Archive | May, 2010

On the Expenses and Privacy of David Laws

30 May

The case of David Laws is more complicated than many would wish to portray it, both on the issue of the legitimacy of his expenses claims and on his sexuality. Yes, he is a millionaire and could have easily afforded the rent for which he was claiming but all MPs are allowed to claim on rent for a second home under the current rules. Implementing a means-tested expenses system would perhaps go someway towards solving this problem.

It is wrong though to conclude that Laws was somehow cynically ripping off the tax-payer. As the Independent on Sunday’s leader points out,

had he been honest about his personal life, he could have legitimately claimed more from the public purse, as Mr Lundie’s housing costs would have been claimable as his property would have been the couple’s second home.

I am prepared then to accept that Laws is being truthful when he says the reason he covered up the use of his expenses was to protect his privacy and more specifically his sexuality. After all, if Laws was somehow claiming on public funds to maximise his personal monetary gain, it made no financial sense to keep his relationship with his partner secret. Continue reading

A Proposal of Adjustments to 38 Degrees’ Mass-Email Strategy

27 May

I published a blog post around two weeks ago which concluded with some brief criticisms of 38 Degrees’ mass-email strategy which has been used to lobby MPs on a range of issues such as voting reform. 38 Degrees asked me on Facebook if I had any ideas of how to overcome the problems I mentioned. Here, I outline in more detail the ways in which I think this strategy could be reworked. Many of the existing issues and proposed solutions which I mention here could very well be replicated in other organisations which use email to create mass-petitions to send to representative bodies such as the House of Commons.

I lay out some of the problems to which the current strategy is contributing. I then identify some proposals to solve these issues and also make some suggestions about how these potential solutions could be publicised both to MPs and to the internet-using public. I do not wish to give the impression that I think 38 Degrees is a failing organisation. On the contrary, it is doing a tremendous job. By its own admission though, it is a young organisation and one of the first to utilise internet technology to lobby MPs. These criticisms are meant constructively and my proposed solutions are intended to contribute to the organisation’s continued success by making it more efficient at working with an emerging set of online tools.

Current Issues with 38 Degrees Mass-Email Strategy

1. MPs are receiving a lot of emails from people who are not their own constituents.

  • MPs are actually only required to read correspondence from people who live in the constituency they represent.
  • Because thousands of people from outside their constituency are contacting them, MPs are receiving more emails than can viably be read or answered.

2. 38 Degrees has been accused by Tom Watson MP of ‘spamming’ his inbox.

  • Watson is one of the House of Commons’ most internet-friendly members. If he dismisses these emails as spam, 38 Degrees’ strategy must be causing even more irritation for the rest of the House of Commons.
  • It is important that MPs receive emails in the spirit in which they are meant and not interpret them as spam.

3. The current system does not do enough to encourage people to write high-quality, original emails.

  • There are only limited suggestions about what to write to the right of the email text box.
  • Users are likely to take the easy option of just sending the example email given by 38 Degrees.

4. MPs have resorted to sending out generic replies which often do not apply to the issue raised in the original email.

  • Recent examples of this include Labour MPs’ responses to emails which had dealt with electoral reform. The replies were entirely on why they were unable to form a ‘progressive’ coalition with the Liberal Democrats and other parties and nothing to do with electoral reform.
  • This might be seen as a symptom of the other problems which I have outlined.

Continue reading

Email, Lobbying and a new Participatory Democracy

17 May

MPs are receiving increasing amount of email from users of 38 Degrees , a website which provides the ability for members of the public to MPs en masse. The Purple Revolution campaign for Fair Votes made use of this service to let the strength of their feeling be know to Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs  on proportional representation. According to a 38 Degrees blog post they, “sent over 150,000 emails to the Lib Dem MPs as they started weighing up their next move [on who to form a coalition with].”

The emails appear not have have been received in the best of spirits however. One of the most socially-connected (though anti-PR) MPs Tom Watson tweeted :

Thks @38_degrees. Inbox now full. Why didn’t you check to find out the MPs that supported your proposition before spamming us all?

3 days later Watson added :

Hello 38_degrees. Just thought you’d want to know it’s taken me two hours to work out how I’m going to email 1700 progressives en masse ;-)

While I applaud Watson for engaging with the electorate so well on Twitter and understand his frustration at having a sudden deluge of emails, his sentiment is fundamentally misplaced.

At the moment, email is simply the most efficient method for members of the the general public who feel strongly about an issue to register their opinion with those who legislate. It is a method by which people without great wealth or privilege can lobby their representatives in Parliament. Big business can spend millions on lobbying legislators and the civil service to make law conforming with their interests. Such monetary resources are just not available to normal people.

Continue reading

Facebook and Capitalism

15 May

I recently wrote a university essay on the British government’s Digital Economy Act 2010 which introduced measures to combat online copyright infringement to protect Britain’s creative industries. Essentially, the government is using power to protect the financial interests of these creative industries. But the effect of capitalism on the internet is more than just what has been legislated on by governments. It is omnipresent, but especially pertinent in the case of Facebook.

The cyber-libertarian John P. Barlow argues in his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace that the online world is somehow removed from the power relations of the offline world:

Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are based on matter, There is no matter here.

Two recent contributions to this debate fundamentally disagree with the cyber-libertarian view and argue instead that the relations prevalent in the offline world apply equally to online society. In the BBC’s excellent The Virtual Revolution series, Doug Rushkoff made the observation that:

the way we represent ourselves online has devolved from the quirky, personalised HTML webpage, homepage of the ’90s, to the somewhat modular but still strange presence of a MySpace page, to the completely formatted and market-friendly presence of a Facebook page.

Just yesterday, Andrew Brown, a writer for the Guardian who usually blogs about religion, posted an article about Facebook and the website’s well-documented misuse of users’ data. He ends the article on an interesting point:

Ever since money was invented, the people who have made money out of aimless chat have been the landlords, whether they were selling beer, coffee or a space on the web…The only people to whom that information is worth even a fraction of a penny are those who want to take advantage of it to sell you something you don’t need – except, that is for your real friends.

The implications of all of this are clear. Not only is power omnipresent, but so is the effect of capital and the continual need to acquire capital. The vast majority of the online community has — after an initial period of market-unfriendly websites — created its online identity on Facebook. This is a website which has a particularly privileged position from which to use these identities for its own capital’s interests. Facebook does not charge money for the use of its services, but users pay instead with their privacy and personal data which can be used to make money by selling adverts and data to third party companies.

Continue reading

We need a Minister for Equality who votes for Equality!

14 May

A petition has been started calling for the new Home Secretary Theresa May to be removed from her other new role in the government, Minister for Women and Equality. The petition states that:

Whilst we recognise her commitment to women’s rights, we believe that Theresa May should not occupy the post of Equality Minister when she has a voting record that actively deprives the homosexual community of their rights.

It is certainly true that May has a poor record on voting for LGBT right. She voted in 1998 against voting for lowering the legal age to have homosexual sex to 16. She abstained on repealing Section 28, the legislation outlawing the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality by teachers. She also voted against a Bill which would allow gay couples to adopt. And in 2008 she voted for a (defeated) Bill ordering IVF clinics to ensure that children would have a male role-model, in effect removing IVF as a method for lesbian couples.

She did vote in 2004 for the introduction of civil partnerships but the trend seems obvious. May does not seem to be in favour of equal rights for people of various sexualities. It just isn’t appropriate for a Minister who is responsible for advancing equality to have such an outdated view on LGBT rights.

Continue reading

Possibilites for a Growing Green Party

13 May

One of my favourite moments of the General Election was Caroline Lucas winning Brighton Pavilion for the Green Party. I’m very much in favour of more diversity of political parties in the House of Commons and with the vast experience that Lucas has from working in the European Parliament, I expect her to be an excellent addition to the chamber. I support the principal of many of their policies. They seem to be the party most in favour of redistributing wealth and as a Republican I welcome their proposal to all but abolish the monarchy. This got me thinking; I can see many Lib Dem and Labour voters turning to the Green Party in the coming years. If much of the centre-left of Britain’s electorate become disillusioned by a Liberal Democrat party in coalition with the Conservatives and a Labour party potentially in civil war and continuing down their tribalist path, a large amount of those voters could switch to Lucas’s Greens. Lucas should use her new-found position to good effect and increases awareness of the Greens and make a centre-left swing to the Greens even more likely.

Continue reading

Co-operation Rightly Trumps Tribalism

12 May

I came home this evening to see David Cameron entering Downing Street. It’s a truly momentous occasion, a turning point in British political history. All my instincts tell me to be deeply unhappy to see a Conservative as Prime Minister. But after a couple of hours to consider the policies in the coalition agreement and the makeup of the new coalition, the outlook is not so grim. The policies in the coalition agreement and the makeup of the cabinet seem to have given a lot of ground to the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems’ best policy of a fairer tax system is there and the Tories’ worst policy of a tax cut for Britain’s richest is not. Nick Clegg is Deputy Prime Minister and several other leading Lib Dems will have top cabinet positions. As a passionate supporter of Proportional Representation I am saddened at the lack of fundamental electoral reform in the agreement but it was obviously too great a stumbling block for the Tories who have compromised instead on a wide array of issues. Continue reading

The Purple Revolution: The Need for Electoral Reform

10 May

On Saturday afternoon, the Take Back Parliament campaign marched throughout Britain to call for change to the current electoral system. I took part in the London demonstration, loudly marching from Trafalgar Square to Downing Street, past Westminster and the cameras of the BBC and Sky and finally to Smith Square where Liberal Democrat MPs were meeting. Dressed in purple, the traditional colour of pro-democracy activists, the campaigners urged the Liberal Democrats to insist that any coalition agreement includes their commitment to introduce a proportional system where everyone’s vote counts.

Almost every European country, including Scotland and Wales, successfully uses a proportional system. This sees parliaments where the people are genuinely represented, governments with popular support and elections where everyone has a say. Germany avoids extreme parties gaining power by requiring parties to receive 5% of the vote to win any seats. Because people know their vote matters, turnout tends to be higher. Most proportional systems return coalition governments meaning mature politics are necessary, with co-operation and consensus-building needed to govern effectively.

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Upcoming Academic Posts

10 May

I have a couple of things that I’d like to publish on here but I’d rather not run any risk of being accused of plagiarism. I’ll make them public in June after my degree is finalised. They’re on New Labour’s constructions of fatherhood in public policy and an application of Bentham’s Panopticon prison as a metaphor for the measures put into place in the Digital Economy Act 2010. Contact me if you want more information on this before I post about them in full.

Why Foreign Languages Should be Compulsory for GCSE Students

8 May

This is a reprint of an article I wrote for the University of Birmingham student paper ‘Redbrick.’ The original is available here.

It is no secret that Britain is bad at for­eign lan­guages. Nearly every­one who has taken a hol­i­day in Europe has at some time had to rely on a res­i­dent of their host coun­try being able to under­stand and speak Eng­lish. It seems unlikely that this is going to change any time soon. Just 44 per cent of pupils took a for­eign lan­guage GCSE in 2008 com­pared with 78 per cent in 1999. The sit­u­a­tion is much more severe in com­pre­hen­sive schools where 41 per cent of pupils chose a lan­guage GCSE at 14 com­pared to selec­tive and inde­pen­dent schools with 91 per cent and 81 per cent of pupils tak­ing a lan­guage GCSE respec­tively. In 1996, 6.4 per cent of A-level entries were lan­guages, a fig­ure that had dropped to 4.8 per cent by 2009.

The rea­son for this is clear. In 2002, the Gov­ern­ment removed com­pul­sory lan­guage stud­ies from the post-14 cur­ricu­lum and instead pushed for an increase in lan­guage learn­ing in pri­mary schools, which took a fur­ther seven years to intro­duce. Learn­ing lan­guages at a younger age is indeed cru­cial; our abil­ity to learn new words pro­gres­sively decreases from the age of 10 and those who have learnt a lan­guage find it much eas­ier to learn oth­ers later in life. Unfor­tu­nately, the con­se­quences of mak­ing lan­guages optional at GCSE are dan­ger­ous not just for pupils’ uni­ver­sity and job prospects, but also for the British econ­omy and military.

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