Two cheers for technocracy

Who needs experts? The minimum wage was once an example of the triumph of technocracy, where decisions are delegated to experts to depoliticise them.

The Low Pay Commission was set up to balance competing priorities – increasing wages without creating too much unemployment. If you were a moderate who thought the minimum wage was a good way of boosting low wages, but recognised that it might also create unemployment, the LPC gave you a middle ground position. (For what it’s worth, I’m an extremist.)

That technocratic settlement also allowed politicians to, basically, safeguard against an ignorant public. By delegating decisions like this to experts, bad but politically popular policies could be avoided. Relatively well-informed politicians could avoid having to propose bad policies by depoliticising them.

Other examples of this include NICE’s responsibility for deciding which drugs the NHS should and shouldn’t provide, and the Browne Review that recommended student fees, which had cross-bench support. The old idea that “you can’t talk about immigration” comes from an informal version of this – everyone in power knew that people’s fears about the economics of immigration were bogus, so they were basically ignored.

But that technocratic settlement now looks dead. Labour has now made a specified increase to the minimum wage part of its electoral platform, following George Osborne’s lead earlier this year. That means that voters will have to choose not just between two rival theories about the minimum wage, but two competing sets of evidence about whether £7/hour or £8/hour is better, given a wage/unemployment trade-off.

Whether voters are self-interested or altruistic doesn’t really matter. A self-interested low wage worker would still need to know if a minimum wage increase would threaten her job; an altruistic voter would similarly need to know a lot about the economics of the minimum wage and the UK’s labour market to make a judgement about what level it should be.

And of course the minimum wage is just one of dozens, if not hundreds, of questions that political parties offer different answers to that voters have to make a judgement about.

In practice this does not happen. Voters are very uninformed about basic facts of politics, and are almost entirely ignorant about economics, which almost everyone would agree would be necessary to make the correct judgement about something like what the minimum wage level should be (even if they didn’t agree on which theories and evidence was relevant). Even the use of rules-of-thumb such as listening to a particular newspaper or think tank (ha) will suffer from the same problems.

Voters, then, face a nearly impossible task. Assuming they are bright, well-intentioned, and believed that it was important for them to cast their vote for the party that would have the best policies, they would have to amass an enormous amount of information to make the right decision on all the questions they, in voting, have to answer.

So voters are trapped. They cannot know what minimum wage rate is best any more than they can know what drugs the NHS should pay for. They are, empirically, very unaware of basic facts, but they would find it hard to overcome that even if they wanted to.

Does democracy make us free? Maybe, but it’s the freedom of a deaf-blind man – we can choose whatever policy we want, without any idea about what those policies will actually do. So, if the alternative is more direct democracy like this, maybe technocracy isn’t so bad.

The end of an auld West Lothian song

The Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond loves causing trouble (as many contemporaries of mine from the University of St Andrews relish as well). He must be grinning, because despite losing the independence referendum in Thursday, he has really put the Westminster politicians in a stew.

Before the vote, to buy off wavering Yes voters, all the main political parties in Westminster signed a pledge to give more powers to Scotland anyway. On Friday, UK Prime Minister David Cameron correctly declared that if Scotland was getting more power, then people in Wales, Northern Ireland – and particularly England, the only bit of the UK without devolved powers – would expect nothing short of the same.

He is right, even if that reality only made itself plain after the more-powers pledge had actually been signed. And having set the idea running, he realizes that he has to initiate a House of Commons vote on English devolution before the June 2015 UK general election.

Labour leader Ed Miliband is currently refusing to back any such plan, calling it a ‘back of the envelope constitutional change’. He has a point: Westminster politicians are remarkably cavalier about how they change the UK’s constitution. A small public company cannot change its rules just on a majority vote of the directors, so why should a large government be able to change its rules on a simple majority in Westminster? But his real concern is to ensure that the large number of Labour MPs that Scotland sends down to Westminster can still vote on everyone else’s business, the ‘West Lothian Question’.

The impish Alex Salmond will be chuckling at the stooshie he has created. Some say we should devolve powers down to the English cities and local authorities. Others say we need a proper English Parliament. A few talk about barring Scottish MPs from voting on English-only laws.

But devolution of power to the local authorities is a non-runner. We have been promised it for decades, but it has never really happened, and nobody trusts that it will now. As for an English Parliament – well, we have seen the expense of the Scottish one (the extravagant building alone cost ten times its original estimate) and its notoriously poor quality (stuffed, inevitably, with failed local councillors and superannuated MPs).

The simple solution to devolution, all those years ago, would have been to form English, Scottish and Welsh parliaments out of their respective Westminster MPs; and have them meet at Westminster in the mornings on their own country business, then together on UK business in the afternoon. Yes, there will be a few arguments about which matters are ‘UK’ and which are ‘English’. But the solution is costless, and without adding an extra tier of government, you get home-grown politicians of some quality deciding home-grown issues. It is the obvious solution for England. And the end of an auld West Lothian song.

What next after the Scotland referendum?

Within hours of the decisive NO to Scottish independence, UK markets started to recover. The pound rose, the stock market strengthened, and the Royal Bank of Scotland confirmed it would not be moving south as it had threatened. All are signs that confidence has been restored, now that the result has been settled.But there are going to be big changes, even with a NO vote. David Cameron, on the steps of Downing Street just after the result had been announced, declared that not only would Scotland be getting extra powers – something promised by all the main political parties – but that in fairness, Wales, Northern Ireland and indeed England could expect greater powers too. He did not mention the words ‘English Parliament’ but it is plain that the constitutional reshuffle that the referendum has provoked will see the West Lothian Question – the enigma of Scottish MPs voting on English issues in Westminster – finally settled.

Some say that the nationalist leader, Alex Salmond, has got what he really wanted – a continuation of subsidies from England, but the promise of more power for his Parliament in Edinburgh’s Holyrood. The truth is, he wants a lot more ‘devo max’ than the main parties are offering, with wide powers over taxation and spending.

And this is likely to happen quite fast. Former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown predicts there will be an official paper on new power-sharing arrangements in October. A White Paper, setting out the government’s proposals, will be published by St Andrew’s Day, at the end of November. A draft Scotland Act will be published by Burns Night, at the end of January 2015, though it will not make it through the legislative process until a new Westminster Parliament is elected in June 2015.

The three main parties, spooked by the apparently narrowing polls just before the vote, signed a pledge, all promising more devolution, in the hope of buying off a seemingly strengthening Yes vote. (In fact, the polls had been very consistent, forecasting a strong No vote, over 23 months. Perhaps the last minute narrowing was just Scottish electors trying to give the Westminster politicians a fright. Which worked.)

The Labour Party wants to give Holyrood power to vary income tax by 15p, meaning that the top 50p rate could be restored – something they dream of, but which would see quite a number of top Scottish executives quietly moving their domicile south. The Scottish Labour Party also wants to devolve attendance allowance (a benefit to carers of disabled people) and housing benefit (so it can scrap the so-called ‘bedroom tax’).

The Conservatives want income tax completely devolved, meaning that the Scottish Parliament would raise roughly 40% of its total budget through devolved taxes, and they would devolve housing benefits and attendance allowance too.

The LibDems want Scotland to have more power over income tax, inheritance tax and capital gains tax, to create a new ‘federal’ relationship between the nations of the UK, and to move the block grant from Westminster to Scotland on ‘needs based’ principles.

Alex Salmond, for his part, will be going into the negotiations demanding far more control over all taxes, and over welfare spending. However, that may not deliver the outcome he would prefer. One of the reasons why the Conservatives want to see income tax devolved is because they think it would change the debate in Scotland. At present, the only debate is how the block grant from Westminster should be spent. If there is a new question, of how much should be raised in taxation, and from whom, the debate changes and Scotland would at last have a genuine Opposition in the form of all those who think taxes are too high and the government too big. And government spending in Scotland is big – £12,300 a head, compared to £11,000 for the UK as a whole.But then, according to economist David B Smith, over two-thirds (69.1%) of what is spent in Scotland is government spending – meaning that the majority of Scottish electors are highly dependent upon big government staying big. Independence would have brought some hard choices about the size and cost of Scotland’s government. The No vote will produce only prolonged grumbling about it. The really interesting and sensational change, for constitution-watchers, will be what happens in England. The taxpayers of a more assertive English government are unlikely to do many favours to a high-spending Scotland. That could be Alex Salmond’s worst nightmare.

Compulsion doesn’t cure apathy

Australia boasts a 95% turnout rate every election season thanks to their adoption of compulsory voting in the 1920s. In Australia, refusing to show up to the polls – unless you can prove illness or an emergency to the state’s liking – results in a fine, up to $170. If that isn’t paid, a court hearing is the next step.

Advocates of compulsory voting point to high turnout numbers and claim the system ‘works’. But getting high voter turnout is not a good thing in and of itself. If high numbers are the result of engaged, politically interested people choosing to vote for on issues they care about, that’s great; that result will have stemmed from politicians taking to the streets and doing their jobs. But getting high percentages through coercion and threats of punishment isn’t something to boast about.

In September 2013, IPPR proposed that the UK make voting mandatory for first-time voters, to ensure they are registered to vote and to set them on a ‘good’ voting path for the future. Not only does the well-meaning proposal reeks of paternalism, but it is also the wrong way to get young people genuinely engaged in politics.

Many young people don’t feel they have a stake in political decisions, while others feel their opinions don’t carry weight within the parties. Couple that with making their first adult interaction with the state be one that’s compulsory, met with fines and courts, and you may just turn a potentially interested voter off for life.

But young people aren’t the only ones who feel abandoned by the political system. The integrity of democracy is breaking across western countries, as the political systems prioritize taking care of promises made to special interest groups, unions and corporations before they address the promises made to voters during the election season. Many feel voting has become a spectacle – just another occasion to glorify the state. And even if there is an option to spoil one’s vote, the state has still made people complicit in upholding a political system they may disagree with.

Those who would advocate for the Australian system and propose a compulsory vote on all adult citizens in the UK have carelessly forgotten that avoiding the ballot box in a check on government power.

Refusing to take part in what is thought to be a civic duty is an act of civil disobedience – and civil disobedience, especially when it is as thoughtful and safe as not showing up to the polls – is a health-meter for the state of the country’s political parties and political system as a whole.

The right to vote is the choice to vote – or not vote. That freedom must be upheld, both to provide a check on over-reaching governments, but also to act as a safeguard for individual liberty.

The People’s Republic of South Norwood

South Norwood, the unassuming splodge in the London Borough of Croydon is no more. Long live the People’s Republic of South Norwood! You may not have noticed, thanks to a concerted media blackout by The UK Establishment (though the WSJ did get wind), but last Friday was the day of the Great South Norwood Referendum and the dawn of a new Republic.

Inspired by the Scottish Independence movement and frustrated by the disdain with which local government treats the area, local heroes The South Norwood Tourist Board  held a (definitely absolutely legitimate and totally binding) referendum for the community: Should South Norwood remain with Croydon Council, unite with an Independent Scotland, or declare their independence? The public spoke, and voted to boot out their uncaring and overbearing masters to go it alone with a whopping 53% of the vote.

It’s hardly surprising that the downtrodden population of South Norwood had enough of Croydon Council, who have simultaneously ignored pleas to clean up and invigorate the area, whilst clamping down on displays of frivolity and fun. Notoriously, head of the Council’s Health and Safety outlawed plans for the community-led ‘Lake Naming Ceremony’, inspiring a crowd of revellers (and a gang of Morris Dancers) to hold an illegal event in subversive defiance. It will be written in history that the naming of Lake Conan Doyle sewed the seeds of secession.

Now that South Norwood has established its independence it faces a number of tough questions. What does this mean for its governance and security, its relationship with the UK, and its currency? Addressing these will be challenging, but there’s every indication that an independent South Norwood could thrive.

At first glance South Norwood is remarkably unremarkable. Long overlooked by pretty much everybody, it is yet to benefit from the gentrification of neighbouring Crystal Palace or the massive regeneration of Croydon town centre. Yet, with its blossoming community spirit (galvanized by the tireless tourist board), more lakes than the lake district, and a country park grown on top of an old sewer farm, its potential is undeniably huge.

Clearly, it is for the people of South Norwood to decide what shape their Republic takes. But as an ex-resident and dear friend of the area, I’ve outlined a few of the topics they need to address, and give a few suggestions on how to achieve a radical, yet roaringly successful Republic: (more…)