Thursday, 15 May 2014

The Crook, the Bees, their Hive & its Haters (a fable)

The bees work day and night to make their honey, and they share it out fairly. No one takes a lot more than others, certainly not to the extent that anyone would be left to starve.

Along comes a crook.

He says he can strategically expand the market for honey and increase the returns on the bees’ labour. By which he means he will take 90% of the honey, sell it and keep all the proceeds as his profit. When the bees ask what they get from the deal, they are told they get to keep 10% of their honey, which apparently is more than the going rate at many hives now under the control of other crooks, or ‘owners’, as they prefer to call themselves.

Some of the bees ask if they should organise themselves to negotiate a better deal with the ‘owner’. Others cry out that the man doesn’t own anything, he’s just a crook and should be chased away. Quite a few bees, however, are not keen on either approach, and propose that if they work even harder, they may get to keep 11% of their honey.

As arguments ripple through the hive, a few angry bees that had been trained by the crook enter. They call themselves ‘true bees’ – a number of them even have it tattooed all over their bodies. They declare that true bees love the Great Bee in the sky, love the Yellow & Black Flag, & love freedom and enterprise. When asked what that’s supposed to mean, they reply that it means they should hate the smaller bees, hate bees with a darker complexion, hate bees with rainbow-colour wings, and pick on them all as much as possible.

“Why?” the bees ask.

“Because”, the ‘true bees’ explain, “they are a disgrace. They are to be blamed for everything. If you don’t get enough to eat, it’s their fault. If you haven’t got enough space to live, it’s their fault. Just sting the hell out of them, and you will feel a lot better.”

Some of the bees start to intimidate other bees, and find themselves filled with a sense of righteous elation. And they call themselves ‘true bees’ too.

But the majority of bees are disgusted by this behaviour. And when the crook cuts their share of their own honey down to 5%, they call for unity to oust the man.

Unfortunately, the crook has managed to direct more ‘true bees’ to defend his control over the hive. These creatures, bordering on derangement, now routinely attack other bees. They most viciously target those bees that try to point out that the real enemy is the crook.

In time, the hive continues to weaken through its growing divisions. It makes less and less honey. Eventually, the crook plans to set it on fire because it is worth more to him as a one-off cheap source of energy than an ‘unprofitable cost centre’.

At last, even the ‘true bees’ realise they have been duped, and uniting with other bees, turn their wrath on the crook.

But is it all too late?

[My thanks to Peter Greenaway’s for calling his film, ‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover’, otherwise this piece might have been titled ‘Honey, it’s all been stolen’.]

Thursday, 1 May 2014

All Quiet on the Voting Front?

Europeans and Americans have got a number of important elections coming up. Elections to the European Parliament in May; followed in November by midterm elections in America for Congress and many Governor posts; and barely six months on from that, we have the next general election in the UK. But while our forebears fought for the right to vote, many of our contemporaries across the EU and the US don’t seem to bother with voting at all.

In the 2010 general elections in the UK, nearly 35% of registered voters did not vote. Amongst 19-24 year olds, 44% have not even registered to vote. In the US, figures suggest that almost 58% of voters did not take part in the country’s last congressional elections. And compared with the elderly, young people today are 20% less likely to vote.

Why is this happening?

There are three main reasons and unless we deal with them, democracy will be completely hijacked by manipulators who capture public offices for their own gain, and leave everyone else much worse off.

First, too many people are falling into the trap of believing that all the main political parties are really the same. This is a product of callous politicians doing a good act of pretending to be caring, and caring politicians being too timid to show their radical stance. But the fact remains that some politicians are committed to improving people’s lives, and some have no compunction about hurting others so that they and their corporate sponsors can get richer still. And while there may not be the perfect party that will do everything we want, so long as one party can reduce the sufferings that would otherwise be perpetuated or even aggravated by another, then citizens ought to vote for them.

Secondly, most people have little idea about what political institutions do. Without adequate political education, they just don’t see how their lives will be affected by different people winning elections. Some ignore local authorities because they misunderstand their jurisdiction. Others pay no attention to inter-state bodies when these can substantially strengthen or remove the protection they have as workers, consumers and cross-border travellers. People need to know the possible consequences from different politicians winning each election.

Thirdly, we must be honest about the first-past-the-post system being a serious drawback. 10% of the people may favour a particular party and its policies, but instead of getting 10% of the seats, they get none. Furthermore, for people living in the multitude of safe seats, the entire contest is rendered irrelevant when the incumbent is almost certain to win. In the UK nearly 60% of the seats in the House of Commons are regarded as safe. And the problem is even worse in the US.

In the short term, efforts have to be concentrated in the marginals. Even if there is no point in casting a vote in one’s own constituency, one should help the party one supports by aiding campaign efforts in a marginal seat. In the long run, proportional representation needs to be brought in. Any party getting X% of the votes should get X% of the seats. As for the perennial claim that it would benefit extremist parties, either those parties are genuinely so dangerous that they should be banned, or else they are entitled to win political offices on the basis of the electoral support they get.

Ultimately, in politics – to adapt a saying – all it takes for evil to triumph is if good citizens stay quiet on the voting front.

(For a dystopian vision of a dying democracy, take a look at: Whitehall through the Looking Glass)