Friday, 28 August 2015

Corbyn, Segregation and a Sense of Perspective

In keeping with the new theme of this blog, this is as good a time as any to discuss the way that many in the media and elsewhere have responded to Jeremy Corbyn and just about anything he has done, said or stood near. The most recent example of this is his unstoppable desire to "segregate" women on trains, triggering an overwhelming "backlash". From an outside perspective, it's hard to see this as anything but absurd because the text in question is as follows:

Consultation on public transport: Some women have raised with Jeremy that a solution to the rise in assault and harassment on public transport could be to introduce women only carriages. My intention would be to make public transport safer for everyone from the train platform, to the bus stop to on the mode of transport itself. However, I would consult with women and open it up to hear their views on whether women-only carriages would be welcome – and also if piloting this at times and modes of transport where harassment is reported most frequently would be of interest.

There's nothing in there that looks like Jeremy Corbyn imposing segregation on women, given that it does little more than refer to a planned consultation. What's interesting then is not just that political opponents have used this to attack him (which would happen in any context), but that people are so willing to believe it, throwing around a word as uncomfortably charged as "segregation". While there is a legitimate debate to be had on how the existence of safe spaces for women and other oppressed groups interacts with a culture of victim blaming, that does not seem to be the driving force. Instead, it seems to be the case that many people believe that Corbyn's ideas are ridiculous, implausible and impractical, and any usual level of skepticism is left behind when another example of that appears.

This isn't about saying that Corbyn's ideas are in fact perfect, but pointing out that very different standards are applied to his policies from those of "sensible" candidates. The very same women-only train carriage idea was in fact floated last year by the Conservative Minister for Transport Claire Perry, and there was nothing like the current furor.

My own opinions on Corbyn, his policies, his ideals and his prospects will appear on this blog in due course, but it's important to remember how easy it is to lose perspective in politics, and it would be nice if a politician could express some of the mainstream social democratic ideas that Jeremy Corbyn has without everyone deciding the world is about to end.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Catchy Names

It occurs to me that there is so far no agreed upon name for the as-yet hypothetical pact between the Greens, Labour and the SNP, so I would like to propose this: the Christmas Coalition, Red and Green with a big Yellow star on the top. Alternately the GRO Pact (Green. Red. Orange). This is the kind of thing where if you coin it, everyone has to cite you all the time so it's really worth getting in there early.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015


In what I suspect will be something of a common occurrence, I have decided to change the name of this blog. I felt like it was a bit too combative (pun intended) and implied a certain kind of directed zeal that I don't always have. Instead, I have named it after the phenomenon that I believe defines the vast majority of political and cultural discourse: the knee-jerk reaction.

There are many things that people say, do and believe that I can't even begin to understand. Why would anyone (apart from a monarch) want a monarchy? How could anyone possibly think Boris Johnson would be a good Prime Minister? Same goes for Tony Abbott, or the king of all baffling political heavyweights, Donald Trump. What I can understand, however, is the uncontrollable urge to leap to the defense of things, movements, people and ideas that you like or identify with. 

I write this in the midst of an intense debate about the Labour Party in general, Jeremy Corbyn as an individual and his links with various anti-Semitic figures in particular. Every time a new story pops up I wonder what pathetic scrap of out-of-context conversation a shameless journalist has found in the hopes of getting a front page headline. While that is largely the case, as it is with most gaffes, scandals and improper connections, I know on reflection that my immediate reaction would have been very different if Nigel Farage or David Cameron were the ones being linked to racists of some kind.

I don't write this as a judgement of Corbyn, or the anti-Zionist Left, or anyone really. I only note that in a society that defies generalisation, the importance of bias, identity and knee-jerk (hey, that's the name of this blog!) reaction is about as universal as you get. I hope to write more about when and where I see this kind of thing, when I do it myself and how you're supposed to engage passionately in politics without losing yourself to your own tribal instincts.

Friday, 29 May 2015

The Final(s) Countdown

Apologies for the lack of posts, I have a number of small bits and pieces that I would happily write up and post but can't justify spending the time on while finals are in full swing. In the meantime, enjoy this uncomfortably relevant clip, which I suspect will be even more enjoyable if you have no idea of the context.

Friday, 22 May 2015

On People Who Know Their Place

As the voting on compulsory sub fusc draws to a close (see my opinion here) and revision stress reaches fever pitch, I thought I would take a quick moment to comment both on a broader trend when it comes to discussing oppression and inequality: people who know their place.

When it comes to women and feminism, plenty of men are more than happy to say why feminism is pointless, unfounded, misleading and destructive from plenty of places I would rather not link to. When the opportunity arises, however, people love to draw attention to the women who shun feminism and seek the warm embrace of patriarchal protection and tradition. The social media frenzy around the Women Against Feminism Tumblr was bigger than anything a man has written on the subject. The sheer number of op-eds and thinkpieces about Margaret Thatcher's relationship with the "Women's Lib" movement shows that this idea is not a new one. People defending traditional power structures love to point to the "oppressed" who like where they are and would rather things didn't change. After all the talk from social justice types about making the voices of the oppressed heard, there's no better way of making them squirm than giving those oppressed voices a platform from which to say the opposite of what they want to hear.

This kind of thing comes up in just about every debate about power and social groups. In America, Bill Cosby was so big in the 1980s in no small part because he, a black man, told other black men they should be more like white people. He told them to pull their pants up, get jobs and not listen to that terrible rap music, turning Cosby into a figure of moral authority. Similarly, prominent black men like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and a variety of Republican presidential candidates (currently Ben Carson) are given platforms from which to espouse the ideals of tradition, self-reliance, nuclear families and decorum.

I bring all of this up because one constant feature of the "Save Sub Fusc" campaign has been testimonies from (mainly) working class and (occasionally) mentally ill students about how great sub fusc is. Nothing gets more attention, publicity or likes than a student from a poor or troubled background who feels a huge sense of pride in donning a gown and white tie. Maybe they never thought they would finish school. Maybe their parents cried when they saw the pictures because no one in their family had ever been to university. Either way, the power of these stories is undeniable and the intent is clear, but it's hard to see their publicity and adulation as anything but a wilful misunderstanding of how systematic and structural oppression works.

Apart from the fact that state school students who are OK with sub fusc are more likely to have applied (i.e. there is selection bias), no one would deny that people often like things you wouldn't expect them to. There are more than a few state school and LGTBQ students in OUCA (Oxford University Conservative Association), but that doesn't mean by definition that the society does not have an issue with the representation of class or sexuality. Sure, plenty of people who were on free school meals will end up high earners, but if it's 3 times easier for someone from a private school, that's hardly fair. The people who wish to keep sub fusc are either aware that Oxford's reputation as formal and obsessed with tradition does ward off potential candidates or have somehow convinced themselves that it doesn't. Though it can be hard to tell, I believe it is a bit of both. Like the vast majority of Oxford students, I like wearing sub fusc and its fun when other people wear it. For many, that has meant a long and concerted campaign to prove, both to themselves and others, that they are not bad people for wanting to keep things the way they are at the expense of the less well off. Sadly, it looks like they have been successful.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Sub Fu(s)ck Off

This post is for UK readers, specifically current Oxford students who are voting in a referendum on whether or not a specific formal outfit should be compulsory for students taking exams

This will be a short post, as I really should be revising, but if I don't get my thoughts out about the sub fusc referendum somehow I might actually burst into flames like I have been expecting to for the last few weeks.

First, I want to say that I like sub fusc. It's fun. I look nice. People look nice in it generally. Buying flowers is fun and getting dressed up is a great way of getting in the zone. Liking sub fusc should not be a major obstacle to thinking clearly about whether it is a good thing for the university and the world as a whole, but apparently it is. It is genuinely astonishing to me how completely people refuse to accept the very legitimate objections people have to being forced to wear a very specific, formal and strictly-enforced set of clothes for compulsory and important exams. Not every person from a state school background will find sub fusc off-putting when applying, not every person with mental health issues will have serious difficulty with sub fusc and not every foreign academic will find it an outdated and out of place tradition that makes them reconsider their presence at this university, but some will. How does our mild preference for getting dressed up when everyone else gets dressed up trump stuff like this? How is "tradition" a bigger deal to us than the fact that private school students, who make up only 7% of students in the country, make up 43% of the admissions to Oxford? Everyone who went to any school less prestigious and expensive than the top tier public schools has stories of clever, ambitious people who feel Oxford is not for them thanks to the elitist, Harry Potter-esque image we cultivate, of which gowns and formal wear are a significant part.

If there were other universities of similar quality free from those perceptions, then fine, maybe I guess it would be fair to have a university or two where people who like tradition and cold stone could congregate. As it stands, differences in alumni giving and endowments means Oxford can spend thousands of pounds per student per year more than any other university except Cambridge (and Imperial, but that's because they're all scientists; another story for another time). Only Oxbridge have the college and tutorial systems that give all of us one of the best undergraduate educations in the world. No one should be put off studying at this level by something as silly and minor as how we dress for exams. Getting rid of sub fusc is a step towards making higher education in Britain truly meritocratic.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Non-Geographical Constituencies: Not as boring as it sounds...

Imagine, for a moment, that the Queen, her family, everyone in Westminster and every aspiring politician simultaneously gets tired of it all. A calm, peaceful and economically developed Britain suddenly finds its government packing up and going home, with nothing to replace it. What should we put in its place?

Putting together a political system is one of the more difficult, confusing and time-consuming jobs around, partly because it doesn't happen very often. It might take a long time to learn how to put together your first house, what with all the bits and pieces that have to fit together, but once you've built twenty of the things, you're probably going to be OK. Countries do, occasionally, need new constitutions: the Arab Spring produced a few, the world's newest country, South Sudan, needed one and there is no doubt that Scotland would've had to get writing in September last year if it had voted for independence. There are people who study these things very closely, even people who fly to new nations to help them put together a country, but the fact is that there are so many ways that a nation can be designed, and so few countries to test these methods in, that we have barely scratched the surface of possible political systems.

Imagine if we randomly balloted each year for a government, like conscription or jury duty: it would be fair, equal and probably quite efficient. What if we hired pollsters to see if the public agreed with certain policies and pass them if they did? It would be a lot cheaper than referenda and much quicker than having everyone actually discuss it. When we think about political systems we are, inevitably, constrained in both our options and our imagination by the things that have come before. When we talk of powers, executives, legislatures and the like, we are only rearranging the ideas that went before into new and interesting combinations. Every system has an unimaginable number of possible alterations and the costs of trying out something unsuccessful are huge, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try imagination. There is no doubt that every political system is far from perfect and that most are ludicrously biased towards the status quo -  think Britain voting down Alternative Voting, or the U.S. continuing to use the electoral college. There are always ways that we can improve the democratic process: sometimes these ideas come from looking at other countries, but sometimes they are untried, untested and grounded entirely in the politics of ideals.

In this post, I intend to outline what I believe is an interesting and important way of re-imagining representative democracy. To start, I want to return to the world in which Britain is suddenly without a government. The first questions would be about decisions and power: how do we make decisions as a society? Who should we give power to? How should we monitor and control that power? Someone will no doubt suggest that we begin with constituencies, arguing something like this:

"There's no space or time for us all to make decisions together. If we split up into constituencies and elect people who we think will represent us well, we can save a lot of time while getting decisions that are just as good (if not better). Every few years they can come back to us and seek re-election, at which point we can either vote them back in or kick them out, depending on how well they did. This means that, not only can we get rid of bad representatives, every representative will have an incentive to do their best."

"Sounds good!", says someone else, "So these representatives go on to decide not only what the law of the land is, but who forms government, who is given power and how laws are implemented. Why do there have to be constituencies for that though? Couldn't we just all put a cross next to the party that best represents us then give them seats proportionally to their votes?"

"Hmm, that is a good point, but people often have specific views and grievances that are localised. Special interests matter and everywhere is different, I want to be able to have someone who is accountable to me and people like me, as well as a say in who forms the government in general."

"Great! Well given that I've now given up on Proportional Representation, probably so I can discuss it in another post some time, I guess we should get going with constituencies. I suppose if you wanted them to be more proportional you could have two or three members per area, instead of one. So first things first, let's make Oxford a constituency and see how many MPs we want it to have..."

At some point, without anyone really noticing, we all decided that the only legitimate way of dividing up a country for political representation was physical geography. Of course it makes sense to have MPs from the north of England! People there have very different concerns, beliefs and values from the south. If we just had PR, their voice would be drowned out by all the Oxbridge/Westminster elite. Surely if you're going to have nationalist parties, like the SNP, you're going to want them to be able to stand specifically in Scottish seats (or whatever area they represent). Nationalism is a legitimate political desire, and if we have a system that doesn't adequately express it, then the system isn't doing very well. As it happens, the system is doing an incredibly good job of representing geographically concentrated concerns, not just in Britain but pretty much everywhere in the world. Rural parties, regional parties and nationalist parties all make strong showings in developed democracies, and the reason is this: we divide our constituencies on the basis of geography.

What other option do we have, though? Answering this question is easier if you think why we're so happy about local communities having representatives in the first place. The people of Wales do have significant political differences from those around them and, in many systems, those differences could easily be drowned out. Who else will stick up for a community stricken by flooding? Who will fight to protect an industry that is keeping a town alive? What happens when farmers and country-dwellers are ignored by every party? Special interests and under-represented communities matter and giving them a voice is one of the most important things politics can do. With that in mind, I'm sure anyone can think of hundreds of important political divisions where a group of people might not be heard: age, gender, class, race, sexuality, industry, disability. When you do get parties that represent people along boundaries other than geography, they gain their strength when certain groups happen to be concentrated in different areas. Northern cities have always been a stronghold for Labour because they are traditionally working class areas. People who like low taxes, dislike gay marriage and enjoy hunting foxes also happen to cluster together in the leafy green hills of the rural South-East. What if, instead, we could provide an option to vote along those divisions directly? How would that look?

Non-geographical constituencies

Here we reach the point where the thrust of my argument should be relatively clear, but understanding the technicalities of the system is more complex. To keep things simple, we can add in one new type of constituency: one based on age. People turning up to vote on election day are handed two ballot papers: one for the area they live in, one based on how old they are. To start with, imagine two age brackets across the whole of the UK: above 40 and below 40. There will be, say, 10 seats set aside for age-based voting, which are distributed to the different constituencies based on how many voters are in each. If 60% of people are below 40, then 6 seats will be allocated to the Young constituency and 4 seats will be allocated to the Old constituency. In the ballot box, people will put a cross next to their preferred MP, just like now (or rank them like in Australia), and then rank their preferred candidates for their age-based MPs. The votes will be shipped somewhere in the middle of the UK and counted up, before the votes are announced. Seats will then be distributed to different parties and candidates based on the votes (through whatever system you like) and now those 10 new MPs will take their seats in Parliament, bringing the number up to 660.

It is important not to get confused by the numbers or exact systems I used, all of which were selected to illustrate the more general point. It could be that there is only one seat per age-based constituency. Age-based constituencies could be sub-divided by region (the MP for South-East 20-25 year olds). The MPs could be elected by any form of voting within their constituency. The total number of MPs can be whatever you like it to be and how they balance with the pre-existing geographical MPs is totally up to you. The real core concept is that, when you go into the polling station (having registered beforehand) you now get two ballot papers based on two pieces of information about you: your residence and your age.

If you've understood everything so far, it should be clear that the number of possible constituency-types (and by extension ballot papers) is pretty unlimited, and can come in any combination. You could, for example, stand to be the MP for LGBTQ Welsh 25-30 year olds, but that is, sadly, unlikely to ever be the case. Exactly how a system like this might work is left for another post, this instead serves as an explanation of concept and clarifying some justification and implications.

Doesn't this benefit some people more? Will it still be equal?

No and yes. As in definite answer to each respectively, not an ambiguous answer to both. One of the most important principles in any democracy is the idea that, while we might have different powers and responsibilities at other times in our life, everyone's vote has the same weight. This does not change that. Everyone will be registered in a geographical constituency (like they are now) and everyone will have an age (like they do now), so will obviously be registered to some age-constituency. Everyone, then, has two votes, but you have exactly the same influence on the overall make-up of Parliament as before. One way of thinking about it is that where you once had one vote, exclusively in one constituency, you now have two half-votes which you put into two different constituencies. This would be like if students were half registered at university and half registered at home. They'd have no more of a vote than anyone else but it would be a better reflection of where their concerns lie.

What other categories could it be used for?

As I mentioned above, the list is pretty much endless, and every time you come up with a new category, it can be combined with other categories to make yet another constituency. That said, the more serious and practical ones (in my opinion) are gender, ethnicity and (perhaps) socio-economic background in some way. These are things that can change over the course of a life: racial and gender identity are fluid and people can change their economic circumstances, but they are nonetheless important and relatively consistent parts of people's identities and, by extension, their political beliefs and values. A politician saying "I will stand up for Durham" is just as legitimate as "I will stand up for people of colour", but the political pay-offs for those statements are very different. Incorporating important forms of identity as and when it is appropriate would help to correct that imbalance.

Preventing things like "tactical identification" without denying people their strongly held identities is obviously a difficult task, but it's not impossible. People, if they really wanted, could move to constituencies where their vote counted for more, but it's definitely not something we worry about too much. Any major constitutional change brings with it technicalities, but I do not believe they are enough to sink this idea.

Won't we have worse politicians?

A common thing that people bring up when I mention this idea is the notion that we will have single-issue candidates with no idea about "serious" issues like defence, budgets and the like. While there is a lot to say in this (which I will say another time), it is worth making the point that having people who explicitly represent areas doesn't seem to prevent them from adequately caring about the whole country. People expect a good representative to do their job for the country well, since voters care about the world beyond their constituency. There's no reason to believe that this wouldn't be the case for different kinds of constituencies. Young voters would care about issues specific to them, but also about fiscal policy, foreign policy and responsible government. Black voters would want someone to address racial inequality, but also someone who could do their job competently and fight for foreign aid and medicare.

So it's not necessarily worse, but why bother?

Maybe, in practice, non-geographical constituencies would make next to no difference to the political process. Maybe it would result in a proliferation of single-issue parties or maybe the new representatives would have had no idea what they were doing. That said, making sure that political differences across communities are heard should be central to the design of our political system. When people's influence over the electoral and deliberative process of government is highly imbalanced, favouring nationalist and local concerns over those of more disparate communities, we live in a less democratic society. In the modern world, communities are far more complex and far less stationary than they used to be. The internet, travel and the modern media make running a campaign across the UK (or any large area) far more feasible than it used to be. How can we adequately represent young people? How can we represent people who don't stay in one place?

To return to the original problem (building a constitution from the ground up), I hope what I have made clear is that there is no reason that physical space should be the only we way we think about politics. It is important, yes, probably more important than any other political division, but the only one worth incorporating into the rules of society? Probably not. The idea is utopian, unlikely and quite possibly totally unfounded (as I hope readers will point out), but the first step along the road to building a better society is improving the way we make change. That means a more democratic world, where we actively seek out different voices and ask people to speak out. However we accomplish that goal, the sooner we do it, the better.