spiked-geist: Day 16

Roll up for the pensioners' auction; The University of Hot Air; Europe: neutering politics; The passive postal vote; Playing games with the youth vote; Fragmenting education; Vigilantes' Charter; Dogs R Us?

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Roll up for the pensioners’ auction

Social security secretary Alistair Darling yesterday issued the latest bribe to the Grey Vote: a balance sheet showing how much worse off the poorest pensioners would be under the Tories. Note that the spin is not how much better off the elderly will be under New Labour.

Under Labour, single pensioners can look forward to a weekly pension of £111.30 in 2005. Under the Tories, we are told, they would be £7.60 worse off than under Labour. Yet even under Labour, single pensioners will be less than £20 per week better off than they are now.

In 2005, under Labour, pensioner couples will be £31.35 better off than they are now – but these piddling amounts matter less, it seems, than the fact that they would be £13.80 per week worse off under the Tories.

Does anybody still think the political parties see pensioners as anything more than votes to be bought on the cheap? JB

Read on:

spiked-special: Election 2001 and the Grey Vote – it’s the numbers, stupid, by Jennie Bristow

Going for grey, by Phil Mullan

The University of Hot Air

Alan Milburn’s ‘University of the NHS’ offers ‘to help realise the potential of all one million NHS staff – from the hospital porter to the hospital consultant’. This degrades both the concept of the university and that of the health service.

A university used to be regarded as a place for scholarship and the development of ideas; under New Labour it is a place where students ‘acquire new skills and qualifications’. The health service used to have the role of making sick people well; under New Labour, the NHS keeps the sick waiting and waiting for inferior healthcare in increasingly squalid conditions.

It will be a great consolation to those waiting for hours in casualty, for months for an outpatient appointment, or years for surgery, to know that the potential of NHS staff is being realised through ‘face-to-face teaching and e-learning’. Instead of giving NHS workers the resources and letting them get on with their work, their jobs and conditions are being threatened by privatisation and their intelligence is insulted by dumbed-down training courses.

Welcome to the new NHS, a service that patronises its employees and fails its patients – all in the cause of New Labour’s electoral ambitions. MFi

Read on:

spiked-proposals: The NHS, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

Europe: neutering politics

At this morning’s Labour Party press conference, chancellor Gordon Brown tried to present Europe as a politically neutral issue at the same time as making it into a party political platform for the Labour Party. This was a difficult brief.

Brown depoliticises the question of the single currency by making it a question of the ‘Assessment of the five economic tests’ that he has invented. In around two years’ time, he and his cabinet colleagues will run these tests in a manner that ‘will be vigorous and complete’. If they are satisfied, they will go to parliament, and if parliament is satisfied the government will go to the British people for a referendum. Until that point, it is not ‘useful or fruitful to have a running commentary or debate’.

Rather than allowing public debate to influence the parameters of the Europe discussion now, the chancellor wants to keep within the technocratic bounds of his economic tests. For two years, the issue of the single currency will remain behind closed doors. By the time the British people get a chance to decide, the single currency will have ceased to be a political issue.

But right now Brown is in the middle of an election campaign, so he needs to present the issue of Europe as a political choice between the parties. ‘The divide is clear’, he said. Labour is ‘prepared to look at the issue in terms of national economic interest’, and the Tory Party is ‘split asunder’ by the issue. How can you have a clear divide when one of the parties is divided? Especially when the other party refuses to discuss the issue in public, so we don’t know if it is divided or not.

When will New Labour learn that it cannot have it both ways? It cannot make politics into a technocratic question of applying the right tests at the right time, and simultaneously appeal to people. It takes real, political choices to appeal to people – choices that must be fought out in open public debate. Perhaps somebody should tell Gordon Brown that democracy can be more than a series of sums. JA

Read on:

10 things I hate about EU, by Jennie Bristow

The passive postal vote

Could postal voting be the cure to voter apathy? New Labour seems to think so. Cabinet ministers have ‘expressed delight’ at the ‘huge surge in applications for postal votes in marginal Labour seats’. In Kettering, which Labour won by just 189 votes in 1997, the number of applications for postal votes rose from 800 in 1997 to 2000 today.

But what does the interest in postal voting say about the electorate’s role in politics today?

Voting by post wasn’t always popular. Over the past 10 years, about two million Britons living abroad were eligible to register their vote – but in 1991 only 34,000 registered, and in 2000 only 11,000 registered

There was a time when only very select groups of people could vote by post – members of the armed forces overseas, those working away from home in a foreign country, or the long-term sick who were physically unable to make it to the polling booth. But thanks to the Representation of the People Act 2000, now anybody can vote by post – from the terminally ill to those who just can’t be bothered to spend half an hour traipsing down to their local town hall.

New Labour has pulled out all the stops to encourage people to vote by post. A multimillion-pound information campaign was launched early in the election campaign, and the Home Office set up a ‘postal votes hotline’ to distribute the necessary forms – without any checks on identification. So according to The Times, ‘Homeless people can register a park bench as their address’.

It is not hard to see why New Labour is so keen on the postal vote today. At a time when people aren’t fired up about the election, making it easier for people to cast their ballot has its attractions. And out of all New Labour’s suggested schemes to encourage more people to vote – voting in shopping malls, voting by internet, etc – the postal vote is one idea that just might make a bit of a difference to the turnout.

But in the context of today’s anti-political mood, the interest in postal voting says something distinct about the relationship of voters to elections. When people are encouraged to vote by post, the act of voting becomes a bit like paying a bill or filling in the census – a duty that people feel they ought to carry out. ‘Paid the gas, paid the electric, voted in the general election, paid the phone bill.’ This is the passive vote, voting as a household chore – where deciding who should run the country sits alongside all those other forms and things we have to fill in and put in the post before we get the red-ink reminder.

Allowing everybody to vote by post might do something to up the turnout – but it won’t do much to make politics into something people feel passionate about. BON

Playing games with the youth vote

According to trade and industry secretary Stephen Byers, New Labour’s latest party election broadcast, in the style of a horror movie trailer, ‘puts across serious issues in an engaging way’.

The serious issues: as Gordon Brown said in a press conference this morning, the aim of the broadcast is to show ‘the effect of returning to the economic policies of the early 1990s’. The Tories today, like then, ‘have no fiscal discipline’ and have ‘irresponsible’ policies – these are the ‘ingredients’ for a repeat of boom-bust chaos.

An engaging way: a booming American voiceover tells viewers that the people running through the streets screaming are trying to escape from ‘the Tory shadow of disaster’, which is unleashing the ‘full force of its fiscal fury’. A subtitle gives the historical context: ‘Black Wednesday, 1992.’ A girl drops her pink teddybear as she runs, which gets trampled on by the stampeding feet. On Black Wednesday, nobody – not even teddybears – came away unscathed.

But hope is at hand. The sky clears, a relieved couple look up to hear, from the heavens, a comforting woman’s voice saying, ‘Vote Labour on 7 June’.

Stephen Byers claims that this advert has gone down well with voters, particularly young people, as it relates to their ‘culture’ – as if young people only understand the language of hip-hop and movies. Or perhaps the ‘serious issues’ that Labour is trying to get across are so coma-inducing that they need dressing up, beyond recognition, in a popular cultural form.

New Labour’s latest effort in this department is ‘Cut ‘n’ Run’, a computer game designed to get across the serious issue of Tory tax cuts to young voters (1). Based on the retro computer game Pacman, you go around the board eating up hospital beds and policemen’s helmets with a pair of scissors. When you eat up one of William Hague’s jabbering heads you can kill one of the groups of people running around screaming.

The idea that young people will be attracted by a game about tax cuts is almost as bizarre as the notion they will flock to play Pacman. Almost. JA

(1) Play Cut ‘N’ Run

Fragmenting education

As New Labour launches its education manifesto, ‘Realising the talent of all’, read this:

Fragmenting education, by Toby Marshall and Dave Perks

– In the USA today, in the UK tomorrow –

Vigilantes’ Charter

A judge in Corpus Christi, Texas, ordered 21 people convicted of sex offences to place signs at the front of their houses with the slogan, ‘Danger! Registered Sex Offender Lives Here’. They have also been forced to display bumper stickers on their cars saying, ‘Danger! Registered Sex Offender in Vehicle’. MFo

Dogs R Us?

A powerful lobby group is rising up on behalf of dogs’ rights. At a recent meeting in San Francisco, two parents had to be escorted out of a meeting by police for their own safety after they called for the enforcement of a law requiring dogs to be restrained by leashes in the 72,000-acre Golden Gate National Park.

Across the country, issues related to dogs’ rights have come to city halls, courtrooms and legislatures. City ordinances banning certain breeds of animals have been depicted as the equivalent of racial profiling; one survey showed that three quarters of pet owners see their pets as being akin to children; more than half a million dogs are covered by their own medical insurance policies; and while a $25,000 reward was offered after a child was kidnapped, nearly twice that amount was posted to find the killer of a dog.

As Ed Sayres, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in San Francisco, said, ‘As someone who advocates the humane treatment of animals, I have serious questions over what that says about our culture’. MFo

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