Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Diversity and other misnomers

In most corporations these days there is considerable emphasis on "diversity training". Most people look on it as a box ticking exercise, like fire alarms or health and safety briefings: a necessary bureaucracy by which the organisation demonstrates compliance with the law.

Yet, as with so many box ticking exercises, there is a core of essential and necessary work at the heart of the exercise. Organisations, like any group of human beings, can create cliques and foster a culture which fails to use each member of the group to their full potential. In short, respect for diversity is necessary if any group is going to fulfill the maximum that it can achieve. The search for excellence needs to embrace a broad range of points of view and a wide variety of experience. This is how corporations gain the best performance from their workers.

What is true for corporations is even more true for a political party that seeks to promote social and political excellence. Thus the heated debate amongst the Liberal Democrats as to why none of its MPs are anything except straight white males. To be honest, given the scale of the 2015 electoral massacre, the fact is that there are very few Liberal Democrat MPs of any description, so the random impact of the electoral dice is not really under the party's control. The idea that any one of these MPs should be stood down in favour of some other "more diverse" candidate is insulting to hard working MPs and also to the supposedly "more diverse" candidate- yet that is what more hot headed figures have seemed to suggest.

The party can, and to a great degree does, seek to put different kinds of candidates in winnable seats. The problem was that last time, we did not win any of them. To my mind, diversity campaigners in the party treat these in much the same way as corporations: a box ticking exercise. We lost genuinely excellent women MPs. We failed to elect MPs from a wide variety of ethnic groups- and despite criticism, this was not through want of trying. Several retiring MPs hoped that their successors would be women- but we did not hold a single seat. All our LGBT MPs lost their seats. So although some argue that we as a party can no longer say respect diversity, the fact is that while we could have done more, and intend to do more next time, we should also respect the talents of all our members- including the straight white males.

The whole point about diversity is not just that we should reflect the society that elects us, we should strive for excellence. The resignation of Kav Kaushik disappoints me because Kav is a genuinely excellent candidate and campaigner. Intelligent and articulate, Kav would have been a great MP- but too many people focused not on what she said, but who she is, and that is about as patronizing as politics gets. No wonder she felt that the Liberal Democrats were demonstrating hypocrisy of the worst kind: several of us were!

Personally I have felt that the party must promote the role of women more than it does. I believe in the principles of feminism and female equality. That for me is a far more urgent problem that some of the other issues in the diversity debate: ethnic minority issues and respect for sexual minorities. Yet across the debate we are simply talking about the process, rather than the goal. It is not just that we should be seeking greater diversity in our Parliamentary party for its own sake, we should be doing this because it allows us to gain higher quality candidates and MPs/MSPs and AMs, not to mention councillors. 

Diversity is not - should not be- a box ticking exercise. It is not a question of putting brilliant candidates into groups- it is the exact opposite: it is finding candidates who are genuinely excellent, regardless of those groups.

In the Liberal Democrat diversity debate, too many people seem to think that the group that people belong to is more important than their individual excellence- and Liberals should make sure that this should never happen. When excellent candidates like Kav feel they have to leave the party, there is something very badly wrong- I trust that there will be some reflection on all sides.

Monday, February 01, 2016

President Trump - a symptom of a greater problem

The United States, despite its almost religious reverence for their constitution, is prone to periodic political crises which can be almost existential in scope. The civil war was caused by the constitutional ambiguity concerning slavery, which poisonous legacy still defaces American society today. In the twenty-first century the idea that there could be any legal justification for slavery seems self-evidently absurd.

When Al Gore polled half a million votes more than George W, Bush in the 2000 Presidential election, even democracy itself took second place to the Constitution since it was Mr. Bush who was elected, by virtue of carrying more states and therefore winning the electoral college. The consequences of the incompetent arrogance of the Administration of the 43rd President- from Iraq and Afghanistan to the response to Hurricane Katrina  are also still reverberating today. Trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost around the world because Mr. Bush and his cohorts in the "Project for the new American century" fully achieved their policy goals, but the consequences were not far short of disastrous. 

At the heart of the American constitution there lies a crisis that could have repercussions that could be just as serious as the civil war itself. This is not the argument over whether the question of whether the right to bear arms should be regulated or not. The horrendous death toll of guns in the United States speaks for itself, and the foolish attempt by the NRA and its supporters in the arms industry to ignore the question of "a well regulated militia" and simply permit unrestricted access to murderous weapons is what makes the United States uniquely murderous amongst developed nations. In the eyes of the founding fathers, I suspect that the gerrymandering of political districts would be seen as a far greater crime against the Constitution. Gerrymandering has not merely entrenched and polarised the political oligarchy of the United States, it is undermining the legitimacy of Congress in a way that could lead to a major political breakdown.

Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, Washington and the others strove to find a balance in the three arms of the constitution: the executive branch -the Presidency- was checked and balanced by the legislative branch- Congress- and both were regulated by the judicial branch, and in particular, the Supreme Court of the United States. This system of checks and balances is generally held to be the key to the success of the constitutional order. Yet the fact is that the electoral system is now increasingly fixed: the level of wealth required in order to be elected to national office is beyond all but a very small elite that either possesses  such wealth independently or can raise it. Congress is now a cadre of wealthy extremists whose views only incidentally coincide with the majority view in the country. Life inside the "Beltway bubble" has more to do with money and political posturing than with finding practical solutions to the issues of the day. Unsurprisingly Washington, DC is extremely unpopular. The political legitimacy of Congress is increasingly challenged.

This matters, especially if the executive branch falls into questionable hands. Donald Trump is a man who, having inherited great wealth from his father, has expanded his wealth through highly questionable means with extremely dubious business partners. There is substantial evidence that he has had associations with organised crime. There is little doubt that his business methods are highly dubious. Yet, as we go into the first caucus of the 2016 electoral season, Mr. Trump is the front runner for the nomination of the Republican party. Of course there are many hurdles to overcome, but the political class of the US has been increasingly shocked to discover that despite their disapproval, he continues to lead in his race. Mr. Trump has advocated policies that would probably be unworkable and may even be  unconstitutional, but this has, if anything added to his popularity. Should he be elected and should he choose to implement these policies, it could be that Congress would be unable to oppose them- it would lack the political legitimacy to take on a genuine populist.

Of course the US has elected bad Presidents- such as Warren Harding or Richard Nixon- in the past, and has survived, but the fact is that a country that is so cavalier about its own democracy can hardly aspire to be a genuine role model at a time when so many challenges exist in the international order. Russia's tyrannical leader, Vladimir Putin, may have expressed admiration for Mr. Trump, but there is little doubt that he would exploit every opportunity to diminish US power and break the North Atlantic alliance. Mr. Trump's bluster about the use of force against peaceful neighbours like Mexico hardly suggests joined up thinking when dealing with the real challenges that the US faces- in the Middle East, Asia and across the world.

Many suggest that whatever Trump says is irrelevant, since he is unlikely to win the general election. Yet I beg to differ. Mr. Trump is already in the top five people most likely to be President of the United States. Supposing Mrs. Clinton was to face a return of questions about her conduct in office or the conduct of her husband. At the crucial moment it could be that Mr. Trump flukes a victory. 

The fact is that the United States is flirting with a leader who could be exposed to blackmail and subversion- and possibly that applies to both front runners. Still worse that leader could defy the constitution and likely get away with it.

The United States is on a knife edge- a blustering crook or a woman compromised by years close to the top. It is not a happy choice and it may be that without reform the system will no longer be able to maintain the order that has underpinned American creativity and power since the 1930s. Reforms to the constitution will be increasingly necessary in order to restore the democratic impetus- but in a self interested and narrowly isolated political class, it is hard to see where the power to enact such reforms can come from. 

Yet another existential crisis may be upon us.