A New House of Lords

Like for most people, since the surprise calling of the 2017 UK General Election, my Facebook and Twitter feeds have been filled up with people opining on various issues. One which has caught my eye beyond the usual partisan stuff that I’m as guilty as anyone about is the idea of electoral reform.

It is perhaps unsurprising with the polls showing huge leads for the Conservatives that there has been renewed interest in electoral reform from not only LibDem supporters (whose party has in its various guises been in favour of Proportional Representation (PR) since at least 1945) and minor parties but also from Labour supporters. Not without some justification, many are uneasy that without proportionality there are many people whose votes don’t really count – if you are in a seat where one party has a huge majority of supporters, it is unlikely that voting for anyone else will make a difference (although this wasn’t the case in 1997, was not true in Scotland in 2015 and looks like it might not be the case this year). The argument goes that this knowledge that so many votes don’t make a difference to which MPs get elected also helps to make many people cynical and disengaged from the process with a large minority not even bothering to register let alone turn out to vote.

I am not in favour of moving to PR for elections to the House of Commons and never have been, even when the current First Past the Post (FPTP) system delivered large majorities for Labour. While the current campaign more than probably any other has been focused on the leaders of the main parties, at a local level there is still a lot to be said for people voting specifically for a local MP. This is something which has if anything also been emphasised in the current campaign, in particular by candidates for Labour seeking election or re-election on their personal merits, often while pointedly stating that they do not support Jeremy Corbyn as a future Prime Minister. In my own home area of Leeds North West it is also telling that the incumbent LibDem MP, Greg Mulholland, does not even mention his Party Leader, Tim Farron in any of the leaflets I’ve received about the local campaign. This is something which would be largely lost were the elections for the Commons to be conducted under a form of PR.

Another issue is the role and nature of the House of Lords. For me, the Lords is one of those peculiarities of the British Constitution which like the unwritten Constitution itself works a lot better than it ought to and it is difficult to pinpoint precisely why. An Upper House which is filled with political appointees, a few who have inherited the privilege and an assortment of senior judges and bishops has no real right to be nearly as good at scrutinising legislation and providing a counterbalance to the government and MPs as it in practice so often is. However, in a democracy it still is something which ought to be made democratic and accountable. An argument could be made for doing away with it altogether, but that would be worse than the status quo at least because the Lords has so often shown itself to be valuable in providing that balance in the system in practice.

So, here is my set of proposals, which would have the effect of both reforming the Lords and introducing an element of proportionality into the UK system of politics and government.

  • Abolish the current House of Lords and replace it with an elected Senate.
  • The Senate would be elected by PR on the basis of the share of votes cast for candidates for the Commons aggregated over a number of seats (eg for each area comprising 20 Commons constituencies, there would be 10 Senators elected on the basis of the proportion of the votes obtained by their parties in those 20 constituencies).
  • The Senate would also have a number of ex officio members. These would include the Prime Minister and all Secretaries of State (currently 21 in total – this would need to be a fixed number) and could be expanded to include the Supreme Court Justices and Bishops (as at present), perhaps the Metropolitan Area Mayors or others in defined roles if it were thought that it was worthwhile to retain some non-politicians in the Senate as occurs in the Lords.
  • Senators would be barred from subsequently being elected to the Commons and would have a mandatory retirement age (say 75) and perhaps a minimum age (say 40).

The numbers here are a little rough and might necessitate a small change in the number of MPs at the boundary review ahead of the next election, whether that involves a reduction of the total number of seats to 600 as previously proposed or a smaller change (eg moving to 640 MPs would fit neatly with my proposal of 20 Senate constituencies). Or there could be a rounding mechanism so that the current 18 Northern Irish constituencies formed a single Senate constituency, the 59 Scots ones divided in to three Senate ones and England’s 533 were either rounded up to 27 or down to 26 Senate constituencies (Wales having 40 MPs is arithmetically pleasing in this scenario!). This would lead to a Senate of 320 or 330 elected members. Unlike the Commons, it would be relatively rare for the government to have an overall majority in the Senate, which is why I think there would be a benefit in having at least the PM and Secretaries of State as ex officio members who could attend, speak and vote. This would prevent there being a permanent block from the Senate over the actions of the Commons which should remain the primary seat of government. It would also remove the need for there to be two sets of Ministers, one for each House. It would be worth considering whether a Senator appointed as a Cabinet Minister should have a reciprocal right to attend, speak and vote in the Commons – this might be a good way in a Hung Parliament to enable a minority government to operate by appointing Senators to the Cabinet.

The proposal to have 10 Senators for every 20 MPs would have the effect of substantially lowering the threshold for new and minority parties to form and get representation in Parliament. A party would only need to get 10% of the votes cast in an area to have a Senator elected. This would make it much more feasible for small parties to focus on a particular area or areas (e.g. Yorkshire First, Mebion Kernow, the Greens, UKIP) rather than having to throw all their resources into a single seat or try and spread them nationally. It would also make it more feasible if there were a schism within an existing large party for irreconcilable groups to go their separate ways without one or other side of that schism being almost inevitably doomed to failure). There would also be a good reason to vote for minority parties rather than feel that such a vote was “wasted”.

This is not too different from how the proportional element of the elections to the Scots Parliament works, except here the proportional element would be going towards a different chamber with a different, more focused remit as a revising body. What do you think?

Trump’s Eulalie

I haven’t written anything about last year’s US Presidential Election or the choice Americans made of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton before. Both candidates were pretty unappealing in different ways and in any case, as a Brit I had no vote or influence as well as not much knowledge of the everyday concerns of Americans about how their country should best be run. Working with quite a lot of Americans I was surprised during the Primary Campaigns at how widely disliked Clinton was by even liberally inclined Democrat voters who could see that Bernie Sanders was not a sensible option so I was not entirely surprised when she lost.

The stories emerging this week of Trump’s links to Russia and lurid tales of him paying to watch prostitutes to urinate over each other on the hotel bed previously used by President Obama are just the latest in a long line of critical reports arguing that Trump is a very bad man who will be a very bad President. Who knows if they are true? More importantly, they won’t change the underlying fact that in just over a week’s time, however much one might think him terrible in so many different ways, he will be inaugurated as President.

What few of his critics seem to have properly digested is that all these allegations are much of a muchness with the reams of other improprieties which were well known and publicised before he was elected. Regardless of the fact that Clinton won the popular vote, there were enough people in the right States who did vote for him to make him win and they voted in the context of knowing all this stuff. Of having seen him mock a disabled reporter and mimic his disability (or at least look like it – as with much in politics, if you have to explain what looks obvious you’ve probably lost that battle). One of the things from which all politicians could learn is Trump’s ability to speak in very simple, often literally simplistic, language that is clearly intelligible to ordinary people who aren’t paying a lot of attention to detail and nuance. That extends even to where the words themselves don’t make a huge amount of sense – in this he’s like our John Prescott whose garbled syntax and grammar didn’t prevent from getting across a general impression. So, when, as he did yesterday in his first press conference since the summer , he says that he’s an asset because President Putin seems to like him, sophisticated commentators can infer a pun about “asset” meaning a spy or plant for Russia but it will be heard by ordinary people who are busy thinking about other stuff as him saying that he’s a good thing for America.

One aspect of the allegations about his relationship with Russia and the possibility that Russia could have incriminating evidence about him which they could use for blackmail purposes is that it makes an assumption that he can be blackmailed. But I don’t think he can in any traditional way because it is difficult to think of anything that is so massively more disreputable than the things he’s already been proven to have said or done which could emerge and which he’d do anything to keep from being made public. You can’t really shame the shameless.

So, I think the best approach, if you really wanted to bring down Trump a peg or two and to make his supporters reconsider their support would be to go in a different direction for “dirt”. This would most likely involve finding Trump’s Eulalie.

This comes from PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories and the character of Roderick Spode *, a caricature of Oswald Mosley who Wooster could get to behave quietly and decently by whispering that “he knew about Eulalie”. This alluded to Spode’s other profession of designing and selling lingerie and the fear that were this to become public knowledge, it would rather undermine his appeal as a fascist hard man. All that remains then is to find Trump’s Eulalie. What otherwise harmless thing has he done which would make his supporters blanch? Perhaps there might be evidence of him actually being a highly sensitive soul who relaxes by playing the flute. Or that he likes nothing better than to write love poetry in classical Greek.

No, it’s no good. Apart from being implausible he’d just use it to show he wasn’t the ignorant loudmouth he might seem. He could, I think, even convert to Islam and not upset his supporters because you can just imagine him doing so and then being the first to sign up to his proposed register of Muslims in America. You see, that’s the problem, he really is shameless and that is his truest asset. Bigly. So Sad.

* Now, another prominent modern day Spode is of course Wodehouse’s fellow Dulwich College alumnus, Nigel Farage. If the allegations about him having sought German citizenship turn out to be true, they could be his Eulalie. Or perhaps someone could go a little further than Steph & Dom from Gogglebox who very nearly exposed him as an utter lightweight when they drunk him under the table. I live in hope.

I, Daniel Blake

I am a little wary about reviewing Ken Loach’s latest film, “I, Daniel Blake”. I am fortunate not to rely on benefits and never to have been so poor that I had to make the heartbreaking and unacceptable choices between feeding myself of my son or doing without electricity, as Katie does in the film. However, that does not, or should not mean that it is not a film for me or one that I as a relatively privileged person can have an opinion about. Indeed, I think, to be successful, the film has to be one for people like me – it certainly isn’t something I can imagine that a real life Katie would go to, even if you paid for her ticket and arranged for someone to look after Daisy and Dylan, nor could the eponymous hero really be visualised going to it. It is, therefore a film for all the people whose real lives it does not depict.

Most of the glowing praise the film has received has come from “the left”- MPs and poverty campaigners using it, as no doubt intended by Ken Loach, as the basis to shame “neoliberals”. On Question Time this week, Loach vehemently believed that people today are less compassionate than they ever were, but ironically, the film doesn’t really support that. There are only two truly compassion-free character, the presenter in a CV workshop, who rebukes Dan for not living in the real world, and a Job Centre official who is pedantically dismissive of his attempts to fulfil his job seeking requirements. Otherwise, the Job Centre and DWP officials range between trying to be as helpful as they can within the parameters of their job and just stoically trying to enforce the rules they have no discretion to over-ride. Elsewhere, people are caring. Dan’s neighbour offers to do whatever he can to help when he sees Dan selling all his furniture. His former boss offers to help him do his shopping and invites him to come out with his former colleagues. The manager of a garden centre wants to offer him a job. Even the furniture dealer who gives a pitiful £200 for the contents of his flat, right down to the carpets, is appreciative of the carved wooden mobiles he’s made and would buy them “for good money”.

But if it is only intended as a source of confirmation bias for those whose contact with the poorest in society is being their representatives rather than their peers, it won’t have any effect. It needs to persuade and shame those who are responsible for the wrongs it seeks to expose, as Loach’s first film, Cathy Come Home did 50 years ago. Otherwise it merely ends up treating its subjects as instruments for a particular agenda rather than people with dignity and self-respect (which is the final message which Daniel Blake wants to get across to the bureaucracy that so frustrates him through the film). An interesting blog from a former benefits adviser sets out why he wouldn’t watch the film. Some are beyond persuasion and focused on quibbles about accuracy while admitting no knowledge – Toby Young being the most egregious (but egregiousness is his raison d’etre). I hope not to fall into that category. Such criticisms are weak because it is a work of fiction based on reality, rather than a documentary. It is intending to make a point about this aspect of society generally rather than specific points about a particular instance: there are many things which Katie and Dan could do differently and perhaps which in real life would lead to different, happier outcomes, but what they actually do does not generally seem too implausible.

In fact, I think the doing of plausible, reasonable but self-defeating things by the main characters is what gives the film much of its realism. That’s why we watch or listen to soap operas – of course, from the outside, the decisions the characters make, make us shout at the telly or the radio “No! You can’t go and hide the body, just go and explain to the police straightaway that it was an accident”. So it is easy to watch I, Daniel Blake and say that a good piece of advice when dealing with any bureaucratic process is just to quietly grit your teeth and do precisely what it asks of you if you need it. The people in the Job Centre and the people in the DWP call centre, and their managers, can’t do anything different so there’s no point in pushing back against them, even if it is sorely tempting.

But, while that is reasonable advice in real life, that’s not what the film is about. My personal experience of unemployment and claiming Job Seekers’ Allowance was that staff wanted to help as much as they could but were disinclined to if people were abusive to them and things like punctuality and attendance, while petty in individual cases, were essential to make the system work. I got my signing on times mixed up once and had to explain myself to avoid being sanctioned – but, as I was fortunately not relying on the JSA money to eat was able to do so without it being undermined by the fear of failure. Many others will not be so fortunate. There was little they could do to assist in my job search and they understood that the online portal wasn’t going to be very helpful so they didn’t waste their time trying to challenge my compliance. Meanwhile I overheard their advisers giving more detailed and sensitive job seeking support to other claimants who were obviously trying but somewhat clueless than I’ve ever had from a careers adviser or recruitment consultant.

Where the film seems to come out is in a cry for there to be no bureaucratic decision-making about people’s entitlements as citizens. It is self-evident to viewers of the film that Dan and Katie are decent people who just want a roof over their heads and enough to allow them to heat and light their homes and to feed themselves and those they are responsible for. That there is a system to which this is not self-evident so that those in need have to evidence that need seems to be the real cruelty. If your doctor has said you’re not fit to work, why isn’t that the end of the matter?

 What the film, surprisingly, isn’t is a critique of “austerity” – apart from some throwaway references to Bedroom Tax, which can’t have applied to Dan – but of the process for getting what is due. The film is very good at showing how difficult it is for any bureaucratic system to function and that there is an inherent tension between people in dire need of support, who will quite normally be sometimes unable to detach their desperation from their way of dealing with the system, and the officials who have to administer the system. That tension is not there when the people giving the support are the ones whose resources are being used – so the food bank volunteer who witnesses the heartbreaking scene of a starving Katie cramming cold beans from the can into her mouth can go and offer a meal and a drink. Similarly, the manager of the shop Katie steals sanitary towels from can let her off because he can make good the shortfall in the takings. But it is hard to see how we could plausibly give such discretion to civil servants because it is not their money they are dispensing. While it is the opposite of what Loach intended, Mark Littlewood of the Institute of Economic Affairs’ take that the film is a libertarian rant against the welfare state has some strength to it.

So, what could be done to address the points raised by the film? One approach might be the libertarian one of cutting the state out because the tension between bureaucracy and compassion cannot be resolved. But that seems to me to be far too extreme. While the social networks around Dan are very strong (and he extends its reach to support Katie, Daisy and Dylan) and delivery of support by charitable work like the food bank show how local care can be more sensitive than the state, I’m always left with the questions, “but what if there aren’t enough charitable people, donors and volunteers, what if like Katie, you don’t know anyone who can help?”.

An alternative might be some form of universal basic income (UBI) which would require nothing more than identifying yourself as Daniel Blake’s final statement suggests “as a citizen”. The problems with this are that it is hard to see how it could be set at a high enough level to look after both Dan and Katie whose needs are very different, while being affordable. If there are roughly 40 million working age adults in Britain and a UBI were set at £10,000 a year, that would cost £400bn. That is well over double the current welfare budget excluding pensions and child benefits. It would equate to providing everybody with benefits at the level of the current welfare cap, which would be a large windfall needing to be recouped by taxation from the majority of the population while not providing a single extra penny to the very poorest who currently qualify for the highest level of welfare. Of course, it could be tweaked to address specific needs but then you are right back where we started of having a system which required those in need to provide evidence of that need.

So, maybe a more modest proposal would be to give greater flexibility and discretion to DWP staff. This is probably more difficult than it sounds. At the level of the film, it would be easy to encourage more officials to be like Ann, who offered Dan a glass of water when he looked unwell after standing up for Katie and helped him to complete the online JSA application. One of the other complaints voiced by Dan was about how everything was becoming “digital by default” rather than letting him speak to a human being or fill in a form and it would be possible to go back from having more things being principally and preferentially accessible online. Although as more and more people of all ages are becoming comfortable with using computers this is probably really only a plea to slow down the penetration of digital access to services when there’s an argument that all that is needed is to make digital access easier to navigate. Giving more real discretion is much harder while there are limits to entitlements and eligibility but relaxing some process steps, like orally going through what has already been filled out in writing as in the film’s first scene would be possible.

While the idea of relying more on people’s doctors rather than DWP assessors regardless of qualification has an appeal, I wonder whether that would be a good idea or attractive to doctors. It would have the effect of making clinical decisions, which ought to be made for clinical reasons also be definitive welfare benefits decisions. There is a difference between advising someone that it would be better for their health not to work and saying that they must certain benefits. While the finale of the film might have been an illustration of Spike Milligan’s proposed tombstone inscription (“I told you I was ill”) an odd thing for me was that Dan showed through the film that he was very capable of working. He walked for miles around Newcastle, did lots of DIY jobs around the house to help Katie, carved ornaments and built furniture to replace the furniture he sold when he dropped his JSA claim. Would it have been better for his health not to have done any of this? Would there be no work he could do that was no more physically and mentally onerous? The advice of his doctors did not seem to be this nuanced and to address the gap between being capable of working in some sense and it being advisable not to work. Would it be a good idea for medical diagnoses to be dependent upon the financial situation of the patient so that they might advise a wealthy person who had no need of work that they should rest, but to tell those who were poor but capable of some work that they should work? Or vice versa. If that is an intolerable decision to place in the hands of DWP, why isn’t it intolerable to make your GP tailor her diagnoses to your wealth?

I, Daniel Blake is a good film. It is a welcome counterbalance to the myriad sensationalist TV programmes about benefit claimants (although a recent episode of C5’s “On Benefits: Spend it Like Beckham” was unintentionally more depressing than I, Daniel Blake with the real world example of a tone deaf young woman believing her future lay as a singer and spending all her benefits money on recording a song or the massively obese man spending his benefits on cosmetic surgery to make him look like Beckham). It is sad that we need reminding that it is much more typical that those relying on benefits are ordinary people who have not chosen that life and would love to escape it than that they are scroungers laughing at the life of ease the taxpayer is mug enough to afford them, but we do. That awareness is perhaps the best legacy the film can have as there is nothing very much in the film to provide solutions to the systemic issues it is arguing against. Those will have to come from people more willing to grapple with the difficulty of setting humanising a state bureaucracy effectively in practice.