So much focus – on the wrong things?

Are you old enough to remember when every day for years and years we would switch on the radio or TV and be swamped with news of conflict in the Balkans? Serbs, Croats and Bosnians – it was difficult to avoid listening to the intractable problems of peoples you’d barely heard of before. In reality none of it was going to influence our day-to-day life in our home country very much at all.

It was perhaps strange the broadcasters didn’t include a regular half hour slot for getting all the Balkan news out of the way in one hit. That way, people for whom it was very important would know when to tune in and the rest of us would know when to withdraw tactfully from TV or radio earshot – get dressed for work, brush one’s teeth, etc.

It felt like flavour of the decade problem diversion in the 1990s was the Balkans. On its heels through the ‘noughties’ to the present day, it’s been wall to wall terrorism, radical Islam and a whole family of race-related issues. Terrorism may kill an average of about ten people a year in this country. Our roads system permits ten deaths a day (and a lot more life-changing injuries). The Citizens Report website provides depressing detail of the 600-700 murders per year that occur in the UK. Thousands of women are diagnosed with breast cancer every month. Do we know where our priorities lie? This site will occasionally mention 5.5.5 Syndrome. A sure symptom of the condition is the capacity of a modern, technological democracy to pour resources, effort and attention into a threat to its welfare that’s been pumped up out of all proportion.

Nowadays, we cannot turn on the radio and television and hope to escape the constant drumbeat of story after report after revelation from the long-running soap ‘Terrorism Family’. So some of us might be here again, wishing there was a special slot at a fixed time so that those who want their new dose of daily alarm can tune in. The rest of us could plan to avoid the constant harping on about issues that are barely ever going to influence our daily lives in a real sense.

This is not to downgrade the terrible impact of terrorist strikes when they do happen. They are low-frequency, high-impact events. In terms of their effects and the misery they cause, they are in the same family of issues as fatal aeroplane or train crashes, motorway pile-ups, gas explosions, ferry disasters, floods. It would be bizarre if there weren’t a sharp attention spike in the aftermath of life-changing tragedies like these. Equally, spread over time, you would expect any or all of these issues to be the subject of initiatives and debates. After all, we presumably would like to eradicate the lot of them. For example, we sometimes get alarming reports on how aviation procedures are being shortcut or how developers are still being allowed to build on flood plains. But we don’t occupy every other media minute every day mulling over and fretting about them as we do with ‘Terrorism Family’.

The word ‘factoid’ was coined by the author Norman Mailer and means a thing that is repeated in the media as if it were true even though it may not be. It seems like in this country there always has to be ‘a super-package of fear’ that comes under that definition. It’s a narrative that hits the headlines day after day as if it speaks volumes about things that will imperil your daily life when in fact they will not.

The likelihood of being killed in an act of terrorism in the UK is on a par with being killed by lightning – about five per year. A reckless driver or an emotionally disturbed relative or family acquaintance is far more likely to kill you than a terrorist. Here is an item by Richard Jackson that provides an interesting angle on ten things you might not expect to be more of a threat to you than terrorism. Rather worryingly, one of them appears to be ‘yourself’. And, yes, we do get proportionate coverage in the media of the distressing problem of suicide.

On 5.5.5 & Counting, we are worried that the issue of fair voting hardly ever gets coverage in the mainstream media. Of course, this is partly because it doesn’t have life-or-death implications. But there can be few issues with such far reaching effects on your day to day life. In our section Media and FPTP, we say why the broadcasters do not want reform of this country’s unfair general election system.

Careful planning for electoral reform

This site hopes that everyone has learnt the  lesson of 2011. When the Lib-Dems, led at the time by Nick Clegg, agreed to a no-hope AV referendum, the movement for electoral reform was in effect throwing an ill-considered, wild swing. It was a clumsy haymaker the other side could see coming and duck with absolute ease. What’s more, AV isn’t even a proper proportional voting system. There’s no kinder way of putting this – it was a pathetic, misguided episode.

Surely the movement is not going to go there again.

In order to take a serious approach to achieving electoral reform, we’re setting out here what we think are four absolutely indispensable planning stages:

  1. co-ordinating across all activist partners to ensure qualified representatives finally decide on the optimum PR system for UK general elections, in a way that carries the widespread, evidenced confidence of supporters of reform.

  2. via forums and other means of input, setting the standard for PR and promoting wide understanding of the key features a new electoral process will have to embody to ensure delivery of the fair and transparent system voters are entitled to.

  3. developing a set of evidence-based, modern, relevant arguments to spearhead and explain: (a) the case for reform in general and (b) the rationale for the chosen PR system (let’s face it, the old arguments haven’t gained a working foothold).

  4. anticipating the counterarguments and blocking/diversionary tactics those valiant defenders of the status quo will use when they aim to sweep reform into the sidelines: take this seriously – they aim to be ruthlessly effective at blocking the way.

Sometimes it doesn’t harm to state the obvious: imagine how easily doubt and confusion will be sewn in an electoral reform movement that lacks clarity, unity & co-ordination.

So these are the broader strategies for success encapsulated in these four planning stages. We say they need to be in place at the outset, in advance of more detailed planning. Do you agree? Are there other equally essential broad strategies we haven’t included?

5.5.5 & Counting believes the path to electoral reform will be a difficult one and it is not possible, however nice it would be, to get there in a single, over-optimistic step.

 

 

 

Survival of the fittest, er… electoral system.

god-of-prosperity

Work harder or pray to the God of Prosperity? Both must have a chance of working!

Survival of the fittest, the term we know from evolutionary biology, has been seized upon by some as the natural explanation for success in human society. But a simpler explanation is that people hang on to what they’ve got and pass it down as commercial interest or personal wealth. Once there’s something in place that keeps bringing them benefits, those finding themselves in that position don’t change it. This has serious implications for our electoral system and for the future of a society that is becoming more and more unequal.

Survival of the fittest in scientific terms means that the genetic attributes of fitter individuals, living under conditions of competition for limited natural resources and in a challenging environment, are more likely to be transmitted to and survive in young that themselves grow to maturity and reproduce. But they only got that extra bit of fitness in the first place due to a chance genetic mutation. It wasn’t something they did to themselves or willed to happen.

A look at the relatively soft lifestyle that comes with modern human civilisation tells us that only a very few people with certain medical conditions will have problems reproducing successfully. Comparatively small numbers of children are affected by harmful genetic mutations that shorten their lives. Children are far more likely to be at risk from something in the human environment whether it be poverty, contagious disease, violence or pollution.

Research suggests that the extreme hardships of slavery led to natural selection for muscular endurance and deprivation-resistance. Michael Johnson, the famous 400 metre runner, has written that this could explain the dominance of black Afro-Caribbean athletes in sprint events today. There is little doubt that the Sherpas of mountaineering fame benefit from genetic endowment for endurance at the high altitudes that leave everyone else gasping for breath at the slightest exertion.

But let’s be clear, there is no evolutionary selection going on for fittest politicians, footballers, actors, bankers, company chairmen, astronauts or whatever – and why would there be? The evolution of human society is not the same as natural evolution. On the contrary, much of human social development has been about overcoming or alleviating the constraints of the natural environment.

To understand why some humans have most power, wealth or influence in society we have to look more deeply and widely at a range of factors. Their standing cannot be explained as the outcome of some natural evolutionary process which has swept them haplessly and innocently to sit at the top of the income and wealth pile. Continue reading

Brit-Englishness

Is there another country in the entire world that generates such confusion over what you’re supposed to call it? Which of these names should we use: the United Kingdom, the British Isles, Britain, Great Britain? Even people who live here struggle to understand the geographical differences these names signify.

Then, when you try to attribute qualities to this country as a whole, are they to do with ‘Britishness’ or is that just nonsense? Scottishness, Welshness, Northern Irishness – where do they come in?

sum of exclamations equals a q

Perhaps it’s easier to understand the parts than the whole?

We hear the British don’t mind being thought of as quirky or idiosyncratic. On 5.5.5 & Counting, we don’t fully accept this. We believe the real quirkiness and idiosyncrasy arises from Englishness. The English share of the population is, of course, in a massive majority – more than 50 million out of about 65. Trying to understand what Englishness is and what Englishness means may therefore shed light on resistance to changing the voting system of the UK to a fair one that would actually count the votes of its citizens at general elections. One journalist writing in “I” newspaper on 24 October 2015 says that there is no desire to go through the upheaval of writing a constitution in England and, just as worryingly for us, ‘Most English voters are quite happy with their parliament.’

Admittedly, the UK has had its share of Scots in high government positions. Also, we see all the home countries represented quite prominently in politics and in the media. But wherever in the UK they come from, once they are immersed in the dynamic of that zone of South-east England where the power lies, they are in grave danger of succumbing to Englishness. Many would agree with us that when we think of the Establishment, ‘Englishness’ is pretty near the front of our minds.

So we think the dominant cultural force and national identity must be not pure ‘Britishness’ but something we could call more accurately ‘Brit-Englishness’.

The culture of Brit-Englishness seems to flourish on creating distractions from its own problems. The projection of attention or blame onto ‘others’ is known as displacement.

english and union flags

Can we grasp what Britishness means without understanding Englishness?

Never does this get better demonstrated than when someone calls for a definition of Britishness – quite a common occurrence, in fact. This often descends into race and faith issues. For example, paragraph one in an article on Britishness by Rafael Behr (Guardian, 7 July 2015) mentions the infiltration of radical Islamist ideas. This shows how inclined we are to move without hesitation and label Britishness as the antidote to overseas political systems and religions whose values appear to us to be less desirable. Fine, some space for those comparisons is necessary when trying to find a meaning to Britishness. But to fill up the whole room with them, shut the door and walk away like that’s it done and dusted – is that really our best shot?

We need to dive in and take a much harder look at mainstream Britain itself – inside rather than outside. Everyday experience of Britishness is what you find when you are interacting with society. Would it not make more sense to judge it with questions like:

  • How do we all treat each other socially, in public or at work?
  • How do we see ourselves reflected in the media?
  • How do our political and financial institutions behave?

We ought to be comparing ourselves in these respects to countries that we have much more in common with. We take it for granted that we count ourselves in ‘the premiership’ with the Nordic, West-Central European, the other English-speaking economies and Japan.

But when British people are asked what it means to be British the idea of making comparisons at this level doesn’t seem to enter their heads. The far more common responses are:

  • First, as if they’re being faced with an implied threat to the concept of Britishness. Because it is not easy to define in itself, we perhaps don’t want to paint ourselves into a corner with anything too specific. It has a special quality that we ought not to try and define too closely. It can be better defined in relation to any external threats to it, real or perceived.
  • The second follows almost inevitably from the first. We know in our hearts what it is to be British in a core, domestic sense and the last thing we want is anyone to question that and tell us what we should be doing or thinking differently.
Bill of Rights letter to i September 2015

Someone from Norfolk, writing to “I” newspaper, evidently believes that a country that has no constitutional rights for its citizens doesn’t need advice on human rights from European countries that do have. Furthermore, compatriots who feel we might need to get a bit of help must be even further beyond the pale.

So it’s not surprising that the argument is often put forward saying that we appear to lack a sense of Britishness. Definition of the national identity, Baer continues in his article, risks straying into awkward historical and religious terrain – church and empire!  The definition of Britishness may therefore not just be nebulous and remote but highly sensitive.  Englishness, of course, has its massive presence in British culture and of all the country’s peoples, what it means to be English is by far the trickiest to grasp. Is it possible that all that idiosyncrasy we pride ourselves on is a smokescreen?

Nobody is trying to pretend the other home nations are blessed with perfect national identity. The recent Scottish independence referendum almost divided their country in half. Northern Ireland is especially difficult because of its complicated and troubled recent history. But when you listen to the Scots and the Welsh they do seem to be underpinned by a view of the world that gives them a more solid sense of who and what they are. They seem often to come across as more forthright and natural.

Here’s a bet. When groping to find a direct answer of substance to the question of what is Britishness, most of the things that start coming to the forefront of our minds are either English or strongly tinged with it. The Queen and her current entourage, royalty past and present; Churchill, the Houses of Parliament, Shakespeare, Dickens, the bobby on the beat, our valiant troops, Oxbridge, the boat race, the Grand National, the Proms, the Lake District, the special relationship with the US, the London taxi, the Bank of England…to name several. Indisputable evidence of this cultural bias has now come out with the announcement of a revised British passport design (November 2015). There are twelve pages of British ‘creatives’. On one of those pages the Edinburgh Festival gets a short paragraph. On another, three iconic buildings, one each in Wales, Scotland and N Ireland get a paragraph each. Absolutely everything else on the twelve ‘creatives’ pages is on locations in England or about English people.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crash, we should at least be starting to question the reverence we afford the nation’s cultural mascots. They imply some great store of exemplary values – achievement, competence, excellence and so on. But the reality gap is now painfully obvious. The performance of so many of our institutions has not matched reputations. Some might say there has been complacency. On competence, trust and inequality we’ve always liked to talk as if Britishness ticks all the boxes but the reality is a growing column of X’s. It is in the balance whether we may soon have to add another one because of the allegations that have come to light of organised child abuse – or worse – in the highest political circles of the land. Establishment interests may feel the pressure is off now because at late October 2015  there have been significant developments taking the heat out of some of the allegations. Let’s hope that’s the last of it or, frankly, where would we be?

Even so, maybe the people would still like to see some of our institutions getting a good shake-up and Westminster hasn’t exactly gone out of its way to keep a clean sheet in the last few years. In our view, changing the way we elect our governments by ending safe seats and moving to a fair voting system would be a very constructive project to start planning.

2015 Chart

Because of the extraordinary similarity in the vote split between the 2015 and the previous three elections, there’s not a lot we can add to the comments we’ve already made. Here is the chart:

2015 enlarged update Aug 2015

Click here to see how similar the chart looks to those for 2001, 2005 and 2010.

Looking back over the 2001 to 2015 timeline the tide has turned from Labour towards the Tories. But ‘tide’ is surely an exaggeration. Look at the figures in this table:

This time, the Tories attracted just under one in four of those entitled to vote, exactly the same as Labour did in 2001. Do not forget that the support for Labour and Tory combined, the two largest political parties, has averaged 43% of the electorate in our four 21st Century elections. That means they’ve been disputing the difference of the consistent  20 million votes or so jointly cast their way. The reality we boil down to is the rivals must persuade about one million out of those 20 million to stick or switch, depending respectively whether they’re in power or trying to get it.

That is the essence of a little in-fight that leaves 25 million of the electorate each time – the ones who didn’t vote or voted Other – out in limbo land. And on top of that, the 9 million or so supporters of the losing rival don’t have that great a time either. Anyone with leanings towards Labour who lived through the 18 year reign of the Tories that began in 1979 might remember how politically marginalised they felt for so long. Similarly, Tories who endured 13 years under Labour starting in 1997 might have felt an equal sense of desperation (although Tony Blair acting pretty much like a Tory PM must have been some consolation – sorry, Tony, cheap shot!).

But none of this seems to carry weight with the Labour and Tory party machines and their politicians. Their simple aim each time is to offer about one million people a carrot that tastes and smells a little sweeter than their rival’s. Because that’s what they need to trigger that crazy allocation of seats in parliament and give them their outright majority to govern in Westminster. That’s their desire – winner-take-all. If it comes off, they feel validated; if it doesn’t, crushed until next time round when they pick themselves up ready to play the game again…and again…and again. Is this a fully mature approach to the politics and governance of a 21st Century democracy of 65 million people?

 

2010 Chart

The 2010 election may have produced a very rare outcome where neither Labour or Tory for once gained overall control of the House of Commons. But the chart here shows just how similar the vote split was to the elections of 2001 and 2005.

2010 enlarged update Aug 2015

Click here to see how similar this looks to the charts for 2001, 2005 and 2015.

Once again, the non-voter block (nearly 16 million) was by far larger than the largest party’s share (Tory, 10.7 million) and, as the following table shows, the vote share of Tory and Labour combined was pretty much as normal: just over two-fifths of the electorate.

 

 

Look at the very similar data for ‘Tory’ and ‘Other’ in the first three columns. There are only fractional differences between them. Then look at the all-important fourth and fifth columns which tell us about the split of the number of seats in parliament. Through the distorting machinations of our electoral system, the Tories ended up with over three times the number of seats. And Labour, who polled 1.75 million less votes than Others got just under three times the number of seats.

This underlines very well the message of the last four elections. Under our archaic first-past-the-post electoral system, power in parliament is proportional to the way it allocates seats, not to the voting intentions of the people.

 

2005 Chart

Looking at the charts in this section of 5.5.5 & Counting should soon show you that a very similar pattern of voting has emerged in UK politics in the four elections since 2001. This is the chart with results for 2005:2005 enlarged update Aug 2015

There is striking similarity between this chart and the ones for 2001, 2010 and 2015.

The 2005 results shown in the following table include in the last row the combined vote for Tory and Labour, revealing something disturbing. Together, the two largest political parties have fallen well short of attracting even half the votes of the electorate. It’s actually only a whisker over two-fifths.

 

Labour was the winner in 2005 with a fraction over one-fifth support of the 44.22 million people entitled to vote. They only got 35% of those who voted. In other modern democracies, this level of support could well have made them the largest party in the legislature but left them nowhere near the number of seats for outright executive power. There are a handful of exceptions who follow the Westminster model, including the USA.

There is no doubt that on 5 May 2005 one of the biggest ever distortions of democratic principle occurred in peacetime. It was possibly the most extreme misallocation of power ever seen in an advanced western nation. This website’s name is a constant reminder of that date and the fact that we keep counting off election after election is if everything’s fine and dandy.