Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

A riposte to Russell Brand & a cheer for democracy

Monday, May 4th, 2015

There are only a few days before the General Election and I’m looking forward to casting my ballot. Democracy shouldn’t be taken for granted and the least any citizen can do is cast their vote. People have fought and died for such a freedom. As a woman, voting is something I certainly don’t take for granted as my gender has only been granted full citizenship in the last 1oo years.

Coincidentally, I just finished reading the wonderful Bernard Crick’s Essays on Citizenship for my PhD research.  In the conclusion he reminds us that the Ancient Greeks believed in a version of democracy that challenges even the best of what is on offer today. We could do worse than use this 5th century oration by Pericles as political inspiration:

“Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses.  No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty. And, just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in our relations with each other.  We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbor if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the kind of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people’s feelings.  We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law.  This is because it commands our deep respect…

Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well: even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics — this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.  We Athenians, in our own persons, take our decisions on policy or submit them to proper discussions: for we do not think that there is an incompatibility between words and deeds; the worst thing is to rush into action before the consequences have been property debated…

[from Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, translated by Rex Warner (New York: Penguin Classics, 1954)].

Article: Anger at the Ballot Box

Monday, January 20th, 2014

The Guardian
Saturday, December 28, 2013

We live in the digital age but our politics is still analogue. No wonder voters are disillusioned

Politics matters. It always has and always will. It has always been a sham to say that voters not voting is due to disinterest or boredom. Yesterday’s Guardian/ICM poll explains exactly what lies behind voter “apathy”. It is disillusionment. It is disengagement. More than anything it is anger.

That is the single word that respondents cited as the best description of how they feel about politics. Twenty-five per cent said “bored”, 16% “respectful” and just 2% “inspired”. Former minister Chloe Smith was right to highlight the generation divide developing in British politics between young and old, but there is also a wide perception – 46% of poll respondents – who believe “MPs are just on the take”, largely as a result of the MPs’ expenses scandal. As the person who forced MPs to digitise and publish their expenses, I fear that disengagement will get worse until politicians change their actions and not just their rhetoric.

The expenses scandal did nothing more than allow the public to see reality as it is, not the fairytale that was previously presented. Yet political institutions have failed to address the fundamental problems: the system remains elitist, centralised and secretive. Power is still an alibi for avoiding responsibility while the “little people” bear the brunt of ever more intrusive surveillance, on-the-spot fines, increasing laws and regulations.

Expectations for democracy are rising, not just in Britain but globally. People in countries around the world are demanding to have a say in the way power is exercised. To do that they need access to information because the adage that information is power is true. The democratisation of information is the second stage of the Enlightenment. It’s what I call the Information Enlightenment.

Increasingly, there are many decisions that must now be made as a whole planet – about climate, about resources, about financial systems. To make these decisions we need information. Lots of it. We have a financial system that is global and the relations complex. It’s the same with the environment. It is no longer possible for any one person or even one organisation to process all this information, especially if they’re doing so in a top-down, centralised, secretive hierarchy, as Whitehall does, for instance.

So across many sectors we’re seeing a move towards fully connected systems that are open, collaborative and share information. This is how the best decisions are made. However, there is one sector that resolutely refuses to adapt. Politics – the system by which power is organised and exercised. We would expect people’s changing expectations of power to be reflected in our democracies. Instead we have an analogue political system trying to deny the realities of the digital age. Officials still take the view that they know what’s best for the rest.

Democracies should be made up of an informed electorate but currently we have neither enough information nor a meaningful vote. Voting for our MPs and councillors once every five years isn’t enough – and people know it. The act of voting has been rendered decorative rather than functional.

One of the biggest problems is the selection process. In the current setup, people gain political power not through merit but most often because they have sucked up to the right powerful people. Deference and patronage still rule the day: politicians and public servants gain and maintain their power not by doing their jobs well, or even competently, but by staying in favour with those who appoint them.

This has to change. It is the people who give public servants their power and so it must be to the people to whom public servants are accountable. Directly and forthrightly – with no middlemen in between.

Manifesto for a New Democracy

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

I wrote this several years ago. It’s the last chapter of The Silent State but it’s remarkably relevent right now. I’ll be adding the manifesto points in the coming days.

Manifesto for a New Democracy
Who am I to put forward a manifesto? I’m not elected. I’m not accountable to any regulator. I’m just a freelance trouble- maker, a rabble-rouser, a nosey parker prying into the silent state, a writer with a love of novels that remind us just how close we are to realising their dystopian fears: Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Tyler Durden asks in Fight Club to be delivered from Swedish furniture; I ask only:

  • Deliver us from officious officials.
  • Deliver us from prying bureaucrats who refuse to be named.
  • Deliver us from arrogant MPs who feel entitled to pilfer the public purse.
  • In a democracy, everyone has a right to propose ideas and it is in the roiling competition of these ideas that the best become policy and the weakest fall by the wayside. I am not a politician. I can’t compel people to give me money to implement my world view. I can’t imprison, fine or smear if you don’t buy my book or agree with me. I can’t siphon off public cash to create a huge PR industry to peddle my propaganda. I have no power other than the facts I’ve put forward in this book and the belief that if these stories are compelling then they might persuade a few people that our current system isn’t acceptable. Things need to change. Here’s how:

    1) We should give no more power to the state without the state giving something to us.

    Before the state can keep a database of our identities, aggregate our DNA or gather any other intrusive personal information, it should acknowledge that these measures do nothing whatsoever to empower ordinary citizens. We do not need millions of CCTV cameras turning citizens into suspects, nor every child entered into a database.

    2) Name all public officials. These people work for us.

    The state should publish its entire staff directory so we can see, by name, who is doing what at taxpayer expense.
    Throughout this book I’ve used the real names of real people. If you’re going to tell a story then you need to focus on an individual with a name. It’s through individuals that we are best able to gain understanding. Yet individuality is precisely what is lacking from the state. A faceless wall of bureaucracy has been built up that alienates citizen from state. If public servants are truly working for the public then we need to know who they are. Wherever we see ‘facts’ followed by anonymous officials, we should be sceptical. There should be no power exercised without accountability, ending the domination of behind-the-scenes spin doctors and strategists.

    This will benefit bureaucracies too. Throughout public services there are professionals with all sorts of expertise, all kinds of information. They have concerns about what works and what doesn’t and good ideas for improvement. But in the current anonymised, hierarchical structure these people have no voice. They are not listened to nor trusted and if they dare speak directly to the public they are penalised and often prosecuted. In the end the silent state hurts many for the benefit of an elite few.

    More points to come…

    They’re at it again. MP expenses

    Sunday, October 21st, 2012

    You couldn’t make it up. While the UK Transparency twitter feed was sending out gushing messages about Cabinet Minister Francis Maude’s latest open government agenda, Speaker John Bercow, in cahoots with Tory MP Julian Lewis, was trying a rear-guard action to keep MPs’ expenses secret. 

    You’d have thought Bercow might remember how his predecessor was brought low due to his obstinate stance on publishing expenses. But no. They’re at it again. Even a High Court ruling isn’t getting in their way. In 2008, MPs argued against my freedom of information request to disclose the full details of their second home allowance and address. They claimed such disclosure would endanger them. They had no proof. Just their own paranoid narcissism. Three of the nation’s top judges ruled in my favour saying that public accountability required the claims and addresses be published. Now some MPs are trying to subvert that ruling by stealth. The new broom, it seems, still has some sweeping to do. 

    I had a few words to say about it on Sky News.

    Who’s laughing now: Lulzsec & census leak

    Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

    Update: Hacking collective Lulzsec have claimed the posting with their logo was not an ‘official’ hack by them but may have been the work of others getting on board their #AntiSec campaign. See

    Back in April I reported for the BBC’s Daily Politics show about the UK Census and why it was not only a waste of money as the data would already be outdated by the time it was useable, but also a security breach waiting to happen.

    Yesterday, Lulz Security (LulzSec) a hacking group who describe themselves as “the world’s leaders in high-quality entertainment at your expense”, apparently claimed to have committed such a security breach, with an announcement posted on Pastebin of the acquisition of records of “every single citizen” who filled in the Census form. The anonymous hackers claimed they would reformat the data and make it available via The Pirate Bay.

    Yesterday, LulzSec’s twitterfeed stated:

    “Your tax money is being used to pay for things to not be secured so that people like us can take what you expect to be kept inaccessible.”

    The group have previously released the X Factor contestants database and information from and on their website.

    The Met Police have confirmed reports that a 19-year-old they claim is one of the hackers behind LulzSec has been arrested in Wickford, Essex, though the group deny he was a leader.

    The Office for National Statistics issued a weasely and vague statement that reveals some of the technical incompetence of this government organization. It seems they don’t even know whether or not they’ve been hacked:

    We are aware of the suggestion that census data has been accessed. We are working with our security advisers and contractors to establish whether there is any substance to this. The 2011 Census places the highest priority on maintaining the security of personal data. At this stage we have no evidence to suggest that any such compromise has occurred.

    To re-state the obvious. The only way information is truly secure is to not keep it in the first place. The Census should only have collected the absolute minimum needed to perform its function and most of this data was already available to government. Creating a central database of all UK citizen’s personal data (including their religion, race and sexual orientation) has served only to provide a convenient one-stop shop for miners of our personal information.

    Surveillance: the other side of the lens

    Friday, June 17th, 2011

    Jacqui Thompson, a campaigner and blogger, was arrested last week by Dyfed Powys Police after she refused to stop filming a council meeting. She was angered by the way that members of Carmarthenshire Council had dismissed a petition (presented by elderly campaigners trying to save a local day centre) and decided to start recording the meeting on her phone. In her words, the reason for this was obvious: “People need to know what is going on in that Chamber.”

    Ms Thompson refused to leave; she was not disturbing the meeting in anyway, or breaking the law, or contravening the council’s standing orders. The police were called, four officers arrived and Ms Thompson was arrested for breaching the peace. She was taken to a police station 30 miles away and held in a cell for two hours. News of the arrest quickly made its way onto Twitter, where the discussion earned the hash tag #DaftArrest.

    The circumstances of the arrest were indeed daft. Legal blogger David Allen Green submitted several questions to the Dyfed Powys Police press office calling for an explanation as to why and under what circumstances Ms Thompson was arrested. Four days later an official response was emailed back and issued on their website. It was riddled with factual inaccuracies and gave no proper reason for the arrest itself (you can read David Allen Green’s full breakdown of the response here).

    Ms Thompson pointed out the real injustice when she said: “I can’t quite believe what happened to me for trying to film a public meeting.”

    Filming a public council meeting is not a breach of the peace, a fact that even the police attending the scene were confused over. The members of the council who called the police, including the Chair, were uncomfortable at being recorded when attending to issues of public concern, one of which being the petition signed by 1500 local residents. Jacqui Thompson’s arrest, as she puts it, is about the wider issues of local government transparency. Surveillance is power, but for ordinary citizens to be empowered is dangerous in the eyes of the council. Local authorities are clearly not happy to be on the other side of the lens.

    Two sides of online censorship

    Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

    Communications minister Ed Vaizey recently commented on the planned additions to the EU data protection directive saying changes need to be both “practical and proportionate”. The additions focus on the right to be forgotten online, particularly for users of social networking sites. That could require websites to delete data held about individuals and inform people how their personal information is handled.

    Vaizey says he’s concerned the directive could give people false expectations, saying: ‘No government can guarantee that photos shared with the world will be deleted by everyone when someone decides it’s time to forget.’ The minister is worried that implementing revisions could “stifle innovation”, although he doesn’t explain how allowing users to control their personal information could result in hindering international business development.

    Internet users do need more information about how their data is stored and used – and that should be readily provided by website owners – but giving individuals a right to delete personal data from the internet is obviously the more contentious point, perhaps stemming from an idea that people will use a right to be forgotten to edit personal history to the detriment of free speech.

    Interestingly, Vaizey is also one of the main players in the proposed ‘Great Firewall of Britain’, a self-regulatory scheme which would allow the government to block websites that music and film companies accuse of copyright infringement. Several civil liberties groups, including The Open Rights Group (ORG), have raised concerns that this could lead to a heavy-handed approach resulting in excessive legal claims and censorship of legitimate material.

    Jim Killock of ORG called this proposal a backdoor private arrangement between the government and rights-holders without the scrutiny that judges or a formal act of parliament would require. The democracy of the scheme is certainly called into question – who will decide which sites can be blocked and why? Who will oversee these decisions to make sure they are democratic? It seems that ISPs would be allowed to blacklist censored sights with no judicial review.

    Vaizey is concerned that implementing a right to be forgotten could stifle innovation. But the proposed firewall has been accused of leading to a situation where censorship could be done at will. The message seems to be that giving individuals the right to block or delete online is dangerous, while large corporations and the state can go right ahead.

    New surveillance code could ‘enhance’ CCTV

    Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

    The Home Office has released a consultation document outlining a code of practice that could require local authorities and police forces to reveal the locations of all CCTV and number plate recognition cameras on the auspices of addressing citizens’ concerns about state intrusion into private life.

    Surveillance cameras in privately owned areas such as car parks and shopping centres will not be covered but the Home Office “hopes” these organisations will see the benefits of adopting the code.

    Despite this apparent concern for state surveillance, if not private surveillance, the government is still working on higher resolution, discrete digital cameras with powerful zoom potential and 360 degree vision, which could be combined with facial recognition software in the future. The consultation states:

    Our approach to establishing a new regulatory framework is therefore intended to provide a means through which public confidence in CCTV, ANPR, and other such systems, is improved by ensuring that there is proper transparency and proportionality in their use. We also aim to ensure that the considerable investment in technologies such as CCTV yields worthwhile returns by ensuring that they are operated as efficiently and effectively as possible.

    Could it be this sudden interest in our civil liberties is less significant that ensuring ‘worthwhile returns’?

    Universities need to lift the lid on donations

    Friday, March 4th, 2011

    Sir Howard Davies resigned as director of the London School of Economics council last night due to controversial links between the LSE and Libyan money. An inquiry headed by Lord Woolf will now investigate the links between LSE and Gaddafi, including a £1.5 million donation from Saif Gaddafi – who was awarded a now-contested PhD by the university in 2008.

    In a statement Sir Howard said:

    The short point is that I am responsible for the School’s reputation, and that has suffered…There was nothing substantive to be ashamed of in that work and I disclosed it fully, but the consequence has been to make it more difficult for me to defend the institution.

    The inquiry is also to establish future guidelines for internal donations to the university. The university was forced to admit they had also signed a £2.2 million contract with Libya to train civil servants for the country, over half of which has been received from Gaddafi’s regime, which slightly dampens Sir Howard’s protestations over disclosure.

    Sadly, this case is indicative of the behind-closed-doors policy that many academic institutions have when it comes to funding. If information about donations is more transparent, potentially embarrassing revelations are wiped out. The public gets to see where the money is coming from, and university bigwigs retain their integrity – it isn’t difficult for anyone to “defend the institution” if the information is there for everyone to see from the outset.

    Who owns patient records?

    Friday, March 4th, 2011

    The proposed Heath and Social Care bill has certainly got temperatures raised at the British Medical Association, not least because the organisation claims that the new legislation could threaten the confidentiality of patient medical records.

    As the BMA point out, the bill would give bodies including the Commissioning Board, the NHS Information Centre, and the Secretary of State broader powers to access confidential information, but provides little guidance on how this power could be wielded, who could potentially have access to the records in the future, or how it will be safeguarded.

    The BMA’s main concern seems to be that patients may withhold information from doctors if they become concerned for their privacy. Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA’s head of science and ethics, recently said that the government had placed its desire for access to information over the need to respect patient confidentiality, adding:

    There is very little reference to rules on patient confidentiality that would ensure patients are asked before their information is shared or guarantee that the patient’s identity will not be revealed. Fears that their data may be shared with others may result in patients withholding important information; this may not only affect their own health but has implications for the wider health service.

    There has never been a level playing field when it comes to accessing medical records and data. Back in 2006 Dr Foster Intelligence was given exclusive access to NHS data in an agreement with the DoH – and it seems any big pharmaceutical companies with deep enough pockets can lay their hands on this supposedly sacred information (see this blog post on Dr Foster by journalist Robert Munro).

    The BMA has voiced support for the use of anonymised data for “secondary health purposes” but maintains that identifiable information should not be disclosed unless patients give explicit consent. The Department of Health has said that the bill does not change any of the existing legal safeguards, “which are set out in the Data Protection Act and the common law of confidence.”

    You can track the progress of the Bill on the British Medical Association website.