Monday, 25 April 2011

Left-wingers and progressives should vote yes to AV

On 23d April, Vince Cable called for a "progressive majority", made up of Labourites, Lib Dems and Greens, to vote yes to AV and stop the Conservatives from dominating this new century. Cable argued that left-leaning people make up at least 50% of the electorate, but their votes are often cut up amongst the various progressive parties in the UK, thus allowing the Tories to win majorities through the back door, as right-wing voters don't really face the same problem.

This struck a chord with me; it was the most acute point in defence of AV I had come across. I was already Yes to AV before I read Mr Cable's comments, but nevertheless, I hope they had an effect on ambivalent Labour people.

The campaign thus far has, broadly speaking, been rather dull and quite disappointing. There has been mud-slinging from both sides, some truly awful political broadcasts and blatant lying. What is more, I think I'm right in saying that most people are not very engaged with the debate, and one can't blame them. But it is crucial that we are able to rise above the politicians' spats and truly see the Alternative Vote for what it is.

The No to AV camp have consistently criticised AV for being "complicated". It isn't. At the moment, we use First-Pass-the-Post (FPTP), where voters put an "X" next to their preferred candidate. With AV, you rank candidates in order of preference. When the votes are counted, if one candidate does not get at least 50% of people's first preferences, then nobody has won. Thus, the candidate with lowest share of the vote is knocked out and their votes are redistributed amongst the remaining candidates.This process continues until one candidate has at least 50%. This video explains AV brilliantly if you require further clarification.

As you can see, under the Alternative Vote, MPs have to work much harder as they must earn at least 50% of the vote. In the current FPTP system, an MP can get into parliament with a shockingly low proportion of the vote, and he/she is thus not truly representative of their constituencies. That is, quite obviously, undemocratic. Therefore, by introducing AV, we would put and end to safe-seat constituencies where people are angry that, no matter how they vote at present, their voice is not heard. AV would also dispel the need for tactical voting, so people can actually vote for the candidate they truly believe to be the best.

FPTP is an old and unfair system. It was, perhaps, somewhat defensible when politics was a two-horse race between Labour and the Tories. But politics has changed, and voting needs to change too. We are in desperate need of a new and more proportional system. Of course, AV isn't the best voting method around, it has its faults, but it is a start. That is what is important about the upcoming referendum. We have a once in a lifetime opportunity of taking the first step on the path to wide-ranging electoral and political reform. And we simply cannot afford to miss it, for if we do, we won't get another chance like this for a long, long time. AV is a small but important change, that will hopefully be the beginning of something much bigger. Who knows, voting yes to AV on 5th May could eventually lead us to full PR. Let's hope so.

If it's the financial aspect of AV that is stopping you from saying yes, then it's important to note that, contrary to George Osborne's fallacious assertions otherwise, introducing the Alternative Vote would not require us to use costly electronic voting machines. They use AV in Australia and they seem to be doing just fine without them. What's more, this figure of £250 million is how much the referendum costs anyway, irrespective of whether or not you vote yes or no. This point was excellently made by Johann Hari on his article on the topic, which is well worth a read.

According to recent polls, the result of the referendum is still anybody's to win. After a drop in support for AV, the two sides are now pretty much equal. The people who will decide the result of this referendum are my fellow members of the Labour Party. Lib Dems are mainly for it, Conservatives are mainly against, no surprise there. But it is Labourites who will tip the balance. I am very annoyed by fellow Labour people who say they're voting no to AV in order to "punish Nick Clegg". As Ed Miliband said, this is not a referendum on the leader of the Lib Dems, but a referendum on whether or not we want to live in a fairer and more democratic society. I dislike Clegg as much as anyone, but I value AV much more. If the result is no, he will suffer a little embarrassment, but it isn't going to end his career. If the result is yes, it means more people's voices being heard and acted upon. Surely that is something we all desire? Labour people, I implore you to heed Vince Cable's words. People of the left need to unite, stop fighting and vote yes to AV, thus ensuring the Tories are kept out of government for good. It is essential for this country's future.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Why I am a convert to republicanism

On this blog, I once published a transcript of a speech I delivered at a debating competition. I was told to write for the motion, "There is still a place for an unelected head of state in 21st Century Britain", and I did so, obligingly. I was later asked if I actually agreed with what I was writing (which is, of course, unimportant in debating) and I replied "Well, yes...kind of".

For most of my life, when I was asked if we should abolish the monarchy, I have said "No, we should retain it." More recently, I've started to feel unsure about that position, having read around the subject and given it a great deal of thought. This was evidenced by my uncertainty when it came to my debate. Now, I can say and be quite confident in saying that if asked again if we should abolish the monarchy, I would reply, "Yes, we should do away with the royals." In short, I am a covert to republicanism.

There are only a few of us. In a 2007 poll, 78% of respondents said Britain should keep its monarchy. So why have I decided to join this rather small portion of the population who believe quite strongly that there's no place for hereditary heads of state in modern Britain? Well...

Firstly, I believe that democracy and monarchy are fundamentally incompatible. The two do not work together; they are diametric opposites and can therefore only result in discord. Johann Hari puts this perfectly in his brilliant article on the topic, saying, "The US head of state grew up with a mother on food stamps. The British head of state grew up with a mother on postage stamps. Is that a contrast that fills you with pride?" 
Well in answer to Hari's question, no, it isn't. Of course, the monarchy has no actual power and we are beyond the days of our majestic rulers being unquestioned, Pope-like tyrants. However, growing up and living in a country where the person above and beyond all else, the person whom all must respect and bow down to, the person who is the nation's ultimate representative, has serious effects. It maintains and strengthens a rigid and medieval class system and undermines meritocratic principles, suggesting that there is also someone better than you, at a height impossible for you to achieve. I, personally, do not want to be represented by someone completely distant from the real world, who is in their place solely and purely due to the accident of birth.

What is more, it is impossible for me to support an overtly sexist and discriminatory institution. It astounds me that even today, in the modern, liberal, Western world, the UK still maintains barbaric laws when it comes to the monarchy. These come in two forms. Firstly the law that favours male heirs over female ones and secondly, the one that forbids anyone of a faith other than the Church of England becoming king or queen (or Prime Minister for that matter). To have these rules still in place and still active is, quite frankly, stupid.

Since I became politically engaged, I have always called for a secular and socialist society. The royal family can play no part in such a place. Secularism calls for a total separation of church and state, where people have religious freedom but where religion plays no part in politics or the law.  This is in straight opposition with the monarchy, who is also the head of the CofE and Defender of the Faith. I have come to the conclusion that it's just as easy to be both pro-secularism and pro-monarchy as it is to be pro-intelligence and pro-Daily-Mail.

What is more, I am also a firm believer in fundamental constitutional and electoral change - including a proportional representation voting system, a fully elected, bishop-free second chamber, a UK bill of rights and proper constitution (at present we don't have one) and, as afore said, the establishment of secularism. To have such views, one must also accept the royals have got to go - they can play no part in any of the above.

Moreover, the monarchy costs Britain £37 million every year, money that could be so better spent on hospitals, education and the arts, to name but three. Yes, I concede, we do indeed make lots of sterling through tourism and such, but I feel the scrapping of the monarchy wouldn't necessarily end this. Tourists would still flock to these isles to see the uninhabited palaces and gardens, to admire the jewels no longer in use, to marvel at the traditions of yesterday.

Many argue that the monarchy is a hallmark of essential British-ness and a tradition too sacred to do away with. I don't accept that viewpoint. When I see all the ceremony and ritual etc I just think it looks a bit, well...silly. We're meant to be a progressive, modern county, and yet we remain a semi-theocracy and every now and then all our officials dress up and play games like school-children in over-the-top, outdated, vulgar affairs we call "traditions". Traditions evolve and they also die out. The monarchy is one worthy of the latter; it has been with us a for a long time, but I feel it's starting to outstay its welcome. A natural end is in sight.

This issue isn't the biggest one facing us. However, it is one worth discussing. Especially now, when the Royal Wedding is constantly in the media glare, making me for one feel a little sick. Everywhere I turn it's there, and every day I come across some other putrid result of it - Royal Wedding mugs, Royal Wedding T-shirts, Kate and Wills' inside story in various glossy magazines, more vacuous nonsense about a toff and his "commoner" bride-to-be. I'm sick of it, and I'm sick of the royals. I guess in the past I defended monarchy as I liked Queen Elizabeth II, who has reigned with dignity and courage. She is a woman to be admired. However, I find the rest of them loathsome, and I think after Lizzie passes away, it will be time to have them abolished. What we definitely need to do is start a proper debate around the issue, allowing MPs to discuss it without fearing charges of treason. I would much rather be a citizen than a "subject". That is why I feel the disestablishment of the royal family would be good for 21st Century Britain and should be our next step. And so I wish William and Katherine all the best and hope they have a happy, loving marriage together, but on the 29th April, I'll be wearing this:

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Clybourne Park - Review

In my 16 years on this planet, I have been lucky enough to see some truly fine theatre; from Jonathan Pryce in Pinter's masterpiece The Caretaker to Sir Derek Jacobi in Shakespeare's King Lear, and many more. But Clybourne Park, currently running at Wyndham's Theatre in London's West End, is, without doubt, one of the best plays it has ever been my pleasure to watch.

That may seem like a bit of an exaggeration, and, I concede, not everyone will adore this piece quite as much as I do. But I am describing my personal response, which can be summed it thus - Clybourne Park is fan-flipping-tastic in every way.

I am in awe of the playwright, the Texas-born Mr Bruce Norris. The script is one of the quickest, sharpest and most powerful I've ever come across. Every line brims with acerbic excellence. The play is a response to Lorraine Hansberry's classic piece A Raisin in the Sun, which premiered in New York in 1959. Hansberry's play (which I have also seen) tells the tale of a black family living in Chicago who intend to move to a white neighbourhood, and the inevitable racial  friction this causes. It is an unsurpassed dramatisation of a society in the grip of racism, but I earnestly believe Clybourne Park is every bit as wonderful as the piece to which it nods.

The first act of Clybourne Park is set in 1959, and tells the tale of the white family who are selling their house to the black family from Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun and the tension this causes among their neighbours. I shan't reveal all the plot to you, needless to say there's more to this family and this "community" than meets the eye. The second act is set in 2009, with the same actors adopting different roles. The play is beautifully structured, and one of the joys of watching it for the first time is seeing this and then being able to look at the piece as a whole. To truly understand and experience it, you must go and see it for yourself.

What I can say is this - I have never laughed in a theatre as much as I did watching this play. It is hilarious. The whole audience roars with laughter and cringes at the same time; some of the lines are just overwhelmingly stupendous and unbelievably offensive to the liberal sensibilities of the modern Western world. Sophie Thompson, who plays Bev and then Kathy (and is also the star of the show) comes out with some of the best one-liners I have ever heard. But believe you me, there is not one performance in Clybourne Park that is any weak or lacking. Every actor gives a stellar portrayal of their intricate and beautifully layered characters.

Clybourne Park is also incredibly poignant and powerful. In seconds, the audience switch from crying (yes, actually crying) with laughter to staring silently and intently at the stage, transfixed and moved by the wonder of it. Some of the scenes are breathtaking and the ending is magnificent.

I have truly exhausted the superlatives in this review, but I don't think I can stress enough just how outstanding this play is. Catch it while you still can, I implore you. It is a beautifully written, wonderfully acted, perfectly directed, masterly portrayal of a country, a society and a people gripped, if not defined, by the issue of race. If you go and see only one play this year, make sure it is Clybourne Park.

Star rating out of five for Clybourne Park: