Credit where credit’s due: an under-appreciated reason why Britain voted for Brexit – and a possible solution

This morning, Theresa May tweeted this. She must have got up pretty early on a Saturday morning to make that nice infographic. Who’d be prime minister, eh?

What an excellent policy! I don’t know about you, but I don’t think of this kind of basic, decent move as something I would naturally associate with the Conservatives.

They don’t usually show much interest in tinkering boringly with the finer points of consumer finance to give us all a better deal. (They’re usually more interested in keeping their donors onside, often by shaping the financial system in their favour.)

So, this is almost certainly good news. Most of us have probably experienced unexpected surcharges on card payments at one time or another, whether it’s at your local cornershop or when buying train tickets online. This ought to cut that out at a stroke.

There’s one small problem with how Theresa May’s presenting this. And here it is: the UK government didn’t come up with the idea. It’s a requirement of the EU Payment Services Directive 2, which came into force in January 2016. Today (13th January 2018) is actually the last possible day for EU member states to enforce this part of the directive.

This is also key to the policy’s success. Because it’s being introduced as an integrated requirement across the 28 member states of the EU, the likelihood of companies raising prices to compensate, or stopping card payments entirely, is probably pretty small.

Armed with this information, we can now revisit May’s tweet. It can be read two ways:

  1. She, a Conservative prime minister leading a government whose sole policy is leaving the EU, is taking sole credit for an EU initiative that had nothing to do with her;
  2. She, a Conservative prime minister leading a government whose sole policy is leaving the EU, is associating herself and her government with the EU to such an extent that she is willing to use the first person plural.

I don’t know about you, but I’m plumping for 1.

Why does this matter?

This kind of failure to allocate credit for policies that actually benefit voters and society is a big part of why the UK voted to leave the EU. Voters see the benefits without understanding the process. (It’s also, incidentally, why people continue to vote for the Conservatives rather than the Lib Dems despite the coalition government’s most popular policies – on income tax, environment, marriage and even plastic bags – all coming from the smaller party.)

This is a huge problem in democracies the world over. Democratic governments generally don’t advertise, and that’s a good thing. And if they do, it’s generally to market new policies that are reliant on widespread public knowledge, an approach that often fails, and often because the policies are terrible.

Two recent examples are the Green Deal (a catastrophic failure where the government over-promised, rushed the policy out, and failed to market it, sometimes all at once) and the Help to Buy scheme (quite good take-up, but for a policy that actively exacerbates the housing crisis).

But that general lack of marketing means it’s political parties who market successes as their own, even when they aren’t.

A possible solution

I have been giving some thought to this problem of late. It seems to me that we need some kind of independent platform – maybe just a website – that details the source, development and impact of policies, and gives credit where credit is due.

Sure, not many voters would read it very often, but if done with sufficient quality and transparency, it would be a hugely useful resource during election periods – potentially making VAAs more accurate, and enabling journalists and broadcasters to refer to it.

Although there is a ton of money going into new fact-checking initiatives at the moment, these tend to be reactive. This would be one way to build a bank of accurate information that could also serve organisations like Full Fact, strengthening their ability to scrutinise.

It would be a major undertaking, requiring a number of permanent researchers and fact-checkers to aggregate the information, and then some savvy marketing and social media activity to promote its existence.

If you’re interested in helping to create such a website or platform, I have many further thoughts. Feel free to get in touch with me via the comments, Twitter, or Facebook.

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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.

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.

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

The murder of Jo Cox taught us nothing

Maybe we were all dreaming. Maybe the 16th June 2016 passed without incident in British politics. Maybe that Thursday, a week before the referendum on EU membership, was quiet and peaceful.

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Flowers for Jo Cox

But we weren’t dreaming. And the horrific events that day, as a young Labour MP was shot and stabbed multiple times by a British nationalist neo-Nazi, will never stop haunting our country and our democracy.

The slow march of history is providing live context for that terrible day. These events are being shown for what they really were: mere collateral damage in the war of identity perpetrated by fascists. Not an isolated incident, but the natural consequence of ugly rhetoric whipping up outrage and carving division into the soul of a nation.

The newspaper headlines today say it all. The Daily Mail and the Daily Express have spent my lifetime viciously attacking anyone who does not conform to their hateful, racist ideology. Now that the EU is gone and the government has adopted their policies on immigration, they’re turning their fire on the people who have held them at bay for so long.

Thomas Mair, Jo Cox’s alleged murderer, gave his name as ‘Death to Traitors’ in court. And here the two chief attack dogs of the fascist right are, consciously using the same language. People who voted to remain in the European Union are not merely wrong: they are unpatriotic and subversive, and they are actively plotting. They are to be ‘damned’ and ‘silenced’.

We’re not talking about some cesspool backwater of the internet like Breitbart or Stormfront. These are ‘mainstream’ newspapers read by hundreds of millions. The Daily Mail’s website is the most visited English-language newspaper website in the world. Not just in the UK; not just in Europe; in the world.

Liberals have spent their lives mocking these newspapers. We write cutesy little songs about them. Sometimes we write serious songs about them. We pour scorn on their blaring headlines and we chortle at their farcical claims. We know they’re wrong and, confident in our grasp of the truth, we’re comfortable letting other people have the comfort of the lies.

And meanwhile those lies are taking hold. They are creating an environment that is poisonous to its very core. They are legitimising the febrile, turbulent, volatile attitudes that not only appeal to ignorance but demand it, cosset it, feed it, and turn it into something that feels like certainty.

We let this happen all the time. Last week there were a few timid voices against the tide of vitriol spouted by government ministers. One of them was mine: I wrote a long blog post about it. Notable among the many responses both here and elsewhere was a recurring theme: I was upbraided for using the terms ‘fascist’ and ‘racist’ too loosely. I was told that it was too much, that I was being hysterical, and that it undermined the point of the article.

The people who said this should be ashamed of themselves. The clearer it becomes that voices, livelihoods and lives themselves are considered dispensable by powerful people and institutions in the UK, the more we must respond. I’m ashamed of myself for having put mealy-mouthed caveats on some of those statements; ashamed, for attempting to soften my condemnation of an existential threat to humanity.

So I won’t stop using those terms. I won’t stop calling out fascist rhetoric and fascist policy when it is staring me in the face. I refuse to be silenced as the Daily Express demands. And I refuse to stand by and allow these bastards to spit on Jo Cox’s grave.

Theresa May’s Britain: disgraceful, unpatriotic and openly racist

I can’t remember a worse day in British politics than October 4th, 2016. Today ranked far below even last year’s general election, when 49 of my party’s MPs were defeated, and June 23rd, a date I thought had established itself as comfortably the worst domestic political event of my lifetime.

I have spent the day in a state of bewilderment, anger, disgust and despair at the way the Conservative government is dragging the country into a disgraceful mire. They claim to base this on a single vote, a vote to leave the European Union, that was decided on a knife-edge – a mere 1.3 million votes out of 33 million. On the basis of this vote, they claim to understand what “the public” wants, and even what it thinks. Just look at tomorrow’s Daily Mail front page, if you can:

That is the prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, calling other people elites. Making up non-existent elites that you can then blame for the country’s ills is textbook fascism.

Of course, this also illustrates another fundamental problem the UK faces: a media that is not just supine but more than happy to promote this kind of language in the face of the truth.

And the truth is utterly stark. The government that Theresa May is running can now only be described as overtly racist. The policy announcements made today by successive ministers were worthy of 1930s Germany and, as UKIP MEP Patrick O’Flynn rightly crowed, redolent of his party’s 2015 manifesto:

The fact that his party’s leader Diane James resigned tonight after 18 days in the job is no more than a depressing footnote to today’s events. The spectre of Nigel Farage’s inevitable return no longer feels threatening given what the Conservatives have become.

Theresa May was the one who popularised the concept of the Tories as ‘the Nasty Party’. Now she presides over some of the nastiest policies ever devised in British politics. It started early this morning with the announcement on doctors. When I read this I didn’t expect it to be the least worrying policy pledge of the day:

That’s the Defence Secretary promising that in future military conflicts, British soldiers will no longer be subject to the European Convention on Human Rights. In theory this would mean they were less susceptible to investigations into battlefield behaviour and abuses. In other words, because they’re beautiful British troops, we should just trust that they’ll do the right thing and remove the external mechanism designed to hold them accountable (you know, the one that British lawyers helped to draft after the second world war). Thankfully, it seems that this policy is actually unworkable in practice, but it certainly kicked October 4th off nicely.

It warmed us up for Jeremy Hunt and Theresa May’s main announcement of the day:

Ok, let’s think about this. There are innumerable problems with this policy. To list a few:

  1. Setting a deadline by which foreign doctors must presumably leave (or be deported?) makes working in the NHS far less attractive for current and potential new foreign doctors. Given the NHS has a massive staffing shortage at present, the government wants to expand its services, and there is a rapidly ageing population, this is shortsighted.
  2. Setting a deadline by which foreign doctors must leave makes it far more likely that they will leave sooner. Why would you want to stay in a country that doesn’t want your highly prized skills? There are any number of other countries you could work in.
  3. Further numbers of home-grown doctors being trained is a great idea, but recruiting people is currently proving difficult. That seems to be mainly a response from students to chronic mismanagement and confrontational behaviour by, oh, the government. Things have got so bad that this year medical degrees went into clearing for the first time.
  4. Even if you can manage to train enough new British doctors, they will be just that: new. These foreign doctors have probably been here for a while, and if by some miracle they stay for another nine years, they’ll be very experienced. So the NHS will lose a lot of experience and institutional knowledge regardless, decreasing the quality of care for its patients.
  5. Finally, even if you replace all the foreign doctors with British ones, you’ll have the same number you started with, when the problem is that there’s a shortage. I need not explain this further, but for Jeremy Hunt’s benefit, if you have no more doctors at the end of the process than at the beginning, you have spent a lot of time and money on solving nothing.

You’ll notice I’ve left out the biggest problem with it. That is, naturally, that it is racist. There is no justification given for the policy other than their foreignness. That is simple racism. Explicitly discriminating against foreign doctors purely because they are foreign is unequivocally wrong.

Next up was Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary. She had a smart idea about cutting immigration too. Here it is:

In case you don’t know, providing education to international students is one of Britain’s most successful exports. Our universities make a ton of money from it. That money massively subsidises British students, keeping tuition fees lower and helping universities plan their financial future.

This policy achieves an impressive triple whammy:

  1. Telling international students they aren’t wanted – thereby reducing demand
  2. Telling universities they can’t be sure whether they’ll be able to recruit international students in future – throwing their plans into disarray
  3. Ensuring that tuition fees will almost certainly rise for British students

Another irony of this particular policy is that evidence suggests a vast majority of the public understand the difference between student immigration and employee immigration, and think people coming here to study for a short period is a great thing. But it’s probably simpler for Amber Rudd to pander to racists.

That certainly seems to be the case for her other policy, a requirement for… well, here’s the Times headline:

Firms must list foreign workers. And if they don’t employ enough British people, they will be ‘shamed’.

Can the Tories even hear themselves saying these things? Surely this runs counter to all their instincts. Even if we’re only talking about being pro-business – the most mercenary of all possible considerations – this is going to be a nightmare for everyone; enormous bureaucracy for no discernible purpose. Meanwhile a lot of the people who invest the most in our economy or have the best skills are foreigners – think of London’s tech industry, which is one of the world leaders.

But again, the real question for Amber Rudd and Theresa May is how they sleep at night. How do they live with themselves? This is bordering on fascism.

Speculation has raged since this announcement on how these pledges might be implemented. My money’s on yellow stars for the foreigners so they’re easy to spot. And for those unpatriotic firms with too many of the blighters, maybe the UK Border Force could smash their windows. I’m sure that would get the message across.

Last but not least in this parade of political putrescence comes our old friend, disgraced former minister Dr Liam Fox, who was forced to resign in disgrace until Theresa May graciously gave him a Cabinet role heading up all the non-existent trade deals we will try to strike after leaving the EU.

It was pretty difficult to identify the most egregious moment of this spectacular shitshow, but I think this statement by Fox takes the prize. We already knew that May’s government had not ruled out using EU citizens in the UK as a negotiating tool, but this particular description betrays how infantile these people are.

Fox really appears to feel hopeful about the tricky – to put it lightly – negotiation the government has to perform with 27 other EU member states. And one of the ‘main’ reasons for this hope is the number of EU foreigners living in the UK. And the reason Liam Fox is hopeful is that the British government will be able to threaten other countries about the future welfare of their citizens.

Consider that there are 3.2 million EU migrants in the UK at present, around 5% of the population. Let’s assume you know 100 people. 5% means you almost certainly know some of these people personally. They almost certainly go to the same school as your children. Depending on where in the country you’re from, there’s a not-insignificant chance you might be friends with them or your relatives might be married to them.

If what Liam Fox said does not disgust you, appal you, and make you sick to your stomach, then I don’t really want to know you.

Some final thoughts. I am angry. I want to do something to stop this awfulness from continuing and succeeding. I intend to use the minimal tools at my disposal to do so. That means campaigning for the Liberal Democrats, even from afar, and supporting all other ways I know of to fight this danger, including trade associations, independent (and sane) media, and online debate.

You might be wondering what Labour were doing all day. A lot of other people were too. Surely, on a day of such infamy and disgrace, they would stand up as the opposition the country needs? Especially after Jeremy Corbyn chose to defend immigration at their recent conference?

Eventually they tweeted this:

As a fellow Lib Dem on Twitter put it:

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

If you are anywhere near as angered by this litany of disgrace as I am, then please join the Liberal Democrats, today, and help us campaign. David Cameron’s resignation has caused a by-election in Witney on October 20th. A victory for the Liberal Democrats would send the loudest possible message to Theresa May and her pernicious ministers that this approach to Brexit and to government is completely unacceptable.

The symbolism of a passport 

Last night I had my first experience of the Sarajevo Film Festival. Now in its 22nd year, the event, started in the pain and confusion of a prolonged siege, continues to go from strength to strength. 

The showing at the Summer Screen was of a documentary called Sonita. The titular protagonist is a teenage Afghan refugee living in Iran illegally, who has an urge to become a rapper. 

It’s a very powerful film, by turns harrowing, disarming and uplifting. The direction of the story is clear but by no means certain; at one critical moment it appears that Sonita will be brought back to Herat and sold as a bride, just so that her brother can buy a wife for himself. Only the film-maker’s personal financial intervention can avoid this outcome. 

For me the most moving moment was when the young woman received her new passport. In a scene earlier in the documentary it had become apparent that she had no papers – neither from Iran nor Afghanistan. At a stroke, as she held the little blue book in her hands, she knew what it was to have a personhood partially restored. She suddenly had agency. 

It brought me to tears. 

In the UK there is currently a campaign going on to change the colour of our passports from dark red to dark blue. The Sun newspaper, our most widely read tabloid, made an oversize replica and took it to Parliament to lobby MPs. 

Needless to say, we also recently voted as a country to leave the EU so that we can make it harder for people to reach our land. Much of the anti-immigration feeling has been whipped up against people like Sonita. 

It brings me to tears.