Lib Dem immigration policy: what I wanted to say

The Lib Dems just passed a very poor policy motion and paper on immigration. It has quite a lot of good policies, but overall the tone is one of moderate centrism rather than liberalism. It does very little to move the Overton Window back towards liberal democracy. The blizzard of five amendments passed with it only proved that it’s flawed far beyond what’s acceptable.

It gives me cause to resurrect this meme:

libdemmeme

I had hoped to speak in the debate but unfortunately it was oversubscribed, and I was probably too late putting my card in. For the record, here’s what I would have said:


Conference, Ed Davey and others proudly claim the motion and paper are the products of a political environment in which we have the freedom to be radical. I’m afraid I can’t agree.

The paper and motion are examples of the much-vaunted moderate political language all these new centrist parties claim to speak. There is a blizzard of positive policies. We’ve already heard them summarised. But there are serious problems.

This motion unequivocally supports a paper that places far too much emphasis on spurious concerns whipped up by cynical ideologues in other parties and the gutter press.

It talks about rebuilding trust in a system that the kind of people who would vote for us don’t think is broken, because people who wouldn’t ever vote for us think it is.

Most oddly of all, it goes out of its way to praise the current Conservative government for working constructively with partners. (6.15)

The irony of this motion’s approach is that it is harmful not just to immigrants, but to the people who mistakenly blame immigrants for bad government.

And when it does criticise the government, it does it on the basis of incompetence rather than values, confusing the issue further. This isn’t just a question of getting the Home Office sorted – attacks on immigrants in recent years have been by design, not by accident.

It is an insult to voters to pander to their ignorance and to fail to correct misconceptions.

The political context doesn’t just demand a loud Liberal voice. It is conducive to it. If we can’t have the courage of our convictions on 10% in the polls, when will we?

We are still being offered a moderate short back and sides for the worst of other parties’ policies. Trimming and tucking isn’t what we stand for. Leave that to the Blairs and Corbyns of the world.

A grab bag of good policies hidden inside moderate political language is far too small a step forward. We can and must demand better. For the first and only time in my life, I am urging you to send something back where it came from. Please vote to reject the motion.

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The growing myth of Brexit ‘incompetence’

With apologies to turtles and rocks, Brexit is myths all the way down.

Its central thesis – that the UK can turn on its heel and thrive without the EU – has proven to be a myth. According to UBS, the UK has already lost 2% of GDP due to Brexit, and it hasn’t even happened yet.

Its supporting economic argument – that the UK can replace advantageous arrangements with the EU with a free trade deal, and make up any shortfall by creating new agreements with other nations – is a myth. The government’s Chequers proposals are dead in the water and we are hurtling towards a No Deal exit.

And I need not go into detail on the many other fanciful promises that were made during the referendum – many of which were disavowed almost as soon as the result became clear. They were clearly myths, too.

Beyond the referendum itself, there are other myths on which Brexit rests. Chief among them is the British nationalist myth: we’re exceptional, and we are capable of standing alone in the world, and that great long-lived myth of World War II – the oft-debunked and totally discredited ‘Blitz spirit’ – will see us through anything.

Today, the former governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, has added his own contribution to the list of Brexit myths. In widely reported comments to the BBC, he claimed that the government’s ‘lack of preparation’ for Brexit had ‘beggared belief’, and that news of food and medicine stockpiling

‘doesn’t tell us anything about whether the policy of staying in the EU is good or bad, it tells us everything about the incompetence of the preparation of it’.

IMF Spring Meetings 2008

Mervyn King (IMF Staff Photograph/Stephen Jaffe)

King is a prominent supporter of Brexit. Yet Brexit as promised to the people who voted for it is an impossibility. So it’s in his interests to change the conversation. As the quotes above show, the way he and others are trying to do this is to blame the failure of Brexit on incompetence rather than fantasy. Labour have been particularly fond of this narrative, with their central campaigning theme on Brexit being (to paraphrase) ‘if only you’d get shot of the rubbish Tories, we’d take over negotiations and everything would work out great’.

Remainers need to resist this narrative. It is a myth as dangerous as any proposed during the referendum campaign. Allowing people like King to paint what is happening in the UK as mere ‘incompetence’ is to misallocate blame. Instead, we must keep reminding people that no politician and no government can ever deliver Brexit as it was presented to the people who voted for it.

Without consistently making this point, we will fall into the trap that King and his allies are setting. It’s the same dogmatic approach to an ideology that you see with communism – that it has never been done ‘properly’. As if on cue, King’s comments followed on the heels of Boris Johnson’s latest absurd missive in the Daily Telegraph, in which he claims that the current state of things shows ‘not that we have failed, but that we have not even tried’.

It’s not enough to suggest, limply, that a more intelligent or competent government would handle this better. In the context of the referendum campaign and the myths that won it (to say nothing of the illegality), there was no realistic political course for a Conservative Prime Minister to chart.

No, instead, it is time to come clean and say, badly paraphrasing the great European Winston Churchill, that Brexit is a fantasy, wrapped in an impossibility, inside a dream. It’s myths all the way down, and it’s time for the UK to wake up.

‘Adequate food for all’: the new Brexit slogan, dead on arrival

Yesterday the newly-minted Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Dominic Raab, appeared before the Brexit select committee. I suspect that he didn’t expect to be demoted two weeks into the job, but almost simultaneously, that was what happened, as Theresa May – the Prime Minister who has shown such impeccable judgement and negotiating skill with her own party – takes on the mantle of lead negotiator.

Bearing in mind that Raab’s predecessor, David Davis, spent just four hours with Michel Barnier (the EU’s lead negotiator) this year, I suspect this is more of a cosmetic update than a meaningful power shift.

Raab was keen to reassure the select committee about something quite important to all of us: the government’s preparations for food shortages in the event of a no-deal Brexit. As recently as Sunday, he had failed to deny that the government was stockpiling food, calling it only a ‘selective snippet’.

Today, he clarified that it wasn’t the government doing the stockpiling. Instead, the government is working with industry to do the stockpiling. It’s a neat distinction, but not one I personally find reassuring.

He adopted another unnerving phrase in the course of this explanation: that there will be ‘adequate food supplies’.

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Inadequate politician (photo by Chris McAndrew, sourceCC BY 3.0)

Plenty of other people have pointed out the unattractive nature of this statement. I think I’ve seen at least three separate mock-ups for putting it on the side of the famous Vote Leave bus.

But there’s something more significantly wrong with Raab’s claim – not just wrong, but disturbing. Anyone who follows the issue of food in the UK will know that there is already a crisis. Food poverty has been on the rise in our country, most notably since the recession a decade ago.

It’s very difficult to find good statistics on this, because – guess what – the government doesn’t collect data. They claim, for example, that monitoring the number of people using food banks would place too much of a burden on the volunteers who run them. (Seriously.)

So it’s left to the civil society organisations – mostly cash-strapped charities – to do the role of our civil service. And they do a decent job. In particular, the Trussell Trust produces tons of research and advocacy. Importantly, they also adopt a cross-cutting approach, looking for instance at the impact of Universal Credit and benefit cuts on food bank users. Oxfam and the Child Poverty Action Group are also notable for their work on this issue.

Some key statistics:

  • According to UN data from 2014, more than 2 million UK citizens are in severe food poverty and up to 8 million live in households where there is moderate or severe food poverty [src]
  • The Trussell Trust doled out 1.3 million 3-day emergency food supplies in 2017/18 – 13% higher than the previous year (and they only represent 2/3 of the UK’s food banks) [src]
  • 1 in 4 parents are skipping meals because they can’t afford them [src]

I confess to being skeptical of some of this research. Some of these organisations are clearly on low budgets and probably do not have the kind of resources that are required to do really high quality research of this type.

That’s yet another reason why a government serious about providing ‘adequate food’ for its citizens would already be measuring food poverty and food insecurity. Emma Lewell Buck, the Labour MP, has attempted to introduce legislation to that end on several occasions, without success.

In a cruel irony, her most recent Bill, still going nowhere in Parliament, even uses that same phrase:

For the purposes of this Act “food insecurity” means a person’s state in which consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year. [emphasis added]

When the government won’t even get the information it needs to figure out how to help people who are already living below the breadline, there is no reason to trust Dominic Raab’s inadequate reassurances.


EDIT: I’m grateful to Andy Jolly for drawing my attention to the Food Standards Agency’s ‘Food and You’ survey. The FSA’s remit is much more to look at food safety and hygiene, but there is data in this survey that counts as official statistics. It is still inadequate so far as meeting the needs of citizens goes, but it’s more detailed than I thought, so consider this a partial correction.

You can find the ‘Food and You’ surveys here. Key statistics from the last one (April 2018):

  • 9% of UK households are food insecure
    • 18% of those aged 25 to 34 live in food insecure households (compared to 2-3% of those aged 65 or over)
  • Women are more than twice as likely to experience food insecurity than men
  • 41% of respondents aged 16-24 said they sometimes or often worried that food would run out before they had money to buy more, compared to 5-7% of those aged 65 or over

Legitimate criticism of the BBC must not be lumped in with conspiracy theories from the tin foil hat brigade

Yesterday I wrote a piece on Nick Robinson’s worrying approach to political interviewing. In a tweet, the experienced former BBC and ITV political editor and current Today presenter argued:

I found this quite surprising, and sought to explain why. However, I’ve noticed that there are several other examples popping up of similar disputes on BBC journalism and its role in the UK’s political discourse.

Much of the criticism of the BBC’s coverage has focused on its attempts to find ‘balance’ over the vital issue of the UK’s potential exit from the European Union. It’s important to recognise that some of this criticism definitely veers into tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorist territory. There are people who appear to genuinely believe that the BBC is colluding with Russian bots, voracious hedge funds and shadowy Tory donors to force the UK to toe the Vote Leave line.

I imagine that if I were a BBC figure of any serious standing, I would feel pretty strongly about such nonsense. I have been extremely reticent to criticise the BBC because of this trend, and also because they have regularly been under extreme pressure from powerful Conservatives who are dying to kill Auntie, leaving even more space for the right-wing partisan media.

I have no doubt that the vast majority of BBC journalists and reporters are honestly trying to do the kind of work we expect of them: doggedly reporting the truth in the public interest, uncovering wrongdoing and corruption, and holding power to account.

However, that doesn’t mean they’re doing it right, nor does it mean they’re exempt from criticism. Nor does it mean they’re free to mischaracterise the legitimate criticism they do receive. One example of this comes from Rob Burley. He’s the editor of several BBC live political programmes, including the Andrew Marr show and the Daily and Sunday politics. Perhaps to his credit, Mr Burley engages frequently with people on Twitter to debate whether his shows have presented things fairly and well.

However, yesterday he defended this tweet, published by one of his shows:

The full clip shows Suzanne Evans, a UKIP spokesperson, repeating several lies about the recent Electoral Commission report on Vote Leave, the official campaign for leaving the European Union. One of the key lies is the entire text of the tweet: that the Electoral Commission ‘refused to interview Matthew Elliott and Dominic Cummings’. Elliott was the Chief Executive of Vote Leave, while Cummings was Campaign Director.

The reality, made abundantly clear in the Electoral Commission’s report, is that Vote Leave took obstructive action to avoid participating in the investigation, failing even to acknowledge deadlines, let alone comply with them. The findings from 4.70 onwards (page 29) indicate that the EC had to deal with intransigence and stubbornness from Vote Leave that also reflects their subsequent attempts to spin their way out of their decision to break the law during the referendum campaign.

The BBC allowed itself to be used as part of this spin campaign. It allowed Vote Leave to leak the fact that it was about to be found guilty, giving Matthew Elliott the chance to put out his lines before the official report was made public. That in itself was astonishingly irresponsible.

On the day the report finally came out, I was in Sweden. However, the BBC being the UK public broadcaster, I was eagerly expecting to see a major story appear on the main news website. Imagine my dismay when I saw that the story had been relegated to an effective footnote, appearing between a story about Usain Bolt playing football, and a recipe about the world’s oldest bread:

 

BBC burying Vote Leave fine

Screenshot of the BBC News front page, taken on 17th July at 11:07am

Burley spent a lot of his time yesterday defending the tweet about Suzanne Evans. In doing so, he showed that Nick Robinson’s view of journalism and interviews is not confined to one senior man at the BBC. Here’s him for example, suggesting how the ‘free media’ works:

This is the kind of ‘balance’ the BBC now offers: for a ‘version of events’ that is ‘disputed’, read ‘a factually incorrect account of an investigation done by the statutory regulator of elections’. For Burley, it is enough that Evans was ‘challenged directly’ with the opposite view.

In conversation with Adam Bienkov, another political journalist who works at Business Insider, Burley doubled down:

The fact that opposing sides say different things about something is not surprising. As Bienkov suggested, we would be shocked if there were many legal cases in which the guilty party did not maintain their innocence even after the verdict was passed down.

Burley’s defence is that the clip is about ‘the interviews thing and not the verdict‘, but he fails to recognise that the EC report addresses the issue of interactions between them and Vote Leave in a very substantial way. In fact, it hands down a verdict about precisely this issue: that Vote Leave committed an offence under Schedule 19B paragraph 13(1) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act.

In other words, on the specific matter of interviews, with which the clip deals, Vote Leave aren’t just lying: they have been found guilty of breaking the law.

Burley finally followed up with this shrug of a tweet, posted about half an hour later:

This is an argument that speaks of understandable frustration. As I said earlier, I have no doubt it is true of some people. However, Burley doesn’t get to act all dismissive when it comes to legitimate and accurate criticism of the shows he runs, including their social media output.

This was echoed by Daniel Gibson, a former BBC journalist, in a lengthy thread that he subsequently muted. Click the link at the bottom of the tweet to read it all.

Gibson’s thread is passionate, well articulated, polite, and wrong. I have already explained why the specific example of the EC/Vote Leave issue was incorrect, and why the defence of it is ill-founded. However, Gibson compounds the errors by making some truly remarkable assertions:

I addressed this in my post yesterday, but just to reiterate: in an age of ‘fake news’, this is a horrifying claim. You cannot assume that the information given in political interviews is accurate or truthful. It doesn’t mean that you have to treat every interview as an interrogation – I am not advocating Jeremy Paxman’s approach (“Why is this lying bastard lying to me?”). It does mean that you have to outprepare your interviewee, and know the facts better than they do, so that you can correct the record immediately.

Another astounding statement followed:

This is the famous myth of impartiality, which the BBC still appears to subscribe to. Unfortunately, it is broken. I had thought we had all understood and recognised in the 21st century that there is no such thing as neutral/unbiased reporting; in fact, attempting to appear unbiased at all costs is likely to cost both you and your audience dearly.

The reality is that we need journalists who are prepared to give us true information, and ensure we understand when the opinions we hear have no factual basis. Perhaps then we can get back to the kind of political discourse that doesn’t lead to the country embarking on an undeliverable fantasy, after a referendum whose winner has been shown to have cheated.

If journalists and editors want to defend the BBC in public, they’ll have to do a lot better. They should avoid the Simpsons’ approach and instead take Denis Healey’s famous advice: “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.”

Nick Robinson reveals how far the BBC may have strayed

Nick Robinson revealed something significant on Twitter today. He was replying to this accusation from a guy called Frederic Moreau:

For those new to UK politics, the DUP is the party at the centre of one of Brexit’s many dark money scandals, and also the party guaranteeing the current government a majority.

In reply, Nick Robinson wrote this:

Oddly enough, this was a pretty ‘interesting and revealing’ thing for a senior BBC presenter and former political editor to say. It’s especially interesting at a time when the BBC is under huge pressure to explain its continuing failure to act in the public interest by reporting on Brexit in a way that reflects the truth, rather than in a way that gives all sides equal weight.

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Nick Robinson [source]

Is Robinson right? Can there be room for interviews on the BBC that do not challenge? Bear in mind that the BBC is the UK’s public broadcaster, with an enormous audience and huge resources paid for by citizens (sometimes against their will). The BBC drives the news agenda in politics and much else. If governments and opposition parties want to announce something, they will try to get on the BBC to do it.

I would argue that there is no justification for an interview on the nation’s most important news show that does not challenge. I argue from authority: here are two key definitions of the purpose of journalism.

The purpose of journalism is thus to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.

That’s from the American Press Institute [source], though. What if the UK has a different approach? Well, it turns out the Independent Press Standards Organisation (the UK print media ‘regulator’) has defined what ‘the public interest’ means [source] (bolded text is my addition):

  • Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.
  • Protecting public health or safety.
  • Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.
  • Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.
  • Disclosing a miscarriage of justice.
  • Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.
  • Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above.

The three bolded points are relevant to Jeffrey Donaldson’s statements. If this doesn’t apply to the BBC, who does it apply to?

Robinson’s opinion is terrifying in an age of misinformation and disinformation. Getting people to voice ill-founded opinions and false information without immediate challenge is actively inimical to the purpose of journalism outlined above. Worse, we know perfectly well that once a lie pollutes the information ecosystem, it travels faster than the truth. It was always thus. Jonathan Swift in 1710 wrote [source]:

Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect…

Never before has this been more relevant though, in a time when we have propaganda on steroids infecting our politics and our society, and when powerful forces both foreign and domestic are weaponising it for their own purposes.

I want to be charitable. Perhaps Robinson genuinely believes that by simply getting people to put forward falsehoods, other journalists and fact-checkers will come riding to the rescue and ‘challenge’ them, and in so doing, will ensure that citizens are informed. If he does, he’s naive. Politicians use the Today programme and other similar means to spread their lines and opinions. It is not enough to rely on people debunking things later.

The less charitable way to approach it, though, is that Robinson wants to be able to challenge some people and not others. As Chris Smith put it:

If Chris is right, we would see a pattern of left/liberal politicians being challenged in interviews, while right-wing/authoritarian ones were not. That might well undermine trust, as well as damaging the BBC’s claim to be serving the public.

All I know is that it’s becoming harder and harder to think charitably of the BBC.

If the Liberal Democrats won’t defend liberal democracy, we might as well give up on it

Tonight Vince Cable (current party leader) and Tim Farron (previously party leader) of the ‘Liberal Democrats’ failed to turn up to the House of Commons and vote on key Brexit amendments. As a result, they contributed to the craziness of a government victory which overturned the government’s own position, making a No Deal Brexit substantially more likely.

I am seriously struggling to understand how this could have been allowed to happen. The only possible explanation is ‘pairing’, where whips from different parties allow people on opposite sides of a vote to ‘pair off’ (more here). However, that seems unlikely, as the Conservative government doesn’t have a majority, and Brexit votes are surely far too important to allow pairing, given the potential for rebellions and defeats.

To illustrate further, several Tory MPs rebelled tonight, including a government minister. (Guto Bebb voted against the government, in favour of the position the government held until it won the vote against itself. I hope you’re following this.)

Now, since 2016, the Liberal Democrats have tried to set themselves up as the party of the 48%: the party of Remainers. They’ve always been the UK’s most pro-EU party. This, I welcome. I would not be a party member if we were to be anything other than pro-EU and internationalist.

However, the Lib Dems have repeatedly failed to properly OPPOSE Brexit. For all they talk about it, they have failed over and over to take an absolute position in which Brexit will be stopped in its tracks. Instead, the party favours a so-called ‘People’s Vote’ – another referendum that includes the option to stay in the EU.

This of course ignores the fact that we now know that the 2016 referendum was won on a prospectus of bare-faced lies, illegal campaigning, and foreign funding and intervention. The Lib Dems have chosen to ignore all this, and instead advocate another vote, even though it’s clear to anyone following investigations and inquiries into the 2016 referendum closely that its result was unsafe, and that UK democracy is also unsafe as a result.

It’s very clear to me and, I think, to a substantial number of other party members that our current policy is inadequate and insufficient. However, even if we accept the current policy, it still requires all Lib Dem MPs, especially senior ones like Cable and Farron, to be present for critical Parliamentary votes as a bare minimum. When the government is attempting to sack Parliament off for an early recess, and when it’s clear that they’re attempting to bypass Parliament wherever possible, MPs simply have to turn up.

I’m furious at Vince and Tim (both people I once had huge stocks of respect for, which are rapidly dwindling) for failing to do their basic duty as Parliamentarians and as senior Lib Dems. It’s clear that Tim hasn’t got a good excuse (he was apparently off doing one of his talks about illiberalism, rather than representing liberals). I hope Vince has a better one. But this is hugely disappointing.

Once again, I demand that the Lib Dems take the opportunity to become the opposition the UK needs. The current position is weak. There is no risk in being braver. Losing more seats means nothing when you’re starting with 12. The UK is undergoing an epochal shift in which the very idea of liberal democracy is dying. If the LIBERAL DEMOCRATS can’t defend that idea properly, we might as well just surrender to it all, and get out while we can.

Nick Clegg’s illiberalism should no longer be mistaken for pragmatism

Nick Clegg, former Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister, is at it again. Yesterday he published an opinion piece in the Financial Times on the secret burning desire of EU leaders to address the ‘untouchable principle’ of freedom of movement. He tweeted it out to the world in this way:

I do not have time to deal with the article itself. As usual it is technocratic, moderate-sounding ‘inside baseball’ about the manoeuvres of EU member states on migration, making out as if it’s oh so reasonable to chip away some more at the only fundamental principle of the European Union that makes it truly different from any other capitalist trade project.

What I really want to say is this: if Nick Clegg really thinks that now is the time to make this argument, he is either not a liberal in any sense, or entirely ignorant about what the impact of his words will be.

Does he really think that no one in Europe is making the argument to curtail freedom of movement? It seems impossible that he does; for one thing, his own article suggests that literally everyone is already challenging the principle he claims is untouchable, even if only privately.

Does he really think no one in the UK is making the argument to curtail freedom of movement? Given he has been one of the leading pro-EU voices in the Brexit farrago throughout its tortured history, it seems impossible that he does.

In short, the ‘untouchable principle’ he invokes in his tweet is not just touchable: it’s already covered in the dirty fingerprints and nail gouges of the people who are driving the UK and other European nations rapidly away from liberal democracy.

The only explanation for his tweet and his article is therefore that he genuinely believes adding his own voice to the argument against freedom of movement is the most important thing he could do at this point in British and European political history.

A real liberal leader would not be giving any space whatsoever to the nativist, authoritarian forces that have risen up in the UK and Europe. Instead, they would be emphasising the popularity of freedom of movement within the EU, which is overwhelming and, if anything, increasing. Compare for example these two charts, from 2015 and 2018, both taken from regular Eurobarometer surveys of public opinion on the EU and its institutions.

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A real liberal leader would be using the current moment to defend freedom of movement as an absolute red line in the European Union, advocating our continued membership of the EU on that basis, and instead seeking to expand the principle of freedom of movement globally.

I long for such a leader to arrive. Sadly, I no longer expect one to come from the ranks of the Liberal Democrats. Even though Clegg is no longer the party’s leader, his legacy and ongoing influence is clear, and the failure of the party and its current leader to counter this craven illiberalism brings shame on all of its members.