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This Week is an odd programme. Only the unique way the BBC is funded can ensure that this shambling, incoherent mess of an hour’s telly makes it to your screens every week. Want to hear establishment platitudes whispered as if they are naughty, almost unbroadcastable, pieces of mischief? Watch This Week. Want to sit in baffled amazement at politicians sit grinning, dressed in a bizarre rainbow of unhealthy colours, like two-week old clown puke? Watch This Week. Want to know what Peter Stringfellow and Gyles Brandreth and Olly Grender think about things? Of course you do.
Last week, they were still upset about Russell Brand, almost choking with inchoate rage as they, a group of political insiders, decided that he was wrong when he said our political system excludes the views of millions. It was like watching a group of stranded puffins, hooting for rescue, slowly realising the island they live on is made entirely of bird-shit.
Their obliviousness to the irony of seeing a group of political leaders agree that the political system was fine, and then for the state broadcaster to pump it out to the entire nation was delightful. Less delightful was the fact that many people, and some of them my friends, seem to agree with them. Some people seem to find it physically possible to tick a box and pat themselves on the back at the same time, which is no mean feat.
There was a torrent of sneering articles about Brand, suggesting he “go back to Hollywood” or “stick to shagging”. People who feign concern at the fact that democratic politics fails to engage much of the young population could wait to stick their fingers in their ears as soon as anyone articulated what that young population might be feeling. Brand was ‘unhelpful’, ‘naive’, and possibly ‘a git’.
Lots of people – including lots of comedians – decided that not only should you vote, but you should probably have to vote. “You have no right to criticise is you don’t vote!” came the cry.
Of course you do. I don’t like football. I think it’s a pernicious, violent game that people around the country use to sublimate their frustrations with life. I think it idolises cretins and thugs, gives its viewers a chance to indulge in organised racism and homophobia every week, and its shallow, comercial values are a deep sickness in our public life. So what do I do? I don’t watch it.
However, I now realise the error of my ways. What I should be doing is joining a football club, watching it every week, and supporting it vociferously at every occasion. Because only then can I hope to change football from the inside.
All of the critics of Russell Brand, however, are guilty of making the same fairly large fallacy of composition. Parliamentary politics is not politics. It’s not even a relatively major part of politics. It’s possibly to be highly political, and not to participate in party politics, and – I would argue – the most successful politicians have been.
People fought for years to get the vote. They did, and they did so successfully. How did they do it? Not by voting for a party that promised it to them, because they couldn’t. If that teaches us anything, it is that it is possible to bring about huge political change even when you can’t use the vote to get it.
The serious point here is that extra-parliamentary organisations are much better at affecting what MPs do than voters are. From churches to trades unions to billionaires, if you want the ear of an MP you’d better be able to either offer them money (or the chance to retain their seat, and its attendant money) or be able to cause trouble for them. That is where parliamentary power lies.
But people have died for the vote! Yes, people have also died during childbirth. That doesn’t mean we should all have to have children out of respect for their sacrifice.
But… But… democracy! Is it, though? Seriously? It’s not what Aristotle meant when he described democracy. It’s not what the Chartists meant when they described democracy (remember annual parliaments?). The prime minister can use the royal prerogative to overrule parliament and go to war. The heir to the throne gets to pre-approve bills to see that they don’t affect his business dealings. The Queen gets to veto private members’ bills she doesn’t like. It’s a constitutional monarchy with pseudo-democratic trappings.
And remember, there’s a House Of Lords as well! A whole parliament full of people who can reject bills, amend bills, and over whom you have absolutely no say whatsoever. Remember kids, even if you vote, even if you win, even if your party honours its pledges and puts together a bill, there’s still no guarantee it will become legislation.
Because voting remains a sideshow. You achieve less politically by voting than you do by buying Fairtrade coffee.
And the fact remains, my best chance of unseating my MP in my deeply-Tory seat is to vote UKIP, and hope enough of the Conservative electorate in my constitutency feel its a safe enough seat to do the same. When my only hope of having my vote count at all is to vote UKIP, there is something deeply wrong with the system.
Ah, but the British public rejected AV, so we can’t reform parliament. Yes, we entrusted the parliamentary class to set up a vote on whether or not the system that elected them should be changed. And they won. Entrenched political power is entrenched. Hence the name.
Parliamentary politics has delivered MPs who are prepared to challenge entrenched power twice in its long history. Once in 1945, and once in 1645. And we shouldn’t have to wait another 300 years until there’s another world war or Battle of Naseby in order to try to make politics serve people.
People who say “they are all the same” are the problem. No. People who refuse to see that they are are. People who cling to the last shred of hope that the Labour Party isn’t the corporate, authoritarian, centre-right, managerial party it appears to be – and governed as from 1997 to 2010 – can sit in their attics like Miss Havisham, waiting for Tony Benn or Dennis Skinner or even bloody Michael Meacher (who looks and acts like he was left in the sink overnight to soak). Those figures are fig-leaves for the Labour Party to retain the support of the Labour movement.
Let’s look at most of what people like to complain about the Coalition for:
Tuition fees – Introduced by David Blunkett, Labour Education Secretary in 1998. The Dearing Report which had suggested introducing fees also advised keeping the grants system, something Blunkett rejected, getting rid of maintenance grants altogether.
ATOS – ATOS were first brought in to run work capability assessments by – wait for it – the Labour Party. If you want to read about the ways the Labour Party distorted evidence and victimised disabled people for years this paper is quite helpful.
NHS Reform – Let’s not forget that the party who started the creeping privatisation of the health service was Labour in 2002. Remember Tony Blair “not having a reverse gear”, and people who opposed privatisation of the NHS being “the forces of conservatism”? Fun Fact: the reforms Coalition’s Health and Social Care Act wouldn’t even have been legal without Alan Milburn’s 2008 reforms, and he remained committed to gutting the NHS even after stepping down as Health Secretary. Alan Milburn went on to become a consultant for Alliance Medical, a private healthcare company bidding for work in the NHS, and is now a Director of Bridgepoint Capital. Which invests heavily in lots of private health care companies. Those Labour conflicts of interest in full.
Free Schools – Introduced as ‘academy schools’ by Labour.
The Bedroom Tax! – Introduced by Labour for private tenants in 2008.
Um… Foreign Policy – I suppose we might have a government that at least expresses a little regret when it starts wars, but I doubt it.
The fact remains that if you want an unfettered, authoritarian, right-wing, corporate-friendly government that’s happy to demonise disadvantaged groups for electoral gain, you’re best off voting for the Labour Party.
And it’s not just MPs. It’s our entire political class, in which I include the police and the media. From expenses through phone hacking and Savile and Hillsborough and the Met’s collusion with reporters, there is nowhere for an honest citizen to turn. Our laws are made by the corrupt, presented to us by the corrupt, and enforced by the corrupt. The idea that political change will come from our law-making apparatus is fanciful.
So what do we do? If it makes you happy, vote. I do. It’s a habit I can’t break. I couldn’t wait to be able to vote, and being able to participate, in however minimal and nugatory a fashion, in the way governments are formed. However. I am well aware that this makes my complicit in a system that deliberately excludes, and rather than boast about the great democratic tradition I’m upholding, I know that voting is a weakness. It’s an essential naivety that I can’t get rid of.
But there are lots of things we can do, as soon as we stop waiting for politicians to do it for us. There’s relieving each other of debt. There’s homesteading. There’s protest. There’s organisation. There’s non-violent direct action. There’s publicising issues that affect us and those around us. There is doing what you can to make what you can better than when you found it.
We can join things. We should join things. We’ve lost the habit of being parts of political organisations that aren’t political parties. Trades unions have never been less powerful than when they have entrusted their interests to the Labour Party. Join a union. Join a church. Join an atheist congregation. Join an organisation that campaigns for what you are interested in, and give it your time. Start an organisation if one doesn’t exist. Get used to sitting through boring, frustrating meetings, and standing in the cold waving flimsy banners, because it’s only through engagement that things are going to change.
And, if you just can’t shake the habit, at the end of it, you can vote.
Voting has, in the last couple of weeks, become a currency of self-satisfaction, a shibboleth displaying how politically engaged we are, when quite the reverse is true. Voting is the twentieth century equivalent of signing an online petition, a quick, relatively painless way of convincing ourselves and others we are good, involved people, although it costs us very little, and means almost nothing.
It’s not the most important thing we do politically. It might well be most self-defeating thing. But really, who cares? Let’s not pretend the people who don’t are fundamentally unserious. They may be the most realistic of all of us.
So, just for a little while, let’s forget about voting. And do something political.
Sir Ian cannot stand by and let his friends be maligned any longer…
Sir Ian Bowler has been feeling conflicted this week…
John Rose Battley was never a well man. As a conscientious objector in the First World War, he was sentenced to work in a market garden. On a cold day in February, whilst he was putting 2,000 cauliflowers under cloches, he noticed that his toes were turning black. Despite having never been to the trenches, John Battley was getting trench foot.
With his brother, he started his own printing firm in 1897, working out of a room above their father’s shop. He built the business up, it survived his brother leaving, its proprietor not being able to work at it during the First World War, the Great Depression and at least one extended nervous breakdown, which lasted many months in 1933. That printing firm, although its name has changed, is still around today.
Battley was in his 50s by the time he married in 1933, and that seemed to redouble his activity. He was already an active member of his church and local choir, a leading light of the Temperance Society and the Rotary Club, and in 1938 he was elected to the London County Council, as a Labour member for Clapham.
During the war he worked on the Housing Committee on the LCC, even as his own house was bombed in the V1 attacks. In 1945 he stood for parliament, and became the first ever Labour MP for Clapham. He wasn’t a vocal MP. Although he made notes, he never made a speech in the House of Commons, but he was an ardent worker on behalf of his constituents. He voted with the government most of the time, the only exception being the National Service Act. 30 years after his pacifism had forced him to give up his business, he still believed that no Christian should ever have to (or, indeed, could) perform military service, and so he rebelled against the government once, in 1947.
Whilst he was an MP he also stayed on as a member of the LCC, an active Rotarian, church member, choir member, and managing director of his own business. By 1950 the stresses had got the better of him, and he did not stand for re-election. Indeed, he had another breakdown shortly thereafter, and stayed in a hospital until he died in 1952.
Without knowing it, on 5th July 1948 this quiet, dedicated man saved the life of his grand-daughter and great grand-daughter, neither of whom he was ever to meet.
By voting for the National Health Act, John Battley made sure that when, almost 60 years later, 29 hours into labour, his great grand-daughter – my daughter – Eleanor decided to get into severe distress as she tried to enter the world sideways, her life was saved. Both she and Zoe, Zoe Battley, received the instant care of two paediatricians, two midwives, and at least three nurses (I lost count, I was busy worrying, and wondering if I could sneak out with the gas and air canister).
Over the 34 hours that labour took we had (I say we, Zoe selfishly used most of the drugs herself): heart monitors, midwives, gas and air, an epidural, a room to ourselves, three trips to the maternity ward (three painful trips home), a ventouse (don’t ask), synthetic hormones that accelerate contractions, pethedine for slowing contractions right down. And in between all of the worry about how much pain my wife was in, whether or not I’d packed any of the right things, whether I was going to be a good dad, or, as things got more serious, whether I was going to get to be one at all, the one thing I never had to worry about was how much the whole thing was going to cost. As a self-employed comedian of variable success, I didn’t have to worry whether or not I could afford the things and people that kept my wife an child alive.
Some people, of course, will argue that this presents a moral hazard. If I am never aware of the costs of treatment, I won’t behave in a way that avoids unnecessary treatments; that health care free at the point of delivery encourages poor decision-making. What that means in this situation I’m not sure I understand. Perhaps I should have impregnated my wife with a more sensible-sperm, which would have seen the birth canal as an opportunity for emerging normally rather than doing somersaults. Perhaps I should have severed the nerves in Zoe’s spinal cord myself as the contractions started, because epidurals don’t grow on trees. Perhaps I should have had to choose which of the two, my wife or my daughter, we could actually afford to treat. Perhaps that would have taught me not to be so feckless. Doesn’t take more than a funeral or two before people start making better life choices, right?
62% of bankruptcies in the USA are down to health care bills. People lose their houses because they get ill. And they aren’t uninsured people. 78% of those people had insurance. Insurance that didn’t, actually, insure them in any meaningful way at all.
It will confuse some people, I know, that someone so vehemently anti-government, a left-libertarian, someone who some days – whisper it – is probably an anarchist should have gone onto a bridge to defend a monopolistic state health provider. Those people are confused as to what Andrew Lansley’s Health & Social Care Bill is. The choice isn’t between a state provider and a free market. The choice is between a state provider of health run for the general welfare of the people it serves, or a state monopoly provider of health that is run to best produce profits for private healthcare companies. It would be bizarre to bemoan politicians plundering the public purse, but to cheer when corporations do it.
I’m not saying Andrew Lansley is a shill for private healthcare companies. That’s his wife’s job. I’m not saying that the £21,000 he received from John Nash, chairman of Care UK and founder of Sovereign Capital which owns several private healthcare companies would have in any way influenced his opinions on the issue of whether private companies should be able to profit at the expense of the NHS. I’m not saying it. But he is. In a speech in 2005, he said: “Demanding uniformity will negate the benefits of competition. How can competition work, whether on prices or quality, if it does not lead to variation and divergent outcomes?” Or, in other words, different people will get different levels of treatment under the NHS, otherwise competition would not work. His vision is an ideological one in which ‘competition’, rather than the needs of patients, is paramount.
And this isn’t a move towards a free market, or towards real competition. It is simply a move that allows private companies to cherry-pick profitable services. Services that are already provided. There is no guarantee that they will provide them better (the responsibility for the Health Service is to be turned over to a quango who are not answerable to Parliament, so out politicans can’t be to blame for however bad it gets in the future), the only guarantee is that money that once would have flowed through the NHS will now flow to shareholders in private health companies. Because ‘competition’ is the aim, not patient welfare.
This is pure kleptocracy. Assets that have been built with the public purse, maintained at the taxpayers’ expense, are to be auctioned off. And what’s worse, private health care companies aren’t even going to have to act like, you know, businesses to get in on the act. They won’t be competing in any meaningful sense, under the umbrella of the NHS, they will simply be pocketing our cash without having to guarantee standards in the way the NHS currently does.
The fact that the local health authority sees no conflict of interest for the practice in Yorkshire that recently started charging for minor skin surgeries highlights the bizarre situations that we must nod through in the name of ‘competition’. The fact that the same GPs at the same surgery will be in charge of deciding if funds are spent on a procedure, and in charge of performing the same procedure privately if they decide it isn’t is outrageous. That’s a moral hazard. You can tell, because it contains a moral element. Eating too many chips is not.
And don’t let them tell you these are cuts. That we need to make these cuts. This plan makes the NHS more expensive. It will cost £1.2 billion more to implement these changes than to not do it, and there are no cost savings at the other end. So we will end up with a service closer to France’s or America’s in that it will cost much more than the one we have at the moment.
And what is so clearly, arse-breakingly frustrating about the whole thing is that it received any Lib Dem support at all in the House of Commons. It’s like they don’t remember the clause in the Coalition Agreement, the line in the sand which, if crossed, would lead to the dissolution of the Coalition, the one about “no more top down reorganisations of the NHS”. Of course, by the time the policy documents for the Coalition emerged a couple of weeks later it was hedged with many qualifiers. The Lib Dems cannot have any serious claim to be a restraining influence on the Tories if they roll over at the disembowelling of one of the nation’s most loved institutions.
And fuck the Labour Party, too. A supine, spineless, useless thin drizzle of urine that leaks down your face and calls itself champagne. Without the NHS reforms of 2000 and 2008, this Bill would have been impossible. As it is, it is only an extension of the ‘competition’ ethos introduced into the NHS by none other than Tony Blair. You remember, it was when he was telling us that anyone who objected was a ‘force of conservatism’ and that he had ‘no reverse gear’. Vehicles without reverse gears are terrible vehicles, Tony. Most people buy ones which have reverse gears. (Oh, and equally, George Osborne, Plan Bs are a good thing. Doing contingency planning is just sensible, yes? God, I hate them all…)
The ground was prepared for all of this by the Labour Party. They put the ideological argument for it years ago. Some might rail against this now, but what are they doing about it? Sally Bercow accidentally ended up at #blockthebridge because she was having a walk with her children. I saw John McDonnell there, but no other Labour MPs. They are a disgrace, and I’d suggest that they hang their tiny heads in shame, although it’s quite clear they have none.
And so I was proud to stand on that bridge. Proud to stand between what used to be the LCC building, and the Houses of Parliament. Proud to stand with a couple of thousand people in front of St Thomas Hospital, where Zoe was born. Proud to speak to, and on behalf of people who believed in a better future.
So, it’s too late to lobby your MP now. It’s too late to have come down on Sunday (you missed Josie Long, Mark Thomas, Nick Revell, Chris Coltrane, Tiernan Douieb, Grace Petrie, Lisa Egan and Nadia Kamil. You are a fool.) It’s too late to adopt a peer, although you could try faxing them something this morning. In a few hours we will know one way or another, whether or not John Battley’s printing business will outlast the greatest achievement of the 1945 Labour government.
The one thing you could do, right now, stop reading and do it, is to sign this petition. 115,000 people did it yesterday, but it’s not enough. Sign it, send it to your friends, tweet about it, talk about it on Facebook, argue with Tories about it (not that I’ve met a single real-life Tory who thinks it’s a good idea). For these last few hours, write and jump up and down and do whatever you can to make a noise about this. The only thing that might sway the crossbench lords (and don’t think I don’t find it utterly galling to have to go grovelling to someone who earned their place in the legislature by popping out of the right mimsy) is if they are left in no doubt that hundreds of thousands, millions of people are angry, worried, dismayed by this.
John Rose Battley was never a well man, but he left behind him something to take care of us all. Let’s do our bit to take care of it for the next couple of hours.
Yesterday, Sir Ian Bowler went to see the rabble on Westminster Bridge who were attempting to ‘save the NHS’. He likes to think he changed a few minds. And sexualities.
My favourite MP, Sir Ian Bowler has broken cover on the News Of The World phone hacking story to make a quite shocking statement. Leave any comments for him below…
Sir Ian Bowler made a public appearance last Friday night to address Libya, the forests, and anything else that drifted into his tired, rancid little mind.
Here are the results…
An occasional series of cartoons inspired by things, and posted on Twitter.