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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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After the dishonesty of the referendum campaign, the simplistic boasts of the negotiations about how easy securing Britain’s future would be, and the humiliating chaos of parliamentary proceedings on the Withdrawal Agreement, it is no wonder that the public and our businesses are in such despair at politicians.

Our politics has failed. There is a piece to be written about the way in which Brexit has highlighted and increased pressure on the failure of our democracy and its institutions, but this is not it.

At the time of writing there are just 400 hours until we are due to exit the European Union. If our politicians manage Thatcher levels of sleep – which are probably not the most useful preparation for what must be done over the next 16 days – that leaves just 333 hours in which to do the work. Those that see theological evils in the European Union can be reassured that we can’t even do the ‘Number of the Beast’ properly.

Politicians have dressed their failure with all sorts of unicorn promises about better deals (the ERG and Labour), blame for not getting behind the Prime Minister (Remainers, the ERG and the DUP), and consistent can-kicking (everyone). Each of these groups is flailing around and screaming louder and louder as the ratchet of the clock tightens and the scale of the political problems in taking a decision – any decision – becomes clear. Daniel Finkelstein’s article in the Times today demonstrates the political calculations for just the Conservative Party underlying decisions which should be about the national interest in this mess. Similar calculations apply to Labour and in different ways to all parties.

These challenges will form a fascinating and complicated Venn diagram for future students of political science to study. However, there is no time left for that pontification now. Having proved unsurprisingly so comprehensively incapable of translating a binary, advisory referendum into a complex and lasting solution that commands political support, and having destroyed public trust in our politics in the process, MPs have a very small window in which they can show leadership and re-establish any measure of trust.

Today’s Order Paper is depressing. The Prime Minister’s politically confusing motion states the legal reality of what happens if no deal occurs. The response of the senior, cross-party group of MPs, who cannot agree on a way forward, is to kick the can down the road yet again, tabling an amendment that simply takes no deal off the table and ignores that legal reality. And tomorrow the Commons will vote on a motion for an extension and almost certainly do so without agreeing on a way forward that offers clarity to the public or Brussels. Even now, MPs are pretending to the public that we can secure an extension to continue this torturous farce by simply passing a motion in the House of Commons.

It is time for MPs to be honest about the options – and there are only three that make any sense, the Prime Minister’s deal having been rejected by Parliament so completely on two occasions:

  1. A hard Brexit with no deal;
  2. A revocation of Article 50 and remaining;
  3. A further referendum on the terms of the Prime Minister’s deal or remaining.

It is no good Labour’s lamentable front bench wittering on about another deal. It is no good ERGers bombastically proclaiming there are better ways to negotiate Brexit.

Brussels has been clear: there is no room for further negotiation. None at all. The talking is done.

There is also no transition without a deal.

And there is no extension without a credible and decisive way forward.

Politicians have sold the public varying visions of Britain’s future on the basis of gross oversimplification, to protect their own political interests. They must now grasp the nettle of the consequences of their untruths, and show the public they understand the clear choices they face, however difficult they are to make.

Yes, it will be politically painful. Yes, it might have destructive consequences for our political institutions – our parliament, our electoral system, and our failing ‘broad church’ political parties – but that is the price politicians must pay for their comprehensive failure.

 And that might just be a good thing.

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Truth and lies in public life

If a week is a long time in politics, 27 years has left our political landscape unrecognisable.

 In October 1992, four men were put on trial for obtaining export licenses by deception. They were alleged to have pretended that components intended for military use were actually being exported for civilian purposes. Their trial collapsed just a few weeks later when Alan Clark, a minister in the Department of Trade and Industry at the time of the alleged offence, admitted the government had known the intended purpose all along. Clark’s infamous description of his behaviour during the Supergun affair reworked a phrase that was coined during the Spycatcher trial: ‘economical with the truth’ became ‘economical with the actualité’.

What was government’s reaction? It established the Scott Inquiry, under Lord Justice Scott, which resulted in the publication in 1996 of the Scott Report, one of the most exhaustive examinations of the functioning of government ever.

I remember its publication well.

15 February 1996 was a Thursday. The excitement in Westminster was feverish. I had been working in Westminster for just six weeks. Sittings then had not been reformed and Thursday was a day of full government business, commencing with departmental questions at 2.30 pm and statements at 3.30 pm, business continuing until 10 pm. Prime Minister’s Questions was still a twice-weekly affair, with 15 minutes allocated at 3 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

As a junior researcher, I was pressed into action by the Whips’ Office I would later head, running down the stairs to the Vote Office to collect one of the huge boxes that contained all 1806 pages of the multi-volume report. Whilst ministers had eight days to prepare themselves for publication, the Opposition were given just two hours, under intense scrutiny. Publication was accompanied by a press pack giving choice quotes and positive spin, mitigating the worst of its impact.

Days of intense speculation led up to the next moment of parliamentary ‘high noon’ on February 26. The debate saw one of the finest parliamentary performances ever, from Robin Cook. This is a line with particular contemporary resonance:

The Government are fond of lecturing the rest of the nation on its need to accept responsibility. Parents are held responsible for actions; teachers are held responsible for the performance of their pupils; local councillors are held legally and financially responsible; yet, when it comes to themselves, suddenly, not a single Minister can be found to accept responsibility for what went wrong.

HC Deb 26 February 1996, 272, col. 604

John Major made the vote on a motion for the adjournment a matter of confidence in his government. He won on a knife-edge vote, by 320 votes to 319, my first moment of parliamentary drama.

The Conservative Party declared the report a victory as it exonerated ministers of the most serious charge of a cover-up that could have seen innocent men go to jail. 

So why return to a report that was written, published and debated before the youngest member of the House of Commons was born and which many regard as a failure?

I was prompted by a tweet from Anne Applebaum about Esther McVey, who has repeated a notorious  tweet regarding the EU and the Lisbon Treaty, long since debunked. Applebaum stated: ‘There are just no consequences for lying anymore, for anyone.’

She is right. Lying has become the new normal at every level of our democracy.

The Scott Report highlighted three areas of immense concern, lost in the jubilant spinning of the government:

  • The use of secondary legislation not properly scrutinised;
  • Lack of ministerial accountability;
  • Government withholding information necessary for proper decisions.

This quote summarises it neatly:

The main objectives of governments are the implementation of their policies and the discomfiture of opposition; they do not submit with enthusiasm to the restraints of accountability … governments are little disposed to volunteer information that may expose them to criticism … The enforcement of accountability depends largely on the ability of Parliament to prise information from governments which are inclined to be defensively secretive where they are most vulnerable to challenge.

The experience of the Scott Inquiry reminds us how little – in some regards – the experience of government has changed:

  • Ministers misleading the public;
  • Ministers misleading Parliament;
  • Ministers selectively quoting from reports to shore up a deceitful narrative;
  • Ministers withholding information that would undermine their position on the grounds of national interest;
  • Parliamentarians unable to scrutinise the executive as information is withheld;
  • The national interest subordinated to the interests of the governing party;
  • Government refusing substantive votes in favour of the meaningless.

But there are differences between then and now, particularly in terms of the responsibility taken by ministers and the Prime Minister for their collective actions – a responsibility that even back then the Scott Report found wanting in the ordinary processes of government.

In the 1990s, the Prime Minister was so concerned by the allegations of deception levelled against his own government that he established a judicial inquiry. Such was its seriousness that the sitting Prime Minister and his predecessor Margaret Thatcher gave evidence. Following publication of the report, and despite the inadequacy of the parliamentary motion, the government of the day accepted that its future would be decided by the result of that single vote.

In summary, a single instance of the government misleading the country and Parliament on a discrete area of policy was regarded as so significant as to require a three-year process that led to a report and a single parliamentary moment that all sides accepted was pivotal to the government’s entire future.

Today, everything that was true of government conduct highlighted by the Scott Report is also true today – but so much worse:

  • Ministers obfuscate and lie to Parliament with abandon;
  • Former ministers circulate misinformation to the public without a second thought;
  • Information is brazenly withheld from Parliament without even the pretence of national interest, precisely when parliamentarians are debating decisions that will affect the national interest for decades to come;
  • Parliamentary votes are disregarded and given little weight unless they support the government narrative;
  • Secondary legislation is being used on an industrial scale, with little if any meaningful scrutiny;
  • Factional party interests playing out shamelessly, with warring factions of the government and opposition seeking positional advantage;
  • Any honourable sense of ministerial responsibility for decision-making is abandoned.

Satisfying the unparliamentary monster that is ‘the will of the people’ has led politicians to give themselves permission to lie to voters and Parliament in order to shore up a narrative that is demonstrably untrue on pretty much every conceivable metric. In doing so, they have wrecked the proprieties that ensure functional parliamentary democracy, removing any sense of the constitutional markers by which such momentous decisions can be navigated. Perhaps the most shocking sign of how desensitised we have become to this lack of constitutional propriety is that a quick Google could replace any of the links above with a multitude of alternatives.

When you realise this is how a government acts when it has no majority, it makes you wonder about the level of contempt it would show for Parliament if it could get its own way on everything. If Brexit risks a catastrophe for our economic future, what it has done to the architecture of our democracy is even worse.

I can only imagine the speech Robin Cook would have made.

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