Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

2011: The year the worms turned

I cannot remember any year of my life being so exciting, in terms of global political developments, as 2011. In a positive way, too: although many of the great events of last year have been far from unambiguous triumphs for human progress and emancipation, they have nevertheless demonstrated that many of the chains that bind humanity are not as immovable as they previously seemed. Though many of the battles remain to be fought and some will be lost, that they are being fought at all is reason for optimism. I haven’t remotely been able to provide adequate comment at this blog, but here is my personal list of the most inspiring events of 2011 – not necessarily in order of importance.

1. The Arab (and Russian !) Spring.

Cynics regret the fall of the Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi regimes, and the likely fall of the Saleh regime, in the belief that these acted as Hobbesian leviathans keeping lids on political Islam. They fail to appreciate that these dictatorships, through preventing the emergence of healthy political pluralism and through opportunistic collaboration with Islamism, acted as the incubators of the very Islamist movements they claimed to keep in check. It is pluralism – more so than democracy – that is ultimately the cure for the evil represented by Islamism. The Arab Spring may end badly in some or all of the countries in question, but hats off to the brave Syrians, Yemenis, Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Bahrainis and others who have redeemed the honour of the Arab world through their heroic struggle against tyranny, showing that change is possible. The Arab fighters against tyranny may not win, or they may succumb to a new tyranny, but they are fighting a struggle that needs to be fought. And hats off too to the brave Russians who are raising the banner of freedom in the heart of Europe’s worst police state.

2. International intervention in Libya and Ivory Coast and the fall of Muammar Gaddafi and Laurent Gbagbo.

For all that I supported the US-led intervention to overthrow the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, events have proven it was an intervention too far: carried out without any form of mandate from world opinion or support in the country in question and attempting a too-radical overthrow of the existing order, it brought democratic change and emancipated the Shia majority and Kurdish minority, but only at great human cost and immense damage to the West’s reputation and to the political standing of the Western governments that participated. By contrast, the intervention in Libya was everything the intervention in Iraq was not: carried out in support of a genuine popular uprising and at the request of Libyans themselves, with a genuine international mandate, it brought down a dictatorship without any foreign troops setting foot in the country or losing their lives. There has been some whining among wishy-washy moderates that regime-change was carried out under cover of a UN mandate to prevent massacre, and that consequently Western leaders have made it more difficult to obtain international support for humanitarian intervention in future. Nonsense: even the propaganda catastrophe of Iraq did not prevent the intervention in Libya, so the successful intervention in Libya will be far from discouraging future interventions. In fact, like the Kosova intervention before it, Libya shows how humanitarian intervention can work, as did the international intervention that helped bring about the fall of Laurent Gbagbo in Ivory Coast, followed by his arrest and deportation to the International Criminal Court where, we hope, more of his fellow tyrants will end up.

3. The rise in the West of protests at the abuses of capitalism.

For much of the past fifteen years or so of my life, I felt I was gradually becoming more right-wing (from an admittedly extreme-left-wing starting-point), to the point where, at the last British general election, I adopted a bi-partisan standpoint vis-a-vis Labour and the Conservatives. I have seen, and continue to see myself, as a centrist rather than a leftist. Well, the events in the UK, the rest of Europe and the US have certainly served as a wake-up call to me, as the mainstream political right and the super-rich – not to put too fine a point on it – are simply taking the piss. Here in the UK, public services are being massacred while those in the corporate and financial sectors pay themselves vast and unearned bonuses, and the authorities turn a blind eye to their blatant tax-evasion. We’re supposed to believe that cutting the incomes of ordinary working- and middle-class people is necessary in the name of deficit-reduction, while cutting taxes for the rich and for corporations is necessary in the name of economic stimulus ! Well, you can’t have it both ways. In the US, the Republicans have gone so far to the right in their support of selfish and irresponsible tax-cuts for the rich that they’ve gone completely off the rails, seriously jeopardising their government’s ability to navigate the economic crisis. With mainstream centre-left leaders like Barack Obama and Ed Miliband failing to show any backbone over this, it is left to grass-roots activist movements to do so. So three cheers for Los Indignados, Occupy Wall Street, 38 Degrees, UK Uncut and all such movements, for doing what our elected representatives are failing to do. I never thought I’d say that, but there it is.

4. The fall of Silvio Berlusconi and popular protests in Greece.

The fall of the corrupt sleazeball is a bittersweet triumph, given that it occurred in the context of the EU’s imposition of brutal austerity programmes across the Eurozone, accompanied by creeping integration that violates both the national sovereignty and democratic will of member states. The cause of deeper EU integration has revealed itself to be a deeply undemocratic, anti-people cause. I have been very critical of the Greek political classes for their criminal regional policies, vis-a-vis Milosevic, Macedonia, etc.; the Greek people, by contrast, in the ferocious fight they are putting up against the EU-imposed austerity measures, have set an example to us all. Let the costs of the economic crisis be born by the bankers and politicians who caused it, not by ordinary people and future generations.

5. The phone-hacking scandal in the UK.

All my life in the UK, I have lived in the belief that the tabloid newspapers and particularly the Murdoch media empire are a great incubus on British politics and society, encouraging everything that is worst in our country: xenophobia, small-mindedness, vulgarity, philistinism, voyeurism and sleaze. So how refreshing and liberating it is, to see them being taken down a peg or two. There is no reason why people’s private lives and feelings should be constantly violated, and intimate personal details splashed all over newspapers, by hack reporters pandering to the worst public instincts; it is time that the UK passed some serious privacy laws, to put an end to the permanent national scandal and embarrassment of our tabloid press. However uninspiring Ed Miliband may be as Labour Party leader, he deserves credit for bravely taking on the Murdoch empire. Let’s hope the Daily Mail goes the way of the News of the World – that would go a long way toward solving our supposed ‘immigration crisis’ !

6. Independence for South Sudan.

What a sad day it is for democracy, when a genocidal dictatorship accomplishes what various flawed democracies seem unable to do, and negotiates the independence from it of an oppressed region. In July, South Sudan formally became an independent state and joined the UN. Congratulations to its people, who have shown that even the most brutal struggle for freedom can have a happy ending ! Meanwhile, Turkey is escalating its terror and repression of its Kurdish population; Serbia continues to block and disrupt Kosova’s independence, with Serb extremists creating chaos in northern Kosova and undermining Serbia’s EU aspirations; and Israel continues to obstruct peace with the Palestinians through its settlement-building programme and Apartheid-style occupation regime in the West Bank – to which its apologists turn a blind eye, while they try to blame the Palestinians for wanting to join the UN and UNESCO ! Shame on the democratic world.

7. Macedonia’s victory over Greece at the International Court of Justice and Palestinian membership of UNESCO. 

Were the democratic world to apply liberal and democratic principles fairly and consistently, it would be extremely easy to bring about solutions to the Macedonian-Greek and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, that would respect and safeguard the rights of all four nations in question. Unfortunately, the EU over Greece and Macedonia and the US over Israel and Palestine, far from acting as honest brokers in negotiations to end these conflicts, are simply supporting the hardline nationalist agendas of the stronger sides. They hypocritically talk of ‘negotiated settlements’ while ensuring that pressure is only put on the weaker sides, never on the stronger. When they say they want both sides to negotiate, what they really mean is that they want one side to surrender. The Macedonians would have to be stark, raving mad if they followed advice over what’s in their national interest from EU apparatchiks, just as the Palestinians would have to be stark, raving mad if they followed advice from craven US officials. Do they really want their countries to end up like Bosnia, whose leaders in the 1990s were unwise enough to follow ‘advice’ of this kind ?? So what an inspiring example these nations are setting when they refuse to follow the advice of hypocrites, and pursue justice in a dignified, civilised manner through international institutions. Palestine’s admission to UNESCO in October followed by Macedonia’s victory over Greece at the ICJ in December are two blows struck for democracy and human rights that Western leaders seem unable to uphold.

8. The fall of Dominique Strauss-Khan and the acquittal of Amanda Knox.

At one level, the collapse of the sexual assault case in New York against Dominique Strauss-Khan suggests that even in the US, it may be legal for a rich sexually to assault a hotel maid, provided the maid in question has a personal history that’s marginally less unblemished by sin than that of the Virgin Mary, and has done something satanically evil like telling a lie during her asylum application. As has long been said, in rape cases it’s often the victim rather than the rapist who is on trial. For all that, Nafissatou Diallo’s accusation against Strauss-Khan did succeed in ending the political career of a violent misogynist with a history of attacking women, forcing his resignation as IMF chief and wrecking his French presidential bid. And in encouraging other female victims of sexual assault, at the hands of him and of others, to come forward. Another spectacular victory over misogyny was won in October, when Amanda Knox was acquitted by an Italian court on appeal of murdering her flatmate, having been originally convicted in something resembling a medieval witch-trial. Again, she was convicted not on the basis of the evidence against her, since there wasn’t any, but because she was good looking and sexually active, pursued what was in conservative Italian eyes an unorthodox lifestyle, and did not behave like a tearful female stereotype after her flatmate’s murder. Soon after, an apparently respectable boy-next-door, Vincent Tabak, was convicted of murdering his neighbour, Joanna Yeates. Initially overlooked by police until he incriminated himself, he turned out to have a secret fixation with strangling women. So there you have it.

9. The killing of Osama bin Laden and the arrest of Ratko Mladic.

Justice finally caught up in 2011 with two mass-murderers whose long evasion of justice made them symbols of ‘resistance’ for the worst kind of extremists. Mladic turned out not to be as brave as he had been when he was directing the genocidal massacre of defenceless Bosniak civilians at Srebrenica, and surrendered quietly to the Serbian police. Bin Laden was, by contrast, whacked in Pakistan by US special forces, as was his follower Anwar al-Awlaki by a US drone attack in Yemen later in the year, in both cases prompting much hand-wringing by wishy-washy liberal types of the Yasmin Alibhai-Brown variety, who seem to be under the impression that it’s possible for the US peacefully to arrest terrorists based in countries like Pakistan and Yemen, in the middle of an ongoing armed conflict with those terrorists, as if the latter were pickpockets in New York. They would do well to remember the Allied assassination of Holocaust-architect Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, and of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of Pearl Harbour, the following year – we certainly didn’t try to arrest them ! And of course, based on what happened to former Republika Srpska vice-president Biljana Plavsic, an international court might have just sentenced bin Laden to a few years in prison, then let him out early.

10. The referendum defeat for the ‘Alternative Vote’ in the UK.

Not as significant as the above events, but it made me happy anyway.

Happy New Year !

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Sunday, 1 January 2012 Posted by | Arabs, Britain, Egypt, Greece, Islam, Israel, Italy, Libya, Macedonia, Marko Attila Hoare, Middle East, Misogyny, NATO, Russia, Sudan | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Does AV give extremists more votes than moderates ?

In my recent post criticising the ‘Alternative Vote’ (AV) system, I explained why the system is unfair, and why it effectively privileges voters for fringe parties over those voting for mainstream parties. I argued also that AV effectively gives them more votes. Defenders of AV such as Norm Geras and Alex Massie deny that this is true. However, the pro-AV camp appears to be making two, contradictory arguments in defence of the system: 1) that it does not give those voting for extremist parties more votes than moderates; and 2) that it does, but that this is a good thing.

Hence, The Independent newspaper defends AV on the grounds that

‘the curse of the first-past-the-post system – the argument that a vote for a smaller party is “wasted” – would be eliminated at a stroke, because the second preference votes of lower-placed candidates would be reallocated if the first count failed to produce a clear winner. The public will be able to vote for the person they want to represent them (as their first preference) without having to agonise about whether they are effectively disenfranchising themselves if they choose a candidate representing a smaller party.’

Under the present First-Past-The-Post system, each voter has one vote and a choice over how to cast it: either they can express their unhappiness with mainstream politics by voting for a fringe party, in the knowledge that the fringe candidate has no chance of winning, or they can vote for a mainstream candidate whom they may or may not actually like but who does have a chance of winning. Because they only have one vote, they cannot do both. Under AV, however, they can have their cake and eat it.

Thus, a BNP supporter wishing to express his disgust at what he feels is the failure of mainstream politicians to keep the hordes of job-stealing, council-house-queue-jumping foreigners out and the pesky, halal-munching, integration-avoiding Muslims downs, but who when push comes to shove would generally vote for the Tories since they’re at least a bit tougher on immigration than Labour, could now do both: he could cast his vote for the BNP candidate and thereby boost the BNP’s share of the vote nationally, in order to send out a clear message to the decadent, unpatriotic liberal elite running the country that the silent majority is angry with the way things are, AND could then have his vote transferred to the Tory candidate; a vote that will then count just as much as a first-preference Tory vote from an actual Tory supporter.

I call that having two votes instead of one. Someone voting with their first-preference vote for Labour or another mainstream party, by contrast, has done just one of those things. The Labour voter has voted for a party with a chance of winning; the BNP voter has voted for a party with a chance of winning AND boosted the votes of another, fringe party that has no chance of winning, but that will undoubtedly claim greater legitimacy and make political capital the more votes it gets. So AV would provide a definite incentive to vote for a fringe party while putting a mainstream party as your second choice, so as to make the most of your vote.

Responding to my last post, which used an example to show how supporters of the fringe party would receive an unfair advantage over the supporters of the mainstream party because the system redistributes their votes first, Norm has given a counter-example of what he suggests is an equally unfair result under the existing system:

‘In Lower Zogby by the Fen 35 people vote Tory first, 33 vote Labour first, and 32 vote LibDem first. But the Labour voters would prefer the LibDem to the Tory, and the LibDem voters would prefer the Labour candidate to the Tory. As is, with first-past-the-post, the preferences of 67 out of 100 people to have a candidate elected other than the Tory are nullified, where with AV Labour would win.’

Certainly, there are unfair aspects of the existing system, and unfair results possible under it. I’m not convinced that the example Norm cites is particularly unfair, since it involves, after all, the candidate who won the most votes winning. But if one concedes that it is unfair, then it is unfair in practice; in that particular instance, the LibDem and Labour candidates have split the left/liberal vote and allowed the Tory to win. In another instance, it might be an anti-Labour majority that is split between the Tories and the LibDems. The AV system, however, privileges the voters for fringe parties in principle, since if you are a fringe-party supporter, the system will always work in your favour – or at the very worst, will never work against you. The First-Past-The-Post system is fair in principle but unfair in practice; the AV system is unfair in principle.

Having said that, Norm’s example points to a genuine pragmatic argument for voting for AV, one that has been made by Timothy Garton Ash, Polly Toynbee and others: the fact that under the existing system, the liberal portion of the British electorate is split between the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, bestowing a structural advantage on the Conservatives, and that the way to end disproportionate Conservative success at the polls is to abolish First Past the Post. This argument appears much weaker after last year’s general election: the Conservatives failed to win under First Past the Post, but were rescued by the Liberal Democrats; instead of joining with Labour to form a centre-left government representing Britain’s ‘natural liberal majority’, the LibDems gave the non-victorious Conservatives a parliamentary majority to implement a radical Thatcherite programme for which they had no popular mandate. AV would make more such Con-Dem coalitions likely.

My solution for the electoral split in the centre-left, is for the LibDems to experience electoral meltdown at the next general election and effectively to disappear as a significant party. Instead of which, AV would breathe life into the discredited and moribund LibDems, empowering future Nick Cleggs to play kingmaker between Labour and the Conservatives after future elections. AV would exacerbate the split in the centre-left, not make it go away.

Visit the ‘No to AV‘ campaign site.

Saturday, 2 April 2011 Posted by | Britain, Marko Attila Hoare | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Alternative Vote system – a ‘Cunning Plan’

On 5 May, British voters will vote in a referendum on whether to replace our existing ‘First Past the Post’ voting system for parliamentary elections with the ‘Alternative Vote’ (AV) system. I had not previously examined the implications of AV and had no prior ideological bias for or against it. But having now had a chance to look at how AV would work, I am literally dumbfounded that our great democracy is under threat of being lumbered with this cruel joke of a voting system.

Under AV, voters would not just give one vote to one candidate, but would list candidates in order of preference – putting ‘1’ for their first-choice candidate, ‘2’ for their second choice, etc. In the likely event that no candidate received an absolute majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest such votes would be eliminated from the contest, and their voters’ second-choice votes would then be added to the total votes of the other candidates. If there were still no candidate with an absolute majority, the candidate who now had fewest votes would then be eliminated and their votes redistributed, and so on until one candidate had achieved over 50% of the votes.

This system would increase the voting power of voters who vote for fringe parties such as the BNP or Respect, and disadvantage those voting for moderate, mainstream parties. Those voting for the fringe extremists would be likely to have their votes redistributed to their second, third or further choice; those voting for the mainstream parties would be much less likely to. Effectively, supporters of unpopular extremist parties would be given more votes than supporters of popular moderate parties.

To illustrate this, imagine a hypothetical constituency with 100 voters, being contested by four candidates from the following parties: Labour, the Conservatives (Tories), the Liberal Democrats (LibDems) and the British National Party (BNP). To win, a candidate would ultimately have to achieve 51 votes [NB I am aware, of course, that real constituencies have more than 100 voters, and that the distribution of votes is likely to be more complicated than what follows; this is a simplified but representative model of how AV would work].

In the first round of voting, the outcome is as follows:

Labour: 40 votes – second-choice votes to LibDems

Tory: 29 votes – second-choice votes to LibDems

LibDem: 16 votes – second-choice votes to Tories

BNP: 15 votes – second-choice votes to Tories

The BNP candidate, as the lowest-ranking, is therefore eliminated and their votes transferred to their voters’ second choice – in this case, the Tory candidate, whose votes would therefore increase to 29 + 15 = 44 votes. Since still no candidate has a majority, the next lowest candidate – the LibDem – is eliminated and their votes transferred to their voters’ second choice – again the Tory. The Tory candidate thus has 44 + 16 = 60 votes, therefore an absolute majority, and wins the election.

The system is grossly unfair at every level:

1) It is the lowest-ranking candidate alone whose votes are redistributed. It privileges those voting for the lowest-ranking candidates, and penalises those voting for the more popular candidates.

Why shouldn’t it be the highest-ranking candidate whose votes are redistributed ? In the example above, this would mean the Labour candidate is eliminated, and their 40 votes transferred to the LibDem, who would then have 16 + 40 = 56 and would win the election. The Labour voters, who actually voted for the candidate with the most first-preference votes, would therefore at least have their second-choice candidate win. Yet under AV, the BNP voters – not the Labour voters – would have their second choice win.

Why should this be so ? I have not yet heard any attempt at justification from the pro-AV camp.

2) AV pretends that a candidate who might not even have a plurality under the First-Past-The-Post system, actually has an absolute majority. It’s a con-trick.

In the example above, the Tory candidate who won only 29 out of 100 votes, therefore 11 fewer than the Labour candidate and 22 short of an absolute majority, is given a ‘majority’ through the second-preference votes of the BNP and LibDem voters. This ‘majority’ is gained because only the second-choice votes of the BNP and LibDem voters count. If everyone’s second-choice votes counted, the result would be as follows:

Labour: 40 first-preference votes and 0 second-preference votes = 40

Tory: 29 first-preference votes and 31 second-preference votes = 60

LibDem: 16 first-preference votes and 69 second-preference votes = 85

BNP: 15 first-preference votes and 0 second-preference votes = 15

Under AV, the Tory candidate wins because they receive the second-preference votes of the BNP and LibDem voters, but the LibDem candidate doesn’t receive any second-preference votes, even though they received many more of them than the Tory. Were all second-preference votes to be treated as equal, the LibDem would win. Of course, the LibDem candidate only has 85 out of 200 total first- and second-preference votes – not an absolute majority. But this is more than the Tory candidate, who has 60 out of 200. The latter is a smaller percentage than the Labour candidate received of the first-preference votes. Yet the pro-AV camp would have us believe that the Tory candidate actually has an absolute majority of 60 out of 100 !

There is simple justice to the existing system: the candidate with the most votes wins. Under AV, a candidate who comes second or third might win, just because the votes are redistributed in an arbitrary and unequal way. In the example above, the Tory would win, even though 71 out of 100 voters preferred another candidate.

If, under the existing voting system, the British people don’t already feel politically disillusioned and disempowered, replacing it with AV would make sure that they do.

And all this is leaving aside the still more important reason for voting against AV – the overriding need to kick Nick Clegg. I’m not joking. We’re only voting on AV because of the back-room deal that Clegg struck with the Tories to enter government, at the price of ditching his pre-election promises and betraying his voters. And Clegg only wants AV because it would boost his party’s share of the parliamentary seats. It beggars belief that we are actually in danger of having our voting system ruined, just so an unprincipled politician can receive his pay-off. And this despite the fact that even Clegg described AV as a ‘miserable little compromise’ !

Visit the ‘No to AV’ campaign site.

Thursday, 31 March 2011 Posted by | Britain, Marko Attila Hoare | , , , | Leave a comment