94% of people think the Electoral Reform Society should be a better campaigning force!

Posting an online poll, on Facebook, normally receives a maximum of 7 responses and usually it is on a subject of tangential interest – well to me anyway.

So, it was with some trepidation that I asked the question:

Do you think the Electoral
Reform Society is in need of reform to make it a more effective
campaigning force for
democratic change?

There has been almost 100 responses now and to be honest I was not entirely surprised that 94% of those responding supported reform in the ERS to make it more effective at campaigning for democratic change, but the level of support did. This, of course, has several possible answers, bearing in mind the respondents are self-selecting. Firstly, that people motivated by reform are much more likely to engage with modern media like Facebook, and conversely those opposing reform do not. Secondly, that I am friends with reformers, and, for that matter, their friends are more campaign focussed that the average person on Facebook. But finally, it occurs to me, it might actually be the level of support for change.

It has been interesting to see the debate on the internet about the future direction of the Society and the different perspectives being presented. The most concerning, for me, is that some of the present incumbents seem to feel the ERS was not ‘responsible’ for the AV referendum campaign. It is rather reminiscent of the Yes Minister discussion about if they were not responsible for spending £1 million of the Society’s money on a campaign that the membership was consulted on and supported, why were they not responsible?

The first UK-wide opportunity to change the voting system, by a referendum, should have had extensive oversight by the ERS Council and should have been led by those that wanted to see electoral reform, even if it wasn’t perfect, namely the ERS.

So, why weren’t they?

I don’t have the answer to that question – it is for them to answer. For my part I did run the campaign in the North West, appointed by Andy May, who is also trying to reform the ERS as part of the team I am a member of. And the result was a bitter disappointment for those that wanted electoral reform, whether members of the ERS or not. We must all take our part of the responsiblity for the failure, but to have had the chance to affect the campaign, and have apparently not taken up the gauntlet, would seem unforgivable!

Is civil unrest a Summer thing?

Do the events in London suggest that Summer is a time for being on the streets?

As someone who looks at history to try and understand the present I was wondering whether the riots in our cities is a new phenomenon or whether it is something that often happens in the Summer.

Historically, it has always been assumed that wars took place in the summer months because of the capacity of infantry to cross ground was much enhanced. Generals leading wars in winter were often defeated as much by the elements as they were by their opponents; the invasions of Napoleonic France and Nazi Germany into Russia for example.

But, it seems that civil unrest is also a summer activity. Today, 10th August, is the anniversary of the less well-known storming of the Tuileries Palace in 1792, which ultimately ended the Bourbon monarchy. Interestingly, it was also the date which news of the American Declaration of Independence was received in London having taken place on 4th July 1776. (I’m sure George III would have benefited from 24-hour news cycles). The 7th August saw race riots in Lansing Michigan. The 8th August was the date of the 8888 Uprising in Burma, 9th August Gandhi was arrested in 1942 for the Quit India Movement.

But, the fact remains that civil unrest appears to be, if not primarily, a summer activity. If this is the case then we need to identify what the differences are between the lives of those perpetarting acts of violence and looting now, and why they were not occurring a few weeks ago. There has not been  sudden change in living standards or political complextion of the nation in this period.

With the age of the people involved in the present events one has to speculate if this is a new school holiday activity. Without educational occupation, or something similar, the lust for the latest accessory or the desire for wanton violence appears to be unchecked from the peer pressure or the external influence of those involved.

Without parental involvement, due to the necessity to work, or the involvement of education the summer months may increasingly become less silly season and more a season of madness.

(I ought to add, to avoid confusion or misinterpretation, that I am in no way suggesting that the events in England at the moment can be compared to the civil unrest surrounding events in India or Burma where people were trying to throw off either Imperial Britain or a military dictator – both were acts of civil political uprising rather than theft and destruction. I am merely indicating that Summer is a season that seems to afford people greater capacity to engage in outdoor activities.)

Should we dignify these events with the term – “riots”?

The Gordon Riots saw London subject to similar levels of violence – what are the present riots designed to achieve?

Riots are unacceptable in a democratic society. Peaceful protest, we are told, is acceptable. Riots, however, do not come in simple ‘one-size-fits all’ shapes and sizes and I am concerned that the ‘riots’ in London, and now across other cities in England, are being given a quasi-political, even justifiable angle because some people see them as being motivated by social exclusion and poverty.

Historically riots have had, if not a justified cause, at least a trigger which catalyse the riot that follows them. The death in Tottenham would seem to be the event that causes protests in Tottenham. But, it is difficult to see how this event, however terrible, caused riots in Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol.

The people involved in violence, robbery, afray and arson on our streets are criminals. They do not have a cause upon which to base their actions – other than a modern version of Social Darwinism in which their actions benefit them personally rather than as a social group. Ken Livingstone and Darcus Howe would seem to have us believe that this is social unrest with a political purpose, even insurrection, against a ruling political elite, as in Syria or Egypt, but this could not be further from the case.

If this was the case the groups of youths would presumably be sloganising their actions as anti-capitalist or anti-authoritarian. They are not. They are themselves capitalists because their actions are designed to achieve greater personal wealth at the direct cost of their neighbours.

Politicians should always be careful not to judge the specific actions of others with general solutions, but there can be little doubt that greed is at the basis of this activity, rather than social exclusion. If social exclusion was at the core of this problem I cannot understand how the benefits of a plasma TV or the latest Nike trainers are going to resolve that problem.

When looking at ‘riots’ in the past politicians have tried to rebalance society in the aftermath to try to prevent any future reoccurance but it difficult to see how riots are going to be prevented if the motivation of them is personal wealth and entertainment through violence.

Why the Electoral Reform Society needs reform!

With the elections to the Electoral Reform Society about to begin a few friends have asked me why I have decided to contest such an election. Normally I am more interested in the cut and thrust of a General Election or a by-election.

Some of this blogs readers will know that I came back into campaigning politics at the end of last year when Andy May employed me to take on the North West region for the Yes campaign in the referendum on AV. Although the campaign was at times totally ineffective and depended far too much on poorly founded concepts of campaigning, the people involved in it reminded me of why I became involved in politics 25 years ago. They wanted change and were going to work their hearts out to get that change. We were all disappointed by the result, that much is obvious, but we were also angry. Angry because the ‘strategic’ leadership of the campaign was poor and really blunted the campaigning effectiveness of the campaign.

I have been told many times by ‘experts’ that we were never going to win, but the problem with such a poor campaign I am not content to simply accept that electoral reform, however dry it may appear to the electorate, was not something that people were happy to support if a good argument was put forward. We did not. And we did not because the organisations which were founded to promote electoral reform were not fit for the purpose that the referendum required of them.

To make them fit for purpose we first start with the Electoral Reform Society, it is the foundation stone of the constitutional reform sector, but has little influence beyond its immediate supporters. The campaign to win the next referendum and to influence government to back STV for local  in England and Wales must begin now, with a purpose of renewal in the organisation.

Firstly, ERS must become a mass membership organisation. Membership has increased massively during and following May, but with membership just over 5000 it can hardly be judged as a mass movement which is going to promote change in these areas.

Secondly, it must have a campaigning focus. ERS has historically been a research based and lobbying group. In an age where politicians are much more affected by direct campaigns aimed at them, rather than being promoted behind the scenes. Just look at how effective people can be in making politicians think again over issues like the sale of forests. It takes co-ordination and leadership and ERS must be the changemaker in this movement.

Finally, ERS must become much more mainstream. I joined the SDP in the 1980s and we slowly learned that going around just promoting PR would not win us the argument. I am committed to STV but we must also attract more people to the cause of constitutional reform and democratic change through other means. Lords reform and votes at 16 are obvious, but we must also engage people who want to see press ownership reform and party funding reform. If ERS can be at the centre of this national campaign of renewal, then ERS will have greater relevance and, as a consequence, there will be more chance of winning the argument for electoral reform when the next opportunity comes.

This is why I am standing for ERS Council.