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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.

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“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.



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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.

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Tonight, we find out the results of the European Elections. Here in the UK, they will not be pretty.

Whilst we lumbered towards polling day, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party enduring daily humiliation on the national media as they alienated more and more of their base vote, Lewis Goodall spent time observing the phenomenon that is Nigel Farage and his political reincarnation as leader of the Brexit Party.

Goodall filmed his experiences, from the party’s inaugural rally and throughout the campaign, for Sky News. It makes for chilling viewing and reveals just how much our politics has changed, despite the fact that our two principal protagonists have not. He revisited his arguments in this piece for the Guardian:

Brexit now isn’t even his principal concern, its failure the mere embodiment of a wider malaise. Instead, the collapse of the Brexit process is proof of his new analysis: that British democracy does not work and does not even exist. Worse, that every organ of the state and political life, be it the parties, the media, the courts – parliamentary democracy itself – are malign and work against the interests of “the people”. Never before have we had a major political force that operates with that basic reflex.

I think he is right. This is a new politics and we ignore it at our peril.


“Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.”
Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

This Farage is angrier. His politics is darker.

He is conscious he has been a figure of ridicule and now he wants vengeance.

It is not a single decision around Brexit that is motivating him, but the destruction of our current politics and, along with it, the institutions that ensure a functioning liberal democracy in which debate and reflection and consideration predominate. He is aided by the catastrophic failure of the two main parties to use our democratic institutions to deal with the consequences of the 2016 referendum.

Those of us who know Farage to be a liar, who call out his hypocrisy, his abuse of public funds and his complicity in the breaking of electoral law, simply reinforce his victimhood narrative of betrayal.

We would say that, wouldn’t we? After all, aren’t we are part of the establishment that has failed to deliver Brexit and that has betrayed democracy?

Think about the origins of this new politics.

The 2016 referendum forced a binary choice on people. It demanded people pick a side. What was not properly understood at the time by Remain, yet exploited brilliantly by Leave, was how that choice could serve as a summary of political grievance. Neither group is homogeneous and yet that experience has created a more durable identity than traditional party loyalties.


“A man who is used to acting in one way never changes; he must come to ruin when the times, in changing, no longer are in harmony with his ways.”
Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

On reflection, this should come as no surprise to us.

Our institutions of representative democracy are designed for iterative decision-making. For compromise. They are not designed to service the implementation of an advisory referendum as some bastardised version of direct democracy.

In 2015, David Cameron’s Conservative Party traded a long history of mastering the politics of pragmatism for short-term fixes to appease its own internal Euro-theological insurgency. As a consequence, it now risks schism, unable to contain its once-broad church in a single political entity.

The Labour Party has a similarly potentially catastrophic faultline, between Brexit-inclined socialists and pragmatic, internationalist social democrats, both claiming the heritage of a rich and diverse Labour movement as their own.

The divisions in both parties have been driven by their respective leaderships attempting to address the results of the 2016 referendum, conscious that Leave ‘won’, and terrified of alienating those Leave supporters for whom their new identity is a better shorthand for their politics than their traditional party loyalties. Our existing party duopoly is proving unable to adapt on its own terms to the brutality of this new politics of identity and, simultaneously, maintain a steady political course using the traditional levers of democracy.

Amid this collapse in confidence and the resultant vacuum of leadership, the Brexit Party has arrived.

In six short weeks, it has capitalised on the inertia of the main political parties, advancing an identity politics that is powerful enough to attract support despite the myriad accusations that, if true, should be more damning of the political hypocrisy of Farage and friends than even of Boris or McDonnell.

Do not think this is just luck or happenstance. It is a deliberate play to capture the political mainstream.

Think about Sam Holloway’s brilliant investigation of the Brexit Party’s candidates on Medium. Or think about Byline’s forensic examination of Farage’s PayPal finances, even before considering the friendly £450,000 bung from Aaron Banks.

Surely anyone alarmed at the state of our democracy would run a mile from such charlatans. And yet, those who see their political identity wrapped up in Brexit, and specifically the ‘betrayal’ of Leave, can subordinate any such critical reflection to enthusiasm for an entity that encapsulates their identity in a new political force that is single-minded and invigorated with ruthless organisation, money and American-style campaign techniques.

Remainers complain about Farage’s airtime. I know I have. In truth, though, he has been on the battlefield, whereas May and Corbyn left it. Remain voices are fragmented and spread across smaller parties and locked inside – but apart from the leadership of – the Conservatives and Labour. His rallies, his talk of flags, of betrayal, all fuelling a betrayal myth and a sense of victimhood that gives permission to his supporters to shout ‘traitor’, should terrify us with its implications. He is marrying an old narrative to new techniques taken from Trump and Italy’s Five Star Movement.

And we should not be surprised that politics is now so much about identity.

So many of the causes we, as liberals, have championed have been based on self-expression, on providing space for people – rightly – to be who they wish, love who they wish, and act how they wish. That has provided space for others who feel their own identity threatened to congregate behind those who, in the end, are crooks, liars and hypocrites looking for a political opportunity to exploit. They have been offered a more appealing story, one that resonates with their sense of identity, and whilst we might hate it, that story is succeeding where ours is failing.

Crucially, the narrative Farage is creating is based on negatives that need not be proved and cannot be disproved: he is not justifying what has been done, he is pointing out what hasn’t and turning that into a simple and powerful political message.

Where does this culture war between two political identities lead?

It could lead to the replacement of the Conservative Party by Farage’s Brexit Party, or its fundamental remoulding in its image. Neither are edifying prospects. The Conservative leadership candidates seem almost wholly seized of the need to tack towards the winds on which Farage sails, pitching themselves according to their preferred constituency of interest, but not challenging the course. What will that leave them to say to their Remain voters, who are inevitably younger and politically agile?

For Labour, in some ways the situation is worse.

Deputy Leader Tom Watson fears a wipe out if they cannot agree on a People’s Vote. But this is no longer about process or, ultimately, even Brexit. It is about what Brexit represents, for our nation’s future, our children’s prospects, and the kind of politics we want to characterise our country. It is not just their failure to commit to a People’s Vote that risks consigning Labour to the sidelines, and ultimately to history, it is Labour’s failure to commit to Remain, to continue to deny that this is a very different political battle, where its protagonists cannot rely on the weight of historical forces, but must harness the energy and anger of now.

So, there has to be a strong chance that one side in this culture war will be represented by either the Brexit Party or a Conservative Party that eventually adapts in an isolationist, nationalistic direction to survive. At the same time, Labour, obsessed with process, and riven by conflicts over ideological purity versus pragmatic politics, its factions determined to prove they are the genuine torchbearer of the Labour movement even at the risk of even greater disconnect with a tired and angry electorate, could find itself increasingly distrusted, irrelevant and incapable of representing the other.

Naturally, both Labour and the Conservatives will take their lessons from tonight’s results.

McDonnell began expectation management on Sophie Ridge this morning, acknowledging they were going to take a drubbing but that their approach was the right one, of appealing to both sides. That is to misunderstand the unpleasant dynamic of this political battle. It is a conflict between two different world views. One must prevail before healing and reconciliation can begin. To pretend it is not there is to patronise and disrespect an electorate that cares so much about it that voters are prepared to abandon long-held political identities to give voice to their view.

The Conservatives, similarly, have been managing expectations, talking up the possibility of being wiped out in these elections. Theresa May having failed to introduce the politics of compromise to a charged and binary debate, the Tories are now embroiled in a leadership contest which will see them tugged further and further to the right, desperate not to cede the mantle of Union Jack patriotism and the language of national self-determination to the cyan arrows of the Brexit Party.


“All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it’s impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.”
Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

Whatever the results prove to be, Liberal Democrats – and our new leader, whoever that is – face a very difficult choice.

Our politics eschews the dangerous fundamentalism of identity, whilst at the same time respecting the individual and the role of community. We want to see a coming together, just at a point when our politics has been framed as its most divisive. We prefer the rational politics of discussion, negotiation and compromise to a language that uses the metaphors of conflict.

Despite my own instincts, I am coming around to the view that we need to accept this new framing and not fight it, not in the short term. Instead, if Labour and the Conservatives are so paralysed by their inability to manage the complex competing interests within, the Liberal Democrats must articulate the counter narrative in a simple way, whatever the devastating effect on the traditional structure of our party politics.

The fact that our historic bases of support have been destroyed is possibly – and ironically – our greatest asset. We cannot rest on our laurels. They are being remade, in the local elections and the European elections, in a fundamentally different way – not geographic, not rural or urban, but amongst those who see Remain as a better expression of their political values. Where there is latent support, in parts of the country that retain a historic loyalty, it should bolster our reinvention, not define it.

Corbyn’s analysis of Brexit is wrong. In a speech before the European Elections he said:

“Some people seem to look at the issue the wrong way round – they seem to think the first question is leave or remain, as if that is an end in itself. I think they’re wrong. The first question is what kind of society do we want to be?”

 People are not stupid. They have already asked themselves that question.

They have listened to politicians of all parties and they have chosen the box that most accurately summarises their political identity. The Conservative and Labour leaderships have accepted the result of the 2016 referendum unquestioningly. They have seen Brexit (whatever that is) as a political destiny that must be fulfilled whatever the cost, whatever the challenge. Then, in their failure to make clear offers to the 94% who have adopted the labels of Leave and Remain, they have reaffirmed those labels as more reliable political identities.  

Of course, some have since reconsidered and feel they were lied to, or that the conduct since has been disrespectful to the result, so they have moved from one box into the other. But those boxes are there and remain strong – and perhaps even stronger than the way in which people previously shorthanded their politics.

Corbyn’s mistake is to believe he can simply disregard the choices people have made and appeal above their heads in a way that enables him to ignore the deep divisions in his own party and hope to move the agenda on. He cannot. Because in doing so, he is not listening to and respecting the views of people who are defining themselves by labels that represent fundamentally different outlooks on the sort of country and world they wish to live in.

If the Liberal Democrats want to break open those boxes, as our fundamental philosophical values dictate, if we want to bring our country together, to return to a more rational and liberal public discourse, we need to put ourselves in a position to drive that change.

That means not fighting the next General Election as if it is the previous one, as we sometimes do. It means not re-fighting the 2016 referendum. And it means not fighting the General Election we would like to fight, on a platform of complex, positive messages that seek compromise and healing, if that does not address the way voters see themselves.

It means fighting the next election for the election it is almost certain to be, on the appalling battlefield of binary identity politics. It means completing our transformation into being the ruthless opposition to Farage and becoming the point of congregation for all those whose values are best summarised by the identity of Remain. It means looking to the same techniques as those adopted by the Five Star Movement and even Trump, at least in terms of how to propagate a message and organise to win, if not content.

In doing so, it means working within a political framework that reinforces binary politics. A House of Commons that services a government and opposition, not a fragmentation on either side. A media that, schooled in such parliamentary politics, struggles with anything more complicated than a discussion between ‘for’ and ‘against’ without resorting to crass and inadequate vox pops.

‘Bollocks to Brexit’ is an encouraging start.

Some have decried it as vulgar, a contribution to the coarsening of our politics. However, it is everything that statement stands for that matters. Its adoption by people who would not normally use such language, but who fear a world that is positive, internationalist, respects and protects the institutions of liberal democracy, is determined to combat climate change, is intergenerationally fair, and thrives on technological innovation and small-scale entrepreneurship rather than corporate behemoths, is under serious threat.

Our challenge will be ensuring that, in leading with such a sharp edge, the messaging head does not become detached from the body of values behind. We should never resort to the lies of Farage. We should also show a measure of respect for the supporters of our opponents that we can expect not to be returned.

However, it also means prosecuting the case on behalf of those millions of people who believe in a positive, open future for Britain without apology or equivocation, confidently, and knowing that the only way to rebuild our political system is to use this moment to own it and subvert it.

We need to harness the anger and fear of Remain to drive a positive vision of the United Kingdom, that tells an exciting story about who we are. A story that, ironically, is more in touch with our historic values than anything offered by Farage and that might just signpost a way to a kinder, gentler politics.

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The growing clamour for Remain parties to work together to maximise the number of Remain MEPs elected in any European elections is almost too late. The Greens and The Independent Group, preparing to stand candidates as Change UK – The Independent Group, have already rejected approaches from the Liberal Democrats for such an alliance.

Why is cooperation so important?

Voting in the European elections is conducted under the D’Hondt system. If you are looking for a good primer on how it works, the European Parliament’s Liaison Office in the United Kingdom has one here.

It is a broadly proportionate system, but it is not truly proportionate. It favours broad coalitions of small parties at the expense of small parties standing as single entities.

I have no idea why the Greens and Change UK have rejected working together. Perhaps it is out of a cynical determination to preserve party identity or perhaps it is because they don’t understand that this election doesn’t confer the benefits of a preferential voting system like the Single Transferable Vote, where every vote really does count.

In the end, it doesn’t matter.

The Electoral Commission deadlines for establishing a formal electoral arrangement have passed. The Greens and Change UK are refusing to cooperate informally to maximise the number of Remain MEPs elected.

Pause here for a moment to think about the sudden and meteoric rise of the Brexit Party.

The reason they are in such an electorally strong position is that they can treat any European election as a further referendum. They have their message in their branding. They have a capable, populist leader who has achieved success in previous European elections. And, as is apparent from recent polls, they are basically an electoral coalition. They are harvesting disaffected Tories, embarrassed former UKIPers, probably some Labour #Lexiters, and even those on the left, like George Galloway.

So, what is the answer for Remainers?

Well, if sending a message on Brexit is truly the priority for Remainers, and if they can stomach electing Remain MEPs above their traditional party loyalties, one option would be for Remain voters to ruthlessly game D’Hondt and go around the bickering parties.

When you go to the polling station, you will be given the opportunity to place one ‘X’ next to the party you want to win. You do not get to vote for the individual parties’ candidates (the only candidates you can vote for are independents without party affiliation). You do not get to offer a preference. You cannot put more than one ‘X’, even if, for example, you want to support both Change UK and the Greens, as you will spoil your ballot paper.

Your ballot paper will look something like this:

The only way to maximise the number of Remain MEPs is to ensure that Remainers vote for the strongest Remain party in each region – and only that party – to avoid splitting the vote and ending up in situation where, potentially, none get elected.

So how could we do this?

  1. Decide who the Remain parties are. My view is that Remainers should abandon Labour. They are negotiating to facilitate a disastrous Tory Brexit. Despite Labour’s Remain membership, leading spokespeople like Barry Gardiner insist they are not a party of remaining in the EU. If this election is about sending a message, Remainers must be ruthless in designating Remain parties, in just the same way that Leavers are ruthlessly abandoning the Tories for the Brexit Party. Unless Labour takes a pro-Remain position, and offers unequivocal support for a further referendum, Remainers should not put their ‘X’ by Labour. That means we are looking – in England – at the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and Change UK, who are working with Renew. (I accept others will make the case to include Labour and perhaps Labour is included in regions where clear Remain Labour candidates top the lists, strengthening the case for facilitating candidate sign-ups to a Remain banner – see below.)
  2. Create an authoritative Remain banner that candidates from these parties can sign up to. We can’t rely on organisations like the People’s Vote campaign or Best for Britain to do this, as they will be restricted on how they can campaign in any European elections. But it needs to become an authoritative stamp of Remain credentials. This should be a clear commitment to a People’s Vote and campaigning to remain in the EU.
  3. Provide an easy and visual way, via a website, that shows two things: a.) who the Remain parties and candidates are in each region; and b.) how those parties are polling in each region. The latter polling point is crucial. It needs to aggregate and interpret the very best and most recent regional polling data to give the clearest view as to which party is leading in each European Election region. When it comes to election day, the party at the head of the Remain queue in each region is the one that Remainers should vote for, whichever party it is. You abandon your party loyalties, hold your nose and vote Remain.
  4. Create a mechanism on the website for individuals to vote match, so they can find solidarity with someone in a different region who is voting for someone they wouldn’t ordinarily (e.g. a Green voter voting for a Lib Dem) and a way to say why. This doesn’t have the same effect as tactical vote-matching in a First Past the Post election, but is about creating a sense of movement, of solidarity across party lines to deliver the message.

This is only one idea. It is fraught with complications.

Can Remainers organise quickly and effectively enough? Can they get a single, authoritative banner together that will encourage candidates to sign-up and drive competition amongst the parties to push up their campaigning and polling and become the lead party in a region? Will Remainers really abandon their party loyalties and vote for parties they may resent over issues like Coalition?

But the truth is, in the absence of parties working together to establish lead Remain parties in each region, Remainers need creative solutions to force an outcome on them and present a serious, UK-wide Remain challenge to the Brexit Party’s simple, hard-hitting Leave position.

And quick.

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Questioned on a people’s vote on Radio 4, she sounded weak and evasive, unable to address the chasm between her Labour members’ support for a people’s vote and her leader’s resistance to it

This article was written for The Independent and first appeared on Thursday 4 April 2019.

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I made the mistake of tuning in to the Daily Politics Yorkshire and Lincolnshire today. Ranting presenter Tim Ireland was ‘interviewing’ Rachel Reeves MP and Andrea Jenkyns MP. And as always, the BBC can’t cover Brexit without going to a Leave-voting area, where it indulges in a series of vox pops with middle-aged and elderly white voters ranting about how Brexit should have been sorted ages ago.

In the following ‘debate’, Ireland made that most crass and lazy of statements, which has come to characterise the faux-exasperated style of the patronising pundit: ‘Are you two not hearing what we are hearing on the streets all the time, people are saying “Why don’t they just get on with it?”?’ Of course this is delivered in a manner intended to convey to the viewer that Ireland is of course a presenter of tremendous insight, in tune with the great British public.

Funny how the BBC never seems as concerned with those who voted Remain, or those who weren’t allowed to vote because they were too young and who will be affected longest. Sure, they will get coverage in occasional dedicated features, but the vox pops that litter our screens daily are inarguably heavily Leave-biased.

Both the vox pops and this style of presenting has become a lazy formula for the BBC’s political commentary on Brexit. The only voters that matter for vox pops are outraged Leave voters, whose views are heard sympathetically and then simply echoed subsequently in the studio as if they contain some unchallengeable truth that politicians should address.

Worse, in the subsequent discussion, Jenkyns was allowed to simply make ridiculous arguments by assertion that went unchallenged around polling, about being a ‘democrat’ (implying anyone who disagreed with her wasn’t) etc.

This is what the BBC passes off as political coverage. No debate. No scrutiny of those views. and it treats the public as idiots just as much as any politician from Leave or Remain with hectoring views.

So here are some ideas.

  1. Abandon the vox pops. They teach us nothing, just provide fodder for a lazy caricature of our politics that doesn’t show us anything about what the country is thinking.
  2. Instead, treat the public like grown ups who can make a substantiated argument. When they talk about how things should have been done years ago, challenge them on what they say, ask how it should have been done, take them to task on what they think the answer is. Don’t simply provide a platform for unsubstantiated bollocks. We have Twitter for that.
  3. Subject both sides of the argument to the same level of scrutiny and double-down on any one drawing false equivalences in their arguments, whichever side they are on.
  4. Challenge politicians to produce the evidence for their arguments. If they cite polling, ask them to state what polling that is. If they make crass statements on democracy, call them out.

If the BBC did this, it might begin to have a hope of fulfilling its remit as a public service broadcaster when it comes to the Brexit debate.

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