Brexit: playing the race card

Saturday 7 December 2019  

I tolerated about 20 minutes of the BBC leader's debate before switching it off. The format, as always – with carefully selected "ordinary" members of the public asking the questions – was crass. The arguments were formulaic, while Johnson and Corbyn simply talked past each other. I can't say there was more heat than light. There was neither heat not light.

Reading diverse reports, however, have done nothing but make me grateful that I didn't sit through the whole thing, even to hear the expected cross-over accusations on racism, with Corbyn taking flak on his antisemitism while Johnson and his party are variously accused of Islamophobia.

Johnson defended himself by saying that any Tories guilty of Islamophobia or racism were "out first bounce", then going into attack mode by accusing Corbyn's unwillingness to take a stand and stand up for Jewish people in the Labour party and put an arm round them as "a failure of leadership".

In such sensitive areas, though, one wonders why both parties don't move more decisively to root out behaviours which open them up to accusations of racism, especially when political parties tend to be quick to take action when votes might be at stake.

But this very reluctance to act (on both sides) might give a clue that there are deeper agendas being played out, where there might be electoral advantages to maintaining carefully nurtured façades of hostility towards certain racial groups, especially if there are large numbers of votes to be garnered.

And the thing is that there most certainly advantages to be gained from cultivating certain attitudes. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives can entirely plead innocence if they allow racist views to prevail within their parties, even if they deny that these are tolerated.

In the case of the Conservatives, for instance, one can point to a Times of India article as recently as last month, telling us that the British Indian vote "could swing up to 40 seats and affect the outcome of the election".

Nor is this an academic proposition as the UK group that styles itself as the Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party (OFBJP), is for the first time in its history extending open support to the Conservatives, group had identified 48 Labour-Conservative marginal seats as potential targets for the British Indian vote could.

OFBJP UK president, Kuldeep Singh Shekhawat, gives three reasons for extending support to the Tories. Firstly, some Labour MPs joined the violent protests outside India House on 15 August and 3 September over the Indian action in revoking part of the constitution in Indian occupied Kashmir and Jammu.

Secondly, no Labour MPs spoke in favour of India in the House of Commons on Kashmir, and thirdly because of a Labour motion on Kashmir passed at their party conference.

This was even picked up by Sky News on 7 November and then by The Times in London, which ran a feature on 10 November, headlined: "Labour’s Kashmir stance drives Indians into arms of Tories", noting an estimated 900,000 Hindu and Sikh voters of British-Indian origin could play a "decisive role" in the coming election.

In fact, there are estimated to be about 1.5 million voters of Indian origin in the UK, against about 1.1 million mainly Moslem Pakistanis, of which one million hail from the Mirpur region in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.

Following in the wake of The Times was Open Democracy which on 13 November reported on "The anti-Labour plot to polarise Hindus over Kashmir". It thus informed us that "a campaign for the hearts and minds of British Hindus is pushing them to the Tories – and it's dividing British Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims".

Huffpost also ran a story on this issue, coming in on 23 November, with a headline: "How 'Toxic' South Asian Nationalist Politics Is Rearing Its Head In The UK Election".

This source referred to WhatsApp memes which were accusing Labour of being "anti-Indian" and enabling grooming gangs circulate among voters, asking whether they affect the election result.

To this, the answer seems to be strongly in the affirmative, with each party playing the race card, not least in the number of ethnic minority candidates being fielded, to the extent that the Independent was recently reporting that the UK was "on course" for a record number standing in the election.

Within that, the split in the South Asian communities is clear, as Labour has selected only one Indian-heritage candidate in its e of the party’s 39 safe seats and 100 target seats.

But then, this is hardly surprising. As a rule, the Pakistani communities tend to vote as a bloc, and traditionally support Labour, returning Labour MPs in the constituencies where they tend to aggregate – as noted yesterday in a long article in the Diplomat magazine, an online publication based in Washington DC, covering politics, society, and culture in the Asia-Pacific region.

The magazine remarks that tensions between India and Pakistan have skyrocketed over India's action in Jammu and Kashmir in August and the ensuing lockdown in the region, provoking extreme reactions within Pakistan. And, with Brexit-hit Britain's third general election since the beginning of 2015 approaching, the divisions of the subcontinent on the issue of Kashmir have found their way into British domestic politics.

Pakistan, of course, with its strongly Moslem culture, is fundamentally opposed to the Israeli state, which it refuses to recognise. On the other hand, there is a close affinity between the Hindu and Jewish communities in the UK, which occasionally act in concert. And, with Israel selling arms to India, Pakistan has adopted a distinctly anti-Jewish stance, a sentiment which spills over into the UK Pakistani communities.

Thus, in the UK, we have two electorally important Asian communities, polarised on religious grounds, with tensions stoked up over Kashmir, which is being reflected in UK politics, where the Indians are increasingly supporting the Conservatives while the Pakistanis support Labour.

Each community, respectively, could be characterised as Islamophobic and antisemitic and, given their pivotal roles in the coming election, it would be surprising if some of their attitudes did not rub off on the political parties that they support. In fact, for each party to enhance and maintain that support, it would seem necessary for them to reflect the values of the communities that are giving that support.

Despite even CNN reporting in the issue, there has been scant attention been paid to it in the UK legacy media as a whole, although the Guardian yesterday had Shami Chakrabarti, shadow attorney general, trying to redress the balance by writing that, "British Hindus voting for Labour are not 'traitors' to India".

Pleading that there is "no room in UK politics for the hatred being promoted by a group tied to the BJP, India's ruling party" – i.e., the OFBJP – this rather qualifies as being too little, too late. The damage is already done – the polarisation has already occurred.

With that, we seem to have imported factors which further complicates our politics, and may be driving some of its more unsavoury aspects. Yet, despite their importance – with the potential to decide the election – they are not getting the media attention that they should. But then, with each political party seeking to play the race card, I doubt that the politicians want the media to take too much notice of what is going on.

But, if these factors are resistant to normal campaign influences, and we have issues such as Kashmir having a disproportionate effect on the outcome of our election, this is something that should very much concern us all.

Richard North 07/12/2019 link

Brexit: collapse at the fringes

Friday 6 December 2019  

Predictably, George Osborne's Evening Standard is crowing about Farage's latest discomfort, offering a headline which tells us: "Brexit Party odds slashed by bookies as Nigel Farage faces onslaught of resignations".

This is triggered by the loss of four of Farage's MEPs. Three resigned yesterday, including Annunziata Rees-Mogg, sister of the invisible Jacob, who are now urging voters to support the Tories on polling day. The other was John Longworth, one-time director general of the British Chambers of Commerce. He was sacked for "repeatedly undermining" what is described as "Farage's election strategy".

Mind you, any idea that Annunziata Rees-Mogg has ever been anything other than a Tory is a bit of a stretch. She was a Tory candidate in the 2005 general election, where she served her apprenticeship in the safe Labour seat of Aberavon, and then fought in the Lib-Dem marginal, Somerton and Frome, for the Tories in 2010.

It says something for "Nancy" – a name Cameron apparently wanted her to adopt – that after Tory candidate Clive Allen managed to trim the Lib-Dem lead in 2005 to a mere 812 votes, she presided over an increase in 2010 to 1,817.

Only in 2015, when she had been dropped as a candidate, did David Warburton for the Tories come storming back with a stonking majority of 20,268 after the collapse of the Lib-Dem vote. Warburton then kept the seat in 2017, with an increased majority, making it one of the safest Tory seats in the country.

Thus scorned, Annunziata took her bat home to join up with Farage, becoming an MEP in May, representing the victorious Brexit Party. But she has lasted seven months before reverting to type, deserting the sinking party to root for Johnson's Tories and their fatuous "Get Brexit Done" slogan.

Ex-Tory chancellor George Osborne has now used the opportunity to parade current bookmakers setting the party's odds of total defeat at 2/7, reinforcing opinion poll predictions that it is unlikely to win a single seat in next week's poll. This is down from being odds-on at 2/5 in October, to win at least one seat.

Betfair spokesperson, Katie Baylis is cited, saying: "After starting their campaign with a bang, the Brexit Party has failed to live up to their own hype and today's resignations show that they are not the force Nigel Farage had hoped for". They had been as short as 12/1 in June for an overall majority, but with the wheels starting to fall off their campaign they are now at 999/1.

The Telegraph is indulging in its own form of gloating, with a cartoon of Farage in front of a group of supporters, declaring "Leave means Leave", only in the next frame to have his supporters do precisely that … leave, reduced to a scattering of discarded rosettes on the floor.

But John Crace really has the measure of the man, painting a picture which I can recognise from long personal experience. "Nigel's unique talent", he writes:
… is to destroy everything he creates. He craves power but is unable to delegate or share it. People who disagree with him are cast out and crushed. Like Trump and Boris, he is a political narcissist who can see no further than his own reflection. He has no friends or equals. Only willing acolytes who are, from time to time, granted a slot as his warm-up act. Nigel makes the rules and Nigel changes them.
Yet, despite being shredded by Andrew Neil (pictured), there are still consolations for Farage. Apart from his massively inflated bank balance, this election has also seen the collapse of the main "remainer" activist group, the People's Vote, with the tale of its demise recorded in detail recently by the New Statesman.

The demise of the fringe activists on both sides has had the unexpected effect of leaving the field clear for the main parties and with the Lib-Dems failing to live up to their earlier promise, we are effectively back to old-fashioned two party politics, with the Tories and Labour battling it out for dominance.

In the "blue corner", we have Johnson pushing the "Get Brexit Done" mantra, yesterday telling us that we had "seven days" to achieve that feat, while the party is putting its effort into a negative campaign, capitalising on Corbyn's reputation as an anti-Semite and his inability (or unwillingness) to control antisemitism in his party.

In the "red corner", there is an increasingly frazzled Corbyn. Having effectively abandoned Brexit, he has now decided to fight on an "austerity" ticket, arguing that a vote for the Tories will bring down a rain of "cuts" on the land, and the destruction of the NHS as it is chopped into pieces and sold off to predatory US capitalists.

And while the national polls show a largely static position, with the Tories holding on to a slender lead, under the surface things may be very different. The Times is one of many sources to report that support for Labour is draining away in the North and the Midlands.

The paper claims that voters in areas that once counted on generous Labour majorities are aligning themselves to the party they think will most likely break the Brexit deadlock, with policies featuring only second. It cites a lawyer from Bolton who voted Remain, who tells us: "People want the person who will get them out of the EU. They are not that interested in other things".

The paper also cites the latest polling data, which show that since 2017, the drop in Labour's popularity in the North and Midlands has accelerated. According to YouGov, its vote has been hardest hit in the North West, where support has fallen by 25 percentage points to 30 percent. This puts Labour behind the Tories in a region that until now it could take for granted.

However, such projections are based on very slender data, and there is a danger that the pollsters are falling into the trap of believing their own rhetoric. More than ever, one suspects, local factors may prevail, causing local upsets which may affect the overall result.

Crucially, although Farage has taken a drubbing in the polls, in some Labour marginals his party may siphon off enough votes from the Tories to prevent them taking seats they might otherwise gain. Despite George Osborne's triumphalism, it would be unwise completely to write off Farage's influence.

That said, there is little doubt that this election campaign has failed to enthuse the voters and the mood is remarkably flat, with a "plague on both your houses" sentiment very much in evidence.

And then there is the lack of activity on the ground. Yesterday, I drove from South Bradford to Skipton, through three constituencies, and saw only one campaign poster. To date, with only a week to go, we've only had the two Labour leaflets, and nothing from any other party.

In another interesting facet, the Guardian reports on the impact of smartphones on the dissemination of news. The politicians and the media may think they are controlling the messages but, by the time they reach the end users, coverage "is warped by social media algorithms and friendship groups".

This "chaotic world" has people consuming news passively by scrolling through headlines rather than actively seeking out information. One woman in London, participating in a research project, read 29 headlines but clicked on just six and only read three articles to the end.

Several participants were observed sharing articles on Facebook without clicking the links, and excitedly diving into comment sections for an argument before looking at the articles. Most showed a tendency to read news that confirmed their existing views.

Some behaviours were more surprising, hinting we may be becoming a nation of trolls. One 22-year-old Conservative-voting woman was observed going out of her way to read reputable mainstream news sources so she had a balanced understanding of Labour policies. But she would then seek out provocative far-right blog posts to share on Facebook because their headlines would anger her left wing friends and create online drama.

Crucially, though, a lot of the content was been taken out of context, with concern expressed that phone users were "disengaging with mainstream sources". Said one analyst, "a lot of content that is quite exaggerated or deliberately presented to influence you in a way that's not connected to the full picture".

Thus, what the politicians and media are telling us isn't necessarily what the voters are hearing. People are filtering their input and deciding for themselves on the content they are prepared to accept. And, how this might influence voting, no one yet knows. This election may still be more open than we imagine.

Richard North 06/12/2019 link

Brexit: nothing to see here …

Thursday 5 December 2019  

One struggles with the question of whether Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is really as stupid as he appears, or if he's playing a rather devious double game – almost a variation of "move on, nothing to see here".

Johnson has been talking to ITV News's political editor, Robert Peston, whence he declared, "We will have got Brexit done, and you will find, what will happen is the parliamentary agony will be over, the political agony will be over and the misery and tedium and procrastination that been going on will be over".

On that basis, he says, "everyone can stop talking about Brexit after the end of January", assuming of course his party wins the general election.

But this claim is simply not credible. Anyone with more than the slightest knowledge of the Brexit process knows full well that, after we leave the EU (if we actually do), the next phase is going to be extremely troublesome. Inevitably, it will remain a "hot" political topic, and doubtless will be the subject of much debate.

Hence, if Johnson believes otherwise – if he really believes what he is saying – then he really is a very stupid man. On the other hand, if he's trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the electorate, then this is another example of Johnson the liar. But it's also a very stupid lie, as it is so far from being credible.

In fact, where the next phase will be taking us is already the subject of much discussion in Brussels, and the issue is to be raised in the European Council on 12-13 December – coinciding with the general election and the declaration of results.

By the time they come to publish their formal conclusions, therefore, the heads of states and governments will probably know the outcome of the election, and can certainly factor this into whatever decisions they make.

Already, though, draft conclusions have been leaked, and have been trawled over by, amongst others, the Irish Times. This paper's headline take of the draft is that it reiterates the urgency of the "timely ratification" of the withdrawal agreement.

The draft also welcomes the reappointment of current chief negotiator Michel Barnier to co-ordinate negotiations on the future relationship with the UK, while the EU leaders reconfirm their "desire to establish as close as possible a future relationship with the UK in line with the political declaration and respecting the previously agreed European Council's guidelines, as well as statements and declarations".

According to the draft, the European Council intends to invite the Commission urgently to propose a detailed mandate for the talks to the General Affairs Council. And conscious of timetabling constraints, it cautions that: "Negotiations should be organised in a way that makes the best possible use of the limited time available for negotiation and ratification by the end of the transition".

There is an interesting clue as to the EU's intentions in the reference not only to notification but also ratification by the end of transition period. If that is to occur by the end of December 2020, as Johnson intends, then it rules out a mixed treaty – which must be ratified by all the EU Member States – and thereby, by definition, a comprehensive free trade agreement.

This, then, is effective confirmation that the EU is prepared to accept a "quick and dirty" agreement, which will only encompass a very limited range of topics. We can almost guarantee that this will include a tariff and quota agreement, as this is required by WTO rules in order to qualify as a free trade agreement.

And whatever the reservations of the pundits such an agreement is not likely to be tied to any serious conditions by the EU as its Members States, with a favourable balance of trade to the UK, would be the main beneficiaries.

Nor, as is held by the chatterati, is fishing likely to be much of an obstacle. The UK will assume the status of a third country, there are already provisions in place under EU law for securing fishery agreements with third countries. The Commission has already published a Regulation which sets out the parameters, and the matter can be dealt with administratively, under the aegis of existing international law, without holding up the "future relationship" negotiations.

The Financial Times - which also reports on the draft – has EU diplomats stressing that the draft text does not prejudge the outcome of the election, but it does reflect the need for the Union to prepare itself for the UK's scheduled departure on 31 January.

But they are also signalling that it may be impossible to get everything done in the time allocated, further indicating that the EU negotiators are gearing up for a de minimis treaty.

In any negotiations, though, there is always a possibility that they could fail, and especially if either side over-reaches and demands more than the other side is prepared to give. However, with the highly experienced Barnier leading the EU team, one assumes he will know exactly how much he can push, without going too far.

But, with the EU and Member States well advanced in their preparations, there is less ground to cover than might be imagined, if the object is to keep a basic trade relationship going. Many of the procedural issues are covered by the Commission's unilateral contingency plans, requiring no immediate input from the UK government.

And, although no-one is talking about it at the moment – neither the politicians nor the media – it is entirely logical to expect talks to continue after the end of the transition period. Although one then expects a basic trade treaty to have been concluded, this can be added to at any time, and built up on an incremental basis eventually to form a more comprehensive treaty.

Therefore, talk of the timeframe being "unrealistic" – with predictions of what amounts to a no-deal departure at the end of December 2020 – are missing the point. The real issue is how much the UK negotiators – under instruction from Whitehall – are prepared to sacrifice to get a deal over the line in the appointed time.

Given Johnson's willingness to throw Northern Ireland under a bus in order to get his withdrawal agreement, one presumes that he will concede a great deal in order to walk away with his headline "victory" in securing a deal without extending the transition period. One can almost hear the crowing, as he tells us how clever he has been, apparently defying all the odds once again.

Where we go then does inevitably depend on our negotiations with the United States and other countries, but if there are major conflicts on the way, which will reduce our ability to broker enhanced access to EU Member State markets, one can easily imagine why Johnson would want to project the impression that Brexit is "done" and the talking is over. Clearly, the less scrutiny he gets, the happier he will be.

That may also explain why, in the final countdown to the election, Johnson is talking of tax cuts within weeks of leaving the European Union, with a promise that he will hold a "Brexit budget" in late February.

Under the circumstances, this would provide an effective distraction to divert the nation's attention from the impending trade talks, which are expected to start next March. As it stands, the legacy media is easily distracted by virtually any "bone" that the government throws its way, and will need little excuse to ignore what will be highly technical talks in Brussels.

Perhaps then, this is what Johnson was doing yesterday, in talking to Peston. He needs the second stage of Brexit to go away – to disappear from the public agenda. And for that he wants the cooperation of the legacy media which, from past experience, will be only too willing to oblige.

And, as long as the public can be led to focus entirely on domestic issues, that will leave Johnson free to sell us out on the international stage without anyone noticing, or worrying too much – the classic misdirection technique.

It almost makes you wish that the man was lying again. He is more dangerous when he appears to be telling the truth.

Richard North 05/12/2019 link

Brexit: the election that died of shame

Wednesday 4 December 2019  

With so much going on, substantive Brexit issues have almost disappeared from the national news agenda. Eight days before the vote, therefore, the politicians are effectively running down the clock and, in the time available, are unlikely to be seriously challenged in the time left.

Even if it is accepted that Johnson is the only choice for voters who want to see Brexit "done", that still doesn't excuse the Conservatives from making clear the next steps they intend to take, with clear statements as to the trade-offs which we will have to accept.

But the crucial questions which should have been addressed and answered during the course of the election campaign have been unresolved. So now we are left with a scrappy, messy, jumble of noise which has totally failed to do anything but render the so-called "Brexit election" a charade.

Effectively, we will be going into the polling booths blind – those of us who intend to vote. Votes will be cast on the basis of incomplete information, forcing the electorate to take a leap in the dark. Almost proving the point, we have a headline in the Independent which declares: "Boris Johnson sparks more uncertainty after refusing to say if businesses should continue no-deal Brexit preparations".

This comes after Dominic Raab confirmed yesterday that the UK will "absolutely" keep no-deal on the table in trade talks with the EU following the UK’s formal withdrawal on 31 January. And since the Johnson has unequivocally ruled out any extension of the trade talks beyond December 2020, there are worries that the 11-month negotiation period will end in us dropping out of the transition period without a deal.

In several pieces on this blog, I have suggested that we are in fact more likely to emerge with a "quick and dirty" deal which initially will amount to little more than an agreement on quotas and tariffs. Thus, deal there will be, except that the immediate outcome will be little better than if the government had actually failed to reach any agreement.

In a sense, therefore, it is entirely sensible to keep no-deal preparations in hand, as many of the provisions will be needed, alongside the EU's no-deal contingency plans.

But we really should not be in a situation where the Independent claims to have asked Johnson three times whether businesses should be preparing for the possibility of no deal on 31 December 2020, only to have the prime minister in office dodge the issue entirely.

What he did say is that, "We have a great deal” which is "going to allow us to come out smoothly and efficiently on 31 January", but that isn't really the point. If the withdrawal agreement is in place, we immediately move into the transition period, which is a "standstill" provision which leaves our trading relationships with the EU unchanged.

The trauma comes when the "standstill" - or transition period – comes to an end, and that is planned for us after 31 December of next year. People and businesses have a right to know what is in store for them and, with only an 11-month negotiation period, there is no possibility of a "good deal". It is going to be bad. The only question is, how bad.

We do, of course, have the final debate between Corbyn and Johnson on Friday, this one on the BBC. But, given the dismal failure of the broadcast events so far to shed any real light on the leaders' intentions, there is little expectation that anything new or interesting will emerge. Still less do we expect Johnson to remove the "uncertainty" of which business complains.

It should be that Johnson is pinned down on exactly what his intentions are for the "future relationship" talks, but even in the unlikely event that the right questions are asked, Johnson will probably "chunter" his way through, failing to deal with the points raised.

Meanwhile, of course, Corbyn is just as bad, if not worse, having projected an entirely unrealistic Brexit policy, predicated on a renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement, without any detail being specified. And, so far, he has been allowed to get away with this, largely unchallenged.

During the 2016 referendum, I lamented that the legacy media was unable sensibly to report on referendums, and was treating the event like an election. But, as we progress into this election, we are having to conclude that they can't handle elections either. This will be the campaign which ground to a halt, having died of shame.

Basically, with the politicians unwilling to inject any real substance into their Brexit policies, and with the media unable to drag the detail out of them, the debate is dying a death. Beyond endless, and largely repetitious speculation, we are all running out of things to write about.

Even the wonks and the specialist journals are sounding bored, while being both repetitious and unimaginative. Euractiv, for instance, has Sir Michael Leigh, a former EU chief enlargement negotiator, droning on about difficulties in reaching an agreement in 11 months – as if we were not aware of them already.

He argues that Johnson could only make a breakthrough in FTA talks "if he is ready to stab his Singapore-on-the-Thames friends in the back and commit the UK to applying relevant EU principles, rules and standards for the lifetime of the agreement".

All that shows, though, is that the wonks have little to offer either. A clinical evaluation tells us that if Johnson is determined to conclude a deal in 11-months and Michel Barnier has already intimated that a deal can be done, then a deal will be done in the time. But it will not be able to encompass a comprehensive deal which includes an accommodation on regulatory standards. That simply cannot be done in the time.

Thus, "quick and dirty" is all we are going to get, and it is about time that the wonks got to grip with this, and started to spell out what it will entail. When it comes to the detail, though, they are no better than the politicians.

Leigh thinks that the prime minister "would do better to come clean with the electorate on the complexity of the task ahead rather than face new accusations of duplicity when his promise that a trade deal with the EU will be concluded in 2020 comes to nought". Better still, Leigh needs to be warning of the consequences of that "quick and dirty" deal.

Possibly, because so many of the actors have nothing new or interesting to say, the gathering ennui is being reflected in the polls.

The latest YouGov poll has the two main parties largely static, with the Conservatives on 42 percent (down one point) and Labour on 33 percent, also down one. This leaves the Tories with their narrow nine point lead, only two points above the turning point, where we see a hung parliament.

Even Kantar are only putting the Tories 12-point ahead now, having last month awarded them a virtually unassailable 18-point lead, despite reporting that the recent Labour "surge" has stalled. Still worse, ICM only gives the Tories a seven-point lead.

Despite Brexit still leading as the issue deciding how people vote, the election contest is so lacking in energy that the parties are not even able to push the gap between them any wider. Both sides stumble on, generating neither enthusiasm nor passion, as their candidates go through the motions.

Perhaps Trump, on his visit to the UK yesterday and today, having decided he doesn't want our NHS, even on a "silver platter", might be prevailed upon to take our politicians back with him. There surely must be plenty of room in Air Force One. That, at least, would give us something to cheer about.

Richard North 04/12/2019 link

Brexit: time for a change

Tuesday 3 December 2019  

No sooner have I pointed out some home truths about my own constituency, Bradford South, than the Guardian produces a piece which exactly describes the situation we're in.

The headline (pictured) tells us that 14 million UK voters live in areas held by the same party since the second world war. That applies in spades to Bradford South and its 67,751 voters, which has been held by Labour since 1945 and since 1924, with a short break when the Liberals took the seat.

The certainty with which the seat returns a Labour MP makes a mockery of the democratic process. Those voters in this coming election who would vote for another party are, on the face of it, wasting their time. The incumbent, Judith Cummins, looks certain to get back in.

It is that situation, where even the average seat had not changed hands for 42 years, that has the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) say that the electoral system is "broken".

The ERS study found that 98 Labour seats have been in the party's hands since the war, 37 percent of their 2017 total, with 94 Conservative seats in the same situation, 30 percent of the constituencies they won at the last election, affecting 13.7 million potential voters overall.

The organisation, though, puts the problem down to the inflexibility of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, where single MPs are picked per constituency on a non-proportional basis. At the 2017 election, only 70 seats, or 11 percent of the total, went to a different party, with this figure in gradual decline. According to a YouGov seat-by-seat projection for the 12 December, only 58 seats are due to change hands.

Thus, of 650 Westminster seats supposedly up for grabs, the actual election will turn on less than ten percent of the seats, while the rest of us are consigned to the status of impotent spectators, with absolutely no influence on the eventual outcome. Whatever this system is, it isn't democracy. Yet, despite the view of the ERS, I don't accept that the FPTP system is the issue. For sure, if we had some form of proportional representation, some of the minority parties might get some seats, and there might be more contenders, but it is difficult to see how you can keep the area-based constituency system, each with their own single representatives, and have proportional representation.

Most forms of proportional representation require multiple-member voting districts (sometimes called "super-districts"), and the types of proportional representation which have the highest levels of proportionality tend to include districts with large numbers of seats. The way the European elections work is a good guide.

For my money, the real problem for the lack of change in the seats is the party system, where the finite resources of the parties only allow them to fight a limited number of seats in any one election. Thus, as we're seeing now with the battle centred on just over 50 seats, the rest of us are left to rot.

Oddly enough, although Bradford South has been solid Labour since 1945, it nearly turned in 1983 when the Thatcherite Tories cut the incumbent's majority of 4,318 in 1979 to a mere 110 votes.

It nearly did it again in 1987 when Labour could only manage a majority of 309, with the Tories and Labour neck and neck. I remember those days well, when there was a real buzz in the air, politics all of a sudden became interesting and we were all hanging on when the results came out to see who had won.

The moment passed though, and by 1992, with Major as prime minister, we were back to the status quo, with the Labour incumbent gaining a majority of 4,902. From that day to this, the Tories have never come close to taking the seat, with Judith Cummins fighting to protect her 6,700 majority.

Despite that, Electoral Calculus is predicting that this time round, the seat could be a Conservative gain, holding a majority of just over a thousand. This is based on the fact that we delivered a 63.56 percent majority for "leave" in the EU referendum.

Personally, I think the prediction is wrong. Although we had a clear majority in the referendum, turnout was relatively low, while the ward with the largest Moslem community (Great Horton) voted decisively for "remain".

Generally, the Moslem communities tend to vote Labour as a block, and they tend hold the balance of power in the constituency, with about 12 percent of the total vote in what is otherwise a predominantly white, working class area.

But the real give-away is that the Tories are not even trying to win the seat. They've parachuted in the son of a millionaire Indian property developer, a man who has no economic ties with the constituency, doesn't live in the area and has not even bothered to campaign. So far, in the entire period, we've had one leaflet and an electoral address from Labour, and that's it. None of the other parties have even leafleted us.

In the district, you would be hard-put to see any posters or billboards and the last time the local paper – which serves four constituencies – mentioned the election was on 22 November. The Tory candidate got two lines and has otherwise been invisible.

Without watching the national media, you would be hard put to know that there was even an election campaign going on in this constituency and it is no fault of the FPTP system that we are left to rot on the margins. In 2015, when Ukip was at its height, the combined Ukip and Tory vote exceeded the Labour vote by over 2,000, demonstrating that the seat could be winnable, especially as the Lib-Dem vote had collapsed. But the parties have to put the effort in, and so far they are not even trying.

Nevertheless, whenever we get discussions about political reform, there is always a caucus which pops up to argue for electoral reform, with proportional voting high on the agenda.

Yet, for countries which have adopted proportional representation, one doesn't see noticeably improved governance or systems which are self-evidently more democratic. Simply, you end up with a different way of making the same old mess.

I sometimes think that people are too focused on the mechanics and rituals of democracy, without thinking through what they are trying to achieve. And here, one should recall that the ancient Greeks, who invented democracy, did not elect their assemblies. Their representatives were selected by lottery.

To my mind, I would be happy with a system where those prepared to serve registered with their local authorities, which held a ballot of registered applicants every five years to determine who went to Westminster. One could require that, in order to register, each applicant had to pass a qualifying examination and interview, to determine their suitability as MPs. And, of course, party membership would be forbidden.

Elections, in such a system, might be reserved for prime ministers, who would be directly elected. Neither prime ministers nor their cabinet members would be MPs, affording the separation of powers that the current system lacks. The job of parliament is to scrutinise the executive, not to provide a ministerial gene pool.

However, for lack of an equitable system, come 12 December, the majority of us will be sitting on the sidelines, with the election a spectator sport which has absolutely no practical relevance to our constituencies.

When Jess Garland, head of policy for the ERS, says, "We’ve heard often that politics is volatile and anything could happen in the coming election, but even so, hundreds of seats across the country haven't changed party hands for decades", we have to accept that the system is broken.

Whatever this system is, it isn't democracy. It's time for a change.

Richard North 03/12/2019 link

Brexit: failing to deliver

Monday 2 December 2019  

There have been diverse views about the Marr interview of Johnson yesterday. But, on reading the transcript carefully, I have to say that it didn't convey anything that we didn't already know or might have guessed.

If you enjoy the sport, then that is all very well, but those who came to the programme with the aim of coming away better informed about Johnson's policies and intentions would have been disappointed. And, in that sense, it was a complete waste of everybody's time.

With that, one must really question the purpose of these political interviews. Either they are for entertainment or for information. But, what is increasingly evident is that they can't provide both.

That much even emerged from the Marr interview when, at one point he wanted to change the subject to what he called Johnson's "overarching financial problem". When Johnson, kept talking, Marr interjected with the comment: "I'm sorry, you just keeping going on and on and on. You're chuntering. I need to ask you about the money". 

Without even blinking, Johnson responded: "You’re chuntering; you're interrupting, if I may say so", then to add, "People might be interested in my answer as well as your question. But go on".

To an extent, Johnson had a point. People tune in to watch political interviews to learn what the politicians have to say. In the grander scheme of things, the identity of the interviewer is irrelevant.

What matters are the questions and they only matter if they elicit answers which, in turn, provide information. If the end point isn't information then the interview is just entertainment – nothing more. And, for that, I would sooner watch Netflix.

While one might seek to improve on the standard of the interview, or go to another interviewer – the famous Andrew Neil, for instance – one can also take the view that the interview is perhaps the least reliable way of extracting information from politicians.

In terms of defining the genre, what we are looking at is oral evidence and that, in itself, is usually the least reliable form of evidence that we can obtain. If we're really seeking information, then there have to be better ways.

Of course, when it comes to general elections, we all have the party manifestos to which we can refer. However, since most of these are vague and largely aspirational, even forensic analysis can only take us so far.

But what could be fun – and doesn't seem to have been tried – is then to submit written questions on key aspects of the manifestos to the respective parties, and then to ask for written answers.

Nothing, however, can make up for the inadequacies of the questions asked, as we see in the Marr show. Johnson makes several references to his famous catch-phrase, claiming that he will "get Brexit done" – or words to that effect, but Marr doesn't follow through.

It would have been so easy to turn round and set out a structured series of questions, seeking to learn from Johnson, initially how Brexit can be "done" when the withdrawal agreement is but the first stage in what we know to be a long process.

From there, it would be incredibly useful to ask, specifically, what sort of trade agreement Johnson was planning to negotiate with the EU, seeking precise details as to the negotiating objectives and expected outcomes.

The end point of such a line of questioning should be able to establish from the prime minister in office exactly what the UK negotiators might expect to achieve by the end of December 2020. And, fortified with that information, one could then try to establish what the consequences might be (advantages and disadvantages) to business and more generally to the nation.

All we got from Marr yesterday, though, was an ill-judged question on Northern Ireland and Brexit – leaving the main issues hanging. Marr thus asked: "On Brexit will there be tariffs and checks on goods moving from Northern Ireland into Great Britain?"

Predictably, Johnson answered, "Absolutely not. Absolutely not" – a phrasing he seems to rather like – evoking a response from Marr, who said: "That's not what your Brexit secretary says and he's looked at the law, as he said there will have to be checks".

Yet, that is not what Stephen Barclay has said. The point that he actually made, in the Commons on 24 October was that, in effect, checks would apply to "goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland" which are destined for the European Union. There would, he said, "be minimal targeted interventions", the current euphemism for border checks. There would be no checks on goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.

In other words, Marr got it the wrong way round, leading to a fatuous exchange which produced nothing of interest simply because he was asking the wrong question. In fact, if there was a question to ask, it was whether Barclay was being economical with the truth as the revised protocol sets out in detail a series of required "interventions" which are very far from minimal.

Through the inadequacies of Marr, therefore, Johnson easily escaped the hook, without ever getting impaled on it – another example of the notorious incompetence of this man, who is really not up to the job.

And this is something the media itself can't seem to deal with. Predictably, the Guardian was in full flow about the interview, having Jane Martinson complain of Johnson "filibustering his way out of any answers as though he were a poor contestant on Just A Minute".

In Martinson's eyes, "Marr tried his best but even describing Johnson's refusal to stop talking over him or answering the questions as 'chuntering', rather than 'lying", felt wrong".

The Guardian itself is willing to concede that the BBC has been undermined by "its own gaffes", but its theme is that "Tory bullying is corroding public trust in journalism". It just cannot seem to acknowledge the awfulness of Marr and his utter incompetence in framing or asking the right questions.

Elsewhere yesterday, though, there was the "seven-way ITV debate" – more of the same "infotainment" that I didn't even bother watching. There are only two possibilities for prime minister to emerge from this election – either Johnson or Corbyn, and it is the former who looks to be the likely victor.

If there is any chance of hitting the ground running with effective scrutiny, it is essential that we have a very clear idea of what each of these two candidates is preparing to do, should they assume the office of prime minister. At this stage in the proceedings, what the rest think is irrelevant.

So far, weeks into the campaign, with only ten days left to the vote, we are no further forward than when we started. If anyone is looking for the real reasons why public trust in journalism is "corroding", it is quite simply that the media has been unable to deliver the goods.

One expects politicians to wriggle and prevaricate – that's what they do. But if the media has one job, it is to bring to the public the real intentions of those who seek elected public office, then to enable them to be brought to account when (or if) they fail to deliver.

And, for all that, tonight, we have to be braced for "fresh revelations" about Prince Andrew as BBC Panorama prepares to air an interview with "sex slave" Virginia Roberts who claims she slept with the royal as a teenager.

Frankly, the height of a general election campaign is not the time to run this programme. It can wait – we have more pressing matters to deal with, of greater long-term significance. But such is the media incontinence that they will drop everything to chase after this distraction. Again, politicians will escape unscathed.

That leaves us with only one certainty: democracy cannot survive if we have a dysfunctional media. It is a small wonder, therefore, that our politics have collapsed on the pavement and are in desperate need of CPR.

Richard North 02/12/2019 link

Brexit: the debasement of politics

Sunday 1 December 2019  

In a development that probably has Conservative Party strategists cheering, the Sunday Times publishes a YouGov poll which shows the Tory lead shrinking to nine points, as Labour pile on two points to reach 34 percent, as against a static 43 percent for the Tories.

All the other recent polls show Tory leads of varying size, from 15 points (Opinium) to BMG on a mere six points, although there are clear signs that Labour is beginning to narrow the gap, with just 12 days to go before the vote.

Thus, as long as Labour does not gain further ground, this is just enough to dispel any sense of complacency amongst the Tory faithful, making it easier (in theory) to get the vote out on the day.

And, with the BBC caving in to allow Johnson on the Marr show, to talk about the latest terrorist outrage, the prime minister in office will doubtless extract all the political capital he can. He has already indulged in high-flown rhetoric, pledging to "lock terrorists up and throw away the key" and we can expect more of this today and in the days to come.

Broadly, such incidents tend to favour the incumbent and Johnson is well-placed to exploit public concerns, especially when contrasted with Corbyn who has been plagued by accusations that he endorses terrorists.

Nevertheless, even the fanboys in The Sunday Telegraph concede that Johnson has also had his own problems to deal with recently. He has faced hostility in the two television debates last week over his trustworthiness and ability to tell the truth, while additionally has had to field questions regarding Islamophobia in the Conservative Party and comments on race and faith he has made in the past.

Given the identity of the slain terrorist, though, Johnson may find that an Islamophobic tinge may prove to be to his advantage, as voters are able to put two and two together and point fingers in directions that the politicians don't dare to go.

Nevertheless, Brexit is likely to remain the key issue and, if my local constituency of Bradford South is any guide, Labour is vacating the field. Incumbent Judith Cummings (no relation), in her election address, barely mentions the subject.

She does, however, make the remarkable claim that, "Over the past two years I've held the Tory government to account for their Brexit failures, resisted a damaging 'no-deal' Brexit, and argued for a good deal that protects our economy, workers' rights and security". But, of future intentions, there is no word.

This ambiguity on Brexit is almost certainly harming the Labour Party and, according to the Mail on Sunday is reflected in what it describes as a "civil war" breaking out in the party, with pro-Remain MPs being blamed for the loss of Brexit-backing voters.

The MoS has commissioned its own poll, this one from Deltapoll, which gives the Tories a 13-point lead. And the failure of Corbyn to repeat the "surge" of 2017, is said to have "unleashed a battle between the hard-Left and moderate wings of the party" over who should replace him as leader if Labour crashes to defeat on 12 December.

But just how mixed up Labour strategy has become is indicated by a "senior Labour figure" defending a Northern seat. He says that he and his colleagues in the Northern heartlands have "told the party leadership time and time again that this 'Made In Islington', North London pro-Remain policy would cost us dear in the North".

Warming to his theme, he complains that, "we've had what looks like an anti-Brexit strategy cooked up in London where the main enemy is the Liberal Democrats, when here in the North it's the Tories. It's been absolutely pathetic leadership from the top".

One could even entertain hopes that the inept handling of Brexit could turn the tide in seats such as Bradford South where, for the past two elections, Labour has maintained a majority in excess of six thousand.

Drilling down into the figures, though, in 2015, both Conservatives and Ukip polled in excess of nine thousand votes each, the combined total well in excess of the Labour showing of 16,328. If the Ukip votes had gone to the Tories, the seat would have changed hands for the first time since 1924.

Interestingly, in 2017, when the Ukip vote collapsed, dropping to 1,758 - the Tory vote shot up to 15,664 suggesting that many former Ukip voters had gravitated to the Tories. Unfortunately, with an increased turnout, the Labour vote increased as well, keeping the seat out of range of the Tory challenger.

This time round, we have a Brexit candidate and Ukip isn't standing. But both the Brexit Party and the Tories have inexplicably parachuted Sikh candidates into a constituency characterised as a "white enclave" which is predominantly working class. In 2010, it delivered 2,651 votes to the BNP, despite a popular, long-standing Labour MP.

Bradford, in any event, is increasingly a Moslem city, dominated by Kashmiris – where tensions are high after recent Indian action in Kashmir. Even the ethnic population of Bradford South is unlikely to opt for Sikh candidates, with the added handicap that the Conservative candidate is from a wealthy family running a property development business. A more inappropriate candidate for the area it would be hard to imagine.

Incidentally, with the campaign running into its final stages, the only leaflets we've had have been from Labour and, without the media input, you would hardly know that there was an election campaign in progress.

This local experience perhaps indicates quite how out of touch the parties are, and how little effort is going into seats which are not considered primary targets. As voters, we are ignored locally and left to rot with a Labour candidate who can't even address Brexit issues honestly.

This political indifference, replicated elsewhere in more marginal seats, could well produce shock results that go against the grain, with "big beast" Tories such as Dominic Raab supposedly at risk. But given the disdain with which voters are treated in non-target seats, it wouldn't surprise me to see some Labour upsets as well.

Oddly enough, in the Observer today, we see a long article by Aeron Davis, professor of political communication at Goldsmiths, University of London and author of Reckless Opportunists: Elites at the End of the Establishment.

It does worry me when the only sensible comment on UK politics seems to be coming from this source, but it is hard to argue with his theme that "Boris 'Teflon' Johnson's rise shows how our ruling classes are not fit for purpose".

Davis argues that Johnson blustered his way to the top with lies and bravado. But the decline of expertise and knowledge in politics, he avers, stretches much further.

In his view, institutionalised lying, obfuscation and dirty tricks are the new normal, brought to us initially with New Labour, where its spin machine was notorious for its elasticity with the truth – taking us into the Iraq war on the basis of a transparently "dodgy dossier". Lying in politics by no means started with Johnson and is not confined to him.

For the voting public looking on, says Davis, all this means that the political classes in general are no longer seen as credible. Nor are government institutions, business leaders or journalists. British electorates are as volatile and unaligned to parties as they have ever been. Trust in even respectable news content has reached new lows. Social media fabrications, PR spin and lying authority figures – against the backdrop of an industry struggling financially – makes the task of reporting even harder.

Thus, he concludes, in a world where politicians bluster, where experts are proved to be wrong, where lies and deception are commonplace, where neither politicians nor commentators are trusted, why not pick Johnson?

And that rather puts the thing in perspective. In a land of charlatans, you might as well pick your favourite liar and be done with it. If all politicians are liars, lying can no longer be an issue.

But therein is the debasement of politics which has the majority of the voting public cast as impotent spectators, in constituencies where parties can't be bothered to fight for our votes and have no interests outside the marginal battlefields.

I might have said this before, but we deserve better.

Richard North 01/12/2019 link

Brexit: a liar lies

Saturday 30 November 2019  

There is something quite chilling about this video clip where Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is asked by ITV's Paul Brand whether he could "look me in the eye and tell me that you have never lied in your political career".

Without so much as a blush, Johnson looks Brand in the eye and, shaking his head, says: "Absolutely not, absolutely not. I have never tried to deceive the public and I've always tried to be absolutely frank". Pressed again, he continued: "I may have got things wrong, I may have been mistaken, but I've never tried to deceive people about the way I see things".

Predictably, the fanboys over at the Telegraph were silent on this event, which was broadcast on Thursday, but it was picked up by the Independent yesterday, with a story headlined: "Ridicule and disbelief as Boris Johnson insists he's never told a single lie in his whole political career".

Apart from the "lie on the bus" over Brexit, and the thoroughly dishonest claim about getting Brexit done, critics remind us of the decision in 2004 by then Tory leader Michael Howard to sack Johnson from his post as shadow arts minister for lying over an extramarital affair.

Revisiting this event, which was reported on 14 November 2004, almost exactly 15 years ago, there is no equivocation about what came to pass. A spokesman for the party leader is cited as saying that Johnson "was removed for lying about claims of an affair". He was also dismissed as party vice-chairman.

The matter had first come to public attention when the Mail on Sunday and the News of the World had claimed that Johnson – then still editor of The Spectator - had had an affair with the magazine's columnist Petronella Wyatt. The stories had including a claim that Wyatt had become pregnant and that the Johnson had paid for her to have an abortion at the Portland Hospital.

Typically, in responding to the claims, Johnson had resorted to bluster, dismissing them as "an inverted pyramid of piffle". But when more allegations were due to appear in the following Sundays, Howard decided that the replies he had been given by Johnson about the affair "were not entirely candid and honest and therefore there were questions about his integrity".

Michael Ancram, at the time the Tory party's deputy leader, told the BBC: "It wasn't about his private life, it was about something more central than that. Michael Howard for a long time has been talking about the need to restore people's trust in the honesty and integrity of politics. Where Boris was less than frank, that was what could not be sustained. In the end Michael, when he realised Boris had not been frank with him, had to let him go".

But what is doubly interesting about this is that The Spectator's then political editor – none other than Peter Oborne - was interviewed by BBC News, whence he declared: "Boris Johnson is a superb figure, very much part of the Conservative Party's history, really inspirational, one of the few Tory MPs that everybody can relate to". He added: "I am not clear that this was a suitable reason for somebody to leave the front bench. The Tory party must have gone mad tonight".

This is the very same Peter Oborne who recently wrote in the Guardian under the heading, " It’s not just Boris Johnson’s lying. It’s that the media let him get away with it".

And, as we recall, a year later after these most egregious of lies from Johnson, Peter Oborne went on to write a book, The Rise of Political Lying, telling us that, "Britain now lives in a post-truth political environment. Public statements are no longer fact-based, but operational. Realities and political narratives are constructed to serve a purpose, dismantled and the show moves on".

As I record in my recent piece, the only reference to his boss was a fulsome note in the acknowledgements thanking him for allowing him to go on a sabbatical "as well as providing instruction about Greek philosophy".

Now, of course, it is convenient for Oborne to wax indignant about Johnson's many lies but, at this stage, we have to concede that the prime minister in office has excelled himself, adding to his long list of lies the added lie in the form of the denial that he has ever lied in his political career.

In a sense, though, if Johnson is the sociopath that we believe him to be, then technically he isn't lying. To lie, there must be intent to deceive, but this is a man who is unable to tell the difference between truth and falsehood. Even when not telling the truth, as we see in the video clip, he convinces himself that he has " never tried to deceive the public" and that he has "always tried to be absolutely frank".

But, whether serial liar or sociopath, the difference is moot. This is a man who is utterly unfit to hold the office of prime minister. It is an affront to decency that we, the voters, should have been put in the position of being asked to vote for his party, in an election where success would lead again to him becoming prime minister.

Coincidently, this "lie upon lies" comes at a time when Johnson is apparently evading an interview with the BBC's Andrew Neil, seeking instead a soft-focus interview on the Marr show this weekend. It says a lot for the uselessness of Marr as a political interviewer that Johnson should prefer him.

Neil has of late acquired a fearsome reputation as an interviewer, although how he will fare against a pathological liar such as Johnson is yet to be seen. To have a serial liar who can look you in the eye and deny that he is a liar puts him in a different league to the blundering Corbyn who recently performed so badly.

But, aside from the headline issue of Corbyn's refusal to apologise for his party's antisemitism (which in some sense was a cheap shot, because Corbyn could never have conceded the point on the programme), the most effective barb was on technical matters, when Neil demonstrated Corbyn's economic illiteracy in failing to appreciate that issuing bonds was creating government debt.

Bearing in mind that Johnson wants to keep the focus on Brexit, however, one is not so sure that Neil will be able to perform so effectively on a technical level in this domain.

An illustration of Neil's fragile grasp of Brexit (and EU) issues came early last year when Corbyn was reported as complaining that the EU Customs Union was "tariff heavy against quite a lot of very poor countries, and in some cases protectionist against developing countries".

Corbyn was, of course, wrong. The EU's "Everything But Arms" (EBA) programme grants full duty free and quota free access to the EU Single Market for all products (except arms and armaments) to every country listed as a Least Developed Country (LDC) by the UN Committee for Development Policy. Countries do not even need to apply to benefit from EBA. They are added or removed from the relevant list through a delegated regulation.

This could have provided Andrew Neil with a strong rebuttal had he chosen to intervene – which indeed he did. But, instead of tackling this obvious point, he replied, saying:
Mr Corbyn seems to think a Customs Union avoids tariffs between EU members. That's the single market. A Customs Union involves common external tariffs for all EU members vis a vis non-EU members.
This technical illiteracy is typical of journalists and politicians, and Andrew Neil is evidently as much prey to ignorance (and hubris) as the best of them. As a forensic journalist, the man is over-rated. Given Johnson's skills at lying, one might think that he has little to fear from being interviewed by Neil.

The watching public, therefore, are being confronted with the formidable combination of a skilled, serial liar up against journalists who are quite obviously not up to the job of taking him down. Even Paul Brand, who could have eviscerated Johnson, didn't follow through, leaving the liar's lies unchallenged.

We deserve better.

Richard North 30/11/2019 link

Brexit: trading places

Friday 29 November 2019  

Despite continued speculation, it seems to me to be pretty obvious that, in the eleven months that Johnson is allowing for the negotiation of our "future relationship" trade deal with the EU, there isn't going to be enough time to conclude a Canada-style comprehensive trade deal, much less a "super-plus" Canada deal, or whatever the pundits want to call it.

It is also a matter of record that the Tory manifesto does not promise to secure a comprehensive trade deal with the EU, for such is any Canada-style deal. The word "comprehensive", in relation to any trade deal, is noticeably absent from the manifesto. In fact, the word is only used once in the entire document, and that refers to a review of pension schemes for women.

One can also take note of the simple fact that a free trade agreement is a variable quantity. It can be a hundred or so pages long, or it can be several thousands of pages. It all depends on where the parties set their sights.

Putting these simple facts together, we can conclude – as we have already done – that Johnson has no intention of concluding a Canada-style deal with the EU by the end of December 2020. It will not happen because it cannot happen – to achieve such a deal is simply impossible in the time. Therefore, any discussions on the impact of such a deal are irrelevant. We need to be focused on likely scenarios.

Assuming that Johnson intends to honour his manifesto commitment, we already know that he can agree a "bare bones" or de minimis treaty with the EU and get it signed in time for it to take effect when the transition period finishes, at the end of December 2020. Logic tells us that this would certainly amount to a basic agreement on tariffs and quotas, perhaps with some provisions on rules of origin and anything else that can be achieved in the time.

Some pundits argue that the EU would necessarily impose conditions before it would agree to freeing up tariffs, etc., but there is no logic in this assumption. A tariff-free deal would be to the greater advantage of its Member States so there is no reason why the EU should block such a basic treaty or complicate matters by imposing conditions.

As to the rest, one must recall that the EU made considerable preparations for a no-deal exit by the UK – as did the Member States. These and other provisions still stand and can be reactivated to fill in the gaps left by a "bare bones" treaty, in order to keep the wheels of commerce turning.

Since Barnier has already conceded that he is prepared to entertain a deal which encompasses just the "core trading arrangements", it is safe to assume that both the EU and UK are moving in this direction and this is the most likely outcome. That, in turn, renders very unlikely a no-deal scenario for the end of December 2020. Whatever the pundits say, this is not really on the cards.

Nor must it be assumed that an initial "bare bones" treaty will be the end of the matter. We know that the EU very pointedly made it clear that it would not entertain so-called "mini-deals" in the event of the UK leaving without a withdrawal agreement. But Johnson intends to leave the EU at the end of January 2020 with his version of the withdrawal agreement in place – assuming the Tories win the election.

Thus, the original prohibition on negotiating a series of mini-deals no longer stands. Furthermore, there are longstanding precedents applying to the EU and third countries – such as Switzerland and Norway – which allow for such an incremental approach to treaty-building.

Once we have broken away from the EU at the end of the transition period, therefore, we can reasonably expect the EU and UK negotiators to return to the table and conclude a further series of agreements, either as protocols to the basic treaty, or as stand-alone treaties – in a process that could last a decade or more.

Such a scenario I have already rehearsed in a number of posts, but it is worth summarising it here as it is – as I see it – the most logical outcome for our trading arrangements with the EU, and one that we should at least explore. It serves as an antidote to the steady stream of ill-informed commentary polluting this subject.

As to the consequences, we can expect a sharp downturn in the volume (and value) of goods that we export to EU Member States. Not least, we will almost immediately lose an estimated 20 percent of our trade which relies on mutual recognition of standards.

The exact volume, nobody knows, as even the Commission is guessing when it comes the extent of trade which comes under this category. Those goods most affected may be high-value, speciality food products, and things like building materials and components where use is subject to local by-laws or the national equivalent.

Obviously, services will be badly affected – the extent of which will depend on many different factors, which are difficult if not impossible to predict. But it is inevitable that we will take a substantial hit, especially if there is no reciprocal agreement on the movement of workers, rights of establishment and mutual recognition of qualifications. Business should be lobbying to have these issues placed high on the list of negotiating priorities.

In one area, we can possibly afford to be optimistic – stemming from the fact that we are already fully aligned with EU standards. This is in respect of conformity assessment, where UK notified bodies are already operating in accordance with EU law. It should be a relatively simple matter to tack on a mutual recognition agreement on conformity assessment to a basic treaty.

On this, and other matters, it would be exceedingly helpful if one of the first things a new Johnson government did was to publish a White Paper, setting out our negotiating objectives with the EU, and some idea of how we intend to proceed with negotiations.

In some ways, the incremental approach does have its advantages (even if the economic costs may be high). It cuts short the politically sensitive transition period and removes the need to pay ongoing contributions to the EU budget. Crucially, it also takes away the time pressure (and removes the talks from the headlines). Negotiators will be more able to proceed at their own pace, without agreements being forced by artificial deadlines.

Needless to say though, that is not that way our government works – not of any colour. Our political masters seems to be great proponents of "mushroom management", and it is unlikely that we will see any coherent statement of the government position.

That is especially the case with any Johnson government, as it is quite evident that we as a nation are undergoing a substantial policy change in respect of trade, dropping the European preference and moving over to an Atlanticist stance, brought to fruition by a comprehensive UK-US trade agreement.

Such a policy change is not a necessary consequence of Brexit. We could, for instance, have maintained a "Europe first" stance by adopting the Efta/EEA option. But it has been clear for some time – and increasingly so, of late – that the Tory Right is using Brexit as an excuse fundamentally to reorientate our trade policy (and much else besides).

This is far wider, with far more profound consequences than the narrow concern over the effects on the NHS (which are probably overstated), and it is a pity that Labour's paranoia has been allowed to dominate the debate. Such a profound policy change should be widely and openly debated before it becomes accepted as the way to go, and the hole-in-the-corner approach by the Conservatives is intolerable.

That notwithstanding – and in the absence of any open declarations – we must assume that a new Johnson government intends to make up for losses in European trade with increased trade from America and other third countries.

If that is the intention, then this should also be stated openly – with estimates of expected losses and the time taken to recover them from other sources. Business needs this in order to prepare. It is thus wholly unacceptable that we should be having to guess government intentions on such an important matter, and especially during a general election campaign.

Instead, I fear we are going to be subject to the same patronising, low-grade misinformation from our political masters, bolstered by the usual flow of speculative drivel from our legacy media and their favoured "experts".

We deserve better.

Richard North 29/11/2019 link

Brexit: a comfortable victory

Thursday 28 November 2019  

Despite Corbyn's determination to distract attention from it, and Johnson's reluctance to entertain any detail, this remains the Brexit election. That is certainly the way the voting public seems to be seeing it and, according to the latest YouGov poll, is prepared to award Johnson the victor's laurels.

But this is not just any poll. We are looking at the eagerly-awaited results of YouGov's multilevel regression and post-stratification (MRP) model which uses techniques which are credited with correctly predicting the outcome of the 2017 election – making YouGov's poll the only one to do so.

Published in The Times, this latest super-survey, based on more than 100,000 interviews over seven days, predicts that the Conservatives would win 359 seats if the vote was held today.

That is a clear margin of 33 above the 326 seats required to give an overall majority, leaving Labour trailing with a mere 211 seats - the second-worst defeat since the war. Corbyn gets only two more seats than Michael Foot achieved in 1983 after a manifesto that was described as the "longest suicide note in history".

The SNP romps home with 43 seats in Scotland while the Lib-Dems struggle to gain one more seat than they held in the 2017 election, losing all their high-profile defectors who had temporarily boosted numbers to 20, leaving them with an uncomfortable 13 seats. Farage's party fails to make a dent, gaining no seats on three percent of the vote – just one tenth of its European Parliament showing last May.

Interestingly, the Conservative would gain Six Labour marginals that have never voted for them before, and at least nine seats that have been Labour since the Second World War- all on the basis of "leave" sympathies. However, YouGov cautions that the projected majorities are below five percent in at least 30 of the seats which are allocated to the Conservatives. Thus, should their lead fall from the current level of 11 points, the seats projected will drop. A lead of less than seven points could deprive Johnson of a majority. Thus, YouGov aims to produce another of these polls just before the election.

Mercifully, there are only two weeks to go before election day, but it can't come soon enough. Normally, on any working day, I will have as many as 30 separate websites open as I trawl through news and information sites, preparing to write the blogpost for the following day.

Yesterday, by about midday, I had closed down virtually every site, including Twitter, as I could no longer stand the drivel that was being dished up as political commentary.

Quite obviously, Corbyn's attempt to re-open his claim that the Tories are planning to sell off the NHS was a distraction, as he sought to steer attention away from the criticism of the party's record on antisemitism.

But all that the release of the 451-page "dossier" has done is illustrate how serious Johnson's government is on securing a United States deal, and how much work has already been done. The list of US Negotiating Objectives from earlier this year, however, indicates that there is a long way to go.

Reading between the lines, one sees US concerns about what are evident to the knowledgeable eye as long-term incompatibilities between US and EU regulatory disciplines.

If – as appears from the dossier – the UK is intent on securing greater "regulatory compatibility", thereby reducing "burdens associated with unnecessary differences in regulation", then this can only be done at the expense of divergence from EU regulation.

Instead of saturating the news agenda with Corbyn's lame assertions, a more alert media might have taken in some of the detail and made the link with Johnson's refusal to extend the transition period and the nature of his intended deal with the EU.

That would have been particularly appropriate given a letter published earlier in the day in the Telegraph by 14 individuals who had self-identified as "trade professionals", lamenting – as the Telegraph's Peter Foster put it – the "poor quality" of debate in the current election campaign over trade.

Looking at the signatories, though, one might be forgiven for thinking that there were only 14 trade policy "experts" in the entire world, as these names are wearily familiar, routinely providing "comfort quotes" to the entire media establishment. Some of them, in fact, are not experts at all, but merely lobbyists or journalists - and some with only the thinnest veneer of knowledge.

If there is poor quality in the debate - and indeed there is - it is much to do with this self-identified group of "professionals" who have been unable to bring anything interesting or credible to the table. They have tried to make the debate their own exclusive domain and then seem surprised that no one else wants to join in. Almost all of them on Twitter I have blocked, as having nothing to say that is of least interest to me.

An indication of how far from reality they have digressed comes in their own letter, when they call on all political parties to commit themselves to focusing "on content, not timing".

They complain that "engines are being revved to strike FTAs by arbitrary deadlines, with little sense of what we want to achieve", and thus assert that Britain "must carefully define its offensive and defensive interests for each negotiation, and their sequence, if these FTAs are to benefit the economy".

This seems completely to ignore the cross-dynamics affecting the activities of this government (and any future Johnson government), where it is intent on breaking away from a policy of "Europe first" which has prevailed for the best part of half a century in order to pursue a US trade agreement (prioritised in the Conservative manifesto) and then deals with other Anglospheric nations.

If my assessment has any merit, then there is no possibility of Johnson extending the transition period past the "arbitrary deadline", and nor – given the political problems associated with an extension – is he likely to consider asking for more time.

In the second of three "demands" the group, tell us that free trade agreement "involve trade-offs that should be openly discussed", rather naively asking that government and parliament "should conduct transparent consultations with the public, business, devolved administrations and wider civil society to help define negotiating priorities".

Ensuring openness, the group says, "is essential to build public confidence, allay fears and ensure the government delivers deals people want". There is little point, it adds, "negotiating a deal without knowing whether it will gain domestic approval".

Yet, on its way to a comfortable majority, the very last thing a new Johnson government will be concerned with is "domestic approval". It has its own agenda already set out and, from all accounts, knows exactly what it wants to achieve. And in pursuing its agenda, it can rely on the disinterest and lack of intelligent discussion from the media, as it rolls out a fundamental change in our trade policy.

To that extent, the YouGov survey results in The Times are bad news. Johnson with a large majority will be even more insufferable than he already is, and with a compliant party behind him, will – for a time at least – have free rein to do what it will.

The only good thing that might transpire from such a result is that, if Corbyn really does do that badly, he might be forced to resign – perhaps to be replaced by a more capable leader of the opposition who could start to call Johnson to account. Given the quality of the current batch of Labour MPs, though, that might be wishful thinking.

Still, it is early days yet as there are those two weeks to go. And, in my experience at least, many people don't really make up their minds on their vote until the last week – some not until the very last minute. A hung parliament is not an impossibility even if, at this particular moment, it looks unlikely.

Richard North 28/11/2019 link

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