Wednesday, 8 December 2010

It isn't a vote about student fees. It's a vote about democracy.

I don’t have a particularly strong point of view on how a student's time at university should be funded. The whole business is very expensive and there’s a legitimate debate about how much of the cost should be shouldered by the taxpayer and how much by the graduate. Maybe there’s no ideal answer. I do, however, have a strong point of view about self-serving, hypocritical politicians who say one thing to get elected and then do the reverse when they’re in office.

The unctuous Nick Clegg – and unctuous is one of the nicer words I can muster to describe the Lib Dem leader – isn’t just leading his party members into a cul de sac. He’s threatening them with oblivion. One reaction to this debacle might be simply to shrug one’s shoulders and take pleasure in the two-faced Tory lookalikes getting their comeuppance. The problem is that their behaviour doesn’t only damage liberal democracy. It damages democracy as a whole.

What might voters be entitled to conclude from the last general election? I think it would be entirely reasonable for them to believe that their votes count for nothing. They were told in a large number of constituencies that the Lib Dems were the only party capable of stopping the Tories. They thought, in the event of a hung parliament, that Clegg & Co would act as a bulwark against extremism and ideology. They hoped, after his contribution in the televised public debates, that he offered a fresh kind of politics that people could believe in. To say that they were deceived doesn’t really do justice to the scale of the breathtaking sell-out that has taken place. Listening to Vince Cable claiming the concocted coalition ‘agreement’ takes precedent over the manifesto commitments that he and his mates put before the electorate is really frightening. People voted for your manifesto, Vince. They didn’t vote on some worthless document cobbled together subsequently out of political expediency.

Former Labour Minister Phil Woolas was stripped of his parliamentary seat for supposedly telling lies about his Lib Dem constituency opponent. I don’t have a problem with this, although admit to being somewhat disappointed, as I first saw Woolas in action as President of NUS 25 years ago and have always been impressed by his intellect and communication skills. The important point is that a much, much bigger lie was told by the Liberal Democrats in the national election than anything that appeared in Woolas’ local publicity. Their big lie poisons a democratic system which had already been battered through the shameful revelations over MPs’ expenses.

In the circumstances, there’s only one thing to be thankful for. The lie is out in the open. We see the Liberal Democrats standing trial in the court of public opinion, indicted on multiple charges of political deception. Although it’s thoroughly depressing to watch, justice will eventually be done. But we should never become complacent or indulgent or just shrug our shoulders and tell ourselves that politicians will always behave this way. Such a conclusion is not only profoundly dangerous for democracy, but also undermines the work of those rare politicians who genuinely do some good.

At the moment, we’re all aware of exactly what the Lib Dems are up to, but sometimes the lie is not out in the open. Politicians tell us one thing and then do another without our knowing. It therefore becomes difficult to hold them to account. That’s why the Wikileaks revelations are doing us all such a great service. We only know about the deceit and duplicity because communications which were supposed to be private have been made public. It’s caused a hell of a hullabaloo, hasn’t it?

A good parallel is the man who has multiple affairs and doesn’t want his wife to find the text messages sent from his lovers. When she does uncover them, an uncomfortable truth is revealed. There may be shock and anger and all kinds of protestations. The wife shouldn’t have been snooping. Her hubby has a right to privacy. He didn’t really mean what he said in those messages to his girlfriends. And if she lets the revelations change their relationship, it will destroy everything. What about the kids, the house, the future?

But the man is a liar and he has been caught. And five years down the line, the woman will be grateful that the truth came out and that she was able to step away from deceit and into a more trusting relationship with someone else perhaps.

One of Tony Blair’s great achievements – although ironically, it’s one that he regrets – was the Freedom of Information Act. You can see the legislation as a sanitised, watered down, version of WikiLeaks, which forces local authorities and central government bodies to reveal what they’re doing in private. We pay these people’s bills, after all, and we damn well have a right to know what they get up to. Anyone, though, who’s made FOI requests in the UK will realise just what obstacles can be put in their way. I spent a whole year getting information from a government agency that demonstrated it was easier to pass a driving exam in some test centres than others. I’ve been fobbed off with letters from other government departments quoting all kinds of loopholes and restrictions. There’s a lot of stonewalling and prevarication, so I have nothing but admiration for journalists persistent enough to uncover good stories.

We have finally created a world in which politicians can be properly exposed if we work hard enough. If citizens request information or insiders leak it, then it can be circulating around the web in the blink of an eye. What we lack are the real mechanisms to dismiss or punish those responsible for hypocrisy and wrongdoing. One of the best possible remedies we could introduce is known as ‘voter recall’ – a system that allows constituents to petition for a fresh election when they believe their elected representative has broken a promise or behave inappropriately. It’s a system championed by the Lib Dems. Or at least it was. When students suggested its introduction could lead to the recall of turncoat Liberal MPs, Nick Clegg was quick to write and tell them they’d got the wrong end of the stick. Where exactly was this man when a sense of shame was being handed out?

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