Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Electronic Voting - Are we missing the point?

I have just read an interesting piece on the Total Politics website by Melanie Batley about the electronic voting, or to be more precise about the potential for it being introduced in the UK. This obviously isn't the first article written on the subject and with all due respect to Melanie Batley, there are far more comprehensive articles out there explaining the in's and out's of e-voting.

What nearly all the pieces I've read on this subject share is a focus on the mechanics of e-voting - whether we can do it and do it securely enough - and I, too, shall pay attention to that aspect. However, what most of the articles tend to ignore is the question of whether it's right to make voting easier. The answer isn't all that simple, at least not for me, and so I think it deserves a little attention drawn to it.

First, the mechanics. I am the sort of individual who can't understand why almost every interaction with the government, or indeed any business, is not electronic. I spent much of my career transferring processes and procedures into digital, electronic systems and produced some staggering efficiency as a result. However, not once did I ever design or adopt an electronic system that I felt provided a completely incorruptible audit trail. When it comes to using electronic systems over traditional systems there is nearly always some form of payoff. In most cases, the gain in efficiency vastly outweighs any increases in risk and as such, the electronic version is favoured.

In the article on Total Politics, a common example is used to highlight where advocates of e-voting feel the government has already accepted that electronic processes are safe and secure enough - that of being able to complete and submit tax returns online. Unfortunately, the comparison fails because the cold hard fact is that, in audit trail terms, tax is not as important as voting. There can be no room for error when it comes to voting because of the potential damage any corruption can do.

The sure fire way to prevent any deliberate corruption from outside sources is to not have any parts of the voting process exposed to any external network. This measure doesn't entirely mean no e-voting (there would be no internet voting but you'd still use some form of electronic interface at the polling station), but it becomes less about making it a better experience for voters and more about making it an easier process for the electoral office.

In saying this, I am not against e-voting because of the mechanics. I'm sure at some point very soon, we will find a solution that meets all the audit requirements. No, I am against e-voting because frankly, I've no desire to make voting any easier for the electorate.

Do we really think voting is difficult? You get yourself put on the electoral register (for free) and when the elections are called, you get a little card through the door telling you where to go, when to go there and what to do. On the day of the election you have all day and all evening to turn up, hand in your little card, write an 'X' against your chosen candidate and pop it in the box. It takes no more effort than registering with a library and then using that Library.

Crucially, with that minimal effort exerted you have played your incredibly important part in the governance of our country. We have heard much in the last few days about 'responsibilities' and the supposed abdication of these responsibilities. I would contend that the most critical of these responsibilities that we have seen abandoned is that of taking part in the electoral process. I wrote just before the local elections in May that the responsibility for governing is on all of us and it is my belief that there should be some effort required to vote.

I honestly don't want a system to cater for someone who thinks that the current amount of effort needed to vote is just too much. If they really thought democracy was just too much effort previously then frankly, I'm not wild about us bowing to their indifference. Just to be clear, this isn't about voter engagement. If politicians successfully engaged with potential voters, then having to physically go to a polling station wouldn't be any sort of obstacle.

I appreciate there are cases where, with all the will in the world, getting to a polling station is a genuine obstacle, particularly for the elderly, house bound and for some disabilities. In these circumstances though, we should be making extra efforts to accommodate them specifically, rather than lowering the effort level for everyone. I'm sure many will disagree, as is their want, but for me, I want people voting because they want to, because they no it's important and because they recognise it is the right thing to do, and not because we have removed all excuses not to.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

This is no Arab Spring.

I suppose, given the unprecedented levels of civil unrest and disorder that we have seen in many countries where previously such actions had been unthinkable, it was almost inevitable that when we, in the UK, experienced our very own unrest & disorder that comparisons with the uprisings collectively termed the Arab Spring would be made.

There can be little doubt that many of those rioting here in the UK shared at least some common complaints with  their counterparts across the Arab world - that of mistrust of those tasked with law enforcement (whether it be the police, secret police or armed forces) and a complete lack of faith in their political leaders. However, there was and still remains an absolutely crucial difference between the Arab Spring and what has happened here in the last week or so: free and fair elections.

The uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria and the smaller protests in other Arab states were successful and will hopefully continue to be successful because whilst there may have been a multitude of complaints amongst the people and whilst there were certainly many underlying causes, all of them combined to produce one clear and unshakable objective; that of overthrowing authoritarian governments where previously they were never given the option.

This is the real reason why comparisons between the UK Riots and the Arab Spring fall apart. It is possible to delve into the detail and argue whether the UK has any moral right to condemn our rioters when we recognise Gadaffi's rioters as a legitimate political entity and then set about bombing the formal government of Libya. It is possible to compare instances of looting taking place in Egypt and Tunisia (there most certainly were) amongst wider protests of anger at the authorities. Critically, though, for those taking in part in uprisings in the Arab Spring there genuinely were no other options open to them. Their governments had utterly failed them, they had oppressed them, brutalised them and often, had murdered them.

Whether people may wish to argue that for certain sections of our society, this is also the case (and, ignoring the numbers involved, it could be) at least in our society we have the option to peacefully overthrow the government via elections. We have genuinely accountable political representation. Yes, they have lied, cheated and stolen and each time they have been found out and, where appropriate, punishments have been handed out and actions taken to prevent it happening again. This is how the system is meant to work. It is not a perfect system; no one has ever claimed it, but it works because when we realise part of it is broken: we fix it.

What really angers me about such comparisons though is that those making them are almost always entirely aware of the crucial differences. Anyone who gives it more than a moments thought can hardly fail to notice why it would be absolutely outrageous for the government of the UK to cede power to a riotous mob so why would they even begin to make such comparisons? My guess is that it is little more than political point scoring on the most part - a chance to make a seemingly clever criticism of inconsistency and hypocrisy against the government.

If that is indeed the case, then it is shameful behaviour. There is plenty of ammunition to fire at this coalition government without having to resort to such nonsensical arguments. Worst of all, it is easy to see through and lets the government highlight the unfairness of the attacks against it. Let's focus on attacking them for their genuine inconsistencies and hypocrisies, not the fabricated ones.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Riots are an opportunity for us to finally address poverty in the UK.

I have held fire on writing a piece about the riots that spread across much of the country (as a Unionist, I won't try and push them as a just English problem) this last week. When such a major news story is ongoing two things are almost certain: 1. Countless articles, blog posts and columns will be written analysing every part of the story and 2. Something will happen that will invalidate every point you want to make. 

Number 1 makes me want to hold off because I recognise that there are many, many better writers out there with far more first hand knowledge of the subject and who can often make the same points I want to make but in a more articulate fashion. Number 2 makes me want to hold off for fear I will look foolish and reactionary or that I have in some way 'jumped the gun' in order to capitalise on an issues currentness. 

In the case of the riots and looting, I was right about Number 1. There have been some truly fantastic pieces written by writers of many differing political viewpoints. However, I needn't have worried about Number 2. My opinion of why these riots occurred is the same today as it was on Saturday: nearly all riots are borne from one mother - Poverty. 

Could I ask those reading this to accept that I do not, at any point condone riotous behaviour in a society that benefits from free &  fair elections and where political representation is plentiful and accountable. There may well be cause to argue the details of such a claim but for the purposes of this post, please don't.  What I want to do is address the conditions in which such behaviour occurs. Whilst it may seem a particularly awful crime, rioting is, at it's base, simply that - a crime. It must be treated as such when punished and it must be treated as such when we look to why it happens.

Crime flourishes from poverty. That really can't be disputed. Obviously not all crime is as a direct result of poverty and not all those who commit it do so because they live in poverty but the evidence is overwhelming in suggesting a clear and direct link between poverty and crime. The usual deterrents against committing offences are either the fear of punishment or a concious thought that what you are doing is wrong. When you are in an impoverished state, there is no fear of punishment. What could be worse than poverty? 

So, we are left to hope that those who have the least in our society will not commit crime simply because it is wrong. Yet this is a society that both explicitly and implicitly demonises being poor. We have perpetuated the belief that by being poor, then by definition you are already doing something wrong. The language many use to describe the poor is nearly always demeaning, even if that is not the intent. When people refer to benefit claimants most people automatically picture in their mind someone who is jobless, or gets some form of disability benefit. Of course the truth is that the vast majority of people who receive some form of state aid do so in order to supplement their income.

Those at the bottom of our society have been completely marginalised. There is no fear of the punishment that crime carries and the understanding of what's right has been completely corrupted. It's easy to point at MP's fiddling expenses or bankers being bailed out as examples of high profile corruption & greed going relatively unpunished but the corruption of what's right is in plain view every day. When massive companies lay off hundreds of their lowest paid yet still pay out huge dividends to shareholders and directors still receive enormous salary packages what signal does that send about what we, as society think is right?

When people have to go around the supermarket buying only the cheapest of produce and then worry if there's enough left over to buy gas or shoes for their children whilst 30 tills ring through hundreds of thousands of pounds in profit every minute, do we really expect people to accept that this is right? Whilst making a profit is fair, making it and then hoarding it whilst millions struggle to survive is surely morally questionable? Can't we strike a balance?

A common complaint from many commenter's over the week has been that these riots can't be about poverty because they were organised on Blackberry's and the rioters targeted luxury goods and not essentials. I just want to put aside for a minute the fact that poverty is obviously relative (no one in the UK suffers the same poverty, at least not in real terms, as many millions in other less affluent places in the world) and reiterate the point that whilst poverty may not have been the specific reason for the riots, it was poverty that created the conditions in which the riots found ground. 

Let's deal with the relativity now. Yes, many people that are technically in poverty in the UK do have a house, they do have money to eat (at least just enough) and many also have mobile phones. They also have Televisions and many have access to the internet. Who seriously wants us to level that down? There will always be people at the very bottom but surely we want what is essentially our minimum standard to be above all other minimum standards? Don't we want to be the country where even our poor are comfortable?

Of course, this is unworkable if those who are unfortunate to be at the bottom can obtain that minimum through the state if those just above can't obtain it through their own means. In other words, when being entirely dependent on the state is more beneficial than working. At present there are very few examples of where this is the case and in those cases it nearly always involves some extenuating circumstances. However, it can't be denied that the financial rewards for working full time are not significantly over and above those for not. This must be addressed but it must be addressed by levelling up, not down. Benefits must not be cut because we simply must not lower our standards. What we must do is explore ways in which work provides much greater reward. 

All of this assumes that work is available and the reality is that it is not but it could be if the Government really wanted to address poverty. It is a myth that we have run out of money. Yes, we are operating with a deficit and ideally we'd like a surplus but Government isn't a business and shouldn't be run with the same objectives. The Government is overly focused on deficit reduction by way of cutting spending when it should be focused on it by way of stimulating growth. The only sure way for a government to stimulate growth is to invest and this government needs to invest massively in social infrastructure in order to properly tackle the causes of poverty - bad education, poor quality housing, lack of facilities. 

We can either spend state money on welfare or spend state money on jobs and investment but either way, we will continue to spend state money so lets try and do some good with it for once. 

Monday, 1 August 2011

Capital Punishment.

In society, well, a civilised society at least, when defining the power of the state, there is an important starting point, an ideal - The state should not harm it's citizens. It is essential to highlight the most important part of that sentence - Ideal. Due to the nature of society, at some point the state will have to move away from that ideal in order to maintain law & order and ensure security of the state itself. What is crucial to maintaining the civilised status is that each step away from the ideal is only undertaken when absolutely essential - when there is no other option left.

The above paragraph has to preface any discussion about Capital Punishment. Quite simply, there is nothing worse the state can do to an individual, it is the ultimate action and is the very definition of a state harming it's citizens. It is as far removed from the ideal as you can possibly get. So how on earth do we get to the point where it is even considered?

Well, the right wing blogger, Guido Fawkes has decided to launch an online campaign to get the matter discussed in Parliament with a view to having Capital Punishment reintroduced for child murderers and police murderers. Whilst I'm sure that Guido does actually support the death penalty I think his motives are more to do with a) his anti EU Agenda - we would have to leave the EU to have the death penalty, and b) his love of publicity.

Unfortunately, whatever his motives, Guido has certainly sparked debate because this is, and will be for some time, an interesting political issue that many people on both sides of the argument are furiously passionate about. For my own part, I can think of very little that I oppose more than capital punishment. Let's take a moment to debunk the most common arguments in favour of capital punishment.

It works as a deterrent to the offender.
It most certainly deters the one who is executed doesn't it? That can't be denied. However, it is not the only way of preventing an individual re offending is it? That's the point - when it comes to deterring the offender, there is another way - life in prison. That can't be argued or debated, the facts are clear: there is another way to stop the offender re offending, thus this reason is void.

It works as a deterrent to others.
Well, there is actually no creditable evidence that supports this view. Consider that the majority of murders are crimes of passion. Is it really reasonable to believe that the offender, at the point of committing the offence would hold back because, whilst a lifetime behind bars is an acceptable risk, the death sentence is not? For those rare murders undertaken for some other advantage to the individual, surely those offending believe they won't get caught and therefore the potential sentence is irrelevant? However, even if you dispute that, there are of course, no shortage of crime statistics, particularly from America, which show that there is no tangible deterrent from the death penalty.

It's cheaper than keeping offenders in prison.
Ignore, if you can, the idea that money should be considered when deciding whether the state should kill someone and focus on the evidence, again, that actually, capital punishment is incredibly costly. Well, at least it is in America. It may not be in China or Saudi Arabia but there is a very good reason for that - they don't feel the need for an exhaustive legal process to ensure, beyond ANY doubt that the offender did indeed commit the offence and surely, there is no other standard to be considered when handing out a death sentence?

After that, all that is left is a desire for vengeance or closure. Neither of those are good enough reasons. As unpleasant as it may seem, even the most vile of murderers still retains the right to life and the state cannot break that right.

There are also political anomalies in play. Support for the death penalty is high among right wingers & libertarians but if you examine the death penalty rationally then it is against the principles that those partuicular political groups hold dear - that of minimal government. Minimal government doesn't just mean small government, it means the government only taking decisions or carrying out actions when there is no other suitable alternative. When it comes to capital punishment, there clearly is.

Despite attempts by some to portray our society as morally bankrupt, we are not. We do not currently have an epidemic of brutal child murders. The murder of a policemen is, and always has been rare in mainland UK and now thankfully, despite the best efforts of backward thinking groups, it is rare in Northern Ireland. This isn't necessarily down to capital punishment being abolished but it does show that it is irrelevant in the for law and order.

Ultimately, the question of capital punishment always comes down to this (at least it does for me): we, as a society have a duty to condemn violence. A state that has violence written in to it's law cannot do so with any authority.