Why it is wrong to stop benefits for the under 25s

I understand the rhetoric of the Conservative party. They want people to go out and work, pay taxes and be decent citizens of the United Kingdom. And George Osborne says there will always be a safety net to prevent those unlucky or unfortunate enough falling through the cracks. But apparently this doesn’t apply to anyone under 25. Why? I’m presuming because anyone under the age of 25 shouldn’t be unfortunate enough to need benefits. Or perhaps it’s because the under 25s are an easy group to target. They vote in far fewer numbers than other age groups, they hold far less power and influence, and others are far less likely to protest in their support. If you’re under 25 the Conservatives expect you to be either working or in education. And if you’re not, then you are left to your own devices. But you won’t get any help from the State. This seems unreasonably callous for an age group that are often struggling to find their way in life.

My experience of claiming benefits was as follows. I had just graduated from University and was trying to find a job. I probably could have returned home to live with my parents but I thought that it would be far easier to find a job in the affluent city of Norwich than my impoverished rural home in Cornwall. The benefits provided a short term safety net for me for four months until I got a temping job at Norwich Union. That the was the one and only time I claimed housing benefit and I really needed it then. Admittedly I was lucky enough to have parents that would be willing to put me up for a bit but not everyone is this fortunate. What of the 21 year old who has been in full time education his whole life but who is unable to find work as soon as he graduates? If he doesn’t have a family that will support him, and won’t get any help from the State, that education may come to nothing if he ends up homeless and on the familiar downward spiral that it often becomes.

Sometimes I find myself warming to the Conservative party. Sometimes, I feel that they have left the callous days of New Right Thatcherism behind them. And then they come up with a heartless policy like this and any thoughts I might have of voting for them evaporates. It is an easy target but that doesn’t make it a good one.

How should I vote on the AV referendum?

Proponents on each side of the AV debate have amped up their rhetoric over the past week and it’s difficult to know what to believe. As someone who has swayed between the positions of ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘why bother voting at all?’ I’ve been trying to work out what I should do that is consistent with my core beliefs and values. So here’s my take:

My initial thoughts were to reject AV since one of the highlights of our elections is the quick counting and declaration of seats. Sad and pathetic, I realise, but I love the election night fever whereby I am desperately trying to stay awake at 4am to see what the next seat is to declare, and what colour it’s going to be.

However, my mum told me this wasn’t a good enough reason to vote ‘no’ so I had to think a bit harder. But as I’ve been trying to work out the merits of each case, what has really made my mind up is the disingenuous campaigning by the ‘no’ side.

For instance, the one thing that has really wound me up is the phrase used by the ‘no’ campaign that states ‘Under AV the winner wouldn’t win’, or the picture they are using which shows 100m runners and an arrow pointing to the last finisher:

This is a bad argument since they are already using the term ‘winner’ to denote the first finisher. Under a different system, the criteria for deciding the winner would be different and so the winner would still win but just not in the way that the current criteria dictates. Let’s change the analogy to the 4x100m relay. One team manages to get round the track the quickest but they dropped the baton at the first changeover. Just because they managed to finish first doesn’t mean that they won because the rules state that the baton must be transferred within a specified area and carried over the finish line with the competitor. The criteria for deciding the winner is different to just ‘being first over the line’ and this is the same with the AV system. The criteria for deciding the winner under AV is that a candidate must achieve 50% of the vote according to specified means (transferring of second and third votes (or more) if necessary) so under AV the winner does still, unsurprisingly, win.

It is this type of disingenious campaigning that has actually swayed me into action for voting yes to AV.

The other rhetorical ploy that is used is the incorrect labelling of our current system as ‘first past the post’ – the analogy of a race doesn’t work (in fact it is a better description of AV than our current system). We would be better off imagining it as a ‘highest score wins’ competition such as snooker, badminton or decathlon. Let’s say that you have a constituency of 30,000 people. The person who receives the most votes out of that 30,000 wins (whether they get 80% or 30% is irrelevant as long as they get more than any other candidate), just as the player who takes the most frames, sets or points wins. So let’s stop calling our current system ‘first past the post’.

AV is far from perfect (as Nick Clegg is frequently cited in saying from his ‘pathetic compromise’ comment) but it’s a start to a better form of democracy whereby the representatives of a country are more representative of the desires of their electorate.

As an aside, I’m not completely in favour of democracy – I prefer Plato’s philosopher kings idea (well, I would, wouldn’t I?!) – since the majority don’t always make sensible or reasoned choices, but since the possibility of us changing to a benevolent dictatorship is not presented as an option in this referendum, I am going to go with a ‘yes’ in favour of changing our system.

Who are you voting for?

Most people in answer to that question would probably name a party: “I always vote Conservative”, or they name the leader of a party: “I’m going to vote for Gordon Brown”. However, what we are really voting for is someone who is representing our constituency. Technically, unless you live in Gordon Brown’s / David Cameron’s / Nick Clegg’s constituency it is impossible to vote for these people.

And so I’m wondering whether we should spend more time considering who would be best at representing us (as constituents) rather than which party we would most like to see in Government. This, I suggest, might be a way out of the disillusionment that we currently feel about politics. Everything seems to take place in those closed corridors of power in Westminster. It is easy to feel forgotten when you live in the rural provinces of Britain.

Indeed, sometimes constituents do get stirred up into voting for a person rather than a party, as has been the case with the election of Independent MPs. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen often enough. The first past the post system admittedly isn’t the fairest (since a person can be elected by only a small minority of the population) but at least with the constituency system we do have someone that is supposed to represent us – a specific and designated population. This means we are able to hold our MPs to account – it would have been interesting to see how many MPs that were subject to scandal over their expenses who are now standing down would have been returned (think of Neil Hamilton in Tatton).

So I’m urging those of you who are disillusioned with Party politics not to throw away your vote and lose your voice but rather to find out who would best represent you and your constituency. Here are some questions worth asking about your candidates:

  • Do they have good local knowledge? – too many Parties are just parachuting in career seeking candidates who have no local knowledge of their area and no real interest in the community they represent.
  • Are they passionate and reasoned in their values and principles? – All Parties have different ideas as to what makes a fair and just society but it is important that your MP really believes in making a difference to the lives of the people they represent.
  • Do they have experience outside politics? – Experience will always be limited to a set of specific arenas or cultures (no-one can have knowledge of every sphere of society)  but with experience and reflection upon this experience comes wisdom.
  • Are they honest and hard-working? – the expenses scandal has shown many MPs were neither of these. Look for a candidate with a virtuous character – I’d rather have someone who was straight-talking and admitted to making mistakes and learning from them rather than someone who falls back on sound-bites and stubbornly refuse to say that they were wrong.

If we all voted this way, rather than along Party lines, what would our House of Commons look like? Arguably, it would be a much better, more collegiate, more productive place. Unstable Government? I doubt it. Alex Salmond recently made a very good argument on the benefits of a hung parliament as has been seen in Scotland. People have to make compromises, he said, and this means that there is more reasoned and rational discussion which ultimately leads to better governance.

My final remark is to say that we all need to get out and actually find out about our candidates. We need to vote from an informed position as to who would be represent us and our values, not from one of ignorance and laziness. This is our duty as the electorate.