Whether you are #YEStoAV, #NOtoAV or simply #MEHtoAV: there is no denying that the current system is in urgent need of reform.  Crucially, it will be ‘reform’ not ‘revolution’.  It is certainly something that the ‘conservative’ Whig Edmund Burke would understand.  The referendum on the Alternative Vote was agreed as part of the Conservative- Liberal Democrat Coalition Agreement 2010.  Under the current First Past the Post (‘FPTP’) system, you only get one choice, and as a result most MPs, 2 out of 3, of those elected in 2010, get to Parliament with less than half the voters on their side.  This is hardly a mandate to be decision makers and our representatives.  In contrast, with AV successful candidates have to do more in order to secure majority support.

So, why should there be electoral reform?  Under the current FPTP half of the seats in the UK are effectively safe, and are unlikely to ever change hands.  It is ridiculous for a single MP to have a secure seat for life, as it results to complacency and taking the voters for granted, clearly reflected in the MPs’ expenses scandal.  This goes a long way in explaining why there is so much voter apathy, and many people I speak to say that there is no point in voting, as their vote never counts.  In some seats, 7 out of every 10 voters wanted other candidates, but their views are ignored.  It is imperative that there is a constituency link, and that voters feel that they have a connection with their MP.  It is traditionally held that FPTP delivers strong governments although in the 1950s, 1960s and 1990s single party governments were not effective in governing alone.  Also, hung parliament was delivered under it in 1910, 1929, 1974 and 2010.  The most popular debate argument used is that FPTP offers a protection against extremism.  This is simply not true, and in town halls across Britain, BNP councillors have won power despite being opposed by the vast majority of mainstream voters.

These inadequacies with our electoral system must stop.  Yet many people are hostile to the idea of change, so what exactly is ‘AV’?  The Yes to fairer votes website explains that ‘It’s simple. The small change to the Alternative Vote (‘AV’) just means swapping the ‘X’ on your ballot paper for numbers. You can rate the candidates how you see fit, and so if your favourite doesn’t win, you can still have a say…. It’s as easy as 1, 2, 3…’  Importantly, not all candidates have to be ranked on the ballot paper: we will still be free to just place one ‘X’ by the candidate we think most suitable.

But why exactly is AV a better system?  First of all, the elected MP is more representative of the community, as they will have 50+% of the vote.  It will mean candidates will have to work much harder for your vote and MPs will definitely be more accountable. This very fact will mean voters will get more involved in elections, as they will feel as though their voice will make a difference.  It is a voting opportunity that will offer the chance of an honest vote, and the electorate will not feel as though they have to engage in tactical voting.

There are a few myths about AV that the ‘No’ camps have been propagating.  These need to be addressed.  Firstly, the implementation of AV will not cost £250.  This number has been plucked out of thin air.  Also, they obviously do not understand how government spending works.  The cost will be taken out of the relevant departments that run elections.  Also, AV is not far too confusing.  The British electorate do not need to be patronised.  All the voter has to do is rank the candidates, order of preference.  And this is how people voted in the London Mayoral elections.  The argument that AV helps the BNP is not true.  In fact, the BNP have already called on their supporters to back a ‘No’ vote. Currently as MPs can get elected with support from less than 1 in 3 voters, there is always a risk that extremist parties can get in.  In addition, if people say that no one uses AV, this is not true.  It is a tried and tested system.  In Britain, millions of people, charities, and trade unions already use it.  MPs themselves use it to elect their speakers and their officials, and political parties use it to elect their leaders.  The referendum is on 5 May: this is our chance to get some more accountability from politicians.

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image from London Museum

London is a shameful tale of two cities.

Whilst wandering around the London Museum, I was drawn to a simple poster bearing the legend: ‘Waiting for the Living Wage.’  This 1913 poster, designed by suffragist activist Catherine Courtauld, refers to the oppressive situation of powerless women employed as ‘sweated labour’. This poster is poignant and the parallels with the inequality we see in the workplace in London 2011, are striking.  Why do we have such a gulf between the rich and poor within this city?  ‘The Dispossessed’ campaign of the London Evening Standard has exposed shocking tales of poverty in our City, including unmarked communal cemeteries with four to a grave, revealing that 650,000 children in London live in poverty and how a teenage boy couldn’t apply to university because he couldn’t even afford the UCAS registration fee.  It’s simply not sufficient for an employee on minimum wage of £5.93 to get by in London.  How is it that men and women can be living in London today, and still be working in exploitative conditions?  This ought to belong to a Dickensian tale, not reality.

Grass-roots change

But people are organising and are doing something about this.  It is not right that cleaners at an international bank struggle to put food on the table, whilst the bankers gain millions in bonuses.  The Citizen UK’s Living Wage campaign began in 2001, when a group of East End residents launched a ‘listening campaign’, speaking to thousands of local people about what they wanted to see change in their community.  The same concern was raised repeatedly- that the demands of working life made it impossible for parents to spend the time they would like with their children and families.  The reason? The minimum wage was simply not enough to live on and parents were often forced to work two jobs just to make ends meet.  So, 1000 local people came together and voted to launch a campaign calling on employers to recognise their responsibility to end poverty pay.  In 2011, this campaign has lifted out 8000 working families out of poverty and has put £50 million into the pockets of working poor.

What is the living wage?

The London Living Wage is the hourly rate of pay that the Living Wage Unit at the Greater London Authority calculates each year.  Currently, the rate is £7.85 per hour.  It takes account the higher cost of living in the capital and the rate of inflation, which is needed to pay someone to allow them an acceptable standard of living above the poverty threshold.  According to the GLA Economics, it is “a wage [that] achieves an adequate level of warmth and shelter, a healthy palatable diet, social integration and avoidance of chronic stress for earners and their dependents.”  Significantly, leading organisations like KPMG, Barclays, HSBC, the Olympic Authority have gone Living Wage and have become influential advocates.  Academic research shows that it makes good business sense and increases productivity.

Politicians realise the momentum this cause has.  Support for the Living Wage Campaign was a key component of Ed Miliband’s Labour Leadership campaign.  On 15th January, Ed Miliband discussed at length in his keynote speech to the Fabian Annual Conference of his desire to implement the Living Wage, receiving rapacious applause.  The Tories are also getting in on the act.  Boris Johnson has long endorsed this campaign explaining, ‘I look forward to the day when we can say that no Londoner is paid less than the living wage.  During Citizen UK’s General Election 3rd May Assembly, David Cameron said of the Living Wage, ‘An idea whose time has come’.  This begs the question, why haven’t they done more then?

KCL: still not paying the Living Wage

The symbolic aspect of the Living Wage campaign is that it formed at a grass-roots level, and is a perfect example of ordinary citizens contributing towards the good society.  Most notable has been successful campaigns across Universities, including: Queen Mary; LSE; SOAS; Birkbeck; Goldsmiths; Institute of Education and more recently UCL and University of East London, being part of the Living Wage Paying Community.  This is the ‘Big Society’ in action.  This can be seen in the example of our very own Living Wage campaign at King’s College London.  Since 2008, members of the KCL community including students, academic staff and cleaners have been organising and pushing for its implementation.  I interviewed Diego, an ex-cleaner of KCL.  His story of how he managed moved me very much.  He explained that whilst working at KCL he had to take two jobs just to pay the bills.  He lived on the other side of London, but because he could not afford to pay for a tube, he had to get a bus that took double the journey time.  Despite having two jobs, waking up at 6 am and getting home at midnight every day, it was not enough for him to even buy a coffee.  His most powerful comment was that, ‘I’m not living, but surviving in London’.  Since leaving KCL his life has changed.  Diego now works for TFL and gets a significantly higher salary, enabling him to study English at college in the evenings.  Stories like this shows why we at KCL have such a high staff turn-over rate.  This is counter-productive.

We are trying to change this, and support all those that belong to the KCL community.  Petitions have been signed, campaign films have been produced and meetings have been held.  At last, on 13 December 2010 an announcement on the College Council’s website announced its decision:

‘At its meeting on 30 November, the Council of King’s College London endorsed a proposal for the College to work with providers of its outsourced services towards implementing the London Living Wage among their staff.’

This is clearly a significant step, and a proposal to work towards it is welcome.  Yet there is still much to do.  The fact is that in 2011, we are still waiting for a Living Wage.  To have people within the KCL community on inadequate wages goes against the College commitment of ethical business.  It’s important for us as members of a community to rectify the injustice that we see.  And the fact that UCL could commit to be a Living Wage employer before KCL means that this cause is even more urgent. This poster shows that a campaign for a Living Wage has existed much longer than most people have thought, and that it has as much relevance now as it did in 1913.

I am proud that I marched on 10th November 2010.  I was a part of the 52,000 students from across the country that showed how we stand in solidarity against the coalition government’s cuts.  People were angry.  Off course.  People did shout ‘Tory scum’.  F*ck the fees was written on placards.  The truth is the protest was not hijacked.  Most of the students that filled the foyer and the roof of Millbank were not anarchists, they distinguished themselves from those that were involved in violence and booed the idiot that threw the fire extinguisher off the roof.  But no matter how much the media has dictated the discourse of the protest by focusing on the broken windows at 30 Millbank, the main message is loud and clear: ‘No ifs.  No buts. No education cuts.’

There was gross sensationalism and misrepresentation from the media.  How many protestors were even aware with what was happening at Tory HQ (which, by the way, is owned by the Reuben brothers, prominent party donors whose fortune totals £5 billion)?   Images of students portrayed as violent ravenous orcs, that image of a masked man kicking at one of those glass plate windows and confronting policemen was constantly shown as breaking news on the 24 hour rolling news channels, and splashed on the covers of newspapers.  It was the issue of debate on every radio show.  The worst was on Newsnight, in which Paxman interviewed both Aaron Porter (President of NUS who condemned what had happened) and Claire Solomon (President of ULU, who had actually marched into Millbank) and focused completely on the ‘affirmative action’.  The next day the London Student sent out a poll asking students whether they agreed with the actions of Claire Solomon- it seemed as though this was becoming a witch hunt.  There was absolute outrage that Goldsmith’s congratulated students.  Students were being forced to align themselves in which camp they were in, the peaceful protestors or the violent ones.  This was all divisive, and shifted the focus away from the crux of the matter.

 

Emmeline Pankhurst said that, “There is something that governments care for more than human life and that is the security of property.”  The fact that no one is questioning how the government will smash up the future of so many is perhaps a reflection of this.  Yet, the boys of the Bullingdon Club are used to smashing up things and getting away with it.  What did we expect?

But, the fight is not over.  The NUS have not recoiled, but have launched the ‘Right to Recall’ campaign.  Despite Nick Clegg’s comments in his Hugo Young lecture on the 23rd November, ‘I know that more protests are planned by students tomorrow. I make just one request of those planning to protest: examine our proposals before taking to the streets. Listen and look before you march and shout’ – students still have the bottle to respond.

Emotional intelligence: the most Machiavellian trait?

This is a time of new politics.  A time when politicians are tying their belts tighter.  Politicians of different parties are coming together for the national interest.  This is a time when politicians will actually listen to the public.  ‘We’re all in this together’. ‘A new generation for change’…  Oh come on: get real.

A politician’s perceived ability to relate and empathise is important to the media.  Although we seem to be in an era of X-factor politics, emotional intelligence is as helpful as a wilted wallflower in the grand scheme of things.  Emotional intelligence takes a politician nowhere in the day-to-day running of this county.

We are all political animals, and we use whatever skill we may possess to win our battles.  Thus, having a strategic mind is most important.  Telling people what they want to hear is clearly an election winner.  It seems as though change is the watchword of the moment:  Barack Obama’s ‘Change we can believe in’, David Cameron’s ‘Vote for change’, Nick Clegg’s ‘Change that works for you’, David Miliband’s ‘Movement for change’, Ed Miliband’s ‘Call for change’…what a farce.  The same slogan has been regurgitated by every recent campaign, and people fall for it.  Politicians’s that depict themselves as understanding what people want are not demonstrating ‘emotional intelligence.’  It is clearly the oldest game in politicking, and it is a well-played and well-used political strategy.

Why else is there such a big deal made when a politician goes out of his way to get that photo shot of him kissing a baby?  Gladstone was dubbed the ‘People’s William’ because people thought they could relate to him: there is the familiar image of him, sleeves rolled up, with a shovel digging a hole.  Yet doesn’t this precisely show that politician’s do not have ordinary lives – I’m sure no-one takes photos of the ordinary Joe Bloggs whilst he’s working.  But off-course people fell for it, and they still do.

If anything, when a politician does show genuine signs of emotion, they are portrayed as weak or vulnerable.  Hilary Clinton infamously welled up whilst on her campaign trail.  She was asked, “How do you do it? How do you keep up … and who does your hair?”  She joked that she had help with her hair on “special days,” and that she drew criticism on the days she did not.  Her emotion was very visible when she explained, “I just don’t want to see us fall backward as a nation.”  Her voice was strained and she started to cry.  She continued with, “I mean, this is very personal for me. Not just political. I see what’s happening. We have to reverse it… It’s about our country. It’s about our kids’ future. It’s about all of us together. Some of us put ourselves out there and do this against some difficult odds.”  The right-wing press had a field day with this incident. ABC reported this moment by explaining, ‘Hillary Clinton publicly displayed the vulnerability and frustration those around her have talked about in recent weeks.’  Questions were raised: how can a woman that cries possibly be strong enough to lead a country?  Off course, this is absurd.  However, it demonstrates the fickleness of the media and the voters.  People want their politicians to empathise with them.  Yet when they genuinely do, it is a sign of weakness.

What really concern voters are politicians that can get the job done.  Nick Clegg became the country’s darling during the television debates.  His poll ratings were high.  Newspapers backed him.  What did it translate to? 57 seats out of 650.  Despite the cuts to benefits that the Conservatives announced and the outrage from the right-wing press (Daily Mail ran with headlines, ‘Now 230,000 MORE families will be hit by child benefit axe’), a YouGov poll demonstrated that 83% of those polled backed the Tories’ Child Benefit Cuts.  This clearly substantiates that the ability to show that tough decisions are being taken is a strength.  Ruthless sentiments and a ‘tough luck’ attitude may be infuriating, but at the same time is demonstrating that the government is taking action.  Dressing decisions as ‘medicine that is required’ is a skill in itself.  Giving people the perception that decisions are based on common sense and rationale is more important than to just appeal to their emotions.  So, in actual fact, emotional intelligence is not the most important asset a politician has.  The political knowhow of making people believe that it is or is not is the real skill.


As the newly elected Leader of the Opposition prepares for his first stint at Prime Minister’s questions, will the youngest Labour leader since World War II be the conviction politician that he presented himself to be during the Labour Leadership contest.

During the last four-months, Ed Miliband strategically defined himself against the front-runner of the leadership contest, his brother David.  David Miliband had occupied the centre ground.  So the only place Ed could go and pitch his tent was to the left.    He was bold when he said in an interview with the Guardian, “I think some people in the labour party are stuck in the New Labour comfort zone and think let’s just repeat the formulae of the past and that it’s going to win us the election.”  This certainly incensed militant Blairites.  But what else did they expect from the person they dubbed “the emissary from Planet F***?  New Labour has passed its sell by date: proven on May 6th 2010.

He was right to be humble and acknowledge that his party, in government for thirteen years, made mistakes.  He was right to admit that Labour got it wrong with ID cards, with 90 days, and to say that the Iraq War was a mistake.  It is farcical not to admit these mistakes: labour lost 5 million voters between 1997 and 2010.  However, it is not that simple Mr. Miliband.  You voted for 90 days.  You voted for 42 days detention.  You voted for ID cards.  You voted against an investigation into the Iraq war.  It takes more to be a conviction politician than to just say what sounds right.

He has started well. During the Labour conference, a new member joined every minute after Ed Miliband’s acceptance speech on Saturday 25th September.  For the first time in years, Labour’s ratings in the YouGov voting intentions poll surpassed that of the Conservatives, to 40 per cent.  He looked relaxed and did well in his first TV interview as leader on The Andrew Marr Show, especially when he coolly rejected claims that he was under the thumb of the Unions with, “I’m nobody’s man, I’m my own man.”  He was decisive in the way he replaced Chief Whip Nick Brown almost immediately with Rosie Winterton, demonstrating a fresh start.

But the truth is, the public do not know much about him.  Currently the Tories are painting him as ‘yesterday’s man’, backed by Kinnock and the Unions.  (Come off it.  In fact, he may tack right in order to prove this wrong.)  He was silent during the Conservative party Conference, on a week when it was announced that there will be a capping of benefits, an end to universal Child Benefit and the introduction of a married couples tax break.  This silence looked hesitant, not strategic.  He needs to be vocal and stand up for his values now.

Yet, he has done well to instil a lot of optimism to rally the ‘new generation’ behind him.  Peter Hain explained how, ‘Ed’s the unfinished article’ and ‘that’s great…You’ll see how he grows.’  He has done much to increase awareness of the Living Wage campaign.  He lacks the New Labour instinct for spin and sound bites. This is positive; it makes him seem more genuine and perhaps will facilitate a different kind of politics.  He has the ability to speak passionately, leaving the impression that he sincerely believes what he says.  He takes the time to explain.  When I asked Ed Miliband what he would do to address Labour’s erosion of civil liberties, he genuinely sympathised and explained in length that he will push for policies to protect civil liberties.  When I pressed him further and asked him how people could be certain to trust him and that he really would change things, he said, “You have my word.”  I think he gets it.

 

You would think that with the increase in tuition fees, travel costs and high levels of redundancy, students would be the first ones at the polling stations.  It is hardly unreasonable to claim that KCL students have every right to express their wrath with regards to the MP’s expenses scandal.  How many normal people would be able to claim for the expenses of clearing a moat, as Douglas Hogg did?  What ordinary Joe Blog would be petulant enough to make a ridiculous claim for a duck house or Hobnobs?  Whilst the Government bails out the bankers, universities are forced to make cuts.  KCL students in particular ought to know what this means- just talk to any student or staff from the engineering department.  However, despite all of this, there is political apathy and lack of student activism, with regards to the Strand Campus in particular, which I find disconcerting.  We had the student elections a couple of weeks ago: how many people bothered to vote?  In fact, I am not aware that anyone handed me a leaflet to vote for them, I don’t recall anyone with badges or rosettes and megaphones.  In fact, were there any hustings or a platform for us to actually engage and question candidates over their manifestos?  Of course, there have been fantastic posters and campaigning via facebook and twitter.  I am fully aware that voting online has made the process far more practical.  Yet the worrying thing for me is that many students hardly care.

Perhaps this is because the British population as a whole are indifferent to politics.  The common reasoning being that ‘they are all the same’ anyway.  When we hear interviews that politicians give, like the infamous one by Sir Nicholas Winterton who claimed that MP’s had the right to claim for first class rail travel, because people in standard-class carriages were a ‘different type of people’ who would ‘peer over his shoulder’, it is not churlish of people to think that politicians are unrepresentative.  Being sceptical of politicians is a thoroughly British sentiment anyway: we’re all wandering how convenient it is that Samantha Cameron is pregnant during her husband’s election campaign, or how Gordon Brown became all sentimental in that Piers Morgan interview, and well, sceptical of Nick Clegg in general.

Nevertheless, it can be argued that there is so much at stake on May 6th.  Recent polls are close and there is a growing possibility of there being a hung parliament.  It is hard to miss the extra effort that the main parties are putting in to pull in the voters and sway the floater voters.  It won’t work, but it’s a good try.  Whether it’s the first American style television debates, or through the ‘alternative elections’ via twitter, Facebook and YouTube or the commentary on the frocks of the wives, it is impossible to ignore the elections.

So what I cannot fathom is why students are so indifferent?  This will be the first General Election that I will be voting in, as is the case for most undergraduates.  At the time of writing this, the main parties have announced their manifestos- all of which will probably affect us now or in the near future.  Surely that’s an incentive?

On the other hand, perhaps the student population have been made to be apathetic by the politicians themselves.  For how long should we endure those damned lies, broken promises, illegal wars…the list of deception goes on.  In addition, perhaps the rosy days of a vibrant and active student population are over.  Yes, we are no longer in the 1960’s and some of us need to part-time jobs, and simply do not have the time to go to meetings or campaign.  But if that is the case, that is a dire indictment of society.  It won’t resolve anything if we sit in a bubble and do nothing!  The youth are meant to be the movers and shakers and initiating change.  It was the youth in South Africa that challenged Apartheid in the Soweto uprising, June 16th 1976.  It was the students that made the first public protests against the Vietnam War.  And yes, at KCL we also have the capability to be active and make a stand against injustice, as was seen last year when students protested against the War in Gaza.

Earlier this year, I was in Chapters and a guy who wanted to be a student councillor asked me what issues are concerning me.  I explained that I was worried that there was not enough accountability- there ought to be frequent meetings with the Sabbatical Officers.  Annual General Meetings are not enough.  Students from different societies and clubs should be able to interact and engage more, so perhaps we ought to have stalls on a Wednesday afternoon in the car park to provide a vibrant atmosphere.  Also, there should be hustings.  His only response: ‘Oh, you know what hustings are?’  I think that sums it all.