Friday, April 22, 2011

Opportunist? Moi?

David Cameron, 12 May 2010, asked if he thought coalitions were a good thing:

"We did both have a choice. We could have gone for a minority government backed up by the Lib Dems. But we sat down and looked at it and both thought this is so uninspiring, it's not actually going to do what we came into government to achieve. We want to give the country good government."

David Cameron, 18 April 2011, arguing that AV will lead to more coalition governments:

"That undermines accountability and that's not right. That's what I believe AV could give us - power with less responsibility and pledges with less accountability."

Yes, yes, I know he tries to make a distinction between coalitions in 'exceptional circumstances', which can apparently be a 'good thing', and the idea of coalition governments becoming routine. But he doesn't give any reasons to back that up, as far as I can see, so really it's little more than the age-old tactic of acknowledging the glaring flaw in your own argument in order to fool people into thinking you've addressed it. Really, Mr Shiny-Face, are you seriously trying to exploit people's dissatisfaction with your own government to try and scupper AV? That's a pretty breathtaking move.

Incidentally, I also think this is another example of the Tories playing a much cleverer and nastier game than the Lib Dems when it comes to coalition politics. Notice the detail of Cameron's 'AV-means-more-coalitions' argument:

"I can absolutely put my hand on my heart and say in preparing our manifesto we really did go through every pledge and thought, 'We could be accountable for this. We aim to have, and believe we can have, a single party government so don't put anything in your manifesto you don't believe you can deliver,'" he said.

"If you move to a system where coalitions become the norm rather than the exception I think you might find politicians start being very casual about what they put in their manifesto because you can put in policies that you know you can get rid of as you form a coalition."

Indeed, politicians "may start to put things into their manifestos that might sound good but they can't deliver because they know that in a coalition they're not going to have to answer for them."

Things like, ooh, I don't know, let's pluck a hypothetical example out of the air... pledges to scrap tuition fees? Is it just me, or is the subtext here, 'Well, personally I take my manifesto pledges very seriously - but some people, like Nick here, are sadly not quite so conscientious, and I think you should all bear that in mind when casting your vote.'

Nasty, cynical stuff.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Why I'm getting excited about the Red Tape Challenge

When I first saw the launch of the Red Tape Challenge, it made me want to throw things at other things. Now, however, I'm quite excited about it. Not because I've had some kind of Damascene conversion to the joys of libertarianism, but because it seems, finally, to have woken civil society up to just how dangerous the deregulatory agenda is.

I've blogged before about the farce that is one-in, one-out, so feel free to go and read that if you need some background. Done that? Good. So, the Red Tape Challenge is that latest manifestation of this policy: the idea is that every regulation ever will go up on this website, and the public (ie. businesses) can submit comments on which ones they find tiresome or inconvenient. The regulations will then be reviewed - and will be, ahem, "presumed guilty unless proven innocent". In other words, every regulation that's ever been made will be abolished unless somebody can make a good case for it to stay. As David Cameron put it in his letter to all government ministers:

"In the past... the assumption was that regulations should stay, unless there was a good case for getting rid of them. Our starting point is that a regulation should go or its aim achieved in a different, non-government way, unless there is a clear and good justification for government being involved."

The most obvious problem with this approach arises from the question: who in practice will be making the case for and against? The idea is that, because they're on the 'front line', businesses' "understanding of how things really work will mean you know there is a better way of doing it." I sort of get that. I get that there are things that make life hard for small businesses - the kind of local shops and services I try to support - and that they should have a chance to highlight those problems. But in practice, that's not what this exercise means - or at least, certainly not the only thing it means.

Big business has millions of pounds of lobbying muscle only too happy to explain why all that pesky regulation it has to comply with should be swept away. Now they're basically being asked for their wish list, and told that, unless someone can make a pretty seriously good case for the defence, the assumption is that they'll get it. But there's a reason we don't let businesses make regulatory policy. The whole point of regulation is that it makes companies do stuff they would rather not have to do. If I were the government, and any big company or trade body came and told me a regulation was worthy but unnecessary because there was a 'better way of doing it', I'd be immediately suspicious: if you're so committed to doing this anyway, why are you so desperate to get rid of the regulation?

Meanwhile, the civil society organisations who would make the case for regulations to stay - organisations like the one I work for - have mostly tiny budgets and are fighting on many fronts as it is. To extend the courtroom metaphor, it's like giving your 'guilty-until-proven-innocent' defendant access to the cheapest legal advice going while the prosecution is represented by some silly-money hotshot barrister. Of course, as with all such government initiatives, it's hard to know how much of it is cosmetic and how much is genuine. But I don't think we can afford to be complacent.

My biggest fear about the Red Tape Challenge has been that individual NGOs and trade unions would be too busy fighting their individual battles to get involved in the deregulatory war. But in the last couple of days I've seen trans friends getting outraged at the notion that the Equality Act is 'red tape', and Greenpeace and 38 Degrees condemning the fact that environmental regulation has been put up for grabs. I am finding this genuinely encouraging. We're still no match for the corporate lobbyists. But it's starting to look like the Red Tape Challenge could achieve what I've been wishing I could for months: mobilise the public in defence of regulations that protect us all.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Bob Broadhurst and the 'mindless yobs' - takes one to know one

It's now a week since the anti-cuts protests; I'd hoped to have blogged about them sooner, but work has been a bit chaotic. Anyway, now the dust has settled and many of the things I was going to whine about - like the media's inability to distinguish between 'violent thugs' and people sitting on a shop floor, thus implying the police had arrested 149 people for violence rather than, um, 11 - have been very ably exposed by other people. Perhaps the distinction between the 'minority' of a few hundred who broke away from the main march and the far smaller minority of a few dozen who smashed stuff up is too subtle for the mainstream media.

It's also been pointed out, although nobody much seems to care, that the police lied to a group of entirely peaceful protesters inside Fortnum and Mason, telling them that if they left the building they would be allowed to go, whereupon they were promptly arrested and charged with aggravated trespass.

Underlying all this is the police's continued insistence on conflating 'peaceful' with 'lawful'. There doesn't seem to be a category in their brains labelled 'peaceful civil disobedience'. This was pointed out after the G20 protests, in the inquiries that followed Ian Tomlinson's death, but nothing much seems to have changed. As a result, the narrative, as always, pits the nice law-abiding marcher against the 'minority of troublemakers intent on causing violence', with no room for those in the middle, those who believe in peaceful civil disobedience but abhor violence as much as anyone else. Even more concerning, the police definition of 'lawful' protest is so narrow that it seems only to cover protests explicitly authorised by the police. That is truly worrying. A right to peaceful protest that stops when the state says so is no right at all.

Commander Bob Broadhurst encouraged this narrative, even trying to co-opt the term 'protester' and brand anyone not engaging in the kind of protest the police find acceptable as 'not a real protester'. "I wouldn't call them protesters. They are engaging in criminal activities for their own ends," he told the press on Saturday. It's worth noting that trespass is not actually a criminal offence, although 'aggravated trespass', the charge being levelled at the Fortnum and Mason occupiers, is. It's a pretty dubious charge, particularly as video footage shows people were able to carry on shopping while they were there. I know some of these people. They are definitely protesters, and they are definitely not criminals.

It was this same failure to distinguish between 'peaceful' and 'lawful' that led to hundreds of people being beaten up and violently dispersed after the Climate Camp protests at G20. The Climate Campers were just blocking a road, the same way any march or rally does. They'd made clear they were going to leave after 24 hours. It was night-time, so they weren't really in anyone's way. But they hadn't asked police permission, and the police decided it was time for them to go. So, as any reasonable law enforcer would do in that situation, they pushed them into an ever-more confined space and thwacked them over the head with sticks. I heard horrific stories afterwards, including one from a woman who may have suffered a miscarriage because of her treatment at the hands of the police.

And this wasn't a 'minority' of 'criminals' or 'mindless yobs' among the police. It wasn't a few bad apples. It happened because the Silver Commander ordered it. I know because my boss at the time was on the phone to him at one in the morning, asking what the fuck he thought he was doing. Was he the least bit repentant to hear that his officers on the ground were beating people up and that we were getting calls from terrified protesters pleading for our help? Nope. Was he bothered by suggestions from my boss, who happens to be a lawyer, that what he was doing was totally unlawful? Nope. His response: 'See you in court'. And that commander's name? Bob Broadhurst.

And who was in charge of policing the student protests where a crack on the head from a police officer left a boy bleeding into his brain? Yep, Bob Broadhurst again. This guy is responsible for more violence and more unlawful activity than anything managed by evil balaclava-clad anarchists last Saturday. After what happened at Climate Camp, I'm convinced he should have been in court, never mind at liberty to oversee protests again. But if anything, he actually seems to have been promoted since then - he's now head of the Met's public order branch. That is, frankly, a fucking outrage.

So next time Bob Broadhurst feels like branding a bunch of protesters as 'criminals' and 'mindless yobs' just for sitting in a shop, I'd suggest you take his words with a good pinch of salt.

UPDATE: It's occurred to me that I failed to make an important distinction myself in this post - ie. that between people engaged in vandalism or criminal damage (ie. smashing stuff up) and the yet smaller minority of people who were allegedly engaged in actual violence (ie. throwing lightbulbs full of nasty at police). I wasn't there, and often reports of the latter turn out to be untrue or greatly exaggerated, but whether or not it actually happened the fact remains that vandalism isn't in and of itself 'violence', and I regret colluding with the implication that it is. In my defence, the post was written in something of a rush.