Seeking

So, I’ve been away and I’ve come back. I’ve spent most of the last 5 weeks at the Southborough l’Abri doing the l’Abri thing – which in my case has meant spending a lot of time thinking, reading, listening, talking about Meaning.

no where near as cold and snowy as I expected

Man’s search for meaning is pretty universal – most of us at some point wonder what on earth life is all about. We wonder if there can be any meaning behind our existence at all. To quote Friedrich Nietzsche:

Why am I alive?
What lesson am I to learn from life?
How did I become what I am, and why do I suffer from being what I am?

I think most of us, if not all of us, feel the pull of those questions through our lives. If we don’t, it is because we are better and better at distracting ourselves, lest we think about things too deeply and reach conclusions we don’t like. For me, coming from a Christian background and having spent the large part of my 20s in something of a religious fervour, I feel the pull of those questions keenly. I wonder what on earth life is all about.

Most of the time I live day-to-day. I’m getting better and better at it – at being present and in doing ‘normal life’. But I frequently wake up to myself and feel that each day is rolling into the next with a crushing, purposeless inevitability. That after tomorrow is another tomorrow no different from today. And what is the point of that?

After a busy, messy autumn I decided I needed some time to rest, to think etc, and that is why I ended up in Southborough (that and being homeless and unemployed). Thinking and talking about meaning.

copyright zenpencils.com

I’m not going to go into everything I’ve talked and thought about here today. It’s going to take me quite a while to process all my thoughts, read my notes, re-listen to lectures, discuss with friends etc. But I do want to say that a couple of cartoons here seemed poignant to me the last week or so.

I love the sentiment of the one above. The Sagan quote has a wonderful simplicity to it that I want to hold on to. But the cartoon itself is so naive, making light of war and suffering in a way that no genuine search for meaning can get away with. And even Sagan’s “brief and magnificent opportunity” is difficult, because it doesn’t lend any way to live, other than gratitude. Still, gratitude isn’t that bad…

The other one I wanted to add here was this:

copyright dilbert.com

When looking, be careful what you seek.

2012

My, my… I haven’t posted here since July…

You must all think I’ve expired.

Well, I haven’t. Been busy. Working, mostly.

Until very recently. Now I’m not working, I’m off here for a few weeks:

Photo by Mary Frances Giles

I don’t have anything intelligent to tell you right now. Instead, how about something that makes our intelligence and self importance seem somewhat ridiculous?

You know how humans are the only creatures to intelligently use tools AND have a sense of fun and leisure? Yeah, you’re wrong. Sledding crow:

How do you fight…?

I read an article in the Guardian on Saturday that really stuck in my mind. It was comment by Eve Ensler on the furore surrounding the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, in which she asked a series of questions. I want to reproduce those questions here:

This is a stream of the questions running in my head all morning.

How do you fight a rape case if you have lied in your past? How do you fight a rape case if you have been sexually active? How do you fight a rape case as a woman who wants a future in journalism, politics, banking, international affairs? How do you fight a rape case and ever hope to be taken seriously again or be perceived as anything other than a raped victim?

How do you fight a rape case as a woman in places like Congo where there are no real courts and no one is held accountable? How do you fight a rape case as an illegal immigrant with no rights in that country? 

How do you fight a rape case if you still believe rape is your fault, if you don’t even know what rape is, if you are afraid of upsetting your boyfriend/husband, or afraid of getting him in trouble because he will be more violent to you?

How do we get men to stop raping lesbians or independent or highly sexual women as a “corrective act” rather than addressing the forces and powers they are truly angry at? How do we get men to understand the impact of rape: how the external bruises are internalised and remain for ever?

How do you speak out against rape and not be called a man hater, a gold digger, a slut? How do you convince women to speak out when their character is called into public question?

How do you speak out against incest or childhood sexual abuse if your mother is sleeping with the man who is abusing you, and you know she loves that man or will not believe you? 

How do you speak out against the adored, handsome, powerful, charming company president/caring psychotherapist/honoured history professor/visionary film director when you risk being despised by those around him? How do you speak out against the charismatic leader of the party or country when to do so jeopardises the standing of the party, the country itself, and could let the opposition take power?

How do you press charges for sexual harassment and not worry about losing your job, or being seen as weak or unable to protect yourself or hang with the guys and “take a joke”.

When do we stop separating how we treat women from our vision of a free, equal, just world – ie how do you call yourself a socialist, an intellectual, a leader, a freedom fighter, an anti-apartheid, anti-racism, pro-earth champion, and not make honouring women a central part of that equation?

How do we create a real dialogue between men and woman about violence: what it does, how it hurts? How do we stop saying that women who are opposed to violence hate sex? When do we stop seeing them as the same thing?

I am a man, and as such I’m not sure if you will allow me to be a feminist. But these questions haunt me as well, and I want to see them answered. I want us, as a society, to honour women and treat them as equals. I want to see sexual harassment, objectification and subjugation removed. I want us to treat rape as what it is – the worst of all possible crimes.

How do we do that?

An update

Probably the best thing about my day at the moment is my walk to work. I’ve started renting (borrowing) a desk at a fantastic web development company called Rechord, who happen to be based just 20 minutes walk away from me. The quickest and easiest way to get to their place from mine is to get lost in the woods. Bloody marvellous.

There aren’t many woods in central London (OK, Bow is the edge of Zone 2, but its still more central than not), but Cemetery Park is a little oasis of wonderfulness, tucked inside a triangle of railway lines and behind an abandoned mental asylum. Once a cemetery it was then abandoned to become an overgrown tangle of woodland and wild flowers and is now maintained as a park and a nature reserve and a place of real shelter from the urban jungle. It’s very existence does wonders for my mental health.

The woods are my favourite place to go and have a smoke (every so often – wouldn’t want to get addicted now), and really take the edge off having to get up and go to work in a morning…

Work. I haven’t told you about work, have I? Since about November (January, really), I’ve been working for myself. This has been a challenge and an adventure, and I’m not entirely sure what I think about it. It is really too early to tell if it has been a successful endeavour or not.

I style myself as a ‘Freelance Copywriter’ although, to be fair, I don’t exactly have a website or business cards yet, so I could call myself anything. A ‘digital handyman’ might be appropriate… Over the last few months I have worked on a variety of things, projects long and short, well paid and not, but that basically fall into two camps: I write reports for some people, and help build websites for others.

It’s been an interesting process. I love having variety in what I do and who I work with. I love having projects that I can focus on for a time, and abandon when complete. I’m not so hot at motivating myself to look for work and do business development, and I really struggle with not having security of income and workflow. The last two months have been very busy (which is good), but I have no work lined up for July and August at present (which is not).

The most amazing thing about all this? Every single job I have had in the last 6 months has come through friends. Some have been current friendships, some have been new acquaintances that have become fast friends, some have been old friendships rekindled through need for work. But every piece of work has been, at least in terms of initial introduction, found through personal contact and based on me as an individual, rather than on a resume or application form. That has been a revelation.

So I press on. I don’t exactly have a better idea of what to do with myself, and I think this experiment needs to be run for a while to determine its success. It has created within me a very short-term view of life: I live for the next day, the next piece of work, the next contact, the next payment into the bank account. I feel unable to plan, but am not sure what plans I would make, if I did. After effectively living out of a suitcase for almost three years now, you’d think I’d be comfortable with that…

Ah yes, that. I guess I am as stable as I have been for a long while now. I have been back in London since October, and living where I am now since mid-November. Which is pretty stable, really. I live with my oldest friend, his wife and their housemate. We’re an odd bunch, but we get on very well (most of the time). I have a door to close and a bed to sleep on. It is just that that door is to the home office, and the bed is a futon sofa.

AJ & T have been incredibly generous to me, giving me space in their home office for a ridiculously low rent and even allowing me to work on the house in lieu of rent when work was/is scarce. But the reason the rent is low is that it is the home office, and I need to vacate it when work has to be done. My clothes are in a wardrobe now (yay!) but the rest of my stuff remains in boxes in Birmingham. It is far less temporary camping than most of the last three years, but it still feels like camping.

I long for some space of my own, and I long for a sense of stability. Place. Home. I don’t know what that looks like though, or where it would be. I am back in London because of friendships and work, but almost every day I wish to be somewhere else. Somewhere slower and greener and more permanent. I’m not sure that place exists just yet. I am living successfully enough where I am right now, but am not convinced I could live elsewhere in London just yet. My current bank balance certainly doesn’t think so…

Other parts of life, outside of work. I am embroiled (increasingly so) in a marvellous and somewhat chaotic social enterprise called Sweet Notions. It is an entertaining outlet, something I give time and energy to (in lieu of cash) and, increasingly, it is community to me. A wonderful, disorganised, passionate and slightly bonkers bunch of folks, trying to make a difference and having a lot of fun along the way. It’s like church, with less pretension and more alcohol (so maybe like church is meant to be). I seem to have gone from being an occasional spare pare of hands to ‘most regular meetings attendee’ and ‘unofficial sounding board’. These are not bad things to be, but I am trying (and failing) to resist more formal roles…

This year has also been about trying to set up a consultancy firm with AJ and a few others. A lesson in many things, first and foremost that of frustration. Starting things is hard, especially when you are all busy people. The dreaming and conceptualising is fun (always a favourite), but actually agreeing and compromising and sacrificing egos is hard. It may or may not yet happen, but I have enjoyed(?!) the process of creating a company and will be proud to see it done, even if there isn’t a place for me in the end result.

That is largely it, really. I still take photos and watch films and spend time with friends and, very occasionally, write. Life has become more insular in a lot of ways, as I get slowly drawn back into the vortex of London Life. I have slowly lost touch with friends far away, and I am very sorry about that. Communication has lapsed, as has this blog. My confession is that, after staring at the laptop all day at work, I rarely want to look at it when I get home. So blog posts don’t get written, emails don’t get sent, and I can’t remember the last time I was on skype…

I spent a couple of weekends getting to know a wonderful young fashionista from Sheffield last month. I’m not sure there’s anything more to say than that, but it was bloomin’ fun while it lasted…

I keep hoping that a little more stability is round the corner, but I think the reality is that this is my life right now. I am here, in London, working for myself and doing the day-to-day thing. I might feel like a lemming sometimes – running forward at a pace, not knowing what is ahead – but perhaps that isn’t as bad a thing as it sounds. This is where I am, and learning to be here (and not wishing I was somewhere else) is not a bad thing.

So, for now, I will live my life and enjoy the joys it has in it. I will enjoy the friendships I have here, the opportunities for coffee and food and wine with good company. I will enjoy the variety of work I have right now, if not the insecurity. And I will treasure and relish the little patch of wilderness on my doorstep, and the fact that I have to walk through it each day, on my way to work…

That’s my life right now. Consider yourselves updated.

A long, rambling post about the Alternative Vote system…

At present, the UK uses the ‘first past the post’ system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the ‘alternative vote’ system be used instead?”

On May 5th the UK goes to the polls again. There are elections for the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Island regional governments, and to many (but not all) of the local councils. And there is a nation-wide referendum on the voting system used for national parliament elections. This post is going to be all about that, so non-UK readers may want to look away now…

Despite being one of the oldest established functional democracies in the world (the “mother of all parliaments”), the British are very rarely asked their opinion on the mechanisms of our democracy. The last referenda were for the establishment of the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly, over a decade ago. We have never voted on our voting system before. Where other systems are used (as in elections to the other regional parliaments/assemblies) they were imposed with the new body – there was never a separate question as to by which means said body should be elected. So now, for the first time, we are being asked the question above: should we choose ‘yes’ or ‘no’?

I’m always a little loth to tell people how to vote, but I’m not going to pretend I don’t have a strong opinion here. I do. So I might as well spit it out.

I intend to vote ‘yes’. I think everyone should vote ‘yes’. People should only vote ‘no’ if they honestly believe ‘first past the post’ (FPTP) is the preferred electoral system.

Yes, I know that there are a lot of questions not being asked here. We are not being asked if we would like an alternative voting system – we are being given a specific choice between two systems. We aren’t being asked if we think the current system is unfair, or if we would prefer a more proportional system. AV, for all its benefits and faults, is not Proportional Representation. We are not being asked if we would like more coalitions, more consensus politics, reform of the House or reform of the Lords.

Just if we prefer AV to FPTP.

Lets be honest, very few people think AV is the best electoral system. It is Labour’s preferred system, and the only reason Miliband is campaigning against it is because he thinks it will give him advantage in the council elections. A move to AV has been Labour policy for years, mainly because it increases the possibility of them winning Tory marginals in London and the South East. AV means that those who naturally vote for smaller parties might benefit the larger party with 2nd preference votes. It reduces (but does not eliminate) the need for tactical voting among 3rd and 4th party supporters.

Here’s a video explaining the two systems in question (in case you’re confused).

The Problem

In this country, we have an effective two-party system. Although there are many, many political parties governments, regionally and nationally, tend to swing between the Big Two. The current coalition government is the first such government in my lifetime. It is only the second such government in my parents’ lifetime. They don’t happen very often. Why? Because FPTP benefits the two party system.

Under FPTP the candidate with the majority of votes wins. Seems fair, right? Well, it is. Except that, in a multi-party system, the majority of votes might not be a majority.

If you have only two parties, A and B, then FPTP makes perfect sense, as whoever has the most votes wins. It even works reasonably well when you have three parties. But in most UK constituencies at a national election you have 4, 5 or more parties standing, often with independents as well. Suddenly it is conceivable, even likely, that more people will vote for all the other parties than for the guy wins. And this is even more likely to be true at the national level, on average votes across the country.

In all the UK national elections from 1950-2010, no single party has everwon a majority of votes. The highest proportion of votes was 49.7%, by the Conservative party in 1955. Yet, thanks to FPTP, majority governments have been formed in all but two of the elections in that 60-year period.
[sources from here and here]

That’s good, right?

Well, one of the best arguments for FPTP is that it tends to return ‘strong governments’ ie, majorities in parliament. The whole British political system is built on an adversarial, two party system, where the government is formed by the party of the majority, and the minority votes against majority (in almost all cases). Except that it isn’t. Not any more.

While the UK national parliament is still shaped like this, none of the regional bodies are. All of the others use either AV or PR to elect their representatives, and as a result have coalition- or minority- governments as the norm. So it’s not as if the Brits are unused to more representative forms of government…

And that’s the problem with FPTP; it’s not representative. In 1997, when Labour was elected with a majority of 179 MPs (a massive landslide), only 43.2% of voters actually voted for them. In 2005 they still had a majority of 66, despite their vote-share sinking to 35.2%. This is because FPTP means voters of smaller parties (or even the opposition, in safer seats) are essentially disenfranchised. Only the guy with the most votes wins, so everybody else’s vote doesn’t really count.

My vote has never counted. I’ve never voted for the ‘big two’ in a national election, but no-one other than the big two has ever stood a chance of winning in any of the constituencies I have voted in. So my vote has, essentially, never counted. The reality may even have been worse, as my voting for C may have enabled A to win, even though I would never, ever want them to be in power (because voting for C took possible votes away from B).

So does AV solve the problem?

Yes and no. AV gives voters the opportunity to rank our preferences, meaning that people can put smaller parties as their 1st choice without fear of being disenfranchised. I could vote for C (or even D) and, by putting B as my second choice, know that my vote could still prevent A from winning. Hopefully.

It’s really not perfect. In many constituencies, the traditional ‘safe seat’, the incumbent MP wins with more than 50% of votes anyway, so AV is unlikely to have an effect. And you could argue the AV actually increases the likelihood of ‘least worst’ candidates getting elected. We’d end up with a parliament full of unobjectionable mediocre-ness. A whole parliament of Milibands. Scary.

And, of course, there is the fact that, under AV, hung parliaments and coalition governments are more likely to occur. And people aren’t very happy with the current lot…

Why you should vote ‘yes’

So, there are lots of imperfections about this referendum. It’s not the question we’d like to be asked, and the Alternative Vote is not the alternative system we would like to be given. But, it is the question we have before us, and it is an opportunity to change our democracy, if only a little bit. I think you should vote ‘yes’ on May 5th, because:

  • The current system isn’t representative – around 30% of voters don’t vote for the ‘big two’ parties. Their votes and opinions are largely unrepresented at a national level
  • It’s better than a poke in the eye… – AV may not be our preferred alternative voting system, but it is an alternative. It is a change to something that is slightly fairer, and that change is better than no change at all
  • We might not get a second chance – the only reason we have this vote, is because the last election did not return a majority. Electoral reform has been ‘on the agenda’ for a generation (or more), but this is the first time we’ve had a vote. That’s because it’s not in the interest of incumbents to change the system which brought them into power. There is a real danger that a ‘no’ vote will take electoral reform off the table until there is another uncertain election result which, on past performance, might not be for another 20, 30, or 40 years.
  • This might lead to further reform – yes, it’s a bit of a reach, but for those that desire a form of proportional representation, voting ‘yes’ is your best chance. AV increases the likelihood of smaller parties having a voice in parliament (or at least at election time), making it more likely that the question of electoral reform could return in the near future. Also, a successful implementation of AV would make it harder for naysayers to argue that the public can’t handle further change.

But isn’t Coalition politics a bad thing?

A lot of people seem to dislike the current coalition government. They are especially pissed off at a certain Mr Clegg for going into government with the Big Blue Toff Mr David Cameron. They think that was a bad idea, and are feeling a little hurt and disenchanted.

Fair enough. If you vote oranges and get apples, you have a right to feel a little peeved, especially if the leader of oranges has helped the apples form a government. But voting against AV in the referendum because you’re feeling narked? Grow up!

Voting against all coalitions because you dislike this one is a little daft, don’t you think? Especially as, if this coalition hadn’t happened, all you would have had was a minority apple government, which isn’t much better (and could have been worse).

Coalition government actually works very well all over the world. It works in Scotland, and Wales and incredibly, unprecedentedly successfully in Northern Ireland, where it is ensuring peace and stability after generations of conflict. It is the norm in most European nations. Coalitions mean that the full desires of any one party are unlikely to occur, but a moderate mix of policies from all coalition parties are likely instead. Which doesn’t seem so bad, does it? We’re just not that used to it, yet.

As peeved as you are with Mr Clegg, remember that next time it could be Lib-Lab, or Lab-Green (or even Lab-Tory). And that at the next general election, it is very likely that the Very Annoyed Students of Sheffield will see him lose his seat anyway. Be careful, when choosing how to vote, that you don’t end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

But won’t AV be very expensive?

No. No-one who knows about these things expects AV to cost any appreciable amount more than FPTP. Only idiots and scaremongers think otherwise.

Isn’t AV more confusing?

Really? You really think that putting a 1, 2 or 3 beside a candidates name is more confusing than putting an X? You already do it in regional elections, European elections, mayoral elections… All the confusion is with the counters, and I think they are paid well enough to know what they are doing.

Isn’t AV a championing of mediocrity?

So one friend has argued. Um, maybe. But I for one don’t think that’s a bad thing. I would rather have a moderate, cautious middle in power than a pendulum swinging between radical reformers. I think a lot of damage has been done to our health and education systems, in particular, by that pendulum’s swing.

Couldn’t you have said all of this in a shorter, punchier fashion?

Um, yes. Sorry. But I’m on holiday…

Here’s a summary:

  • AV or FPTP is the vote on the table. Of the two, I think most of us would say AV, and should.
  • It isn’t more expensive, it isn’t confusing
  • AV is fairer and more representative than FPTP
  • A ‘yes’ vote opens the door for further electoral reform in the future
  • A ‘no’ vote will likely close it for a generation
  • If you want to ‘punish’ Nick Clegg, wait for the general election or, if you must, use the council elections. This vote isn’t about him.
  • Coalition politics actually works really well around the world. We should have more of it, not less.