Immigration: something of interest

21/11/2021  


It has been a facet of the flood of illegal immigrants crossing the Channel in dinghies that the media have been behind the curve in reporting events. The running has been made by a few individuals, in the teeth of official opposition, posting photographs of the "invasion" on Twitter and other social media.

But if the media have been slow off the mark, MPs have been even slower publicly to acknowledge the scale of the problem, as I observed of Wednesday PMQs, when "sleaze" seemed to be the major preoccupation.

Despite being only a few days away from a terrorist bomb incident by a failed asylum seeker, in the context of tens of thousands of unvetted potential terrorists reaching our shores in dinghies from France, I wrote, not one MP, nor the leader of the opposition, thought to raise the issue with the prime minister.

Pete, on the other hand, has been raising the asylum issue on multiple occasions recently, with his latest offering as recently as yesterday. And, in so doing, it seems, he is far closer in touch with public sentiment than either the media or the politicians.

A hint of this came in The Times yesterday, which ran a piece headed: "Even Boris Johnson loyalists 'are worrying for him'", covering recent concerns over the prime minister's performance.

What marked out this piece as especially interesting was the observation that one of the biggest concerns in the Conservative parliamentary party was about small boats. While nothing had been raised in public, the prime minister had been repeatedly questioned about the issue at a Downing Street reception for the 2019 MP intake and at the 1922 Committee.

The Times cites a senior Tory MP (anonymous, of course), who tells the paper: "Everyone was saying that illegal immigration was the single biggest issue in their inboxes". Another Tory MP said: "The message at the last election was Get Brexit Done. People will not believe that when thousands of migrants are turning up on beaches in Kent every day".

According to the paper, Johnson reassured MPs that he viewed the issue as "a priority", and appeared to accept that present measures would not be enough. "He asked for our support for other measures, without saying what they were", one MP is cited as saying. "He said that they will be challenging and incur a lot of political flak".

The paper's report adds that Johnson is said to be "exasperated" by the lack of viable measures to deal with the crisis. He has ordered ministers to redouble efforts to find new solutions. Finally, we learn that, at the 1922 Committee, Johnson was greeted with the usual emphatic desk-banging from MPs. But as one of those present put it, "the louder they thump the desk the more trouble the PM is in".

If this is first hint, however, the sentiment becomes explicit in a Sunday Telegraph article headed: "Migrant crisis puts Tories in peril", with the sub-heading reading: "Senior figures warn PM as poll shows 77pc of Conservative voters believe Government approach to Channel crossings is 'too soft'".

As to the text, we are told that Johnson has been warned the migrant crisis could "destroy" the Conservative Party, as a Telegraph poll showed the overwhelming majority of Tory voters believe the Government's approach to Channel crossings is "too soft".

On top of that, a prominent party donor has declared that ministers must do "far more" to tackle the problem, warning that immigration is "going to destroy us and there is going to be a [Nigel] Farage-style party".

This anonymous donor has accused Johnson of mirroring David Cameron's drift to the centre during the Coalition administration, branding the situation "catastrophic". "When you move to the centre, you open up a gap in your right flank and somebody comes in and sets up there. You can't get a majority there", the donor says.

Johnson is also facing wider criticism coming from his own ministers, including those usually seen as loyalists, says the Telegraph, while an ex-frontbencher cautions that migration was hurting the party worse in the polls than the recent sleaze scandal. "If we don't deliver on migration, this is really damaging to us", he says.

This source adds that: "People are genuinely fed up with this. So I think you can be pretty tough. That will mean that we will end up in the courts, but the Government has got to fight this".

Another MP says that "right-wing activists" are already "getting organised" in seats in which they could cause damage to the Conservatives, who adds that the Tory party only clung on in some areas at the last election because the Brexit Party "stood away in all the key seats for the most part".

We then get James Frayne, described as "an influential pollster", who echoes warnings that the Conservatives are "seriously vulnerable" to a new political party emerging from the right, due to "perceived failings on fiscal policy and asylum and immigration".

This will not be Richard Tice's Reform party which is has border control and immigration well down its list of priorities. Rather, we may see the re-emergence of Ukip or even a revival of a BNP clone which is able to capitalise on the ground-swell of concern about uncontrolled immigration.

This can hardly be a distant, academic prospect. Frayne notes that, "For the first time, small boats were brought up in a focus group of working-class voters in Long Eaton a couple of weeks ago". This, he says, "was before recent coverage of record numbers arriving", adding: "I expect this to be a more significant feature of the groups I run this week".

The Telegraph also adds more detail the rendition offered by The Times about last week's 1922 committee meeting. Apparently, some of the MPs who confronted Johnson were "livid". Sources in the room said Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader, was the first to challenge Johnson, saying: "Migration was in our manifesto, it was in our DNA. If we don't do it, they won't forgive us".

It was that intervention, we are informed, which prompted dozens of MPs to bang their hands on the desks and walls of the committee room - the traditional display of support in 1922 meetings . At least three other MPs are said to have expressed similar concerns.

The immediate response to this has been to draft in Steve Barclay, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, to lead a review on prevention measures. He will be responsible for exploring what ministerial departments can do in an effort to make the issue more of a priority in government and the civil service.

This has not gone down too well with MPs, one having said: "It's all very well putting Steve Barclay on it. What's he going to find out? That they need to get on with the bloody thing. The Prime Minister should be backing up his Home Secretary. She's come up with options".

And with that. things do seem to be moving. The possibility of Ghana entering "third country asylum partnerships" with the UK has been raised, and Whitehall has confirmed that Britain is in talks with other countries about offshoring processing.

Immigration is now said to have dominating the agenda in Downing Street more than any other issue bar Covid since Johnson entered No 10. He has told allies he is committed to pursuing all possible solutions.

However. Adam Holloway, a Conservative member of the Commons home affairs committee and MP for Gravesham, in Kent, points to another "key issue" – the courts who "will let people stay, even though most of them are the relatively wealthy people ... most are economic migrants".

This is leading to calls for legislation to "neutralise" the Human Rights Act in order to allow the government to take tougher action. No doubt, we will also be seeing calls to modify the application of the UK Refugee Convention and related measures.

And while the Observer is doing its best to project the "dinghy people" as "fleeing persecution or conflict", that paper is going to find it hard going.

According to the Telegraph, the issue is beleaguering MPs far beyond the east coast of England, where the dinghies are arriving. David Jones, the former Brexit minister, said that even though he represents a seat in north Wales not directly impacted by Channel crossings, it is "the biggest political issue in my correspondence".

With each illegal migrant having paid up to £7,000 a year ago, and between £1,500 and £3,000 currently, enriching criminal gangs to the tune of tens of millions, few are going to be convinced that these institutional queue-jumpers are anything but criminals themselves.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 21/11/2021 link

Energy: no global crisis

12/10/2021  


I once did a count of the number of different stories in the wartime Observer, compared with the modern-day paper. Roughly, there were as many on a page in the wartime editions as there are in the entire paper, these days.

As to the number of issues, in times of crisis, there is definitely a tendency in the contemporary media (newspapers and broadcasters alike) to concentrate on one main event, offering saturation coverage to the exclusion of all else. Ironically, in the early days of Ukip, we were often accused of being a single issue party, but now we tend to get a single issue media or, to be more precise, a media that can only deal with one issue at a time.

Where this translates into coverage of the crise du jour, as we have seen of late, this creates something of a problem for our single-item media when there is more than one crisis on the go at a time. The hard-pressed journos are often forced to choose their favoured topic and neglect the rest.

There is, however, an alternative stratagem, which is to link different crises so that they merge into a single blob of disruption and despair, even if the causes and impacts are very different.

We've seen something of this recently when the panic buying on fuel was linked to the HGV driver shortage, the pig logjam and a number of other problems, to present an all-singing, all-dancing, multi-purpose crisis with which to keep us entertained, furnishing endless opportunities for speculation and pontification.

Now, it seems to be the turn of energy. As the story matures and journos feel the need to inject new life into a stagnating agenda, there seem to be distinct efforts in some quarters to break out of the constraints of national reporting and to turn this into a global crisis.

A half-hearted and somewhat incoherent attempt at this is being made by the "reliable and trustworthy" US broadcaster CNN, handicapped by the insistence of American writers to describe liquid fuel as "gas", even where the subject matter also covers the real thing.

Despite attempts to stitch together a global dimension, though, in the eyes on CNN, the crisis is a one-dimensional matter of demand increasing as the world economy reopens after Covid, with supply failing to keep up.

Largely, therefore – apart from some local difficulties – the crisis is seen as a price shock, entirely focused on the costs of competing fossil fuel – coal, oil and natural gas - with no mention of the role of renewables (or even nuclear), the impact of the "green" agenda, or geopolitical aspects, such as the interplay between Putin's Russia and the European Union, or China and Australia.

And, although lip service is paid to the global impact, the article is in fact, determinedly US-centric, especially when it explores the interchangeability between oil and natural gas. "Oil has long been there as a potential substitute for natural gas", the broadcaster says, "except until recently, it didn't make any financial sense".

This is because, for much of the past dozen years, natural gas prices have been very low, making switching to oil uneconomical. But, in Europe, "where natural gas prices have gone from below $2 per million BTU last year to as much as $55 this fall", power plants and factories may increasingly turn to a relatively cheaper fuel source for electricity: crude oil.

Thus, we get the Bank of America warning that a cold winter could boost oil demand by half a million barrels per day, lifting Brent crude to $100 a barrel. That in turn "would cause more sticker shock for American drivers because gas prices are priced off Brent crude". Noting the potential confusion between gas and natural gas, this means that a change from gas to oil could mean an increase in the price of petrol.

Only a marginally better job at exploring the energy crisis in its broader geographical dimensions is done by iNews, although this paper's scope falls short of embracing the entire globe.

Instead, it links just four countries as the headline declares: "Germany, China and India join UK in facing energy crisis over gas, oil and coal shortages and soaring prices". "This winter", the narrative runs, "millions of homes around the world will be faced with little to no power as energy such as coal, gas and oil are in alarmingly low supply".

"The continuing crisis in the UK", we are told, "has left some energy companies going bust and homes and businesses struggling to pay soaring costs and bills". China is rationing electricity in some areas – a measure already seen in India, where the situation could become worse as the country's power plants are close to running out of coal.

These disparate events are thus labelled "the power crunch", which is said to be threatening supply chains and "raising questions about whether the move to renewable energy should happen sooner", whence we are treated to a collection of disparate national accounts which, in the UK, lumps in "the petrol crisis, with drivers queueing for hours at the pumps".

Here, I am not sure the narrative works at all, as there are two very different problems at play. The first – the focus of the CNN report – is the price shock, and the second, at the moment confined to China and India, are supply problems. Europe, including the UK, is not suffering shortfalls as yet, and we in the UK are assured that the lights will stay on this winter – if we can afford them – unless France has other ideas.

If electricity shortages are a measure or crisis, though, in addition of China and India, we can look to places such as South Africa where what is euphemistically called "load shedding" is now so common that it doesn't even feature on the international news agenda, even though users are braced for five years of disruption.

Then there is Brazil, where the energy crisis is so acute that the country is facing a widespread shortage of electricity by the end of 2021. As for Venezuela, blackouts have become a normal feature of life, while Cuba is no stranger to periods of enforced darkness. And closer to home, Lebanon has just suffered a national power outage.

Interestingly, the Financial Times doesn't seem to be looking at the "power crunch" in China and India in doom-laden terms relating to global energy supplies. Rather, it sees the local coal shortages in economic terms, warning that there are "casting a pall over Asia's economic prospects and raising the risk that inflationary pressures may ripple through the region".

Thus, despite attempts at linkage, it seems there are no particularly good grounds for turning the "energy crisis" into a global affair. Each problem area arises through a combination of its own specific circumstances, with very little in common with other areas.

For instance, the causes of China's power shortage include: its boycott of Australian coal imports; local governments restricting coal-fired power generation in order to comply with Beijing’s emission targets; slackening of coal-fired generation as the country transitions to renewable energy; and price caps on electricity which mean that demand is unaffected by increasing costs of coal and other inputs.

India, on the other hand, has been experiencing a sharp uptick in power demand as the economy recovers from the Covid-19, which has coincided with a lower than normal stock accumulation by thermal power plants in the April-June period.

This has been exacerbated by continuous rainfall in coal bearing areas in August and September which led to lower production and fewer despatches of coal from coal mines. Then, there has been a consistent move to reduce imports which, coupled with high international prices of coal, has reduced the supply of coal.

None of these issues bear any similarities with the travails being experienced by the UK, or in Europe. This, while the climate zealots would love there to be a global energy crisis to take with them to COP26, it doesn't seem to exist. What we really have is a series of disparate regional crises, with very little in common between them.

The mess we're in, therefore, is our own mess. It is for our own politicians to solve it.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 12/10/2021 link

Brexit: damp squib on regulation

17/09/2021  


The mockery has already started, following the government's commitment to review the EU's ban on markings and sales in imperial units and its promise to legislate in due course.

This is one element of the plans "to capitalise on new Brexit freedoms" announced yesterday by the ennobled David Frost, part of a process to make our rules and regulations "best serve the UK national interest".

But those who choose to mock at the return of pounds and ounces to Britain's high streets will be missing the point. Compulsory metrication was one of those landmark issues which illustrated how EU powers were reaching into the lives of ordinary people.

The resentment was given a focus on 4 July 2000, when council officials supported by two policemen converged on a fruit and vegetable stall in a Sunderland market, owned by Steve Thoburn, to seize his scales.

This draconian step had been precipitated by an ordinary action of Thoburn, selling his wares by the "pound", as his customers preferred, rather than in the kilograms that since 1 January had become compulsory. But what was once an natural, legal action had now become an offence for which Thoburn faced criminal prosecution.

This was the first time the EU's new metrication law had been put to the test, the culmination of the process of compulsory metrication that had been imposed on Britain without Parliament ever being consulted. With Thoburn having, in effect, been selected as a test case, his case hit the national headlines, and through the efforts of his fellow marketeer-turned publicist, Neil Herron, the legend of the "metric martyrs" was born. It attracted massive nationwide and international publicity for the anti-EU cause.

When a case taken by Sunderland Council against Thoburn reached the High Court, its decision in 2002 reaffirmed the supremacy of EU law. Metrication thus became a cause célèbre in the growing Eurosceptic community.

The affair took on a more sombre turn in 2004 when Thoburn died prematurely at the age of 39 from a heart condition. His funeral and the subsequent wake at the Stadium of Light, home of Sunderland Football Club, was attended by many devoted followers.

Thus the "metric martyrs" acquired cult status. Their efforts did much to shift political sentiment in the north-east of England against the EU and were almost certainly responsible for the 61 percent leave vote in the 2016 EU referendum, against the 39 percent who voted to remain.

That the result was unexpected is indicative of how little the impact of the metric campaign had registered with outsiders – including a Ukip MEP, who had no more idea than the chatterati what was going on.

In that sense, it represented a microcosm of the entire anti-EU movement, which had been gathering strength under the horizon, decades before Cameron finally committed to a referendum. And the fact that so few of the above-the-liners realised what was happening is the story of the campaign.

It is some of those some people who are currently indulging in their mockery, demonstrating that they still haven't come to terms with Brexit, or understood the forces that were unleased by the growing encroachment of Brussels on our daily lives. Many are beyond reach, and will go to their graves without understanding.

It is entirely predictable, therefore, that the likes of the Daily Mail should have focused on what, in effect, is payback time. Those of a certain age will be able to embrace the return of imperial measurements – a gesture of defiance and a tangible sign that we have left the EU.

In another iconic move, the government is to repeal the EU-derived prohibition on printing the Crown Stamp on pint glasses. It will allow publicans and restaurants voluntarily to "embrace this important symbol on their glassware, should they choose to do so".

This remedies another irritation, imposed by the Measurement Instruments Directive (2004/22/EC) which came into force in 2006, requiring glasses to bear the "CE" mark and prohibiting "supplementary metrology marking".

In so doing, it broke a tradition reaching back to the reign of King William III in 1699, and to the reign of William IV with the compulsory introduction of verification marks in 1835. The Directive thus stood as a testament to the lie that the EU would not have any effect on the British culture. On the accumulation of such small traditions does the culture of a nation in part rest.

That said, as a serious attempt to reduce the burden on EU regulation, yesterday's announcement is pretty thin stuff overall, built as it is on Iain Duncan Smith's Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR). This was launched in February of this year with the objective of scoping out and proposing options "for how the UK can take advantage of our newfound regulatory freedoms".

The Guardian tried to make a fist of it, headlining: "Rules on GM farming and cars to be top of UK bonfire of EU laws", adding by way of a sub-head: "Minister reveals plans to change laws inherited from EU, with rules on medical devices also in crosshairs".

The reference to "cars" is an odd one, with Frost's letter stating that the government will shortly "set out ambitious plans which include modernising outdated EU vehicle standards to unlock the expansion of new transport technologies as outlined in TIGRR".

One hesitates here to suggest that the ennobled David Frost really doesn't know what he's talking about – if only because the repetition is so tedious. But he should know by now that the "EU vehicle standards" are actually produced by UNECE's World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (WP.29).

Far from being outdated, the regulatory process is dynamic, with amendments and new standards constantly being framed. Currently, the working party is focusing on electric vehicles, producing global standards, conformity with which will be vital for export sales.

Furthermore, the ennobled David Frost may have forgotten, but the UK is committed to working with WP.29 standards, by virtue of the TCA (Annex TBT-1).

As to rules on genetically modified farming, it is fair to say that progress (if it can be called that) in the EU has stalled, but if the UK wants to join the US in developing and using this technology, it will thereby ensure that much of its agricultural production is excluded from the Single Market.

For much of the so-called plan, though, much of the text is so vague that little can be deduced from it. Some issues, such as procurement and port regulation, look promising, but there will be "double coffin-lid" constraints here and elsewhere, which may shape the final proposals. That much certainly goes for the ideas on financial services and investment reform.

On balance, therefore, much of what we see is not so much a bonfire of regulation as a damp squib, to be taken with a pinch of salt. But, at least that pinch can be measured as a fraction of an ounce rather than a gram. What more can one ask?

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 17/09/2021 link

Media: swapping the agenda

17/07/2021  


I can't express any surprise at the goings-on in GB News. After all, Pete and I predicted as much back in June, when Pete conveyed my observation that Andrew Neil is a nasty piece of work with a reputation as a bully.

When he was executive editor of Press Holdings, I recall an editor of one of the titles nearly reduced to tears by the constant hectoring of Neil and his behaviour in the workspace could explain why the BBC was pleased to see him go. Given his general demeanour, I predicted that he would find it increasingly difficult to get staff and colleagues to work with him, and warned to expect some rows and high-profile resignations.

All this has come to pass, with Neil's extraordinary decision to abandon his flagship 8pm show after two weeks on air and take an extended "holiday" in the south of France. The Guardian notes that, despite posting dozens of tweets, Neil has not mentioned GB News in almost two weeks or shared any of its material. This has led to strong speculation about his current relationship with the channel.

One can nevertheless have a small amount of sympathy with the attempt to provide an alternative to BBC news – and Sky News, for that matter, which can scarce be distinguished from its main competitor, in its dire, trivial treatment of important events.

Following on from yesterday's piece I was thinking to myself about what it was that made the BBC's news programmes so awful. I concluded that the BBC was a parasite, feeding off the four "D"s to which I later added another to come up with: disease; disaster; disorganisation; division; and despair. It is never so happy as when it can share misery.

Perhaps it is unsurprising therefore how few people actually watch the output, recent average daily viewing figures standing at 95,000 and 59,000 for BBC News and Sky News respectively, despite generous budgets, huge resources and global brand recognition.

But then audience figures for GB News attracted no measurable audience to their show between 1pm and 1.30pm on Wednesday afternoon, featuring Telegraph hack Liam Halligan and former Labour MP Gloria De Piero. The audience again briefly dipped to zero at 5pm, during a late-afternoon programme co-hosted by ex-BBC presenter Simon McCoy and former Ukip spokesperson Alex Phillips.

One direct comfort we can take from this is that, even though a different medium, the viewing figures for Turbulent Times were substantially higher, despite being established on a shoestring. Clearly, money doesn't always talk – especially when it has so little to say.

The situation, though, is not as uncommon as one might think. Although newspapers parade the online viewing figures (occasionally), they are very reticent about divulging page traffic. But at times, even some of the "big name" political writers only attract "hits" in the hundreds.

What is sustaining the legacy media at the moment is the first of the BBC's five "D"s – disease. The onset of Covid-19 has provided a welcome boost to online traffic for most titles, even if print sales have suffered as people have been less inclined to venture out just to buy a paper.

Even then, the issue has dragged on for so long that tedium has set in and even once avid readers of the ongoing soap opera have been struggling to maintain an interest. Although I personally look in on the figures each day, I'd almost ceased taking any interest in the progress of the disease, until very recently.

Now, we have the prime minister holding himself, and the nation, hostage to fortune, with the promise to relax Covid controls "irreversibly" on 19 July, the story has taken on an additional political dimension. No fewer than 1,200 scientists across the world have banded together to declare Johnson's "unlocking" an "unethical experiment" which could allow vaccine-resistant variants to develop.

This comes as the daily case rate in the UK yesterday topped 50,000 and hospital referrals nearly reached 4,000. The new crisis has one of England's largest hospitals - Birmingham's Queen Elizabeth Hospital - cancelling all elective surgery for 48 hours because it has ran out of critical care beds.

Predicably, the Guardian is waxing indignant, asserting that Johnson's Covid experts are "on tap, not on top". The paper goes on to say that scientists cannot shield the prime minister from the fallout of an unethical policy that will see rising deaths.

England, we are told, will be the first country in the world to end all constraints in the face of "exponentially" rising Covid-19 cases. This, according to some experts is an unethical strategy of "herd immunity by mass infection", a view with which the Guardian finds it hard to disagree.

The reference to "on tap but not on top" harps back to the days of Winston Churchill who held that this should be the role of scientists. And while the paper acknowledges that elected leaders not scientists carry the final responsibility for judgements, if this experiment goes wrong, the prime minister, and his advisers, will not be able to claim that the government followed the science and did everything it could to limit coronavirus deaths.

There again, we are seeing the same laments from "scientists" over global warming, reinforced by the recent flooding in Europe, which the BBC's Roger Harrabin enthusiastically attributed to climate change – despite more severe flooding in the past.

But then this another one of the "D"s – this one disaster – which has even the Telegraph giving licence to 81-year-old Liege resident, Pierre Fouillen, to say: "It's certainly associated with climate change, but it feels a little bit too late to be fighting against it. We should have started taking action more than ten years ago".

Meanwhile, an unusually strong cold weather outbreak is spreading from Antarctica into central South America, bringing early winter temperature records and first snowfall after decades, after temperatures plunged in parts of East Antarctica to -81.7C, only two degrees short of the absolute record low.

So severe is the cold weather that we have the New Zealand Herald complaining of snow and polar cold temperatures, while huge waves have been striking the North Island coast.

No doubt, plenty of "scientists" would be willing to assert that this was all part of the global warming phenomenon, except that none of the legacy media in the UK have bothered to report this occurrence. North America's "killer heat" gets plenty of comment from Roger Harrabin, but when it's unusually cold, he is silent.

That, strangely, seems to be the exception to the rule. While the media generally rejoice in division, climate change is subject to the rule of consensus: "everybody agrees", so there is no room for dissenting views. Whatever one might think of this issue, therefore, it is abundantly clear that the BBC (alongside the rest of the media, although probably more so) has its own agenda. It seems a long, long time ago when this organisation stuck to the original Reith principles of educating, informing and entertaining.

For "education" now read propaganda and the task of informing the public stretches only to that which serves the agenda. Sadly, though, moving to GB News simply means swapping the agenda. The lack of information remains the same.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 17/07/2021 link

Brexit: they still don't get it

27/06/2021  


If the term had actually existed then, I would have been called a Eurosceptic back in 1975, when we had the first referendum. I don't remember when the term came into widespread use, but it was certainly prevalent in the early 90s, when we experienced the double hit of the Single Market launch and the Maastricht Treaty.

Of one thing I am certain, though. While heavily involved in Eurosceptic politics, I cannot ever remember discussing leaving the EU as a means of returning to some glorious past. In fact, as a child growing up in the 50s and 60s, and looking at the wondrous changes that have occurred in my lifetime, the very last thing I would ever want to do is retreat into some cosy vision of the past.

There were some amongst our number, however, who did have a hankering after past glories, nurturing a rose-tinted vision of our heritage. And some held very weird ideas of what the European Union was about. The two views often went together.

In fact, one of the reasons Booker and I write The Great Deception was to demolish the myth that the EU had been created by the Nazis, and that the Community was simply a different way of securing German domination of Europe – a Fourth Reich by peaceful means, so to speak.

There were those who believed this, and Boris Johnson in his time at the Spectator had sympathy with this view. But it was never part of mainstream Eurosceptic thinking and attempts to seize the leadership of Ukip by a caucus holding that view were beaten off around the turn of the Century, whence it became an unfashionable backwater.

It there was a political construct almost totally dominated by nostalgia, though, it was the European Union. Its intellectual genesis lay in the mid-1920s, and the believe that European Unity, built round control of the sinews of war, was essential to end the perennial cycle of what was later termed "civil war" between France and Germany.

Even to this day, if you ask Europeanists why they favour the European Union, they will tell you that "keeping the peace in Europe" is the main attribute. It is the one to which they refer most often.

In my view, this is one of the reasons why the Remainers could not mount a credible defence of their obsession during the 2016 referendum campaign. In the 21st Century, maintaining a political structure in Europe, dating back to the 1920s, in order to prevent Germany from invading France (or vice versa), seemed a little dated – if not a tad irrelevant – even to the most fervent supporters of the "project".

Oddly enough, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, a far more modern structure was considered as the basis for the economic integration of Europe, in the form of the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).

This was an early candidate for administering the Marshal Plan finding. But was rejected by the Europhile British civil servic who saw complications in using the Commission, as Stalin's Soviet Union had a vote. It was feared (quite rightly) that this would block progress just at the time when the Cold War was emerging to dominate continental politics.

From there, much of the impetus in Germany, and certainly Adenauer – for developing the European Coal and Steel Community and then the EEC – came from a burning ambition for military re-armament (including the acquisition of nuclear weapons). Closer ties with France, in the form of Monnet's treaty structure, it was felt, would serve to reassure nervous Europeans who feared the resurgence of a powerful, independent Germany.

It is no exaggeration, therefore, to assert that the European Union is a slave of its history, a backwards-looking construct which, even to this day, is dominated by the events of the 1914-18 War, over a century ago.

And yet, for all that, this week's Observer, in the week that marks the fifth anniversary of the 2016 referendum, publishes an article by Nick Cohen headed: "Our politics of nostalgia is a sure sign of present-day decay".

This is based on the premise that, in Britain, "Both the left and right are obsessed by a lost golden age", with Cohen further asserting that, "A confident Britain would look to the future".

Building on his theme, Cohen tells us that "the belief that the past was better than the present, and the only way forward is back, can be found in the corners of any society at any time".

That much is true enough, and I acknowledge that there was a corner of Ukip that harboured that belief. "But", writes Cohen, "when nostalgia grows to dominate Britain and much of the west it is as sure a symptom of decay as the stink of dry rot".

One notes here that Cohen tucks in the phrase, "and much of the west" – which would seem to include the EU. But he does not develop this. Rather, he asserts: "Every step of Britain’s decline has been accompanied by the sound of sighs for a lost country".

Conveniently, he then confines himself to the past few weeks, citing Johnson and his new royal yacht "to display the UK’s burgeoning status as a great, independent maritime trading nation", a "£200m attempt to feign 19th-century splendour that covers up the impoverishing consequences of Brexit on the UK’s real trade".

Cohen then has ministers "promoting a well-meant but equally deceitful patriotic song that declared: "We are Britain/ And we have one dream/ To unite all people/ In one great team".

This, produced a Bradford ex-copper was so toe-curlingly naff that it had any self-resecting Englishman (and woman) cringing in embarrassment, but it's sufficient grist to Cohen's mill for him to assert that, "The yearning for a united country would be less pitiable if the same ministers had not partitioned the United Kingdom by putting a trade border down the Irish Sea and were not now driving Scots into the arms of separatists, who are no slouches when it comes to myth-making themselves".

Yet, on the basis of such slender evidence, Cohen feels entitled to claim that: "The Brexit movement was, above all else, a nostalgic movement". You should have guessed it would end badly, he then asserts, "when it failed to decide what imaginary past it wished to return to and still shows no sign of settling the matter today".

"Sometimes", he writes, "it's the 1850s", when Britain was a 'great, independent maritime trading nation'. Sometimes, it is the 1950s, when we were united in “one great team” before the permissive society ruined everything. Sometimes, it is the summer of 1940, when Britain stood alone against a dangerous continental foe".

Interestingly, as regards the "summer of 1940, Pete is on Twitter complaining that the display schedule for the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) for this year does not include a single appearance north of Lincoln.

That provokes from me the comment that the so-called "Battle of Britain" was largely a London and South-East show. Outside that area, I write, it barely registered. In terms of regional effect, the Night Blitz was far more significant. The BBMF is largely part of the SE nostalgia industry, which has grown up since the war.

The very concept of the Battle of Britain, exclusively as combat between Fighter Command and the Luftwaffe is largely a post-war invention – as opposed to the Battle for Britain, which was more commonly referred to in contemporary newspapers and, indeed, by Churchill himself. It is important to realise that when Churchill originally spoke of "the few" in his seminal 1940 speech, he was actually referring to Bomber Command.

And here I am, the lifelong Eurosceptic, having written a book debunking the Battle of Britain myth, yet Cohen will enlist the same myth as "proof" that "the Brexit movement was, above all else, a nostalgic movement".

As is so common amongst his kind, Cohen also commits the grave error of turning Brexit into a binary issue between "Remainers" and "Leavers". To the latter, without any attempt at exploring the nuances, he would attribute a nostalgic yearning for Britain as a "great, independent maritime trading nation", ignoring the many and varied views that stretch far beyond the limited vision of Johnson and his claque.

Should Cohen have decided to attack Johnson's limited and ineffectual vision of Brexit, he would have had us cheering from the sidelines. But his actual arguments, which attempt to tarnish us all with his version of Brexit, are trite, shallow and wide of the mark.

I suppose it is never going to be the case that Guardian or Observer columnists are ever going to "get" Brexit, any more than they even begin to understand the genesis of the European Union. But then, I guess that's why the likes of Cohen write for these papers, where his brand of ignorance has a ready market. But, informed comment it ain't.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 27/06/2021 link

Politics: writing on the (blue) wall?

19/06/2021  


In 2019, 30,850 people voted for the now deceased Cheryl Gillan, then Tory candidate for the safe seat Chesham and Amersham, where she had been the incumbent MP since 1992. Exactly 14,627 people were recorded as voting for Lib-Dem challenger Dan Gallagher, placing him a poor second. Labour came third with 7,166 votes.

For the record, 55,978 people voted, representing a relatively high turnout of 76.8 percent. With Gillan taking 55.4 percent of the vote, that means she was returned to Westminster by a mere 42.5 percent of the electorate – a minority but not as bad as some seats.

Now, for the by-election just reported, businessman Peter Fleet moved into the Tory slot, defending Gillan's 16,223 majority against Lib-Dem challenger Sarah Green, a fluent Welsh-speaker parachuted in from Wales. As an aspirant MP, her great claim to fame was to contest Arfon at the 2010 general election, finishing fourth behind Plaid Cymru, Labour and the Conservatives.

As Lib-Dem chairman Mark Pack somewhat sardonically remarked yesterday, Green's chances were not rated particularly highly in some quarters. The all-knowing Spectator, for instance, decided that the Lib-Dems would lose, "most likely fairly badly".

Earlier in the week, "waspish writer" Nick Tyrone had written for the magazine under the title, "The Lib-Dems are utterly lost", thanking God that the by-election had almost arrived.

"Hopefully", he opined, "then we can stop hearing any rubbish about how the Lib-Dems are set to tear down the Conservatives' 'blue wall' in the home counties". "As the campaign has demonstrated", he informed his devoted reader, "the Lib-Dems are miles away from being able to cause such an upset".

That must certainly have seemed the case after a surprise visit from The Great Leader on 7 June. As he walked up and down Chesham High Street handing out election material to shop owners and residents, people were shouting, "you're doing a great job, prime minister".

However, the day before the poll things looked a little different. Media sources such as the Evening Standard were reporting Lib-Dem claims that the election was "neck and neck", with party representatives insisting that it could "go down to the wire".

On the day, as we now know, 21,517 people voted for Sarah Green and only 13,489 opted for Peter Fleet, giving the Lib-Dem candidate an unexpected majority of 8,028. From the look of it, not even the Lib-Dems anticipated such a handsome win.

The one party which was not surprised at its own showing, it seems, was Labour. Shortly after Johnson's expedition to Chesham High Street, Starmer's spokesman praised the party's "fantastic candidate", but conceded, "it's obviously a very difficult contest for the Labour party".

Asked who the candidate was, there was an awkward pause: "…I will get you that name and send you details after", the spokesman said. On Thursday, this unknown candidate polled 622 votes, down from 7,166 in 2019.

That is worse showing than the National Front in 1979, and on a par with Ukip's first outing in 1997, when the insurgent polled 618 votes (as against the Referendum Party, which took 2,528 votes).

Looking at the current figures, we see that the Lib-Dems gained the seat on a swing of just over 30 percent. The Tories, on the other hand, experience a negative swing of 19.9 percent and Labour (which came fourth after the Greens), swung -11.2 percent.

On the basis of these swings, it is tempting to combine the negatives, coming to just over -30, and compare with the Lib-Dem swing which, conveniently, comes in at just over plus 30. From this, one might assume that the commination of disaffected Tory and Labour voters gave Sarah Green her victory.

However, there is another way of looking at things. In the 2019 general election, the turnout was 76.8 percent. This time round, it was 52.1 percent – relatively high for a by-election. But this means that, while in 2019, about 17,000 people stayed at home, on Thursday, that number swelled to 35,000 – an extra 18,000 abstainers.

A tenable scenario, therefore, is that nearly 7,000 labour voters stayed at home, as did around 11,000 Tory voters. With Peter Fleet losing about 17,000 votes, that left about 6,000 transferring to the Lib-Dems with the small balance coming from the reduction in the number voting for the Greens.

Is this sounds all a little too pat, it might be recalled that the reverse effect was seen at Hartlepool in May. There, the Lib-Dem vote collapsed, Labour stayed at home and, on a heavily reduced turnout, the Tories won the seat.

Transposing this to Chesham and Amersham, we again have Labour voters staying at home, with many Tories doing likewise. And, as the Tories decline, the Lib-Dems prosper, their party being the natural repository for disaffected Tory voters. They will not vote Labour, but they are prepared to vote Lib-Dem as a protest vote in by-elections.

In this scenario, the by-election is bad news for both the main parties. It would confirm Labour's stay-at-home trend, but also point to a potential Lib-Dem resurgence which could heavily erode Tory majorities at the next general election. But, whether that would make any difference is anyone's guess. It could be that Tory losses to the Lib-Dems are balanced by the Labour abstainers, maintaining the status quo.

The ambitions of Lib-Dem leader, to breach the Tory "blue wall" (pictured) may, therefore, may be unrealised, although the forthcoming Batley and Spen may give further clues as to which way the electoral wind is blowing.

This seat was a Tory target in the 2019 general, and they had hopes of winning it. Incumbent Tracy Brabin, after winning following the murder of Jo Cox, had re-taken the seat in the 2017 election with a comfortable 29,844 votes against the Conservative's 20,833. But she did not repeat that performance in 2019, her vote dropping to 22,594 while the Tories held on to 19,069 votes.

Now, there is a real chance that the seat could fall to the Tories, except that the situation is even more complex than usual. Jo Cox's sister, Kim Leadbetter standing for Labour, is apparently chasing after the Kashmiri Moslem vote, making pitches on both Kashmir and Palestine.

However, Batley is not inner-city Bradford. The Kashmiri population is sizeable, at about 20 percent, but it is not a majority. And in 2019, there was the intervention of a newly formed independent party, with the unlikely name of the Heavy Woollen District Independents.

Led by Aleksandar Lukic, who was the chairman for UKIP's Dewsbury, Batley and Spen branch until 2017, it fronted Paul Halloran who took 6,432 votes, eroding the votes of both parties but possibly saving Brabin from electoral annihilation – aided, perhaps, by the Brexit Party which polled 1,678 votes.

Some of that vote, this time, could go to a plethora of minority parties and independents, while there is another factor at play, in the form of George Galloway. He won the strongly Moslem Bradford West by-election in 2012, appealing to the Kashmiri population, and could repeat the same trick.

Equally, it is possible that he could split the Labour vote, as the Labour-voting Kashmiris have been none too happy with Starmer. It all depends on which way the imams jump. It is here, therefore, that the Lib-Dems could be decisive. While the Tories could slip between the cracks, resurgent Lib-Dems could siphon off enough votes to rob them of their victory.

The perverse thing is that this seat will not be entirely fought on local issues, but heavily influenced by the politics of the Middle East and Pakistan. That may muddy the waters for the Lib-Dems, who are said to have scored heavily on local issues in Chesham and Amersham.

But, if the Lib-Dems are back in the game, even (or especially) in Batley and Spen, we should see some signs of it. Then, it is just possible that the writing is on the wall for Johnson, regardless of its colour.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 19/06/2021 link

Politics: the Brexit effect

11/05/2021  


One of the fascinating UK political events of WWII (with the war still not over) was the way a supposedly grateful nation ditched its wartime leader in the 1945 general election and voted for Labour.

This gave the party a landslide victory under Clement Attlee, with an unassailable majority of 393 seats over Winston Churchill's Conservatives, who struggled in with 197 seats in a 640-seat House. Almost unnoticed, the Liberal Party and the breakaway Liberal National Party returned 23 seats (12 and 11 respectively).

But equally fascinating – and perhaps of considerable (if unrecognised) significance to contemporary politics – were the general elections of 1950 and 51. In the first of the pair, Attlee regained power, but with a very much reduced majority of 315 seats over the Conservative's 298, in a reduced 625-seat House.

Although Attlee had a working majority, in October 1951 he called a snap election in the hope of strengthening his grip on power. However, However, despite winning the popular vote and achieving both the highest-ever total vote of the time, and highest percentage vote share, Labour won fewer seats than the Tories.

The defeat paved the way for the return of Churchill, with his Conservatives taking 321 seats as opposed to Labour's 295, marking the start of 13 years of Labour opposition.

But to understand properly the reason for the 1951 defeat, one must look not only at the two main protagonists but at the Liberals. Firstly, as an electoral force, the National Liberals had all but disappeared in the 1950 election and it is safe to say that a substantial number of votes gravitated to the Tories (in 1968 the party was to merge with the Conservative Party).

Secondly, in the 1950 election, the Liberal Party proper regained some of its seats, taking nine in all, with a total national vote of 2,621,487. But, come the 1951 election, with the National Liberals still out of it, the Liberals proper had run out of money.

Compared with the 1950 election when they had contested 475 seats, this time the Liberals were able to field only 109 candidates. As a result, their national vote collapsed to a mere 730,546 votes. Many of the "lost" votes were Hoovered up by the Tories, in two-way constituency fights with Labour.

With 13,948,883 votes against the Conservative's 13,717,850, Labour "won" the 1951 election. But, due to the vagaries of the first past the post system, the Tories were able to defeat their Labour opposition in detail at constituency level. Effectively, the election was won for the Tories by the Liberals.

What this election did, therefore, was illustrate a relationship between the Liberal (now Lib-Dem) and the Tory electoral fortunes – a relationship which seems to have endured to this day, and which is still seems to be exerting a considerable influence.

This dynamic is actually more than adequately illustrated in the Hartlepool constituency. If we go back to 1974 was it was established, we see that it was a two-way fight between Labour and the Tories, the former on 26,988 and the latter on 22,700 votes.

In the year 1974, of course, there were two general elections and, in the second contest, the Liberals intervened, gaining 6,314 votes – quite evidently at the expense of the Tories, whose vote dropped to 16,546. Labour, on a reduced turnout, held roughly steady at 24,440.

Through the period from 1974 up to 2004, we see this dynamic at play: as the Lib-Dems (as they were to become) gained votes, the Tory share dropped. This culminated in the 2004 by-election (precipitated by Mandelson's departure) when, on a substantially reduced turnout, the Lib-Dems came second with 10,719 votes.

But what we saw then was the intervention of Ukip, which polls 3,193 votes, pushing the Tories into third place with a mere 3,044. Here (at the time) it was conventional wisdom to assert that Ukip had dragged down the Tory vote but, with Labour polling a then historic low of 12,752 votes, the more nuanced perspective is that (in general terms) the Lib-Dems were dragging down the Tories and Ukip was damaging Labour.

In the general election year of 2005 – the high-water mark for the Lib-Dems – they again came second, with 10,773 votes, holding the Tories down to 4,058. But Ukip lost votes, weighing in at 1,256 votes, coming fourth, while – on an only slightly increased turnout – Labour partially recovered its strength to 18,251.

This perhaps introduced a third element – turnout. Over the period – and again generally – the Labour vote seems harder hit by reduced turnout. We could suggest that Labour supporters are more likely to stay at home than to switch votes.

By now, we've come into the period covered by the graph from UK in a Changing Europe (illustrated), whence we the impact of the 2010 general election: the Lib-Dems go down and the Tories go up. Ukip goes up and Labour goes down.

As between 1945, 1950 and 1951, the Lib-Dem/Tory dynamic is also reflected between 2005 and 2015. In 2005, Conservatives take 198 seats (with 8,784,915 votes) and the Lib-Dems capture 62 seats with 5,955,454 votes. In 2010, Cameron's Tories pick up 306 seats (beating Labour but short of a majority, with 10,703,754 votes). The Lib-Dems take 57 seats with 6,836,825 votes.

Come 2015, we then see a dramatic change, mirroring the 1951 scenario. Cameron gains 330 seats with 11,299,609 votes, while the Lib-Dems plummet to a mere eight seats, on a national vote of 2,415,916.

Ukip in this election win 3,881,099 votes, and the Ukip-effect is evident in many constituencies, but the collapse of the Lib-Dem vote gives Cameron the buffer he needs to win the election – and deliver the 2016 EU referendum. Arguably, the party which most facilitated that referendum was the Lib-Dems, while tha=e party which did the most to prevent it was Ukip.

Going back to the graph covering Hartlepool, we continue to see visualised the relationship between the Tory and Lib-Dem votes. As the yellow line dips, the dark blue sides – although, to complicate matters, there also could be a Ukip influence. However, as Ukip dips in 2017, the Labour vote rises.

Dramatically, when the Brexit Party then emerges in 2019, higher than the previous Ukip levels, the Labour vote dives. At this point, the Lib-Dems are undergoing a mild resurgence in Hartlepool and, true to form, the Tory vote dips slightly. 

 Then, in the final act of the drama – last week's by-election, we see only modest rise in the Tory vote, partially matched by a decline in the Lib-Dem showing. The big difference – and the unique change – is that although the Brexit Party vote collapses, so does the Labour vote. 

On past performance, as the anti-EU vote dipped, the Labour vote should have recovered but, this time round, the stay-at-home vote soared. As near as one can be certain, in this by-election, it was this stay-at-home vote which was decisive – a dramatic confirmation that the Conservatives didn't win it. Labour lost it. 

 Interestingly, in the Guardian , we see Angela Rayner acknowledge that "former Brexit party voters were decisive in many of Labour’s losses". No more was this than in Hartlepool. Looking at the bigger picture though, some pundits are talking of a "progressive alliance" to defeat Johnson. 

But when history suggests that the Tories fortunes are closely linked to those of the Lib-Dems, a resurgent – but entirely independent - Lib-Dem party could be an electoral asset to Labour. But, hazarding a guess as to why the Brexit Party vote didn't "return" to Labour, it is reasonable to assume that leavers simply do not trust Labour. 

Clearly, Labour leavers (some of them) are not prepared to support Johnson, which says that they are recoverable by Labour if it ever gets its act together on Brexit. Sorting out its post-Brexit policy may turn out to be impossible for Labour as it is at present constituted, but if it drifts further towards "rejoin", that more than anything might doom it to oblivion. 

 Much the same might be said of the Lib-Dems. If their targets are Tory voters (as the past record might suggest), then they too have to get their act together on Brexit – something they show no sign of doing. 

Ironically, therefore, it would seem that Brexit – the very issue which tore the Tory Party apart, now seems set to keep it in power for a decade.

Also published on Turbulent Times.


Richard North 11/05/2021 link

Politics: swings and roundabouts

08/05/2021  


One of the metrics used to chart election changes is the "swing", between one party and another, first used in the form of a "swingometer" by the BBC in Bristol during the 1955 general election and then generally in every election since, including the current rounds.

This measure works best in a two party contest, and relies on the assumption that the collective vote share of those two parties is roughly constant between successive elections. Then, the proportion of the votes from one party moving to another – representing the "swing" – to produce a winner, gives a rough indication of the shifts in voting sentiment which have brought about the change.

This "yo-yo" portrayal, though, is an extremely crude measure and barely works, if at all, in a three-corner contest (and especially where there is tactical voting), where there are significant variations in turnout, or where there are asymmetric changes in voter behaviour – such as the decision of the supporters of one party to boycott their candidate, and refrain from voting.

In a complex electoral scenario, one might experience elements of all three phenomena, in which case the "swing" calculation becomes valueless, either for predicting the outcome of an election, or for explaining results, especially in respect on one particular seat (or groups of seats).

Nevertheless, when the result of the Hartlepool by-election was announced yesterday, most of the pundits – including the BBC – trotted out the usual mantra, noting that Labour had suffered a 16 percent "swing" to the Tories which had brought about the Conservative victory.

Yet, all the application of this simplistic metric does is obscure rather than enlighten, almost completely misrepresenting the situation as it has developed in Hartlepool over the years.

To get an inkling of what has been going on, one must go back to the very start, to the 1974 general election when Hartlepool was a new seat. Then, the contest was strictly a two-horse race, where Labour's Edward Leadbitter polled 26,988 votes, against Conservative challenger Nicholas Freeman, who took 22,700 votes, with the turnout standing at 79.8 percent.

If we now fast-forward to the 2017 general election, the first in the post-referendum period – where Mrs May made the dubious tactical decision to go to the country – we see a new Labour candidate, Mike Hill, taking 21,969 votes to win the seat against the Conservative challenger, who gets 14,319 votes, beating the Ukip candidate (who polls 4,801 votes) into second place. By comparison with 1974, the turnout was substantially down, at 59.2 percent.

The 2019 general, however, is a bit of an oddity, where there is some concern about the progress of Brexit and the newly-formed Brexit Party fronts Richard Tice as its candidate in Hartlepool.

Tice makes a strong showing, with 10,603 votes, but the Conservative Stefan Houghton stays ahead of him with 11,869 votes. But the winner is Labour's Mike Hill, whose vote drops to 15,464 on a turnout which has dropped to 57.9 percent.

That brings us to the current by-election, where one very obvious change is the poor showing of Reform UK, the successor to the Brexit Party. From 10,603 votes, we see a spectacular collapse to a mere 368 votes.

Received wisdom is that the Ukip and then Brexit Party votes in the past have come mainly from the Tories. However, Farage has long argued that, in the northern seats, he was taking votes from Labour, especially in the stronger "leave" seats such as Hartlepool.

With the collapse of the Reform UK vote, therefore, one might have expected some of the votes to have "returned" to Labour. But, in 2021, this is not the case. Mike Hill, the previous incumbent, has resigned over allegations of "sexual harassment and victimisation", and is due to face an employment tribunal.

Hill's successor, Canterbury-born Paul Williams is parachuted in from nearby Stockton where he worked as a GP partner. And, although he campaigns vigorously, his reward is to suffer the lowest Labour vote in the history of the constituency, at a mere 8,589. If the Reform UK votes have been recast, then they certainly did not go "back" to Labour.

Now here's the interesting thing. If these votes didn't go to Labour, only a fraction of them can have gone to the Tory challenger, Jill Mortimer, who only polled a mere 15,529 votes to win the seat, up only just over a thousand votes on Stefan Houghton's showing in 2017 – representing only 68 percent of the vote polled by the Tories in 1974.

Thus, the real culprit here is the turnout. From 1974, when 49,688 voters passed through the polling stations, representing 76.9 percent of the electorate, this had dropped to 41,835 voters in 2017, giving a turnout of 59.2 percent (and not very much different in 2019, when the turnout was 57.9 percent). But, in the by-election just past, turnout plummeted to 29,933, calling in at 42.7 percent. Between 2017 and 2021, nearly 12 thousand voters stayed at home.

Given that the Tory vote largely held up, even if it was significantly down on historic levels, it is reasonable to postulate that most of the stay-at-home voters were former Labour supporters.

Looking at the results from this perspective, it is fair to say that the Tories have barely moved from their 2017 voting figure, and polled only 68 percent of their 1974 vote. Thus, one can conclude that the seat went to the Tories because the Labour vote had collapsed to an historic low, with the Labour candidate unable to attract Brexit Party (formerly Ukip voters) back into the fold.

In essence, the Tory showing is actually quite mediocre, on which basis, rather than suggest that there had been a swing to the Tories, it would be more appropriate to point to that collapse of the Labour vote: the Tories didn't win the seat in any real sense. Labour lost it.

This cannot be said to be any great endorsement for the Tories and, in many respects it paints a picture of party politics in decline. In round figures, just four out of ten bothered to cast a vote and, of those, only two voted for Johnson's party – a mere 22 percent of the electorate.

Yet, for all that, this result is being painted as a great victory for the Conservatives. In her analysis, the incomparably stupid Laura Kuenssberg gushes that the "rickety folding tables" [in the counting centre] "looked like they could hardly cope with the weight of votes for the Tory candidate, and now elected MP, Jill Mortimer, in Hartlepool". With only just over 15K votes to record, one wonders how the clerks would have coped in 1974.

But, in Kuenssberg's foetid, London-centric world, she sees the lacklustre Troy performance as "more evidence for the Conservatives that they are digging further and further into territory where once they were total outsiders". In her terms, "They didn't just win here, they romped home".

Despite the over-cooking, though, nothing can disguise the fact that this is a bad result for Labour. Already, the wibbling from the Left is in full flow, with talk of Hartlepool voting "by a landslide for a Conservative".

Thus, the indications are that Labour has no more idea why they lost the seat than the Tories have for winning it, and are completely unaware of the electoral dynamics which shaped the result.

More to the point, Labour is far from coming to terms with some basic truths, which means that there will be plenty more "Hartlepools" on the horizon.

With Labour in such disarray, Johnson doesn't have to win any seats as long as Starmer is so obligingly losing them. On the other hand, if Starmer reads the runes correctly (a very big if), his task is not as daunting as would appear. All he has to do is stop losing.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 08/05/2021 link

Politics: this broken system

07/05/2021  


In a particularly cynical piece of electoral manipulation, voters in West Yorkshire were confronted yesterday with a lengthy ballot slip for a politician who will be styled as the "mayor" of West Yorkshire.

This, by any other name is the reintroduction of John Prescott's failed regional government programme, which hit the rocks in 2004 when the voters of the putative North-East region heavily defeated a proposal to create a regional assembly by 78 to 22 percent.

In anticipation of a victory, further referendums for the North West England and Yorkshire and the Humber had been planned but, after such a heavy defeat in what was expected to be the strongest area, those referendums were never held.

Then, on 3 May 2012 Conservative-Lib-Dem coalition government held separate referendums in the Bradford, Leeds and Wakefield districts of West Yorkshire asking whether they should be led by directly elected mayors.

This was part of a broader initiative which covered the 12 largest English cities and, in response, the electorates of the three West Yorkshire districts voted, respectively, 55.1, 63.3 and 62.2 percent against the proposition.

One might have thought, as a result, that the whole idea of messing with local government in the region might have been abandoned, but Cameron's coalition was not minded to take a mere "no" from the electorates for an answer.

In the same year, a West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) was proposed and then negotiated between the coalition government, Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership and the five West Yorkshire local government districts of Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds and Wakefield.

Effectively, this would involve creating a brand new authority, taking over from West Yorkshire County Council which had been set up in 1974 after the passage of the Local Government Act 1972, and abolished in 1986 in favour of the unitary authority system.

Side-stepping the inconvenience of a referendum, which – on past form – might have blocked the five councils' ambitions, public participation was restricted to a carefully-managed "consultation" process. This allowed the five districts to collude with the government in setting up their combined authority, which was established on 1 April 2014 after statutory approval on 31 March.

At the heart of the new enterprise was a £1.8 billion "bribe", supposedly transferred from central control to the new authority, to cover investment on such matters as transport, skills, housing and regeneration.

But, spread over 30 years and between five metropolitan districts with a combined population of 2.3 million, that amounted to about £26 per head of population per year, or a mere £12 million a year for each district.

The overall annual sum is less than the what is need to deal with the epidemic of potholes in the region, and – doubtless to compensate for the headline largess - West Yorkshire's road maintenance funding – perilously inadequate at best - has been slashed by 22 percent for 2021/22, a reduction of £10.2 million, from £46.7 to £36.5 million.

The district councillors have been cheaply bought, by an annual sum less than twice the size of the annual road maintenance budget – which is in any event subject to the willingness of future chancellors over the next three decades to honour the funding agreement.

Thus, yesterday, voters in West Yorkshire were confronted by the still unfamiliar supplementary voting system for a politician that they hadn't asked for, leading an authority which they also hadn't asked for, in circumstances where, had they had been formally consulted by way of a referendum, they would probably have said "no".

Ironically, although this travesty of a system has been set up by the democracy-loving Tories, it is Starmer's Labour party which is set to be the immediate beneficiary – and a potential loser.

The Labour candidate is Tracy Brabin, currently MP for Batley and Spen – first elected in 2016 after the murder of Jo Cox. Selected in December as Labour's candidate for West Yorkshire "mayor", she is standing for a position which also takes on the duties of the police and crime commissioner.

But, according to the Electoral Commission, no standing MP is allowed to fulfil PCC duties, which will require Brabin to step down as MP – which she has pledged to do if she wins the election.

The downside for Labour is that Brabin's seat of Batley and Spen was a Tory target in the 2019 general, which they had hopes of winning. And while Brabin had re-taken the seat in the 2017 general with a stonking vote of 29,844 against the Conservative's 20,833, she did not repeat that performance in 2019, her vote dropping to 22,594.

However, it should be noted that the Conservative vote also dropped, to 19,069 – the two lead parties affected by the intervention of a newly formed independent party, with the unlikely name of the Heavy Woollen District Independents.

Led by Aleksandar Lukic, who was the chairman for UKIP's Dewsbury, Batley and Spen branch until 2017, it fronted Paul Halloran who managed the feat of eroding to votes of both parties and possibly saving Brabin from electoral annihilation – aided, perhaps, by the Brexit Party which polled 1,678 votes.

This puts the constituency – and any potential by-election – in the same complex league as Hartlepool, which had its 2019 vote heavily influenced by the Brexit Party, again possibly rescuing the seat for the Labour candidate.

The story is picked up by the Financial Times, which has Barry Sheerman, MP for nearby Huddersfield, saying: "A lot of people took a long time to wake up to the fact that the West Yorkshire mayor will have police powers, meaning Tracy will have to resign quite promptly".

However, he dismisses fears of losing a by-election, saying: "We are aware of that and it will be a challenging by-election, as by-elections always are", then adding: "I think the party is aware of that, but I think as long as we get the right candidate it is winnable".

The FT has one well-placed Labour party figure saying that the party was lining up Lisa Johnson, director of external relations at the GMB trade union, and Fazila Aswat, the office manager who was with Cox when she was murdered, as likely candidates for the seat.

On the other hand, Conservative campaigners think that if Halloran's votes can be taken by the Tories, along with some from the Brexit party, they might have a chance of winning.

What could make the difference, though, is that the constituency also has a higher than national average ethnic minority population (mostly Muslims of Pakistani descent), who historically favour Labour. Thus, while senior Labour figures are aware of the potential for a loss in Batley and Spen, they hope it will be more defendable than Hartlepool.

One senior Conservative MP also cautioned that Batley and Spen is "a different world" from Hartlepool and would by no means be an easy win for the party. But then, this is assuming that Brabin wins the contest for the West Yorkshire "mayor".

This, we will not know until Sunday, when it is fair to say that the result will be eagerly anticipated only by the career politicians and their hangers-on, in a sterile contest that has absolutely nothing to do with public aspirations.

There will be a frisson of excitement when the Hartlepool result is known but, and the Scottish and London Mayor results may attract some interest but, by and large, politics will then continue without any serious engagement with the people.

Locally, much will depend on how well the parties game the system, with one analyst remarking that there was a tiny Brexit party vote in Batley and Spen so the result would depend on the Labour to Conservative defections. "Labour's best policy is to play for time given the vaccine 'sugar high' for the government in polls probably falls off come the autumn", he says.

Whatever else happens, in this broken system, democracy doesn't get much of a look in.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 07/05/2021 link

Brexit: adults in the room

06/05/2021  


Virtually all the legacy newspapers have carried the publication of Michel Barnier's book on the Brexit negotiations, covering the period between the 2016 referendum and the end of January this year. It is out today in French and available in English in October.

Entitled La Grande Illusion (Journal secret du Brexit), it gets different treatment according to which paper is reviewing it. But, for those inclined, there is a 57-page extract on the publisher's website in the original French.

As to the papers, we start with The Times, which headlines, "Boris Johnson didn't know his own Brexit policy, claims Michel Barnier", adding the subtitle: "A new book by the EU negotiator reflects on the PM's 'baroque personality' and trouble with details".

The diaries, we are told, focus on how Conservative infighting shaped Brexit, especially with the emergence of Johnson as party leader and prime minister. As charmed as he is repulsed by Johnson's "baroque personality", Barnier does not hide his astonishment and, sometimes, anger at British negotiating tactics, particularly after Theresa May left No 10.

Thus, The Times's report leapfrogs almost to the end of the negotiations, focusing on the Brussels dinner on 9 December last year, as talks hung in the balance. Johnson is said to have stunned Barnier and Ursula von der Leyen, by appearing not to know his own negotiating position.

Amid deep disagreements on fishing and EU demands for a "level playing field" in regulation, the prime minister allegedly suggested a minimal deal on areas of existing agreement combined with a new pact on defence and security to take the sting out of a no-deal Brexit.

"We could even, in the event of disagreement, show a willingness to co-operate with a treaty on foreign policy and defence", he told the Brussels pair, to "general astonishment on our side", writes Barnier, because he had "brutally" rejected such a deal in the past.

Barnier said that he replied: "But Boris, it was you who refused to open a chapter on defence, co-operation and foreign policy in the negotiations". Johnson had replied: "What do you mean, me? Who gave this instruction?", while looking at his officials.

The Telegraph, predictably, takes a different slant, bringing in more players in its headline, which reads: "'Bulldozer' Boris and 'messianic' Raab: Michel Barnier's withering verdict on Britain’s Brexit team". The sub-head tells of Barnier hitting out at "childish" UK ploys.

That is expanded upon in the text, where Johnson's negotiators are "blasted" as "childish" and "not up to the task", with Barnier regarding his European team the only "adults in the room". He paints a picture of petulant British negotiators under Johnson, who he said had not fully grasped the implications of Brexit and was full of bluster and bluff.

At one point in the talks, when he says the British had wrongly claimed that the EU had ruled out a Canada-style trade relationship, Barnier writes: "We looked at each other with incredulity. It was almost childish".

This paper also has Barnier voicing disdain for his British opposite numbers, dismissing Dominic Raab as a man with a "Messianic light in his eye" who "lacks nuance". David Davis kept a low profile and "avoided blows".

Jacob Rees-Mogg is described as "one of the most ideological Eurosceptic Conservative MPs and decidedly the most opportunistic, who cultivates a style that is more 19th century than close to the people". Olly Robbins, on the other hand, wins plaudits as "taking the measure better than others of the consequences of Brexit and seeking to limit the damage".

Jeremy Corbyn gets short shrift as an "old school Leftist" who failed to grasp the technicalities of the negotiations and bore a "heavy responsibility" for sitting on fence. But Mr Corbyn's successor, Sir Keir Starmer, receives the Barnier stamp of approval "as I get the feeling I am dealing with a future prime minister of the UK".

As for Johnson, Mr Barnier lets rip as he writes about his resignation as Foreign Secretary. "In truth, Boris Johnson committed so many errors and verbal 'outbursts' that his nomination as head of the Foreign Office seemed incongruous in numerous capitals. And I can imagine that this was also the sentiment of many British diplomats".

The Independent, in one of the longer pieces, has as its headline, "Barnier hits back at ‘childish’ and ‘pathetic’ Brexit strategies of Boris Johnson", with the sub-head: "Memoirs of negotiation show how Brussels lost trust in Downing Street team".

Again we get the jibe of the EU negotiators having to act as the "adults in the room", the context being "repeated provocations" from Johnson which at times became "pathetic" and "almost childish". Barnier then accuses Johnson and his inner circle of "political piracy" and states baldly as negotiations reach their endgame: "I simply no longer trust them".

At one point, after Mr Johnson threatened to tear up the laboriously negotiated agreement on the Irish border, Mr Barnier wrote that it appeared the UK was pursuing the “madman strategy” of pretending to be ready for a no-deal Brexit in order to force Brussels into concessions. The Downing Street team were "not up to the challenge of Brexit", and Johnson himself appeared badly briefed in talks with European Commission presidents.

Right up to the last minute, a day before signing the TCA on Christmas Eve, the Johnson team were seeking advantage, presenting the EU with a legal text which was "peppered with traps, false compromises and backwards steps".

The Independent also picks up Barnier's reference to May's Lancaster House speech on 17 January 2017, from which Barnier expressed himself "stupefied" as she ruled out most forms of future cooperation with the remaining 27-nation bloc.

In the Guardian, this is given more thorough treatment, where Barnier "marvels at, "The number of doors she shut, one after the other", recording that he was "astonished at the way she has revealed her cards … before we have even started negotiating".

He pondered whether the consequences of the decisions had been "thought through, measured or discussed. "Does she realise this rules out almost all forms of cooperation we have with our partners?", he asked.

Furthermore, May's proposed timetable – undoing a 44-year partnership via article 50 and agreeing a future relationship, all within two years – also seemed "ambitious to say the least, when it took seven years of intense work to negotiate a simple FTA with Canada".

The Guardian headline tells us: "Tory quarrels determined UK’s post-Brexit future, says Barnier", with the text emphasising that Britain's post-Brexit future was determined by "the quarrels, low blows, multiple betrayals and thwarted ambitions of a certain number of Tory MPs".

The UK's early problem, Barnier is cited as writing, was that they began by "talking to themselves. And they underestimate the legal complexity of this divorce, and many of its consequences".

As to Johnson. Barnier writes that, "Although his posturing and banter leave him open to it", it would be dangerous to underestimate him. In the talks, he was "advancing like a bulldozer, manifestly trying to muscle his way forwards,, although seemingly hobbled by the same fundamental British Brexit problem.

When one of Barnier's 60-member team explained to Johnson the need for customs and quality checks on the Irish border, Barnier writes, it was "my impression that he became aware, in that discussion, of a series of technical and legal issues that had not been so clearly explained to him by his own team".

As late as May 2020, Barnier records his surprise at the UK's continued demands for "a simple Canada-type trade deal" while still retaining single market advantages "in innumerable sectors". There remains "real incomprehension, in Britain, of the objective, sometimes mechanical consequences of its choices", he writes.

The Financial Times then follows up with a headline declaring "Boris Johnson's 'madman' strategy dumbfounded Brussels' Brexit chief", as the sub-head has Barnier describing "how EU lost trust in UK's unpredictable and unprepared prime minister".

There is, of course, much more – even in these reviews – which I've read with some trepidation, with my own (very much shorter) rendition on the negotiations already type-set in the revised copy of The Great Deception.

To my relief, I don't seem to have left anything out of significance, but I will have to wait until October to be sure. But I am heartened by Barnier coming up with a similar view on May's Lancaster House speech and much more.

I'm also amused by Barnier's views of Brexiters in general and of Nigel Farage and his Ukip followers in particular. He writes that they had simply behaved "irresponsibly, with regard to the national interests of their own country". How else, Barnier asks, "could they call on people to make such a serious choice without explaining or detailing to them its consequences?"

Of the arch-Brexiters, Digby Jones, John Mills and John Longworth, he writes: "Their discourse is, quite simply, morally scandalous".

We are fortunate to get Barnier's views on these negotiations and, even if they don't add greatly to the sum of our knowledge, the at least confirm what we knew (or suspected) anyway. Even then, the shades of ignorance displayed by our politicians and our negotiators is an indictment of the way the Brexit process was handled.

When the final accounts are in, I would be fairly confident that history won't be kind to the British effort.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 06/05/2021 link

Elections: broken politics

02/05/2021  


Once again, the magnet of the Johnson psychodrama is exerting its influence on the English media, with the papers deeply engaged in the issue as the Sunday Times runs a lengthy article headed: "Can Boris Johnson afford to be prime minister?"

The short answer is: "he can't", despite a £157,372 annual salary, topped up by royalty cheques from his previous writings, and paying less Council tax on his Downing Street flat (£1,655 a year) than I do up in Bradford.

His relative penury, though, is largely due to the man's feckless approach to managing his own finances, on top of meeting the financial burden brought about by his sexual incontinence, plus the price he has to pay for sating the desires of his current paramour, now dubbed "Carrie Antoinette" – who is said to have "champagne tastes and a lemonade budget".

Much of the detail is the realms of the court gossip so beloved by the London-centric media, which need not trouble us here. But it does raise the question of how a man who can't even organise his own personal finances can claim to be competent enough to run the government.

But tucked into the detail is an account of the handling of the infamous "cash for curtains" payments which, if true, will set him on a collision course with Kathryn Stone, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, and expose him to the risk of being suspended from the House of Commons.

On a parallel front, the Electoral Commission isn't messing about with its inquiry. Reportedly, Tory party staff have been given one week to hand over all information they have about Johnson's flat renovation – and have been warned that they could face criminal charges if they do not comply.

This came to them via an email sent from Alan Mabbutt, a senior official and registered legal officer, who said that materials must be handed over by 7 May. "You are put on notice that this is a criminal investigation", the email said, advising that staff who "knowingly falsify, conceal, destroy or otherwise dispose of information … could be committing a criminal offence of perverting the course of justice".

We are so inured to the machinations of the shambolic wreck at the centre of this affair that it takes a moment or two for the implications of this to sink in. Here is a matter where the prime minister glibly says "nothing to see here", where his own party's staff are being threatened with criminal prosecution if they don't spill the beans.

There can be little doubt, though, that this sort of compulsion is necessary. When the question was put to Conservative Party co-chairman, Amanda Milling, asking if she could guarantee that party money had not been spent on the flat, she adopted the same evasion strategy that we have seen from Johnson.

"Donations are absolutely focused on campaigning on the ground in seats like this in Hartlepool, but also the elections across the country", she said. "And from my point of view, I'm really enjoying getting out on the doorstep and talking to residents". In Milling's view, voters care who fills the potholes, who empties the bins, who keeps the streets safer - not Boris Johnson's flat.

This is the line assiduously taken by the Telegraph, which spent most of Saturday pushing out a series of articles giving aid and comfort to "their boy".

Pride of place was taken by an article written by Camilla Tominey, styled as an "associate editor", telling us that "Cummings isn't a genius" and that he was "a disaster in No 10". This, writes the breathless Camilla, indicates that suggestions that Johnson's paramour was the only person criticising Cummings ignores "his track record of woeful arrogance".

This is a significant turnaround from the article published in February 2020. This had Lord Blencathra, who as David Maclean was a Home Office minister in John Major's government, telling ministers to "shut up about Cummings".

"Not a single one of those whingeing about him would be ministers without him", he added. "We would not be out of the EU without him masterminding the Leave campaign, and we would not have won the General Election without his Get Brexit Done plan. He is a genius, and our majority is largely due to him".

When needs must, however, Cummings is to be thrown to the wolves to protect Johnson, while Janet Daley storms: "Labour has made a mistake: You don't accuse a PM of trivialities when he's trying to save lives". The opposition, Daley opined, "should learn that if they want to derail a government, don’t do it on technical grounds which few ordinary voters care about".

For a while also, the paper was relying on a YouGov poll which found that, despite widespread awareness and interest in the Johnson "scandal" stories, voting intention remained static. Last week, the company had estimated that voting intention for the Conservatives at 44 percent, with Labour on 34 percent. This week, it recorded 44 and 33 percent, respectively.

It's hard to look at the numbers and conclude anything but an apparently confusing and contradictory state of affairs, the company says. The public very much know what's going on, and know that a series of scandals currently surround the prime minister, but it has changed very few minds on the man himself or his party.

Timed at mid-afternoon on 30 April, this poll has since been trumped by a later effort from Opinium, triumphantly announced by the Observer.

Labour, it says, has slashed the Tories' poll lead in half "as more voters conclude that Boris Johnson is corrupt and dishonest ahead of this week's bumper set of local and devolved elections". In detail, the Conservative lead has fallen from 11 points to five, with Labour up four points compared with a week ago, on 37 percent, while the Tories had fallen two points to 42 percent.

Johnson's approval ratings have fallen back into negative territory (to -6 from +1 a week ago) while Starmer's have improved from +1 to +8. Some 42 percent of those surveyed viewed Johnson as "corrupt", up from 37 percent a week ago, while less than third (30 percent) regarded him as "clean". Only 15 percent of voters viewed Starmer as corrupt and 44 percent saw him as "clean".

As to the performance of the parties in this week's local election, YouGov has another poll which purports to shows that the Conservatives are set to benefit from collapse in UKIP support, and are projected to gain 90 extra councillors.

This is interesting, not least because pollsters and politicians have been reluctant to acknowledge the "UKIP effect", a term which I coined in 2005, and charted in the 2010 general election, when I calculated that it had cost Cameron a clear victory.

Now that UKIP is out of the picture, we at last see YouGov acknowledging the effect, as well it might. In the 2019 general election, the seat of Hartlepool – now the focus of a by-election on 6 May – went to incumbent Mike Hill, with 15,464 votes, representing 37 percent of the votes cast.

However, while the Conservatives came second, with 11,869 votes, Richard Tice of the Brexit Party came a close third, with 10,603 votes. Combined, the votes came to over 22,000, easily exceeding those cast for the winner – the embodiment of the "UKIP effect".

If one assumes that, in the absence of a viable replacement candidate for a UKIP-type party (this time, there is the Reform Party to deal with), the "insurgent" votes go to the Conservatives, then they are assured a clear victory in this by-election.

However, in these northern seats, Farage often maintained that he was pulling in Labour votes, in which case the votes could (mostly) return to the incumbent, giving the victory to Labour.

There is some support for this in a Sunday Times poll which predicts that Johnson's grip on the "red wall" appears to be loosening, with Labour narrowly ahead in the 43 red wall seats the Tories won in the December 2019 general election.

Tentatively, one might predict that this Thursday is not going to deliver Hartlepool to the Tories, nor cause any great electoral upsets – most likely on a much-reduced turnout as voters walk away from our broken politics, especially as Starmer (pictured) seems to have caught the hi-viz/hard hat dressing-up habit.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 02/05/2021 link

Politics: a silent revolution

19/08/2020  


It's got so bad that, instead of watching the news the other night, I ended up watching a re-run of Das Boot while eating my evening meal. There are only so many times you can watch wailing teens, complaining about the grades they got for exams they didn't actually take, even if some (but not all of them) may be justified in lamenting the injustices done to them.

Left without alteration, the debacle would have excluded a number of young aspirants from university who deserved to be there, but the corrective mechanism has ensured that a number of those who would not have qualified, will get places they don't deserve – and may then have difficulty completing their courses. In effect, one debacle has been traded for another.

But that seems to be the story of this government. Its dreams of world-beating performance have narrowed down to one category: incompetence. In this, and this alone, it seems to be without parallel, going from failure to failure with an elan which defies explanation. Any other body might be ashamed of itself and show some remorse, but not the Johnson administration. It seems proud of its failures.

It seems pointless even enumerating its failures: challenges merely elicit floods of Soviet-style tractor production statistics, or meaningless, brain-rotting blather.

For instance, when the idiot Hancock was asked what qualified serial failure Dido Harding for her new job as head of the as yet unfinished National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP), he proved the point with his non-answer: "I have no doubt that under Baroness Harding, we will found the NIHP as a thriving mission-driven organisation".

Such contempt do these people have for the ordinary conventions of decency and honesty that they can't even be bothered to fabricate plausible excuses. Any old soundbite will do. They know they can get away with rubbish, so they do. Certainly, the broadcast media will never challenge them and they can ignore the newspapers – as does everybody else.

As for parliament, it has driven itself into irrelevance. I was asked yesterday whether it was still sitting, or whether MPs are on holiday. Of course they are on holiday, but I had to think a moment before answering, and I couldn't tell you when they went into recess. I doubt I will notice when they come back.

We have, therefore – from the perspective of a student of such things – an interesting development. We have truly arrived at (then) Quintin Hogg's "elective dictatorship", and have ceased in all respects to be a functioning democracy. And, when the alternative to this government is equally dire – if not more so – we cannot even look to the next general election for any relief.

Doubtless, this is what shapes the attitude of the current administration. Ministers know that the next election is not until May 2024 – thre-and-a-half years away and a lifetime in political terms, when a week is a long time. And they have the core support of their Brexiteer fanbase, for whom they can do no wrong.

Some pundits, though, are suggesting that the exam grades debacle may prove to be this government's ERM or poll tax. But memories are short and voters are fickle. What dominates the headlines now may be long-forgotten by 2024, while Labour will probably be as dire then as it is now. This is a party which has lost its rationale and no longer has a reason to exist.

Unless or until we see a major realignment of politics, therefore, we are unlikely to see a credible alternative to the Tories. It is a pity that the monstrous Farage drove Ukip into the ground. Perhaps there could have been the makings of a new opposition party there. But he has destroyed any hopes of that happening, and the Lib-Dems no longer fulfil the function of a protest party.

But then, there is always the dictum of "events, dear boy, events". For any government in power, the auguries would not look good. With this government, bestowed with its unique brand of all-embracing incompetence, virtually any event could drive it off course – as we have just seen.

Given that the Covid-19 epidemic is not over, and there are a number of scenarios where it could get considerably worse, there is every reason to expect that vesting the management of the government response in the hands of a serial failure can bring them nothing but woe.

So far, the government has escaped remarkable lightly from its crass handling of the epidemic, but people are wearying and the full economic impact has yet to take effect. And although the Bank of England recently improved its prediction for the UK economy, I think its (measured) optimism is ill-founded, especially when it talks about recovery.

What I don't think has been fully appreciated is that the economy is undergoing fundamental change, akin to a revolution. Any number of worker drones have discovered that there are better things in life than being a wage slave, chained to an expensive commute, and an expensive life-style which is barely covered by the remuneration received.

Such people are vital for a consumer-led economy, buying massive quantities of unnecessary goods to keep the mighty GDP machine buoyant and in a state of growth. But as people discover for themselves that the treadmill is not a necessary part of their lives, the collective effect will make GDP a meaningless measure of national activity.

It will, of course, be a long time before the pundits even begin to realise what is happening, by which time the new economy will make existing measurement tools irrelevant. But that will not be before we have seen governments break themselves on the wheel of conventional economics, attempting to repair that which is irrevocably broken.

Change will, of course, be expedited by the twin drivers of Covid-19 and Brexit. Already, we are seeing a contraction of global trade, but also significant drops in EU intra-community trade. The world is closing in on itself and, more than ever, nations are looking to their own borders and their own internal resources.

When TransEnd finally comes – with only just over four months before we are there – we can expect to see a further contraction of trade, as between the UK and the EU. Whether that will be noticed is not a given. As consumer demand drops, we would have seen trade shrink of its own accord. Brexit may, therefore, simply reflect what was happening anyway.

But, if there is to be a new economy, there needs to be new politics to go with it. And there is nothing less appropriate than our current, centralised, London-centric merry-go-round. And if the decline of London as a city and commercial centre continues, brought about initially by Covid-19, then London as a political centre may also decline.

Whether that leads to a resurgence of local politics, though, is hard to say. The existing structure of local authorities is also "old politics" and few people are interested in the affairs of their local councils, or take the trouble to participate in local politics. Maybe we need to be looking at net-centric structures, where the mobile phone is the primary portal, and representatives are not entirely geographically orientated.

Of more immediate concern though, is what happens when the "old economy" fails to deliver and the politicians, mired in their own incompetence, are no longer able to assure a basic minimum of public services, while their tax base shrinks and their ability to influence events and shape opinion grows weaker.

As long as there has been recorded history, we have seen major changes in the nature of our politics linked to revolution or great events – like war, famine and disease (or any combination).

Currently, there are so many change drivers afoot that it is hard to argue that current structures are resistant to them. And the current inability of the government to govern surely has to be one of the most powerful drivers of change. But if there is to be revolution, it will be a silent revolution.

Where it will end up, though, is anyone's guess. My only sure prediction is that, within ten years, this will be a very different nation, in ways that we cannot even imagine. Whether this will represent an improvement is also impossible to predict, but I'm fairly confident that it will get worse before it gets better.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 19/08/2020 link

Priti Patel: the female eunuch

13/08/2020  


Particularly over the last thirty years we have seen an accelerated process of denationalisation where the boundaries of national sovereignty are increasingly blurred. The substance of sovereignty is eroded almost to the point of inertia. Nations no longer have the unrestricted freedom of action they once did. Nations states now find they no longer have the monopoly of power inside their own territories and the external reach of sovereignty is virtually nonexistent.

We see this today as Priti Patel tweets “There are legislative, legal & operational barriers to stopping small boats”. She doesn’t know the half of it. The nation state will always be the main actor in international relations but the unilateralism preferred by the Tories as they imagine the UK as a “sovereign equal” does not transpose into reality. Not without finding itself in breach of international law anyway.

The UK now has to make its own way navigating a spiderweb of global governance, much of which is either obsolete or simply not fit for purpose. It must seek reform, but it must seek allies to do it. It is therefore not a good idea to be antagonising our neighbours in Brexit negotiations. Though reform is not impossible, it is no less bureaucratic and long winded than accomplishing anything in the EU.

In that regard Brexiteers are in for something of a let down. Having notionally freed ourselves from the “burdensome” regulatory domain of the EU we find ourselves in a wholly new domain in which the EU is still an important and influential actor. The sovereignty the Brexiteers thought they had won has only limited applications, and just because you can pull a certain lever doesn’t necessarily mean it is wise to do so. Moreover, sovereignty without the political will to wield it, is something of a moot point.

This doesn’t bode well for Patel. The Tories were elected with a massive eighty seat majority and unforgiving Conservative party members expect this government to do something with it. Immigration featured largely in the Brexit debate and will remain a feature of British politics for as long as there are visible symptoms of it.

There is an expectation that a notionally hard right government (for which there is scant evidence), with all new powers and no opposition, should be able to bring matters under control in a matter of months. In that regard the only recourse may be unilateralism in breach of international law in the vague hope that no-one will challenge it. But of course they will while there are millions to be made for Human Rights lawyers.

Though if Patel had used her time constructively at DfID, instead of pushing populist agendas to chase headlines, she’d know all this. She’d know that we need a multi-spectral approach centred on aid, development and diplomacy. Beefing up the borders is a temporary solution, if it can be considered a solution at all. She has over promised and can only under deliver.

But this is a problem for all concerned. If, even after Brexit, the voting public cottons on to the fact that their votes are rendered meaningless by remote, anonymous global bodies and arcane treaties, their patience with traditional political processes will wear thin. The UK may be the first to realise it, but it won’t be the last. There stands that essential question. If a country is not permitted to control its own borders, is it even a country?

It is entirely within the realms of possibility that a new insurgency on the right will begin as it becomes clear that the post-Brexit establishment can only deliver more of the same excuses. Within twenty years or less it could reach the same level of influence as Ukip as kingmaker and agenda setter. We may then see a total disregard for all international law, sparking a major crisis in international relations.

In respect of that, if the populist right had done their homework they would have seen all this coming and not rolled over for Boris Johnson. But alas they were caught up in the misapprehension that the EU was the main and only constraint on meaningful sovereignty. They should also have known that a gimmicky “Australian points based system” was no remedy to a multifaceted problem.

Effective immigration policy was never as straightforward as simply “taking back control”. Much of the control is illusory and if we are ever to get results then we must appreciate that control comes from effective enforcement locally, nationally and internationally. Local behind-the-border controls are our most important weapon being that illegal immigration comprises of those overstaying their visas who had permission to enter. Militarising the borders does nothing to address that.

What we have seen instead, as regards to Covid measures and immigration, is clumsy attempts to rule from the centre, missing the points completely, doing all the same things and expecting different results. To take back control, Downing Street must learn to give up control and let local authorities do what they are good at. Being that it is unlikely to listen, it will have to learn all these lessons the hard way. So too with much else Brexit related.


Also published on Turbulent Times.



Peter North 13/08/2020 link

Brexit: reaping the whirlwind

28/06/2020  


I don't know where I got it from, but I had nurtured the impression that the Daily Express was a halfway decent paper before Richard Desmond got his hands on it. Even though the Guardian suggests he "found ways to lower even a denuded brand", it is hardly in a position to talk.

Anyhow, still working on the new edition of The Great Deception - which is definitely going to occupy me to the end of the year, I've reached the chapter on the negotiations of the Single European Act – the treaty which launched the process of "completing" the Single Market.

In the process – as one does – I happened upon a copy of the Daily Express, published on 2 December 1985, the very day Margaret Thatcher flew to Luxembourg to take part in the final summit which agreed the treaty text.

And there, on page 6 under "World News" is a report headed "Maggie backed in battle to beat Europe terrorist threat" (pictured). Written by Express reporter John Fraser in Luxembourg, its sub-heading tells us: "Border controls to stay", while the text is a classic of its kind.

"Mrs Thatcher", we are told, "won backing last night against Common Market plans which could have flooded Britain with terrorists and drug smugglers". Fraser adds, "The Prime Minister is flying to Luxembourg today for a crucial summit after Euro Ministers were persuaded to keep tough border controls".

These proposals, we learn, "would have forced Britain to open its doors to visitors and goods from EEC countries". What is more, the idea seems to have been "dreamed up by Brussels bureaucrats and backed by many Continental Euro MPs, was to create a barrier-free Europe without travel restrictions".

However, we are assured that doughty "British officials evidently took a hand. They feared it would have led to an invasion of terrorists, drugs, illegal immigrants and rabies into this country".

Needless to say, their concerns "met will little sympathy from other EEC countries and the dastardly French – it had to be the French – "accused Britain of inventing objections to cover up plans to impose trade barriers against European imports".

At the least minute, it seems – according to the Fraser narrative – "sense" prevailed. EEC Foreign Ministers spent the weekend trying to reconcile differences on this and reached agreement. Thus, we were told, Mrs Thatcher's main objective at the summit was, Fraser went on to say, "to preserve Britain's veto over EEC reforms".

Obviously, this would save us from a fate worse than death, as "some militant Euro-MPs" wanted the European Parliament "to have the final say". But that, Fraser opined, "would leave Britain powerless to block the fanatics' more hare-brained schemes".

Seen from this distance, the report has distinctly comedic elements, right down to the formulaic device that the proposals (there is no mention of a treaty) must have been "dreamed up by Brussels bureaucrats", with the idea that opening borders would have led to an "invasion of terrorists, drugs, illegal immigrants and rabies into this country".

Apart from the tone, which the Guardian was later to describe as "malignant and crude", but only after Desmond got his hands on it, what offends is the sheer inaccuracy of the report – at so many levels it is difficult to know where to start.

The Single Market, of course, was very much wanted by Thatcher, although she disputed the need for a new treaty. She thought existing procedures would suffice. But, after that famous "ambush" in Milan earlier in June, when she was bounced into agreeing to an intergovernmental conference, she had enthusiastically pursued an agreement.

The point of contention with Thatcher was not the prospect of "opening borders" but the attempts by Commission President-elect Jacques Delors, to insert in the treaty preamble a reference to Economic and Monetary Union.

At the summit in Luxembourg, therefore, Thatcher was actively considering using her veto. But, on the basis of a Foreign Office assurance that the statement had no legal significance, she agreed the treaty. Even then, she had been misled, as Delors had also inserted two technical articles in the treaty text, authorising work on "convergence of economic and monetary policies", the precursor to EMU.

As Howe was later to report to Cabinet, on 5 December (CAB 128/81): "The conclusions were very satisfactory". The United Kingdom, the Foreign Secretary assured his colleagues, "had secured all its main objectives", including changes "which were desirable for the completion of the Community's internal market".

Without explaining the implications, however, Howe did concede that there would be "an amendment of the Treaty articles to provide majority voting on goods and services". But he was being less than candid.

In fact, no less than twelve policy areas had been delivered into the maw of QMV, not only the ‘internal market’ measures, but a new competence on "health and safety", decisions relating to regional development and an extension of Community competence to air and sea transport.

As later explained by the Commission, QMV had become the "new norm", also covering the common customs tariff, rules on the free movement of capital, research and development and the all-important portfolio.

If one takes the broader definition of a lie to include "act, default or sufferance", Howe was not only lying to the nation, he was lying to his own Cabinet colleagues. The Commission had masterminded a huge power grab, and had laid the foundations for the second part of the treaty, which was to come at Maastricht seven years later.

Delors had in his treaty an instrument which took the Community down the road to "a European Union", as foreseen in the Paris Summit of 1972, the objectives of which were very much alive.

Turning back to the Express, the Guardian latter was to describe it as "a fundamentalist voice of anti-EU hysteria", becoming "the house journal of Nigel Farage and Ukip". But back in 1985, Ukip hadn't been invented, Nigel Farage had only recently celebrated his 21st birthday, Euroscepticism, as an organised movement, was in the doldrums – and Desmond was 15 years away from buying the paper.

Oddly, at the time, the significance of this treaty was barely recognised. Amongst the few journalists interested, there was some concern about EMU, but Thatcher dismissed the new text as 'meaningless', otherwise, she told them, she would not have signed it. Delors, interestingly, had different ideas: "It's like the story of Tom Thumb lost in the forest, who left white stones so he could be found", he said. "I put in white stones so we could find monetary union again".

BBC television news mistook the new treaty as "a few modest reforms of the Treaty of Rome", the Guardian considered Britain had been the victor and The Economist called the treaty a "smiling mouse": well-intentioned but too diminutive to make much difference.

But the media weren't the only ones to have lost the plot. On her return from Luxembourg, Thatcher was challenged in the Commons by Tony Benn about the "long-term objective of political union within a fully federal united states of Europe". She replied:
I am constantly saying that I wish they would talk less about European and political union. The terms are not understood in this country. In so far as they are understood over there, they mean a good deal less than some people over here think they mean.
If Thatcher, unlike Benn, had not yet got the message, neither had the rest of Parliament. When the treaty came to be ratified, the necessary Bill amending the European Communities Act 1972 was pushed through an often thinly attended Commons in just six days.

The main debate was started on a Thursday, knowing that MPs would want to get away for the weekend. After only three sessions of the committee stage, the government abruptly curtailed further discussion with a "guillotine". On the final reading, so few MPs turned up that the Bill passed by a mere 149 votes to 43.

By whatever measure you care to apply the British public were let down by their media, their political leaders and Parliament. But in 1985, they sowed the wind. Brexit was the whirlwind.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 28/06/2020 link

Brexit: the show goes on

01/02/2020  


Possibly the only thing worse than the media not reporting on EU issues is when it does. For want of information, it fills the ether with noise, a cacophony of aimless blather that stuns the senses and overwhelms the mind.

Through the decades of our membership, it has been a struggle to get the role of the EU in our affairs noticed, so much so that "Brussels" became the elephant in the room that no-one talked about. The Lib-Dems once managed to run a whole campaign in the Euro-elections without even mentioning "Europe" in their leaflets.

It was much the same during the last general election campaign when the media took time out from reporting the issues in detail and instead gave an ex-Telegraph columnist a free pass to spout his vacuous nonsense about getting Brexit "done".

Everyone with more than two brain cells was fully aware the slogan was as empty of meaning as the man who uttered it, and that his broad intention to take us through the next stage of the process in a great rush was fraught with danger.

But our craven, venal media chose to stand on the sidelines and do what it does best – turn serious issues into triviality, indulging in the biff-bam of the personality contest while ignoring matters of substance.

Now the day has come – Brexit Day (no one dares to call it B-Day) – the media is full of itself, swamping its print pages with turgid reports and nostalgia. With overwhelming conceit, it deigns to offer simplistic "explainers", telling us what's going to happen next, when at the time it really mattered, the whole damn lot of the media collective was silent.

As they claim the event for their own, though, we can look back and remember the anti-EU meetings in draughty village halls and grubby pub meeting rooms, sometimes driving hundreds of miles to address audiences in their twenties and thirties, when even the local press didn't want to know.

Over the years – the decades – mere hundreds of us addressed thousands, and in total hundreds of thousands. Between us, we produced and delivered millions of leaflets, fighting by-elections and then general elections, where the rewards were often a derisory hundred or so votes for each candidate.

My first by-election fight for Ukip, under the leadership of Alan Sked, was in Wirral South in early 1997. I managed to get 410 votes, most of the time campaigning on my own with no support at all.

By then, a new force was emerging: Jimmy Goldsmith and his Referendum Party, in which he was reputed to have invested £22 million of his own money. But, when he held a vast meeting in Alexander Palace, with 10,000 attending, the Telegraph, brimming with its own self-importance right now, sent its restaurant critic to cover the event.

In the 1997 election campaign, local worthies sought to exclude Referendum Party candidates from hustings meetings, on the grounds that we were a "single issue" party.

Just before polling day, Goldsmith flew by helicopter up to East Midlands Airport with Booker, and thence to Swadlincote in what was then Edwina Currie's constituency. He addressed the largest constituency meeting of the campaign, with over 400 people crammed into the sports hall. Not even the local media covered it.

Despite a moderately good showing in the polls – I took 2,491 votes in South Derbyshire, aided by a superb team - it was not a breakthrough. But that had already been made. Goldsmith – then suffering from terminal pancreatic cancer (the same disease which was to fell Booker) – had extracted a promise from Blair that there would be a referendum before any attempt was made to join the single currency.

It was that single act which turned the tide – the el Alamein of Euroscepticism – stopping the biggest single act of European integration in its tracks as far as the UK was concerned. Furthermore, it lodged the idea of another referendum firmly on the political agenda.

That campaign paved the way for Farage's modest victory in the 1999 Euro-elections, when he, with Michael Holmes as leader and Jeffrey Titford, managed to win seats as Ukip MEPs. In typical fashion, the party dissipated its victory by indulging in fratricidal infighting which nearly brought it down. This is something that was to be repeated at regular intervals.

But this was the time of the Santer Commission. Embroiled in allegations of corruption, it was forced to resign en masse, providing a boost to the UK anti-EU campaign from which it never looked back.

It was the heady days of the early nineties, through to the turn of the century, which created the foundations for a successful movement. It galvanised opposition to the EU's hubris in deciding that we all needed a "constitution for Europe", and provided the focus for the outrage when the rejected product was converted into the Lisbon Treaty. The call then for a referendum, promised by Blair and then Cameron, brought us directly to the point where a referendum could no longer be denied and, today, where we are no longer members of the European Union.

While the latter-day saints and the Johnny-come-latelies posture and preen, and success has a thousand fathers – with as many self-appointed "experts" who have sprung out of the woodwork to cheer it on - it was the early days that made the difference, the anonymous "unsung heroes" who made it happen.

No one owns Brexit, least of all Farage or Vote Leave. This was an endeavour by the people all across the nation, who kept the flame of opposition alive when it was unfashionable and largely ignored.

Most of the figures dominating the stage at the moment were nowhere to be seen then, and have little knowledge of the real campaign, when Europhiles were dismissing us as "Xenophobes" and "Little Englanders" and the media was busy with other things.

He who laughs last, however, lasts longest. But the laughter will have to last a long time as the Eurosceptic cause has been hijacked by the Tory right, who have no more idea of democracy than Genghis Khan. Fortified by their unique amalgam of ignorance and arrogance, they have within them the capacity to do more damage than the EU ever did.

Thus, while the buffoon Johnson prattles about the "dawn of a new era", he is simply the ugly face of more insidious forces which would have this country turned into the 51st state of the USA, or an impoverished version of Empire 2.0. We duck the nascent United States of Europe only to be subsumed by another fantasy.

Through the years though, Euroscepticism has been a truly popular movement, shunned in the early days by the establishment. Its grass-roots activists achieved their successes individually and in groups and only partly through Ukip. Long before Farage finally managed to wreck the party, when support was at its highest, it is fair to say that there were more ex-Ukip activists than there were members.

With Farage's commercial enterprise, the Brexit Party, struggling to make two percent in the opinion polls, we're back to the early days of Ukip, a small rump with little power or presence, the "insurgency" destroyed by the overweening ego of Farage and by the devious manoeuvrings of the Tories.

Thus, when we need it most, "people power" is at its weakest. And it now has to confront the real enemy. This is not the European Union but the British establishment which took us in to the EEC without consent, rigged the 1975 referendum to give some sort of spurious legitimacy, and then kept us in until it saw the writing on the wall and changed tack.

As we depart from the EU, the British peoples are no more sovereign than they have ever been. If anything, we are further removed from real power. Parliament – which was never truly representative of the people – has consigned itself to irrelevance and the executive has assumed even more power. We are in danger of replacing the imagined tyranny of Brussels with the real tyranny of an over-powerful executive.

Small wonder then that Johnson is keen to have us to believe that Brexit is "done". He wants the nation to go back to sleep, and is seeking the aid of a compliant, incurious media to distract us. His cronies and backers can then divide up the spoils undisturbed, leaving us truly a vassal state, subservient not to the EU but to our political masters in London – as we always have been.

Thus, today starts a new phase of an old battle, one which the Chartists of 1836 would have recognised, a battle for true democracy, where ordinary people have a say in their own destinies. This isn't about "Europe" – it's about power.

Unfortunately, people are too easily seduced by the trappings of power and just as easily distracted by the trivia that is the staple fare of the media. And, to be blunt, the infantilisation of this nation has left us spiritually and morally weakened. We are barely able to fend for ourselves without the nanny state to pick up the pieces.

Yet, to be an obedient, unthinking cog in a corporate state is not what we have campaigned for. If independence is to mean anything, it is the freedom to decide our own destinies, for good or bad. Brexit day has brought that happy situation no closer but, at least, there can now be no confusion about who (and what) is the real enemy.

That much we've gained. But the show goes on and the singing will never be done.



Richard North 01/02/2020 link

Brexit: a multifactorial election

14/12/2019  


Now that the full results are in, we have the key statistics for the election. The Conservatives gained 47 seats to finish with 365, on 43.6 percent of the vote. Labour trailed with 32.1 percent, losing 59 seats to end up with 203.

The Lib-Dems fared miserably, taking 11.5 percent of the vote, losing one seat to end up with 11. Yet the SNP, on a mere 3.9 percent, managed 48 seats, gaining 13. The Greens polled 2.7 percent and kept the one and only seat they already had. Farage's party took a two percent share of the national vote, predictably gaining no seats at all.

The national turnout was 67.3 percent, down 1.5 percent on the 2017 figure. That means that the proportion of electorate who actually ticked the box for the Conservatives was a mere 29.3 percent – less than a third of the people entitled to vote. Under this system, that is all it takes to get someone into No 10.

Considering that many people held their noses and voted, just to "get Brexit done", while others quite deliberately abstained, this is not an overwhelming endorsement of the party now in government. Even if we take the straight vote, 43.6 percent does not constitute a majority.

In terms of movement, compared with the 2017 election, the swing to the Tories was a mere 1.2 percent, as against a swing away from Labour of 7.9 percent. By any account, the Tories did not win this election. Labour lost it.

From the overnight narrative during the count, it is clear that Corbyn featured heavily in the reason why Labour lost. And not least of that was his equivocal stance on Brexit. Thus, the received wisdom is that the party's heartland supporters lost confidence in Labour and voted to "get Brexit done".

There is undoubtedly a good deal of truth in this assessment, and it was certainly the case in Wakefield. The incumbent, Mary Creagh, was a notorious remainer, favouring a second referendum in a constituency which voted strongly "leave". That much seems to be confirmed by local voters.

However, the Datapraxis pollsters report that Labour lost 2,585,564 votes between 2017 and 2019. Less than half of the lost votes were Labour leavers. At least as many were remain voters - some of them in "leave" seats.

This is but one complication, and there are others. A deeper look at the circumstances of each seat suggests that, in many constituencies, there were additional factors at play. A good example of this is Sedgefield, Blair's former seat which has gone blue, for the first time since 1931. The Conservative's Paul Howell got 19,608 votes while Labour's Phil Wilson only managed 15,096 votes.

Swings, respectively, were 8.4 percent in favour of the Tories but there was a 17.1 percent swing against Labour. Once more, Labour lost more than the Tories gained, on a turnout that was marginally down, -0.5 percent from 2017, coming in at 64.6 percent.

Here, the performance of Farage's commercial enterprise is interesting. The Brexit Party got 3,518 votes. And if we go along with Farage's unprovable assertion that these votes were taken from the Labour camp, then one can attribute the victory partly to his intervention, even if the Tory majority over Labour was greater than the Brexit Party vote.

To get a true perspective, though, one has to go back a few years to the days of Tony Blair. In his last term as Sedgefield's MP, in 2007, he lost six percent of the vote share. His less well-known successor, in the 2007 by-election, lost 14.1 percent and in the 2010 general election stabilised slightly with a loss of 13.9 percent. But the heady days of Blair majorities were over. From 1997, when Blair polled 33,526 votes, Wilson peaked at a mere 22,202 in 2017, with a swing of 6.2 percent.

All the time, though, Tory candidates were gradually piling on votes, from 4,082 in 2007 to 16,143 ten years later in 2017. This set a trend of gradual conversion to a Tory seat, reflecting changes elsewhere in the region. With the mines closed and the heavy industry gone, the working class heritage has dissipated and a middle-class core has emerged.

This has been bolstered by substantial new-build private sector housing (of which this is but one example) and the transition to a service economy. Johnson, therefore, is benefiting from the gradual gentrification of the area, a process which has been going on for well over a decade. It is set to continue, combined with a record swing against Labour of 17.1 percent, which surely must reflect the antipathy towards Corbyn.

But what the Southern nose-bleeders don't fully realise is that what goes on in Sedgefield isn't necessarily reflected elsewhere. They may have visions of a mystical land north of the Wash, populated by woad-painted barbarians, horny-handed sons of the soil, and wheezing ex-miners stricken by black lung and years of smoking Capstan full-strength.

There are enormous variations in the make-up of this strange, mist-shrouded land which starts once the intrepid adventurers traverse the feared barrier of the Watford Gap. The Northeast, for instance, is not Yorkshire.

No more is this varied make-up apparent when one comes to the former mill town of Dewsbury, notorious in the recent past for its monolithic bloc of Kashmiri Moslems and Islamic suicide bombers who have colonised the central, Savile Town area of the constituency.

Voting Labour as a block, as the Kashmiris tend to do, they had until 2010 been able to maintain Shahid Malik one of their own as their MP, until "significant boundary changes" brought enough whites back into the constituency to oust him. This is an area which had in 2005 one of the highest BNP votes in the country, after the Tories had made the mistake of fielding a Pakistani candidate.

In the 2010 general election, however, Simon Reevell won the seat for the Tories with a narrow majority of 1,526. But it was not to last. The Tories lost it to Labour in 2015 when they fielded Paula Sherriff, a white candidate. Sherriff managed a similarly narrow majority of 1,451 after the Ukip candidate took 6,649 votes.

Now established, she managed to increase her lead in 2017 to 3,321 but the writing was on the wall. The Kashmiris, for once, were victims of their own self-segregation. While they maintained an unassailable lead in their Savile town ghetto, the surrounding wards were increasing their white populations.

Over recent years, the region has been seeing substantial, high quality residential development in the pleasant Yorkshire hinterland, in easy commuting distance of Leeds. This will soon include this, providing 4,000 new homes. Like Sedgefield, therefore, Dewsbury is ripe for turning once more, hence its reversion to Tory control in this election.

One is fully aware that the nice, genteel nose-bleeders – and especially those in the domain of the BBC - don't really like talking about the politics of race, hence the soft-focus analysis from the Guardian. Thus, the impact of the Moslem communities on the political process is quietly glossed over. But, if you want an explanation as to why Dewsbury has turned Tory this time round, it has very little to do with a sudden rush of enthusiasm for Johnson.

In neighbouring Colne Valley, though, the dynamics are different again. When I first came up to Yorkshire, some forty years ago, I was based in Elland – the wrong side of Halifax.

At the time, I thought this was the end of the world, but I hadn't yet been to Slaithwaite (pronounced locally as Sloughwait – as in Slough), part of the Colne Valley constituency. If Elland was the end of the world, this old mill town, lying across the River Colne and the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, was the land time forgot, even if it was staggeringly beautiful - from a distance. And elsewhere in the constituency, we have Holmfirth, of Last of the Summer Wine fame.

Traditionally, this has been a Labour/Liberal marginal but it went Conservative in 1987 after the locals had discovered that the Tory Party existed. It succumbed to Blair in 1997, went Tory again in 2010 and slipped back to Labour in 2017. This time round, it was the Tory turn, reverting back on a 2.2 percent swing against a swing against Labour of 7.7 percent. In the next election, it may well go Labour again.

The picture, therefore, is more than a little mixed. To an extent, we're seeing something akin to the classic "perfect storm" where a number of different factors have come together to give Johnson his extended tenancy in No 10. Moreover, it seems as if some of those factors were set in train by Theresa May, of which Johnson is now the beneficiary.

Tomorrow, I'll look at some more constituencies, amongst them Bolsover and Hartlepool, to see how well this thesis stands up.



Richard North 14/12/2019 link

Brexit: election 2019

13/12/2019  

05:40 And, on a local note, Labour's Naz Shahb retakes Bradford West with an increased vote of 33,736 against 29,444 in 2017 - a swing of 11.5 percent to Labour. This is the Moslem block vote in action, pushing the Tory down from 7,542 in 2017 to 6,717. Turnout is a modest 62.6 percent, dropping from 67.4 percent in 2017.

Bradford East brings in 27,825 for Labour, while the Tories trail behind with a miserable 9,681 votes, and a swing of 1.5 percent. Turnout struggles in at 60.4 percent, down from 64.8 percent in 2017.

As for my own constituency, Bradford South, this as I predicted stays Labour. Judith Cummins takes 18,390 votes, with a swing against her of 8.2 percent. The Tory parachutist picks up 16,044 votes and the Brexit Party gets 2,819 – a fraction of the 9,057 that Jason Smith got for Ukip in 2015. Nevertheless, the combined vote reaches 18,863, less than a hundred below the 2015 combined Tory/UKIP figure, and in both cases exceeding the Labour vote.

Arguably, for the second time in recent history, the "Ukip effect" has kept Bradford South in the Labour camp. But the lacklustre campaign has taken its toll, with a turnout at 57.6 percent, down from even the mediocrity of 60.6 percent in 2017. Through the '70s, and then the '80s, when there was a real change of a change, turnout was consistently above 70 percent. Now we are the city where politics doesn't happen.

And, with that, I will take a break and pick up later in the day.

05:06 Yvette Cooper acknowledges that the Labour Party must change. The losses are "not just about Brexit". And, at this point, the election has been formally won by the Conservatives, the party having taken 327 seats giving them an absolute majority. Says the BBC, we will now be leaving the EU next month.

04:40 540 results in with the Conservatives expected to gain a majority of about 60. So far, they have gained 40 seats while Labour has lost 52.

04:20 Theresa May, in one of the safest Tory seats in the country, regains her status as a backbencher, but with a reduced vote, down to 32,620 votes from 37,718 in 2017, a swing against her of seven percent. Turnout is relatively high at 73.7, but down from 76.4 in the previous election. The main challengers, the Lib Dems, increase their vote from 6,540 to 13,774, shunting Labour into third place.


03:46 Sadly, Johnson has also kept his seat. And despite spirited efforts to unseat him, he takes 25,351 votes, up from 23,716 in 2017. Swinson, on the other hand, loses her Dunbartonshire East seat to Amy Callaghan of the SNP, by a mere 149 votes. Turnout was a staggering 80 percent, demonstrating that voters will turn out when there us something to play for. This also demolishes the "Bollocks to Brexit" meme and puts to bed the idea of revoking Art 50.

03:35 Predictably, Jeremy Corbyn keeps his seat, but with his 2017 majority of 40,086 reduced to 34,603. But with that level of support, the other parties don't get a look in. Sedgefield, however, has fallen to the Tories, as has Doncaster. Corbyn acknowledges that it has been a "disappointing night". He says he will not lead his party in any future election campaign but, for the moment will lead it in "a process of reflection". He will remain the MP for Islington North.

03:17 Zac Goldsmith loses Richmond, heavily defeated by the Lib-Dems, with a turnout of 79 percent.

03:12 A revised BBC projection gives the Tories 357 seats, Lab pulls in 201, the SNP 55 and the Lib-Dems 13. Farage's commercial enterprise fails to get a single seat.

02:58 Getting round to looking at Putney, what may well be a very rare bird – a Labour gain – we find some interesting developments. Labour gets 22,780 votes and 45.1 percent of the vote, going against the grain with a 4.4 percent swing. The Tories get 18,006 (35.7 percent, with an 8.4 percent swing against them). The Lib-Dems get 8,548 (16.9 percent with a 5.3 percent swing). But what is really remarkable is that turnout is up 4.9 percent to 77 percent – contrary to the observed trend.

In 2017, Justine Greening took 20,679 votes for the Conservatives and Labour took 19,125 votes, with the Tories holding the seat. This could very well be a "new voter" effect.

02:37 102 of 650 seats declared. The Tories have 45 seats, gaining six. Labour also have 45 seats, but they have lost eight. The SNP has six seats so far, having taken two, one off Labour and the other from the Tories. They are having a good night, unlike the Lib-Dems who have held on to one. Overall, Labour is down 12 points while the Conservatives are up seven. Labour is losing faster than the Tories can gain.

02:24 Going back up North, it's worth looking at that other Tory gain, Darlington. As a constituency, it has changed character enormously. The mining and the heavy industry have gone and many of the areas have been gentrified, to become dormitory areas for Newcastle. Thus, there is a growing Tory vote which was always going to put the seat on Labour's danger list.

As to the actual results, the Conservative's Peter Gibson gets 20,901 votes with a 48.1 percentage share, giving a fairly modest swing of 4.8 percent. Labour's Jenny Chapman, however, only picks up 17,607 votes, with a swing of 10.1 percent against her. Farage's party is in the fray, but it only takes 1,544 votes, a mere 3.5 percent of the vote. Its presence has no impact on the result. Turnout is 65.5 percent, down two full points.

The comparison with the 2017 result tells a now familiar. The Tory candidate is on 19,401 and Labour is on 22,681. Ukip takes 1,180 votes. In effect, when it comes to 2019, Labour loses 5K while the Tories gain just over a thousand votes, om a reduced turnout. Once again, the Tories didn't win this seat. Labour lost it.

02:05 Labour gains Putney. Recalling the early-morning queues in the constituency, this may be a new-voter millennial effect. By way of compensation, the Tories take Peterborough. BBC notes that the Tory vote has remained unchanged but the Labour vote has dropped. This is becoming an established trend – Labour is losing this election, and there are few people doubting that this is down to Corbyn.


01:34 Over three hours into the count and we have 14 of the 650 seats declared. Included in that is a genuine south-eastern seat – Broxbourne in the northern home counties. This is a Tory hold, with Charles Walker taking 30,631votes, against Labour's 10,824. There is no Farage rep, and the turnout is marginally down on 63.8 percent – down 0.8 percent.

From 2017, the Tory vote has barely changed, when Charles Walker took 29,515 votes. But Labour pulled in nearly 3K more votes, getting 13,723 votes. Ukip pulls 1,919 votes so we have an interesting scenario where Labour and Ukip combined go into 2019 shedding nearly 5K votes while the Tories only pick up only a thousand. This is not a huge vote of confidence for Johnson.

01:10 Ten seats so far declared. Picking up on Swindon North – the Tory hold - this was the first to be declared outside the North. We see Justin Tomlinson get 32,584 with a vote share of 59.1 percent. Labour's Kate Linnegar gets 16,413 on 29.8 percent. There is no Brexit candidate. Turnout is 66.9 percent, down 1.6 percent.

In the 2017 election, the Conservative's Tomlinson got 29,431 while Labour got 21,096, a significant drop which is larger than the Tory gain. Ukip picked up 1,564 votes, and the turnout was 68.5 percent. But if we go back to 2015, we see the Tories on 26,295 and Labour on 14,509 – with Ukip taking 8,011.

This seat – which was Labour in 2005 – is showing a gradual consolidation of the Tory vote, reflecting demographic changes in the constituency. Neither Labour nor the Lib-Dems could have mounted a credible challenge.

00:35 According to the BBC, Swindon North is in the southeast of England. The seat is now declared - a Tory hold.

00:14 Now looking at Newcastle upon Tyne Central (also declared earlier), this is another Labour hold, with Chi Onwurah getting 21,568 votes. The Tories get a mere 9,290 votes and the Farage party makes 2,542. Turnout is 64.8 percent, down 2.2 percent.

In 2017, Chi Onwurah gets 24,071 and 64.9 percent of the vote. The Tories are on 9,134, taking 24.6 percent. There is virtually no change between the 2017 and the 2019 results. Ukip gets 1,482 votes, and the turnout is 67 percent.

What comes over therefore – albeit on limited data - is that the Tories are not winning this election. Labour is losing it.

00:02 Houghton & Sunderland South (declared earlier) brings in Bridget Phillipson for Labour with 16,210 votes and a vote share of 40.7 percent. The Tory, Christopher Howarth, gets 13,095 votes, and 32.9 percent of the vote. But here, Farage's party pulls in 6,165 votes - a 15.5 percent share. If one adds the Tory and Brexit Party vote, this comes to 19,260. The turnout is 57.8 percent, down 3.0 percent.

Compared with 2017, then we see Bridget Phillipson gain 24,665 votes and 59.5 percent of the vote. The Conservatives get 12,324 votes and a 29.7 percent share. Ukip get 2,379 votes and 5.7 percent of the vote.

But if we go back to the 2015 election, we see that Ukip got 8,280 votes and 21.5 percent of the vote (more than the Brexit Party this time round), taking second place ahead of the Tories with 7,105 votes and 18.5 percent of the vote. Turnout was 56.3 percent. What we seem to be seeing, therefore, is a combination of a lower turnout and a severe drop in the Labour vote.

23:44 Turnout for Blyth Valley is 63.4 percent, down 3.6 percent from 2017. This is closer to 2015 levels, when 62.8 percent of the constituency turned out.

23:40 Two results in: Newcastle and Sunderland. Both Labour holds. Blyth Valley also in. A Tory win. , but one which the exit poll also held to be too close to call. The Conservative Ian Levy took 17,440 votes, with a 42.7 percent share on a 5.4 percent swing. Labour's Susan Dungworth got 16,728 votes and the Brexit Party gained 3,394 votes, with 8.3 percent of the vote.

23:25 The BBC is running a constituency checker based on the exit poll. Interestingly, my constituency – Bradford South – is cited as "too close to forecast winning party". According to the poll, there is a 72 percent chance of Conservative gain and a 28 percent chance of Labour hold. The result will not be declared until 05:00.

23:12 Blyth Valley – a safe Labour seat. It was expected to be the first to declare, but now there is talk of a recount. ADDS @ 23:22. A "bundle" recount is announced.


23:05 A reminder of what's been on the Telegraph website all day. It looks as if there needs to be some blood-letting in the polling industry as well.

22:50 First declaration expected momentarily.


22:42 Lots of mixed messages on turnout, but it is said that there were big queues for voting in Wakefield. The picture above is from Putney earlier this morning. Other polling stations in London were reported with queues. The Lincoln University station also had queues.

22:38 The BBC's Nick Robinson thinks that Corbyn will have to go. A new battle will "rage" in the Labour party.

22:27 A sombre John McDonnell acknowledges that, if this exit poll is correct, the result will be "extremely disappointing" for the party overall. But he denies that the problem is Jeremy Corbyn. People wanted to get Brexit done.

22:05 Exit poll predicts Tory victory of 368 seats. Labour gets 191, SNP 55 and Lib-Dems 13. This compares with the most recent YouGov MRP poll which gave the Tories 339 seats, and 359 seats in the previous one. It looks as if the YouGov crown is slipping.

The first YouGov MRP survey had Labour trailing with a mere 211 seats, only two more than Michael Foot got in 1983. In the second, more recent poll, the prediction stood at 231 seats. The exit poll prediction of 191, if confirmed, would be the worst result since 1935.



Richard North 13/12/2019 link

Brexit: time for a change

03/12/2019  


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: the debasement of politics

01/12/2019  


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: disappeared from sight

23/11/2019  


More dribble from politicians assailed us yesterday, this time courtesy of the BBC's Question Time Leaders special. And there was one question that Johnson should have been asked – as to how he intends to manage the future relationship negotiations – but it never made an appearance.

Whatever else, Johnson is a full-time politician and, when pitted against members of the public, he has the advantage. It really needs a skilled journalist to take him on but, as we saw from one example last Sunday, they're not up to the job either.

The main problem with the Question Time extravaganza, though, was undoubtedly the BBC's selection bias in choosing the questions and the questioners. Before the programme even started, we were doomed to a surfeit of emotive, NHS-orientated questions which, oddly enough, played into Johnson's hands.

For once, I'm not in total disagreement with Tim Stanley of the Telegraph. "The big takeaway from tonight's BBC Question Time debate", he says, "is that Britain needs to stop doing debates with audiences. All it does is poison the well, turning a discussion of the issues into a row about balance".

He concludes his piece saying that another answer to these distorted debates would be to stop debates altogether. "This is not America", he says. "Ours is not a presidential system. We don't need this theatre of personality".

That is a bit rich coming from a newspaper that has gone overboard in pushing the cult of personality, in favour of its favourite son. But the point is nevertheless sound. When core issues are swamped by lip-wobbling emotion, it is time to draw a line.

Late in the programme, for instance, when faced with a succession of questions about hardship and funding shortages in the NHS, Johnson argued that he had "over delivered" on his promises as Mayor of London.

But, he went on to say, we can only meet the demand in the NHS and elsewhere, "if we have a dynamic economy". "And", he added, "I'm afraid we won't get this economy really moving again, we won't get the investment coming in … until we get Brexit done".

But that surely is the point. Brexit is not going to be "done" with the ratification of the withdrawal agreement. The conclusion of a credible trade agreement with the EU is just as vital and it is that, more than anything, on which "a dynamic economy" rests.

If, therefore, we are to deconstruct what Johnson was saying, the question of what he intends to do with the next stage of the discussions was the elephant in the room. And when the question wasn't asked, Johnson walked away yet again without having to set out vital policy details and his plans to keep the Brexit "future relationship" talks on the road.

But this, it seems, is going to be the election characterised by missed opportunities. Earlier in the day, we had to suffer a torrent of media coverage on the Farage party manifesto launch, with The Great Leader addressing a half-empty hall where most of the audience seemed to be either reporters or photographers (pictured).

The absence of real people didn't escape John Crace, who remarked that Farage couldn't even paint on a smile as barely a couple of dozen morose Brexit party supporters sat in the audience. "His eyes were dead, his face and suit a pale grey".

Clearly, the legacy media haven't caught up with recent events, as they were reporting on a dying party which is getting between two and four percent in the polls – only slightly above Ukip before its collapse. However, the Guardian cartoon does make the point. As with Corbyn, therefore, Farage's plans are a matter of supreme indifference.

As did the Mail on Thursday, though, the Telegraph yesterday picked up on a constituency poll covering Grimsby, commissioned by the Economist, using it to argue that Farage's party is "disrupting politics in the Labour heartlands".

This, in fact, is wishful thinking that is not in any way supported by the Economist poll. The magazine itself warns that "local polling is tricky, the sample small and there are three weeks to go", but the actual weighted sample, after removal of the "undecided and refused" is 271.

That in itself makes for a considerable margin of error, and the pollster, Survation, then states that sub-samples "will be subject to higher margin of error" and that conclusions drawn from very small sub-samples "should be treated with caution".

Without repeating any of these caveats, the Telegraph tells us that Grimsby "shows the Tories in the lead because of an 18 percent drop in support for the Labour candidate - and an 17 percent rise in support for the Brexit Party".

This is actually on the basis of a weighted sample of 47 Brexit Party supporters, in a constituency which has in recent years shown considerable volatility in voting patterns.

If you want to play games, the elections of 2015 and 2017 are worth a look. In 2015, Ukip took 8,417 votes (25 percent) but dropped back in 2017 to 1,648 votes (4.6 percent). By contrast, the Labour vote rose from 13,414 (39.8 percent) in 2015 to 17,545 (49.4 percent) in 2017.

But, before drawing conclusions, one also needs to note that the Tory vote also increased from 8,874 votes (26.3 percent) to 14,980 votes (42.2 percent). With the Greens and Lib-Dems losing ground and the turnout increasing by nearly 2K, trying to work out precisely what was going on is not a simple task.

Obviously, on 12/13 December, the Grimsby result is one to watch, but it would be rash to start making predictions about this constituency on the basis of this one poll. Still less can one make any predictions about the effect of Farage's party in the "Labour heartlands".

Yet to come in the annals of distraction, though, is the Tory manifesto – apparently due out Sunday. Already, Tory candidates are being briefed about the lines they must take. The copy of the 68-page briefing document, obtained by The Times, gives a preview of 90 percent or so of the Tory manifesto, but we seem to be none the wiser on Brexit. We'll have to wait until Sunday to see what transpires – if anything.

In the meantime, we have seen precious little traction on the "transition" issue. Katya Adler's tweet has been translated into an article on the BBC website and the Financial Times article to which I referred yesterday, has been republished in the Irish Times where it can be read free of paywall constraints.

The only substantive reference yesterday to the transition period seems to have come from Farage, insisting that it should not be extended – another good reason why the man should be ignored. I suppose we can add a muddled article in the Prospect magazine, but that is it. For the moment, the most important issue of the election has effectively disappeared from sight.



Richard North 23/11/2019 link
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