The sham of corporate social media customer service

On one level, hapless corporate social media accounts that aspire to the monicker ‘customer service’ are simply one more part of the grey noise of the Internet that we simply tolerate. They exist because the companies have an online presence, we communicate online more and more, and so there is a box to tick.

However, the reality is that most of these accounts are worse than useless. More than just grey noise, they help condition us to accept mediocrity and ineffectiveness as normal when it comes to customer service.

They all follow a basic modus operandi, too.

A superficial sense that the company is listening is often created with a rapid initial public response, sounding concerned, and inviting a private DM so the matter can be properly investigated. Invariably, the person behind it at the time signs off with a cheery first name – ^^Dave or ^^Lisa or similar – in an attempt to affect a sense of informality and personal connection and that the company they represent really does care.

Having already invested time in airing the matter, the customer duly invests another ten minutes in setting out the concerns. This may well invite some security questions, to make sure they are speaking to the right person and intended to create confidence that this is ‘official’, and then various other questions to validate the information already provided in the initial tweet or DM (from recent experience, often simply a repeated request for the same information). Of course, at no point is it clear why any of this required any security whatsoever and couldn’t have been dealt with in public, other than to spare the company some blushes.

After lengthy exchanges (laughably, the most recent, with a well-known hotel chain about a broken coffee machine, and taking four days), the person behind the account, who may very well not be the person who started the exchange, explains that your comments have been passed on to the team concerned. A little more questioning and it turns out there is nothing else they can do (e.g. find out an ETA or why it’s been not functioning for three months). Then comes the excuse. It’s because they don’t hold the data, or because it’s the responsibility of the local team, or because they don’t have authority to access account details, or because blah blah blah.

In reality these corporate social media customer service accounts have a limited, very clear function and it is nothing to do with actually servicing customer needs. They are designed to present a facade of customer concern, while moving exchanges from the public sphere to the private, and minimising the human and financial resources put in to actually addressing customer concerns. They take advantage of an online culture of medicocrity and social management to ensure expectations are managed down. In doing so, they reinforce the sense you are wading debilitatingly through amorphous, pointless gloop. And of course, they get to tick the necessary customer service box for internal performance purposes.

It’s all fuel for a good chuckle down the pub or over dinner. However, it is also indicative of a certain corporate culture that is about cynically managing customers rather than dealing with the issues they raise. And it’s no surprise to see it in a country where public services are denigrated and run into the ground, meaning that even shoddy customer service compares favourably.

Anyway, here’s looking at you Premier Inn and Virgin Media.

Do better.

Broken bureaucracy

We see evidence of Britain breaking under the strain of under-investment and neglect every evening on our news. However, it’s not just in the NHS, our railways and policing where services are broken. Less visible services are also dysfunctional. For instance, the quest to replace my car log, lost in my recent move, has been an eye-opening reminder of how poor and user unfriendly much of our public service bureaucracy is.

I started where most of us start these days, on the Internet. The government’s website explains that as I have both lost my V5C and changed my address, I cannot apply online or over the phone. I have to fill out a form (V62) and send it in. I decided to phone the DVLA to double-check that I had the procedure correct.

The woman I spoke to was friendly and helpful. She explained my choices are to download and print it out or to collect one from the Post Office and fill it in. Fortunately, I have a printer, though many people do not. There was no procedure to submit the form electronically. She also reminded me I needed to pay £25. I asked how that should be done.

“You can either send in a cheque or a Postal Order.”

I paused, incredulous.

A cheque.

I can’t remember when my bank last issued me with a cheque book. I’ve always thought them a useful way to send money to friends and family, but I have probably cashed less than one a year for the last decade and haven’t written one for almost two. As for Postal Orders, I can’t remember the last time I used them. I mentioned it all felt very 1990s and she laughed, awkwardly. Apparently, they couldn’t accept cash but it was perfectly okay for someone else to write the cheque on my behalf.

Really? You go through all this detailed bureaucracy but will take payment in anyone’s name?

Having printed and filled out V62 in my almost illegible handwriting, and having spent half an hour hunting inside the engine for the chassis number and made a couple of mistakes, I decided I would pick up a form from the local Post Office and copy out the details, hopefully in a neater fashion.

Arriving at the Post Office, the chap at the counter explained they were too small to have forms to do with cars and that I would need to go into the city or out to the next town. Never mind that this Post Office serves thousands of households, most with more than one vehicle. Cursing under my breath, I double-checked they could do Postal Orders and headed back home to print a second version of V62.

Finally, the second form in hand, I went back to the Post Office and ordered the Postal Order. It was a different guy who explained that I would have to pay in cash (!). However, they could do a cash withdrawal on my card (!!) and pay for the Postal Order with that. I needed an envelope and was ready to pay for one – but he said there was no need to pay. It was a Post Office envelope and therefore free. Finally, there was an administrative charge for my Postal Order – just over £3.

Reflecting on the process, there is so much that is broken or that doesn’t make sense, or that could be done so much more effectively.

Why can’t I replace my logbook and change my address online?

Why do I have to print a PDF or collect from the Post Office, instead of complete online?

Why does a government agency only take cheques or Postal Orders and make no facility for online or phone payments?

Why does a Post Office not have critical forms or at least the facility to print them for those with no printer?

Why does it cost £3 to print a Postal Order? (Why are we still using Postal Orders!)

And why are Post Office envelopes free? (You don’t need to lick them either, apparently, which – according to the chap at the counter – saves on spit.)

So much of our bureaucracy is broken. Or mad.

Exiting Virgin Media: the hell of modern customer service

The experience of disconnecting from Virgin Media broadband, phone and television services has been a salutary lesson in appalling customer service, exarcerbated by broken tech and pointless social media accounts.

The process is entirely impersonal, prefaced by intrusive data harvesting, presumably for aggressive marketing, and inconsistent online advice from its postcode checker. When it finally confirms it can’t facilitate a transfer as there is no service in the area, workload overload directs you to online chat that then directs you to WhatsApp.

You don’t know if you are talking to a person or a bot. The responses are generally so robotic that they could be a bot, but showing very occasional responsiveness to answers that suggests a human being. The end of experience survey – which will not make for pretty reading – also talks about an ‘operator’ implying it is a human being you have been ‘conversing’ with.

There is also a curious episode with a form that takes you out of WhatsApp and feels insecure (even if it isn’t).

Having been told why I was getting in touch, the bot/operator went through a bunch of questions before telling me it can’t help and referred me to the Movers team (the whole point of the initial contact, fully explained at the outset). The Movers team then asked a bunch of questions, including about the address I am moving to, confirming – as I already bloody knew! – that I couldn’t receive services there.

Eventually, it confirmed cancellation, a modest charge for the remainder of the month, and provided a link to a service that showed me where I could take my equipment for return.

Except.

The link didn’t work and the subsequent email indicated I was liable for a charge for exiting my contract early.

Considering I have been with them for four and a half years, and paid them thousands, the idea I am exiting early is a bloody outrage. As is the fact they couldn’t even provide a working link in their chat for the return of their own equipment. (The link in the subsequent email did work, but that is not the point.)

Of course, they can waive the charge if I can prove my new address (and thereby the fact they cannot provide services). For this, they require to see one of the following:

Bank statement
Mortgage information
Rental agreement
Driving licence
Insurance policy
Utility bill

I have none of these available.

Apart from the fact that in 2023, most of this is now done online and so there are no bills ot statements to photograph and upload, the property I am moving to is in someone else’s name. The utility bills are in their name. The house particulars are in their name. The insurance is in their name. My banking is online. My driving licence is with the DVLA and who knows when I will get the new one back. The fact they will even take a driving licence is ironic. You need to provide no supporting documentation when you change your address with the DVLA on the government website. Yet Virgin Media accept it as proof of identity, while refusing the information on the same basis it is provided to the DVLA.

During this torturous process, in which the bot/operator refused to provide a working link (but told me not to worry because details will be in the box they send out), and which took over 2.5 hours, Virgin Media’s customer service was absolutely tone deaf.

The bot/operator was cheery, simply ignored basic questions, and was clearly determined simply to extract as much information as possible while attempting to sell additional services. By contrast, @virginmedia on Twitter were robotic, unsympathetic and made clear they couldn’t help, while patronisingly directing me to the resources I had used to contact Virgin Media in the first place (while also telling me how much they valued their customers).

The fascinating thing for me is how, in 2023, when technology is supposed to make these tasks less time consuming, can it take 2.5 hours to cancel a broadband contract and involve so much poor quality information provision? When I moved from Essex to Leeds in 2018, it was a five minute phonecall and the job was done. How is it that companies such as Virgin Media are so contemptible of their customers, apparently seeing no value in trying to encourage them back in future by proceeding empathetically and constructively? What is the point of a social media team that cannot help and simply patronises by redirecting to the resources most people will have looked at in the first place? And why is there such a lack of trust in their customers, when they have a clear and clean record of payments over a period of years?

Virgin Media demonstrate exactly what is wrong with a tech-driven corporate future that depersonalises the customer experience and conditions us to mediocrity and delay.

Reflections on the death of the Queen

The day after the death of the Queen, I imagine my many and complex feelings are not dissimilar to those of others. I have a profound sense of loss, though of what I am not entirely sure. There is genuine sadness, though again I am not entirely sure of its origins.

Aspects are easy to pinpoint, of course.

The loss of a sense of continuity. To be the head of state through the historic experiences of five generations is something I struggle to get my head around. From my great grandparents’ generation to that of my brother’s children, she has witnessed events and developments in every sphere of life that have shifted history’s trajectory. When the political geography of the nation has changed with profound consequence, she has offered continuity and a reference point away from the daily, grubby grind of politics.

There is the loss of the embodiment of a set of values, particularly those of public service, to which we encourage national aspiration. A life lived in the spotlight, immensely privileged yes, but with a destiny cast by an accident of history that precluded the ordinary aspirations of a young woman.

There is also a sense of shared grief. The loss of someone who, as well as being head of state, was a grandmother, mother, daughter, sister, and wife. The death of a loved one is a very individual experience for those close to them and there has been much tasteless speculation and comment on the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of some of her family. Their privacy in grief should be respected, much as we would wish that for ourselves. She has also been patron to many good causes and, for me at least, there is a sense of loss of grace and kindness in public life, qualities too often associated with weakness rather than their true harbours, strength, and resilience.

But while those sentiments help explain my feelings, they aren’t sufficient. In the end, I think we may have simply, as a nation, taken her for granted and part of what I am feeling is the uncomfortable recognition of that.

We have devoured the latest salacious tabloid gossip about ‘The Firm’, translating it into memes or using it to fuel comedically cynical observations on panel shows. We have treated the examples of human frailty and failure played out in public as something with which we are intimately familiar, commenting knowledgeably even without any knowledge at all. We have done so, labouring under the misapprehension that because she had always been there, she always would be. Now she is gone, and we wonder what is to follow and how many of our thoughts are unfinished. We wonder how an institution so seemingly anachronistic as monarchy can adapt to a world where change is constant, information readily available on demand, and people expect more say and agency over their own lives.

Whether we regard the monarchy with fondness or disdain or loathing, she has become synonymous with its constitutional architecture. She has been the obvious focus for our conversations, should we even take time to discuss the monarch and its constitutional appropriateness and relevance. However, in taking her reign for granted, and latterly out of respect for her and her monumental achievement in being our longest serving monarch, we have denied ourselves the national conversation about the role of head of state, how a constitutional monarchy must adapt in a parliamentary democracy, and what else we need to change about the governance arrangements of the United Kingdom to make it fit for purpose in the 21st century.

It is an issue – and a conversation – that I suspect (and certainly hope) the new King has spent a lot more time contemplating than the rest of us. And it is a conversation that must occur in a context that is very far from universally sympathetic.

Many of us have expressed revulsion, privately or publicly, at some of the extreme messages directed towards the Queen in her last hours. It is unwise, however, not to acknowledge that such sentiment shows that the questions around the monarchy in 2022 are many and the accompanying feelings deeply held. They raise challenges of history and politics that we need to consider and respond to, with rigour and honesty.

At the same time, many of us – in a further reflection of the complexity of our feelings – have felt uncomfortable with a media coverage that at times feels dystopian in the way it has covered her passing. There is no other news. There is no energy crisis. There is no absolute fear felt by millions at the onset of winter, knowing that even with energy prices capped, they won’t be able to afford the bills and inflation will mean they cannot put food on the family table. There is no scrutiny of the government’s response. There is no reporting of the monumental gains made by the Ukrainian army, whose victories might give a measure of economic confidence to counter the impact of Russian aggression.

Instead, the BBC offers wall to wall coverage of other people talking about the Queen, vox pops and reminiscences, repeating endlessly the same stories and snippets of information about what is to come, while curiously making time for the weather, even though that is the one tangible thing we can get some sense of by looking out of our windows. Elsewhere, in a manner reminiscent of the Weekly World News, the Mail Online breathlessly shows us pictures of clouds that are apparently ‘astonishing’ in their likeness to the Queen. I can only imagine their – and our – reaction if North Korean media asserted the same about Kim Jong-un upon his demise.

This approach feels uncomfortable and not of its time. Surely it is possible for the national broadcaster to be respectful and comprehensive in its coverage, while recognising that life does go on? And then I feel guilty for thinking that, as if I am somehow being disrespectful myself – on a personal level and on some undefined societal level. Perhaps it is right for occasion like this to cause us to pause and reflect on events, on life, in a way that our usual addiction to the vicissitudes of twenty-four news rarely affords?

It is a political opinion that I suspect is not shared by many of my fellow travellers in Liberalism, and may surprise or irritate them, but I am a cynical and reluctant constitutional monarchist, not a republican. My politics should lend itself easily to a respectful republicanism, but I feel deeply uncomfortable at the idea of transforming the role of head of state, even with all the privileges and unfairness and dysfunctionality of its current constitutional incarnation, into something transitory, with a fixed tenure of a few years, subject to the same political forces that delivered a Trump. In doing so it would change unalterably the nature of our politics, imbuing a single individual with a democratic mandate and setting up an executive tension inside our parliamentary democracy, aspects of which I believe are in much more urgent need of radical reform than the monarchy.  I am quite possibly wrong in that view, and I enjoy being challenged on it. Perhaps, too, my thoughts are shaped and confused by those reflections on the role of continuity and public service.

However, I am clear that our politics is far more dysfunctional than the symbolism of monarchy implies.

When the dust settles on the events of the last twenty-four hours, when the mourning is done, when the way in which the new King intends to conduct himself as head of state is clearer, we owe ourselves a frank conversation about our country, our politics, and its constitutional architecture. We owe ourselves a rigorous appraisal of the continuing failure of our politics to engage those furthest from centres of power, who need our politicians to see and understand the reality of their lives, where the consequences of their decisions are – quite literally – existential.

Jackie Weaver and the lockdown creativity of the great British public

Unless you have been living completely disconnected from any form of media – social, mainstream, or other – you will be aware of the extraordinary ‘extraordinary’ meeting of Handforth Parish Council which has become a viral sensation. The Today Programme, PM, mainstream news broadcasts across the major channels, have all suddenly discovered local parish politics, not least of all because of the calm, patient and authoritative Jackie Weaver, Chief Officer of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils, brought in – apparently – to becalm tensions in the council.

For those playing catch-up, you can see the highlights of the meeting below.

For those wondering if Jackie ‘Call me Britney Spears’ Weaver did have authority, one of Twitter’s best legal commentators, David Allen Green, posted a fascinating blog piece. (It includes the immortal description of Jackie Weaver as ‘the Winston Wolf of Cheshire local government.’)

There is lots to say about Handforth Parish Council, and even more about the issues thrown up by its sudden virality on YouTube: the overlooked hard work of those in local government – officials and councillors – and its importance in ensuring the cohesion of our local communities; the bullying and misogynistic culture that often persists; the way our political reporting generally ignores all of this in favour of lurid grandstanding on Brexit and COVID-19, instead of facilitating a grown-up conversation about what we really need from our politics.

But I have also loved how incidents like this show the power of social media – and the creativity of people who are confined by the pandemic and restrictions on our lives. As well as bringing politics at the most local level to a younger generation, it gives me hope that our sense of mischief remains intact, despite the brutal tragedy of COVID-19 and the economic impact of necessary lockdowns.

In addition to a slew of very amusing memes, there have been some wonderful videos which demonstrate a combination of creativity, irreverence and affection.

These are a few of my favourites.

The political thriller of the decade!

#JACKIEWEAVER The Musical

Handforth Parish Council but it’s an Indy Band

The Handforth Parish Council does Doctor Who

A Musical Tribute to Jackie Weaver and Handforth Parish Council

On the death of Stephen Cave: a friend remembered

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Stephen Roy Cave, 30th March 1953 – 30th June 2020

Last Wednesday, thirty of us – friend and stranger – gathered at Basildon and District Crematorium to pay our last respects to Stephen Cave. A huge influence on each of us, everyone there had their own memories of Stephen, whether as teaching colleague, accompanist for the Basildon Choral Society, piano teacher, neighbour, or simply a friend met over dinner.

Thirty minutes is not enough time to remember someone who affected us all so profoundly. Still, we managed to share many memories and play some of the music that most seemed to encapsulate him: the second movement of Shostakovich’s 2nd piano concerto, Puccini’s O Mio Babbino Caro (sung by Monserrat Caballé), and Nessun Dorma (sung by Luciano Pavarotti). We also listened to a recording of him playing Walking in the Air, a version of which he extemporised each Christmas. The video from which it was taken is at the end.

Dad organised the remembrance, Mum, Seth and I shared memories of his friendship and inspiration, and Ellie read one of the poems that he learned by heart and recited on many occasions after dinner and more than a few glasses of wine (Roald Dahl’s Three Little Pigs from his Horrible Rhymes). Other friends and colleagues offered words of remembrance for the order of service.

Stephen had been family to us. He was my confidante and friend.

It is so hard to believe he is gone.

He will be terribly, terribly missed.

 

Seth’s words remembering Stephen

It seems entirely appropriate to be more or less lost for words when talking about Stephen. Someone who brought so much joy to others through his gifts as a musician and teacher.

You have heard from others their fond reflections on Stephen as friend and frankly as family. We all loved Stephen and we will all continue to mourn and to miss him.

Stephen was an exceptional musician. He was an exceptional teacher. In fact, I could draw you a direct line across eight individual pianists that starts with Stephen and ends with Beethoven himself. Genuinely – a profound musical heritage. Stephen was taught by Alexander Kelly at the Royal Academy of Music – one of Stephen’s contemporary fellow pupils now runs the Piano Accompaniment Department at the Academy and became one of my teachers when I studied there. He remembered Stephen.

Others of Stephen’s pupils have gone on to pursue highly successful music careers and all of us realise the great musical debt we owe Stephen.

Stephen leaves a huge gap for many of us and I feel privileged to have known him as a friend and teacher. Huge swathes of my piano music collection is littered with Stephen’s handwriting and I shall cherish the thousands of hours spent playing, listening to and discussing music with the him – whether the high art of Puccini, Chopin or Rachmaninov, through to the rye humour of parlour songs such as ‘Could I but express in song’ or as Stephen regularly coined it ‘The Kodaly Buttocks Pressing Song’.

There’s really only one thing to say which is appropriate, if inadequate. Thank you, Stephen.

As Stephen would have said – and did in every text and email he signed off – ‘un abbraccione a tutti’.

 

My words remembering Stephen

Dilegua, o notte!
Tramontate, stelle!
Tramontate, stelle!
All’alba vincerò!
vincerò, vincerò!

Giacomo Puccini, from Nessun Dorma

 

It is impossible to begin to describe the immense hole that Stephen’s passing leaves in the lives of those of us who knew him and loved him. It is difficult to believe we will never again hear that deep, rich belly laugh, or hear that booming baritone voice proclaim in perfectly enunciated, self-taught Italian on the beautiful evening he had just spent with his friends.

Intelligent and gentle, self-effacing and yet a consummate performer who secretly loved the attention he garnered whenever he played or sang, Stephen was as complex as he was fiercely private. His friendship was one of my deepest and most valued.  Forged through childhood piano lessons, countless bottles of wine over many years of lengthy Sunday evening dinners, intense singing lessons and, latterly, his steadfast support in my move north and subsequent telephone reminiscences on times past, he was a reassuring constant in my life. His was the kind of friendship by which those darker moments that challenge and distress could be navigated, his measured reassurance and black humour offering the promise of brighter days ahead.

Stephen loved our regular Sunday evening gatherings. Christened DoS – Dinner on Sunday – they started early and finished late, with far too much wine drunk and cheese eaten, listening to Puccini or Rachmaninov or Elgar or Finzi, Stephen a font of knowledge regarding the various singers or conductors or pianists. Pavarotti was his favourite, and he loved Callas, too, but he seemed to know them all, enjoying challenging us to play an aria at random so he could identify – correctly – the singer. Sometimes, he recounted stories from his younger days at Bretton Hall, or when he would go to the opera in London,  or teaching in Grays, or being left at the side of the road on a Basildon Choral Society trip to the continent, or musical adventures he got up to with those he quietly wished he’d been among more regularly. He also regularly claimed to be distantly related to Cliff Richard and to Captain Webb, the first person to swim the English Channel.

If we were lucky, after coffee, and after he had recited a humorous verse from memory, we might persuade him to play the piano and whichever recording was playing in the next room would be surrendered for brilliant and moving interpretations of Chopin or Kabalevsky or Debussy. He was a sublime pianist who taught us all so much about music and how to listen to it and even when his hands failed him in later years, he was still better than most. Afterwards, he would drop me home and we would often pull up and talk awhile, ruminating on the evening just spent, or the meaning of life, or the professional challenges of the week ahead.

He found endless amusement in little things. At our last meal together in Essex, a week or so before I moved north,  Stephen, with tears of laughter in his eyes, recalled one particularly funny occasion when a bemused Japanese embassy official had joined us many years before at Hillcroft to experience a traditional English Sunday roast dinner. What Nobi made of Stephen and a dinner about as far from normal as you could imagine we never knew. His humour was grounded in the gentle absurdity of it all, never mocking. He could not abide cruelty or bullying. He always offered a warm and gracious welcome to the various people who joined our gatherings over the years, putting them at their ease and greeting them as if Hillcroft were his own home. Which in many ways it was.

Stephen was an eternal source of curious information and he would often punctuate the fierce debates about politics, music, education and religion that usually raged around the dining table with choice facts he had learned in the week before. He loved puzzles, particularly maths ones, and learned origami as well as Italian, sometimes leaving a little swan or a flower where he had sat for dinner. He loved Star Wars, too, the original films, not the sequels, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blackadder and the X-Files. Somehow, this all seemed both utterly incongruous and entirely in keeping.

For a good number of years, he and I took singing lessons together. He would drive us – first to Surrey and later to Littlehampton – so we could learn with a teacher, Liz Pearson, who was as brilliant a voice teacher as she was knowingly hopeless a pianist. As we sang, one after the other, him baritone, me tenor, she would punch us in the stomach to get us to use our diaphragms better. On one occasion, we pitched up with the Pearl Fishers duet and we sang our hearts out together as if we were in Covent Garden. Towards the end, we could not continue for laughing. It was dire and beautiful, but it was also just so much glorious fun. On the way home, we would listen to Classic FM and I would read the road signs out loud until it drove him to distraction and he would swear very loudly and threaten to pull over and make me walk the rest of the way.

The last time I saw Stephen was in November 2018, when he was in Basildon hospital. I drove down to see him, and we spent a couple of hours talking. He had nothing but praise for the nursing staff and had been charming and funny with them, even though fearful and experiencing considerable discomfort. Despite his illness, I had always assumed there would be another chance to sit and talk, to laugh about the world and simply enjoy each other’s company. We texted and emailed and phoned in the eighteen months after, his texts always accompanied by a little waving emoji. We would talk about health and politics, missing the old days and those weekly gatherings that anchored our lives. In our last exchange, he bemoaned the state of the world in general, and Trump in particular, his humour as dry as ever, and I smiled imagining him saying it all over dinner. It never occurred for a moment that they would be his last words to me.

Now, I simply miss my warm giant of a friend.

Sleep gently, Stephen.

Or, as you might say in that unique and comforting baritone, and with a twinkle in your eye – dormi dolcemente.

 

Walking in the Air, played by Stephen Cave at Hillcroft, 18th December 2011

The dangers of compromise: reflections on the future of Leave and Remain

I had thought that I would find the 31 January 2020 much easier to navigate than I have.

I long ago made peace with the fact we were leaving, the failure of parliamentarians to capitalise on the tools available to the most powerful parliament in living memory the final nail in the coffin of the hopes of Remainers. But I find myself waking on 1 February angrier than I have ever been with those who have led us to this economic, diplomatic and cultural destitution – and those from both sides already asking us to move on in the spirit of ‘coming together’. 

Tom Peck’s searing account of the event in Parliament Square last night only fuels that anger, the dismal cultural illiteracy on display a foretaste of the abject international humiliation that is potentially in prospect.

The language of healing and coming together infuriates.

It requires those of us whose values led us to a particular position to compromise those values and embrace and accept unpleasant and dangerous political positions that have been obtained through the misrepresentation of fact and framed by the distortion of history – ours and that of our continental friends.

The very language of compromise is problematic, particularly when those scenes from last night in Parliament Square – the inherent violence of the language, the cultural ignorance, the crass triumphalism, the fundamental misunderstanding of concepts such as sovereignty and freedom – are contrasted with the character of the gatherings of Remain over the last few years.

And to that end, compromise is potentially just one more misstep by those of us who see yesterday as tragedy not triumph. Compromise requires both parties to a dispute to move their positions. In triumph, it requires the victor to show magnanimity. In defeat, it requires the loser to accept that the other side has prevailed. A way forward is found through both sides giving ground on what they believe is the right way forward.

But this battle – and it has been and will remain a battle – is not simply transactional. It is dialectical, concerned with the investigation and discussion of the truth of opinions. In the examination of facts from multiple perspectives, in order to reconcile those views, there is a key element which cannot be foregone: facts. The language of compromise assumes that those with whom we are engaged share the same intent and capacity for rational analysis of the situation.

Surely, if the last four years have taught us anything, it is that motivations for political positioning extend far beyond fact, to the irrational and the seemingly unfathomable. For those of us who have identified as Remain for the last few years – liberal, social democrat, socialist or even conservative – to employ devices that require an appreciation of evidence to reach compromise is for the side advocating that, and for whom such thinking is instinctive, to continue to flog the horse that died in 2016.

Those who say that Europe barely registered on the list of public concerns before 2016 are largely right, though there was always a cadre of peculiar English nationalists that railed against Europe and a smaller group of European Union enthusiasts who knew but could not articulate its benefits with any popular resonance. Remain as a tribal identity arose in reaction to the promulgation of a Leave identity that promoted values and a world view that are deeply anathema to those of us who now subscribe to the former.

What challenged many of us was the way the Brexit debate became a vehicle for the expression of deeply-held resentments, that had been unarticulated for years in communities, with the European Union misidentified by those with a more insidious political agenda as the source of their problems. Those same people marshalled that resentment, utilising emotionally resonant propagandising that many of us felt had dark echoes of history to create a powerful synergy between those with genuine grievance at a sense of political and economic abandonment and those whose ideological ambitions gave them sway inside a government (and opposition) hamstrung by the accidents of successive inconclusive general elections.

Just as Leave forged new political allegiances, Remain arose as a tribe in direct response to the threat that Leave presented to values many of us held dear, embodied in the European Union (with all its faults), cutting across traditional party divides in the process. For some that was the simple rationality of nations working together to tackle multilateral challenges like security and the climate emergency. For some it was about the common sense of needing to collaborate economically to ensure we are not squashed between the United States and China. For some it was an unprecedented vehicle for preserving the peace and exploring our shared and separate intellectual and cultural histories.

We saw that, regardless of our personal politics that framed the challenges we saw, there was something greater at risk. It led those of us who could, not all of us, to subordinate our more immediate political loyalties to a broad movement that we felt might safeguard something that had felt so instinctive and natural we had taken it for granted, politically, since its inception.

Those who talk depolarisation, who talk compromise, who talk of coming together, seem to be making a deeply flawed assumption that we do so with similar intent.

We do not.

Whether more considered Brexiter commentators like it or not, last night in Parliament Square was the political and cultural apotheosis of Brexit. It was the moment that we have been heading towards since 23 June 2016. We can try to rationalise it away all we like and pretend it is not so, but the cultural illiteracy of a baying mob unable to understand the words of their Rule Britannia anthem, the casual racism of a thug shouting ‘Fuck the Pope’ to an Irish reporter, or that various Remain politicians should be hanged, and that Remainers should ‘do one’, is the mentality of those who chose to celebrate the pinnacle of their achievement at the heart of our capital city. Whether Johnson intended it to or not, last night’s gathering symbolised Brexit to the world.

Where was the confident recitation of treasured national verse? Where was the celebration of our own rich national musical and artistic heritage, the foundations on which a nation is built? Where was the measured reaching out and recognition of the need for care in victory, that others are mourning? Where was the acknowledgement that despite Brexit, we remain a member of the community of nations? Entirely absent. Instead, we were treated to an incoherent, embarrassing parade of D-list raconteurs, half-remembered hymns, cheap beer, Union Jack cupcakes and vulgar epithets.

And yet there are calls from both sides for a ‘healing’ and a ‘coming together’.

It is an unrealistic and potentially dangerous challenge.

I am not prepared to compromise my values of openness, tolerance, of cultural and historical inquisitiveness, of friendship, and cooperation. I am not prepared to pretend that we are better off in terms of our economy, our security, our climate challenges. I am not prepared to subordinate evidence to irrationality, even as I acknowledge how important it is that those of us in politics understand the need for emotional resonance in the things we say.

And I am not prepared to infantilise those who voted Leave by pretending that they are not responsible for their decisions. Whatever the misleading nature of the debates, whatever the counterfactuals, the reality is that adults in a democracy took a decision. Whether we like it or not, Leavers chose to believe one set of arguments and dismiss others. They chose whether or not to acknowledge or evaluate the arguments being made by those trying to prevent this catastrophe. That is the privilege of all lucky enough to live in a democracy. And with it comes a responsibility and accountability. Whether voter or politician, those whose actions led to yesterday are responsible for what happens as a consequence.

Some, like arch Brexiteer Mark Francois, are saying they hope the labels of Brexiteer and Remainer can now be left behind. Of course. Those who have demonstrated every appetite to avoid scrutiny, who have issued misleading economic claim after misleading economic claim, are going to want to put those labels aside. There would be nothing more convenient than being able to regard Brexit as a political crucible in which we can all be refashioned and those who led us to this could somehow abdicate responsibility for what follows in a ‘coming together’ or ‘healing’.

No, the labels of Leave and Remain, of Brexiteer and Remainer, are more important than ever now in a democracy in crisis due to institutional failures of accountability and a political elasticity with the truth that has undermined confidence and electoral trust. As with any decision, those who implemented it, and those who called for it, politician or member of the public, should be held to account for its consequences. Four years on from the referendum, there is no hiding in a democracy behind the arguments of ‘We didn’t know’ and ‘Yes, but’.

If it succeeds, it is incumbent on those of us who identify as Remain to acknowledge that success. If it fails, those who bear responsibility for bringing it about – Leave voter and Leave politician – must be seen to be accountable. Prices voted for are prices to be paid.

As a liberal, I have long accepted I can often hold at least two contradictory opinions at the same time and on the same subject. I can want a more constructive and engaged approach to politics whilst understanding that it might fail and that others do not want that. Today I am seized of the need to do things differently, whilst not letting go of the values which I have spent four years articulating under the banner of Remain. I am very aware of the need for more rationality in our politics, whilst recognising that it is anger that won on 23 June 2016 and on 31 January 2020.

For now, at least, anger is framing my perspective and experience to date would seem to suggest it is a far more effective marshal of political opinion than rationality. Remainers should learn how to harness its emotional power whilst not foregoing the truth.

So, to appropriate the language of last night’s Brexit embarrassment in Parliament Square, which I presume is language that is readily understood by those who do not share my values or outlook: Leavers can ‘do one’.

Brecon and Radnorshire: Labour’s latest reckoning

The Brecon and Radnorshire by-election on August 1 is likely to be the latest demonstration of the depths of electoral crisis the Labour Party finds itself in. It is a seat that is regularly portrayed as a close contest between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, but its electoral history is far more complex than that.

The 2017 election win for Conservative Chris Davies saw him increase his 2015 majority of 5,102 to 8,038. That 2015 result was the largest since 1983. The intervening years were a story of variable electoral marginality. However, it hasn’t always been a seat of Lib Dem strength. It has actually had more Labour MPs than MPs of any other party – something which tells its own story of Labour decline since it last won the seat in October 1974.

So, what of Labour now? What does it stand for? And what does its positioning on Brexit and accompanying political messaging say in the context of the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election?

Labour’s Deputy Leader, Tom Watson MP, has urged members to sign a public declaration calling for Labour to be ‘the party of remain’. The Welsh Labour Party’s leader Mark Drakeford AM has been clear on his pro-further referendum and pro-remain position. Yet those who proudly already identify as remain parties have coalesced around the Lib Dem candidate in a nascent remain alliance. Is the ‘party of remain’ also backing this remain alliance? Of course not. Labour’s tribal character hard-wires it against electoral co-operation and so it is running.

Meanwhile, in an election that will receive media coverage that will be as much national as it will be local, Corbyn continues his position of ‘constructive ambiguity’ or, as the New Statesman puts it, ‘destructive ambiguity’. The language is still of a ‘public vote’, still maintaining that a general election is preferable to a further referendum even when Labour is polling at its most disastrous level since polling began. There is no indication yet, despite increasingly frantic calls from Labour loyalists, that if they did secure a further referendum that Corbyn would campaign for remain. Instead, Labour’s either/or way forward risks further frustrating those that want a clear commitment to another referendum and remain, those who see a General Election as a route to uncertainty and/or annihilation, and those who want to see Labour deliver Brexit.

Some in Labour will indignantly protest that Labour is a party of remain, but that it is also seized with dealing with the very real and wide range of societal problems Tory austerity has caused. That is fair comment, but think about that, and Labour’s Brexit positioning, in the context of this by-election.

If Labour had stood down, co-operating with the Lib Dems, it would have been a tacit admission that it was not capable of standing on its own remain credentials. It would also demonstrate that the Lib Dems are the party of remain for the purposes of this by-election, bolstering their credibility in the first electoral test of a new Conservative Prime Minister, held just days after that PM takes office.

As it is, Labour is running, possibly as a remain party (taking its cue from Drakeford and Watson), possibly not (taking its cue from the Milne, Murray, McClusky, Murphy tendency around Corbyn). Whatever, it is clearly not remain enough to back a remain alliance. So, when it gets electorally hammered, its irrelevance as a party of remain in a seat it has represented more than any other party will have been demonstrated – along with the fact that it cannot cope with the co-operative instincts of many Remainers.

What if Labour makes the case that there are more important things than Brexit, maintaining its position of constructive ambiguity, hoping to talk about other critical issues such as the impact of Tory austerity? That Brexit isn’t the all-defining issue the commentariat – or hated mainstream media – think it is? That is fine until the public votes along Brexit lines – for the Brexit Party and the Lib Dems – confirming that, in reality, Brexit is the issue that matters to them most.

In the end, the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election – combined with the local elections and the European election – is likely to demonstrate the catastrophic folly of predicating a strategic position on Brexit on a tactical electoral position of constructive ambiguity, which is necessarily limited in its ability to speak to the long-term and the much-sought certainty that voters are desperate for.

The electorate are not stupid. They know that politics is about more than Brexit. But they are also realising that the defining battle-lines in the Brexit debate represent broader world views about society, the future, the past, and Britain’s position internationally. They then see that the party-political landscape, which informs and is informed by an electoral system, a media, and political institutions that service binary narratives, and which hitherto has entrenched the interests of Labour and the Conservatives, is shifting axes – and they are picking sides.

By failing to pick a side, Labour are in the process of rendering themselves irrelevant.

Parliament, Precedent and #Brexit (or High Stakes, Innovation and Civil War): What Next?

“May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.”

William Lenthall, 1591-1662, Speaker of the House of Commons


Introduction

It is likely that anyone who has taken a tour of Parliament, and certainly anyone who has worked in Parliament, will be familiar with the words of Speaker Lenthall (above). They are woven through the narrative that Parliament tells itself, and the world at large, about its sovereignty – the sovereignty that so much of the 2016 campaign to leave the European Union centred on.

Yet, on Wednesday 12 June 2019, we saw an abject failure by MPs to exercise that sovereignty and ensure Parliament is the vehicle by which the final decision on Brexit is made.

This was the opportunity for MPs to put the national interest ahead of narrow personal or party electoral interest and give Parliament the certainty of one more definite opportunity for a considered decision. Whether motivated by a desire to stop Brexit, to ensure Brexit only occurs with some semblance of a functional deal, to avoid dragging the Monarch into politics, or to simply ensure Parliament’s primacy in determining the destiny of the United Kingdom, yesterday was the most tangible chance left to MPs.

They blew it.

Some will have been nervous about their electoral prospects in their seats. The idea that voters in an October General Election would even remember a technical procedural vote held months before is for the birds, but such is how Brexit has warped any rational understanding of electoral dynamics in the current political debate. Whatever, the combination of Labour rebels and abstentions, and independents, together with whipped government MPs, were more than enough to defeat the combined opposition parties and the ten Conservative MPs who had the courage to rebel.

It is worth noting some commentary suggesting the difficulty for Conservative MPs was that this was a Labour Party Opposition Day Debate, held during a Conservative Party leadership contest. However, opportunities present themselves and need to be taken. With the Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and the Conservative Party all represented in the top six names, there is no doubt this was clearly a cross-party motion.

The failure of MPs to seize the moment was underscored by Sir Oliver Letwin MP on the Today programme: “We have run out of all the possibilities that any of us can at the moment think of.”


Why have they blown it?

In recognising that MPs blew it, it is worth understanding the quiet magnitude of this failure to assert parliamentary sovereignty over a Brexit process that risks becoming the plaything of a Prime Minister elected by a Conservative Party membership that represents – according to its most recent published figures –just  0.27% of the electorate.

Like so much else in this torturous process, yesterday was about time – and who controls the time available to Parliament to debate issues of interest.

The big fear of many who are concerned about the direction of this debate, whether motivated by a desire to avert Brexit, manage Brexit or ensure Parliament retains control, is that one or other of the Conservative leadership candidates is serious about the potential of proroguing Parliament so that Parliament has no time available to it to prevent Britain leaving on October 31 with no deal.

Dominic Raab has been clear that this is an option. Today, Boris Johnson refused to rule it out.

Let that sink in. Potential Prime Ministers are actively considering subverting Parliament by drawing the Monarch into the most intense and toxic political debate this country has had in a generation.

So this is about time.

Yesterday’s debate was held in time that was given to the Official Opposition. Standing Order 14 (2) states that “Twenty days shall be allotted in each session for proceedings on opposition business, seventeen of which shall be at the disposal of the Leader of the Opposition and three of which shall be at the disposal of the leader of the second largest opposition party; and matters selected on those days shall have precedence over government business…” Parliamentary obsessives will have noticed that this is the longest parliamentary session since the English Civil War (1642-51). The opposition days due under the Standing Order have long since been allocated and so additional days, to reflect the fact that you would ordinarily expect a session to last no more than a year, have been set aside for opposition business by agreement between the whips’ offices in ‘usual channels’.

You can immediately begin to see the significance of the problem.

Yesterday was a day allocated for the opposition’s business that, technically, the government did not need to provide. MPs, seized of the need to avert the possibility of a new Prime Minister simply silencing Parliament, tabled a motion that would have created time on June 26 for the House of Commons to take control of the Order Paper and table a business motion or bill that could potentially have curtailed the Prime Minister’s freedom to deny Parliament a say in Brexit.

It was (another) bold move and it was defeated.

Having tried and failed, it is inconceivable that a hostile Conservative government is going to agree to allocate a further day for opposition business in the name of the Leader of the Opposition or the leader of any other opposition party.

Instead, if MPs wish to challenge a Johnson or Raab who intends to shut down Parliament, they will have to test the elasticity of procedure to an even greater extent – and draw on history’s precedents to back them up.

There is hard truth to face, too.

By voting it down yesterday, MPs – perhaps concerned about the short-term optics of the decision – have significantly heightened the rhetoric in a highly-charged debate and risk placing Parliament’s already creaking procedures under even greater strain.

If anyone thinks the idea of this being dangerous is hyperbolic, Rory Stewart, a rival Conservative leadership candidate, has said that “he and other MPs were ready to sit as a parliament outside the Palace of Westminster if Mr Johnson took this step as PM.” He then made the direct comparison with the Civil War.

Think about that for a moment, too.

A candidate who has made it into the second round of voting to be the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is drawing parallels between the behaviour of the leading candidate to become Prime Minister and the actions of King Charles I that precipitated a bloody nine-year conflict that tore the country apart.

Stewart is suggesting that there is a cadre of MPs prepared to defy the Prime Minister and sit in an alternative Parliament, directly challenging the authority of the government.


Current political context

Just as then, so now we have a Speaker who has fuelled furious debate amongst commentators and experts by demonstrating a clear willingness to champion Parliament’s sovereignty and challenge the executive. But there are other parallels between the political situation at the time that Speaker Lenthall took his stand and now, beyond the flamboyance of the central personalities.

The country was seized by a charged and polarised political debate, the respective narratives driven by an authoritarian executive with contempt for Parliament, and parliamentarians were desperately attempting to use the constitution and parliamentary procedure to constrain that executive. In an article on the Long Parliament, Dr Vivienne Larminie notes how Speaker Lenthall’s tenure was set against a backdrop of “escalating uprising in Ireland and unrest on the streets of London.” In our own politically incendiary times, the centrality of the polarising debate around the backstop and Northern Ireland, and the anger of Remain voters manifesting in a million people marching through London, are a vivid reminder that history can indeed repeat itself.

There are parallels in a (slightly) more recent constitutional crisis, too, as well as possible clues to ways forward for MPs determined to challenge a Prime Minister hell-bent on circumventing Parliament.

Following the removal of the Fox-North coalition from government in 1783 and the installation of William Pitt the Younger as Prime Minister (with the full connivance of George III), Pitt’s arch adversary, the radical Whig Charles James Fox, and his allies, including his friend Thomas Erskine, mounted numerous attempts to challenge a Prime Minister they believed would dissolve Parliament.

William Cobbett, in his journal The Parliamentary History of England, Vol. XXIV, records a debate on Mr Erskine’s Motion for an Address not to Dissolve Parliament (Columns 239-263). He then details the response from His Majesty (Columns 263-264):

It has been my constant object to employ the authority intrusted to me by the constitution, to its true and only end – the good of my people; and I am always happy in concurring with the wishes and opinions of my faithful Commons. I agree with you in thinking that the support of the public credit and revenue must demand your most urgent and vigilant care. The state of the East Indies is also an object of as much delicacy and importance as can exercise the wisdom and justice of Parliament. I trust you will proceed in these considerations with all convenient speed, after such an adjournment as the present circumstances may seem to require. And I assure you I shall not interrupt your meeting by any exercise of my prerogative, either of prorogation or dissolution.

There are significant elements here. The recognition of the primacy of the Commons. The need to act responsibly in the public interest. The expectation of the exercise of care and judgement on the part of Members of Parliament when considering complex and significant matters. The need for a timely resolution. And a clear assurance that the Monarch, even at a time when the role was still highly political, would not be drawn into politics.

The debate on Mr Erskine’s Address has another interesting parallel with contemporary machinations in that it details at quite some length the shifting complexities of the coalitions of interest on the parts of both government and opposition. The striking reference to “Coalition! Coalition! Cursed Coalition!” conjures up an image of a constitutional Marty McFly, witnessing the fallout of 2010-2015 before darting back in time to scribble a note.  Plus ça change.

However, these proceedings suggest that the device of the Humble Address has the potential for a broader application than is usually considered presently. Current understanding generally sees it as a rarely-used procedure to produce government documents. For instance, it was failure to act on the Humble Address of 13 November 2018, requesting the production of the full government legal advice in relation to Brexit, that led to the government being found in contempt of Parliament in December 2018.

But worth noting, too, are the efforts made by Fox in early 1784 to remove Pitt from office, on 2 February, 1 March and 8 March. The Journal of the House of Commons records the first at page 878 as an abstract motion:

However, the second and third, recorded on pages 965 and 977 of the Journal, and which were passed with decreasing majorities (the last, in a spooky foreshadowing of contemporary proceedings, by just one vote) use the device of the Humble Address. This final motion threatened to withhold supply from the government.

 Of course, it is worth emphasising that these parliamentary manoeuvres were ultimately unsuccessful.

A little like Theresa May suffering defeat after defeat, but clinging on, Pitt refused to resign. Eventually, later in March, after his third defeat, he went to the country. Pitt was victorious. [Winning campaigns aside, unkind commentators might also see a comparison with May in the view widely attributed to the historian Asa Briggs that Pitt’s “personality did not endear itself to the British mind, for Pitt was too solitary and too colourless, and too often exuded superiority.”]

However, the stark reality is that MPs are now going to have to dig deep into historical precedent, and get creative with their procedures, if they are to have another chance at creating time to insert Parliament into the Brexit process despite a hostile government.


Routes forward

As the Institute for Government has pointed out, there is no way of guaranteeing that MPs can stop Britain exiting the European Union without a deal.  By foregoing their most recent opportunity, they have made their job considerably harder.

Is Letwin right that MPs have exhausted the possibilities? I don’t know, but I think it is worth debating, if only to raise those issues that are as pertinent today as they were for Charles Fox: the primacy of the Commons, a responsibility for the public good and the need to keep the Monarch out of politics.

I should caution here that there are many others with significantly greater procedural and constitutional expertise, and I am very happy for the flaws in my thinking to be challenged. However, as far as I can see, there are now two major challenges for MPs:

  1. How do MPs create the time for Parliament to act?
  2. How does Parliament then use that time?

First task is to create the time.

The Speaker has been very clear that he is not prepared to see Parliament prorogued. That suggests a willingness to interpret the procedures and conventions of the House to attempt to block any effort.

One way of creating time would be through Standing Order 24. The Speaker has hinted that the opportunities for use of SO24 extend beyond a simple debate on a motion that the House has ‘considered’ a subject (as per, for example, the SNP debate on Brexit on 18 December).

The question then is, what would the substantive motion look like?

That might depend on where we are at in the timetable. Earlier, it might be to insert a business motion to take control of the Order Paper. Later, it might be to pass a Humble Address requesting that prorogation, that offers no procedural opportunities itself in the Commons, not take place – much in the manner of Mr Erskine’s Address.

What if those routes fail?

Then the stakes are raised even higher and the risks for MPs become even greater.

We are back in the territory of motions of ‘no confidence’ and ‘confidence’, and motions for a General Election, with all their attendant unpredictability and consequence.

There are potentially other, less obvious opportunities.

If the government chooses to ‘wash-up’ its legislation, rather than ditch it, then, as in 2015, there would need to be a timetable motion to make sure they could do so. That could be an avenue of attack.

There is also the question of what happens about the money supply for government. From time to time, the government passes Supply and Appropriation Bills to enable itself to spend the money identified in the Estimates. There has to be a question about whether the government could sustain its expenditure were it to prorogue in July (at least one expert I have spoken to suggests government only has enough revenue on account to sustain itself until mid-September). Whilst MPs cannot debate or amend such bills (yes, you read that correctly, take a look at Standing Order 56), were one brought forward they could vote it down and plunge the government into crisis, effectively demonstrating in very real terms that it no longer has the confidence of Parliament to govern. I am sure Charles Fox would have a glint in his eye.

In the most confrontational circumstances, in actions that would be redolent of the Civil War in their symbolism, the Speaker could slam the door of the Commons in the face of Black Rod and refuse to entertain the summons to attend the Royal Commission appointed to prorogue Parliament. Or as Rory Stewart suggests, Parliament could constitute itself separately to challenge the executive, without any constitutional authority other than that which it arrogates to itself on the basis of its members’ elected mandates.

All of these point towards one level or other of procedural or constitutional crisis. However, for any of them to be taken forward, there is another ingredient: the players.

By players, I mean those who are prepared to do, not just speak. As my grandmother would have said: “Fine words butter no parsnips.” And we have had a lot of fine words from people who are prepared to say a lot, in Parliament, in rallies, on the airwaves, but very few buttered parsnips.

An obvious key player is the Speaker.

Rightly or wrongly, comparisons have already been drawn between John Bercow and William Lenthall. Supporters point to his willingness to stand up to the executive. Detractors say he is anything but. What is indisputable is the fact he is an outspoken and driven individual who is not backwards in coming forward.

But where are the other players?

Who has the tenacity, the commitment and the cunning of Fox? Who has the eloquence and wit of Erskine? Corbyn is neither. The Liberal Democrats are currently leaderless. The Green Party is too small. The SNP has a secondary agenda that is too toxic. Stewart subordinated his principles and rhetoric on the perils of no deal to his interest in the leadership contest, voting down Parliament’s opportunity to take control.

Fine words butter no parsnips…


Where does this end?

Bluntly speaking, who knows where this will all end.

It is in the hands of 650 men and women that we have elected to represent us. Actions that once sounded preposterous are part of a conversation in which tens of millions of people feel passionately invested.

We should also be very alert to the toxic nature of this conversation, where narratives utilise the language of ‘fascist’ to describe one side and ‘traitor’ the other. Where journalists are mocked and jeered by politicians. Where the language of rape threats, throwing acid at politicians and donning khaki with a rifle in hand are normalised. Where those who feel their worldviews are summarised by one side of a Leave v. Remain narrative feel their very identity and the future of their children threatened by the other.

But there needs to be a resolution. And Parliament must own it.

Just as Leavers might do as Keir Starmer suggested and pause to consider that things did not end well for Charles I, so Remainers might note that that Charles Fox’s challenges to Pitt resulted in defeat and eighteen years out of power. At times, the current situation seems like the product of a student of constitutional history’s opium-induced nightmare, induced by binging on dystopian Netflix series and reality TV.

Neither civil war, nor eighteen years of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister are edifying prospects.

However, as much as it is incumbent on defenders of our parliamentary democracy to avoid either of those outcomes, it is also incumbent upon them to test parliament’s procedures to their very limits to protect its sovereignty. Our elected representatives must give themselves the chance to take a considered decision – even if that is to give the final say back to the people. Parliament must curb the authoritarian excesses of the hard Brexit cavaliers and the institutions of our democracy must not be usurped by a rogue Prime Minister.

Now, more than ever, we need our Charles Foxes and our Speaker Lenthall.



The ugly culture war of identity, process obsessions and how Labour still doesn’t get it #StopBrexit

There are increasing rumours that Jeremy Corbyn is about to come out in favour of a second referendum.

It is too little, too late.

Of course, Labour’s numbers are needed in Parliament to deliver the opportunity to go back to the people. However, A People’s Vote is not, for many of us, an end in and of itself. It is a means to an end, to remaining in the European Union. For many of us, too, Brexit is something else and more fundamental: it is a proxy for a debate about the kind of country we want to live in.

Do we want to live in a United Kingdom that is optimistic and tolerant, that is internationalist and a leader in the community of nations, that celebrates diversity, that champions small businesses and innovation? Do we want a country that wants to reform and strengthen our democratic institutions, and place tackling the climate and environmental challenges of our age and inter-generational fairness at the centre of our politics?

Or do we want to live in a country that wants to subordinate the rule of law to a nebulous concept of the popular will, framed by a past that never was, that indulges the election of representatives with the vilest of views on a divisive platform of isolation and victim-hood?  That doesn’t care about the internal inconsistencies of Farage’s behaviour with his words, or this new force’s inherent lack of internal democracy, where otherwise reasonable people support the most unreasonable and objectionable policies, in support of an incoherent and undefined objective?

This is about world views. This is not about process.

However, process seems to be the singular obsession for the Labour Party. Just as it is still debating a People’s Vote, it is expelling Alistair Campbell for in exasperation supporting a party that clearly wants one, Jeremy Corbyn’s media outriders explaining why this is in line with process (though curiously silent on other, more awkward examples). And it is embroiled in a shameful investigation by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission into allegations of anti-Semitism about whether or not its processes were adequate and up to the job.

Just let that sink in. The EHCR has only investigated one other political party: the British National Party, the political repository for Britain’s fascists.

A People’s Vote, party expulsions, anti-Semitism failings, all of this shows a party that is so wrapped up in managing its internal contradictions that it has no energy left to focus on the absolute and immediate threat that the Brexit Party represents. Farage is propagating a world view, not simply a position on Brexit. He is framing a narrative of betrayal and victimhood, with Labour and the Conservative Party squarely in his sights.

This is the ugly, brutal war of identity politics that no-one wants, but that everyone is going to have to fight. The local elections and the European elections demonstrate that the Liberal Democrats are understanding this.

One swallow doesn’t make a summer. Arguably, nor does two. However, these two sets of elections do bode well for a fundamental shift in the political weather for the Liberal Democrats, who are positioning themselves as the serious challenger to Farage’s world view. It is a stark contrast with a Labour Party that seems obsessed with the processes for managing its warring factions or containing – perhaps even defending – its more unpleasant tendencies.

We do not have time to let the mendacity of Farage take root and take hold of our politics. We do not have until the end of September for Labour to decide whether or not it backs a process to potentially enable a counter-view to Farage’s narrative to prevail. If Labour want to remain relevant, it needs to be the standard bearer for Remain’s world view now – not in four months’ time.

It needs to come out clearly and back not just a process, but a coherent view that can prevail over that of a party that is not seeking to negotiate or compromise with the rest of us, and that is appropriating the language of democracy in order to subvert it.

If Labour even had its hands on that standard, its broken fingers are being prised from the shaft by Remainers who are more than prepared to fight for the country they love – and the European identity that defines them – under the banner of the Liberal Democrats.