Thursday, January 16, 2020

Contrasts

However much we may dissect policy or discus technicalities, sometimes politics is emotional, based on a sense of who we are and who we want to be. It's about what we find instinctively attractive. Here are two speeches in the European Parliament.

This is what we are leaving behind.



The second is what we are staying with. You can watch Ann Widdecombe's speech if you have the stomach for it. I can't bear to post it. You will have to follow the link. She spews out hatred for foreigners (aka free movement - a reciprocal right, something she ignores) in a furious response to a request that Britain does what the Leave campaign actually promised to do during the referendum. It's English nationalism in the raw - contemptuous, paranoid, triumphalist, and immensely stupid. It's hateful, gut-wrenchingly hateful, and not wholly sane.

When nationalism has been unleashed in the past, it has destroyed Europe. It has committed genocide. It has smashed communities. It has spread misery. The EU is a conscious attempt to defuse the poison by brining independent nations together in a community. It's about taming and controlling political nationalism, not the impossible utopianism of the abolition of nations.

This is why I am an instinctive European. It's something that I feel as much as think. I am drawn to the open, inclusiveness of the EU, regardless of the institutional framework. I am a European. It is my identity, just as much as is my Englishness.

And so, at the end of this month, I will be one of the people who will be heartbroken. I will be devastated, as much for the future of my country as for myself. And I fear for our entry into the darkness of a malign nationalism. It is why I hope that Reintke is right and that we will return. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The dunces' decade

"It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way ..."

***

I've always loved the opening to Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, even though the novel is not one of my favourites. It captures the ambiguity of revolution perfectly. It's being revived as the theme for a TV advert for BT. I'm not a purist, I am delighted to see good literature made visible, even in this way. It may make some people read. And it got me thinking about the decade we have just lived through and how we would describe it. Could we use the same literary device?

It was the era of idiocy and the era of ... er ... more idiocy.
It was ... no, that's about it. Idiocy. We are living in an idiotcracy.

Anyone who writes a history of the 2010s in the future could do a lot worse than call it, WTF were they thinking of?

Anyway, let's try and write a brief chronicle of the politics of the decade.

The 2010 general election was held in the wake of the financial crisis and at the tail end of the New Labour governments. It resulted in a hung parliament, partly as a result of a Liberal Democrat surge on a raft of left leaning policies. Then the Lib Dems destroyed themselves by going into coalition with the Conservatives, putting Cameron in power, and instantly reneging on their promise to abolish university tuition fees. There was no way back after that. WTF were they thinking of?

The government's response to the effects of the crash was not to continue with the mild stimulus that had stopped the global economy grinding to a halt, but to cut spending, do enormous damage to public services, halt the recovery, and let the Liberal Democrats take most of the flak. WTF were they thinking of?

The 2015 general election, partly as a result of the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, gave the Conservative Party its first majority for 18 years. Cameron had a problem with fringe eurosceptic loons in his party and UKIP outside. He was certain that the one thing that Britain must not do was to leave the European Union. So, to make sure that it wouldn't happen, he called a referendum on whether it should or not. Without any safeguards. Parliament voted for one. It was advisory, but Cameron insisted that the government would treat it as binding. He lost. WTF were they thinking of?

Labour's response to its 2015 defeat was to elect a new leader using a mad method that gave a vote to anyone prepared to pay £3. MPs nominated someone for the shortlist who they didn't want to win. He won. He was an elderly backbencher of no discernible ability and with no record of achievement of anything other than support for anti-Western dictatorships and dodgy violent movements, expressed together with his visceral hatred of the State of Israel. He had never held a cabinet or shadow cabinet post in thirty plus years, with good reason. But he became a symbol of the left and the object of a bewildering cult of personality. Those of us who pointed out that not only was the emperor naked, but he also had an unsightly skin complaint and poor personal hygiene, were abused and cast into the outer darkness. Labour lost every election - local, European, and general - that he led them in to. He was hailed as a saint. WTF were they thinking of?

2016 and the new Conservative PM, Theresa May, announced that "Brexit means Brexit" as a way of not telling anyone what Brexit meant. Parliament voted to invoke Article 50 without knowing what Brexit meant either. It turns out it meant something that the Leave campaign promised would not happen. Then in 2017 she called a general election to increase her majority and lost it. She shored up a minority government with the only Northern Ireland party to oppose the Good Friday Agreement. WTF were they thinking of?

I can't possibly track the humiliations that led to May's resignation and her replacement by a man universally acknowledged as unfit to be PM, who illegally prorogued parliament and failed to resign for a resigning matter. Having lost his majority, only one thing could have saved him, a general election against a divided opposition. The opposition could have blocked it. They didn't. They gave it to him. And remained divided. WTF were they thinking of?

And now we stand on the threshold of a new decade. It will begin with a pointless and expensive act of self-harm, from which recovery will be difficult. And with our absurd, deeply unserious, and dishevelled Prime Minister begging for money - "bung a bob for a Big Ben bong" - to fund repairs to the clapper of Big Ben so that it can ring out to celebrate an event that more than half the population don't want to happen. That's how far we have sunk.

Things can only get better. Perhaps.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Happy New Year?

The start of a new decade doesn't fill me with optimism. Britain has a new Conservative government with a secure majority and is about to leave the EU. I can't remember any government winning a comfortable majority by pledging to make the worst mistake any government has made since the Second World War. What's more, they are making this mistake by mistake. A referendum called to cement our place in the EU, ended up legitimating the fringe idea of leaving it. Claims of democracy ring hollow, as Chris Grey comments:
We have just had an election campaign in which Johnson made ‘getting Brexit done’ the central theme. Yet, as pointed in a previous post, he avoided saying almost anything about how it would be done – and neither the opposition parties nor the media were able to pin him down.
So he will now claim a mandate from voters for doing it any way he wants. It is a travesty of democracy, which replicates the way that during the Referendum Brexiters refused to tell voters what they were voting for, only to define it later and claim it as the ‘will of the people’.
And that's without the obvious point that the leave vote was smaller than the remain vote.

So how did we get here? For much of 2019 it appeared that remain was winning. The Tories had no majority and another election was not due for another two years. As a policy, leave is dead. It has nothing to offer and is based on fictions. Any majority it once had is gone, and will diminish further due to simple demographics, with an overwhelming remain majority amongst the young. The People's Vote campaign mobilised huge anti-Brexit demonstrations across the country. There is little enthusiasm for Brexit and no national consensus. It will be a continuing sore in British politics. It's a personal disaster for me with my life lived partly in Greece, it's a comprehensive defeat for the left, and it's an absolute catastrophe for the country. Yet the European cause has lost. It was in a position to win in Parliament, but threw it away. Or to be more precise, it was the stupidity of two party leaders who threw it away.

Best for Britain have tweeted a Private Eye article based on their research and activity. They had commissioned massive, detailed, multi-level polling research and reached the conclusion that if the Brexit Party helped the Conservatives, which they did by standing aside in Tory-held seats, then the Conservatives would have a majority of between 40-100. The evidence was compelling, and proved to be spot on. The LibDems refused to believe it, locked into the fantasy that they were about to achieve a massive breakthrough. Best for Britain showed the research to some Labour MPs, who were impressed. Emily Thornberry took it up in the shadow cabinet and tried to argue that Labour's strategy should be to win a second referendum in Parliament and only back a Johnson call for a general election after the referendum had settled Brexit. Given the make-up of Parliament, that was a distinct possibility. She was overruled by Corbyn and Milne. They both believed, against the evidence, that they were on the road to victory. Johnson was given his election, despite the power of the opposition to block it, and his path to a majority was clear.

Why did they do it? Hubris? Over-confidence? Magical thinking? Vanity? Who knows. They were faced by an obvious charlatan and confidence trickster and they fell for his line. They might just as well have signed up to a pyramid scheme. Swinson lost her seat. Corbyn remains leader, at least temporarily, and Milne is still drawing his £100k+ salary, despite being the architect of this disaster. Their collective inadequacy has ruined the country, while their ignominy will be meat and drink to future historians.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Happy Holidays

Merry Christmas to all my reader(s -possibly)

2020 promises so much joy. Brexit and a Johnson government with a secure majority. I can hardly contain my excitement.

And when we leave the EU, we are promised more bloody 50p pieces, the bells of Big Ben ringing out, and a festival of Brexit. What jolly japes.

I think we should have more commemorative events for other such great moments in our proud island history. Such as:

Suez Day - relive the triumph of 1957 and the might of the British Empire.

A Festival of Appeasement - decorate the streets in pieces of paper, celebrate peace in our time, and wait nervously until Nazis bomb the crap out of us.

Lord North Remembrance Sunday - who wanted those American colonies anyway?

To paraphrase Joseph Conrad - "The stupidity ... the stupidity."

Monday, December 16, 2019

Eleven for Christmas

We are now at the post-election phase when people write pieces about how the result proves that whatever they have been saying all along was right and if everyone had done what they said they should, all would be fine.

It's cognitive dissonance. Nature's way of ensuring that we keep making the same mistakes and feel good about it.

So, here is mine.

Rather than say, 'I told you so,' even though I did, here are my ten commandments. There are eleven of them.

1. The press is biased against Labour. Of course it is. You knew that before the election. Don't moan about it now. That's why winning Labour leaders had strategies to deal with it, run by ruthless and effective press officers. Think Joe Haines and Alastair Campbell. Don't think posh apologists for Stalin.

2. Relevant to the above is that study after study shows that propaganda is only effective if it is rooted in either real, lived experience, or in widely held popular prejudices. Attacks on Corbyn were often exaggerated but were not 'smears.' They were mainly true. It's best not to pick a leader who is vulnerable, but if you insist on doing it, be honest and apologise for past 'mistakes'. Don't flood the internet with lies about his saintliness.

3. The electoral system is crap. Again, you knew that before, and you knew that you couldn't change it without winning by it. There is no constitution fairy. You have to plan your strategy around it. That meant not flooding unwinnable seats with resources and not bothering with the ones that you could lose. It also meant not splitting your vote. Johnson got that, winning over the Faragists. So, what did Labour and the Lib Dems do? Slag each other off and run candidates against each other, giving the Tories a large number of seats with small majorities on a minority of the vote. Genius.

4. Don't develop theories without examining the data. The truth is much more complex than the headlines. Really don't. Oh. You have.

5. Know your enemy. Johnson was a terrible candidate in a weak position. He had one strength. He was new. He was the change candidate, even though he wasn't really. The public needed time to see his weaknesses – so you must never give him the advantage of an early election before disillusion sets in. That's why we passed a Fixed Term Parliament Act. Ah.

6. Know your enemy and know yourself. Johnson was a terrible candidate and his strategists knew it. Corbyn was an even worse one, and Johnson's strategists knew that too. It might have seemed a weakness to have hidden Johnson away in a cupboard, but it was canny. It meant the election became about Corbyn. And because of his vanity and hubris, Corbyn welcomed it. Except that he was generally loathed and ridiculed. An election about Corbyn was lost from day one.

7. Don't think the election result was determined by your pet hobbyhorse, even if it was. For example, I have never seen a Lexiter, who says that if we had supported leave we would have won, explain what would have happened with the 70% of Labour voters who voted remain. How about taking a decision based on your judgement of the national interest and explain and defend it clearly, preferably without patronising people?

8. Don't fudge vital issues, it makes you look as if you don't know what you are doing. OK. You really don't know what you are doing, I get that, but don't make it look as if you don't.

9. Don't ignore the data if you don't like it. Labour were given extensive polling and intelligence from their key constituencies. All said that they were in deep trouble and were going to lose big. So, what did they do? You guessed right.

10. When looking to elect a new leader to sort out this horrible mess, just remember that authority trumps authenticity.

11. Clarity beats complexity in any campaign. Don't offer a jumble of policies – fix on one or two clear, decisive pledges, like, er, 'Get Brexit done.' Oh dear.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Failure

Let's be clear to begin with. The real blame for this mess lies with Cameron. The Tories have had a majority for only two out of the last twenty three years and in those two years they unleashed chaos. They have been unjustly rewarded for it.

Second, let's not forget that the referendum campaign was flooded with lies and illegalities, the election campaign was worse, more cynical, and showed a flagrant disregard for the normal rules of democratic conduct.

Institutions were not up to the job. The electoral system is utterly dysfunctional - delivering majorities to minorities. Voting looks to have matched remain/leave polling. The referendum result was reversed in votes, but has delivered a huge majority to the main leave party.

These factors are real enough.

But for every success there is a failure in an electoral zero sum game. This has been a colossal failure of the opposition.

The usual sources on social media will be working on their excuses. They will blame the electorate – thick; the media – biased; billionaires – corrupt; Blairites - red Tory weasels; Brexit - turning people away from the true faith; and, on the fringes, Israel – secretly controlling the world. Once you cease to be an obnoxious teenager, you start to take responsibility for your own actions. Or you should. Some never do. Cue Corbynistas.

People like me called him out as not up to it from the very beginning. The 2017 election was a bit of a reprieve. I waited for some rebuilding, a bit of inclusivity, and a reflection on where we go from here. It never happened.

Brexit was important. The 2017 Labour manifesto said that Labour would impose a hard Brexit. Remainers didn't believe it. I had to show one person the page in the manifesto and he still refused to accept it. The Party and voters were overwhelmingly pro EU. It was time for clarity. Instead, the Brexit cabal of Corbyn and his pet Stalinists - Milne, Murray, and McCluskey - had to be dragged towards unconvincing ambiguity. If you pretend to support two mutually contradictory sides, you end up being mistrusted by both.

It was also a time for decisive leadership. Labour had to commit to a position based on principle. It should have committed to remain and explained why - consistently and forcibly. People respect courage and reason. The minority of older Labour leave voters may have wanted Brexit, but if remain had been explained, not just in economic terms of the damage it would do, but in the good old-fashioned language of Labour patriotism, of solidarity, of the power and prestige of the nation leading the continent, the argument would have been respected. But if, and only if, they respected the person delivering the message. Corbyn was loathed by them. He poisoned remain. Even though he was a secret leaver, he had no credibility with leave either. Polls and canvassing had shown that for years, but still Labour persisted with a leader who could not lead.

In the meantime, May went down to an historic Commons defeat – three times. Vote of no confidence called? Nope. Johnson illegally prorogued Parliament. Vote of no confidence called? Nope. Then there was the agreement for a temporary unity government to bring down Johnson and launch a second referendum before calling a general election. The crisis would be resolved. What happened to that one? Well, the deal was that an elder statesman, and someone who was not a party leader and had no career ambition, would become temporary Prime Minister. Corbyn insisted it should be him, despite not fitting the bill and being unable to command the confidence of other parties and independents. He killed it. Even then, a vote of no-confidence would have given a hiatus that would have given him the first pick of trying to gain a majority. Was one called – even in these extreme circumstances? Nope. Johnson lost his majority and was there for the taking. What did Corbyn do? Nothing. The only thing that Johnson desperately craved was an election where he could turn a minority of votes into a majority in Parliament and avoid any scrutiny. At last, Labour resisted. Under the Fixed Term Parliament Act they had a veto. No election was due until 2022. Johnson was cornered. Then, the day after voting to deny him an election, Corbyn overrode dissent in his own party and gave Johnson what he wanted. An election. On the day Johnson wanted. And before Labour had selected all its candidates, when the Party machinery was creaking under the strain of the anti-Semitism scandal, and when Corbyn himself had an approval rating of minus 60. Yes, minus 60. The worst personal polling in history. Great. It was suicidal.

The last chance was an electoral alliance. Both Swinson and Corbyn failed. It would have been difficult for Swinson because many had joined her side because of their loathing of Corbyn. Both decided to fight their corner when the situation called for unity. Once again, antipathy to Corbyn was the block. The result was a split anti-Tory vote in many constituencies.

Corbyn, a marginal backbencher, supporter of any grotesque tyranny that would oppose the West, a man without any substantial achievement to his name in 35 years in Parliament, was thrown into the leadership as a symbol of the left. The collective of the Labour Party became subsumed under the cult of personality of a mediocrity. Corbyn worship depoliticised the Party. It didn't matter what he did, how much he backtracked, how shallow his politics were, how shameful the growth of anti-Semitism, none of it mattered. All his followers did was lie about his dubious past. He became above scrutiny. His Labour opponents failed in their duty to free us from this baleful leadership.

It's now complete. He has lost every national election during his time as leader. The lot. And this time he has lost to a completely unfit Conservative party at a critical time in the nation's history. I don't think it will be on Corbyn's conscience. He strikes me as too self-righteous for that. But it should be on all his supporters'. This wasn't just a failure of one man. Political hobbyists indulged their fantasies, elevated someone manifestly incapable, never bothered that he said little other than platitudes, ignored the evidence of his unpopularity that was there in abundance, and weren't put off by an overwhelming vote of no-confidence by the Parliamentary Party. At that point, Corbyn should have resigned. He didn't and his admirers voted him back in, while sharing ever more ridiculous and dishonest memes about his virtue. And the stench of anti-Semitism was embraced and replicated with relish.

Please learn. Never abandon critical faculties in the face of a cult of personality. Left populism is as malign as right populism. Progress isn't a matter of 'bad' people being replaced by 'good' ones. Remember that politics is about ideas, programmes, policies, and truth - my how they abandoned truth. It is not about empty symbolism. It is about managing conflicting interests. It is about the real lives of all the people of the country. If you are from the left, it is about effective and practical politics to advance the welfare of the people. And it is a collective effort. I cringed at all these 'I support Jeremy Corbyn' and 'Vote Corbyn' memes. You should support Labour and vote Labour, not support and vote for an amorphous cypher on to which you can project your hopes. The outpouring of sanctimonious self-indulgence was a collective collapse of intelligence. The signs were there from the beginning if people wanted to look.

We now face a ruinous government. That's the Corbynite legacy. This deeply reactionary English nationalist party could have been resisted and defeated. It's time to ask yourself why it wasn't. Here's a clue. It wasn't because of the media, billionaires, Jews, lizards, or chemtrails, etc. It was because a section of the left lost its mind.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Approaching the losing post

It's the final week of the most dismal election campaign I can remember. Johnson has an approval rating of minus 20. A desperate losing position, except that Corbyn has an approval rating of minus 40 (an improvement on his minus 60 when the campaign started). That is the choice. In normal circumstances, neither would be electable. On top of that, Labour is led by a Brexiter pretending to be a remainer, the Tories by a cynical remainer pretending to be a Brexit ultra. The reality is that Johnson is solely committed to himself, while Corbyn's ultimate aim is maintaining sectarian control of the Labour Party.

The campaign has been remarkably inept and dishonest. Labour were unprepared. The Conservatives' behaviour has been extraordinary in avoiding any scrutiny and hiding Johnson away as he proved to be a hopeless campaigner and media performer. He crumbled into lies and bluster at any challenge that he was unable to dodge. The Jewish Labour Movement's leaked submission to the EHRC inquiry paints a picture, drawn from the testimony of Labour whistle-blowers, of deplorable institutional anti-Semitism. The Party's response has been to lie about the action they are taking, while their supporters duck the issue by screaming, "Look at the Tories, they're worse." My response is always, "Yes, they are. It goes with the territory of making the Conservatives a far-right populist party. They are supposed to be. It should be non-existent in Labour. In fact, Labour should be leading the fight against it. A bit of self-examination wouldn't go amiss."

The Conservatives are favourites purely because they have eliminated their chief rival for votes, the Brexit Party, by transforming the Tories into their equivalent, while purging the party of its remainers. This is ruthless politics. And it is effective. Remainers have squabbled and, despite many opportunities to ally against Johnson, have failed to do so. Given our perverse electoral system this could be decisive. It is now up to the voters to see if they can do through tactical voting what the politicians could not.

This election is the latest gift to the right-wing Brexit revolutionaries. No Parliament would have ever voted to leave the EU, and so they agitated for a referendum to by-pass it. Cameron was stupid enough to give them one. Having lost his majority and constrained by Parliament, Johnson was in a weak position. The threat to Brexit was a confirmatory referendum. This is because the polls were showing an 8-10 point lead for remain – around 55-45. A referendum would probably keep us in the EU and lose Johnson his power base. In a general election, given the electoral system, a 55% vote share for remain parties and a 45% share for leave parties could give leave a decisive parliamentary majority as long as the remain vote is split. The same remain majority would not be enough to prevent us leaving. So, what did the opposition do? Give them what they wanted.

Corbyn was decisive in supporting the election. Many of the Parliamentary Party and Shadow Cabinet were furious. Most wanted to try and win a referendum first, settle the Brexit issue and then move on to an election. However, Corbyn boasted to the Guardian,
“I put it to them quite clearly: I said, our objections are now gone. We are now supporting a general election – and everybody gulped. I didn’t alert anybody in advance – it was my decision. On my own. I made that decision. And they gulped, and said, Yes Jeremy.”
Yes, they gulped as Corbyn turned a position of strength into one of weakness. They didn't vote against it, let alone try and depose him. Cowardice. In the meantime, Corbyn tweeted that he supported an election as, "No Deal is now off the table," and by doing so promptly put no-deal back on the table again.

Whether Corbyn understood the difference between the withdrawal agreement and a deal is not known. Does Johnson? His slogan, "Get Brexit done," obviously played better with the focus groups than, "People against Parliament," but it is a lie and offers the possibility of a no-deal Brexit if he does not extend the transition period - which he has pledged not to do. The only comfort is that has done nothing that he has promised to do in the past.

And this is where we are. The most crucial election since the war, in which the future of the country hangs in the balance. An election dominated by the ambitions and vanities of two of the worst party leaders I can remember (though Ian Duncan-Smith pushed them close but was knifed before he could wreck the joint.) It's an election fought using different sets of lies, exaggerations, and vagaries. And it's all the result of a long series of institutional failures; putting the ultimate power of selection in the hands of unaccountable and unrepresentative political hobbyists; a supine and partisan press; persistent lying that treats the electorate with contempt; inadequate electoral laws subverted by the internet; and an arbitrary electoral system. But the biggest failure of all was calling a referendum that was unwanted by most, about an issue that few thought important, and was understood by virtually nobody other than experts.

It was odd to be reminded of Jordan Ellenberg's, How Not to Be Wrong: The Hidden Maths of Everyday Life, by an article on VAR in football. However, it brought up a really good point.
But in the 2000 US presidential election, for instance, a few hundred votes in Florida made all the difference nationally and put George W Bush into the White House. The final margin represented 0.01% of the total votes cast, but as Ellenberg points out, “the imprecision caused by ballots spoiled, ballots lost, ballots miscounted is much greater than the tiny difference in the final count”. 
It would make more sense, Ellenberg argues, to decide the outcome on the flip of a coin. Some, he says, will recoil from the idea of choosing leaders by chance, and yet “close elections are already decided by chance”, be it “bad weather in the big city, a busted voting machine in an outlying town” or any one of dozens of potential random variables.
The closeness of the referendum result meant that it was down to just such a cluster of arbitrary variables that could easily have gone the other way. It was decided by around 600,000 people out of the 33 million who voted and the 13 million who didn't. If they had voted another way, the result would have been reversed. Yet this chance result is treated as holy writ, an incontestable decision enshrining the will of the people – "it's democracy." This is ridiculous. It has distorted our politics, but is the result of the misuse of referendums in a representative democracy. The only thing that seems to matter is the result, not the consequences. The consequences are momentous, out of all proportion to the way the decision was made. It is a huge constitutional failure.

We are beginning to see some debate about our democracy and the constitution, but not enough – yet. Even the most recent constitutional change, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, has been ineffective. Though it fixes the time between general elections at five years, we are now on our third in the last four years. The constitution is a mess, all the indicators are pointing the wrong way, and the political class seem no nearer to thinking constructively about the problems. Instead, all they seem to want to do is to game a malfunctioning system. It's not encouraging.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Instead of a slogan

A proper, comprehensible, and informed discussion of the withdrawal agreement and the politics behind it.


A winter's tale

This isn't a normal election. The consequences are profound and long lasting. Despite this, all I can see around here is a combination of indifference and hostility. There are no posters in windows, no boards in front gardens, little chatter, and less excitement.

What about the leaders?

On Labour, Joe Pike of ITV News tweeted:
A normally loyal Labour MP on Corbyn and prospects for #GE19 :
‘We’re led by a lunatic. He’s a nice but dim man who is being controlled by truly evil people.’
Apparently, this isn't an isolated opinion. It appears to be one of the more restrained ones. I have often commented before how the Parliamentary Labour Party reminds me of places where I have worked when we had a disastrous manager - heads down, keep smiling, reassure everyone that all is well, try and keep it going despite everything. In the meantime, Corbyn's personal ratings are the lowest since polling began.

Can it be recovered? Perhaps it can if we turn to the Tories.

What can you say about Johnson? Chosen because he was seen as popular, charismatic, and a good campaigner, rather than capable of doing the job, he turns out to be none of those. He's been swanning round the country being insulted by all and sundry, drawing visceral hatred from people in the street, while showing himself to be confused, inarticulate, and plain wrong about many things. He's bluffing his way through and making up things. Scandals threaten and he responds by lying.

An election where 'Stop Corbyn' fights 'Stop Johnson' is not healthy. No wonder there is little enthusiasm.

Hanging over this is Brexit. This is why this election will shape Britain for a generation. And it's another reason for a lack of enthusiasm. Both the main parties are trying to avoid the issue. Johnson by wittering on about getting it done, Labour are hedging their bets. Instead of forensic analysis of the proposals and consequences of Brexit, we have dire sloganising. This is infantilising the electorate. They're not daft, they notice.

All the while, Brexiters fight amongst themselves over the true meaning of Brexit. As Chris Grey comments,
... the hard core Brexiters don’t want Brexit at all: they want to be perpetual victims, perpetual campaigners, perpetually betrayed. Winning the referendum was their nightmare, not their triumph.
The result is, as Grey points out again,
... if Brexit does go ahead it will be done against the wishes of the majority, who now want to remain, but, in any form it occurs, it will leave a substantial minority of those who do want it thinking it is a betrayal of Brexit anyway.
This is the winter of our discontent. It is the season of sullen resentment and a search for escapism. The country is better than this. The Conservative Party did this to us by dumping its existential crisis on the country in an act of craven irresponsibility. God help us if they are the ones who gain as a result.

Monday, November 11, 2019

And they're off

Once it became clear that Johnson could get a parliamentary majority for his withdrawal agreement, he managed to call an election so that he could get a majority for his withdrawal agreement. The parties have now set out their main election narratives.

Conservatives: We will make the worst mistake since the War. We will make it as badly as possible. You will have a terrible time. But at least it will be over - even if it won't be. Anyway, we're only doing it because you asked us to.

Labour: We are prepared to make the worst mistake since the War, but it won't be as bad as the Tory mistake. Having told you about it, we will ask you to decide - or at least a majority of those that can be arsed to vote. If you vote for the mistake, we will make it, but it will be all your fault. In the meantime let's talk about something else.

Liberal Democrats: Don't do it!

SNP: Don't do it! (But if you do, we're outta here.)

Plaid Cymru: Don't do it!

Green Party: Don't do it!

Independents: Don't do it!

Brexit Party: Declare war on Europe, anything less is a betrayal.

Me: Help!!!

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Fun and games

I first came across game theory in international relations many years ago. It described the actions of states in terms of rational calculation and behaviour. It has one flaw in explaining the world. If you studied history you would see that states didn't do this. I always felt that it was a theory that failed its empirical tests. I thought it was ludicrously reductionist.

It's floated around economics for a while, but I am not an economist, so can't really comment. However, two devotees of game theory have come to prominence in politics recently. Ianis Varoufakis was one (that went well, didn't it?). And now we have Dominic Cummings driving Brexit strategy. That strategy seems divorced from consequences. The aim is to win, regardless of what is won, or of the collateral damage done on the way. It is amoral in the extreme.

The encouraging thing is that this ruthless pursuit of victory has so far produced nothing but defeats. There is one problem, though. This game only requires one win, the important one. If this were a football league, Johnson could lose every match apart from the last one and still be crowned champion. This might happen yet.

The tactics are simple, the indiscriminate use of the professional foul. The main means is dishonesty. 'Getting Brexit done,' is the latest one. It promises closure while glossing over the years of negotiation from a position of weakness that will dominate politics for years to come. Going over the ball to smash studs into the shins of Parliament is normal practice. The referee - the legal system and constitutional law - is subject to continuous abuse and harassment. The fans are vociferous. The Ultras of the right-wing press, unfurl their banners and scream their taunts at the opponents.The ordinary fans join in and stay loyal throughout. Nobody notices that their numbers are diminishing, what matters is noise. The larger opposition is quieter and more sportsmanlike. Party loyalty is trumping the national interest.

If they do win, there will be a moment of triumph. The trophy will be lifted to the roars of their fans, and the muttered hatred of everyone else. They will face the consequences of their victory - opprobrium and eventual relegation. The game itself will be damaged as foul tactics will have been legitimised. But still, that trophy will be in the cabinet.

The trouble is, politics is not a game. It's the way that we manage our public lives. The rules are important. Policies have real impacts on real lives. Brexit is not a prize. It is the complete resetting of our economics and of our international relations. It has huge consequences for people's lives. The evidence is unequivocal. It will damage the UK economy. People will lose out. It will hurt British citizens in the EU (like ones with a house in Greece!). It will endanger peace in Northern Ireland. It does risk the future of Gibraltar. It does threaten the Union. What's more, two years of polling shows a consistent majority for remaining in the EU. We have the largest pro-European movement on the continent. Remain can bring a million people on to the streets, Leave a few hundred at best. It needs careful consideration, not a sporting contest to decide it.

Brexit is the obsession of small groups of sectarian political hobbyists of left and right. It always was a fringe belief of little relevance to most people. But it was the Conservative party that kept it alive and brought it on us through a monstrous miscalculation by Cameron. It has died as a meaningful policy. But the corpse is still twitching. This is its last chance. Within a short time it would have been buried with a stake through its heart. The irony is that the cup may be paraded in the decaying hands of a zombie.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Undemocratic majorities

Saturday looms. We are heading for either the dénouement or another hiatus. The economic impact of the deal will be immensely damaging. If it is passed unamended then it will be rapidly hated by everyone. The politicians who let it happen will face ignominy, not only in their lifetime but in all future histories. The country is on the brink of committing an act of national folly that is mind-bending in its stupidity. There seems to be only one justification left, the referendum. It took a marginal right-wing obsession and placed it at the centre of our politics. And then Leave won – just. So now we are left with the cries of 'Democracy!' and 'Will of the people.' The process by which we arrived at a decision trumps the quality of the result. It's an obvious absurdity.

But the process was not democracy. A few are starting to challenge the process as well as the outcome based on a well-established principle, the tyranny of the majority. Majority rule is not necessarily democratic.

Critics are reviving the term, ochlocracy. It's been defined as majority rule, and compared with democracy, the rule of all the people. This isn't correct. Ochlocracy is mob rule. Fear of the irrational violence of the mob and its susceptibility to provocation by demagogues has always been with us. You can see it in the scaremongering about civil unrest if Brexit doesn't happen. Democracy limited rule to the demos – the people, but not all of them. The rule by the demos was wider than elite rule, but still limited. In ancient Greece it consisted of free men. Women and slaves were excluded. The democratic revival associated with liberalism, also limited the demos. For Locke, participation was restricted to the 'rational.' That became defined in various ways, mainly male property holders. The democratic struggle then became one for universal and female suffrage, in other words for a fully inclusive demos. As it did, it wrestled with another problem, the tyranny of the majority. Majorities are perfectly capable of doing extremely nasty things to minorities. A majority group can be a tyrannical as an elite one. The protection of minorities became an intrinsic feature of liberal democracy.

The solution that evolved was representative democracy. First, through the election of fully independent representatives, latterly through political parties, capable of coherent policies and aggregating large numbers of interests. Our democracy rests on a combination of the two. Party discipline holds the system together, while MPs still have the right – and the duty – to act as their conscience and perception of the national interest dictates, even if it contradicts their party.

The one thing that they are not bound to do is to follow the dictates of the electorate. They are not delegates. Power resides in Parliament. The role of the demos is limited to one of selecting representatives or parties. This is their only power. Outside elections, the people can wield influence, but cannot impose their will. All this is pretty basic British Constitution. I used to teach it at 'O' level to evening classes back in the early 80s. It was dull.

The problem is, we have thrown referendums into the system without thinking about how they fit in. They cut right across it. Brexiters are saying that MPs should act as the delegates of the 17.4 million Leave voters and nobody else. We are now in the curious situation of an advisory referendum being treated as not only binding, but permanently so. Given that a central principle of parliamentary sovereignty is that no parliament can bind its successors, this is bizarre.

But the majority voted leave, so leave we must. I keep hearing that mantra. My answer is, so what? Votes do not change reality and majorities can be oppressive. That isn't to deny a majority can be an important deciding factor. We can't give up the idea of majority rule entirely. It makes sense when the majority represents a much larger consensus on issues of great importance, or to decide who forms a government, or if the issue is relatively trivial. We have all been outvoted from time to time.

The problems arise when there is no real consensus and if the majority hurts a significant minority of people. And if you look at Brexit you can see both. The majority in the referendum was not a majority of the electorate, it was a plurality. 17.4 million may have voted leave, but 29 million did not. Current polling has shown a consistent lead for remain for the last eighteen months or so. There is no consensus for inflicting a revolutionary change, probably not even a majority. On top of that, two groups of people who were significantly affected were denied a vote. EU 27 citizens legally resident in the UK and British citizens living in the EU for over 15 years were not allowed to vote in a decision that could wreck their lives. Their interests were decided while they were excluded from the process. This is a classic tyranny of the majority.

There was something else though. Brexit is a simple project imposed on a complex nation state. As it stands, it is impossible for it not to harm significant minorities. What's more, those minorities form a majority amongst those directly affected and in certain key locations. Gibraltar voted by 96% to remain yet is being taken out of the by the votes of others. EU membership is vital to its economy and way of life. Northern Ireland voted to remain, the border areas overwhelmingly so, as membership blurred the national identities that had killed three thousand people in a civil conflict. Scotland had voted against independence on the promise that staying in the UK would secure their place in the EU. The Scots voted to remain. The most significant is the generation gap. Remain had a majority among those under 44. The under 25s voted 70% for Remain. Young voters coming of age now, who were too young to vote in 2016, favour Remain by over 80%. It's the vote of the older generations that swung it to Leave. The figures are so striking that the simple operation of demographics mean that in a few years Remain will not just be a majority, but an overwhelming consensus.

And this is why we have Parliamentary democracy. Representation allows all these sectional groups to be considered as part of the decision-making process rather than discounted and dismissed as a minority.

Referendums cannot do this, only representation can. The decision to try and decide as complex an issue as Brexit within a multi-nation state was a catastrophe. It has produced the mess we are in now. And even though Parliament has the final say, it is being pushed to a make a decision within a time-scale that prevents proper scrutiny and deliberation. Nevertheless, at least Parliament is ultimately in control.

All this is not to say that we are doing representative democracy well, we can do much better. Our real task is to find ways of improving and enhancing representation, instead of delivering power to demagogues through plebiscitary politics, while pretending that it is in any way democratic.

Dealing from the bottom of the pack

I have always argued that no-deal was never going to happen. It was never intended to happen. The effort that went into preventing it was unnecessary, but the organised resistance was good preparation for the struggle ahead. No-deal was, first of all, a mad bluff. That was never going to work. So, given our ludicrous red lines, the only thing on offer would be a rehash of the earlier May deal. The noise and thunder coming from Johnson was the sound of surrender.

The real threat to our place in the European Union was always the deal - even more so if it could be sold as a way of avoiding a fictitious no-deal. Better still if it could be seen as a compromise. This was the trap.

What is proposed is a far harder Brexit than anything that the Leave campaign suggested during the referendum. It is a disaster for the nation. It has to be opposed. 

Monday, September 30, 2019

Return to normality

I've been travelling, returning to the UK, staying with family in London, and am back in Manchester doing useful things. That's why I have been quiet on here.

Yesterday was a soggy, chill day. Rain poured from leaden skies, and the Tory Party Conference came to town. The security arrangements around the venue were ridiculous. The Midland Hotel was fenced off with secure turnstiles for the guests installed. Still, conference delegates roamed freely and incongruously, showing that they were from a different tribe. And there were demonstrations. The biggest was the anti-Brexit one in the afternoon. It wasn't huge, unsurprising given the weather, but it was several thousand strong and attracted people from across the region. These people made me nostalgic for my Hull days.


The rest followed the usual pattern of chants and banners, subdued a little by the rain,


 and the marchers were cheered on from a fine traditional pub.


There was a counter demonstration of Brexit supporters. I counted no more than a dozen. There were a few choruses of "we love you Boris, we do" from disturbing looking thugs. (Johnson should worry about the people he is attracting.) A few were drunk and trying to pick a fight with the police, a couple of them shouted "scum" at the demonstrators, but long before the end of the march had passed, they had all gone home. I think that sums up the respective strengths of the pro and anti Brexit movements.

But the most striking thing about the day was the many more thousands who were in the city centre, doing their shopping, having a day out, eating and drinking, going to theatres and cinemas, etc. They weren't fussed. Most smiled warmly at the marchers, there were a couple of sarky comments, but that was it. It's best summed up by someone on the tram who asked me what was going on in town. He hadn't a clue. I told him it was the Tory Party conference. He said, "Oh bloody hell. Them." And that was it. The referendum was launched into a sea of indifference about the EU, and it's still there. The excitement about polarisation, such as in this good piece, is right about the committed. Neither diehard remainers or leavers are a majority, however. Both rely on the cognitive bias of the false consensus to comfort them. Because they believe in it, they think they must be in the majority.

The evidence does show that remain is the stronger. It can mobilise many, many more people than leave. You would be much happier to meet them in a dark alley too, even if they might get a bit boring in the pub. There hasn't been a single opinion poll without a remain lead for two years. The generational aspect is hugely important as well. The young are overwhelmingly pro-remain - 70-80% - leave doesn't have much of a future.

All this makes the talk of civil disorder even more ridiculous. Not only would this be the first time in history that people have rioted in favour of food shortages, it is always the young that riot and they don't want Brexit at all. But it's the great indifference that is the key point. The electorate didn't know much about the EU, never saw it as a problem, and didn't realise that it made their lives easier even though they talked about retiring to Spain and going on a "booze cruise" to bring back car loads of cheap drink. If we don't leave, a few hundred neo-fascists may be as unpleasant as always. Elderly Brexit Party members will mutter dark threats. But I reckon most people will either shrug or breathe a sigh of relief, because the only way that it will all be over is to remain.

"Getting Brexit done" (entering ten years of complex negotiations with the EU to try and work out a worse relationship while mitigating as much of the damage as possible, all of which will dominate the work of government) is not the magic formula for social peace. Brexit was sold as something that brings material benefits and an enhanced national status. Instead, it is bringing material costs and a diminution of national status. Voters will not forgive the politicians who took us out and many leave voters will forget that they once supported the idea. The younger generation, wanting to exploit the opportunities that the EU opens up, will be bitterest of all.

The language has been terrible, the threats shocking, and the atmosphere poisonous. There's a simple reason why - Brexit is dead and Brexiters are losing. No amount of shouting fictions at reality makes it any less real. They can't answer questions about trade, production, rights, prosperity, transport, and a myriad of other questions because the answers are either unknown or unpalatable. So, they scream abuse at the people who ask them. As they do, and as they try and excuse the actions of the lousy choice the Tories made for leader, they look worse and worse to those who don't share their passions.

I don't know how this will play out, but I think that there is a fair chance that we will end up not leaving. It's the easiest way out of a self-imposed mess. Anyway, my humble suggestion is that the next time we try and wreck the country, let's not do it over something most people never cared about in the first place.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

In search of lost coherence

The problem with trying to understand Brexit is that it is impossible to pin it down to any one meaning. Critics try and assign the causes to nationalism, racism, 'little England' sentiment, nostalgia, anger, etc., and none of the accusations stick. The same goes with the possible outcomes – from keeping our place in the single market, which we were told by the leave campaign would not be threatened, to the no-deal unilateral abrogation of treaties, defaulting on debts, and isolating ourselves from our main economic partners. There's a reason for this. Brexit isn't a single ideology, it's a cluster of sentiments that have emerged from an oppositional political milieu.

The milieu is a useful concept. My book is about a part of the 19th century radical milieu - libertarian anti-statism. It spread from anarcho-communists to free market anti-capitalists and proto-ecologists. They recognised each other as fellow travellers, if not as allies. The same can be said of Brexit. The common theme of opposition to the European Union was adopted by ethnic nationalists, anti-immigration Powellites, far right racists, Conservative free-market ultras, neo-feudalists, Stalinists, authoritarians, climate change deniers, neo-imperialists, Putin's 'useful idiots,' fascists, Bennite left social democrats, revolutionary defeatists, disaster capitalists, and so on. There is no coherence in a milieu, only a swirl of ideas, each feeding off each other and making and unmaking unlikely alliances. Each strand on its own is negligible, together they produce a noisy minority to challenge the mainstream.

Beguiled by the simplification of the language of a political spectrum, we try and describe this in terms of left/right positioning. I've done the same. But it doesn't fit that well. The strange allies people make within a milieu is sometimes seen as the product of a horseshoe shaped spectrum where extreme left and right meet. But in an anti-establishment milieu, red/brown alliances are natural, they share common hatreds and, above all, view the world as a vast conspiracy and democracy as a sham.

There are several things milieus have in common. They incubate some interesting and creative ideas that can spin off into the mainstream and lose much of their dangerous baggage in the process. However, they also have links with some of the crazier elements of fringe beliefs – 9/11 conspiracy, anti-vaccination, rejection of some science (i.e. GMOs, pharmaceuticals, synthetic chemicals), cultic and esoteric religions, anti-Semitism, and many, many others. 

They share an indiscriminating hostility to all things deemed mainstream. They hero worship anyone, any regime or any movement, that they see as oppositional to the establishment. They maintain their own media to remain uncontaminated. And this leads to something else, they distance themselves from reality. Sometimes they treat facts, evidence, and truth as the enemy.

Finally, they are utopian and that utopianism tends towards the totalitarian style. They have a plan, a future society that will blossom the moment their plan is adopted and its opponents swept away. How many deaths have resulted from such overconfidence? Looked at closely, the ideas are always shallow and ill-informed. And for real lunacy delve into the depths of the Brexit Party.

We can see all this with Brexit. Once Brexiters are confronted with details and important questions like trade relations, service industries, or the Belfast Agreement, they lapse into utopian rhetoric or talk about the Second World War. It can all be solved, believe in Britain, we will become global Britain again. I want to know about my house in Greece, others about their businesses and just-in-time supply chains, yet more need information about the supply of food and medicines, but Brexiters give no details other than a vision of the rosy future that awaits if we leave. All they can say in reply is that 'people voted for it,' regardless of whether it was a good idea or not. They never give us solutions. They can't. That's because they are ignorant of the way the EU works, what it is, and our role in it. They have never tried to learn about it, but have invented a series of fictions to justify their ideological preferences. There is a rock, but there is no way through. The rock is reality. Our government is still trying to wish it away rather than deal with it.

Milieus are not necessarily benign. They are persistent. They can grow and flourish in a crisis, offering simple solutions to complex problems. But these populist groupings are always permanent minorities. There is only one thing that can make them dangerous – an invitation. The energy they provide can be a temptation, either to harness it or to finally quash the movement that produced it. 2015 was the year of the invitation.

There are many examples of mistaken invitations, but the classic one is Hitler. In the second election of 1932, the Nazi vote declined from its high point earlier in the year. If the pattern had been maintained, it is likely that it would have declined further and the Nazis would have become an historical footnote. Hysteria and enthusiasm are hard to sustain. Instead, he was offered the Chancellorship in a coalition government. Fifty million died as a consequence.

Brexit is not analogous, it is not the equivalent of the Nazis. But the invitation into the mainstream was the same process. In this case it was the referendum. They accepted and have now colonised the body politic. At the same time, Labour opened up its leadership election to thousands from outside the party, while MPs implacably opposed to Corbyn nominated him on to the shortlist in order to have a debate. The fringe anti-imperialist milieu seized the opportunity and organised round him. These couldn't have happened without complacency – few expected either Leave or Corbyn to win.

The irony of Brexit is that it is reaching its crisis at the very moment that it is dying. Polls show that it is slipping back into being a minority obsession. Reality refuses to shift. The supposed benefits are non-existent. Empty rhetoric is confronting damaged businesses, lost jobs, impossible situations, and ruined lives. If it is pushed through, dead and impractical though it is, it would be a national calamity. We are entering the endgame which will decide.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Slippage

Little by little the language is shifting. The crisis is becoming no deal, always unlikely, rather than exit. Johnson is winning. No deal panic will undermine opposition to a deal. A deal, rather than remaining, will become a success. I find it alarming. Tom Peck is superb here, comparing the whole mess to Shackelton's failed Antarctic expedition.
Should any kind of deal be forthcoming, Remainers will cling to it as a semi-salvation. There will be no fuel shortages, no food shortages, no medicine shortages. The pound will plummet slower than it otherwise would have done. A week in Spain for the family will remain, just about, a realistic possibility. 
We will, like Shackleton’s men, have made it to South Georgia Island. There will be a celebration of sorts. But it will still have been an expedition of profound pointlessness. We will, all of us, be worse off.
This is madness. The task is to remain. If the polls are right, this is what the majority of the country wants. Leaving with a deal is a slow-moving disaster, even if no-deal would be an immediate catastrophe.