If you haven’t heard Justice Secretary Ken Clarke’s interview on Radio 5 live yet, it’s worth a listen. In less than five minutes he manages to go from patronising and offensive (not to mention completely ignorant of his departmental brief) to being an outright apologist for rape. Just not ‘real’ rape, you see?
It started as a discussion over Government proposals to half the sentences of those defendants who plead guilty (with no exception for rapists), over which a perfectly legitimate difference of opinion may be held. Personally I’ve always been sceptical of plea-bargaining systems as I feel they often pressure the accused into pleading guilty rather than presenting a proper defence, but given the notoriously low conviction rate for rape and the way long trials can affect the victims I can see the case for doing so. The interviewer, however, had a different angle on the issue, taking issue with the idea of lowering sentence lengths for rape itself. She brought up the fact that as “the average” sentence for rape was five years, and prisoners are typically released on license after completing half of their sentence, a rapist convicted under this scheme could expect to be back on the streets within “a year and a bit” (precisely speaking, fifteen months).
Ken Clarke immediately takes issue with this claim, insisting that this wasn’t true of “serious rape,” and that the interviewer’s figure included “date rape, seventeen year olds having sex with fifteen year olds.” This is where critical listeners start to take issue with his statements as not only does he seem to distinguish between “serious rape” and other rapes, implying that some rape is not serious and as such not deserving of serious punishment, he bizarrely seems to include date rape in this category of rapes that aren’t serious.
It’s also at this point he first demonstrates the extent of his ignorance of the law on such matters, despite not only being the Justice Secretary (and clearly not having done the research for the law he’s proposing) but also having once served as a lawyer in rape trials (as he points out himself during the interview). No doubt the law has moved on since that those days, but the facts today are clear. The recommended sentence for a “single offence of rape by single offender” is “5 years custody if the victim is 16 or over”. The use of the term “average” by the interviewer and subsequent BBC reports is unfortunate, this isn’t some statistical trick obtained by grouping in exceptional cases to bring down the mean, it is the standard sentence.
Regarding the Romeo and Juliet scenario mentioned, the relevant charge in this case is not rape but the separate “Sexual Activity with a Child” which, the perpetrator in Mr Clarke’s scenario being a minor, is likely to result in a much lighter sentence. Regardless, such cases do not contribute towards the statistics for rape sentencing unless one of the participants was unwilling, Mr Clarke’s insistence that “anybody has sex with a fifteen year old, it’s rape” shows he isn’t even vaguely familiar with the Sexual Offences Act, 2003, in which case, how can he be taken seriously when proposing such serious alterations to the carrying out of rape law?
He goes on to repeat his distinction of “serious rape”, now qualifying it as one in which involves “violence” and “an unwilling woman.” Leaving aside the question of why the rape of unwilling men is apparently not a serious offence, one has to ask how many people Ken Clarke imagines are servicing jail sentences for rape in cases where a jury believed that the victim was willing. Forget his lack of familiarity with criminal sentencing procedures, it appears the Justice Secretary doesn’t even know what the word “rape” means – apparently there is both consensual and non-consensual rape!
I’ll finish with a quote, I invite you to listen to the context yourself.
Interviewer: “Rape is rape.”
Ken Clarke: “No, it’s not.”
Despite being somebody who usually has firm opinions on just about any political issue, it took me a while to decide exactly where I stood on AV. My instinctive response was sympathetic; the potential of AV to weaken the dilemma of whether to vote tactically or on principle was one which I regarded with great positivity.
The first election in which I was eligible to vote was the 2009 European election in which I campaigned with Hope Not Hate and other anti-fascists to prevent a predicted win for the BNP in Yorkshire. We failed. A recurring subject of debate throughout the campaign was the question of which party was best placed to prevent the BNP winning a seat (and as such which would be the most honest party list to recommend as a tactical vote). Labour and Green were the main contenders, with some occasionally suggesting UKIP. It was clear that the party-political campaigners were savy to peoples fear of a fascist representing them in Strasbourg, and you can be sure every party offered up stats ‘proving’ that only they could keep the BNP out. As it turns out the Greens came closest to stopping the
BNP, and every voter won over from the Greens to Labour directly contributed to the fascist victory. A system which allowed multiple preferences would have prevented this from happening; I remained a supporter of preferential voting systems for some time.
The 2010 General Election only saw the tactical voting problem return with even more severe consequences. Left-wing political commentators (and presumably a good few voters) endorsed a tactical vote for the Liberal Democrats en mass, in order to keep the Tories out. They failed. And yet despite the inherent unfairness of this, I have come to oppose switching to AV; I believe that AV is even less democratic than the current system, that it will have a negative effect on both the diversity and the level of principle of opinion represented in Parliament and that it will institutionalise a political gravitation towards the centre-ground even greater than currently exists.
One recurring issue in the debate is as to the proportionality of AV. Sure, AV isn’t a form of PR but is it more proportional than FPTP or less? The answer, somewhat confusingly, is both. It is likely that under AV the Liberal Democrats will stand to benefit. If the 2010 General Election were conducted under AV then the Liberals would have gained significantly, while the Tories and Labour would have lost some. Notably the ‘big three’ collectively would not have lost seats. This deals considerable damage to any suggestion that AV would be ‘more democratic’ as it does nothing to increase the diversity of opinion represented and only serves to change the dynamic within the political centre.
It’s most accurate to say that AV is selectively proportional, producing more favourable results than FPTP for the centre and establishment parties and less favourable for small parties or parties of the hard left or right (even the large ones).
Australia was the first country to adopt AV as a voting system. It was introduced as a way for an increasingly fractured and divided right-wing to hold on to power and prevent the emerging Labour Party from gaining seats as a result of the Nationalists’ in-fighting. In Papua New Guinea AV was introduced explicitly to reduce the number of small parties and independents represented in the parliament (so as to make the process forming a government more stable) and the less said about Fiji the better.
A fourth country which has rejected plurality voting in favour of a quasi-majority run-off system (albeit in this case a two round system instead of an instant run-off/AV) for parliamentary elections is France. The French two round system is essentially an old fashioned version of AV, in which if there is no absolute majority in the first round those candidates scoring above a certain threshold go through to a second round of voting and the minor candidates are knocked out. This system often required an absolute majority of second round votes to be achieved in order to win the seat (although it can be done with less when multiple parties make the second round). The result of the implementation of this system on the political composition of the National Assembly was drastic. The French Communist Party, the largest party in France at the time, went from being the party with the largest share of the popular vote and the largest share of the seats, to being the party with the largest share of the vote but only a token minority of seats.
While some would argue that the limiting of the influence of ‘extremist’ parties is a good thing, it certainly cannot be called democratic. Equally it can be pointed out that AV will make it effectively impossible for the BNP or any future fascist parties to gain seats in Parliament, as they could no longer sneak in as a result of a split vote between the non-fascist parties with a minority of the vote, but would be required to break that menacing 50% barrier. But suggesting institutionalising anti-democratic practices in the electoral system as the basis of an anti-fascist strategy is a laughable proposal, if the BNP are to be defeated it won’t be through such shallow tricks.
This recurring trend here is that AV exerts a strong centralising force of the politics of the country. Parties need to adopt the least controversial, most moderate position in order to appeal to the same narrow ‘centre-ground’ (or unrepresentative middle class swing voters). A party which takes a principal stand outside of the existing political norm will fail to cross the 50% barrier in all but the safest of seats.
Further, while AV is not proportional, it does share proportional representation’s gravest drawback: coalition government will become more likely. So long as the Lib Dems stand to gain more seats a coalition is more likely to occur under AV than FPTP. This takes Governments beyond public accountability, no longer is a government the product of a popular election with clear manifesto commitments but the product of deals between political grandees and they become very difficult to remove. The Liberal support for AV is hardly surprising, so long as no other party wins a landslide it crowns them perpetual kingmakers.
Finally, it is hard to escape the fact that AV would be yet another gerrymander in favour of the Coalition (the previous being the redrawing of constituency boundaries). The Tories seem to be opposing it out of habit (maybe even a few out of principle) rather than their own interests. After the events of 2010 the remaining Lib Dem voters in 2015 are likely to be overwhelmingly those sympathetic to the Tories and favouring coalition with them, while the left-wing of their voter base drift to Labour or the Greens. This means the principle beneficiaries of AV will be the two right wing parties, much as is the case in Australia. Lib Dem and Tory voters would mutually preference each other higher than Labour. AV is the Coalition’s best hope to stay in power.
I’m not opposed to political reform, just those that are less democratic than the status quo. On the political reform front there are vastly more important issues than addressing the inadequacies of FPTP. We must demand the right of recall for MPs and Councillors, the abolition of the House of Lords, the end to any constitutional role for the Windsor family and the transfer of the powers of Royal Prerogative to the Commons. We should advocate the election of all senior officials who exercise state power independent of Parliament, and to that end we should demand that the Tories keep their manifesto promise for elected police commissioners.
There are real ways we can improve democracy, AV isn’t one of them.
Regime change is the objective of our military operations in Libya. This pronouncement by our esteemed leaders was only slightly more defiant of the tyrant Gaddafi than of the Security Council resolution which authorised military operations in the first place.
In showing such complete disregard for the terms of their own mandate this triple entente of dizzyingly over-enthusiastic armchair liberators have cast of the vague mask off ‘humanitarian intervention’ in favour of a more opaque partisanship. Even opponents of this war would be tempted to respect such bold honestly had it been present from the start, but they decided to bring their countries to war on the false pretences of minimising civilian casualties instead.
While it is hard to imagine how the use of depleted uranium could possibly qualify as taking “all necessary measures… to protect civilians,” any reasonable person will of course accept that in the pursuit of bringing a rapid end to this conflict some civilian casualties are inevitable, and could (hopefully) serve to reduce the death toll in the long run.
But bombing for peace this is not; the NATO backed rebels have already refused the ceasefire negotiated by the African Union and coalition support has only intensified. The twisted nature of this state of affairs couldn’t be made more plain than by reference to the first demand of resolution 1973:
“[the Security Council] Demands the immediate establishment of a cease-fire and a complete end to violence and all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians;”
while the second point,
“notes the decisions of the Secretary-General to send his Special Envoy to Libya and of the Peace and Security Council of the African Union to send its ad hoc High Level Committee to Libya with the aim of facilitating dialogue to lead to the political reforms necessary to find a peaceful and sustainable solution;”
So long as the newly resurgent rebels insist that no ceasefire will be acceptable the only effects we can conclusively say the British, French and US bombing campaign has had is to prolong and escalate a bloody civil war and to contribute significantly to the death toll, the very opposite of what they were supposedly fighting for.
But regardless of legality and the limitations on the authorisation from the perpetually useless UN, Gaddafi is a tyrant few will miss when he’s gone. No revolution has ever been bloodless, surely his removal is worth a small price in blood? Well, probably not. The initial protests showed signs of promise, and in the euphoria of the Arab Spring it would be easy to lump the Libyan rebels into the same camp as the revolutionaries in Egypt and Tunisia, but the comparison is shallow at best.
Very quickly the uprising shifted from a series of spontaneous revolts to one far more tribal in character. The ethnic dimension of a rebellion backed by Eastern tribal leaders yet met with limited enthusiasm among the western population is a disturbing one, particularly as decades of nationalist government had gradually sidelined the tribalism in this once very divided country. The prospect of renewed tribalism or even ethnic conflict needs to be kept in mind at all times.
Meanwhile the backgrounds of the rebel commanders seem to suggest the transitional government is more a split from the existing military-bureaucratic state apparatus than it is a creature of the original grassroots opposition, the shoots of which seemed to have been trampled at birth. General Abdul Fatah Younis was Gaddafi’s enforcer, head of the ministry of the interior and the state repression forces with links to international terrorism. He is now in crowded company among those officers and apparatchiks who defected from long term reigns at the top of the Jamahiriya to the rebels once it became clear which side the western powers had decided would win. He was swiftly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Libyan People’s Army – so much for the ‘new politics’ in Libya then. But don’t worry too much, he was recently replaced as leader of this ‘home-grown’ rebellion by an agent of the CIA…
The true tragedy of all this is that an opportunity of such potential for genuine change has been so squandered and so roughly abused by this broad church of reaction. While the socio-economic factors aren’t as ripe as they are in Egypt and Libya certainly lacks the existing working class organisation that Egypt had in its emerging labour militancy, the potential for the initial wave of opposition in Libya to develop into a genuinely popular revolution was very real. But bombing of the relatively sedate Tripoli does nothing to win its people over to the fight against Gaddafi (a necessary condition for any such revolution) and can only serve to crush hopes of such a possibility.