Election posters in Scotland and Denmark

De første plakater

De første plakater by Karen Melchior, on Flickr.

Peter Geoghegan has written a great wee article on his blog about the problem that election posters are getting banned from more and more councils all over Scotland:

But an expert fears that the lack of posters could contribute to lower turnouts and have a deleterious effect on Scottish democracy.

“People often don’t pay attention to politics. They need every reminder they can get (to turn out to vote). One way of reminding people is by posters in localities. It is important for democratically getting people out to vote and mobilising them,” says Alistair Clark, senior lecturer in politics at Newcastle University.

[…]

While councils cite the cost of removing posters, there already exists legislation requiring parties to remove election material after polls close.

There appears to be little party political variation on the decision to ban political posters with councils of all strips across Scotland outlawing them.

[…]

The outlawing of election material on council property means Scotland is out step, both with rest of Europe, where political posters are a common sight, and even other parts of the UK.

I can definitely confirm that election posters are an important part of Danish political campaigning. When I was a political activist there, I never chapped a single door (nobody does that in Denmark), but I spent many hours putting up posters and taking them down again after the election.

Another big difference is that while Scottish election posters are typically small, often just displaying the party logo, Danish ones are generally big, showing a big picture of the candidate and sometimes even a quote or a slogan. The purpose is to make the voters familiar with the candidate before the election, and it’s generally quite effective.

If you saw the text “Kirsten Oswald — SNP” at least 20 times while driving down Ayr Road in Newton Mearns, you’d be unlikely to forget it again.

Anyway, posters are clearly not going to be allowed in time for the Westminster election, but hopefully Holyrood will overrule the councils in the future and allow posters again everywhere in Scotland.

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Posted in campaigning, culture, Denmark | 2 Comments

Move the UK Parliament away from London!

York Viking March 2014

York Viking March 2014 by Peter Roberts, on Flickr.

As part of the ongoing “cash for access” scandal, Malcolm Rifkind said the following about the salary paid to MPs:

I think also if you’re trying to attract people of a business or professional background to serve in the House of Commons and if they’re not ministers it is quite unrealistic to believe they will go through their parliamentary career being able to simply accept a salary of £60,000.

That sounds a lot to a lot of people earning less than that but […] the vast majority of people of a business or professional background earn far, far more than that.

I’m sorry, but although that might very well be the case in the City of London, in Scotland and other non-metropolitan parts of the UK, only the select few earn in excess of £60k. I think the problem is that the MPs are living in a London bubble full of the über-rich and famous, and they almost feel like the poor relative in comparison.

However, there’s absolutely no law that a country’s parliament must be placed in the largest city. Washington DC didn’t even exist when it was made capital of the US (the capital was moved from Philadelphia to an area outwith the territory of the states), and Germany thrived when the capital was Bonn (by no means a big city).

If living and working in London is too dear and overwhelming for UK parliamentarians, perhaps the best solution would be to move the UK parliament up north somewhere. (Westminster is falling to pieces anyway.)

I don’t really care where it gets moved to, so long as it’s not in commuting distance from London. Ideally I believe it should be close to the population-weighted centre of the UK, and not too far from any of the four nations of the Union. My own suggestion would be York (just because I like it, and perhaps due to a bit of Viking nostalgia), but when I mentioned this idea on Twitter, I received many suggestions, such as St. Kilda, Clatt, Stornoway, Liverpool, Inverness, Perth, Dundee, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Some of these might have been made tongue-in-cheek, but Liverpool is actually an excellent suggestion.

Once the new political capital of the UK has been chosen, Halls of Residence for MPs can be built next to the new parliament so that there won’t be any need for second home allowances and all that.

Who could possibly be against this plan?

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Posted in England, Westminster | 17 Comments

Peace, European values and the well-being of the peoples of Europe

Glasgow Foodbank

Glasgow Foodbank by Zep 19, on Flickr.

Article 3 of the consolidated EU treaties states: The Union’s aim is to promote peace, its values and the well-being of its peoples.

How can the EU’s aim be compatible with forcing the Greek people into poverty through austerity? Surely it doesn’t promote the well-being of the people of Greece at all. Given that poverty, unemployment and general hopelessness can easily lead to civil unrest and down the line even war, it doesn’t appear to be promoting peace in the longer term either. And I naïvely thought European values were about democracy, liberty and solidarity, not about enforcing neoliberal economic torture against the democratic will of a people.

I’m a huge fan of the EU project, especially the way it was conceived and implemented in the 1980s and 1990s. Promoting peace and prosperity while fostering links between people from many countries is a wonderful idea. Without the EU’s rules about free movement, I might never have moved to Scotland (I got a job here without having to apply for a work permit), which would have deprived my daughters of being born, given that I met my beloved wife here. And if European countries had been at war rather than working together in the 1960s, my father would probably not have moved from Württemberg to Denmark, where he met my mother.

However, the way the EU is currently developing is hugely worrying. It’s increasingly becoming a technocratic project where most decisions are made according to the rulebook of the Party of Necessity (“there is no alternative”).

I’m sure most of the modern EU politicians honestly believe they’re doing the right thing, but they don’t appreciate that there is more than one way to do things, that globalised neoliberalism isn’t the only game in town. As Paul Mason put it recently:

For a technocratic, youthful generation of politicians, brought up in what playwright David Hare calls the “absence of war”, the events in Greece just do not fit the world view in which all these historic issues and grievances, and obscure Greek anniversaries were supposed to be subjects for the documentary channels, not politics.

The modern technocratic politicians are of course everywhere, not just in the EU. In many countries, they’re busy trying to abolish universal benefits, free public amenities, subsidised public transport and so on. For instance, in Denmark there are currently huge discussions about how it’s becoming impossible to live in “Udkantsdanmark” (“peripheral Denmark”) because schools have been shut, bus routes cancelled, hospitals centralised, and so on. Everything was done in the name of efficiency and quality, but the technocratic politicians completely forgot to ask themselves what Denmark will be like when almost everybody lives in either Copenhagen or in the nascent Randers-Århus-Skanderborg-Horsens-Vejle conurbation.

Of course there are exceptions in some places. The SNP has been brilliant at defending universal benefits, lowering ferry prices and doing many other useful things, but in many countries only fringe parties go against the technocratic consensus. Another example is the fight against benefit fraud and tax avoidance. Modern neoliberal technocrats seem to be outraged at the former and quite relaxed about the latter, although the state loses much more money through tax avoidance. Again, the SNP has signalled a very different approach in Scotland.

To return to Greece and the EU, I obviously don’t have a problem with voters electing technocratic governments if that’s what they want. However, currently it seems like the EU is increasingly becoming a tool for the technocratic governments to force any aberrant countries to toe the line. They’re clearly not thinking first and foremost about the consequences of their actions on peace, European values and the well-being of the peoples of Europe, but more about not rocking the boat and upsetting their friends in the multinational banks.

That said, there’s clearly also a cultural clash with regard to bankruptcies. In Denmark and Germany, declaring bankruptcy is more about getting protection from creditors and less about getting a fresh start; if you’ve grown up in a culture where any debt you take on stays with you forever, it must be hard to understand why a country should get half its debts cancelled just because it cannot realistically ever pay them back. However, Germany would do well to appreciate that the forgiveness it was shown after World War II made it the stable and peaceful country it is today, whereas the punitive measures imposed on it after World War I were an important cause of Nazism; if they truly want a peaceful and harmonious Europe, they should perhaps pass on the baton of forgiveness.

I really hope the current technocratic/neoliberal majority in the EU will be replaced by parties such as the SNP and Syriza who’re willing to rethink politics and create a Europe that works for the benefit of its citizens.

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Posted in economics, EU | 11 Comments

Are terrorist attacks Europe’s high-school massacres?

Fuck the Terrorists

Fuck the Terrorists by VivaAntarctica, on Flickr.

In the light of the recent horrible events in Copenhagen, I’m starting to wonder whether terrorist attacks are becoming Europe’s version of America’s high-school massacres.

Both high-school massacres and small-scale terrorist attacks are typically done by young people who feel they don’t fit in, and they’re heavily publicised by the media.

Lionel Shriver wrote the following back in 2007; however, wouldn’t almost every word of it apply to many recent terrorist attacks in Europe?

If it does not sound too tautological, campus shootings keep happening because they keep happening. Every time one of these stories breaks, every time the pictures flash round the world, it increases the chances that another massacre will follow. In the main, all of these events are copycat crimes. Campus shootings are now a genre, much as, in literature, campus-shooting novels are a genre, one of whose entries I am guilty of writing myself. They are part of the cultural vocabulary, and any disgruntled, despairing or vengeful character — of any age of late, since grown-ups now want in on the act — now has the idea of shooting up a campus firmly lodged in his brain.

[…]

I would far prefer that this new killer remained anonymous. Were all such culprits to remain utterly and eternally unknown, the chips on their shoulders interred with their bones, their grudges for ever private, surely the frequency of these grotesquely gratuitous sprees would plummet. One of the driving forces for most of these killers is not just to be noticed, but, however perversely, to be understood.

Of course there are terrorist attacks that are carefully planned by organisations consisting mainly of grown-up people, and maybe they should be handled differently. However, I can’t help thinking that perhaps we’re actually causing lots of small terrorist attacks by talking about them too much.

Would it not be better if media reported such attacks in a low-key fashion, without talking too much about the perpetrator’s identity and reasons, basically treating them pretty much as if they had been bank robberies with the same number of casualties?

Of course it’s hard to force the media to tone down their reporting when there’s a huge amount of public interest, but at the very least we should perhaps try to keep the big headlines inside the country where the attack happened instead of publicising every one of them across the entire continent. For extremists, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

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Posted in culture, freespeech, media, terrorism | 3 Comments

Between Scylla and Charybdis

Scylla and CharybdisLord Ashcroft’s 16 constituency polls today confirmed that the national opinion polls are correct (if anything, the swing is larger in traditional Labour seats), and Labour and the LibDems are likely to join the Tories in panda territory soon.

Labour (and to some extent the other Unionist parties) are finding themselves in a horrible situation. The problem is basically that the party until recently had a large minority of independence-leaning supporters, who were happy to stay loyal to the party because independence wasn’t on the agenda; however, during the indyref campaign the parties made clear that Unionism was an important part of their identity, and these supporters departed for pastures new (mainly the SNP).

The way I see it, Labour must choose between Scylla and Charybdis. (Scylla and Charybdis were mythical sea monsters noted by Homer. They were regarded as a sea hazard located close enough to each other that they posed an inescapable threat to passing sailors; avoiding Charybdis meant passing too close to Scylla and vice versa. According to Homer, Odysseus was forced to choose which monster to confront while passing through the strait; he opted to pass by Scylla and lose only a few sailors rather than risk the loss of his entire ship in the whirlpool.)

Scylla: Labour could try to return to the status quo ante bellum by becoming a party that is agnostic with regard to Scottish independence. Basically, they would need to apologise for being part of Better Together and promote several big Yes campaigners to important positions within the party. Personally, I think it’s impossible now. It’s what they should have done two years ago instead of jumping into bed with the Tories, but it will look very hypocritical today.

Charybdis: Alternatively, the Unionist parties could all disband in Scotland and form one new party, the Better Together Party. This party would have the potential to compete successfully with the SNP if all the three main Unionist parties’ current voters decided to support it. However, would they really do this? Also, what would the Better Together MPs do at Westminster? Would they support Labour, the LibDems or the Tories? Would their long-term supporters really put up with this merger?

I really cannot see a good way forward for Scottish Labour. They can hope that the SNP for some bizarre reasons disintegrates, or that the Scottish Greens starts taking support away from the SNP, or that voters suddenly forget about the independence question, but I don’t see why any of this should happen quickly enough to save Labour. If they had a time machine, they could save themselves by going back in time and staying out of the independence campaign, but then Scotland would almost certainly have voted Yes to independence.

Before the referendum, I was speculating that the SNP wouldn’t prosper after a Yes vote, and that Labour might have been the big winner. We’ll never know, of course, but it’s definitely clear now that the No result wasn’t good news for Labour. I wonder whether Scottish Labour’s strategists are starting to regret they didn’t campaign for a Yes vote?

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Posted in Labour, LibDems, Tories, Westminster | 7 Comments

The decline of the Party of Necessity

Referendum Eve in Glasgow

Referendum Eve in Glasgow by Phyllis Buchanan, on Flickr.

Before the fall of the Iron Curtain, left-wing parties in Europe typically had left-wing policies, such as being in favour of universal benefits, free education (incl. university tuition), generous unemployment benefits and free healthcare.

However, the collapse of communism seems to have made many formerly left-wing politicians believe that neoliberalism was the only game in town, and they gradually started enacting almost exactly the same policies as their right-wing opponents, just presented in a slightly left-wing fashion.

Most of the politicians from both formerly left-wing and right-wing political parties have studied politics, economics and/or law at university and have learnt to treat neoliberal textbooks as gospel.

To a large extent, one cannot tell these former opponents apart. I’ve suggested in the past that the Tories, Labour and the LibDems should merge into one Better Together party in Scotland, but in an international context, I’d suggest the merger should be called the Party of Necessity, because its politicians always claim their unpopular policies are “necessary” according to their textbooks.

So when the banks started collapsing in 2008, the reaction of the Party of Necessity governments was the same in all countries, namely to bail out the banks and introduce a version of austerity protecting the ultra-rich and sending the bill to the poorest citizens.

However, the beautiful thing about democracy is that if all the existing parties get something completely and utterly wrong, new parties will emerge from nowhere and replace them, or existing small parties will suddenly become huge. This is what we saw in Greece yesterday, and very similar things are happening all over Europe and beyond. (The Scottish Yes campaign, which nearly achieved Scottish independence last year, was of course also part of this international trend.)

Here are a few examples of the decline of the Party of Necessity:

Greece (PASOK + New Democracy): 2007: 79.9%, 2009: 77.4%, 2012: 32.1%, 2012 (again): 42%, 2015: 32.5%.

Spain (PP + PSOE): 2008: 83.8%, 2012: 73.4%, latest opinion polls: ~45%.

Italy (Democratic Party + People of Freedom): 2006: 99.5%, 2008: 84.3%, 2013: 58.6%, latest opinion polls: ~50%.

Scotland (Tory + Lab + LibDem), Westminster elections: 2005: 77.9%, 2010: 77.6%, latest opinion polls: ~45%.

UK (Tory + Lab + LibDem): 2005: 89.6%, 2010: 88.1%, latest opinion polls: ~68%.

Denmark (SocDem + SocLib + Cons + Lib): 2007: 67.2%, 2011: 65.9%, latest opinion polls: ~55%.

Germany (CDU/CSU + SPD + FDP): 2005: 79.2%, 2009: 71.4%, 2013: 72.0%, latest opinion polls: ~67%.

It’s clear that different countries aren’t at the same stage — as a rule of thumb it seems to be linked to how well they have coped with the recession. However, it seems likely that many European countries soon won’t be governed by the Party of Necessity. It’s already the case in Scotland and Greece, but the figures above makes me think it’s simply a question of time before a majority of European governments are anti-Necessity.

I’ve said it before, but we truly do live in interesting times.

Addendum (27/01/14): Aditya Chakrabortty has written a very interesting article about how Labour risks ending up like PASOK. His name for what I have called the Party of Necessity above is TINA (“there is no alternative”), which is a very accurate description, too.

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Posted in EU, Labour, LibDems, Tories | 22 Comments

Indyref postmortem II: We need to talk about Yes Scotland

I think it’s quite likely the next independence referendum will happen sooner rather than later, so it’s important to have a look at what we could have done better, not in order to point fingers at anybody, but simply to make sure that we win next time. This is the second of several indyref postmortems.

Blair Jenkins

Blair Jenkins by Ninian Reid, on Flickr.

During the independence campaign, lots of people were privately girning about Yes Scotland, but most of it remained private out of fear that any criticism would be used against us. However, Yes Scotland — or rather, the headquarters on Hope Street in Glasgow — made many mistakes, and we need to learn from them before the next referendum.

My main criticisms are listed below.

Failure to liaise with local groups

Yes Scotland did play a role in setting up many of the local groups. However, once they had been set up, they were to a large extent ignored, except for endless requests to raise money for Yes Scotland.

One particular problem was that it led to uneven campaigning — if there were many volunteers in one area, they could undertake lots of activities such as fundraising and canvassing that would help later in the campaign, whereas other areas were starved of resources. Nobody seemed to look at the “empty” areas and try to help them grow until they could campaign on their own.

It could also get quite depressing being a Yes campaigner in a strong No area — on Facebook you could see how much fun campaigners in Yes areas were having, but the strong focus on local campaigning meant you had to knock on the doors in your No-leaning area alone. I often wished we could have swapped volunteers with a Yes area for a day!

Perhaps this was all caused by the lack of community organisers, as pointed out by Alistair Davidson last July:

Yes HQ made a serious mistake in not hiring any community organisers. An organiser’s job is to put themselves at the service of a movement (the professional jargon calls organisers “staff” and ordinary movement members “leaders”), to develop and maintain relationships with people who take on leading roles, and to encourage new activists to become involved in leadership and planning. This kind of organic connection to a movement helps to smooth over clashes with the careful plans of the political strategists.

Instead of actually liaising with local groups, Yes Scotland seemed to see it as their role to provide ads, literature, merchandise and email updates.

Yes East Renfrewshire's offending leaflet.

Yes East Renfrewshire’s offending leaflet.

Another problem with not engaging sufficiently with local groups was seen when HQ called me in June ’14 to tell us (i.e., Yes East Renfrewshire) to pulp 20,000 newly printed leaflets because they contained a link to Wings over Scotland. We had already distributed the first batch, and before we produced it, I had talked to somebody from HQ who waffled and didn’t give me a straight answer. (They claimed later they had said they didn’t want Wings included — but if so they did it so subtly that I didn’t understand it — all I took from the conversation was that it wasn’t their job to tell local groups what to do or not do.) However, because of a potential media story about a leaflet produced by Yes Leith, they wanted us to pull ours, too. Eventually we produced 20,000 more leaflets without Wings, which we then distributed before distributing the old leaflets once the media story had gone away, in spite of what HQ had said. I imagine a community organiser would have been more closely involved in the design and contents of local leaflets so that the issue wouldn’t have arisen.

Team-building

Yes Scotland seemed to think that all the local groups should do was fundraising and canvassing. As soon as people signed up, they were typically told to go and canvas rather than being invited to a social event to make them feel welcome. I think we lost many potential volunteers in this way, especially in the early days of the campaign.

Raccoon Circle

Raccoon Circle by CommonGroundAdventuresFL, on Flickr.

As I argued on this blog in July ’13, there was a huge need to motivate and encourage volunteers, and this almost only happened online, and not by HQ, who instead told us to “step away from your keyboards and talk to people!”. Robin McAlpine expressed this very well a year later:

[Wings over Scotland] has lifted our spirits throughout the campaign. When we wake up in the morning and Yes Scotland isn’t in the papers (why?) and the SNP is being timid and talking like an accountant, it is often Wings that is the primary source of commentary that doesn’t seem always to accept the premise set by the mainstream media as the only possible frame for discussing independence. It makes it OK to be both angry and excited while becoming informed at the same time.

It often felt like Yes Scotland had no idea how to deal with their campaigners. As a parent, I often felt they used negative parenting techniques, ignoring the volunteers for too long and then suddenly barking commands at us (“Pulp that leaflet! Don’t participate in the BBC Bias demo! Don’t read Wings!”), instead of using positive techniques, such as engaging proactively. The problem with negative parenting is that eventually the sproglets get fed up and start ignoring you or — worse — start acting against you. Yes Scotland were actually quite lucky that all volunteers felt so strongly about the goal — Scottish independence — that nobody wanted to rock the boat during the campaign.

In addition to community organisers, some internal web forums might have been useful, as well as a yearly Yes conference for lead volunteers.

Yes Scotland the company

Other people have already pointed out that Yes Scotland initially seemed to waste a lot of money by hiring directors used to working in big corporate positions.

Chevron Corporate Offices in Houston TX

Chevron Corporate Offices in Houston TX by Jonathan McIntosh, on Flickr.

As a result, it often felt like they constantly felt cash-strapped but short of hands. However, many people who participated in the campaign had more time than money, and to me it just didn’t seem sensible to beg volunteers for money in order to hire people to do the jobs that the volunteers would have done for free if they had been asked. The number of emails asking for financial contributions were endless, but I don’t think I received a single one asking for help (apart from reminders to go canvassing).

Would HQ in their heart of hearts have been happier with a small army of paid canvassers like Better Together’s, rather than having critical and engaged activists with their own dreams, hopes and campaigning ideas? At an event for lead volunteers in Stirling in June ’14, a representative for Yes Scotland for instance told people their job online was to regurgitate the daily messages sent from HQ so that the campaign theme of the day was the one decided in Hope Street, which of course was a pointless appeal at that point in the campaign.

In fact, Yes Scotland often seemed to think like spin doctors, for instance preferring to arrange photo-ops for the media with hand-picked volunteers, while talking down or ignoring the actual grassroots events organised on Facebook.

The database

One huge problem was Yes Scotland’s database. They were clearly so keen to get it up and running quickly that they installed a version of NationBuilder without testing properly that it could cope with Scottish addresses.

Database Diagram FAIL

Database Diagram FAIL by Tony Buser, on Flickr.

The result was that we lost many volunteers. The system couldn’t assign volunteers to the right groups (partially because it didn’t register the address of many volunteers, only their email address, I believe), so when we tried to use their system to email everybody in our area, we didn’t reach many people. My dear wife at first received the emails from Glasgow, not from East Renfrewshire, and later she didn’t receive any local emails, only fundraising messages from HQ.

I understand they were keen to launch before Better Together, but they would have been better off with a simple one-table MySQL database and a simple PHP website (I could have made this for free if they had asked) until they had had time to test the real system sufficiently.

It would also have been good if there had been a decent canvassing app (or a mobile-friendly website) that could have been used when you sent people out to knock doors. Yes, eventually there was an app, but it arrived late in the day and its functionality was limited.

Conclusion

Yes Scotland wasn’t given an easy task, of course, being tasked with combining the campaigning strength of the SNP with the varied skills exhibited by smaller groups and inexperienced first-time volunteers. One might argue that the laissez-faire attitude adopted towards local groups in many instances actually worked well and that a more active HQ could have demoralised local campaigners much more than Yes Scotland actually did.

However, many of highlights of the campaign that people instinctively associate with Yes Scotland were actually organised independently, such as the wonderful independence marches, the flashmobs and the gatherings on Glasgow’s Independence (George) Square, and it often felt like Yes Scotland weren’t always too happy about not being in control of these.

Hopefully the next incarnation of Yes Scotland will learn from the mistakes made, turning the coming Yes campaign into a truly unstoppable force.

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Posted in postmortem, Yes campaign | 22 Comments