Friday, 13 December 2019

Lessons for Democrats

As the Democrats in the US are still trying to decide who they should back to run against Trump in 2020, they may want to take note of what has just happened in the UK. In short, a very unpopular leader of the country, viewed by many as an inveterate liar, notorious womaniser, with no compunction about insulting minorities, possessing a dreadful record in public policy failures, unconcerned with conflicts of interests, has just achieved a substantial electoral victory against his opponent.

Yes, after a decade of ruinous right-wing Conservative rule, the UK had handed Boris Johnson’s Party a solid majority in the House of Commons – not because Johnson had been much more effective in winning over the support of voters than his predecessor [he secured 43.6% of votes cast compared with Theresa May who obtained 42.4%], but because his challenger, Jeremy Corbyn, alienated so many people that the Labour Party ended up losing seats it had previously held for decades. UK commentators are busy pointing out the reasons for this, but there are four lessons that are particularly relevant for anyone wanting to get Trump voted out in 2020.

First, personal popularity is important. However unpopular the incumbent is, if the challenger is even more unpopular with the public, the latter will lose. There is no point in fielding some ideologically ‘ideal’ or establishment-friendly candidate, if that person is unable to get people to like her/him. Crucially, if successive opinion polls find someone less popular than the unpopular incumbent, take that as a big warning sign.

Secondly, policies matter if they register. Labour put forward many policies that would have helped people, old and young, get better support where that is needed. Perception of affordability is not actually a problem since the Tories have been throwing money over Brexit and those who want Brexit just shrug. If people want something, they believe it will be affordable in the long run. The problem is having too many policies that they barely register with voters. Instead of getting voters to connect with one or two major policy offers, Labour’s proliferation of policy proposals became a blur.

Thirdly, you need a clear and memorable message. Johnson ran with ‘Get Brexit Done’ and that rallied enough people to back him. Recent polls have shown that most people are not keen on Brexit, but Corbyn’s message was that he would negotiate a different Brexit deal, hold a referendum, and he would neither back that deal nor support ‘remain’ in the referendum. Aside from the Brexit fudge, he did not come up with one core message that resonated with people to rally them to back him.

Finally, you must build alliances rather than split potential support into antagonistic factions. The anti-Tory parties – Labour, Liberal Democrats, and Greens – achieved a higher share of the votes than the Conservative Party, but they were split, and under a first-past-the-post system (which prevails in the US too), that let the Tories in. Despite requests from others, Labour refused to form tactical alliances, and seats they and another anti-Conservative party might have won ended up with the Tories. If factions within the Democrats continue to attack candidates other than their own and breed long term resentment that deprives the eventual nominee from getting all the support of Democrats, that would only benefit Trump.

To beat Trump in 2020, Democrats should therefore bear this in mind. You may not like the way people think, but you need someone who is: more popular (or certainly not more unpopular) than Trump in the public mind; have two or three major policy offers that would resonate with the majority of people and not get bogged down with generating countless policy proposals; can articulate a clear and strong message that people can readily relate to (having a decently paid job would be high on that list); and able to bring factions together instead of alienating them. Make those your selection criteria.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Remember, Remember, Vote Them Out in December: here's a 10-point reminder

After a decade of enduring ever-worsening damages from Tory rule, what should we say to fellow citizens who are still wondering if they might give another chance to a Con-led (Farage-backed) Government to help the superrich become more powerful and heap misery on everyone else? Here are 10 things to remind them of:

[1] Remember they imposed austerity on the poorest and most vulnerable people in society, while giving tax cuts to the richest. For all their pretence that it would help to revive the economy, they only made things worse because of their wastefulness over ill-conceived projects, and the inevitable weakening of consumer demands through greater job insecurity.

[2] Remember they actually couldn’t care less about social or economic stability for our country, as revealed by their willingness to run a risky referendum on our EU membership when the process was infested with lies and corrupted by illegal campaigning, resulting in endless political in-fighting and business chaos that are deeply damaging for everyone.

[3] Remember they don’t even bother to make any claim about adhering to ‘sound financial management’ anymore. They are breaking their own borrowing targets; they have squandered billions over ‘no deal planning’ for the sake of a futile bluff (when business leaders have repeatedly said that the so-called ‘planning’ would do nothing to mitigate a ‘no deal’ Brexit disaster); and they won’t say how much their a-new-pledge-a-day is likely to cost.

[4] Remember how they keep making promises about ending the severe underfunding of public services, but never deliver any new money in practice. NHS is starved of the necessary investment, and forced to make ‘efficiency savings’ which are then handed over to the Treasury for tax cuts for the rich. Under the last Labour government, satisfaction with the NHS reached an all-time high; under the Tories, it has plummeted to an all-time low.

[5] Remember the disdain with which they hold people, especially those who find themselves in dire circumstances. Victims of the Grenfell fire were blamed for their lack of common sense, while there was no mention of drastic cuts to the fire service under Boris Johnson when he was Mayor of London. Homelessness has continued to get worse. The sick and disabled were told they were fit for work and had their benefits cut off, leaving them to starve, and some to commit suicide.

[6] Remember how since they won power in 2010 they have cut funding to local authorities by 50%, directly causing the crippling deterioration of services in support of social care, child protection, libraries, education, street cleansing, and countless other functions on which all but the wealthy elite rely.

[7] Remember how the fall in crime under the last Labour government has under the Tories been replaced by cuts in police numbers and a relentless rise in crime. Violent crime is increasing at an alarming rate; prison numbers and conditions are worsening; and the move to privatise probation services has proven to be a costly disaster.

[8] Remember whatever lip service they might pay to tackling the climate crisis, the Tories always put the interests of their fossil fuel donors first. They have cut support for renewable energy, and pushed forward with fracking even though 99.99% of respondents to a government consultation opposed it.

[9] Remember they have been at the forefront of stirring up anti-immigrant sentiments, despising multiculturalism, and instigating the ill treatment and deportation of legitimate migrants from the Windrush generation to more recent EU citizens in Britain. Alongside the sharp rise in hate crime, desperately needed workers from abroad – nurses, doctors, carers, scientists, etc. – are officiously prevented from coming here.

[10] Last but not least, remember the financial deregulation idolised by the Conservatives and pushed through by Thatcher to allow banks and building societies to lend out previously ring-fenced savers’ money without any due constraint? The deregulated lending led to the 2008 financial crash, jeopardised savers’ money, and bailouts for careless lenders. But the Tories have remained unrepentant and refused to rectify the deregulatory flaws. Without effective regulation, another crisis will hit us all again.

Friday, 15 November 2019

Question Boris Johnson: an election special

[If we are to have an interview with Boris Johnson that will bring up the many examples pertaining to his suitability for public office, this is how it will go…]

Q: A lot of people are asking why anyone should vote for your party when that could lead to you having a majority in the Commons to push through policies that are highly damaging for this country?

BJ: Balderdash! Nothing I’ve done or will do can ever be described as ‘damaging for this country’. My entire career is devoted to serving the public, and that’s the God’s honest truth.

Q: The truth? Isn’t that something you actually find rather difficult to handle? As a journalist, you were fired by The Times for making things up; as the Brussels Correspondent of the Telegraph, you repeatedly fabricated stories about what the European Commission was doing; and you were sacked from your job as shadow arts minister by your leader on the grounds that you had lied about an extra-marital affair.

BJ: Total piffles! I tell the truth on what matters. Everybody knows that.

Q: You mean like the people of Liverpool who lost loved ones at the Hillsborough disaster, and then found out that you, as Editor of The Spectator, falsely accused the victims as drunks who brought it on themselves; or the campaigners against the third runway at Heathrow who were given a solemn pledge from you to stand with them, but only until it suited your personal ambition to drop your opposition to the runway; or your old boss at the Daily Telegraph, Max Hastings, who knew you well and remarked that “Johnson would not recognise truth, whether about his private or political life, if confronted by it in an identity parade.”

BJ: It’s obvious we’re not going to agree about everything. But as a political leader, I deliver. Look at my record as London Mayor, the achievements speak for themselves.

Q: Are you referring to achievements such as closing 10 fire stations and removing 27 fire engines after promising you would do no such thing; declaring that you would eradicate rough sleeping in London by 2012 when during your term of office it actually doubled; telling people there would continue to be manned ticket offices at every tube station before you went on to close all of London's ticket offices; ignoring advice when you insisted on acquiring three water cannon vehicles, which were immediately banned by the Home Office from being used in London and ended up being sold for scrap; or wasting £53million of public funds over the ill-conceived Thames garden bridge project?

BJ: For heaven’s sake, try looking at the big picture. What’s most important for our country is Brexit, and I’m the only one capable of delivering it, because I believe in it and I would rather die in a ditch than let it slip.

Q: What exactly is it that you believe in relation to the European Union? In 2012, you said on the BBC Andrew Marr Show, ″it’s very simple – what most people in this country want is the Single Market, the Common Market.” You pointed out that even if we left the EU, “We’d still have huge numbers of staff trying to monitor what was going on in the Community, only we wouldn’t be able to sit in the Council of Ministers, we wouldn’t have any vote at all. Now I don’t think that’s a prospect that’s likely to appeal.” And you explained further in an article for the Daily Telegraph, “most of our problems are not caused by ‘Brussels’, but by chronic British short-termism, inadequate management, sloth, low skills, a culture of easy gratification and underinvestment in both human and physical capital and infrastructure.”

BJ: It’s a free country, one can change one’s mind.

Q: So what changed yours? Could it be that when David Cameron put his political career on the line by backing Remain in the 2016 EU referendum, you thought that was your chance to become the favourite to succeed him with the Conservative Party becoming increasingly anti-EU, so you switched to backing Leave?

BJ: Absolutely not. It’s purely a matter of principle. Brexit is the correct path to take.

Q: And that is why you’re so incensed with MPs blocking it?

BJ: Of course. We must leave the EU. The moment we have agreed a way for our departure, we must take it, instead of coming up with pathetic excuses to vote it down.

Q: Yet when Theresa May agreed a way for Brexit, you voted it down. You blocked Brexit, because it helped to undermine her, force her to step down, and give you the chance to become the leader of the Tory Party, and by a quirk of procedures, Prime Minister of this country.

BJ: What utter nonsense! Theresa May’s deal was bad for the country. My deal is good for the country.

Q: But you don’t want Parliament to scrutinise it, and you don’t want to give the British people a ‘Final Say’ referendum to consider if on these terms it’d be better to leave or remain after all.

BJ: We must honour the 2016 referendum result.

Q: But as you said, it’s a free country, people can change their minds. It’s over three years since the 2016 referendum, and with far more details coming out now, shouldn’t people have a chance to reconsider?

BJ: Let me tell you something. When it comes to the most vital issues, you must leave it to the person at the top to make the ultimate decision. Why waste any more time when it can all be left to me to look after the interests of our country? There’s no conceivable reason why anyone should doubt my sincerity, my judgement, and my integrity. Trust me on this. I don’t lie.

Q: That just about sums it up.

Note: the dramatised interview above is based on information supplied in the articles to be found in the links below:
(Boris Johnson on why leaving the EU won’t solve the UK’s problems.)
(Max Hastings, former editor of the Telegraph, on Boris Johnson; succinctly summing him up as someone who “cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification”)
(On Boris Johnson’s record on telling lies)
(Boris Johnson on people wanting to stay in the Single Market)
(More on Boris Johnson’s lies and false promises)
(Boris Johnson wasting £53million of public money on Thames garden bridge.)
(Boris Johnson presiding over the closure of fire stations and removal of fire engines)
(Boris Johnson’s U-turn on Heathrow’s third runway).

Friday, 1 November 2019

Proud to be Open-Minded

It is often said these days that progressives must engage with the ‘values’ of the neglected masses. And what values are we talking about here? Apparently, these are values founded on a deep-seated antipathy towards the outlook of the so-called liberal ‘elite’. Angry traditionalists, we are told, are fed up with out-of-touch modernists and their being open-minded about everything. But should we start queuing up to spout the ‘greatness’ of how it used to be?

Let’s look at a few stand-out issues. First and foremost, there is the narrow, monolithic ‘we’ who want to have their neighbourhood, religion, country, and customs, just the way they were back in the ‘golden age’ (before those foreigners arrived). That’s pitted against the cosmopolitan, multicultural, ‘anywherers’/’citizens of nowhere’ who allegedly have no sense of belonging or proper identity. In reality, people with diverse skin colours, accents, faiths, customs, backgrounds, have been cooperating and enriching each other’s lives for centuries. It is an established fact that in areas where there is more mixed interaction, people are more positive about diversity, whereas in places with low immigration or rigid social segregation, there is greater distrust and unease about ‘newcomers’. The way forward is to promote more social mixing and collaborative community ventures.

Secondly, open-mindedness about family structures and gender roles is another common target. Right-wing populists champion ‘values’ that are associated with the traditional male-dominated family model, and are often found to speak up against gender equality, same sex marriage, or tougher enforcement to tackle sexist abuse or domestic violence. Far from endorsing outmoded prejudices dressed up as ‘traditional values’, progressives should point positively to examples of thriving relationships and happy families that are not hampered by discriminatory attitudes.

Thirdly, the problem of insecurity can be dealt with through an open-minded pragmatic approach to see what works best, or it can be confronted with force regardless of circumstances. Those yearning for good old macho toughness will instinctively back the bombing and invasion of foreign countries, detention of suspects without trials, lengthy prison sentence irrespective of the offence, and capital punishment even when critical testimony has been retracted. By contrast, if one really wants greater security, one should be willing to explore what is actually going to be most effective under different conditions – choosing and combining, e.g., deploying diplomacy and/or armed intervention; opting for incarceration and/or rehabilitation; granting a second chance and/or imposing tough penalties.

Finally, and in general, those who crave for certainty without having to engage in thoughtful assessment are always more susceptible to demagogic rhetoric that feeds their prejudices, hands them false promises, and manipulates them to serve someone else’s ambitions. But to find answers that will truly attain for them a better quality of life, they should be assisted with improved understanding of how objective analyses and empirical investigations work, and supported by open-minded examination to arrive at the most reliable paths to reach their goals.

Those running scared of right-wing populists may want progressives to start espousing blinkered views because they think that would be an electoral asset. But the rest of us should enhance our outreach and cooperate with all citizens in learning to test out what will really help us individually and collectively.

We should be confident in our inclusive values and proud of our open-mindedness.

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

The Politics of Saints & Sinners

When more people want their political leaders to be absolute saints who stand on the side of the angels on every conceivable issue, the less likely it is they will find anyone good enough for them to help society in times of need. By contrast, when more people are ready to follow sinners as long as they take pride in committing one of their favourite sins, the more likely irredeemable scoundrels will win political power.

The seekers of ideological saints feel very strongly that no one is worthy of their support unless they back and act on the most impeccable principles in relation to every aspect of life. Even if their policy stance is sound on many issues, any shortcoming in a single area could be enough to render them unfit to lead. As for their personal behaviour, if there is the slightest indication that they do not meet the highest standards at all times, that would be considered utterly unacceptable. So, unless you are ready to tackle poverty, climate change, inequality, problems with the criminal justice system, arms deals with oppressive regimes, industrial decline, crumbling infrastructure, underfunded health service, deficient education provision, and behave with due courtesy with everyone all the time, you will be rejected as a hopelessly flawed candidate.

The acolytes of charismatic sinners, on the other hand, are not at all bothered by their sinning, so long as they are willing, or indeed enthusiastic, when it comes to promoting some reprehensible deed they rather adore. Take, for example, making money for oneself while ruining the environment for everyone else; hurling sexist and racist abuse at women and minorities; pocketing profits generated by workers and paying them a pittance; inciting hatred against immigrants and refugees; championing capital punishment regardless of unsafe convictions; or dropping bombs on civilians abroad as a show of military strength. Politicians who embrace one or two of these will win admiration from people who don’t mind if they are not 100% committed to every one of them. Furthermore, even if their personal behaviour is routinely dishonest or degenerate, they are forgiven.

Thus, in politics, the greater the demand for saints, the higher the bar is set for politicians who are keen to serve the public interest. However hard they try, they are castigated and swiftly lose support for falling short on one issue or another. Meanwhile, the psychology of sinners keeps lowering the bar until it hits rock bottom. Any charlatan who is happy to push one or another of the negative buttons (proudly labelled by serial sinners as ‘politically incorrect’) will attract loyal supporters irrespective of their corrupt, nasty, and deceitful actions.

Some may think that the long wait for saints to come along is worthwhile because we need supremely principled people who will do the right thing on everything. But in practice, there are numerous contradictory demands and competing priorities. Anyone honest and wanting to get things done will have to make compromises. To maintain the image of saintliness, a politician would have to pontificate righteously on every issue, but fudge and avoid taking any action whenever a hard choice has to be made. And in that time, the sinners who have won power will carry on with one vile act after another, and getting away with it all.

To remove the sinners, stop looking for saints.

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

You Say You Want a Constitution

Many people who champion liberal, progressive causes seem to believe that a written constitution is something we should call for.

But while one may hope that a written constitution will spell out exactly what from a progressive perspective should be carried out or forbidden, and enshrine the highest commitment to ensure that no violation will be permitted, there is no guarantee that this will happen in practice. A written constitution could just as easily codify ideas and practices that are ambiguous or potentially undesirable.

What if we have a written constitution that rules out any organised action by workers to challenge their employers; forbids interracial or gay marriage; grants immunity from prosecution to anyone who can pay a large fee to the state; or gives one supreme leader the unquestionable power to order the execution of any individual that leader declares to be a dangerous enemy?

Who is to say a written constitution will encapsulate our aspirations as opposed to what authoritarians and plutocrats want?

It is often suggested that the task of drafting a written constitution should be given to some form of citizens’ assembly, whereby a demographically representative group of randomly selected citizens will deliberate and formulate what should be included in a written constitution. Yet even if such a process could be secured, with impartial facilitation and expert guidance, and a set of proposals were to emerge, who is to be given the authority to deem the proposals sound and adopt the draft constitution formally?

Should the existing legislature make the decision? If that is done on the basis of a simple majority, the provisions can in future be overturned by a simple majority; in which case, the written constitution would be as readily amendable as any ordinary law. Or, one can insist that the adoption of the constitution (and any future revision) must be by a special majority (e.g., two thirds, four fifths) in the legislature, but either that is uniquely binding (in which case, the question arises as to why this special majority threshold should be respected; and to argue that it is set out in the draft constitution would simply be begging the question); if not, the very clause relating to special majority can itself be made void by the legislature repealing it with a simple majority.

Another possibility would be to put the draft constitution to a referendum. But we have seen how without proper safeguards, the holding of a referendum simply opens the door to mass deception, law-breaking that corrupts the voting process, and on-going distortion of what option is allegedly selected when none of the options is ever clearly explained in a binding manner. In the absence of due process and adequate enforcement, data manipulators and authoritarian propagandists can ‘win’ a referendum for the most oppressive constitution, and proclaim that all citizens must accept it as legitimate.

Finally, even if a seemingly sensible constitution is adopted, we have the issue of interpretation and revision to deal with. Laws are subject to interpretations that are tested in court and can be altered by the legislature on a simple majority. But any clause in a written constitution is accorded a higher status, and instead of any dissatisfaction with the law being resolved by the elected members of the legislature, contention over what a given provision requires of us is to be settled by the most senior court of the land. In practice, as the experience of the US has shown, when it comes to hotly disputed issues, more often than not, the judges on the supreme court will vote in line with the political party of the President who put them on the court in the first place (which could have happened ten, twenty or more years ago). So, instead of key issues (such as gun control, corporate involvement in elections, abortion, etc) being determined by the current elected representatives of the people, they will be decided mostly by people appointed on a partisan basis by politicians who are very likely no longer in office.

This is not to say we should not have a written constitution. But before we invite a government led by someone like Boris Johnson or any other self-absorbed demagogue to produce one, we had better get some satisfactory answers to the problems flagged up above.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Shameless Subversion: Con politics explained

In news commentary and academic writings, one still frequently comes across attempts to encapsulate Con politics as some kind of ideological doctrine that merits critical examination. Analysts and scholars try to compare the merits of Neo-Conservatism/Neo-Liberalism with progressive alternatives, and discuss them in connection with rival philosophical and economic theories. But that is simply falling for the Con.

Con politics is not an ideological doctrine at all. It is a manipulative strategy to win support and power to advance its advocates’ position and wealth. It has no coherence except for an underlying focus on saying anything – regardless of their vacuity, incompatibility with other things said, harmfulness, or untenability – so long as it can help to deceive more people into backing its quest for political power.

Let us look at a few examples.

Con politics pretends to be religious, to be on the side of God. But its ‘God’ is a mask for hatred and intolerance. When sacred texts enjoin people to love their neighbours and care for strangers, they ignore them in favour of self-styled preachers who spread venom against the weak and vulnerable instead. When the Pope or an imam speaks out against bigotry and violence, they are dismissed as unrepresentative of the ‘true’ faith. Con politicians have no real religious integrity, just a readiness to invoke ‘God’ arbitrarily to justify whatever nasty rhetoric and policy they want to run with.

Con politics positions itself as being supremely concerned with security, but it promotes the spread of weapons at the domestic and global level so that insecurity grows, and more money can be made for the makers and sellers of weapons from handguns to missiles. In the name of security, it also calls for mass surveillance and intrusion into citizens’ privacy, except for its wealthy supporters who can keep their offshore accounts secret.

Security is swiftly thrown overboard when liberty can be shouted out as the ultimate value. Freedom from government control is the cover given for irresponsible businesses selling unsafe products, exploiting workers, and polluting the environment. Freedom of speech is the cover given for spreading lies and hate-mongering. Adam Smith is deified and his writings, like those of any ‘divine’ texts, are misinterpreted and selectively quoted to create the myth of the ‘free’ market devoid of Smith’s advocacy for appropriate government intervention.

Freedom from state intrusion is in turn jettisoned whenever it fits with the latest Con trick. It proclaims the need to keep government at bay, except when it comes to preventing women from making abortion decisions, sentencing people to death on the basis of trial procedures which are flawed, or punishing people for wanting to end their days of terminal illness with unendurable pain.

The Con cloaks itself with the flag and false patriotism. It talks about the country’s greatness even as it pushes for diminished support for the health and education of citizens. It condemns the poor, homeless, disabled as people who have not made enough of an effort to help themselves. It sends young men and women to fight and die on foreign soil while it concocts excuses for its rich advocates to stay out of military duties.

Above all, it embraces fascist sentiments and attacks its critics as ‘fascists’; it pumps out fabrications by the hour and denounces those who expose its deceptiveness as purveyors of ‘fake news’; and it shrugs off public accountability while censures honourable people who challenge them as ‘enemies of the people’.

Con politics is a shameless subversion of all that is good and decent in society. No one should waste time on discerning what doctrine it espouses. Just expose it as the Con that it is from beginning to end.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

Where is the Jobs Manifesto?

Politicians are increasingly divided into two camps. On the one side there are those who are convinced that they can win power by stirring up xenophobia – build a wall to keep Mexicans out; scream for Brexit to keep EU citizens out; blame immigrants for everything. On the other side there are those who frown on such xenophobic manipulations, and want to take power away from their champions. Unfortunately, the second group have been so concerned with exposing the egoism and deceit of jingoistic charlatans that they have forgotten to address what citizens most need from their political leaders – a manifesto for jobs.

Jobs are important not only because they enable people to meet their basic needs in terms of sustenance and shelter, but they also hold the key to giving people a sense of identity, self-respect, and autonomy. We all want to make a difference, to contribute to something bigger than ourselves, to be recognised as being ready to shoulder responsibilities for the wellbeing of others.

While xenophobic demagogues have been spreading their lies and fanning hatred, the crisis of low pay and job insecurity continues to worsen. The best way to defeat them is to deal with the underlying socio-economic problem of precarious employment. A political commitment to generate decent job opportunities for all is what is urgently called for. And in case anyone thinks that is not possible, here are at least four things that can be done.

First, place a legal obligation on firms profiting from the spread of labour-displacement technology to invest in training for workers to take up roles in companies that focus on quality personal service, and in business development support for enterprises with such a focus. Secondly, provide advice and start-up investment for the setting up and growth of worker cooperatives, and offer guidance on protection from demutualisation. Thirdly, tackle staffing shortages in key public services such as health, education, policing, and housing with a sustained programme of training, recruitment, and retention. Fourthly, give backing to local development projects where local service and employment needs are prioritised through devolved management, and day-to-day personal contact and relationships are appreciated in preference to automated communications that are remote and unresponsive.

There are many progressive economists, community finance pioneers, and experienced strategists for sustainable employment who can refine and expand on these and other ideas. Although it is important to unmask the con perpetrated by xenophobic ‘populists’, the battle for prosperity and decency cannot be won unless the spectre of precarious employment is cast away.

If we want people to turn away from scoundrels and hatemongers, we must come up with a robust and unequivocal manifesto for jobs.

Thursday, 15 August 2019

The Art of Political Criticism: an educator’s guide

One of the most difficult and yet indispensable life-skills to instil in citizens is the art of political criticism. It is dangerous for people to accept everything they are told without question by those in power. But it is just as risky to reject whatever is put forward without giving it due consideration. Knowing how to scrutinise political claims in a coherent and effective manner is a vital part of being a responsible citizen.

Educators may find it useful to approach the task through five learning routes:

[1] Grasping Key Concepts
At the roots of most flawed arguments and attempts at misdirection are inappropriate uses of key concepts. Notions such as ‘freedom’, ‘rights’, ‘responsibility’, ‘democracy, are often taken to imply certain general principles which are in fact quite unfounded. Freedom, for example, is something we value, but not if it becomes a licence for people to act in callous and harmful ways towards others. Democracy is a much-needed form of governance, but it is not obtained merely by a majority vote if misinformation and corruption influence voting intentions. Educators should ensure key political concepts are widely understood.

[2] Reviewing Historical Perspectives
What happened in the past can often be highly relevant to what society should do now and in the future. But that relevance is only discerned through proper interpretation of the causes and consequences of different events. Dwelling on some events while ignoring others, or distorting the reasons behind notable successes or failings, would only lead to misunderstanding or mistakes being repeated. Educators should be equipped to cite balanced historical accounts, and facilitate learning of the critical lessons that are still applicable today.

[3] Identifying Practical Options
One of the biggest challenges for political educators is how citizens can take part in the decision-making of government institutions when there are so many seemingly insuperable obstacles. Whatever democracy may suggest in theory, it is often felt that in practice members of the public will seldom be able to have any meaningful say at all. It is up to educators to draw attention to the many successful approaches and examples of deliberative engagement and state-citizen cooperation, and promote their adoption in all spheres of civic life.

[4] Cultivating Critical Challenges
Demagogues seeking power and many of those who have already gained high office, are adept at rhetoric that makes the most dubious claims sound rousing and convincing. It takes the development of a critical mindset to see through such claims without falling into some form of ‘we-can’t-believe-anything’ scepticism. It is incumbent on educators to inculcate the disposition and ability to question the powerful in a logical and objective manner, appreciating what expertise and evidence can be relied on, and what unwarranted claims to discard.

[5] Exploring Alternative Futures
Imagination can be an important tool in bringing out what people may otherwise overlook. Misplaced complacency on the one hand, and mind-numbing saturation with negative news on the other, could leave many oblivious to the threats posed by plutocracy and fundamentalism. Dystopian literature helps to highlight what may otherwise be overlooked. Educators should facilitate the exploration and discussion of stories that dramatically present the kind of political outlook and social structures that everyone should seek to avert.

For a short guide to Henry Tam’s learning resources relating to the Art of Political Criticism, click on:

Thursday, 1 August 2019

The Stoic-Epicurean Resolution

How are we to navigate the vicissitudes of life? On the one hand, Stoic philosophy is often presented as directing us to fulfil our public duties and lead a solemn, simplistic existence. On the other hand, Epicurean ideas are supposed to guide us towards the quest for private pleasures, away from the wider turmoil of society.

But this apparent dichotomous choice is a false one. On closer examination, what Stoic and Epicurean thinkers put forward actually fit into a single coherent ethos. The starting point is what will bring us fulfilment – that state of being which we would be content and happy to attain. Stoics come at this by setting out what everyone must do for the conditions to be in place for each to find fulfilment. For example, we should not harm others, but defend one another from aggressors; we should respect other people, and treat all on honest, reciprocal terms. It follows that there are public duties that should be upheld by all if each is to find fulfilment. Epicureans come at this by reminding us that nobody who neglects one’s own wellbeing can ever truly experience a fulfilled life. For example, we should not damage our own health, but nurture it; we should evaluate our desires, and pursue only those that are realistic and would not undermine our longer-term happiness.

Together, the Stoic-Epicurean approach leads us to take a holistic view about what we should do in relation to both ourselves and others, and consider the long term as well as short term implications. Strategic thinking and impulse control are vital. There is no room for insatiable chasing after pleasures, power, fame, wealth, or anything that may directly or indirectly ruin the chances of attaining a fulfilled existence. Moderation, consideration, cooperation are key ingredients in cultivating the collective and personal conditions for living a genuinely satisfying life.

If one can make a difference in strengthening the social and political structure needed for such cultivation, one must act on one’s public duty. If circumstances are such that one would have no real opportunity to influence wider trends and outcomes, then one should sensibly focus on the more limited sphere within which one can shape the course of events.

The assessment of desires, personal aptitudes, social arrangements, scope for development, and options for action and abstention, should be guided – and here Stoics and Epicureans are at one – not by superstitions, dogmas, rash assumptions, or flawed reasoning, but by the systematic application of logic, evidential findings, and experimental learning. Wisdom, grounded on critical thinking and practical examination, will thus help us decide how we should live.

But what about the Stoic respect for ‘God’ and the Epicurean dismissal of divine causes? There is actually no contradiction between the Stoic ‘God’ as the totality of nature and the Epicurean notion of nature as the ultimate foundation of all existence and meaning. By whatever name we call it, nature interacts with us as we seek to make the most of the life we have. We need to study and understand nature, and recognise that it has no volition of its own to grant us wishes or thwart our pursuits. There is nothing beyond nature, and we must develop plans and solutions in line with nature if we are to attain a life worth living.

Monday, 15 July 2019

What to do about Manipulative Authoritarianism?

Despite the use of terms such as ‘populism’, ‘illiberalism’, or ‘neo-fascism’, the many related movements that are posing a serious threat to democracy are in essence all variants of ‘Manipulative Authoritarianism’.

Its tools are intimidation and marginalisation. It will wear any mask and exploit any theme that can help win them support, dressing up as patriots, traditionalists, champions of freedom, defenders of ‘democracy’ even, so long as it gets them more support to obtain more power to do whatever they want with fewer and fewer constraints.

Its ultimate enemy is democracy as a political culture which strives to enable society to work out in an informed and uncoerced manner what should or should not happen in the common interest of its members, and hold to account those who go against the agreed positions.

To counter manipulative authoritarianism, we need to identify where they are posing the greatest threats, and what counter-measures should be put in place.

Let us focus on four areas where the foundation of democracy is being most seriously corroded, and what actions must be urgently taken.

Democracy is not just about giving the people a say about what should happen, it is about giving them an informed say. And without an objective basis for distinguishing reliable info from fabrication, we become extremely vulnerable to deception. So we must:
 Debunk absolutist rhetoric about ‘freedom of speech’; regulate against irresponsible communications; and set clear criteria to define the unacceptable promotion of hatred, lies, misleading stories, and intimidation.
 Not allow political speech to be exempt; and legislate to give powers to disqualify candidates who deceive the public.
 Establish legally recognised professional standards for journalists, scientific researchers, investigators in line with medical or engineers’ standards.

Democracy is about enabling people to hold those with collective power to act on their behalf. Without proper accountability, political leaders can do what they want regardless of the consequences. So we must:
 Put in constitutional protection of democratic institutions from those who seek to undermine them; and not allow people to stand for office with the professed aim of undermining/dismantling the democratic institution in question.
 Strengthen rules on transparency and enforce them strictly against over-spending on campaign limits; financial impropriety; obstruction of justice; and support from foreign government.
 Make punishment commensurate with seriousness of offences, e.g., removal from office for defined violations.

Democracy functions on the premise that everyone counts as equal as a fellow citizen. But anti-inclusion rhetoric and practices have spread without counter-measures put in place. So we must:
 Facilitate cooperative culture and opportunities to meet, across cultural divides, age gaps, and any other superficial differences that are irrelevant to civic solidarity.
 Increase deliberative and meaningful engagement (see, Whose Government is it?).
 Reduce power gap, guarantee decent pay, and involve workers in setting pay differentials.

System Integrity
Democracy requires rules and procedures to facilitate decision-making that reflects people’s concerns and deliberations. But cunning manipulation of these rules and procedures can give unfair advantages to their supporters and exclude those they want to marginalise. So we must set up a Democracy Commission that will have the responsibility and the power to:
 Scrutinise (and, if necessary, reject) proposals to bring in new barriers (e.g., Voter ID), constituency boundaries, or selectively lower the bar to suit one party (e.g., campaign finance limit).
 Explore alternative voting systems, thresholds, procedures, campaign advertising etc. that may make electoral participation fairer.
 Invalidate results where rules have been twisted or broken.

Monday, 1 July 2019

Key Lessons on Power Inequality

History has taught us that power can take many forms – money, weapons, status, land, authority; and if any individual or group is allowed to amass much greater power than others, then the powerful elite is liable to act to the detriment of everyone else. Let us take four specific lessons from the past that have been instructive to this day.

First, even the most conservative-minded about the need for reducing inequalities domestically are quick to recognise that in international affairs, a balance of power is essential to guarantee good relations. If one country is becoming so powerful, or is forming a formidable alliance with another, that others are at risk of having to bow down to its demands, then something must be done to check its rise, or counter-alliances must be formed. This is reflected in diplomatic manoeuvres and military strategies through the ages. The only reason why some refuse to promote at home a principle they would wholeheartedly follow when dealing with others abroad, is that at home, they rather hope their own superior power would go unchallenged.

Secondly, from the overthrowing of kings by the Athenians and Romans, through the English Civil War and the French Revolution, to the rejection of colonial rule and military dictatorships since the Second World War, the pattern is clear. If a few could ‘take the throne’ by birth-right or belligerence, they would use their power to shield themselves from having to justify what they did to others who were subject to their whims and decisions. When leaders are only answerable to their private conscience or a god whose voice only they can hear, the danger of oppression is deep and permanent. But the system of absolute rule can be displaced, not just in relation to countries, but to businesses too, as worker-owned enterprises and multi-stakeholder cooperatives have demonstrated. The more those in charge have to count on the consent of those they oversee, the less likely they will treat the latter irresponsibly.

Thirdly, even if the route to the top is based on an open electoral process, there must be on-going checks and balances that can constrain, and if necessary, remove those in ruling positions. Louise Napoleon won the popular vote in France and made himself Emperor. The Nazis won seats in an election and proceeded to dismantle democracy in Germany. Without adequate power or dedication to keep watch over those who have taken control, misrule can quickly entrench itself. Democratic systems have to keep learning and improving so that public deception can be more effectively exposed, the power of money to buy political influence curtailed, and the abuse of power more swiftly detected and rectified. From national presidents to corporate CEOs, there can be no guarantee that they will not deliberately put their own interests above those of the people they have authority over, or make seriously erroneous judgements of what should be done. The only reliable redress is that they are subject to scrutiny that is backed by enforceable demands to make them step down as a last resort.

Finally, we must not forget the impact of power polarisation on social cohesion. When a powerful elite relentlessly elevate themselves to an ever higher level of power with attendant privileges and luxuries forever beyond the reach of others, their dismissive attitude towards the plight of everyone else corrodes all bonds of solidarity. The trajectories of the collapsing Roman Empire, the degenerative downfall of dynasties in China, the disintegration of the Ancien Regime, the intensifying sense of alienation amidst the widening inequalities today in the US, Europe, and more broadly, the global plutocratic society – all point to an unhappy ending, unless the power gap is narrowed between the have-not and have-lots.

[A longer version of this essay was previously published with the Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics]
Against Power Inequalities: a history of the progressive struggle is available in e-book and paperback:

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Humpty Dumpty’s ‘Democracy’

“When I use a word,” said Humpty Dumpty (in Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass), “it means just what I choose it to mean.” And in this topsy-turvy world beloved of make-belief politics, no word is more prone to egoistic manipulation than ‘democracy’.

Since democracy is ultimately about the power of citizens to shape their own governance so that they would not be oppressed collectively or individually, it follows that any attempt by authoritarian wolves to cloak themselves with the appearance of ‘democracy’ is not going to stand up to serious scrutiny.

At the most basic level, democracy needs robust and transparent rules to operate. Otherwise, anyone can lie, intimidate, bribe, break the law to gain an illegitimate advantage in the electoral process, and claim to have a democratic mandate to rule.

Unfortunately, the Humpty-Dumpties around us seem to have been given a free pass these days to use the word ‘democracy’ in any way they like, regardless of how nonsensical they are being.

Listen to them defending as ‘democratic’ a referendum outcome that is produced by mass deception and systemic law-breaking. When their lies are exposed, the best they can say in response is “Everybody lies”. When their illegal activities are discovered, they insist that everyone else is biased against them.

Meanwhile, a new Prime Minister will be installed in the UK by 124,000 members of the Conservative Party, while the rest of the country’s 46.8 million registered voters will have no say whatsoever. If the House of Commons chooses to eject this leader with a vote of no confidence and call for a general election, be ready for cries of outrage against this affront on ‘democracy’ – as though 0.26% of voters should override MPs representing the whole electorate.

Under the ‘democratic’ system in the US, you can become President of the country by getting fewer votes from the people than your rival. Once in power, you can put your faith in the words of the Russian leader even though everyone else in high office back home has warned against Russian interference in American elections. If anyone is likely to expose any financial crime or deliberate obstruction of justice you may have committed, you dismiss them or appoint someone in a more senior position to sideline their findings.

Furthermore, in both the UK and the US, those who assume poor and minority ethnic people are more likely to vote against them, have turned to devising Photo ID requirements that will serve little purpose other than preventing these categories of citizens from voting. All in the name of defending ‘democracy’ [Note: the evidence has shown that voter fraud is actually few and far between].

If we value democracy, we can’t allow the word to be used by demagogues to mean whatever they choose it to mean. Humpty-Dumpties are full of themselves, but they too can fall – quite spectacularly.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Ask Grayling: the politics of chaos

Politics is meant to be the art of bringing people together, promoting harmony, and enabling people to work together to achieve what none individually could attain. But in the name of ‘politics’, some people practise the devious craft of sowing seeds of divisiveness, breaking up joint endeavours, and weakening the many so as to gratify the powerful few. This ‘politics of chaos’ presents itself as a governing option for the people, but in truth, it is little more than a series of tactical moves to disrupt society so an irresponsible elite can do as they please.

How does it work? Perhaps we can learn more about it by raising a few questions in connection with Chris Grayling, a long serving member of the Conservative Government in the UK, who seems to have an abiding interest in advancing chaos as an ideological goal.

The National Audit Office has found that changes pushed forward by Chris Grayling when he was Justice Secretary in 2014, which led to part-privatisation of the probation service in England and Wales, involved serious failings and had cost taxpayers almost £500 million. The Chief Probation Inspector, Dame Glenys Stacey, said what Grayling insisted on bringing about despite having been warned against it, was "irredeemably flawed" and people would be safer under a system delivered by the public sector.

Having created chaos in the supervision of offenders, Grayling moved on to become Transport Secretary, and continued with the mantra that private companies were better at meeting public needs, irrespective of the evidence. As the previous privatisation of the railway service was fuelling a growing chaos, and the railway regulator issued a report to highlight the need for the government to deal with the crisis, Grayling declared that it was not his responsibility – as the Secretary of State for Transport – to sort out the underlying system problem, which only the government could tackle.

The one area Grayling seemed to accept was his responsibility was to help the UK prepare for a no deal Brexit, since that could lead to critical imports not reaching the country, and vital medicine and key manufacturing components being held up indefinitely. So Grayling took immediate action by awarding a £13.8m contract to a ‘start-up’ company to provide extra ferries to help with shipping goods into the UK, even though that company had no experience in running ferry service – in fact, it had no ships at all. For the record, Grayling gave contracts to other companies too, and his handling of those arrangements led to costly compensation having to be paid out – estimated by the National Audit Office to be over £50 million.

Was Grayling just overwhelmed by the fear of Brexit chaos that he ended up rashly taking some rather ill-considered decisions? Actually, on all matters relating to Brexit chaos, he was all for turning the country upside down for the sake of combating the cause of all ills – immigration. Back when he was Leader of the Commons, he warned that mass immigration “will change the face of our country forever”. He actively campaigned for Brexit to keep ‘foreigners’ out and claimed that otherwise “additional demand for housing will gobble up vast tracts of green belt land and mean we will have to dramatically expand our transport system to avoid gridlock.” And he did go on to demonstrate, irrespective of levels of immigration, he could ensure chaos across our transport system all by himself.

Wasting public money, undermining public services, stirring up animosity towards immigrants – have we here a litany of utter incompetence, or an ideological obsession with the politics of chaos, or both? Ask Grayling.

For a report on the failings of Grayling’s part-privatisation of the probation service, see:
Other reports on his role as Transport Secretary and advocate for Brexit can be found in most newspapers published in the UK.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Cooperation First: a new educational focus

Cooperation First is an approach to human interaction that should be the focus of every form of education, at every level. It teaches us to recognise that reciprocity is key to mutual wellbeing; that helping each other succeed is better for all than if some were allowed to push ahead by taking unfair advantage of others; and genuine cooperation can only take place on equal terms without deception or prejudice distorting relationships.

It does not matter what party labels people prefer, what religious or secular beliefs we grew up with, or what our cultural heritage happens to be, we all have the potential to appreciate and engage in positive cooperation with others. What is needed is sustained support in developing our understanding, so that we are ready to reach out to others, and at the same time be on guard against those who refuse to reciprocate our readiness to work with them. We also need to grasp the necessity of two-way scrutiny of reasons and evidence, and be able to apply cooperative problem-solving and avoid dogmatic assertions, when we seek to establish what can be accepted as shared beliefs.

Furthermore, Cooperation First can be taken forward in learning programmes that enhance:
Skills for workplace cooperation: the most important are transferable skills that can be applied at successive levels in the work context – these are skills for cooperation, from customer service, production liaison, setting up quality circles, to rota management and strategic planning, and the setting up of worker cooperatives.
Skills for political cooperation: the most important are critical skills in understanding policy proposals, grasping intentions, unpacking rhetoric, checking the reliability of sources, debunking false or misleading claims, persuading others to think and act, and learning to anticipate deflections, and address others’ underlying concerns.
Skills for community cooperation: the most important are social skills in ice-breaking, building trust, devising joint activities, defusing misunderstanding, and facilitating consensus exploration. Particularly important is the ability to improve empathy amongst diverse groups, and generate a sense of common purpose.

In parallel, we all need to learn more about how to deal with people who appear not to want to work with us. We should be able to understand what is behind their stance. For example, some may have been deceived or indoctrinated into going along with prejudiced and irrational actions. Some would have missed out on opportunities to think through issues in an open and rational manner, engage with people beyond a closed circle, or be treated with trust and respect. There are those who been conned into believing they should target their anger and frustration at people who are in fact innocent scapegoats. In all such cases, we should engage with them sympathetically to help them escape from their distorted perceptions of the world. Through appropriate learning, they may come to see through the lies, and channel their feelings where they will make a positive difference for them and others.

Unfortunately, there will also be those who want to gratify their own ambitions regardless of the consequences for others, and some will even seek the subjection of others to give themselves a twisted sense of superiority. With them, there can be no compromise. Their duplicitous agendas must be exposed, their overbearing power curtailed, and their insidious policies reversed. This, too, is something that must be widely taught if true cooperation is to be secured.

Check out the one-volume learning resource for democratic mutual support and cooperative problem-solving: What Should Citizens Believe? – exploring the issues of truth, reason & society.
Available in e-book format:
And in paperback:

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

The Politics of Reckless Endangerment

Egoistic authoritarians have always sought more power so they could do as they please regardless of the dire consequences for others. One of the main obstacles facing them has always been people’s readiness to resist their rule once the threats they pose come into view. But recently they have hit upon a new way to overcome this obstacle – it is the politics of promoting reckless endangerment.

How does it work?

Quite simply you identify the foundation of threat-identification – namely, objective analysis – and erode it until it becomes so unstable that people can be easily misled as to what poses a real danger to them.

With the help of irresponsible media under the control of corporate allies and the support of troll farms spreading misinformation, a culture of reckless endangerment can be widely and rapidly advanced. This is done through, for example, misleading people into rejecting vital vaccinations even though that will result in dangerous diseases spreading; diverting them to blaming immigrants for lowering their standards of living so they won’t notice that it is greedy executives who deny them even subsistence pay; championing the unaccountable use of excessive force at home and abroad without mentioning how counter-productive and harmful it is; or conning them into thinking pollution and climate change chaos are unreal even as the negative impact undermines their health and habitat.

When thoughtful observers and experienced experts point out that such approaches are both unfounded and dangerous, the response is invariably the equivalent of a dismissive smirk. There won’t be any rational, evidential, sincere engagement on what claims are warranted and what should be rejected. All that will be forthcoming are lies, abuses, groundless rumours, and endless aspersion against genuinely qualified people who seek to expose their untenable claims.

The net effect is that people who are most susceptible to emotional manipulation and rhetorical misdirection increasingly ignore reasoned judgements, and instead fall for systemic deception that endangers the lives of countless people.

For the egoistic authoritarians, this is the go-to recipe for stirring up mistrust, uncertainty, and chaos. When enough people can be steered towards, not only reckless behaviour that diminishes their own security and wellbeing, but fervent beliefs that glorify such behaviour as expressing their inviolable freedom, the demagogues who present themselves as the protectors of this freedom are hailed as their political saviours.

As the vicious circle continues to spiral downward, disorder spreads; public health is jeopardised; peace is displaced by knee-jerk aggression; vital public services are savagely cut; essential preventative measures are jettisoned; and international institutions for cooperation and conflict-resolution are dismantled. And while vulnerabilities multiply, those who have manipulated their way to amass ever greater power are able to dictate terms to more and more people.

It is time we remember that to value freedom is not to give a licence to people to cheat and distort so that they can gain power while others’ lives are severely damaged. We can live a worthwhile life freely, only if we have rules and objective adjudication that bind us all to behave responsibly.

The promotion of reckless endangerment is not an absolute right, it is an unforgivable wrong.

Monday, 15 April 2019

Policies for Renewing State-Citizen Cooperation

Government institutions and citizens can only cooperate in an informed manner if policies in support of effective democratic engagement are taken on board. Set out below are five key policies to be considered:

[1] Focusing on making engagement a genuine lever for change
Engagement must be connected to options that would make a real difference to people’s lives. It should be backed by organisational arrangements so that at the outset there is a transparent and shared understanding of what changes can be secured. To involve people in detailed discussions only to reveal some way into the process that various doors are actually closed will only aggravate disillusionment. Those with the formal decision-making power must be willing to act on the outcomes of informed deliberations. In practice, such a commitment would require a feasibility analysis and a corresponding implementation plan before one launches into an engagement initiative.

[2] Identifying and publicising the value of democratic cooperation
More should be done to make the case for cooperative engagement. Local government accounting, for example, should not only list ‘the cost of democracy’ relating to any expenditure associated with elections and subsequent activities of councillors, but cover the gains to accountability and effectiveness generated by informed participation. Techniques for quantifying such gains should be widely adopted. Assessments from around the world have shown that where people are given genuine opportunities to reflect and contribute their views on the development of public actions, it tends to lead to more satisfactory and cost-efficient outcomes.

[3] Selecting appropriate and feasible involvement approaches under different circumstances
A wide range of approaches have been developed and refined for different circumstances, and they only work effectively if they are chosen sensibly and applied with the necessary know-how. Issues such as representativeness, locations, duration, and expenses need to be addressed accordingly. The approach to be adopted should comply with ground rules on, for example, mutual respect, civil discourse, and the adjudication and exclusion of lies and misinformation; handling emotional tensions and resolving them with due empathy; fair facilitating of discussions in reviewing pros and cons, questioning experts, formulating suggestions, and weighing options; and overseeing the resolution process.

[4] Cultivating inclusive community relations as a long-term strategy
Between specific engagement exercises there should be communications to cover not just how the outcomes of those exercises are being followed up on, but also what other policy explorations or everyday issues people may want to discuss. In addition to government bodies having regular and constructive communications with the public, the communities being engaged must themselves be not so divided that it would render shared deliberations impossible. This requires the appropriate use of community development to ensure people from all socio-economic and diverse cultural backgrounds are kept in touch and given realistic opportunities to share their views.

[5] Investing in the development of civic leadership at all levels of society
People aspiring to take on civic leadership positions in society should be assessed on their aptitudes for deliberative engagement with their fellow citizens, and there should be high quality training to enable them to develop the necessary skills and dispositions. Such training should raise understanding of the value and techniques of citizen engagement. Apart from investing in improving formal training provisions and selection arrangements, community-based learning networks should be supported to improve awareness of the opportunities and implications of becoming civic leaders, so that people irrespective of their age, gender, race and class, can be encouraged to participate in informed deliberations and decision-making in relation to public issues.

For more on the renewal of state-citizen cooperation, take a look at Whose Government is it? Available from Bristol University Press:

Monday, 1 April 2019

Fool’s Paradise: the ultimate political resort

Since 2016, the numbers flocking to ‘Fool’s Paradise’ resorts on both sides of the Atlantic have dramatically increased. Even now, many are still attracted to the promises of taking back control and being made great again. In case anyone is wondering what is so tempting with these political resorts, take a look at what are on offer:

[1] Wake up to the daily mantra: “what is said here is always true; what is said elsewhere is fake news”. Never worry about facts or evidence. To check out what you should believe, simply follow the tweets from our Con-Troll Centre.

[2] Fuel your anger and direct your complaints at one or more of the culprits on the official scapegoat list. Anything you’re unhappy about, blame immigrants, trade unions, benefit claimants, minorities, feminists, the European Union, the United Nations, or anyone deemed unacceptably ‘different’ [note: the list is expanding, check at reception].

[3] Remember everything is guaranteed for life (and hence non-refundable). Once you’ve chosen ‘Fool’s Paradise’, that’s it. It’ll be assumed you’ll never change your mind. If you tell us you’ve changed your mind, you’ll be ignored just the same.

[4] Become independent in every way. No help of any kind will be given to you. Whenever you’re cold and tired, you are welcome to sleep anywhere with nothing but the flag wrapped gloriously around you [note: flags, caps, and other souvenir items will incur extra charges].

[5] Enjoy extra servings of hypocrisy which are free and available at all times, as you sing the praise of those in charge of ‘Fool’s Paradise’ even though they behave in atrocious ways that you would condemn in connection with anyone else.

[6] Use your unlimited freedom to mock, intimidate, and cheat anyone you like. And feel outraged when others use their freedom to do the same to you. Basically, anything goes in paradise – so long as you can afford the service of the most expensive lawyers.

[7] Attend costly classes on how the masters of ‘Fool’s Paradise’ manage to make a lot of money for themselves by having no reservation over how they violate probity, hurt the poor, pollute the environment, and increase economic insecurity for everyone else.

[8] Take your mind off things by signing up to one of the popular diversion activities [current favourites include: hate speech on campus, climate change denial, anti-vaccination]; ever reliable to help you forget what a mess you’ve made for yourself and others.

[9] Organise violent field trips to bring fear and harm to the many designated enemies [note: an updated list is tweeted daily]. If you are caught injuring or killing people, however, you will be classified as a ‘deranged individual’ who has acted on your own.

Fool’s Paradise – the ultimate political resort for people who’d believe anything, want everything, and understand nothing.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Carry On Brexit

Year: 2015. Scene: Conservative Party conference.
Cameron: Let me be quite clear, it would be insane and disastrous for our country if we were to leave the European Union. But that UKIP lot, with their ‘leave-the-EU’ claptrap, are quite happy to embrace insanity and disasters. So, to stop them winning seats from Tory MPs, I will stymie them by holding an EU referendum. Let me assure you, there’s no need to prepare for the most unlikely and catastrophic event of us leaving, because I will personally campaign for us to stay in the EU, and I will win it for us.

[He lost, stepped down, and passed the mess to whoever was desperate enough to be Prime Minister to sort out – that would be Theresa May]

Year: 2016. Scene: Campaign planners for Brexit in secret meetings.
Planner A: Allocate all this extra money as set out via all social media channels to get more people to back Brexit.
Planner B: But the messages going out are all total lies.
Planner A: So what?
Planner B: The contact details have been obtained through breaches of privacy laws.
Planner A: So what?
Planner B: And this extra spending would break the law on campaigning.
Planner A: Shut up and get on with it.

Year: 2017. Scene: House of Commons.
May: Does the Leader of the Opposition have any objection to me triggering Article 50 which will give us two long years to prepare for the UK to leave the EU.
Corbyn: I totally support you, Prime Minister.
May: Even though you don’t have any more of a clue what kind of Brexit would be feasible and not ruin our country?
Corbyn: We must respect the result of the referendum, regardless of what might have led to it. Trigger Article 50 even if that gives just two years to find a way forward for Brexit.

Year: 2018. Scene: 10 Downing Street.
May: Davis, you’re my Secretary of State for Brexit, how are the negotiations going with the EU?
Davis: How can I agree anything with them when I can’t even agree the most basic things with you! I resign.
May: Will someone give me some positive news?
A senior advisor: we have been informed by the police and the security service that the Brexit campaign definitely broke the law, and Russian interference is also suspected in misleading British people to back Leave.
May: I don’t know what you’re saying. We must respect Brexit.
Advisor: But they broke the law.
May: Brexit means Brexit, repeat after me, Brexit means Brexit.
[Later in 2018, again in 10 Downing Street]
May: Raab, you’re my new Secretary of State for Brexit, how are the negotiations going with the EU?
Raab: How can I agree anything with them when I can’t even agree the most basic things with you! I resign.
May: Barclay, for the third time I have to appoint a Secretary of State for Brexit. Things always work out the third time round.

Year: 2019. Scene: House of Commons.
May: Time is running out. Here’s the brilliant deal I’ve negotiated with the EU. Place your trust in me, vote for my deal.
Speaker of the House: The Prime Minister’s proposed deal is defeated 432 to 202.
May: I’ll be back … with an improved deal.
[She did not. She just basically put the same deal to the House of Commons again]
Speaker of the House: The Prime Minister’s deal is defeated 391 to 242.
May: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The House has spoken again, and make no mistake, I have heard what I wanted to hear – and that is this, the margins of defeat are reducing. I will concoct a few more delaying tactics, but you have not seen the end of my precious deal.
The Cabinet in unison: You can’t be serious, Prime Minister.
May: Things always work out the third time round. Carry on.

Friday, 1 March 2019

The Politics of Forgivableness

Suppose someone joined a group, and that group was found to be responsible for a lot of harm to innocent people. The person who had joined now sought to leave the group, and asked us for help. Should we automatically say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ regardless of what else might be true in such a case? Or should we ask questions such as:

Why did the person join the group? Was the motive a nasty one, was it naivety that played a big part, or was the individual thoroughly deceived?
Did the person actually take part in any harmful act? Or had the participation merely been a passive one?
Even if the person had taken part in regrettable activities, do we now find genuine remorse, and is there room for forgiveness and rehabilitation?

These questions are pertinent if we are to form the right judgement.

For example, there are young men and women who went to Syria believing they would become part of something better. Some went on to commit atrocities, but others were not involved in combat. Some became more obsessed with fighting, but there were those who became disillusioned and wished they had not been duped. We cannot know what to make of any given individual unless we have more information about that person’s specific case.

But that is nothing unique to those going off to Syria. People have joined gangs or cults, aligned themselves with groups that are connected with terrorist activities, or befriended those who perpetrated violence. Yet when we look back on history, in Northern Ireland, in South Africa, and countless other conflicts around the world, who are we to say which individual on which side deserves to be unreservedly condemned and punished, and who should be given an opportunity for rehabilitation, if we are not willing to consider the actual facts of the case.

In the coming months and years, we will be hearing a lot more about whether people who have blindly backed a cause should be forgiven. We must resist the temptation to condemn them all automatically. Some of them may not be racist; some of them may have been genuinely incapable of seeing the huge damages that would be brought about; and many may have been duped by criminals who broke the law to sway them to do what they did. Rather than declaring that none of them is to be forgiven, we should allow that those who were cruelly deceived and those who now truly repent, ought to be given a second chance. The same, of course, cannot be said about those who revel in pushing our country into interminable political chaos and economic decline for the sake of their own fanaticism. For them, a ‘special place in hell’ would indeed be what they deserve.

Friday, 15 February 2019

Con Politics & its 6 core tricks

Nothing is safe from manipulators who want to trick others into submitting to their own self-serving agendas. This happens with the subversion of religion into cults, patriotic pride into nationalistic rage, disaffection into extremism, and the market into a source of quackery and pyramid schemes. Politics is no different. While it can help develop cooperative communities and serve the common good, it can also be seized by the unscrupulous for their own ends.

Con politics relies on similar techniques used in other forms of exploitative deception – targeting those susceptible to misdirection, and convincing them to give their wholehearted support to what is in fact bad for them. Con politicians deploy six core tricks, and the more widely exposed these are, the better chance we have in putting a stop to their insidious activities:

[1] Lie Shamelessly
Above all, they lie without compunction. When their lies are exposed, they dismiss reports as ‘fake news’. When their inconsistencies are pointed out, they ignore it as though it’s utterly irrelevant. And when they are found to have totally fabricated claims, they say other people lie too, neglecting to acknowledge that they tell more serious lies, far more frequently, and cause incomparable harm. They will attack anyone in the media, judiciary, or research community as untrustworthy for any findings they dislike, but praise as definitive any half-baked announcement that supports their position.

[2] Promote False Values
They will hijack terms and attach false values to them. Their ‘God’ is a vengeful one obsessed with battling homosexuality and women rights (though always forgiving towards Con sinners when they are exposed). Their ‘patriotism’ is all about dominating other countries and being aggressive towards foreigners. Their ‘traditional families’ have no place for ‘unconventional’ sexuality, but plenty of room for sexist abuse and domestic violence. And their celebrated ‘free market’ promises to make everyone lots of money when in reality most are exploited to enrich the few.

[3] Target Scapegoats
They are ever ready to deflect people’s frustration towards convenient scapegoats. Prejudice and hatred are fanned to stir their followers into blaming: anything foreign – immigrants, refugees, international institutions; any religion, custom, or belief that can be attacked as ‘alien’; anyone who cannot obtain enough pay so they have to claim benefits to support themselves and their families; people with disabilities who will without evidence be accused of faking it or just criticised for not trying hard enough to ‘sort themselves out’; and workers and unions daring to question business decisions.

[4] Amass Power
They will take every opportunity to concentrate more power in themselves so others’ fate may become ever more at their mercy. They will spin tales of how it is right and necessary that they have more money, resources, and influence because they uniquely deserve it. They will decry any attempt to introduce fair play as interfering with their success, and no law should be passed, let alone enforced, to stop them extracting from others to build their personal empire, because it is the will of ‘god’ or the outcome of the ‘market’, that they are left alone to be great and powerful.

[5] Increase Insecurity
They spread insecurity to achieve two goals. First, those who are most likely to fall for their con are those who fearfully crave for ‘strong’ leaders when danger is sounded everywhere. So talking up threats from designated, if imaginary, enemies is a common ploy. Secondly, putting people into real insecurity weakens resistance against Con politicians – by cutting public protection against ill health, homelessness, poverty, lack of due process, climate change damages, etc. As more people feel vulnerable and isolated, they become less likely to organise themselves into figuring who their real enemy is.

[6] Demonise People Who Care
They are all too aware that their Con agenda will fall apart if they are unmasked. Given the unmasking will come from people who care about others, a key trick is to demonise these people, and turn them into objects of anger and derision. Pump out negative propaganda at every turn about ‘socialists’, ‘liberals’, ‘feminists’, ‘environmentalists’, ‘multiculturalism’, ‘internationalism’, ‘political correctness’ – presenting these labels as connected to something inherently harmful. And anyone who speaks up against the Con is then simply dismissed by having one or more of these labels pinned to them.

Spot the Con politicians by the tricks they resort to. Help our fellow citizens see these charlatans for what they are, and use our vote to keep them from winning public office. Nothing is more important or urgent. Too many of them are already subverting government to advance their personal ambitions at the expense of everyone else.

Friday, 1 February 2019

The War & Refugees Tax Programme

The people who oppose helping refugees are often supportive of waging wars in foreign lands. Some of them simply don’t connect their jingoistic enthusiasm with it being a major cause of the rise in refugee numbers, which they see as an unacceptable drain on their country’s resources. If they want to have fewer refugees seeking to escape dire conflicts around the world, they should focus on cutting the fuelling of armed conflicts. But how can this be done when there is an unholy alliance between profiteers whose fortune depends on selling arms and rebuilding bombed out areas, and demagogues who celebrate destruction abroad and xenophobia at home against the refugees generated by such wanton destruction?

One way forward is to link attempts to make financial gains or political capital out of fuelling foreign conflicts with compensatory arrangements to help people who suffer as a result of such attempts. This can be developed through a three-part War & Refugees Tax Programme.

First, companies that sell weapons, surveillance equipment, instruments of torture, etc make money from enabling governments and other groups to intimidate, injure and kill people. The fear, instability, and violence thus produced are key factors that drive people away from their homes to find refuge abroad. A compensatory tax on every item sold by such companies would generate a fund that can be used to help refugees find safe passage and settle away from war zones. To the extent the tax reduces such sales from any given country, that country can more rightly demand others that remain the main arms exporters to take greater responsibility for helping refugees. Where sales continue as before or even increase, the tax would raise funds to deal with the impact of those sales on wars and refugees.

Secondly, the country’s defence budget must be spent on genuinely defensive activities protecting it from real threats of attack. Any expenditure on military action to destabilise hostile regimes abroad or support geopolitical manoeuvres that are not directly necessary for the safety of our own citizens should henceforth be met from a specific tax levy for ‘Non-Defensive Military Activities’. Such a tax will cover actions from bombing raids against targets that pose no real threat to the lives of one’s own citizens, to training and supplying foreign armies to help them achieve ‘helpful’ goals. It will also be expected to cover the costs of injury and displacement caused by such activities, including support for civilians who are turned into refugees.

Thirdly, corporations that support military action – especially those whose top executives lobby and/or donate to politicians – in return for a higher chance to secure lucrative government contracts for security and reconstruction work in targeted countries, are to be additionally taxed to raise sufficient funds to help develop suitable health and housing facilities for people who have been badly affected by the military action in question. Such funds will then be used to minimise the need for people to move abroad to find sanctuary.

The outlined War & Refugees Tax Programme will help to deal with the challenges posed by growing numbers of refugees, and most importantly, the causes behind the growing numbers. Some will no doubt argue that even if one country adopts it, others may not, and the problem will persist. Actually, any country adopting it will be financially more able to deal with the problem. Moreover, it will be in a stronger position to promote transnational cooperation to bring in a worldwide programme. Right-wing nationalists will of course denounce it as an unacceptable interference with their right to mistreat foreign people, but their fervent opposition is a sure sign there is a vital and urgent need for precisely such a programme.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Licence to Bill

When someone sets up a practice or an organisation that can charge others for what it purports to offer, what may appear to be a private matter becomes a public issue. What if the body in question deceives people about what is available and charges exorbitant prices? What if the goods and services offered are directly harmful or have dangerous side-effects? How can society protect itself if such an organisation threatens to undermine its stability?

The practice of granting a conditional licence to operate a business originated from the sovereign power setting out the terms for private actors to make gains for themselves in return for benefits rendered to the public realm. In England, the practice could be traced back to Henry VIII who would grant individuals a licence (or charter) to form a company to carry out certain activities (from trade to exploration) that would enable them to take advantage of conditions made possible by past or future actions of the state. The licence was conditional upon the company in question serving the interest of the country, and could expire when its time limit had been reached or be revoked if in practice it led to damages to the common good.

In the US, after independence from Britain was obtained, individual states adopted a similar approach to the granting of corporate charters to individuals wishing to set up companies that would give themselves protection while carrying out transactions with others. These charters forbade activities that would go beyond what were necessary to fulfil their chartered purpose; and the permission granted would be revoked if the companies abused their power or caused public harm. By the late 19th century, however, large companies were able to use their growing influence to undermine the model. Following the Supreme Court case of Santa Clara County v Southern Pacific Railroad (1886), which ruled that corporations should be treated no differently from individual citizens, state power to make corporations publicly accountable began to wane (Grossman & Adams, 1993).

It is time to revive the use of conditional licences because corporations can do so much that can affect the lives of others, but cannot be adequately held in check by the general rules that apply to individuals. Legislatures should begin to draw up licences to operate that will set specific conditions that large corporations must comply with if they are to continue to wield the powers they have.

Any failure to fulfil any of the conditions set out in the relevant licence should lead to clear cut penalties, including in the case of serious violations, the complete revocation of the licence. Major tax evasion, for example, should not be followed by behind the scene bargaining over how much to pay back, but should mean that the full unpaid amount must be handed over plus a penalty that is equivalent to, for example, twice or three times what is owed so it is a genuine deterrent. Threats to proceed with environmental degradation should be met with an immediate suspension of any previously granted right to operate in the threatened area.

Note: For more on this Licence model and other recommendations to strengthen public accountability and civic parity in a democracy, see Chapter 10 of my book, Time to Save Democracy. Find out more at:

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

The Unholy Alliance

In the 1920s, many wealthy business people and substantial landowners gave financial support to far-right agitators, which enabled fascist extremists to take power in the 1930s. Why did they do that? Some of them realised that prevailing policies left many people in dire poverty, and believed far-right ideologues would be the ones to prevent any socialist government from tackling social injustice by tilting the balance in favour of the poor. Some were enticed by vast government contracts promised by far-right politicians if they should win office. Others simply shared a kindred spirit with demagogues who were racist, sexist, jingoistic, homophobic, full of petty prejudice, and driven by hateful intolerance. The result was the end of the rule of law, the beginning of a dark reign of terror, arbitrary arrests and executions, and the invasion of other countries.

A century later, will the 2020s take us down the same horrific path again? The signs are ominous. With wealth inequalities rising back to the level last witnessed in the 1920s, and far-right sympathisers (and many enthusiastic advocates) holding power or gaining influence across Russia, the US, and many countries in Europe and Latin America, the unholy alliance of plutocracy, bigotry and authoritarianism is clearly on the march.

The vast majority of people would recoil from the agenda behind this vile alliance, if they could see through its façade of fake patriotism and empty promises. And exposing their lies is the key to halting their advance.

Responsible politicians, community leaders, civic educators, should make it their priority to highlight at every opportunity the following:

People’s Livelihood: beware of empty promises, because for all the talk of more jobs and better pay, the unholy alliance will just defend the mistreatment of workers, make employment even more precarious, and drastically cut public service so that people will be left extremely vulnerable to homelessness, hunger, and unable to access healthcare.

Real Friends & Foes: the unholy alliance will pretend to be friends of the people, when their actions are always designed to increase their own wealth and power at the expense of others; and the scapegoats they relentlessly attack – such as migrant workers, progressive politicians, trade unions, dedicated public servants – are the ones who help make life better for everyone.

Protection by the Rule of Law: leaders of the unholy alliance will always dismiss rules and regulations as misguided or biased, except when they can use them to safeguard their own position; and they are determined to brush aside due process and impartial scrutiny so that they can intimidate and attack anyone they consider a threat (or an inconvenience) to them.

Weaponised Uncertainties: it needs to be much more widely understood that a common unholy alliance tactic is to stir up problems, dismiss evidence for solutions, and use the ensuing uncertainties to exploit people’s sense of insecurity. They promote anti-vaccine propaganda, accelerate climate change, destabilise the economy, launch wars, so they can benefit from the chaos they cause.

The unholy alliance of the 1920s and 1930s led to the Second World War. It was eventually defeated, but in recent years it has been coming together again in the guise of xenophobic ‘populism’. To avoid another global catastrophe, its true intent must be exposed and its advocates held to account.