Lessons from 2016

2016 has been a year which has challenged the traditional political consensus. Brexit was delivered against all odds – a victory for all those who had campaigned against the undemocratic nature of the European Union, the unfair system of immigration it created whereby people from 27 countries are prioritised over people from the other 169, and the restrictions on policy choices available to British voters at the ballot box that membership of the EU brings with it. That victory, in spite of the ad hominem insults thrown at Leave voters, should teach valuable lessons on how to conduct a campaign in 2017.

The ultimate difference between the Leave campaign and the Remain campaign was twofold: the Leave campaign was positive and optimistic; and the Remain campaign offered very little by way of emotive arguments. The oft-quoted phrase that summed up the referendum (and perhaps 2016 as a whole) was Michael Gove’s quip: ‘People in this country have had enough of experts’. This is not strictly true, but what is true is that people don’t respond well to simply being told they should support a cause because they should – they want to be given an emotive reason why they should back it.

2016 has shown us the need for political campaigns to make an argument that combines emotive and logical reasoning – it isn’t enough to simply assume that people agree with your positions, you have to persuade them to agree with you. Likewise 2016 proved, once and for all, that negative campaigning is ineffective – particularly if people don’t believe what you are telling them. Merely having the support of an ‘expert’ isn’t sufficient to win you an election, and likewise fear and negativity (the weapons of choice of the Remain campaign and Zac Goldsmith’s mayoral campaign) aren’t as impactful as a positive, optimistic message.

The election of Donald Trump also compounded the argument that governments need to do more to prove they are listening to the will of the people. While Brexit vindicates David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on EU membership, as it proves the demand for a referendum was overwhelming more accurately than any opinion poll; Donald Trump is a reflection of an American establishment that has systematically failed to respond to its voters. Barack Obama was elected as a force for change in 2008, and so it was in 2016. Moreover, Trump’s election proved that insulting supporters of your opponents is unlikely to convince them to change their minds.

What does that mean for 2017?

The reactions of many to Brexit and Trump suggests they haven’t learn the primary message of 2016: voters need to be convinced of your position through discussion and debate, however objectively correct you think you may be. Those of us who believe in the value of democracy and tolerance have to work harder than ever to defend them.

2017 will see big electoral chances for Le Pen in France, Wilders in the Netherlands, and Alternative für Deutschland in Germany. Those fighting against them would do well to learn the lessons of 2016: when making the case against a populist demagogue, make it with passion, conviction and logic, and don’t insult those you are seeking to convert.

Communism fails because there is always a Castro

Watching the outpouring of political platitudes and grief on Saturday, one would never have guessed that the man who had died ruled Cuba from 1959 to 2006 without election before handing over to his brother. Nor that he was a dictator who had routinely rounded up and imprisoned people because they opposed his politics, who brutally suppressed freedom of expression, and who executed countless people during his four and a half decades in charge of one of the world’s poorest nations. It turns out, if the question needed to be asked, that building a few schools and some hospitals is enough to tip the balance between brutal totalitarian and champion of social justice.

The amusing hypocrisy that the same people who call Castro a champion of social justice are the same ones who got ‘Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead’ to number two in the UK charts doesn’t go unnoticed, but the silence over Castro’s barbarity does not dispel the fact that the world leader who best summed him up was Donald Trump: ‘a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people’.

Defenders of communism, and particularly its Marxist variant which shall be the focus of this piece, argue that the problem with communism is not in its theory, but in its execution – no state has ever achieved ‘true communism’, they argue. The problem, alas, is with both.

Marxism dictates the need for a socialist revolution to overthrow the existing regime and replace it with a communist one. This communist regime (or dictatorship of the proletariat) would then repurpose the means of production, redistribute society’s wealth, ‘re-educate’ the public to create a society conducive to a stateless communist utopia, and then fall away into oblivion leaving the aforementioned stateless communist utopia behind. That’s a fairly broad overview of the theory, but it’s enough for the purposes of this analysis.

The most logical place to start is at the beginnings of a Marxist transition. A socialist revolution is bad for two main reasons: firstly, the very notion of a revolution in modern society (where nearly all nations are democracies) is underpinned by a minority group seizing power, contrary to the will of the majority; and secondly it breeds the sort of climate that Mikhail Bakunin (who lost the ideological battle for the Left to Marx) warned of – that is to say that the manner of the revolution creates a state in its own image. The reason that so many communist leaders are military leaders: Castro, Mao, Stalin, Kim Il-sung, and others; is that revolutions are, by their very nature, led by military figures. That creates a state ruled by ruthless leaders who aren’t afraid to kill their opponents to cement their position.

That brings us on to the need for a communist state to have unrivalled supremacy over the politics of the society it governs. While Marx never ruled out democratic transitions, given the scale of transformation required for a dictatorship of the proletariat to be established, a successful democratic transition seems unlikely. Democratically imposed communism itself often leads to rigged elections (see Guatemala and Venezuela), the imprisonment of opposing thinkers, and the proscription of opposing political parties, and so the end result is the same.

Moving on from the transition to the actions of the dictatorship established to create a Marxist wonderland. In practice, Marxist re-education usually follows the same pattern (in spite of the ‘superb’ education policy pursued by Castro’s Cuba): suppression of freedom of expression, executions, arrests, manipulation of information, and propaganda. Every attempt to impose universal ideology: be that an ideology of fascist creed, communist creed, or liberal creed; has failed because people will always believe in different things – unfortunately, where you couple a brutal leader and a desire for universalism, that universalism is imposed brutally.

To repurpose the means of production and redistribute the wealth of the nation (neither of which are particularly liberal, but their merits aren’t relevant for this discussion), the creation of an extremely powerful, centralised state is required. If you need convincing of this, look at the authoritarian nature of every communist state ever created, or for that matter, look at the centralisation of power required by nearly every ideology left of centre. A powerful authoritarian state with only one party creates a powerful incentive for selfish politicians to take control of the system.

Thus, even if an ideologically pure, selfless leader came to power, even if they were able to consolidate power peacefully, there will be a point at which someone inevitably needs to succeed them. The power imbued within that leadership position will be much more attractive to selfish people than selfless ones, and that is why leaders like Stalin emerge and successions in countries like the Soviet Union and China have to be carefully managed and frequently result in murders and violence.

The dictatorship and ruthlessness required to create a Marxist utopia are the very reason that such a utopia can never be created. Wherever that much power is concentrated in the hands of such a small elite, the state will continue to act in the interests of the dictators who rule it. There is always a Castro standing between Marxist theory and Marxist reality, and presuming a circumstance in which there isn’t is simply unrealistic.

Those who would argue that Castro was more than the selfish, brutal dictator outlined in this article might take a moment to consider some interesting little pieces of information. While Jeremy Corbyn considers him a ‘champion of social justice’, Fidel Castro left office in 2006 with a net worth of $900 million (around a quarter of the net worth of Donald Trump) – not bad in a country where the average salary was $17 per month in 2015. The hundreds of political prisoners and political executions tell us a lot about Fidel’s softer side; while his government’s efforts to limit his citizens’ internet access and generally curtail access to information and freedom of expression show us that this man was clearly a champion of social justice.

Alas, Castro is but the most topical example one could use to highlight the failings of Marx’s main philosophy. Regardless of the means by which you create it (and especially if those means are revolutionary), a dictatorship of the proletariat will always create a state which must be brutal in dealing with its opponents, centralised in its management of society, and attractive to those who would use it to their own advantages, like Fidel Castro. Such a state does not need the addition of ‘of the proletariat’ and will never fall away, because human nature doesn’t work like that.

Centralisation, curtailing freedom of expression, revolution – these are ideas that a modern, progressive society should be replacing with devolution, free speech, and democracy. The people who laud Castro as a hero and a progressive seem to have lost touch with what it is to be a progressive.

Fidel Castro was indeed (to use the unintentional pun everyone else seems to be using) a revolutionary figure in 20th Century politics, but Castro’s legacy should not be in his healthcare system or his education system, it should be in the suffering and persecution he brought upon those who disagreed with him. Fidel Castro’s Cuba should stand as a warning marker against authoritarianism and Marxism – let the end of Castro’s era be the end of an era of failed politics.

To those who advocate and seek to bring it about: communism will always fail, because there is always another Castro.

How the Boundary Changes Will Revitalise British Democracy

The independent boundary review has been a source of controversy in recent months, and yet it seems like a perfectly reasonable idea. Putting aside the specifics of the changes – whether or not you think certain wards would be better in certain constituencies – and looking at them purely objectively, there seem to be far more advantages than downsides to the changes.

Firstly, equalising the size of constituencies seems a perfectly reasonable democratic desire. If we want a democracy that fairly represents its electors then it would make sense for every representative to speak for as similar number of constituents as possible. Accusations that this is unfair because recent changes to the Electoral Register have left people out of the figures are not entirely unfounded, but the simple fact is that the best aggregator of how many electors are in a constituency has to be the number of registered electors at the previous election – this isn’t a perfect figure, but it’s not as if these boundaries couldn’t be altered in future to account for population changes.

In this sense then, the boundary changes will create a more equal representation and thus a fairer and better democracy – unless of course, one believes that the electors of the Isle of Wight should have around 5 times less representation than those of Na h-Eileanan an Iar, or that English electors should have 1.3 times less representation than Welsh electors on average.

If we accept it reasonable to have equal representation for every elector in the country, then the main objection to the concept of the boundary changes must be that reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600 will adversely affect the quality of representation.

This argument doesn’t seem to stand up to scrutiny, if only because fewer MPs ties in with the increasingly decentralised approach to power being taken by government in recent years. If it follows that fewer MPs leads to further devolution of areas of legislative control to regional centres of power, then we will see an increasingly important local government – able to make a real difference to its constituents. This will have benefits for both local government and local people: local government will have more power to influence policies in the local area and thus will be taken more seriously by voters, bringing more scrutiny, accountability and higher turnouts; while local people will benefit from having a much more personalised system of policy-making, where they can influence their legislators because they are based much closer to them, and where they can enjoy policies that are inherently grounded in local contexts and needs.

Representation will also be improved if the public have more faith in their representatives. One of the biggest concerns people have about MPs is that they simply cost too much. For these people, the boundary changes must surely be a way to reduce the costs associated with government. 50 fewer MPs means 50 fewer MPs’ salaries; 50 fewer teams of MPs’ staff; 50 fewer sets of expenses; 50 fewer offices – the list can go on and on.

With a reduced number of MPs we can see a further decentralisation of powers to local government and a resultant revitalisation of British democracy – where the decisions that affect Southampton get made in Southampton, and important decisions on local policy get made in local areas across the United Kingdom. Boundary changes will lead to a more representative and democratic Britain – a Britain where central government costs less and local government does more, and that can only be a good thing.