Thursday, 18 July 2013

Siobhain McDonagh and the Social Contract

Silly season arrived early in the Commons yesterday. No, I'm not talking about the weekly farce that is Prime Minister's Questions but rather Siobhain McDonagh's Bill introduced under the 10 Minute Rule. You see, what the member for Mitcham and Morden would like to do is make access to social security dependent on being on the electoral register. The reasoning is simple. The right to mine, yours or anyone else's access to support in hard times is conditional on your fulfilment of social obligations. In Siobhain's case, this should include being registered to vote. She argued a reform of this character would
"draw an explicit connection between democracy and the benefits we enjoy because we live in a democracy ... If you don't like living in a democracy, fine, but don't expect all the good things that democracy offers in return."
Alrighty then.

As it happens, I do think the social contract is vitally important to socialist and labour movement thinking. A society based around the primacy of democratic planning and freedom from necessity, after all, cannot exist without high degrees of social solidarity and mutual obligation. Trade unions provide protections and services in the workplace in exchange for subs and activity - the more active its members are, generally speaking, the greater the rights and freedoms enjoyed by members of that union can be. Even on the revolutionary left, who would dismiss social contract thinking as class collaborationism or bourgeois hocum, rests on the right of criticism being balanced by a duty to be active under the direction of the party. That's how Lenin would have seen it, anyhow.

That's why I have more time for those who vent their spleens and have a record of activity than those for whom the keyboard is a substitute for "real world" politics.

I digress. Depending on the content obviously, new policies that claim to promote social contracts are certainly worth looking at. But, as it stands, I think McDonagh's bill is mistaken.

In the first place her bill reinforces the view that social security recipients are feckless ingrates. Not only are they work shy, if they're too lazy to register to vote then they deserve everything coming to them. It's the deserving vs the undeserving poor all over again.

Second, people in receipt of social security already have to fulfil a number of obligations to qualify for and continue receiving what is theirs 'by right'. As a Labour MP she will have dealt with dozens of people who have not passed a Work Capability Assessment, or have fallen foul of the JSA sanctions regime. Whatever one may think of these tests, they are pretty tough so the question has to be - are recipients already fulfilling their obligation to society in return for support they get? I think the answer is an unequivocal yes.

Third, there is a small matter that by law people are supposed to be on the electoral register on pain of a £1,000 fine. The law exists, so why is it not enforced?

And lastly, McDonagh's Bill short circuits politics. If there are six million unregistered voting age people in Britain, you need to ask *why* they aren't on the electoral roll. You see, politics also rests on the social contract. Members of Parliament enjoy the privilege of a fine salary, great working conditions, prestige (some of the time) and power. But the problem remains that Westminster bubble issues - such as Europe, or Labour's trade union funding - do not resonate with the wider public. People are worried about the economy - the government throws up smokescreen after smokescreen to avoid talking about it. People want security and stability in their lives, but few talk about the hire and fire culture that dominates Britain's workplaces. Reliable and affordable fuel/energy is a concern as prices spiral, but the government dithers and tinkers with energy markets. And no one wants to see Royal Mail privatised, but it's going ahead anyway.

If mainstream politics appears uncaring and remote from everyday concerns, then it is not fulfilling its side of the social contract with the electorate. Perhaps it would be more productive if McDonagh and other honourable members attended, in greater numbers, to the difficult task of making politics relevant to people and not waste parliamentary time with populist-sounding technocratic measures aimed at boosting turnout.


Phil said...

It's also reinforcing the weird popular myth that somehow welfare payments are something people can do without - "the good things that democracy offers", indeed. As if having all your benefits withdrawn would just mean that you had to tighten your belt a bit. (Perhaps it's that word 'benefits' - it even sounds like a luxury.) People must know - Labour MPs of all people must surely know - that someone living on benefits and has those benefits withdrawn will have absolutely nothing coming in from any source. We must, surely, know that withdrawing somebody's benefits, when they've got no other source of income, amounts to saying "We don't care if you starve". Yet politicians (on all sides) carry on talking about these things as if all that mattered was the signals they could be used to send - as if they weren't, literally, a matter of life and death.

It reminds me of nothing so much as 'political' discussions in the workplace, back when I worked in business (academia's a bit different). You'd get the resident Daily Mail reader putting forward some appallingly extreme position and then sides would form up, playground-style, for and against. If you - the left-wing 'you' - were smart and persistent you could usually whittle down the 'for' side fairly quickly, just by playing back what they were saying - "You'd actually let them starve, is that what you're saying? No, they couldn't get a job, not all of them - we know that. So you'd let the others starve. And they'd starve in the streets, of course, because they wouldn't have anywhere to live. Is that actually what you want?" (Fun times.)

Put to the test, hardly anyone who starts at the extreme position will stick with it - voicing those ideas is just a game, they know that they're not really going to be put into action. The alarming thing is how much of mainstream political debate has that same kind of playground unreality these days - in Labour as well as among the Tories.

Anonymous said...

I largely agree with you, but I'm curious, what do you think of the Australian system of compulsory voting?

Phil said...

I think the Aus system is badly broken (AV 'least-worst' voting combined with minor parties operating as quasi-permanent external factions), and making voting compulsory is putting lipstick on a pig, giving the system the appearance of rude health by forcibly cranking up the participation rate. And, on reflection, this second criticism would still be true of a much better system. So no, I'm not keen.

Nickoli said...

The other thing is that there are people who are eligible for benefits but not to go on the electoral roll; such as my wife, who claims child benefit for our children, but is not a British citizen.

Phil said...

Phil, the problem is that for too many MPs unemployment is considered the result of a widespread 'culture of worklessness' rather than lack of jobs. Matters aren't helped either by the very occasional lead-swinger who pleads poverty but has an expensive Virgin telly package, or owns an overseas property. It's these infrequent cases (both of which I have personally dealt with) that stick in the mind, not the ones of "mundane" but real hardship.

Phil said...

Anon, when I've been knocking on doors for local elections and local authority by-elections, after a few "I'm not going to vote"-types the idea of compulsory voting does look very attractive ...

But no, people should have a choice. And if parties aren't doing a good job speaking with and making themselves relevant to the electorate, the latter have every right to vote with their feet and stay at home.