot on the heels of the Arab Spring. The protests varied in objective, but were invariably concerned with the desire for greater government transparency and electoral democracy. Dumbstruck, the regime defaulted to the hard handed approach of its previous leader, Hafez al-Assad, crushing protests with excessive force, resulting in many deaths. As tensions between the regime and protesters flared further, protesters began arming themselves, at first to protect demonstrations from deadly police action, but rapidly transitioning to infantry-based small arms skirmishes, gradually burgeoning into the conflict we are witnessing today. While protesters having to resort to armed conflict is a disheartening process to observe, the regime’s severe and utterly disproportionate response to protests was inexcusable and betrayed fundamental human rights, anchoring the foundations of the rebellion firmly in the aspiration of liberal democracy and human rights.

Significantly, the Syrian conflict is multifarious. It is all too easy, especially in the world of relentless headlines, to harbour a one-dimensional facile perspective of the situation in Syria. There is no single aspect of the conflict from which it is possible to extrapolate an accurate and succinct generalisation. There are genuine freedom fighters, the preponderant group of which is the Free Syrian Army (FSA), with a real, albeit weak, command structure and a severe lack of supplies. The absence of steady supply lines for the FSA both in terms of food as well as weaponry and ammunition has made it possible for the better-resourced anti-regime foreign and domestic jihadists to amass themselves a higher and more prolific profile than secular freedom fighters, as well as de facto governmental control over areas such as Ar-Raqqah. Extreme groups such as these purportedly receive funding from regional actors such as Iran, with the recent entrance of the militant Lebanese-based Hezbollah into the conflict in support of the regime being a visible product of Iranian funding. Additionally, the north of Syria has fallen under some form of Kurdish control, seemingly seeking to establish a Syrian Kurdistan similar to the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region. Other regional actors such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have provided meager assistance to opposition forces. It could even be said that there is a lack of clarity when it comes to the motives behind the regime’s staunch opposition to change – while it is true that the regime is mostly made up of a minority, the Alawites, and that there is a fear of reprisals against the Alawites if the regime were to fall,  it could be argued that Bashar Al-Assad’s determination to cling to power stems from an unwillingness to release dictatorial power first and foremost before any concerns for the minority group to which he belongs.

With these things taken into account, it would be wrong to bind cases of notoriety (such as the cruel implementation of Sharia law, or the cannibalistic rebel) to the reticent majority of the population, or take such notorious cases to be a perfect reflection of all armed rebels. Equally, these things do not justify any single automatic course of action by the West. What is evident however is that for any argument to be levelled either for or against intervention of any sort there must be substantial deliberation within the context of the circumstances on the ground in Syria, and also be approached with the persistent undercurrent of the desire to relieve humanitarian strife.

Ultimately, there is an imperative for any Western solution to the Syrian crisis to be strategically multi-pronged, involving both regional players as well as the Syrian people. Relying purely on diplomacy, or purely on varying degrees of intervention such as arming the rebels, will not produce rounded results encompassing broad interests and concerns, crucial for long-term stability. Sadly, the last two years of pure diplomacy have been ineffectual, failing the millions of Syrians on the ground who are suffering every day in direct violation of both the spirit and text of the United Nations Charter. Undoubtedly, diplomacy is a pivotal facet of any solution, and we must continue to pursue it as one channel of resolution, but it must not be pursued in a vacuum. The crisis in Syria is set to continue to intensify, further plunging not just the country but the wider Middle East and North Africa region into a huge schism from which relief is uncertain. The fragile conditions of nearby states such as Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, Iraq, as well as the more quiescent Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan could, in the escalating climate, very easily erupt into varying degrees of violence as a result of spillovers from the Syrian conflict. Lebanon and Iraq are already experiencing an insidious growth in violence.

There is no denying that the Iraq war has cast a lengthy and justified shadow over Western intervention, something which David Cameron has explicitly recognised. However, rather than be blinded by intransigence, we should look back at the failures of Iraq and identify the many areas in which we can improve our handling of delicate situations such as that presented to us in Syria. What we must recognise is that there is a principled obligation for states to look after one another – for the international community to safeguard human rights and build a more stable world. Isolationism, as some Western commentators appear to advocate following Iraq, serves the interests of precious few. Instability, anywhere in the world, assists few and harms many.

In conclusion, with situations like Syria, rather than sit on the sidelines and hope that the situation resolves itself, we have a responsibility to be active in a proportional, pragmatic and bespoke manner.

Contributory welfare betrays the very essence of welfare

The debate over the future of welfare has intensified over the past year or so, with Labour being placed under increasing pressure to declare its vision, and the right of the party and especially the “Blue Labour” faction advocating a downsizing of the welfare state which would be tantamount to a new consensus, abandoning the settlement established by the Attlee government following the Second World War which established uniformity and more importantly equality of treatment when it comes to welfare.

In it’s simplest form, welfare exists to improve the lives of the most vulnerable in society. It combats the inherent weaknesses of capitalism by preventing members of our society from slipping into regressive cycles of poverty where generations would otherwise be presented with a very limited scope of opportunities and the inability to escape poverty. More than this though, it builds a sense of societal solidarity where we, as a group, recognise that life does not always go to plan and that we all need support at times in our lives due to no fault of our own. In these situations, people deserve to be treated with respect and helped to return to some sense of normality in order to get back on their feet. Significantly, this support does not exist for society to give itself a pat on the back, but due to the fact that at a fundamental level all humans are equal with a common set of rights which should not be subject to upbringing, life choices or wealth.

The basic goal of Labour is not to have a big state or to centralise government. Instead, it is simply to build a society in which every person has equal opportunities and a pleasant quality of life. For this reason, some in Labour have mooted the concept of contributory welfare. The idea is a rather adventurous reimagination of welfare which would see people ‘pay’ into the system. The more someone ‘pays’ in, the more they get out in times of need. Professor Heinz Wolff recently aired a similar idea for elderly care on Daily Politics. In both cases, ‘paying’ into the system does not refer to money, but rather to volunteer work helping your local community or elderly relatives. At the core of this concept is the desire to nurture a much more philanthropic, caring, and communally active and aware society.

However, while it is perfectly noble and valid to pursue such a vision for a caring society, doing so through welfare reforms would be both unfair and heavy-handed. Contributory welfare betrays the very essence of welfare which is to offset inequalities and to treat everyone at the same equitable level. In many ways, it’s an oxymoron as welfare based on contributions would essentially introduce inequalities into a system which is supposed to dampen inequalities through a sense of solidarity and equality of treatment. However much we would like to expand the philanthropic sector and build a more volunteer and community centric society, we cannot do so through treating some people better than others in their time of need.

Additionally, it is unclear how you would gauge the level of contribution to society, whether disabilities would be factored into the equation, as well as the time consumed by people who have jobs and thus have no time to volunteer, or the skills required to care for people with complex illnesses. These issues would make it  likely that the realities of contributory welfare would spawn a greater bureaucracy than is currently the case. On top of this, large sections of the population would need to be exempted from the contributory system due to the fact that their lives simply permit them precious few opportunities to contribute as much as others.

Expanding the philanthropic sector is a key responsibility for any future government, but doing so by introducing overt inequalities into the welfare system would be a poor course of action and would ultimately prove to be a regressive, rather than progressive, measure, harming those in need while at the same time failing to achieve a real philanthropic society. Government-led schemes to organise, provide a framework for, and to encourage a more philanthropic society are needed, but they must be optional with those taking part doing so in an altruistic manner to help others rather than themselves. Any reform to welfare must not sacrifice equality or be heavy-handed.

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)