Author Archives: Leo Watkins

Iran: what is unfolding?

The events that have begun to unfold in Iran over the past week are, as Western media continues to point out, seismic.

Undoubtedly this is a story which will, regardless of whether the protests succeed, have huge ramifications for the politics of the Middle East. I want to do three things – first, put a little perspective on the magnitude of the events, second, draw your attention to some of the best stuff from the vast amount of coverage, and then make a more general point about coverage of this event.

Much has been made of the fact that 60% of the population in under 30, and therefore wasn’t even born at the time of the 1979 Revolution. This is a significant fact, because it is the young, as one might expect, who are forming the backbone of the push for change inside Iran. They were the constituency that Mir-Hossein Mousavi most managed to excite, along with his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, who is hugely popular among Iranian women too.

That said, the protests are increasingly drawing people from all sectors of society – from the garbage men to the doctors and nurses, all kinds of groups have turned out to protest in their own way. Importantly, there is a sizeable and growing section of the Islamic Republic’s establishment which believes the vote-rigging, antics of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and even some of the public pronouncements of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, are not in the spirit of the 1979 Revolution, and not sustainable as approach to governance.

Today is the fifth consecutive day of massive protests in Tehran, with the figures reportedly surpassing Monday’s high, and now reaching around a million. Consider this: the Iraq war protests in the UK drew a million, but they were publicised in advance, highly accessible and totally unrestricted and so forth. These protests are having to be spread by word of mouth, often with just a day’s notice, and all while the government is:

  1. Threatening people who attend in a variety of ways (cold calling individuals to tell them they were spotted at a protest and are going to be arrested, threatening the death penalty for protesting)
  2. Spreading misinformation that the protests have been cancelled
  3. Not allowing the rallies to be publicised on the entirely state-controlled television, or in the papers, or via social networking sites (Iranian twitter and Facebook traffic is down 90%, with the rest having to use secret proxy servers)
  4. Keeping down the SMS service, and limiting domestic phone calls in parts of the country
  5. Organising its own rallies to intimidate the protestors

Giving free reign to the extreme, paramilitary, Revolutionary Guard-affiliated, armed organisation known as the Basij to terrorise protestors.

Many are pointing out that a lot of the tactics used by the protestors (calling pro-Mousavi slogans from their windows at night, organising ‘mourning’ rallies like the one held on today were also signature ones of the 1979 Revolution, and that one of the key stages in the 1979 events – when the police refused to attack protestors and started joining them – is starting to happen now. Nevertheless, we’re far from a revolution at the moment. For one thing, those leading the protests are largely drawn from the old guard of 1979, and so want the Islamic Republic merely to reform itself and become more democratic, rather than the whole thing being brought down and replaced. Given the fact that revolutions tend to get hijacked by the more hardline elements anyway (1979, but also most revolutions going back to the French one of 1789, shows that), it’s probably not a bad thing that if these protests succeed, we’ll see a reasonable degree of reform rather than a wholly new system.

Posted in News | Tagged and | 18 Comments

Opinion: Reconsidering political reform

The country is clearly experiencing a political crisis – the fact is so obvious as to barely need stating. MP expenses, a government with virtually no mandate, a sizeable chunk of the cabinet wholly unelected, including the ‘First Secretary’, Lord Mandelson: all this makes for a sizeable ‘democratic deficit’ – a term the Conservatives are ready and willing to apply to Brussels, but not so much to Westminster.

The Liberal Democrat policy position on constitutional reform is, uniformly, excellent and coherent – Single Transferable Vote, a cut in the number of MPs, a written constitution, committed localism, a great repeal of the many laws restricting civil liberties. I will go on to discuss how the coherence of those policies may be a problem for the party, but first I want to address a few presentational issues relating to electoral reform.

When the media talks about electoral reform, they invariably lead with remarks to demonstrate that they realise how boring the issue is – a kind of “don’t worry, like you ordinary folks, I find all this talk about the electoral system both deeply boring and utterly mystifying” (though probably using fewer words). Not only is this a counter-productive angle for the media to be taking on the issue – it confines discussion of it to self-appointed ‘policy wonks’ and academics – it’s one which is out of step with the British public, or at least could be made to be.

First off, I think there is an increasing interest in the issue – in a recent poll, 56% of respondents said they were in favour of Proportional Representation, for example. Even if you disagree, however, let’s be clear: I don’t find talk about electoral systems particularly interesting, but I am interested in the issue in so far as it is a pivotal one for deciding what kind of political system we have. I daresay written constitutions and bills of rights aren’t particularly glamorous things either, but somehow they become interesting because we identify them as pivotal to the political system.

Electoral reform has to become an issue that the public recognise as pivotal in our political system, because it absolutely is. The problem is, advocates of electoral reform have not been framing it in the right terms. In this regard, I think it would be useful to borrow some of the rhetoric used over MPs’ expenses. In that debacle, a constant refrain issued by members of the public and interviewers alike to still slightly shell-shocked MPs was “if I had done this at work, I’d have been fired”. After a while of hearing that, I realized that the way to characterize electoral reform is to talk of it as MPs’ terms of employment. That might be a more useful angle to take when presenting the urgency of this issue.

To take a step back for a minute and consider the wider political scene, I think the Lib Dems have to realise a number of things about this issue, as regards Gordon Brown’s mooting of Alternative Vote. Firstly, we are unlikely to see the electoral system change twice, unless the first change turns out to be a complete disaster and the second change is back to First Past the Post; or without a significant period of time elapsing in between.

Anyone who thinks Lib Dem support for AV might then lead to a situation where we’d be better placed to demand STV is therefore, in my view, mistaken. I don’t think that situation will ever arise.

Secondly, supporting AV means we are supporting a plurality (that is to say, non-proportional) system which can actually be more distorting than FPTP. In the left/right proportional/plurality continuum of voting systems, AV is to the right of FPTP, taking us further away, effectively, from the party’s stated goal of STV.

Thirdly, the argument that AV is only being brought in by this government for political reasons will be made by the Conservatives time and time again, and it would be both true and effective. The idea of defending Gordon Brown is not one that, I suspect, appeals to most Lib Dems. In fact, in the current political climate, I think it would be incredibly dangerous indeed to be seen to support any action this Labour government takes.

There are some issues on which the Liberal Democrats take a stance that I often feel is too purist. We insist on having things entirely our way, refuse entirely to compromise and, in doing so, marginalize ourselves from the political debate. Given that the electorate itself feels more marginalized than ever, I think this is an ideal issue for the Liberal Democrats to take a “plague on both your houses”, purist, anti-establishment stance.

We have to point out three things: first, Alternative Vote is a typical Gordon Brown fudge, designed to palm the British people off and avoid real change; secondly, the Conservative position of support for FPTP is no better, being driven entirely by cynical self-interest; thirdly, both parties are ultimately still talking about plurality voting systems, as opposed to actual proportional representation, however much they may want to kid you into thinking they’re debating PR.

The Liberal Democrats have a real chance to outflank both major parties here: call for what the Makes Votes Count campaign has been arguing for – letting a citizen’s jury decide what the best electoral system is, and then put that in a referendum, either at the next General Election or before.

We have to frame our argument as follows: we’ve seen what happens when MPs set their own pay and expenses; why should they be the ones who set their own terms of employment, too?

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | 14 Comments

Opinion: A Toast To Protest

Boris Johnson’s first act as Mayor of London was to ban the consumption of alcohol, and the carrying of open receptacles of it, on public transport. I have already outlined the case against in full over at my own blog, but to recap briefly…

Boris’ ban is essentially petty authoritarianism. Considering the wealth of existing legislation that criminalizes anything that infringes the rights of others on public transport, all this measure will do is criminalize those who keep themselves to themselves but wish, for whatever reason (and I can think of plenty), to drink on public transport. Boris says the ban will cut down on so-called ‘minor crime’, when it seems to me it will do quite the reverse, criminalizing otherwise law-abiding citizens.

I urge you to join me in protesting against this illiberal ban by donning your evening-wear, breaking out the liqueurs, and exercising your right to drink on the tube one last time this Saturday. On this Sunday, 1st June, the carriage turns back into a pumpkin as the ban comes into force. Therefore, the drinking will go on until midnight. There are a number of different events going on, most organised on Facebook; it looks like turnout could be anywhere between 5,000-10,000 combined, from all the different events.

The main ones can be found here, here, here, here, and here. The official website is here. Sunny Hundal of Liberal Conspiracy is also organising something, so you could always join him. Alternatively, you could follow these paragons of harmless eccentricity, and have a dinner party on the tube.

Most of the events kick off at Liverpool Street Station, so there’s likely to be a significant police presence there. If you want to avoid it, I’d recommend getting on at a later stop on the Circle Line such as Tower Hill or Monument.

Posted in London and Op-eds | Tagged and | 116 Comments
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