Ponderings on (UK) Politics
I know, I know, it's a dangerous topic to get into, but if you're in the UK, politics is basically inescapable. I think very few people are happy with the state of politics (bar those currently in power), but mostly that expresses as grumblings or meandering debates. I don't really know what the answer really is to the mess we're in right now, but this is an attempt to document my current thoughts on what some of the big issues are, and where a solution may lie.
The system doesn't work
At the moment in the UK, we have a system which allows minimal movement. Our voting is first-past-the-post, a system that more or less works to keep the incumbents in power. The more marginal a party, the more votes they require to get an MP, broadly. It's been a while since I looked into the exact mechanics and fallout thereof, but basically in most constituencies in the UK, you have a choice between a Labour candidate and a Conservative candidate, and usually one is vastly favoured. This means two things: smaller parties have a very hard time gaining seats in government, and elections usually come down to a minority of swing seats (not unlike the US system at the state level in some respects). This has the effect of making most people's votes largely irrelevant – they can't change the outcome either in their constituency or at a national level.
The role of the media
The UK media is a complex beast, but what's become increasingly clear is that many of the nations' most popular media institutions are controlled by a small cabal of right wing billionaires. Chief among them is the fabled vampire lord himself, Rupert Murdoch (The Sun, The Times), but includes Viscount Rothmere (Daily Mail, i, Metro), the Lebedevs (Evening Standard, The Independent) and the Barclay Brothers (The Telegraph). Media influence is hard to track conclusively, but right-leaning tabloids and news publications have thrown their backing behind both Brexit and the Conservative party, acheiving the impressive feat of getting ordinary people to vote massively against their own interests, but massively enriching their billionaire owners. Many likely remember the 2010 election, and the media campaign run against then Labour leader Ed Miliband, including the famous bacon sandwich photo and 'chaos with Ed Miliband'.
Polarisation, Social Media and Disinformation
Another element in all of this is the rise of polarisation. This is another extremely complex and nuanced topic, but broadly, it seems like the emergence of social media has played a major role in driving the rise of polarised and extreme views. With so much more discourse occurring on platforms which reward engagement over accuracy, the views that are amplified tend to be those that provoke reactions, driving more radical takes. Truth plays second fiddle to outrage. Quick takes are easier to spread and amplify, removing much-needed nuance and simplifying complex situations into black-and-white scenarios that easily turn into us-versus-them situations.
There's definitely more to the changing nature of debates than this, but it feels like this dynamic has helped drive a good deal of the dumbing down of conversations in many spheres, including politics. It's also allowed the rise of figures who are very well adapted to this new school of narrative – Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson. They've realised that accuracy is not important so much as controlling the narrative. Say something outrageous, stir the pot, then if challenged, simply create a new outrage. It takes much longer to unpick and unwind these stories than it does to create them, leaving opponents realing in a trail of scandals and disasters whilst letting those who own these narratives to act more or less as they please.
The Slow Decline
It feels like we're in a slow slide towards a worse and wrorse place. Inequality is rising all around us, particularly wealth inequality, but we're seeing a rise in open discrimination in the last couple of years – racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, you name it. The country is being hollowed out bar London and maybe a few other major cities, and even there, it's harder and harder to live unless you're very well off, creating a two-tier country. Much promised 'levelling up' of northern regions has crumbled into the empty rhetoric we all suspected it was.
Behind much of this is deprivation – people are being squeezed and squeezed. Social safety nets have been stripped bare, as have vital services like fire, police and the NHS. The government rake in money as they asset strip the country whilst those on the ground suffer more and more. However, because the middle and working class have been set up against each other, few can focus on the bigger picture (if they even have the bandwidth to do so above simply getting by).
We've severed links with our biggest economic and political partner in the name of 'freedom' (the American kind, where you're free to die penniless and alone, rather than the kind where you can choose your path in life). Life is dominated by assets and capital – acquire them (houses, stocks, investments) and you're set, and those without access to them are pushed ever lower. We have more foodbanks than branches of McDonalds in this country, and that's shameful.
Rents are climbing and energy bills are rising so fast that millions will be plunged into energy poverty, but meanwhile millionaire bankers are celebrating record bonuses by splurging on champagne. Staying 'competitive' is used as a reason to justify such excess, whilst no doubt their cleaners and security guards work on zero hours contracts.
Our political culture is broken – for sure we've got some bad eggs in the mix right now, but the political system was built on acting in good faith, an assumption that no longer holds true. The widespread belief that all politicians are corrupt and self-serving just promotes a race to the bottom. After all, if everyone assumes you're corrupt regardless of your actions, you may as well take advantage, right?
A new way?
I don't have answers to any of this – it's a complex and tricky problem to even pick apart, let alone try and fix. However, that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. Narratives of either idly complaining or demanding a perfect solution aren't enough – we need to push for better. We need to rebuild trust in politics and politicians – without that, we can't trust our government, which massively limits the change possible. However, rebuilding trust once broken is extremely difficult, and takes a sustained effort.
A growing concern I have is that after 10+ years of increasingly chaotic Tory government, we end up doing a USA, and picking our own Joe Biden - a safe, traditional pair of hands that won't rock the boat, that'll bring things back more or less to where we were. But we can do better than that, and we sorely need something more radical. I don't know if that's a new party, a new system, or something else. But we need something better, fairer, something that benefits more people. However, that's a big hill to climb, and there are many obstacles along the way.
What might that look like? Here's a few ideas that have been circulating around my head for some time, in no particular order – of what a better country might look like, and how it might be governed.
'level up' everyone
As I mentioned above, so much of the resentment and hate in this country feels like it's driven by people who are frustrated, helpless and angry. They're suffering and angry, and they lash out, generally at those painted by the media or government (or both!) as responsible. If most or all people have the basics of life covered, and have autonomy and direction over their life, I'd take a guess that things would be a lot more peaceable. This is a core of prison and police abolitionist movements that have received attention in the US in the past couple of years. Rather than treating the symptoms of poverty with foodbanks and GoFundMes, we rebuild the social safety net, ensuring everyone has the basics of life covered by default, without question. Food, shelter, education, healthcare – these should not be nice-to-haves for anyone.
N.B. I realise this is a very simplistic take, but I do think there's a lot of mileage in abolitionist thinking, moving away from punishment in favour of repair and rehabilitation. A topic for another time perhaps.
Look at what Jack Monroe and Marcus Rashford have pushed for in the past couple of years, tirelessly using their positions in the public eye to campaign for necessities like meals for school-children, and the availability of cheap basics in the supermarkets. This is along similar lines – making sure people can get by. We should support and extend these programs, remove the tyrannical welfare and benefits checking system that denies many the essentials they need to live in order to punish those few who might try and cheat the system. We must rebuild the NHS, repairing the damage done by years of cuts and austerity, and build it back into a public health system we can be proud of on a global level. We must tackle the environment, but in an equitable manner, ensuring that decarbonisation benefits all, and not use those in poverty as scapegoats to avoid action.
Housing needs a huge rethink. We've sold off social housing stock, and rents and house prices have gone through the roof. Houses have become assets, again exacerbating wealth inequality, and what housing stock there is is often ill-suited, old and poorly built. Tackling this is a vast problem in itself, but is likely to involve pushing down rent prices massively, rebuilding social housing at scale, as well as major programs of affordable house building across the country, built to low-carbon, well-insulated standards. I look a bit to countries like Japan here – whilst far from perfect, Japan has far less issue with houses as assets, and also has much better zoning laws that encourage mixed-use development and avoid sprawling suburbs.
The types of housing available likely needs a rethink too. Much of the new housing being built is either small, pokey identikit boxes or city-centre ultra-premium high-rise. Neither caters well to the majority of people. Housing needs to adapt to where we are and where we're going – making small, well-priced higher density urban dwellings for one or two people more common, as well as more reasonable family homes. Co-living and co-housing schemes can help build community and a sense of ownership of spaces... there's no silver bullet, but the answers to these problems already exist out there.
This is leaning towards my climate side, but the state of public transport in this country is shocking. For a country that invented the railway, our train prices are absurdly high for the service we receive. We barely have high speed rail, and most of the country is poorly served beyond links to London. New schemes like HS2 that aim to fix this run over budget, behind schedule, and end up being trimmed back to more London-centric improvements whilst the rest of the country stagnates. Living in a city, car ownership makes little sense, but if you have to travel any significant distance regularly, then trains, despite being an often pleasant mode of transport, are pricey and unreliable.
Even in urban areas, bus routes are often unreliable (London is mostly an exception here), and if you live in the country, you can forget about them entirely – they may as well not exist at all. Cycle infrastructure is slowly improving, but in an often piecemeal fashion. London once again is doing well here, but only after decades of fragmented efforts. These systems are useless if they are only implemented partially.
Fixing this is another big, messy and expensive problem – you need only look up the history of the British rail system to see the many approaches already tried. However, I think one measure that might help is forcing senior ministers to use public transport for all domestic journeys. Not only would it keep them more in touch with actual people (something sorely needed in today's government), but I suspect key services would very rapidly improve if those in power found themselves constantly inconvenienced by their poor operation! I suspect this sort of approach would work pretty well for a lot of systems in fact...
The political side
All this change is going to be hard. In the current political environment it's basically impossible, and the combination of media environment and a rigid political system makes large shifts very unlikely. A new political system seems like the way forward, potentially proportional representation or similar, which encourages a more mixed and diverse political make-up, with large majorities less common, forcing coalitions and cooperation to form governments. How you get a ruling party to move a way from a system that biases in their favour is a question I do not know the answer to, however.
Another approach might be a more citizen-led direction. We've had some small dives into citizen's assemblies in this country, and pushing more decisions to these sorts of groups could be an interesting route to make people care more, give them a say, and also help educate more people about the issues we face as a country. Taiwan is another example in this direction, having experimented heavily with digital-first democracy in the wake of massive protests. One of the aspects of such systems that really appeals is a focus on finding common ground, rather than points of division. Most of us likely agree on most things with those we live and work around, but so often modern politics focuses on the disagreements, the issues that divide us. A focus on agreement and finding commonalities might go some way to mending the rifts torn open by social media and tabloid journalism, and allow us to move forwards towards a common future rather than fighting amongst ourselves.
But how do we effect change?
This will be an uphill battle, to say the least. The current system is designed not to be changed, and the incumbents have no incentives to support a change that will likely dismantle most or all of their current power. The media will mostly follow the interests of their billionaire owners, which largely lie in supporting the status quo. On top of that, the current government is dismantling many oversight mechanisms, from anti-corruption monitoring to checks on parliamentary power and limits on term lengths.
I wonder if a new, people-led party could disrupt the system enough to gain significant power. Nigel Farage and other such figures have shown how much a personable leader with good support and relentless promotion can make a significant impact in a short time. What about the same but for more positive ends? I feel like there has to be a positive vision espoused to garner real support, and to counter the fear-mongering common in political messages of late. Brexit and Britain of late has been a series of realisations of what the UK doesn't want, but what it does want has remained elusive, vague, ethereal.
I've been reading Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel 'Ministry of the Future' recently. Much of the novel is set in Switzerland, and it talks on and off about Switzerland's position, both generally within Europe and in a warming world. Switzerland is a small nation. Its natural geography makes it easy to defend, so the Swiss have become relatively indepedent and neutral, ensuring they are always resilient, and that they are well prepared against threats from all quarters. However, they also realise that as a small nation, they cannot be self-sufficient, however much they try, so must always maintain good relationships with the rest of the world. As they put it, Switzerland prospers when the world does – they benefit hugely from a connected, safe and healthy world, so must remain engaged and pursue that goal alongside their own independence. I wonder if that also could work for the UK, a nation also fiercely independent, but one which equally relies upon its links with others, and benefits from global peace and prosperity.
A vision of a nation both independent but connected, one that values everyone equally, and one that supports and listens to the whole citizenry – that seems like something worth pushing for. It is possibly less radical than I'd like to see long term, but I think it might hold some water amidst the chaos that rules these days.