Where is what we actually want out of life in this whole rush-to-power malarkey?

martinlutherkingjr-063_0

It’s easy to forget with the 24 hour news carousel forever spinning, but there is a whole point to this politics malarkey – us.

I recently had a slightly frustrating and insulting exchange on Twitter in the wake of the Labour party NEC decision to (quite rightly) keep Jeremy Corbyn on the ballot paper for the potential leadership challenge. It went something like this:

 

Some bloke:

“Deluded Corbyn supporters can’t see Labour will never be elected again” yawn, etc…

Me:

“What’s the point of power for power’s sake if you don’t get the chance to enact polices you actually want?”

Some bloke:

“You really don’t understand government do you?”

Me:

“I suppose you do and are going to enlighten me with your superior knowledge?”

Some bloke:

“Power is all that matters. I guess you saw what the Conservatives achieved yesterday?”

Me:

“You mean May getting to be PM? What’s your point?” (I must stress, at this stage I am genuinely wondering what his point is – I am interested to know now that his initial insult against my intelligence has subsided…)

Some bloke:

“You really are a fool aren’t you? Goodbye.”

 

A fool! A fool no less! For asking someone to clarify a point they were yet to make.

The conversation ended soon after that with me wishing him farewell and good luck with his megalomania. I very rarely comment on other users tweets who I don’t already know, and this is why.

However, he kind of proved the point I’ve made before and will make again: what is the point of power for powers sake?

The reason I support Corbyn, more so than I do the Labour party, is because I agree with the things he wants to do i.e. his policies.

According to random bloke, that’s not important. What’s important is that we all support a version of a party being led by people who I massively don’t agree with, because “power is all that matters”.

I don’t feel I need to explain the false logic in that argument, do I?

Maybe I do, because I hear this all the time. Firstly I hear it in the mainstream media (none more so than the BBC), and then I hear it spilling passively out of the mouths of people who I know and meet.

“Corbyn is unelectable” they say… Well, no, actually, he isn’t. In theory, in a democracy, no fully-fledged citizen is, especially when you happen to be the democratically elected leader of a major political party.

“We don’t want to be a party of opposition” they say. Well, Labour, by definition, IS the opposition party. Perhaps the reason they didn’t pick up votes under Miliband in the last two election was because they didn’t represent a significantly opposing view and therefore didn’t enthuse those who would have turned out to vote for them to do so? Or many (like me) moved our votes elsewhere in search for some other world view even remotely aligned with our own?

It doesn’t take much prodding to unravel these arguments, does it? (They are barely even arguments) And that’s what we need to do, because no one in the mainstream media is going to do it for us like they do for the Tories/establishment.

I guess that random Twitter bloke was trying to imply that the way the Conservatives steered Theresa May into power was some kind of ‘achievement’ in terms of public/media opinion and opposition to having an actually unelected person take the reigns of power with seemingly little fuss. And if you are a Conservative, who supports May, then maybe that is an achievement, but, what has that got to do with me, and people like me, who want to see the kind of policies Jeremy Corbyn is proposing represented in our democracy?

Absolutely nothing.

Because it may be about the never ending rush for absolute power, but that doesn’t make it a good thing for the rest of us.

We live in a country now where idealism, socialism, disarmament, tolerance and welfare  are branded as being undesirable tenets on which to base a society. This is thanks to the power of the media, the capitalists and the complicit politicians who want us to think this way. And for once someone who says they want to break down the power held by the unelected media and business conglomerates over our lives and democracy is able (against all odds) to even be allowed a platform to say this, and the world turns against him, and by extension, anyone who agrees with him.

What’s worse is they are making us say it too… to ourselves, to each other, as if we know something. We don’t know anything about politics, not really, not most of us, only what we are told, and we are told, relentlessly, “he’s unelectable… he’s unelectable… he’s unelectable…”

You know what? Fuck them. Elect him. Or at least stop just repeating everything and at least try to think about it and put it into your own words so we can all talk about it and see if there is some valid reasons behind it all worth discussing.

Don’t just tell someone ‘they don’t understand’ and call them a ‘fool’ for asking… Get angry, yes, but direct it constructively. I don’t know, write a blog or something…

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Scotland, Bombs and Book Sales – Speed Blog.

stopwatch

I’ve got too little time and too many possible topics to write about this week, so I’m going to attempt a speed blog. From the start of the next sentence, I will attempt to cover the title subjects in 30 minutes writing time (which will be a lot shorter reading time). As I finish this paragraph, my computer clock reads 10.35am. You will just have to believe me… and my time starts… now!

Scotland

So they said ‘No’ then, and what happened? Almost immediately the hastily compiled promises that swayed the debate started to unwind and become compounded with much wider, and much more complicated matters, of regional and national devolution. The leaders of the ‘No’ campaign claimed an ‘emphatic’ victory. Emphatic? I think just scraping 56% of the voting population is far from emphatic, which is described by Google as ‘expressing something forcibly and clearly’. I think a better adjective to use would have been ‘adequate’ preceded by ‘just about’.

That said, they did win, and for those of us who were up for a bit of constitutional mayhem (shake em all up, I say), we can at least hope that if the millionaire white English boys go back on their promises, we will get our shake up, but in a much less organised and civil way.

I’m running out of time for this section (10.41am), so I will finish by saying that I actually like some of the ideas about devolved powers to regions and nations within the UK. As I said, anything that just goddamn changes things around here has to be welcome as a start. But no one can promise anything about how things are going to work, because no one, as I am aware, has the power to look into the future. So if we start getting asked questions about constitutional reform, just remember, no one really knows, no one will really ever know. If we don’t go for it at some point, we will never find out, and things will stay the same, suiting the few at the cost of the many. They will try and scare us, threaten us and bully us into keeping things the same. Sod them. Time’s up. Next!

Bombs.

Two nights ago America started bombing Syria. Not just any old bit of Syria, specifically the bits with ISIL/IS/ISA/whoever the hell it is they are meant to be fighting in it. Of course, that’s how bombs work, they are discriminate, with excellent targeting that in no way kill innocent people.

It’s hard to speak up against this latest round of violence because of the stark and shocking news stories of hostages and beheadings that have been drip fed out of the region over the last few weeks. It is all equally as saddening to me. The violence on both sides sickens and disappoints me. Already we have an American General warning that this will be a ‘long and sustained’ conflict. That is the headline story on our public news channel. Why would they want us to know that? Why would they want their enemy to know that they think it is going to be a hard and complicated campaign. It hardly strikes fear into an adversary to tell them that you don’t think you are up to the task of a decisive victory. For some reason, there must always be a campaign of western intervention in the Middle East. As one ends, another starts.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a genuine crisis going on in Syria, but it is so intrinsically linked with what Western leaders have done in the past, is throwing more violence at it really going to help? Earlier this year, ‘peace prize’ Obama announced he was arming the ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels in the fight against Assad. There was much mirth about the definition of ‘moderate’ rebel fighters. Some ridiculous amount of US dollars and military support was pumped into the region. Within weeks this name-changing group had emerged and apparently ran a line through Iraq and Syria with superior force and the ability to take, control, and sell oil for millions of dollars a day on the international market (who exactly is buying it from them?). I wonder if the two things are connected?

Time’s nearly up for this section. Needless to say, I am sceptical about the whole campaign, and soon we will be joining in (Cameron is recalling parliament this Friday). Great. More life and public money wasted. They can’t help themselves. Not for a moment do I believe their primary objectives are for humanitarian reasons. Not for a blink of an eye.

Right! 10.54am, leaving me 11 minutes to write the next bit and check it over!

Book Sales.

As I’m sure readers will know, I published my book ‘The Dimension Scales and Other Stories’ earlier this year (April 22nd to be precise). It has been an equally exciting and harrowing experience. I realise now that the internet, while being the great connector, is also like a massive public shopping centre full of closed doors. Anyone can have a premises, but getting people to look into it and see what you’ve got on offer is a lot easier said than done.

The book has received good reviews, but moderate sales. It is extremely hard to get it noticed and circulated in a market that is swamped with titles. This isn’t deterring me though, but it does mean I have to try various strategies and spend nearly as much time marketing as I did writing the thing in the first place. Add to that the fact that I am trying to get my next book written, and occasionally I end up having little breakdowns. (nothing serious, just artistic fear and loathing).

So! The latest round of attempts is to reduce the price again and see what happens. Some authors give their books away for free to get noticed and build an audience – I’m not quite there yet, but is now available for a mere $0.99 or 77p.

The advert for the book is on the top right of this screen – it takes you to the Amazon page, but the book is available on iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Nook and Kobo. If you haven’t had a look, please do. And if you think it looks a bit interesting, why not buy it and find out? Or failing that, share it with a few people and see what they think. This whole ‘going viral’ thing isn’t a natural phenomenon. People will spend lots and lots of time and money in some cases, to get noticed. I would like to think that this can happen by mutual support alone, without the need for spamming and expensive advertising.

If anyone has any networks or channels that can help me get this ‘out there’ please let me know or just feel free to do so. I have quite a strong Twitter following and am happy to mutually exchange links and shout-out’s to those who have a creative endeavour of their own (within reason – no explicit or gratuitous material. You would be surprised how much of that is being peddled).

End.

And that’s it! The clock says 11.03am, so I will sign off with two minutes spare and do the fastest editing ever. I hope you’ve enjoyed my speed blog and I apologise if it is a little rougher around the edges than usual!

Goodbye.

 

Nothing to hide.

ministry of truth

Whatever your views are about state surveillance, privacy and liberty, it is (or should be) hard for anyone to not feel that the way ’emergency legislation’ was enacted this week to force through new data laws in barely a few working days was undemocratic and deeply worrying. Our elected ‘representatives’ have had no chance to adequately represent us in the time given, and the leaders of the main three parties made a pact behind closed doors to force this through parliament, so we had no alternative anyway.

The mantra being spouted by supporters of this legislation was ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide, what’s the problem?’. I can’t begin to rant enough about the short sightedness, stupidity and naivety of this view. So I wrote a poem instead. Here it is.

 

Nothing to Hide.

By Garry Abbott.

 

‘I’ve got nothing to hide’ said Clive, full of British grit and pride.

‘All you losers who think these laws are for snoopers,

must be sneaky cheaters, keeping secrets.’

 

‘What have you got to hide?’ sneered Clive, patriotic swell inside.

‘What do your emails entail that make you fail to see

that these powers are for your own security?’

 

‘If you’ve got nothing to hide’ asked Clive, steaming forth on moral high,

‘Why all the fear, about people trying to hear your pointless

conversations. Why the sudden protestations? Eh?’

 

‘They’re everywhere!’ said Clive, tabloids running though his mind,

‘I read it every day, how they want to take away

our way of life. So we’ll have nothing for ourselves.

We’ll be under their control in some fierce kind of hell,

where nobody trusts anyone, and the slightest dissent

is met with a boot in the face and we’re sent

off to work for our shelter, to work for our bread,

but it won’t come from our taxes,

it will be do or die, then dead.

And they won’t care, if we’re disabled or sick,

happiness means nothing when they can put you in the clink,

just for saying “I don’t want this!”

just for saying “things must change!”

just for saying “you’ve taken too much”,

things would never be the same!

Do you want to live in a regime,

like they show us on the news?

I’ll sacrifice my privacy,

there’s just too much to lose.’

 

‘I’ve got nothing to hide’ sighed Clive.

But all the time he’d lied,

because Clive likes to do a little extra on the side.

Just a little bit in pocket, he’s hardly Mr Rich,

but it helps him keep a little something back to treat the kids,

(especially since they cut down all his working benefits).

And now and then he’ll get a job, and tell them ‘cash in hand’

it’s not like he’s some big company, hiding tens of grand.

Then somewhere a light flashes, they’ve picked up every word.

An operative is positive, it’s evasion talk they’ve heard.

So a printer springs to life, and spews another letter,

“You’re due in court this afternoon. We advise you that it’s better,

to come clean, and pay the fine. Either way you’re doing time.

You could challenge with a lawyer, but the state won’t get one for you,

and if you lose, which you will, you’d be facing then another bill.”

 

‘But… I’ve got nothing to hide’ screamed Clive, as he cowered low and cried,

‘I’m not a terrorist, trafficker, dealer.

I’m not a traitorous whistleblower, stealer

of state secrets, designed to keep us

safe from ourselves and the shadows of the reapers.

Alright I made a small mistake,

but show me someone perfect

who isn’t on the take?

I’m part of this society!

Why are these laws being used on me?’

 

‘Why not?’ replied the Judge in session,

‘Now they are there it seems a shame to waste them.’

 

EPILOGUE

 

And true, Clive technically did wrong,

but some of you will never see

that even if he hadn’t,

our right to privacy,

isn’t just for hiding crimes

(no matter how petty),

but being safe to criticise,

challenge and defend

ourselves against corruption,

against those who may bend

and use these laws for their own ends.

 

The End.

 

What’s the story: mourning Tories?

by Garry Abbott

fish in barrel copy

There’s been a lot of talk and chatter this week on the airwaves about Ed Miliband’s need to construct a more coherent ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ if he is going to win at the next election. He has been accused by some party supporters and critics of ‘sitting back’ and letting the Tories dig their own graves. Apparently ahead in the opinion polls (who actually does them?) – even his own head of policy was secretly recorded at a focus group saying his policies had been novelty, cynical and few and far between.

But what could be more cynical I wonder, than the accepted conversation about an opposition leader who needs to ‘come up with’ (i.e. ‘invent’) some kind of narrative in order to present some option to the electorate? Is it just me who finds the rhetoric of ‘story-telling’ both patronising and worrying?

It smacks of political elitism in an age where we are regularly told that they are losing touch with the people – yet they don’t see that this kind of circular politics is exactly why. We shouldn’t have politicians and parties who are content to sit back for five years and watch the country descend into wreck and ruin, just because it means they will have an easier job winning votes at the next election. The hope is that by May 2015 we will all be begging for change (or at least most of us), at which point Miliband will just stand up and loudly exhort through his nostrils “I will save you”. Similarly, we will have the likes of Clegg, making back-of-throat guttural utterances about how they are the only party who can be trusted to reign in the Tories, after spending 5 years propping them up.

An example of a successful opposition ‘story’ that I heard quoted by a labour supporting media expert, was David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. In political terms, they think that was the bomb. Do you remember that? Cameron telling us that instead of the state doing things for us, we basically need to do it all ourselves (yet still pay taxes). If that’s the kind of narrative Miliband is lacking, then I don’t want to hear it!

There should be no need for a story. The problems are evident for anyone who has even an iota of socialism about them, or as I like to call it, common decency and compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves. There should be no need to wait five years to hear this. If he and his party were truly passionate about their cause and actually represented an alternative, they shouldn’t rest or tire from doing whatever they can, whenever they can, however  they can to promote it and stop the shameless pillaging of the poor and vulnerable by the current government. As it is, the little we hear from them is often just slightly amended echoes of right-wing policies with no firm commitments to reverse the damage done. Same ideas, different faces, all ugly.

So here’s a little story for Miliband – he is welcome to use it if he likes:

 

Ed went to the fair.

There once was a boy called Ed who went to a funfair. He walked around the funfair, looking at all the games. He looked at the coconut shy, and whack-a-rat, and test-your-strength, and hook-a-duck, but they all looked really hard, and poor Ed couldn’t decide where to spend his money. Eventually he decided not to bother and to go home and spend his money on lashings of ginger beer instead. But then, just as he was about to leave, he saw one last game.

A red faced man called David was standing on a soap box brandishing a sawn off shotgun in one hand and a box of cartridges in the other, shouting “Fish in a barrel! Who can shoot the fish in a barrel? One winner only!”

“Hey mister” he said, “what do I have to do?”

“Simple,” replied David, “in this barrel of water I have placed a fish. Here is a shotgun. All you need to do is kill the fish and you win.”

“What do I win?” asked the wide eyed Ed.

“It’s a surprise.”

No one else at the fair had played this game before, and before long a huge crowd had gathered around him, waiting to see what happened.

“Why has no one played this game before?” asked Ed, suspiciously. It seemed too easy, and Ed has his smarts.

“Because each cartridge costs one million pounds a go, and none of these plebs have that kind of money”.

“Hmmm” said Ed, pondering the situation, for you see, Ed did have one million pounds to spend, and some more, but he still wasn’t sure.

“Go on!” shouted the crowd, “we want to see it done! We can’t afford to have a go ourselves!”

What was he to do?! He really wanted to win the game, but he didn’t really want to spend the money or any effort on it. What if he missed the fish? What if the game was rigged and the shotgun blew his tiny face off?

Ed thought about it long and hard… for about five years. By that time, everybody had lost interest, and the fish had died of old age.

Ed asked David, “so, does that mean I win?”, to which David replied “Yes! You’ve won! Well done” as he removed the dead fish from the barrel and replaced it with a new, live and wriggling one.

“What do I win?” asked Ed.

“This barrel, this fish, this shotgun and cartridges, and this entire funfair! ”

And then David walked off into the sunset, able to retire a happy and rich man.

Ed looked down at the barrel with the new fish. He picked up the shotgun and ammunition in his hands, before standing up on the soap box and declaring:

“Roll up – roll up! Fish in a barrel! Only 1 million pounds a shot!” and once again, the crowd gathered.

THE END.

 

So she resigned. What next?

Image

Imagine my disappointment  this morning when, over breakfast, the man on the radio told me that the subject of today’s blog had already resigned.

‘Damn it!’ I shouted as I launched my weetabix across the room with one hand, and slammed the other onto the kitchen counter, ‘what now?’

I had been gazumped, or, as my name is already Gaz, I had just been ‘umped’. All I had wanted from this whole debacle was to see the back of Maria Miller after I had written this blog telling people why.

But then, I thought, as the blood trickled from my knuckles onto a passing ant, maybe I can still do the blog, but about the reaction to her resignation?

I turned up the radio, and lo and behold, an interview was already underway between John Humphries and some of those politician types: one from each of the main two colours – you know, the red and blue ones, the Smurfs and the Hellboy’s.

Humphries started by asking the lady from the reds what she thought:

“It should have happened last week! It has further damaged politics and the public perception of politicians” she declared, rather more vigorously than her actual party did, but still with all the sentiment of a walnut.

The man Humphries jumped at his chance to ask if politicians should perhaps, you know, not ‘mark their own homework’. To which the red lady agreed in the strongest, vaguest terms possible.

The other, from the blues (you can tell by the way they talk usually, they sound ‘bluish’) – was a bit annoyed at only having 1 minutes and 20 seconds of air time left on national radio to defend his recently departed colleague, and wasted a whole twenty seconds in telling us so. But then, when he had got that slight off his chest, he said:

“I don’t think anything needs to change with how we monitor ourselves. If the media had actually read the report last week and reported on it accurately, this whole thing would have turned out differently.” Etc…

And then they ran out of time. Poor blue man felt very put out for only having such a short amount of time to reiterate that nothing needs to change and it was everybody else’s fault. He needn’t have worried, I think we got the picture (even though it was on the radio, which is really clever).

So I switched off the voices, muttering some violent swearword in regards to the last speaker, and came to my computer to find out more. Luckily, it seems the rest of the country was also listening to the radio, because it’s all over the news.

The little part of me that was relieved that Maria Miller had finally resigned, was soon quashed when I read the gushing acceptance of her decision by David Cameron. All of a sudden, I felt like, well, like, like, well, like – I don’t know what I felt, but it was somewhere between crushing inevitability and hopeless frustration. And here is why, in neatly summarised bullet points:

  •          It shouldn’t have happened in the first place
  •          Why should MPs have the luxury of managing their own departures/resignations after committing fraud?
  •          What does it say about the world-view of the PRIME MINISTER of this country, when he so obviously favours self-protection of his inner circle over the people of this country and basic moral decency?
  •          Why weren’t Labour officially calling for her to resign? Apart from a few dissenting voices, the cross-party political class basically closed ranks on this, VS ‘the public’. (the obvious answer is again, self-protection, should they ever  need to use this ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ system for their own ends).  You are meant to be the cocking opposition!
  •          She still isn’t going to be paying any more money back or facing criminal charges from the look of it, so she’s done rather well for herself, and no longer even needs to worry about going to work! She can probably retire on the profits she’s extorted.

On a positive note, in felt to me like the real proliferation of this story was taken up by ‘the public’, and only instigated by the media, who then recognised the anger it had caused and fed back into it. I don’t think we were led by them, I think this one was mutual. I’m guessing the 150,000+ signatures on the e-petition were a great help.

For instance, the first I heard of this was from a very dry article on the BBC news last week, and it was these things that flared up my anger immediately (before the furore really kicked off):

  1.        The arrogance of the PM in offering unwavering (and ‘warm’) support for someone who had quite obviously fallen short of the standards that should be required.
  2.        Learning of the way that the initial report and recommendations by an ‘independent’ committee was over-ruled by a separate MP led committee who exist, it appears, only for purposes such as this.
  3.        Learning that the ‘independent’ committee has only two independent (none party affiliated) members anyway, both of which don’t have a vote.
  4.        The whole obvious rigged game that is caused by points 2 & 3, and imagining the motivations of the kind of people who would come up with it.

So actually, the precise details of Miller’s affair were not as important to me as the above, because the above is indicative of the attitudes and systems that cause this massive gulf between ‘us and them’, and is in my opinion, the biggest problem facing our country (and much of the wider world). I don’t mean just these things specifically, but the whole approach to accountability and such like.

Was today a victory for people-power over politics? Not unless any of the above points are actually dealt with: not ‘tinkered’ with – dealt with.

Why not, for example, replace these two committees with a new committee selected from the public in much the same way as jury service? And give us the right to recall MPs (as they promised they would)? Oh, yeah, and Cameron has to go, obviously.

The question is, why don’t they ever actually introduce progressive legislation to enforce the accountability and transparency they so often tout in speeches and manifestos?  Why don’t they hand the responsibility to the people? The simple answer, I guess, is because they know what would happen if they did. Which when you think about it, is a really bad state of affairs, and all the more reason we need it.

So what happens now she’s gone? More of the same after a brief period of rhetoric about ‘change’ and ‘transparency’?  Probably. But if we can act together like we did this week, with common purpose and outrage against the presiding political class, who now seem to be more distant from us than ever before: maybe we can see a few more heads roll? Maybe even change things for the better. That’s a nice thought. I feel a bit better now.

Do worry – but it’s not your fault

Did you build this? (I didn’t think so)

Image

I like to think that the people I consider friends are fairly representative of the wider world at large. If this is the case, than I can optimistically presume that the wider world, all be it nuanced and imperfect in many ways, is generally made up of decent people.

I also like to think that I am able to see past prejudices about other sections of society who I may not have so much in common with. I understand that circumstances and environment can radically distort a human view of the world, and it is hard to see that from within the distortion, so when I encounter prejudice or hatred – I do try and see the human at the other end of it. Especially when I bear in mind that I may have many of my own, hard to recognise from my point of view.

And if this is true, then it leads me to conclude that how I think about things that are happening in the world, on an instinctual level at least, must be similar to how many, many others think. We may not all express these feeling in the same way, we may not all be aware of them or pay them much heed – but I reckon we all feel them, somewhere, to some degree.

For example – take today’s headline:

 

‘POLLUTION TO SPREAD AROUND ENGLAND’

(http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-26844425)

 

How does this make you feel? Like me, do you despair a little? Have you looked out of the window only to see the faint haze blocking the sun and thought to yourself, ‘well this is rubbish’? Have you imagined, even for a second, what it will be like if this becomes normal? If every day we have to don our carbon filter masks, scrape off the airborne grime from the car windscreen, and head out to contribute further pollutants to our communal air?

If so, have you felt a little guilty? Come on – group therapy here – have you? I did, for a moment. But then I decided, it’s not my fault. And you know what, it’s not your fault either.

Of course, we may be made to feel like it is our fault. Just as we were made to feel like the global economic crash was our fault, and that’s why we have to suffer for it. Just like we are made to feel that energy consumption in the way it is organised and distributed now is our fault, and that’s why we have to pay through the nose for it.

If this all sounds like a shirking of personal and social responsibility, let me put it another way – when I say not our fault, I mean those of us (the majority) who aren’t actually responsible for the organisation, design and distribution of these services, or the legislation that surrounds their usage or alternatives.

So yes, I drive a car. A car pollutes. I don’t drive all the cars though. I don’t decide who can drive a car and when, and where, and what type of fuel and engine is allowed to be used, or how much these cost. I don’t legislate for emissions. I don’t decide how extensive, or expensive, the public transport alternatives are, or should be, if we were serious about reducing pollution. I don’t come up with laws to allow massive companies to trade in pollutant quota’s and offset pollution against ‘development’ projects in the third world that are often doing more harm than good. I don’t decide how much we prioritise the development of ‘clean’ energy, or spend my time pandering to media inflated fears over subsidies and trivial aesthetic excuses. I don’t go over to China and shake hands and say ‘yes – this is more like it!’ and broker deals over nuclear power plants. I don’t lift and drop scientific advice at the whim of whatever business interest is sponsoring me or my party. I don’t have control or influence over the media. I do not make millions/billions/trillions from decisions that may not always be in the best interest of the majority of people, or the health of the planet. I do not conjure up money that doesn’t exist to give to none sovereign organisations who systematically remove wealth from the many and redistribute to the few. I don’t fill screens and billboards with adverts for things we don’t need. I don’t encourage a climate where consumer goods are made to be broken or outdated as quickly as possible in the name of profit and so-called ‘healthy’ economies. I don’t think that numbers going up and down are more important than people’s lives and well being, or obsess over them. I don’t have the option to use alternative sources of energy. I don’t have the option to use free/cheap and well connected public transport. I don’t decide to build a high speed railway that will create a two class transport system and is unnecessary, unpopular, expensive, and destroying homes and the countryside at the same time. I don’t decide who can and can’t work from home or in their communities so as to reduce commuters. I don’t run London. I don’t offer more debt to buy houses we can’t afford while always promising more, rather than letting prices fall, just in case it might upset my wealthy associates. I don’t declare that the world works better in competition and then step in when the outcome of that competition doesn’t suit my interests. I don’t charge people tens of thousands to better educate themselves and try to achieve a more fulfilled life. I don’t encourage debt while pretending that I don’t. I don’t profit from debt. I don’t have inherited wealth/status family connections and influence to exploit. I don’t control the resources. I don’t start wars. I don’t judge one country over another thanks to trade deals, energy reserves and arms contracts. I don’t think it’s okay that the top five families in this country have more wealth than the lowest 20%. I don’t think it’s okay that the money spent on defence could lift every child in the world out of poverty. I don’t have the power to change that. I don’t have an  alternative option who represent my concerns to vote for, or any remote chance of becoming that option myself (because I don’t have the inherited wealth/status family connections and influence to exploit).

In short: it’s not my fault, and it’s not yours either. Unless of course, you are one of the very few people significantly involved in the things mentioned above, and you can’t put your hand on your heart and honestly say ‘I am doing this for the good of the greatest number of people, and not for the narrow gain of a few’. If you can honestly say that – we’d love to hear from you – and your thoughts on why it’s not working.

 

Petitions!

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Today I want to ask some questions about e-petitions. I’m sure I don’t need to explain in detail, but e-petitions are calls for action or protest, circulated via the internet, that are able to be digitally signed by supporters.

The questions I want to ask are as follows:

  1. Why, given the official government e-petition site, are there now numerous groups running their own petitions? How are they funded?
  2. What does the potential over-population of this process mean? Does it water-down the message / impact?
  3. Why does it always ‘seem’ like engagement with these petitions is relatively low?

The reasons I am asking these questions is that I’ve noticed a change in my behaviour recently when it comes to internet petitions. I think it has been triggered by an increase in email I have started to receive, asking me to support various causes. Presumably this is because I have in the past, signed some petitions. However, my main concern is that I am getting to the point where I am deleting these emails before even reading the information, and as such, I am trying to examine why that is. Upon reflection, I think the above questions broadly represent my concerns. Hopefully in this blog, we can work through these together, and please feel free to post your views or further information to the comments if you think it will be informative.

Background

The UK has had an official e-petition system in place since around 2010-11. As I recall, it was heralded as being a step to more accountability and transparency (what isn’t?). The point was that any petition over 100,000 signatures can trigger a reading by a back-bench committee, and, if passed, then move onto a debate in the house of commons.

Of course, like most ‘accountable and transparent’ democratic powers, the caveats have a big impact. There is no requirement for the petition to be debated, a simple reason stated on the website can, and does, suffice in many cases (such as, ‘this issue is being looked at under another guise’, or simply ‘here are our reasons why we won’t look at this further’).

So, a once exciting sounding proposition, the power to set debate, very quickly diminished to the realms of ‘gimmick’ for a lot of people, I suspect. For a start it was flooded with badly written, misspelled calls for the death penalty to be reintroduced, and other quite extreme causes. Also, it seems from a quick inspection that many causes struggle to hit the threshold for debate anyway, and those that did/do, are often backed by newspaper campaigns, which to my mind, is much the same as what was happening before anyway (the media sets the agenda, the government responds).

NGO petition sites

More recently there has been a surge in none-government organisations offering the tools and services needed to start your own petition. Notable groups include 38 Degrees and the US based Change.org. A quick scan of funding methods for each reveal a big difference. 38 Degrees is a none profit organisation, funded by donations from members and charities. Change.org however, is a profit led business, paid by large NGOs like Amnesty International to run campaigns and also funded by advertising revenue. However, as a result of this funding model, it still offers a free service that anyone can use to run a campaign.

There are also other, less well known e-petition sites out there offering much the same. From a quick glance, I see the names ‘go petition’, ‘petition online’, ‘the petition site’, ‘i-petition’ etc..

So why so many?

It would seem to me that this is one sector where too much choice is potentially a very bad thing. Already I’ve listed seven sites, from a mere few minutes of research. So, take a message, have it represented seven times, in seven different ways, and distributed to seven different mailing lists and groups of users, and instead of one big resounding statement to deal with, you’ve got seven smaller none-unified voices to ignore.

Putting myself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t really want to listen to the united voices of the electorate, this division seems most helpful. Added to that the fact that the government have already given us a site for logging petitions, and yet we are choosing not to use it, I would have further reason to ignore the pressure from the none official groups.

Another way to look at it would be that having an open-sector will encourage the best to rise up to the top and keep innovating in order to more efficiently influence and win supporters to their platforms. Regardless of whatever funding model they are using, presumably some of the money has to be supporting jobs and salaries (which is fair enough), and therefore, competition is a healthy stimulant.

But then, it is us who are setting the campaigns, isn’t it? It is us who are after a democratic influence of our own, isn’t it? After all, we don’t want to open up yet another level of mediation between us and our representatives, influenced by supporting organisations and individuals, either privately or publicly, do we?

Successes.

So what are we achieving with this relatively new democratic tool. Today (12/03/2014) – These are the top successes featured on change and 38 degrees:

Change.Org:

  1. Bank of England keeps woman on English banknotes. (36,000 signed petition. Jane Austen to appear on Banknotes from 2017)
  2. Glasgow city council protect place in special need’s school. (7000 signed petition to reinstate transport costs for a student who would have otherwise not been able to attend)

38 Degrees:

  1. Don’t limit our GP visits – campaign by 38 degrees to overturn proposed plans by Conservatives to cap the number of times we can visit GP. A position denied and rejected by the Tories, and claimed as a victory by 38 degree’s.
  2. Olympic Tax Dodging – Multinational corporations agreed not to use a tax break offered for sponsoring Olympics due to consumer pressure, as campaigned for by 38 Degree’s.

Now, the government e-petition site doesn’t list ‘successes’ as it is just a gateway, so let’s look at the two most popular (now closed) petitions and the outcome:

  1. Stop the Badger Cull – 304,211 signatures. Closed 07/09/2013. Response: Basically nothing. It states that it will be discussed in the weekly backbench meeting, and that a response will be published soon… ? Obviously the highly unsuccessful and unpopular cull has ended now, but the principle on what happens next surely needs an answer?
  2. Convicted London rioters should lose all benefits – 258,272 signatures. Closed 09/02/2012. Response: Well it’s rather lengthy actually. It details the benefits  you already lose if you are convicted, the ways in which you can lose housing if you are convicted, and leaves some room for further debate about further sanctions.

The above, for me, shows something clearly. Yeah, have your petitions, but we’ll only take them seriously if we were going to do something like that anyway. So, no guarantee of action or changing views, just a tool to reinforce their own mandate when it comes along.

Due to that, I can see why a none-government alternative is a healthy option, but looking at the achievements of the top two NGO petition sites, there seems to be a leaning towards local victories, and less-clear government back-downs or u-turns that may, or may not, have been influenced. (after all, we are quite used to seeing policies challenged and dropped in early stages anyway).

Ultimately though, the petition, in whatever form, either lands on the lap or in the inbox of someone who is in no real way obliged to do anything about it, or at least, do anything of any substance about it. That is just the way it is, but I don’t mean that as a discouragement.

A quick thought on numbers

Very briefly, let’s look at those two ‘top’ closed petitions on the Gov site. 300,000 people wanted to save the badgers. At the last count, that’s about 0.5% of the population (if I’ve got my maths right). Change.Org can boast slightly higher, with just shy of 500,000 people urging Iain Duncan Smith to live off £53 a week (which funnily enough, he never did). But this doesn’t tangibly shift the percentage. 38 degrees is harder to quantify, with their emphasis on ‘campaigns’, I can’t seem to find actual petition info, as they offer various routes (such as mass emailing of MPs), so I don’t think it would be fair to compare.

Still, why are less than 1% of us being engaged by these routes? It seems very small. I would be interested to hear more about the average demographics if anyone knows of this information, and thoughts from the leaders of these organisations about this.

Working conclusion

So, although it may not feel it(!), this is a very brief blog to examine this phenomenon and its impacts, but I have some initial thoughts from spending the afternoon looking into it.

The government e-petition site is only as good as the will of the government monitoring it. It offers us little chance of affecting change if they can simply choose not to debate the issue, or only respond if it’s on their political ‘radar’ anyway. Given the numbers using it, why would they? Even at an all time low, ‘The Sun’ readership is currently around 6 million people. No wonder the government are more likely to listen to anything they print, representing (indirectly) a good 10% of the population.

As for the NGO petition sites, they seem more encouraging, though my quick research already shows that MPs have taken to debunking them as being ‘left’ affiliated instead of independent organisations. And for the profit based, anywhere where major advertising revenue is required for funding leaves open the possibility of corporate demands and intervention (and a quick search on the Change.Org advertising model does seem to throw up some controversies over this).

Personally, when I see an issue I am passionate about represented by one of these groups, or even a government e-petition, I shall continue to support them (though I may change my email settings to stop getting told about every campaign going!) – but more broadly, I think the debate about the effectiveness and future of this approach needs to continue (or start?), with more fundamental changes being sought to bring more power back to people and away from private interests. I would hate to see these organisations become protective over their new found powers, and hope to see more cooperation and focus on progressive, core issues. (Such as giving us the no suitable candidate box, for example? Or right to recall MPs?).

Anyway, while I have been writing this, I have received two emails from two different petition sites, one about secret courts, and one about food-banks. I would like to think that the few seconds it will take me to sign these (if I agree with them), will help change the world, but maybe we’ve got a little more work to do just yet. No harm in trying though, eh?

Some sources for you! (not exhaustive):

http://www.38degrees.org.uk/

http://www.change.org/

http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/22/changeorg-corporate-gop-campaigns-internal-documents_n_1987985.html

http://www.mediauk.com/newspapers/13707/the-sun/readership-figures

(supplemented by google and wikipedia searches/results for ‘change.org’, ’38 degrees’, ‘e-petitions’ and ‘British population’)