Category Archives: UK politics

Vote Labour

If you’re even passingly familiar with my outpourings of left-wing bias, it should come as little surprise that, come June 8th, I shall be voting for the bearded, bike-riding vegetarian. I really think you should too. Of course, if you live in a Lib Dem-Tory marginal, do what you have to do. If you live in a truly safe seat of any stripe, do what you want to do. Scotland, also, offers its own set of choices. But most people face a decision between Red and Blue. You might not like that fact, but a fact it is. If you want electoral reform, lobby your MP, get involved with or donate to the Electoral Reform Society, but don’t waste your vote.

After a generation of being offered similar choices in different coloured rosettes, Britain is offered starkly contrasting visions for its future. The Conservatives offer, yet again, a shrinking state. Labour offers a vision of genuine social democracy. This is not socialism, far from it. It is a restoration of much-needed compassion to an increasingly heartless state.

A state which, we should remember, was shrunk for essentially no reason. The global financial crisis was not the fault of the New Labour government, or its spending policies, and the response from the Conservatives has probably slowed down the recovery rather than sped it up. The intellectual case for austerity, from Osborne’s favourite economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, has been revealed to lie somewhere between wishful thinking and academic fraud.

As detailed in this article, the pair omitted relevant data, and at every point weighted what they did use in favour of the conclusions they were promoting. One bad year from New Zealand, for example, had more influence than nineteen good years in the UK. The data supported the conclusion “sometimes austerity isn’t a disaster” and was manipulated until it said, “austerity is the only answer”.

The Conservatives offer only more of the same bitter, unneeded pill. After seven years, there is no fat to sensibly trim anymore. That is why ludicrous proposals like the dementia tax are cropping up: because there’s nothing left to cut. Homelessness, child poverty have increased, social services have been gutted. Sure Start centres have closed down, despite the evidence that early-years intervention is one of the most effective ways of breaking cycles of intergenerational poverty. None of this is good for the economy.

On defence, the arguments against him are well-known: he is a peacenik unilateralist. I don’t think it ridiculous, though, to point out that a “robust” defence policy sometimes resembles a drunk guy sticking up for his mates on a night out. Yeah, he’s trying to protect you, but ultimately throwing the first punch puts everyone in danger

A nuclear war could well spell the extinction of the entire human race, and that is not an exaggeration. A little caution with the big red button is to commended, not sneered at. Likewise, over-eagerness to bust out the Tornados has done little good in Libya, and the murderous folly of Iraq is well-known. On all these issues, Corbyn has been on the right side, while the chaos produced by our actions has made us less safe, not more.

With regards to Brexit, Labour’s position is pragmatic. I did not want to leave the EU, but now the vote has come in, there needs to be a sea change in public opinion to do anything but leave, and that simply hasn’t happened. The prospect of negotiating Brexit brings me onto the personal styles of the two leaders. Here, again, we face a stark choice. After years of media-trained smoothness, we have two leaders bucking that trend in their own particular ways.

If you are in doubt between the two, I ask you to consider who is more open to the moderating influences of party and civil service. Jeremy Corbyn seems to genuinely believe in party democracy, and by all accounts listens to those around him, even if he doesn’t always take their advice. Theresa May obviously does not like public dissent, and reports from her camp say aides, too, are afraid of speaking up.

So who would you rather have negotiating Brexit? Corbyn, who for all his flaws, will actually listen to advice or Theresa May, who sees enemies around every corner and in doing so makes more of them. The EU are not our enemies, but we could surely turn them into that if we tried hard enough. Corbyn’s bruising two summers have shown that he’s no pushover, and the same has been proven of his MPs. Say what you like about them, but they are certainly not averse to criticising their leader.

So for the economy, for society, for safety, for the environment, for a decent Brexit vote Labour on June 8th.

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Two-party systems are killing politics

The two-party system that has been the bedrock of both British and American democracy for centuries is beginning to burst at the seams. Socioeconomic stagnation and technological developments have made the concept of a big tent party virtually unworkable. It is ridiculous that one party is the most natural political home for both Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn, but that is the world we live in.

Of the four major parties across the two countries, two are in open civil war and the other two are one electoral setback from it. As Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn energise party bases and horrify their colleagues, Theresa May and Hillary Clinton have only the promise of governance to hold together their quarrelsome parties. Brexit and the influence of corporate America, respectively, are proving nearly insurmountable obstacles to unity.

In the era of smartphones and social media, it is no longer possible for the same beast to show multiple faces. Parties, and politicians, must stay on message. One does not have the luxury of saying one thing at a meeting of party activists, another at a rally in the North, another at a rally in the South and another at a donor’s event. If the appearances are not officially recorded and up on a campaign’s Twitter feed in minutes, they will be unofficially recorded and shared. Not only that, but the internet era has allowed a diversity of views to flourish, one that is poorly reflected on the ground.

As Hillary Clinton noted, in some rather ironically leaked remarks, it is much more difficult now to have one policy in public and another in private. I think this should be read less as outright dishonesty, more a recognition of the above. What was once a delicate balancing game between activists, diverse groups of voters and donors has been blown apart. Instead of speaking with many voices, the party speaks with one or risks “disunity” and “infighting”.

When each party speaks with one voice and there are only two parties that really matter, this means that in terms of electoral politics, there are two voices for the whole country. This is not enough. It leads to people feeling like their voices aren’t being heard. It leads to an obsessive focus on control of the party structure (as with the disenfranchised British left’s Corbynite rebellion and the corresponding centre-left pushback), and this often comes at the expense of communicating clearly with the wider public.

The stark ideological divides produced by two-party politics mean that bipartisan cooperation is usually lauded. Even that has its pitfalls. Politicians are, almost by definition, members of the elite; one person’s “bipartisan cooperation” is another’s “elite collusion”. When you have a bugbear that is fairly common, but nobody within a sniff of power holds it, it’s hard not to feel pushed unfairly to the side. That bugbear can all-too-easily become a make-or-break issue if left to fester too long.

The route out of this is easier in the UK, which has a long tradition of minority parties achieving modest success. A coalition of centre-through-left parties could run together on this issue. They might even receive some backing from UKIP on it, too – their 4 million votes to one seat is a travesty that could turn electoral reform from a niche concern to a vote-winner. In the US, it’s harder to see a way out, but who knows what novelties the post-Trump soul search will throw up.

For the record, I’d prefer a single transferable vote system. 6 constituencies would be fused into one with 6 members, who would be elected through a system of preference voting. The mechanics are a little fiddly, but the demands on the voter are not: list the order of your preferences. It produces a more proportional result, while retaining the local aspect of a constituency MP.

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Brexit

The economic case is firmly with Remain. Not by the ludicrous margin the treasury suggest, but it is with Remain nonetheless. Some of the EU is pretty wasteful – the CAP for example at once wastes money and harms farmers in the developing world. Overall, though, they represent pretty good value for money, when you consider they run an entire continent.

Britain will negotiate trade deals, but if we do so with the EU we’re gonna have to give in on budget and free movement anyway. Other trade deals are also possible, but they do take ages to sort out. Still, we and most other countries are in the WTO, so we have the bare bones of a trade agreement with most places anyway. It’s not gonna be a catastrophe, just a pointless expense.

What has been disappointingly lacking from this debate is a sincere economic analysis of the impact of Brexit on the worst off, the lowest paid. While migration has, in general, been good for the country economically (and, in my view, culturally) it’s not likely to have made things better for the lowest paid.

However, it’s not fully to blame, or even mostly. The last 30 years have seen a steady decline in wages and working conditions, and the principal beneficiaries have not been migrants. Instead of blaming each other, we need real resistance to this deliberate policy of putting profits before people.

We talk about democracy and sovereignty a lot. The UK has a very concentrated political system compared to most countries. We only have one elected House – the US has two elected Houses, a president, a powerful judiciary and states which each have two elected Houses and an elected governor. So the influence of another body, even if it’s not the best, can help democracy overall.

International agreements are hard to come by, and a (basically) working group of countries is something to be cherished. Put bluntly, in the latest round of climate change talks, we struggled to commit to a target that isn’t strong enough and will be broken anyway. The latest round of WTO negotiations started in 2001, and remain unfinished. That’s well over half of my lifetime.

Put 200 countries together like that and one bastard will always think they can ruin it for everyone (looking at you, America). Only by working together over the long term with a political structure that binds us can we workably produce the international response we need to these issues.

The EU isn’t perfect. I hate what it did to Greece. I hate what it’s doing with TTIP, and I hate its continued resistance to democratic reform. Yeah, a freedom from its more restrictive pro-market policies could open up the space for a socially beneficial reindustrialisation of the UK, but that is more a dream than a plan. So, with a heavy heart, I’ll be voting Remain.

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Brexit, identity and the post-truth media

For many people, Brexit is not a battle of facts, numbers and figures, and that goes for those on both sides of the debate. For many Brexiteers, this vote is about an expression of British identity. For many Remainers, the vote is, similarly, about an expression of a liberal, cosmopolitan identity. In fact, the people most passionate about the referendum on both sides are probably more enamoured with these ideas of identity than they are with the cold, hard facts of their case.

Those facts, in reality, are a secondary consideration. We are living, in some ways, in a post-truth media environment. The line between journalism and activism is often blurred. I think often those blurring the lines see themselves as doing a good deed – in presenting a single side of the story they see themselves not as spreading mistruth, but as correcting a flawed narrative.

After an incident of Islamist terrorism, many on the left will blame the attack on the West’s history of colonialism and war. This elicits a reaction from the right that people are in denial about “the nature” of Islam (insofar as a billion people can, collectively, have a nature) being violent. It’s not that people on the left don’t understand that passages of the Quran are used to justify these atrocities and that yes, there is some connection between Islam (not mainstream Islam, though) and them.

Rather, they see a regrettable reduction of these complex issues into “Islam = bad”, and worry about the effect that this reductionist view of the problem will have on ordinary, peaceful Muslims who don’t wish harm on anyone. Seeing the risk for each incident to provoke an Islamophobic reaction, they offer a counter-narrative that seeks to provoke reflection on the complexities of what’s going on. The internal truth of any one piece is secondary to the overarching truth of the narrative.

Of course, this form of narrative-focused journalism provokes an equal and opposite reaction from the right. Concerned about a namby-pamby PC-gone-mad narrative that they can read in leftist thinkpieces, they push back the other way, with rightist thinkpieces that are equally as narrative-focused, and assert that in fact Islam is “to blame” and that the left is too for being too afraid to criticise it. All this creates an atmosphere of shouty distrust, a vicious cycle of thinkpieces constantly reasserting the chosen side of the argument so as to try and create what they consider to be an overall balance.

The same is playing out with Brexit. Each side makes ever more ludicrous claims – both have invoked Hitler, for fucks sakes – and the only real loser is the public. George Osborne’s dismal treasury predictions were all worst-case scenarios – it seems to me that he massively overplayed his hand. Why not quote a smaller but more believable figure and say “look, this isn’t a huge amount, but would you rather have it in your pocket or not?”.

Trapped between two sides selling narratives, nobody knows who to trust. Back to the clash of identities. With the increasingly less believable claims emanating from both the Leave and Remain camps, people  can’t realistically assess “the facts” because the obvious question then is “which facts?”. Instead, when facts fail we retreat to identity. Am I a proud, down-to-earth Brit or a cosmopolitan European?

The endless panopoly of experts telling people to vote remain are associated, rightly or wrongly, with the liberal cosmopolitanism of Remain. So, their views are discounted immediately by those who see this vote in terms. Similarly anyone talking about the fact that, actually, free movement of labour might be good for those at the top but not for those in low-paid, insecure jobs can be discounted as a “little Englander”. I’m fucking sick of it all, and I can’t wait for it to be over.

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Silly cartoon on government economic policy

Asset bubble

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January 20, 2016 · 1:23 am

The myth of holding Labour to ransom.

If you repeat a lie often enough, people start to believe it. Well, that seems to have happened with Tory scaremongering over the SNP. The Scottish nationalists are depicted, variously, as a threat to the union, a threat to England, a threat to your grandmother, a threat to just about anything that can plausibly be linked to them.

The logic behind it is this: in order to get votes through the Commons, Ed Miliband is going to have to rely on the SNP, who will demand that he be more left-wing than he otherwise would. “Holding him to ransom”, as has been the curiously consistent message from a curiously large portion of the press. The exact difference between holding someone to ransom and simply negotiating while Scottish isn’t clear to me, but I’m sure there is one.

Now, this needn’t happen, if the Tories don’t want it to. If they are that legitimately worried about Labour being dragged to the left, they could simply talk to Ed Miliband and negotiate with him. Their 200+ seats will dwarf the SNP’s 50 or so, so if they wanted to do a deal, that’s eminently possible. Even if it only keeps Labour where they would be, surely that’s better than the inferno that will be unleashed should Nicola Sturgeon venture anywhere near the government.

Now, their increasingly frantic warnings about Nicola Sturgeon, Ed Miliband and the holding of the purse strings are entirely ridiculous, but they might actually tell us some important information. In the event of a Labour minority government, it very much looks like the Conservative party are determined to put partisan political games ahead of actually getting bills through parliament. Not to say that Labour wouldn’t do the equivalent, but that certainly seems to be the message from the Tories.

Even if the SNP do bring Labour to the left, so what? The Lib Dems took the Tories left, the Tories took the Lib Dems right. That’s how coalitions work. Why should the SNP not represent the people who voted for them? It’s quite hard to find a coherent reason why the SNP, uniquely, cannot represent their constituents, beyond an implication that a Scottish party somehow shouldn’t have that influence on England.

Why not? The Conservative party, though it technically exists in Scotland and Wales, is to all intents and purposes an English party, yet I have yet to hear David Cameron say that he shouldn’t have authority over Scotland. It’s a weird argument that treats the people of Scotland as already independent in spirit, and so undeserving of a voice in the UK’s democratic system. This, more than the SNP, is the real danger to the Union at this election.

Scottish voters have been treated with utter contempt. Cameron and Clegg have attacked their legitimacy to hold a voice in government by trying to box Miliband into ruling out a Labour-SNP coalition, and Miliband has been cowardly in letting them get away with it. Scottish voices matter, even if those voices might believe in independence. Given the SNP’s likely near-complete sweep of Scottish seats, the Westminster parties are essentially colluding to exclude an entire region from government.

If this were happening in another country, we would be rightly concerned. Three parties from the capital excluding a party from a region that is culturally distinct enough to be considered at least partly a separate ethnicity – it doesn’t sound great. Add in the fact that it is at least in part a punishment for having the temerity to hold a referendum on independence, and it begins to look even worse.

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Britain and CIA torture programs: silence is deafening

So the CIA have admitted what everyone knew: they tortured people. Diane Feinstein believes that history will judge the US for facing up to their mistakes, although I think it’s more likely that history will judge them for torturing people. News reports on ITV and Channel 4 on the evening of the release of the report talked of a program going rogue, that it was a runaway train that even the head of the operation wanted off. If this is the case – that the head of the operation knew what was going down – then the question is why was it not stopped? Britain’s role in all this is unclear (meaning that our government’s dirty hands are all over it).

British officials and former PMs can wring hands, deny direct involvement and hide behind the fact that our country’s name has been redacted, but if we think that this is good enough, we are kidding ourselves. The silence of our dear Prime Minister David Cameron is deafening; the silence of former-PM Tony Blair even more so. Blair’s reaction was a “no comment”, while Cameron says that the torture claims have “been dealt with a from a British perspective”. Cameron pointed to a report by a retired UK judge into Great Britain’s role in the US’s sickening torture program as evidence that we had dealt with it. On the contrary, far from indicating that Britain was on top of things, the 119-page report raised 27 issues for further questioning.

The first paragraph of the section on further questions is illuminating:

The documents received by the Inquiry indicate that in some instances UK intelligence officers were aware of inappropriate interrogation techniques and mistreatment or allegations of mistreatment of some detainees by liaison partners from other countries. Many of these instances were reported to Agency Head Offices. The Inquiry would have wished to examine whether that reporting was adequate and, in particular, whether the Agency Head Offices then responded adequately or, in some cases, at all. There is an issue as to whether the Agencies raised allegations of mistreatment of detainees with liaison partners with sufficient vigour, and as to the adequacy of assurances sought by the Agencies. In some cases, documents indicate that the Agencies continued to engage with liaison partners in relation to individual detainees where treatment issues may have justified withdrawal or the seeking of appropriate assurances. The Inquiry would have wished to investigate whether the legality of the detainees’ detention abroad and the Agencies’ own methods of questioning were subject to sufficient scrutiny and consideration.

In short, UK agents knew of torture, and reported this to their bosses, who then also knew about torture. The heads of UK intelligence then did basically nothing in response to the torture, not even raising the issue with the US. On top of this, they continued to work with the US, including in cases they knew torture was being used. Further to these concerns, there may also be instances of torture by UK agents, but the inquiry basically wasn’t allowed to investigate them. Exactly how this represents “dealing with” the allegations is beyond me. In fact, it is essentially concrete proof, given that nobody responsible for this is in jail, that the system is utterly incapable of dealing with this.

The 27 issues that the “the Inquiry would have wished to investigate” are damning in themselves. Here are the 8 that specifically concern interrogation, the subject of the recent US reports.

  1. Did UK intelligence officers have knowledge of inappropriate interrogation techniques or detention conditions applied by personnel of other countries in some cases? In those cases was there adequate reporting back from theatres/stations and an adequate response from Agency Head Offices?
  1. Was there reluctance in some cases to raise detainee issues either at all, or sufficiently robustly, with liaison partners?
  1. Did the Agencies inappropriately continue to engage with liaison partners in the cases of individual detainees after treatment issues of concern had been identified?
  1. Was adequate consideration given to obtaining assurances from liaison partners and to the need for any assurances to be specific and credible?
  1. Was the Agencies’ own questioning of detainees appropriate having regard to the Geneva Conventions’ prohibition on coercion, threats, unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment?
  1. Was sufficient consideration given to the legality of detainees’ detention, including to whether the detention was incommunicado?
  1. Did engagement by the Agencies with liaison partners, in circumstances where there was some co-ordination on interviewing approaches/techniques, always remain within appropriate bounds?
  1. Was sufficient attention given to record keeping in relation to engagement with detainees?

These are not questions that, in a situation that was “dealt with”, would remain unanswered. The very fact that these questions are being asked by an official inquiry suggests that there is at least some level of guilt borne by the UK intelligence services; the report does not specify guilt, but with regards to what governments say about themselves, it is necessary to read between the lines. I would suggest that none of the questions have entirely satisfactory answers, and that where torture is concerned, anything but a perfectly clean slate – no ifs, buts and technicalities – is a disgusting crime against humanity.

Tony Blair, who was ultimately in charge when all of this happened, will not even be asked to say whether he knew what was going on. He will not even have to stand up in front of the public and lie to save his own skin. In a just world, Blair would be put on trial and forced to at least make a statement on what he knew. At least that way he would, if guilty, have to perjure himself and face legal trouble down the line for his complicity in such acts. It is not a just world, however. Blair, like those who were imprisoned and abused by the Americans, will not face a trial. Unlike them, however, he is presumed innocent in the face of a fair amount of evidence otherwise, while the victims of his actions have been presumed guilty and subjected to unimaginable horrors.

The report by Sir Peter Gibson is available here

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