Time to Remove the Lib Dem Invisibility Cloak

Over the last couple of days I’ve been dipping my toe into that infamous Twitter meme, “1 Like = 1 Unpopular Opinion.” You can see all my inane (the S is silent) ramblings here, but I’d draw particular attention to no. 17:

A lot of people will look at that and laugh. The Lib Dems are, after all, at a low ebb, even by our own ebb-inclined standards. We somehow contrived to lose vote share at this year’s general election, even if we did gain a few seats. And despite having changed to a serious, heavyweight (if slightly long-in-the-tooth) leader, we’re still struggling to get a hearing in the media.

However, it’s not all our fault. Part of the problem is that people who could make a difference and get us moving forward keep pretending we don’t exist. It seems like every other day someone comes up with a bright idea to start a new liberal party that is pro-Remain. Sometimes it feels like it happens every single day.

A few days ago, for example, the Financial Times reported that a random bloke from Battersea (?) is starting a party called Renew. This prompted a Newsweek journalist to tweet:

There’s also James Chapman’s Democrats, which appear to have done precisely nothing, if they even exist at all.

And then today, lo and behold, another game-changing movement has arisen. This time it’s the Economist‘s Berlin Bureau Chief, Jeremy Cliffe (hitherto a sensible and extremely well-informed journalist, especially on EU issues) who is donning Macron’s clothes:

Just a couple of hours after his initial tweet proposing the ‘Radicals’ my friend Jon Worth had snapped up a Twitter handle, which got immediate attention:

Jon, who also lives in Berlin, then hastily wrote up the rapidly growing movement on his blog at what must have been some ungodly hour (I’m in San Francisco and so have no grasp of European timezones), mentioning my somewhat brusque response:

Look, I get it. I get that being part of something new and dynamic and Macron-like is much more exciting than joining a political party that peaked in 2005, screwed up massively in 2010/11, and has since had a descent roughly akin to a drugged-up squirrel that’s obsessed with that one R Kelly song.

But the UK doesn’t have a mechanism for a Macron. Whatever people say about our system being more ‘presidential’ than democracies with actual presidents, you have to be a political party of substance and scale to succeed in a general election. Starting a new party is going to achieve nothing while wasting your energy and distracting from the real goal.

Like it or not, if you want a pro-EU, pro-business, pro-tech UK political party, there is already one that has over 100,000 members, 12 MPs, thousands of councillors, and an internal democracy that compares favourably to every single one of its competitors. You can have an immediate impact. We are a party in which it’s literally possible to go from new member to MP in a year and a half, but you can also get policies passed with a bit of effort, and when we get into government, they really do get implemented.

The party you’re looking for – the party you’re reinventing – is the Liberal Democrats. We were in government just two years ago. If you are serious about stopping Brexit or at least providing some decent opposition to it, you should join us. Now. Today.

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The EU referendum should be rerun based on this Leaver’s vision

You probably won’t have heard of Pete North. Unless you’re a political geek who’s followed the developments since the EU referendum exhaustively, you also won’t know what the Leave Alliance is. To cut a long story short, the Alliance has usually been one of the more sensible groups advocating Brexit, and North is its spiritual leader.

Yesterday North published a post on his personal blog setting out what he now expects to see happen. He takes for granted (as do I) that there will be no deal arising from the current, increasingly frantic, negotiations between the UK government and the EU’s team led by Michel Barnier.

He then sets out what the likely effects of this ‘no deal’ scenario are. They include:

  • A ten year recession, never before experienced by anyone under 50
  • Unemployment back to where it was in the 1980s
  • A spike in crime
  • Major cuts to the armed forces,  including RAF reduced by a third
  • Enormous price rises as British produce becomes accessible only to the rich
  • A skeleton NHS, poorly staffed, partly because immigration has slowed to a trickle

What is most striking is that he is happy to live with these effects. He says: “I have always primarily thought Brexit would be a reboot on British politics and culture. In a lot of ways it will bring back much of what is missing,” and that “I think, given the opportunity to vote again I would still vote to leave. Eventually it gets to a point where any change will do.”

I would love to see a polling company set out this scenario for people and then ask them to say which way they would vote in a new referendum. If we had had this kind of candour from the Leave side during the campaign in 2016, it seems most likely we would have had a very similar result to the 1975 referendum, with a vast majority for staying in.

I’d love to hear from people who voted Leave, too, as to whether they would have done so had this been the outcome offered to them.

#CatalanReferendum: democracy dies in chaos

The brutality being meted out by Spanish riot police today is sickening and potentially deadly. There are countless videos on my Twitter feed of defenceless elderly people, young students, and even dogs being treated with inhuman violence by agents of the state.

This must be condemned unequivocally, if belatedly, by the Spanish government, which must realise that far from aiding their cause, this violence is doing nothing but strengthening a narrative that has surely already overcome its own political mandate.

With every blow of a club or swing of a riot shield, the fact that this referendum is nothing of the sort – that it is against the constitution, and illegitimate – recedes further into the ether. What is being attempted is unprecedented, and has parallels not with the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 – which was entirely legal and done with the full consent of the UK government – but with attempts by Milorad Dodik’s corrupt regime to wrench the Republika Srpska out of Bosnia and Herzegovina and shatter the fragile peace that still clings on through the increasingly threadbare Dayton Agreement which ended the war.

It is also clear that this is part of a larger geopolitical movement. The insidious veneration of ‘self-determination’ at all costs is not designed to empower, but to fragment. It is not surprising to read that Julian Assange and Edward Snowden contribute nearly a third of all traffic on the Twitter hashtag #Catalonia, with Wikileaks and Putin’s mouth-organ RT also highly active. (RT has also published plenty of pro-Dodik material, condemning the recently imposed US sanctions against him.) It is also notable that Twitter has made sure Assange is the beneficiary of an extra 140 characters, so that he can spew skewed, unconstitutional, a-legal nonsense like this:

This kind of influence pops up wherever there is a chance to break apart the delicate structures that protect democracy and citizens. Wherever you look around the world at secessionist movements, Russian influence is growing. I have spent a lot of time in California this year, and people there are always shocked to hear that one of the prominent proponents of so-called #Calexit lives in Yekaterinburg. Let’s be clear: it’s not that these movements were started by the Reds under the Bed – they’re real, and have real support – but they are certainly supported, often with large sums of money and substantial political and media backing.

There’s also a clear link between such movements and the rise of other fringe nationalist groups – often manifesting through extreme conservatism, anti-LGBT campaigns, white supremacist groups, and more.

The breakdown of order in Catalonia is instructive. The masthead of the Washington Post claims that “democracy dies in darkness”. Rather, the massing examples of failed democracy – Brexit, Trump, and now Catalonia – show us that democracy dies in chaos. Media outlets such as the Guardian, which in its live reportage understandably takes the side of the protesters, describing their ‘peaceful defiance‘, are nonetheless failing to give this wider context. It is that failure that bolsters the kind of narrative Assange and his ilk want to spread.

This is a desperately difficult situation. It’s clear that state-sanctioned violence must be stopped. It’s clear that illegal attempts to wrench regions unilaterally out of constitutions must also be stopped. And it’s clear that insidious foreign influence to undermine democracy must be flagged appropriately and held accountable.

The naive belief that democracy can ever stand still – that it’s ever stable – is being ripped apart by huge shifts in the world’s political landscape. Democracy is really fragile, and people have really short memories. The only way to protect it is to constantly reform it, and by doing so, enable government that acts in the best interests of as many of its people as possible.

The Manifesto Problem

An excellent piece from Helen de Cruz, an academic at Oxford Brookes University, has been doing the rounds. The article explores the reasons why so many pro-EU voters ended up choosing Labour, despite the party’s evident “hard Brexit” stance. This is based on data from surveys conducted by de Cruz in pro-EU groups on Facebook. It lands on the conclusion that those who lent their support to Jeremy Corbyn’s party

did vote Labour for tactical reasons, but they were also attracted by the Labour manifesto and identified with the party’s anti-austerity message. They voted for Labour in spite of its Brexit stance, not because they were all of a sudden pro Brexit.

Anecdotally, this chimes very closely with the decisions many of my friends and family made in choosing Labour. They were closer to the Liberal Democrats on the issue of Brexit, but saw a tactical vote for Labour as more important given the danger of a large Conservative majority.

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I could not personally agree with this stance. While I was terrified of a renewed mandate for Theresa May (who I’ve written about extensively as a massive threat to the United Kingdom and to the world), I saw a polarisation of the UK’s domestic politics along with an alignment around ‘hard Brexit’ as the worst possible outcome. In short, this was an election in which Brexit was the be-all, end-all issue; however popular Labour’s flagship policies may have been (and they were undoubtedly popular, rightly or wrongly) they were meaningless against a backdrop of a poor deal – or no deal – with the EU.

Of course, that’s not how the election campaign went down. Both Labour and the Tories were allowed to get away with either limiting their references to Brexit or avoiding any kind of specificity on what precisely they planned to do during negotiations.

In Labour’s case, this vagueness was so complete that the position taken by Corbyn and John McDonnell since the election – a reiteration of the party’s manifesto statements on the single market and freedom of movement – has been met with dismay by a lot of Remainers.

There seems to be a commonly held belief among some voters that party manifestos, far from being complete plans for government, are a kind of pick-and-mix. I thought I would test this through a Twitter poll. Given my followers are predominantly pro-EU, liberal types with a disproportionate interest in politics national and global, I expected the answer to be pretty clear, but instead it was surprisingly split:

This seems to be the most salient question arising from this election. Is the Labour party’s leadership entitled to claim that its voters supported its stance on Brexit? This obviously has huge implications should the embattled Theresa May eventually decide that it’s time to go and a new election eventuate. Because, after all, Labour massively outperformed expectations despite adopting a stance on Brexit that, in isolation, clearly alienates a large number (perhaps the majority) of its voters.

The broader question, of course, is what manifestos are for. They are important for parliamentary procedure, because the Salisbury Doctrine, which limits the ability of the House of Lords to contradict government policy, is based on them. As such, it is essential that parties feel able to rest on the support of voters for their manifestos as a whole; yet this election has thrown up more than ever the confusion that can ensue as a consequence.

It is probably about time we revisited the idea of deliberative democracy in broad terms as a theory of civics. Democracies surely cannot survive this amount of cognitive dissonance for long.

This could be the UK’s last ‘real’ election. Prepare for the worst.

We should be concerned about the possibility that the UK is about to have its last real general election for some time.

Let’s speak plainly. This UK election is a farce. Theresa May’s campaign consists of three words. Labour are only campaigning to save seats. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems are treading water because May’s timing is perfect. The Brexit catastrophe hasn’t hit and the pain hasn’t been felt.

There is no groundswell of pro-EU support. People are still considering voting Labour as if they’re any better than the Tories on Brexit. People such as Ian Dunt have pointed out the similarity of Labour policy on Brexit to the Tories, so I won’t dwell on it. But if anyone is voting Labour to protect the country from the enormous damage Brexit is about to wreak, they’re ignoring reality.

So, instead, let’s talk about the media. I know some people object to that as a catch-all term. But can we please agree it’s justified right now?

Theresa May is saying time and again that she intends to use the majority she wins at this election as a mandate for Brexit negotiations. So far, the might of the UK lobby has failed to extract any kind of candour or honesty by May on any aspect of those negotiations. That’s because they aren’t asking. Their ‘coverage’ involves waiting for policy announcements while pointing out awkward campaign incidents.

Unlike many I don’t believe that this is conspiratorial. The UK news media is about entertainment, just like the US media. And just like the US media, it means the important stories aren’t being covered, while froth and bullshit top the ratings.

The result will be a general election held in the dark with citizens lacking the information they truly need to make informed decisions. And yet this is so much better than where we are likely to end up.

I’ve written sufficiently on the threat posed by Theresa May to our country. You can see that here: https://twitter.com/tallgeekychap/status/855344386086973440 My point is that she *is* about to be given free rein. She is abusing her power even during this campaign: https://twitter.com/tallgeekychap/status/859403567203004417

The combination of news organizations gagging to do May’s bidding for access and influence (most of them) and creeping repression of the others will lead to an even more lopsided political media than we have now. And it’s already basically heavily weighted in the Tories’ favour.

The Tories have regularly shown since 2010 they are willing to game the system in their favour. With their newly minted 150+ majority, they will push through boundary reform exacerbating their in-built electoral advantage under FPTP. They are also likely to revisit attempts to cut opposition funding, originally introduced in November 2015: https://www.theguardian.com/…/osborne-accused-of-despicable…

We should all watch out for anything related to ‘cutting the cost of politics’. This is code for ‘giving the government more power’. And we should all be aware that Parliament is unlikely to lift a finger to oppose any of it. It didn’t when given an unexpected chance to redeem itself on Article 50, so why would it when it’s stacked to the gills with Tory lackeys?

To sum up: May will have no Parliamentary opposition. She’ll have no media opposition. Institutional opposition (courts) is limited at best. If what’s happening in the US is any guide, it’s time to start thinking about worst-case scenarios, and preparing for them. And it’s also worth noting that all the worst-case predictions in the US have been covered in barely four months.

So think bigger. Look at how Putin and Erdogan have operated. Don’t look at previous experience from within the UK. It’s insufficient.

Five years is an awfully long time. 2022 is an awfully long way away. The UK is going to look awfully different.


This was also published on Twitter here and on Facebook here.

Why Theresa May should scare you

Looked at objectively, Theresa May is very clearly a political leader who, given free rein, would be a dictator.

Her history as Home Secretary is one of increasingly authoritarian rhetoric and policy, summarised by the “Go Home” vans.

Since becoming PM, govt proposed lists of foreign workers, forcing out foreign doctors, removing troops from international human rights law.

They’ve introduced a two-child policy on child tax credits, forcing women to prove they have been raped to receive their rightful benefits.

They’re bringing back grammars; introducing army cadet units at state schools. Because selection and militarism are academically important.

They’re preventing universities from accepting international students. And they’ve utterly failed to protect EU citizens’ rights.

She failed to condemn a Tory councillor’s petition – tho his local party suspended him – which tried to make opposing Brexit “treason”.

She failed to condemn front pages denouncing judges as ‘enemies of the people’ and Remainers as ‘saboteurs’.

She has consistently derided phantom ‘elites’ for trying to undermine ‘the will of the people’, despite being a Conservative Prime Minister.

In short, she’s presided over a government that has stolen UKIP’s clothes: https://twitter.com/oflynnmep/status/783313098505584641

Her speech announcing the general election doubled down on all this. If it doesn’t shock you, it ought to.

She implied that other political parties differing from her opinion in any way were deviating from the national interest.

She demanded ‘unity in Westminster’ as if Parliament is a rubber stamp, a plaything for her personal vanity projects.

She said ‘the country is coming together but Westminster is not’ as though she deserves a standing ovation for her newfound Brexit zealotry.

(That’s also palpably untrue, as Yvette Cooper sensibly pointed out. Parliament voted overwhelmingly for Article 50 and also voted by 522 to 13 for the general election. Westminster could not be more united at precisely the time we need opposition.)

At this point, it is clear she believes that any opposition in Westminster creates ‘uncertainty and instability’.

She’s basically calling the election because there are 9 Lib Dem MPs, 1 Green MP and 57 SNP MPs who won’t play along.

She accused other parties of treating politics ‘as a game’ while knowingly turning politics into a game herself.

She is a political strongman in the body of a well-to-do, matronly upper middle class woman. The Tories’ nanny writ large.

Then there’s the real reason this election has been called. 30 Tory seats won in 2015 have been under police investigation for a long while.

Instead of waiting for those investigations to be completed – as any sane democracy would – Parliament voted through a snap election.

So now the Tories will make their own alleged corruption in 2015 moot by winning a bigger majority – enabled by other parties.

Worse still, Theresa May has said she is happy for Tory MPs UNDER POLICE INVESTIGATION to stand as candidates in this election.

If we saw another country do that, especially in the developing world, we would be aghast. It is the most obvious case of a bent democracy.

According to Theresa May, this election will be about Brexit. But it’s also about something else.

It’s about ensuring that Theresa May and the Tories’ corrupt, disastrous, and potentially illegal regime is shored up.

We are faced with the prospect of a dictatorial Prime Minister whose power was acquired on the back of a fascist media.

If you aren’t scared, you should be.

Small Unimportant State Calls Fresh Elections as Corruption Accusations Fly

The Prime Minister of a small European nation has called for a general election. But the leader of the country’s incumbent hard-right government faced immediate demands to come clean as it became apparent that state prosecutors were preparing to bring charges against around thirty of the party’s legislators and staff over irregularities in the previous election – held two years ago.

The ballots cast back then had catapulted the PM’s predecessor to a shock majority in the national parliament, with the idiosyncratic electoral system giving the party more than half of the seats on a mere 37% of the popular vote. But investigations by a state-owned media channel found that there had been over-spending in several key seats, and that in some cases spending hadn’t been declared at all.

It became clear that this had the potential to have decided the election, and that without this undeclared assistance, key marginals may not have fallen into the hands of the blue team.

Police forces followed up on the media investigation, opening 29 cases a year after the election. 29 by-elections would be more than enough to create a political earthquake; the government’s slim majority was only 12.

The then PM was in a bind. He’d run into difficulties with that tiny sliver of control, and despite the uncertainty over the legitimacy of his position, he decided to take drastic action. Calling a referendum on the country’s place within its most important trading bloc seemed unnecessary, even foolish; but it would appease those on his backbenches who frequently seemed to be sharpening their daggers.

The referendum was a parade of falsehoods. The campaign director of the winning side admitted later that they would not have won without telling a straightforward lie. They claimed that money ‘saved’ from abandoning free trade would be spent on the nation’s health services – a claim that was immediately abandoned by the campaign’s own leaders after the result came through.

Nonetheless, the decision was made. A cosmic cloud of political fallout followed. A summer of insanity in which both the governing party and the opposition held leadership elections, only for the former to be left with a coronation and the latter to retain their previous leader, despite his deep unpopularity.

Not only that; the new PM had been on the wrong side of the result in the referendum, but now appeared to be dead set on implementing that unwanted result.

Of course, the people did not have the opportunity to offer an opinion on their new leader. The argument ran that the general election had given the party a mandate, and that the mandate had been refreshed and strengthened by the referendum, even though the party’s official policy had been defeated in that referendum, and even though the country’s leader had had to resign in ignominy.

The new PM quickly set about testing the strength of that mandate by abandoning the commitment in the previous election manifesto to stay in the trading bloc even if the referendum was lost. At the same time, a vicious campaign against dissent was beginning to swirl in the media, with judges involved in assessing the constitutional impact of the plebiscite branded ‘traitors’ and ‘enemies of the people’. This language was not condemned by the PM herself.

Just a few months after the new PM was elevated, it became clear that her top aide had been involved in the election expenses scandal. Further evidence was uncovered a few months later.

Once again, though, the party pressed ahead. A seismic decision was taken: the country officially began the process of leaving the trading bloc. This was despite further revelations – that same month – that the party’s headquarters and many top officials had been deeply implicated in the election expenses scandal.

All of which brings us to the present. Today, the Prime Minister called for an early general election, presenting this as a natural way to refresh her government’s mandate and strengthen her hand in negotiations. But it seems clear from this torrent of obfuscation and chicanery that it is only about one thing: shoring up her corrupt, disastrous and potentially illegal regime by any means necessary.

How the country can continue to pursue its extreme policy of self-defenestration, at a stroke making its economy less competitive and taking freedom and rights away from its people, is unclear. It would at least have been appropriate to wait until the police forces and the prosecutors had finished their inquiries.

Instead this plucky island nation is now faced with the prospect of a quasi-dictatorial PM whose power was acquired in an undemocratic, opaque fashion, prosecuting policies on behalf of her friends and cronies, not the nation she represents.

It must now be the role of international observers and – perhaps – interventionists from prominent countries to build an appropriate response.

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“Crush the Saboteurs”: Vladimir Lenin