Recent Our democracy Articles
I was running my own campaign calling for Labour to offer an EU Referendum before it became cool. But now, given all the renewed focus on this question, a group of Labour folks have set up a Labour for a referendum campaign.
Unfortunately, it is Dead on Arrival. Finished. The chances succeeding now are very near zero.
And there are very simple reasons for this.
1) Mad Euro-sceptic Tories have shown that once you feed the beast it only grows and gets more demanding. So Ed Miliband will not want to feed it at all.
2) When your opponents are in chaos and fighting against each other, why wade in too? It is much better for Ed Miliband to let the Tories carry on making a fool out of themselves. It’s not like the EU Referendum is going to come at an earlier date just because Tory backbenchers want it so.
3) The Labour leadership have settled on a position now: committing to a referendum now would only lead to more uncertainty over the UK’s relationship with Europe, given 2017 is so far away. It makes no sense to junk that position at now.
I was told by a senior shadow cabinet member, over a year ago, that at one point all three parties were negotiating a joint position on offering an EU Referendum. At that point I was optimistic that it would be in Labour’s next manifesto or materialise as a commitment even earlier.
But for some reason the negotiations broke down and the three parties could not agree on jointly offering an EU Referendum. And so everyone went their separate ways.
A more coordinated campaign to get Labour to agree to a referendum should have been launched over a year ago. At this stage, mostly thanks to the antics of the Tory right, there is no chance the Labour leadership will entertain the idea now.
At a cricket match with some lefties a few years ago, I suggested to some prominent Greens that their party needed to sound more anti-establishment like UKIP.
Obviously I didn’t mean the Greens should adopt UKIP’s half-baked policies, but that the latter were doing a much better job at sounding like they wanted to challenge the Westminster consensus.
I was reminded of that when Chris Dillow said UKIP’s rise is a triumph for the pro-establishment ruling class.
This sounds too much like it was inevitable the likes of UKIP and the ‘ruling class’ would triumph after the financial crash of 2008. I think it actually highlights the failure of the Left to get our shit together.
The rise of various Leftist movements across Europe has shown it’s not always the Right that triumphs from political and economic uncertainty. Of course, there are plenty of anarchist groups and anti-establishment movements in the UK. But they’re too busy infighting or competing with each other to be puritanical. The ‘threat’ they pose to the Westminster elite is, at best, vague. Moreover, I’ve barely seen any introspection or open discussion about why any movements have failed to take off (especially among students).
To my mind there are broadly two ways to broad political power: you either mobilise large numbers of people, or you can get them to vote for you. The British Left is failing on both counts.
This brings me back to the Greens. I was told that they did not want to ape UKIP for two reasons: first, they wanted to sound credible and viable rather than mad; second, their strategy was to slowly build up a base and win seats local rather than jumping for attention in the national media.
It’s a plausible strategy but not one of an insurgency trying to pull the consensus in their direction. The financial crash, ongoing austerity cuts or even the slew of dire warnings about climate change should have injected a sense of urgency into the Greens. Instead, the party is pottering along (they won 5 council seats in the local elections) and upsetting no one.
The rise of UKIP demonstrates two points I think:
1) To pose a threat to the system you don’t need detailed policies or an established base, but to latch on to a few issues and rile up enough people about them to give you a boost. Own those issues completely and find ways to inject urgency into the national discourse.
2) Voters are annoyed enough with the narrow consensus of the three parties that, when they see a viable alternative (Lucas in Brighton, Galloway in Tower Hamlets and Bradford, UKIP in Eastleigh etc), they vote for the alternative.
But the Greens have to sound like they pose a threat to the establishment; they have to radiate danger and insurgency (while not sounding angry), not fluffy middle-class sentiments.
PS: I’m not bidding to join the Greens and remain firmly committed to the Labour party. All I’m saying is that the rise of UKIP, as opposed to a more left-wing movement, wasn’t inevitable.
It reflects a failure on the left to be fail to mobilise large numbers of people or have a political party in Westminster that sounds like an insurgency.
One of key reasons for the introduction of the Defamation Bill was to protect journalists and small publication from being harried by large corporations.
The problem with defamation law has been particularly stark in relation to scientific articles.
We have seen numerous cases – Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre to name just two – where science writers have been sued for libel relating to articles that are patently part of the scientific debate.
To tackle this Labour moved amendments to tackle this problem in the House of Commons. These amendments were sadly defeated by the government.
Happily these amendments were re-tabled when the Bill made its way to the House of Lords and were passed with Cross-bench support.
These amendments will raise the bar for corporations to bring a claim of defamation. This is entirely right because, contrary to what Mitt Romney may have said, corporations are not people.
Too often libel law is used by corporations as a way to suppress negative publicity – this must change.
Unfortunately the battle is yet to be won. Edward Garnier, the former Tory Solicitor General, has now tabled amendments that would remove these amendments from the Bill.
D-Day will be on Tuesday when the Bill returns to the House of Commons to discuss the amendments made by Peers.
Garnier’s amendment must be defeated if this Bill is to do what it was intended to.
by Alex Higgins
When the Iron Lady came out, I had something of a premonition of a very predictable future. Margaret Thatcher would die and our national dialogue would become completely unbearable.
The press would laud her as a national saviour, a Mother Teresa with a navy. Lefties would rejoice as they had long promised. Their tweets/statements/pictures of their grinning selves, champagne bottle in hand would be used as a stick to beat the rest of us, possibly forever.
Lost in all this would be the people actually hurt by Thatcher’s government and ideology, the cause of the all the bitterness. I was resigned to that until I had an idea that might just turn the conversation in a more useful direction.
I’m not an ex-miner, I didn’t grow up in the post-industrial north, or Soweto, or West Belfast. I haven’t been tortured in a Chilean prison. I don’t want to stand in judgement of people whose anger comes from experience. But I do want lefties with no living memory of Thatcher and a Twitter account to do something more productive.
Don’t Hate, Donate (#donthatedonate is a website directing people to charities and campaigns that memorialise Thatcherism’s victims and legacy.
A way to remember people who don’t get pull-out supplements in national newspapers – the people her government hurt. People who don’t get televised funerals in St. Paul’s Cathedral or reams of highly-paid media figures to whitewash their record and pour myopic outrage on their critics. The people her supporters forget, or want to forget.
You can do that by donating to the excellent charities we have chosen to represent a fraction of them – the homeless, miners’ families, gay teenagers, Hillsborough survivors and South African victims of the Apartheid regime.
More may be to come, depending on the traction we get. Share it like crazy online!
The Labour Party is rarely confident in talking about social security or immigration. This is mostly because the Conservatives set the agenda and Labour try a confused, nuanced position in response.
But the real reason they lose before they even go into battle is because their fear is palpable. They’re instantly on the defensive. Journalists can see it and voters can see it. Labour are responding to the other side’s points and therefore explaining themselves. In politics, if you’re explaining, you’re losing.
You’re also losing if you’re complaining (on both immigration or welfare) that voters don’t know the facts.
Furthermore, if you’re trying to neutralise Tory complaints against you, as Tom Harris, Liam Byrne and Simon Danczuk are trying to do – you’re also losing. It reinforces Tory lies, looks insincere and doesn’t convince the electorate. It never worked during New Labour years either.
So what can Labour do?
Sonia Sodha (a former advisor to Ed M) says Labour should 1) change the debate to in-work benefits by championing and highlighting individual stories 2) propose useful policies such as committing to raise the minimum wage.
Both are great ideas but I would go further.
I was talking to someone last night and made a simple point: Conservatives were not serious about cutting the welfare bill. This caught him off-guard because I was expected to play defensive than offensive. But it’s true for two reasons.
Firstly, the best way to cut the welfare bill is to grow the economy and get people into well-paid jobs. The Tories have utterly failed to grow the economy, and their budgets have consistently been rated by the OBR and IFS as being neutral on growth. Plus, many of the jobs people have gotten since 2010 have been low-paid / self-employed / Workfare ‘jobs’. That just grows the inow-rk-benefits bill. The reality behind Osborne’s jobs creation claims isn’t so rosy either. They have no serious ideas about growing the economy and this should be hammered repeatedly.
Secondly, over half of the welfare bill is spent on pensions. If they were serious about cutting the welfare bill they’d start by means-testing pensions and cutting it for rich pensioners. If they were serious they’d cut the Winter Fuel Allowance and Freedom passes for rich pensioners. That would cut the welfare bill much more significantly.
The government is instead focusing on a very small proportion of social security spending and hoping the focus remains there. They want the focus on job-seekers and disabled people knowing that the rest will find it easy to demonise that small vulnerable minority too.
You can smell Labour’s confusion and fear a mile off. For example, Simon Danczuk dismisses the Left and Owen Jones for focusing on jobs, and then explains how he wants to… er, create jobs. They know they can’t win this arms race on Tory terms, and yet some ridiculous individuals are urging them into battle anyway.
You don’t win by playing defensive – you win by going on the offensive. And Labour can only do that by hammering that Tories aren’t serious about cutting the welfare budget, and then explain why. If they force the debate on to jobs and rich pensioners, it will be the Tory turn to panic.
On Wednesday evening, The Backbencher broke the news of how the English Defence League’s leader, Tommy Robinson – aka Stephen Lennon – endorsed UKIP and their policies on immigration and Islam. It was a controversial interview, and we found it fascinating to hear the comments from the EDL’s most senior figure about where his political allegiances lay. The EDL, on its official Facebook page – which boasts over 18,000 ‘likes’ – has written comments which throw the radical-right wing organisation’s weight fully behind UKIP and the oratory finesse of Nigel Farage.
Farage himself is unlikely to welcome the endorsement, despite the EDL boasting a significant amount of online support (2/3rds of the number of Facebook fans as UKIP). This is because the majority of British people overwhelmingly reject the politics that the EDL espouses, and association with an anti-Islam group will threaten to drag UKIP back into the territory of ‘BNP in Blazers’ accusations; a view the party has put some considerable work into dispelling.
But why do Farage and his Party – of mostly older white men – so often get dragged down into the pits of British politics by highly despised groups which advocate all sorts of nonsense?
Well, despite being a fully fledged political party with a well rounded if woefully uncosted manifesto, UKIP has only ever really focused on two main issues: The EU and immigration; often linking the two via tough rhetoric on the EU’s internal open borders and how they give access for migrants to travel easily to Britain. Election after election, be it town or Parish councils, London Mayoral or EU elections, regardless as to whether the position they are running for has any influence over immigration or not, UKIP will push immigration as hard as they can; which can see all range of weird and wonderful leaflets coming through your letterbox. Indeed UKIP’s London Elections campaign saw them sauntering around the Capital in a bright purple taxi which demanded that Londoners say ‘No to Open door Immigration’, despite the Mayor of London having no actual control over Britain’s immigration policy.
UKIP are the only party that has found the need to ban the BNP, EDL, and NF members from joining their brigade – something that is not always effective – which in itself suggests that their politics attracts undesirable members. Moreover, accusations of racism have dogged UKIP from the very beginning, with their founder quitting and calling the Party ‘morally dodgy’ and ‘extremely right wing.’ This was highlighted in recent times when a Tory MEP wrote that Nigel Farage had allegedly said some highly controversial comments in regards to ethnic minorities.
UKIP’s stance on immigration is not the only area where their policies have caused problems for their image, their former leader Lord Pearson – who was heavily backed by Farage, and Robinson of the EDL – pushed the policy of a Burka ban with great significance in UKIP’s 2010 General Election campaign. The notion was met with horror by many voters, commentators, and newspapers that a political party would attempt to regulate the clothes we can and cannot wear.
But why do we care? Why do we care if UKIP is anti-immigrant, opposed to gay marriage, and at one point became so authoritarian it wanted to regulate your clothes? Well it’s not because we are worried that UKIP have enough support to win in 2015; nor are we writing this because we are affiliated with a party and have a particular motive to win back lost votes; and nor is it for some personal vendetta against the party – even if one of us was recently scorched by UKIP’s wrath. No, we are writing this article, and highlighting these issues because despite the authoritarian politics that UKIP provides, they still have the nerve to call themselves libertarians.
Politically speaking, it may be smart to advocate for closed borders – we see it as a dreadful policy – if it means that you could win votes. It may be a politically smart move to continue to push for a protected NHS, oppose individual rights to gay marriage, decide what people can and can’t wear if you think you can gain votes in the process; but that doesn’t make it libertarian in the slightest.
Libertarianism is about freedom of the individual and being allowed to live in an environment as far away as possible from the shackles of the state. For example, libertarians would not want the government to increase defence spending by 40%; adopt a much tougher stance on crime and punishment; control who citizens can or cannot marry; and impose a strict border control policy – those ideas are in direct contrast to the idea of ‘don’t tread on me’.
The fact is that UKIP have jumped on to the growing brand of libertarianism in order to persuade the public that they are not in fact the bastion of Social Conservatism; but we see through the rhetoric. For us the fact that UKIP are attracting the endorsement of figures such as Tommy Robinson proves that they cannot be advocating the libertarian cause; how could they be if they are getting the thumbs up from the leader of an anti-Islamic organisation?
If UKIP want to continue down the road of Social Conservatism, protectionism, and anti-immigration then that is their prerogative, – and quite frankly it is not our concern – but calling themselves libertarian whilst doing it only serves to damage their credibility, and will damage the identity of what it really means to be a libertarian. This is not a good look UKIP; we think you should remove the word Libertarian from your Party’s description.
The Backbencher is a Libertarian blog
The BBC is right to conclude in its Great Class Calculator that simplistic brackets such as upper, middle and working class no longer accurately reflect 21st century occupations and lifestyles.
But the Beeb’s alternative shows a poor understanding of how class actually operates.
Relying heavily on home ownership, salary and savings, the BBC takes a snapshot of people at a particular time.
But conspicuously missing from the BBC poll are questions about education and family wealth and the power they convey.
Let’s take the example of Benedict Whitehall. He went through Eton and Oxford, his family own an estate in Surrey, a villa in Tuscany and a successful business empire which he stands to inherit. He’s just graduated and has landed his first job as a junior researcher at a think tank. Because the BBC’s poll takes a snapshot of his relatively low pay and the fact he doesn’t yet own a home, he is deemed to be of a lower class than a train driver on £40,000 a year with a mortgage.
But Benedict will go on to inherit millions. He will use the contacts he made at Eton and Oxford to propel him through the ranks of the think tank until he is parachuted into a safe Conservative seat and he works his way to the front benches where he will wield considerable economic and political power. By this point he will no longer be deemed an emergent service worker (second from bottom), but an elite.
In this way, the BBC implies a level of social mobility which sadly doesn’t exist in society for all that has happened in the last decades to break down traditional class structures. Benedict was born an elite and he will die an elite.
And what of the media which is meant to hold these elites to account? Most journalists must spend their first couple of years working for free building up credits and contacts to break into the industry. Working for little to no money and renting expensive London accommodation, the BBC’s class calculator would place them at the bottom of the heap in the precariat. But how many of those journalists are eking out their precarious existences without generous parental support? Is the media really as open as the BBC would seem to be suggesting to such poor, disenfranchised people?
This is the real social divide which exists with out-of-touch millionaire politicians and their media pals.
It is a truism of politics, oft-cited by Jonathan Bernstein, that activists and politicians always feel the opposition are better organised and less principled than themselves.
In that spirit we should perhaps not be surprised at left-wing frustration over the long-vaunted, rarely-seen ‘moral’ (read reactionary) majority that drives so much of our national discourse on social policy issues.
According to initial findings by Broockman and Skovron, politicians of all parties consistently and significantly over-estimate the ‘conservativeness’ of their constituencies. Liberal politicians underestimate the strength of support for liberal policies, even when that support is 80% or better: and conservatives, by a much larger margin, over-estimate conservative strength in their districts and in the polity at large. Key from the original paper:
[...] nearly half of conservative politicians appear to believe that they represent a district that is more conservative on these issues than is the most conservative district in the entire country.
“These issues” being health-care and gay marriage.
Dylan Matthews conclusion:
The research here is young and, as a general rule, reading too much into a single working paper is foolhardy. It’d be good, for one thing, to perform district-level surveys to confirm these findings. But the data holds against a battery of robustness checks the authors threw at it. The finding on conservative legislators in particular is so large that it’s hard to imagine any subsequent research would completely overturn it. But if the findings hold, they suggest both that epistemic closure on the right is real and affects state-level policymaking, and that there is a systematic bias against liberal policies at the state level.
This is important.
I would be very surprised to discover that the British political class did not share this bizarre feature of thought.
As my last article implied, it is my observation that British politicians routinely underestimate the popularity of liberal policies and massively over-estimate the strength of reactionary opinion on a number of issues.
Many of us have long thought it, and this paper offers a strong case that we now know why it’s so damn hard to get popular, liberal policies through our legislatures. Elected officials are permanently afraid of political retribution from a reactionary ‘majority’ of Edwardian moral vigilantes which simply does not exist.
Almost all the debate about the Leveson Report so far is over whether the Government should introduce statutory regulation of the press. The other grave issues covered by the Inquiry, and Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations for how to fix them, seem to have prompted less discussion.
He offered a detailed plan for how a new self-regulatory body might be emboldened by some kind of law, but fewer ideas on how to regulate the way the media interacts with the police and politicians.
It was the failure to properly investigate the phone hacking that made this controversy into a bona fide ‘gate’. Had the police done their job, and not sought friendship and favour with the News International titles and other tabloids, then the entire controversy would have amounted to nothing more than a few criminal prosecutions.
What does Leveson recommend for this malaise affecting our boys in blue? A vague sense that the police should be… better. He speaks of “inculcating the right sense of professional pride” (Executive Summary, para 92) in the police and that they self-report the off-the-record briefings they give to the press.
It is for the club of Chief Police Officers to decide how junior officers should interact with journalists. Chief Constables themselves should “lead by example”. And “serious consideration” should be given to the idea of a 12 month cooling-off period between leaving a police force and working for a news outlet.
Lord Justice Leveson also considers the relationship between politicians an lobbyists, and in particular the collusion between Adam Smith (Jeremy Hunt’s right-hand-man) and Fred Michel, Public Affairs advisor to News International.
120. I have concluded that a combination of these factors has contributed to a lessening of public confidence in the conduct of public affairs, by giving rise to legitimate perceptions and concerns that politicians and the press have traded power and influence in ways which are contrary to the public interest and out of public sight. These perceptions and concerns are inevitably particularly acute in relation to the conduct by politicians of public policy issues in relation to the press itself.
A few paragraphs later, Leveson exonerates Jeremy Hunt of wrongdoing, and attributes Adam Smith’s failings to some kind of man-crush (“when faced with the intimacy, charm, volume and persistence of Mr Michel’s approaches, he was put in an extremely difficult position”).
As with the police failings described above, the fact that the political elites acquiesced to this kind of behaviour compounds the scandal.
Leveson’s recommendation to correct this is that politicians be more “transparent” in their meetings with lobbyists like Fred Michel (paragraphs 134-136). But in this crucial area he does not suggest legislation. The regime he proposes instead reads very much like, well, self regulation for the politicians! His prescription for the malaise is that that ministers give “serious consideration” to giving “some degree” of information over and above what the law requires.
Lord Justice Leveson produced a report that recommends legislation to keep the press in order, but suggested self-regulation and guidelines for the police and politicians.
If there has to be legislation, why not regulate the behaviour of the police and politicians in relation to the press?
And now, watch twitter EXPLODE! #royalbaby
— robertsharp59 (@robertsharp59) December 3, 2012
The Duchess of Cambridge is pregnant, and my Twitter timeline and Facebook wall were immediately filled with curmudgeons complaining that the issue of #Leveson and other important stories will get buried. I think this may be an over-reaction – there will be other news reported in the papers tomorrow.
Most of the comments in my timeline were meta – discussions about the discussion, not a discussion about the news itself. This is unsurprising because of course, there is no actual analysis that can be done on this kind of story: Kate is pregnant. The kid will be born about 7 months from now. They will one day be monarch, regardless of gender.
I have little patience for those complaining about the level of coverage. Britain is an immensely influential country, and a new head of state – one that could potentially reign for decades – has just been designated.
We went nuts for discussion of the US Presidential election, and the French Presidential election. The opaque appointment of a new Chinese leader was also well documented.
Why should the emergence of a new British Head of State be any less talked about?
The madness is not the level of coverage given over to this story. The madness is that British heads of state are still chosen by the hereditary method. If you are annoyed, irritated or angered by the news overload, but you’re not a republican, then you’re just being inconsistent.
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