Tag Archives: Westminster

Did you make your mark? And how?

I haven’t had much to say of late, but I have been listening.
That’s partly because I’ve been ill.
I was listening and trying to make sense of the cacophony of ideas and comment that filled cyberspace, the radio waves, television and our newspapers as we approached the UK’s general election.Big Ben
Believe me, it was hard. So much noise and so little clarity. With only a week or so to go, no one seemed to be able to predict the outcome.
Too close for comfort
Now it’s all over bar the shouting, at least until September, when The Labour Party has its conference and there’ll be plenty of noise about then.
That’s not so surprising when you think that, for years, it’s been nigh-on impossible to slip a cigarette paper between the two major parties’ policies or their leaders, whoever they may be.
Both leaders banged on before the election about reducing the budget deficit, blaming each other for its existence and the way it was handled. Yet neither seemed to have a credible solution.
Each one swore blind the NHS was safe in their hands while acknowledging it needs reform. But who knows where they might take it? Less than a month later it was deemed to be in trouble again.
And they both had our ageing population’s welfare and our children’s education right at the heart of their programmes. Where is it now?
“Vote for us from cradle to grave”, but what would we get?
Even if you turned to the minority parties, there wasn’t much on offer.
The Greens’ ideas seemed attractive, until you recalled their leader’s February “brain fade” and asked yourself if they’d be able to keep a grip on their day-to-day thinking, let alone the economy.
UKIP didn’t fare too well, unless you were a rabid anti-immigrationist or a simple-minded little Englander.
As for the Liberal Democrats, they seem to have completely lost their way since they were blinded by the bright lights of so-called power sharing as they went into coalition with the Conservatives. Their leader quit almost before he’d lost his seat.
Damaged goods
Aside from their policies, there was also the question of morality or, to be kinder, the whether of whether or not any of our currently serving MPs are fit for purpose.
Even now it’s hard to forget, and even harder to forgive, the business of MPs’ expenses. The infamous duck house enjoys legendary status. The second homes are an indelible memory.
More recently and nearer the election, we had accusations levelled at both Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw that they were willing to accept cash in hand in exchange for a word in various MPs’ ears.
Even the church, which delivered such a well-reasoned critique on the state of British politics early in the year, was accused of hypocrisy for demanding an increase in the minimum wage when it currently paid some of its people less than that.
And then there was the government’s relationship with big business. What were we to make of the half-Nelson administered – and still administered – by some of the huge corporations whose influence paralyses the politicians’ ability to effect change in almost any walk of life?
Could we, in short, have confidence in anyone or any party that entreated us for our vote?
The radical alternative
I don’t profess to have an absolute answer to any of your questions, but I do have a suggestion.
Between now and the next general election let’s try to get something on the ballot paper that allows us to express ourselves properly, rather than having to vote in a way that leaves us uncomfortable just because we’re trying to keep someone out, rather than vote as we feel.
I didn’t vote (because I was stuck in the Chelsea & Westminster Hospital, too late to register for a postal vote, and too ill to be allowed out to the polling station).
But had I been able to vote I probably would have spoiled my paper by writing something like NONE OF THE ABOVE ARE SUITABLE across it.
It would then have gone into the pile marked “Spoiled papers” and been forgotten.
Let’s, next time, have a place where you can put a tick next to NO CONFIDENCE.
That way we all be able to vote as we feel, not as we’re expected to.

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What choice for the UK’s floating voter?

One hundred days to go and counting.
It’s unlikely that, when election day dawns and the real counting begins, there’ll be a hundred names on your ballot paper. But the way things are going, it wouldn’t surprise me if there were.
And how then will the floating voter vote? Faced with so much choice, with the old political certainties sundering and political dissent gaining traction, what can he or she do to prevent his or her vote sinking without trace?
The negative vote
Yesterday morning I heard a man telling the world (or at least Radio 4 listeners) that, after voting for one or another of the major parties since the day he could vote at all, he’s planning to make his mark for UKIP.
He’s doing so because, he says, the major parties are now all the same as each other. When they get into power, they spend two or three years undoing what their predecessors have done and then promise things they ultimately can’t deliver.
So this time round he’s going to vote UKIP; to cast what even he admits is a protest vote.
Why must he be left with such a negative choice?
Probably because the only alternatives are to reject the election altogether and not vote at all, or to spoil his ballot paper. Which means that his ‘vote’, along with thousands of others, would simply drown in an ocean of spoiled papers.
What a waste. Especially when there could be an intelligent alternative.
The No Confidence vote
If there was a space on the ballot paper where voters could make a mark against No Confidence, our man would have a clear way of expressing his current dissatisfaction.
What’s more, at a time when a great deal has been said about the accountability of politicians, his vote would have clear and identifiable count-ability.
It could be totted up with those of likeminded folk and declared as an accurate percentage of the nation’s preference.
As a result, the politicians would know beyond all reasonable doubt that, let’s say, 56% of the population had no confidence in any of their parties, their policies or their candidates.
And that might wake them up; get them to engage with the people. Thumbs Up 2a
My hope is that, by giving people a sensible positive choice, they would be encouraged to take part in what will be a very important election.
For me, the choice should be either vote with confidence for whoever you have confidence in, or vote No Confidence.
Whatever the outcome, we would at least know who’d voted for what. And the politicians would know where the people’s confidence lay.

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Making democracy work

It’s been Democracy Day today and, quite properly, we’ve heard a lot about the way we vote and what we vote for.
All the discussions and debates I’ve heard have made sense.
I have to say, it would have been a shame if they hadn’t. We are, after all, a civilised society and democracy is a civilised way of choosing our governments.
Major points
There are two major points that have stuck with me throughout the day.
The first is that politicians of all parties should offer us clearly defined, coherent policies that they then adhere to.
The second is that the increasing professionalisation and splintering of politics means it’s inevitable we’ll be offered a plethora of parties to choose from – many of them with no experience of government – when we get to the polling booth. Ballot Paper Cross 1
Like children in a sweet shop, we’ll be faced with a bewildering array of tempting goodies, all of them enticing but none of them guaranteed to do us any good.
Indeed, some of them may even do us serous harm.
Sharper cures
Faced with such a wide choice, and increasingly dubious about the worth of anything we’re offered, it’s little wonder people are turning away from mainstream politics.
Rather than suffer a never-ending diet of sugar-coated placebos prescribed by smart-suited spin doctors, some of us are turning to sharper cures for our current ills.
Protest has become rife. Revolution is on the rise. The clamour to be heard is mounting.
For some of us, the question now is where to turn for the kind of government we crave; fair, open, honest, honourable and humane policies that provide a solid foundation for a sound society.
True, most of the parties offer a version of this.
The disappointment for many of us is that few, if any, deliver on their promises, which leaves us disillusioned.
The sour choice
As a result, fewer and fewer of us even bother to vote.
We don’t go to the sweet shop because what’s on offer makes us sick.
Even if we did go, we’re not really able adopt a suck-it-and-see approach because, instead of giving us a second choice immediately, the current parliamentary system saddles us with a government we can’t change for five years.
So, if we are feeling sour-faced and militant enough, we trot along to the polling station and spoil our ballot papers by writing something rude across them, which makes us feel better.
The savoury alternative
The tragedy of this approach is that our votes are disregarded completely; written off as “spoiled papers” and never properly accounted for.
It’s my belief there could be an alternative for those of us who want to vote responsibly. Ballot Paper Cross 2
We should be given a box on the ballot paper where we can put a cross, not against a name or a party, but against No Confidence.
In this way, we would be able to voice our disappointment – even our disillusionment – without running the risk of our vote being, quite literally, consigned to the dustbin of history.
Moreover, all our No Confidence votes could be counted, thus sending a clear message to the politicians that – if they want to win our votes – they must give us something we can have confidence in and therefore vote for.
It’s not rocket science. It’s just democracy at work.

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A tale of two Gs

A couple of weeks ago I spent an evening in the company of Ken Clarke, one of British politics’ big beasts.
That night, recounting his achievements and countering his critics, Clarke seemed like a man at the end of his political tether; a misunderstood old-school patrician slightly confused by the antics of his upstart public school successors.
Today comes the news that Gordon Brown – another big beast of British politics – is to retire from Parliament at next year’s general election.
Both men have been in pubic service – and in the public eye – for decades. So it’s little wonder they both feel it’s time to take a back seat somewhere; or, more likely, a front seat in some international institution or another.
For both men, the questions are “What next?” and “How will they be remembered?”.
In Clarke’s case, he may always be recalled in the same breath as Margaret Thatcher.
In Brown’s case, he may never be disassociated from his erstwhile political friend and adversary, Tony Blair.
But there is another comparison to be made.
Two G forces
Gordon Brown was Britain’s longest-serving peacetime Chancellor of the Exchequer.
In that role, he oversaw extraordinary levels of economic growth and (admittedly debt-fuelled) prosperity for the UK.
As Prime Minister, he was responsible for saving – not ‘the world’ as he mistakenly put it in Parliament – but the world’s banking system as we knew it – and, to a great a extent, still know it today – when it was brought to its knees by the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
Throughout his political life, he has believed in the idea of politics as public service.
His is a record of devotion to Britain, to the betterment of society and to the selfless notion that working to improve the lives of others is a laudable activity.
There seems little doubt that, once he leaves Parliament for the last time next May, he is destined for some new role in public service.
But what of the other G?
A chancer on the make
George Osborne, Britain’s current Chancellor, is a man for whom the ‘chance’ in his job description seems more closely allied to ‘risk’ and ‘luck’ than to the serious business of managing Britain’s economy.
Tomorrow he will deliver his much-trailed Autumn Statement, in which he will outline spendings and savings that he’ll no doubt describe as being good for the British economy.
He may well, as always, blame the last administration for the “mess” he inherited in 2010.
He may even quote Liam Byrne who, as outgoing chief secretary to the Treasury, reportedly left a note saying: “There is no money.” And there is still none.
He may claim to have righted what he saw as a sinking ship.
But he will still be presiding over levels of near-unstainable debt and continuing austerity that can be seen in the UK’s fragile economic growth, the collapse of our manufactured exports, the general state of dereliction in parts of the country and the increasing numbers of people relying on food banks for survival.
Unlike Brown, Osborne, one suspects, will quietly slide into some well remunerated, superannuated business slot when he retires.
A truly big beast
Not for him any notion of ongoing public service.
He is, after all, of the generation that, as Brown puts it, sees politics as, “at best, a branch of the entertainment industry”.
Indeed, it’s hard to believe that Osborne shares anything with Brown who, speaking in Kirkcaldy yesterday, said: “I still hold to the belief in something bigger than ourselves. I still hold to a belief in the moral purpose of public service … which I hope to inspire in my children.”
It’s my belief that, when the tales of these two Gs come to be told, Brown’s will have the greater heft.
For all his failings, he was a good politician and a great public servant.
I cannot see Osborne bettering him on either count.

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Vote, they say. But how?

Hardly a day goes by these days without us being asked or told how to vote for some cause or another.

Last month, the residents of Scotland were asked: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” To many people’s surprise, and many others’ disappointment, they turned out in force to narrowly vote “No”.

Last week, the people of Clacton were asked to vote for a new Member of Parliament, their previously incumbent Member having defected to the UK Independence Party. The original Member got his job back, albeit under a different banner.

The other day I was asked to vote for Time Out magazine’s awards for the best best local restaurants, cafés, pubs and shops in London.

And so it goes on. We are asked to vote on anything, from the best of an obscure category to the worst of some other mysterious grouping.

As for being told how to vote politically, even former Sex Pistol, Johnny Rotten, is in on the act! He believes we should all vote, no matter how apathetic we may be about British politics. “Stand up and be counted”, he says.”Make your voice heard.”

And I agree. We should all vote.

The trouble is, many of us either don’t know who to vote for, or see the whole process as a waste of time because none of the parties, or their candidates, offer anything we can relate to.

Much of this apathy is, no doubt, due to our disillusionment with Parliament and our MPs. The expenses scandal clearly undermined people’s trust in the establishment. The differences between the parties’ policies are so slim it’s impossible to slip a cigarette paper between them. The all-too-frequent bouts of incompetence do nothing for our confidence.

As a result, many of us see politics as a waste of time and don’t bother to vote at all. Which, as Johnny Rotten would no doubt agree, is a crying shame.

A new alternative

I believe voting in Britain should be compulsory.

“Pretty radical”, I hear you say.

Well, maybe. But look at it this way.

If we were all legally obliged to vote, we might all pay more attention to what’s on offer and, instead of abdicating our responsibilities for the way our society is governed, we might actually engage with politics more positively.

Some of us, of course, will never want to vote for any political party or movement.

At present, if that’s how we think, we can always go to the polling station and write whatever we choose all over the ballot paper. “None of these candidates are suitable” or “Bollocks!” or “I’d rather go to a hen party than vote for one of these dogs” are all candidates for this style of voting.

But this is not very productive.

Under the present system, the spoiled papers are set aside and described as such: “Spoiled Ballot Papers”. They’re not counted. No one knows how many there are. They’re just a pile of waste paper and a waste of time.

The confidence trick

My suggestion is that, as well as being obliged to vote, we’re offered a space on the ballot paper where we can put a cross against “No Confidence”.

This way, we could express our disaffection. All the “No Confidence” votes would be counted, just as if they were votes for an accredited political party, and the politicians would know exactly how many people, nationwide, had given Parliament the thumbs down.

As a result, people like David Cameron and George Osborne, David Milliband and Nick Clegg, will know beyond all reasonable doubt that XX% of the population have no confidence in any of them.

It’s my belief that this will make them think.

At the present time, they don’t have to. They can simply brush aside all the spoiled papers by telling themselves that people who do that kind of thing don’t matter. “Loonies”, as David Cameron might describe them.

But, faced with the certain knowledge that a percentage of the population – which could be as high as 50% or even 60% – were actively saying “We have no confidence in any of you”, the folk in the Westminster village would have to pay attention. They would have to ask themselves: “What are we doing wrong?”

Doing the right thing

Making voting compulsory and offering people a chance to express “No Confidence” is the right way forward.

It will make people understand that we all have a responsibility for our society and how it’s governed. It will give us all a chance to express what we feel about politics, just as it will continue to give us the opportunity to support the candidates and parties we favour.

And it will ensure a properly representative turnout out major elections.

That must be better than living in a country governed by people who sometimes represent fewer than 30% of the population.

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Camera or canvas? Which conveys the truth?

There’s been a lot of debate over the past week or so about the amount of money spent by the British parliament on works of art.

Many of those making the most noise have complained that the reported £250,000 handed out since the 1990s – about £10,000 a year on average, unless my math is haywire – has been taxpayer’s money.

One of the points I picked up was that, so far as the politicians’ portraits are concerned, someone believed that photographs would’ve been cheaper than paintings.

I have to say I haven’t heard such a misguided view for quite a while!

Where’s the power?

Photographs might’ve cost less but, with the exception of the memorable portrait of Winston Churchill created by Karsh of Ottawa, and perhaps one of two of Margaret Thatcher, I cannot recall any that convey the truth of any politicians’ character, personality or dynamism.

Most say no more than the average corporate mugshot taken for an annual report.

Painting, on the other hand, is a much more searching medium.

Look at this portrait of Tony Blair, for example. Tony Blair PortraitPainted by Phil Hale in 2007, it shows a parliamentarian reaching the end of his time in office, possibly exhausted by the rigours of Prime Ministerial responsibility and perhaps contemplating the winding down of one career and the start of another.

But look at it more carefully. To me it shows a side of Tony Blair that no photograph could ever capture.

Yes, he could be described as contemplative. But I think it goes much deeper than that.

Blair looks like a man full of uncertainties; a man wondering about his key political decisions and executive actions, who has doubts about the rightness of some of his choices.

What this painting also reveals to me is a man who I believe for years projected the idea of his personal certainty by constantly displaying an up-beat appearance and an almost manic enthusiasm for global politics that bordered on messianic zeal.

Not for nothing did the cartoonist, Steve Bell, light upon Blair’s one “mad” eye as his most telling characteristic!

What’s the truth?

For me, the setting, the pose, the expression – indeed, the whole painting – shows a man uncertain of his truth.

Blair was, after all, a public-school-educated leader of the Labour Party, which is something of a contradiction in itself.

He claimed to be the working man’s MP, but is known to have admired Margaret Thatcher.

He believed he had the right prescription for all Britain’s ills, but provided some catastrophic medicine that, at times, made the patient suffer even greater pain.

He was loved when he came to power and loathed by the time he left office.

Ultimately, this image seems to be that of a man asking himself: “How will I be judged?”

And I have to ask: “Could any photograph capture – and convey – that so effectively?”

I have to say I doubt it.

Photography may lay claim to be the medium that never lies, but painting searches for and finds truths that might otherwise remain hidden.

Even Tony Blair might agree with that.

A postscript

Blair always pointedly refused to sit for artists while he was in office. This portrait was commissioned towards the end of his tenure. Hugo Swire, who chaired the committee that appointed Phil Hale (a Boston-born American artist who lives in London) said at the time that he chose Hale because he was impressed by his portrait of the composer, Thomas Adès, which hangs in Britain’s National Portrait Gallery. You can see more of Hale’s work at Allen Spiegel Fine Arts. Go visit!

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