The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

Posts Tagged ‘cynicism about politics’

Beware The Cuts Expectation Game

Posted by The Futility Monster on July 20, 2010 @ 10:31

The gruesome twosome...

So which is it?

20% ? (June 8, 2010)

25% ? (June 23, 2010)

or 40% ? (July 3, 2010)

Or maybe none of these are possible.

Targets to cut government department spending by £35bn by 2011 are “unlikely” to be met, the National Audit Office (NAO) has warned.

Since the election, the rhetoric of cuts seems to have been increasing exponentially. I suppose that’s not much of a surprise. After all, why be honest with the voters when they’ll probably only kick you in the face for doing so?

Remember April? Ah yes, the General Election. It was fought over a miserable £6bn of cuts. Labour saying they couldn’t be made this year. Tories saying they very much could. Lib Dems sometimes said they could, sometimes said they couldn’t. It was all a bit uncertain.

Then once that inconvenience of being faced with the public vote was out the way, everyone started talking about the true task ahead.

Only now it seems to be getting more and more ridiculous.

Is the real reason why departments have been asked to plan for 40% cuts such that when they are only asked for a 20% cut it doesn’t sound so bad?

Expectations are everything in life. Stock market, currency and bond prices swing on a daily basis on the mere assumption of expectations of future growth or retrenchment.

Politics is no different. By making out that the government wants to slash and burn to a degree that would be truly unprecedented in modern democracy, we can pretend we’re all soft and cuddly when the cuts are a mere fraction of such a disaster. After all, if your budget is £100bn, and you’re asked to prepare for a cut to £60bn, and you later get told it will just be to £80bn, that’s a 50% reduction in the cut.

And then we have a “Big Society” mantra, which is to take our attention from the cuts taking place in public services by asking us to step forward and provide that same service ourselves for nothing. Just like that. A distraction trick of the highest calibre.

Cynical? Me? With my reputation?

I’m even beginning to think that the cuts may not actually be as drastic as we expect. There are two reasons to think that. First, if the economy starts to tank once more, cuts will simply not be possible, or a depression will ensue. Alternatively, if the economy actually starts to work, cuts so deep will not be necessary after all, and the government may step back from the brink, especially if public opinion starts to turn.

There is either a very clever game in progress here… or I’m crediting our politicians with too much intelligence and Machiavellian countenance. It’ll be fun to find out.

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The Zeal Of The Converted

Posted by The Futility Monster on May 24, 2010 @ 08:38

Wot an odd thing to put on a wall

Throughout the election, Nick Clegg and the Lib Dem cast were very much opposed to cutting spending in this financial year. They attacked the Conservatives’ plan to do so. It was not appropriate at this point.

Now they’re all for it. In fact, they’re so for it that our new DPM did the tour of the TV studios yesterday morning to tell us all about it.

I find something rather unedifying about these kind of scenarios. Yes, people do change their minds, and maybe they really have been persuaded once they got to look at the books. But at no point have we had a credible explanation from Nick Clegg about what is responsible for this change…

It’s that that makes me worry. It makes me think that our so-called “new politics” is nothing but the same old shtick. That Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems all along planned to join in the big budget cuts regardless of what they said to the contrary. In fact, you can bet if the outcome was a Lib-Lab coalition that we’d probably be charting the same course around about now, only it would be Labour too admitting that they needed to start cutting now.

Then the biggest insult is the fact that Vince Cable, the man at the centre of all Lib Dem economic policy for at least the last five years, is going to be tasked with absorbing 1/6 of this year’s cuts in his department, which is ludicrous considering how small the budget of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is relative to the spending going on elsewhere.

Did Vince Cable spend the whole election arguing against immediate spending cuts, only to modify his entire position as soon as the ministerial limousines beckoned?

Because it’s either that, or he has been stitched up good and proper. Nice move of the Tories to put him in the department that’s going to take all the flak. He won’t quite be so popular once he starts wielding the axe.

Government is difficult, I recognise that. But it’s made even more difficult by being dishonest.

And that is what I’m, regretfully, concluding about my own party’s behaviour.

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Immigration: The Dog That Sort Of Barked

Posted by The Futility Monster on May 1, 2010 @ 10:34

Immigration is good, see?

Before this election was called, no one could have dared to think that the top issue the politicians would be talking about would be immigration.

After all, we’ve just been through the worst political crisis in decades, exposing corruption and deceit at the heart of our democracy. Oh, and that little thing that was one of the deepest recessions in decades, including a run on a British bank for the first time in history. The recession may well be over for now, but one false move at this delicate time could plunge growth back into negative territory.

Then there was all this talk about the deficit, and where we’re going to cut. That should have led to a sensible debate about what our priorities should be. Defence? Foreign wars? The NHS? Education? Transport? Housing? Which of these should bear the brunt of the cuts, and in what proportion?

All it took to change what should have been the real issue was one little question, in one little debate.

Think back to the very first debate. It was the very first question. And it was a very reasonable one.

What key elements for a fair, workable immigration policy need to be put in place to actually make it work effectively?

The politicians all replied and insisted that they were going to talk about it all along, because they had heard the concerns of people all up and down the country. That’s probably true, because in certain areas there is indeed a great deal of resentment, and a lot more misinformation, about the presence of immigrants. But amusingly, according to the IPPR:

Our findings suggest that areas that have higher levels of recent immigration than others are not more likely to vote for the BNP. In fact, the more immigration an area has experienced, the lower its support for the far right [sic].

(I do not agree with calling the BNP “far right”)

If I want to be a little mischievous, I would go so far as to say that some of this “concern” for immigration comes in areas that have no immigrants in them at all. Media distortion, perhaps? All those Daily Mail and Daily Express articles must have some impact on the agenda.

This question in the debate, and the controversy surrounding the Lib Dems’ brave policy on how to deal with the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants in the country, has made the issue a centrepiece of the entire campaign. Please don’t let anyone again claim that politicians don’t wish to talk about immigration.

The problem in my mind is the way it has always been spun during the campaign. It seems to me that all our politicians, even from my own party, have settled on forms of words regarding the topic that consistently talk about immigration in negative terms. Out of control. Restriction. Capping. Deportations. Criminals. Overstaying visas. Dodgy visa applications. Border controls. I’m pretty sure that Nick Clegg in the first debate has given the only defence of the subject: that our economy is reliant on immigration, and that it has largely enhanced our culture.

But now everyone is afraid of doing that. The new political consensus is that the last decade of net positive migration must be reversed.

What I’d like to point out to people is that if we do that, and the “indigenous” British people continue along their current path of reduced fertility, the problems of ageing population are going to get far worse, employers are going to find it difficult if not impossible to fill certain jobs, resulting in economic difficulty, and those very same British people that like to complain about a lack of “British” people are actually creating the rod for their own backs.

Immigration is a huge issue, because it cannot be seen in isolation. Here are just a few questions it raises:

  1. Do we need immigrants because of our failing education system?
  2. Do we need immigrants to correct a population imbalance caused by the retirement of the baby boom generation?
  3. Do we need immigrants because the “native” population simply isn’t reproducing enough, storing up massive demographic problems for the future?
  4. Do we need immigrants because we have raised expectations of life too highly that menial work is now seen as beneath most people?
  5. Do we need immigrants because there are some skills we simply cannot train in such a short space of time, and if that’s the case, do we send them back once we’ve fixed the problems here?
  6. Do we need immigrants because without them the economy would suffer greatly in the short term?
  7. Do we need immigrants because immigration is politically easier than tackling the people on welfare who could take a job but won’t?
  8. Do we take immigrants because it is our moral duty to give the life chances we get in this country to other people?

But do you hear politicians talking about any of those?

Do you hell.

We do indeed need a debate on immigration in this country. But it needs to be way beyond the platitudes we’ve seen during this campaign. It needs to go back to first principles. And it needs to be more honest about the important role it is going to have to play in this country for decades to come.

Chances of that happening?

Zero.

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The Voters Can’t Handle The Truth

Posted by The Futility Monster on April 28, 2010 @ 09:47

OK, it was the obvious picture, but who cares...

A few weeks ago I had a small argument with a friend. The subject: spending cuts. In the end, it turned out we were rather violently agreeing. Our expectations of government are too high relative to the amount we are all prepared to contribute.

So yesterday, the Institute for Fiscal Studies thought they would come out and tell us all how much of a bunch of liars our political parties are. This morning, it is front and centre of all the papers, and it dominated the broadcast media yesterday. Political journos love it. Adam Boulton really got his rocks off attacking Peter Mandelson about the lack of information regarding where the axe is going to fall.

Cast your mind back, merely a few months, to September last year. The Tories were banging on about an austerity agenda. George Osborne instructed us all to dig out that hairshirt. Calamity Clegg jumped on the bandwagon, talking about the need for “savage” cuts. Even Alastair Darling joined in.

And what happened?

The electorate didn’t like it. It was all too real. Too bleak. Too depressing. Life is difficult enough already without the politicians seeming to revel in how much they can make it worse for everyone.

We like to pretend we want our politicians to tell us the truth, but the real truth is that we can’t handle it.

If Nick Clegg came out in tomorrow’s debate and said, “We will cut 15% from the NHS, freeze school spending, slash defence by 20%, freeze public sector pay for the next three years and look to make 10% of the workforce redundant,  freeze all benefits for the next three years and scrap all the “bribes” like free TV licences for the elderly and winter fuel payments” you can be sure that the response would be swift and damning.

The truth hurts. And, in reality, the people don’t want to hear it. It cuts too close to the bone.

Trust and responsibility in all forms of life is a two-way street, and politics even more so. Our politicians have a responsibility to be honest with us, but at the same time, they will never trust us. They will never trust us again to act rationally, because we act irrationally. We are too fickle, and too fleeting. We are distracted by whether or not Peppa Pig is going to appear at a Labour Party PR stunt. Our politicians have to talk to us in soundbites, because if they don’t, they won’t keep our attention. And worse, if they try to be more complex, it will invariably get distorted by the echo chamber that is the media.

The politicians can’t trust us to listen carefully, and the people don’t want to listen. We don’t want to listen because politicians in the past have abused that trust, and have acted irresponsibly with the power we’ve given them.

Politicians are to blame. The people are to blame. The media are to blame.

What’s truly worrying is where this cycle is going to end…

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Clarky Cat Is On The Loose

Posted by The Futility Monster on March 17, 2010 @ 11:40

And so it begins...

It is extremely unfortunate, or perhaps richly ironic, that the drug mephedrone, making headlines this morning because of the tragic deaths of two teenagers who had taken it, has the following nicknames: “M-Cat”, “MC”, “mieow” and “meow”.

Because, when I heard this, my mind turned to thoughts of yellow bentines, cake (the made up drug) and, of course, clarky cat.

Satirised by Chris Morris and the Brass Eye team almost 13 years ago, in scenes that caused great controversy at the time due to the willingness of popular figures to lend their names to a campaign that was entirely fictitious, the problem now is that satire ceases to be funny if it’s actually true.

I have no doubt that mephedrone is indeed dangerous if you stick it up your nose. I imagine snorting most things are. Cillit Bang, Mr Muscle, soap powder…

What worries me is that we are now in danger of witnessing yet another full scale moral panic regarding a drug which has been the result of no research, no previous media information, with the resulting effect that almost the entire population know nothing of it.

That is where things start to go wrong. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so too do the media.

Into this void we are going to see endless tales of the “dangers” of mephedrone. Politicians will jump on the bandwagon. There is even talking of classifying this drug as Class A, and yet you have Peter Mandelson admitting this morning that he had previously no knowledge of it.

Perhaps in a month or so, or less, we will be seeing celebrities coming out to warn da yoof about the dangers of this drug. And, naturally, the celebrities will know no more than anyone else.

Evidence. Evidence. Evidence.

I wrote about this same subject before when Professor Nutt resigned from government’s drug advisory panel. Where drugs are concerned, if we must be going down the route of prohibition (being a crazy liberal, I am unconvinced), the best we can do is to do things thoroughly. Yes, there will always be a political decision, and there will be variations in human physiology, but science is pretty damn good in fields like this, and we should use all the tools at our disposal.

But since that’s not going to happen, and with an election imminent, democracy is once again going to be exposed as a failure when it comes to resisting short-term bouts of populism. I’ll bet even the Lib Dems will find it hard to resist the tidal wave of calls for a ban. After all, would you want to look like the outsider on an issue like this?

No. Not when we’re going to have the Daily Mail and Express, with a dash of The Sun and Sky News dictating the agenda.

But still. As long as we all don’t have to live with arms that feel like a couple of fortnights in a bad balloon.

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The Sleaze In Waiting?

Posted by The Futility Monster on February 9, 2010 @ 10:03

The things I manage to find sometimes impress me. Not today.

Nobody’s perfect. Most of all, politicians. It’s a familiar refrain around these parts, but they are just as human as the rest of us.

And, as a stark warning as to what lies ahead, this morning The Times are running a story regarding a £50,000 payment received by Conservative MP Liam Fox, Shadow Secretary of State for Defence.

It’s not a particularly damaging story in reality. There is no suggestion of anything improper in response to the payment, but the danger signs are there regarding conflicts of interest. The payment was made by a businessman with significant interests in the defence sector.

In this case, the donor, Jon Moulton, is apparently a long-standing contributor to Liam Fox’s coffers. What he gains in return for this is open to question. A warm fuzzy feeling inside?

There aren’t many people these days, and I’m almost one of them, who would believe that serious political donations are made with no expectation of reward and purely for altruistic purposes. And I suspect most of us are especially cynical about donations made by people with significant business interests.

Labour were elected on a pledge to be whiter-than-white. It didn’t happen. Laughably, the whole image vanished within the space of a couple of years with the Bernie Ecclestone donation which, very co-incidentally, managed to delay the introduction of a ban on tobacco sponsorship.

The Tories will be hoping they can escape for at least a few years without any major allegations involving cash.

But it won’t happen.

Cameron has made no such pledges equivalent to Blair, but there are endless promises to clean up politics and dust out the old mantras of campaign finance reform. Maybe they’ll even do it unilaterally when they rise to power as a way to smack down Labour’s union funding. It would be nasty of them, but it would be entirely within character.

The trouble is that in spite of the reforms over the years, politics, lobbying and influence-peddling is awash with more cash than ever, even in these troubled economic times. The amount of money being spent by insurance, health and banking corporations in the USA to buy off the Senate is a testament to that.

It’s why I made a prediction at the start of the year that the Tories will be embroiled in a scandal of some kind. It’s just inevitable. There have been the odd rumblings while they’ve been on their ascent to power, but nothing too damaging to shake off.

But once you’re in power, suddenly those cheques gain an extra nought to the end of them…

Can they avoid the temptation?

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Ruling The Unruly Mob

Posted by The Futility Monster on February 4, 2010 @ 10:04

The natives of Little Whinging are getting restless once again...

With the news this morning once again filled with stories about MPs and their expenses, it’s made me wonder just what would satisfy not just the media, but the baying mobs of the general public.

The stocks? Self-flagellation? Walking barefoot across a firey pit of doom in the depths of Mordor?

No. Nothing would. The point was sort of reinforced to me the other day when I watched Tower Block of Commons – because there is a scene in the programme where Tory MP Tim Loughton (who, as far as I’m aware, hasn’t been embroiled in any of this) tries to have a reasonable conversation with a man whose anger and rage is palpable.

But Tim might as well be talking to a brick wall. Indeed, although it was probably a trick of the editing, by the end of the conversation he merely stands there silent while the man begins at MPs expenses and uses it as a delicate springboard to spout off about all the conspiracy theories everyone has about MPs, power and corruption.

Not that I don’t enjoy the odd degree of cynicism about those in power (he says with much understatement) but the real tragedy of the expenses farrago is that it has been used as the perfect excuse to justify all the things over the years that have been said about MPs, that they don’t listen, they don’t care about people like me, they’re only in it for themselves, they spend all day talking about nothing, what do they actually do, and so on and on and on and Ariston.

Some might say a lot of these people never bothered anyway, and democracy is already lost to them. It’s a fair point, and in truth, horrible though this sounds, they are the reason why voting should not be made compulsory. There is a great deal of ignorance in society about politics, either through choice or through necessity: some people’s lives are hard enough without worrying about whether Cameron really does want to cut inheritance tax for the wealthy.

That creates a brick wall, one which will never be knocked down by politicians. Democracy as a concept is fragile, but just as we shouldn’t export democracy over the world, so we shouldn’t force democracy down the throats of our own citizens. It is up to the political class to prove that democracy is worth the time and effort.

Politicians are not just advocates for their party (or more optimistically, their principles), they ought to be a shining beacon of why democracy is the right and fair choice for delivering the just society and the common good.

With that in mind though, they really ought to buck their ideas up…

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The Question Time Quandary

Posted by The Futility Monster on January 16, 2010 @ 11:51

Dimbleby needs to be careful he doesn't turn into the modern-day McCarthy...

No, not Prime Minister’s Questions, which is 30 minutes of botched soundbites with the occasional mild joke that always brings the House down in tears of exaggerated laughter, but the BBC’s “flagship” vox pop opinion programme, Question Time.

I finally got round to watching Thursday’s episode last night thanks to the wonders of on-demand television. It was probably one of the most interesting episodes I’ve seen for a long time, largely because of the entertaining 20 minute start in which both the panel and audience let loose a continuous anger about the Iraq War.

You can include in that the reaction of Peter Hain. Yes, he dithered and defended his decision to back the conflict, but it was clear for all to see that he was sticking firmly to his guns, that in his mind it was a war about WMDs, and he ever so slightly implied that he may not have supported it if the WMD argument were not present. He looked uncomfortable, and even praised Lib Dem Chris Huhne for his “correct judgement” (maybe paraphrased).

The reaction to this episode from planks like John Rentoul was fast and withering, calling it a “witch-hunt” and bemoaning its quality of fact-checking. True, the fact that even Ken Clarke thought the government only scraped through its war declaration with a majority of 11 was somewhat embarrassing, and perhaps a sign that things aren’t all there any more in Ken Clarke’s head… and I did get the distinct feeling that the audience was filled with A-Level politics students… but to me it was fully reflective of how the British public will never forget Iraq in a hurry.

Criticism rained down all night, from the left and from the right. And even the very right. Thanks Kelvin. It was another tirade against government, against Labour, against politicians, against almost everything we have gone through in the past decade as the world has changed.

I’m still young and hopelessly naive, so maybe I’m not best placed to say the behaviour of the British electorate over the past year is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. But it still feels bad. Week after week, the relentless feeling that the old politics is dying just cannot be escaped. The political classes are utterly despised. The record of this Labour government over the last seven years, even since the disaster of Iraq, is a festering wound at the heart of democracy. Did people genuinely think their votes in 2001 were going to lead to this?

Maybe people don’t want representative democracy any more because – in this era where deference is only paid to celebrities and the talented – we don’t believe our representatives are fully qualified to represent us. We’ve had enough of Burke’s trustee model. And we might have even had enough of democracy full stop.

The Tories have to be careful how they ride this wave of cynicism into power. If they misjudge it, they’ll only end up getting bitten themselves.

Meanwhile, Question Time will rumble on. I can’t help but wonder, though, if maybe we’re slowly becoming a victim of too much opining…

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The Worst Year For Politics Since Last Year

Posted by The Futility Monster on December 31, 2009 @ 10:23

Yes, Really...

It’s funny how, as the years go by, the reputation of politics continues to decline. Year after year of disaster on top of another has that effect, I suppose.

But this year really did take the biscuit. The obvious thing has been the long-running expenses saga, which now threatens to become an annual event unless Parliamentarians really get to grips with the matter.

The problem about it this time is that it wasn’t the huge fiddles – like “flipping” the designation of your primary residence to avoid capital gains tax on taxpayer subsidised houses – that caught the imagination.

Unfortunately, it was the little ones. The hob nobs. The trouser presses. And yes, none other than the famous duck house.

All of this changed the way we view politics and political behaviour. We’re more cynical now than ever of the motives of anyone who wants to engage in the process. In many ways, it wasn’t the greed that did it. It was the fact that many of the headlines could never have been imagined in even the dreams of the most imaginative satirist. Allow me to illustrate.

“Politicians are corrupt, manipulative, lying bastards” – completely unshocking. Film at 11.

“Politicians are such grasping, cheating shits that they claim for poppy wreaths, 88p bath plugs, moats, bell towers, domestic servants, duck houses, packets of biscuits, presents for relatives, and even porn” – SHOCKER!!

You see? It’s the specificity that does it. Those little details are like the tiniest brushstrokes that mean nothing at close view, but there are so many of them, and once you step back you see they spell the words, “YOU’VE BEEN HAD”.

This extremely damaging bandwagon started with the merest snowflake and turned into an avalanche. Drip drip news is always more dangerous than the big exposé with no follow-up.

And the sad part is that this one still has a long way to go. 2009 will remain in the memory for a very long time for how it started the “cleansing” of the system. It will continue to reverberate into 2010 because of the impact of the forthcoming general election, which will provide a chance to the public to sweep this sorry lot under the carpet. Whether it carries on beyond that is down to the politicians themselves, but if it does, expect the negativity to sink to new, unrecoverable lows.

2009 simply has to be the worst year for politics ever. And there have been some bad ones lately.

Personally, I don’t think it can take any more. This has to be the last one. It has to be the absolute bottom of the trend, or we really will be calling on Simon Cowell to save the day.

Fingers crossed for a better 2010.

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The Defection Myth

Posted by The Futility Monster on December 15, 2009 @ 08:56

As stories emerge this morning about how Labour allegedly tried to get Commons Speaker John Bercow to defect to them, in my mind the old problem emerges.

What about democracy?

I’m one of these crazy people who believes the electorate don’t vote for a person. At least, not here in the UK, under our political culture. When the time comes to vote, people look first and foremost for the party label, and if they can’t read, they’ll look for the logo. It’s The Rose! as Westlife once sang; and that’s where you shall place your X. Or any other mark, since returning officers aren’t that bothered really…

There may be a handful of people who claim to vote to endorse their local MP personally. But that’s broadly because they are the fortunate few that have a good individual candidate in the party that they would support anyway. If they don’t stand at the next election, one rather suspects that they would carry on supporting that party anyway, or at least not vote at all.

Then there are others who claim they support their MP, despite them not being a member of the party they actually support. Of course, it’s very easy to say such things inbetween elections. It doesn’t preclude them, come voting time, from doing everything in their power to see them unseated. I’d be shocked if it was any other way. After all, we all want our own party to win, don’t we?

No, we have never really had a personal touch at the Westminster level. We support the candidate who matches our party. We are party voters first and foremost.

So when an MP turns his back on his or her party, my requirements are simple.

They should resign.

The people of Grantham did not vote for a Labour hack. Neither did the voters of Witney, when Shaun Woodward moved to the Labour Party, and in the process got himself a nice safe Labour seat, allowing David Cameron to become the MP for there at the subsequent election.

MPs should not have the audacity to claim that their mandate is a personal one. That gives them too much prestige, too much status. They are – first and foremost – a member of the party machine.

Because defections are grubby, greasy little affairs. They are not done of a sudden Damascene conversion in philosophy. Shaun Woodward did not suddenly wake up one morning and realise he had been living a lie: that he wasn’t a Tory after all.

No, he did it because he saw the shambles of the Tory Party at the time and realised he had bigger prospects elsewhere. And no doubt was promised a leg-up the ladder. After all, he is now a member of the Cabinet. And Quentin Davies hasn’t done too badly either.

And it sounded like Labour were up to their old tricks in Buckinghamshire as well. Just imagine if Bercow had followed them. He would have turned an 18,000 Tory majority on its head.

Could that fairly be called democracy?

So let’s do away with the myth that it’s OK to defect and not have a fresh election. That’s just a convenient way of making sure you don’t have to have your actions held to account by your own electorate.

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