Sunday, 24 May 2009

Are you a puppet on a string?

I took this picture in Nottingham's Old Market Square a couple of weeks ago. At a first glance it looks like a fun image. On reflection I came to the conclusion that the puppet is symbolic of something more sinister. The puppet is us in so many ways. 'Don't be daft' I hear you say, but just how in charge of things do you feel? And if you're not in charge, why is that? The answer is that somewhere, someone else, often close by, is pulling the strings.

This is especially true when it comes to politics — which is what makes the present crisis in our national politics so interesting. For a few brief days, weeks at most, the political class has lost it. Thursday week's (4 June) Euro elections will be an important test for the present political system. Just how many of us will switch from supporting one of the three mainstream parties in England to one of the minor parties? I say 'us' because I include myself in this.

The Euro election is being fought by political parties on national issues, so it will be a test of our attitudes towards national matters – not Europe. For only the second time since I first voted Labour in an election in 1968 (I had to wait until I was nearly 24 before I got my first chance to vote), I will be voting for another party. I will be voting for the Green Party, along with a good few other people I know who normally vote Labour, including other Labour Party members. Why? The answer is a whole number of things. Most important is my desire to see the political system changed, so that ordinary people have more control over the political system: four year fixed term parliaments, proportional representation, more powers to local government and local people, the replacement of the House of Lords by a 100% elected second chamber, MPs salaries related to the average wage in some way and a fair expenses system covering accommodation and office costs

There are rumblings among senior figures on the Labour side that they, too, want 'constitutional' change in support of the kind of system some of us have been advocating for years. However, Labour got elected in 1997 promising a constitutional review and Blair even appointed Roy Jenkins to come up with recommendations — which he did — only to ignore them. Labour politicians have had the last twelve years to tackle this issue and have gone back on promises and ignored votes in the House of Commons in favour of 100% elected House of Lords. To be honest, I do not trust Labour to deliver when it comes to changing the voting system, empowering local government again and creating a wholly elected second chamber (assuming that we would still need one if the House of Commons is radically reformed).

I have just heard Alan Johnson on the radio arguing for a referendum on election reform on the same day as the next general election, suggesting Roy Jenkin's proposals as a starting point. I like the idea of a referendum, but will believe it when I see it. One thing I am sure about is that I do not want a voting system which enables political parties to decide who gets elected. The list system used in the Euro elections is deeply flawed, as it enables parties to rank their list to ensure their 'top' candidate is elected, regardless of what voters may want.

Confirmation that I was making the right decision came when I got Labour's Euro election address a couple of days ago. The leaflet attacks the Lib Dems not once, but twice, because they want 'to end jail sentences for drug possession, want to legalise the sale of cannabis, and would never lock up young people who are convicted of breaching as ASBO', then boasts about 'Labour's measures for tougher penalties and punishments for offenders'. This is not the Labour Party I joined or have supported for the past 49 years. I favour the legalisation of drugs in the absence of legislation to outlaw alcohol and tobacco. Nor do I support the imprisonment of drug 'mules' or couriers who do it because they are stupid or have been threatened in some way. In a recent high profile case, the cricketer Chris Lewis was sentenced to 13 years for trying to smuggle cocaine into the country. What a waste of a life and of public money. Behaving stupidly does not make you a criminal — a view shared now, I suspect, by a great many MPs.

Having confessed all, I hope that this OAP will be humoured and tolerated, rather that admonished, and that those who would be critical of my action will take time to reflect on the situation we all find ourselves in. As puppets get older, if they are not properly looked after, their strings can become frayed and will sometimes break and the puppeteer will lose partial control, if not complete control. I have only been 65 for a week, but I am already finding it a liberating experience.

The government must embark on a major programme of constitutionaal reform to address public disillusionment with politics in the wake of the MP's expenses crisis, according to Ed Miliband, one of Gordon Brown's most influential cabinet allies.

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