GRASSROOTS: Jack Lesgrin’s week: Reflections on the elections and social meania

10/05/2021, 10:32:55 PM

By Jack Lesgrin

Three election reflections 

One: a full list of candidates is available in…this interview

In the interests of all underdogs and Count Binface, electoral law should be changed so that the media, when talking to one candidate, are required to list the names and parties of all candidates. Currently, they get out of it with the “a full list of candidates is available on our website” disclaimer. Mr A Rose, of the Labour Party and Mr T Ree, of the Conservatives lap up their prime time local or national media exposure, but what about the minnow parties, the independents, the Monster Raving Loonies and Binfaces? In an election, all candidates should be equal.

Two: pop the balloon to expose an inverse emperor’s new clothes

Last week a huge Prime Ministerial head filled purely with hot air floated above Hartlepool. Stage-managed photos followed on the front pages the following day of the corporeal Prime Ministerial head with the balloon above. Can you imagine if any other PM had tried such a stunt? It’s doubtful that the media would have run the photos and they would certainly have penned scathing stories about narcissistic personality disorder. This new abnormal is an inverse emperor’s new clothes. Rather than the observing masses staying schtum for fear of the opprobrium of calling out the leader’s nakedness, past leaders must now be realising that all those ‘good chap’ rules, PR rules, or indeed rules rules, didn’t actually exist. Just think what they could have got away with, or more importantly, achieved, had they ignored the rules.

Three: out of the mouths of vox pops

The best moment of post-election analysis was on the BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme when Lord Mandelson recounted what a Hartlepool voter had told him. “Sort yourselves out. You picked the wrong brother and you ended up with Corbyn, so that’s goodbye to you. When you’ve sorted yourselves out, we’ll look at you again.” It had a certain simplicity and was entirely correct. It reminded me of those moments when the man or woman on the street captures the public’s mood. Remember Brenda from Bristol back in April 2017, whose exasperation on hearing that Theresa May had called an election went viral. “You’re joking? Not another one. Oh for God’s sake, honestly, I can’t stand this. There’s too much politics going on at the moment.” Bearing in mind what came afterwards, she had a point.

Social ‘meania’   Read the rest of this entry »

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GRASSROOTS: Jack Lesgrin’s week: No one ever forgets a gaffe

05/05/2021, 11:24:47 PM

By Jack Lesgrin

No one forgets, even if you regret (the crap)

It’s hardly up there with “do you remember where you were when Kennedy was assassinated/for the moon landing/on 9-11”, but readers of a certain vintage will recall their shock, perhaps sprinkled with a pinch of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ voyeurism at jewellery retailer Gerald Ratner’s infamous 1991 speech to the Institute of Directors in which he uttered the immortal line that led to the collapse of his company: “We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, ‘How can you sell this for such a low price?’, I say, ‘because it’s total crap’”.

Last week, Mr Ratner issued a rather moving tweet, writing “It is 30 years today when I made ‘that’ speech. It seems like yesterday. I wish it was tomorrow. I would cancel it.” What is it about certain gaffes that capture the public’s attention and persist for years, or even decades, while others that might be regarded as worse by any objective analysis, are overlooked? The 30th anniversary of the Ratner speech fell during the week of the tenth anniversary of ‘Ed Balls Day’ (28 April), in which thousands of Twitter users re-enact how the then Shadow Chancellor accidentally tweeted his own name while reportedly attempting to search for an article about himself. It caught the popular imagination, for comedic reasons, and this year’s ‘day’ was even reported by The New York Times no less.

While we’re on the subject of gaffes by Labour politicians that linger on in the public’s imagination, I’m reminded of the cringe-making letter that Labour’s then Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne left on his desk for his successor after the 2010 general election, stating simply “I’m afraid there is no money.” David Cameron carried a facsimile of the letter around with him for years to come to twist the knife about alleged Labour profligacy.

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GRASSROOTS: Jack Lesgrin’s week: Johnson won’t have broken any rules of conduct because there aren’t any. That’s life without a written constitution

27/04/2021, 01:34:56 PM

by Jack Lesgrin

Johnson won’t have broken any rules of conduct because there aren’t any. That’s life without a written constitution

I wrote last August that nothing matters as regards the #DailyOutrages of this government. I was being a little facetious; I do care about poor governance and worse. My argument is that our system has almost no checks and balances on a prime minister and government with a large majority; the only check is the general election.

It’s not a very popular view, because it sounds defeatist, seems to indicate complacency and to demean the righteous anger of others. I actually respect those getting cross about the #DailyOutrages. However, I can’t help feeling that transgressors are having the last laugh, for the ultimate complacency lies in imagining that whipping up a Twitter storm, asking Parliamentary questions, writing columns, or calling for Parliamentary inquiries, will have much effect.

Yes, the opposition highlighting government sleaze can contribute to eventual election victory, but what is needed far more is an alternative vision of optimism and the ability to win elections. Given that #DailyOutrages are becoming #HourlyOutrages, readers should bear the following in mind. All that follows is only “by convention” – see the 2010 Cabinet Manual that describes brilliantly our non-constitution.

It’s simple: the prime minister is appointed by the Queen on the basis that he or she commands the confidence of the Commons. The roles of the Prime Minister and Cabinet are “governed largely by convention” so I imagine, ultimately, he can do pretty much what he pleases. Parliamentary select committees have no prosecutorial powers. There is nothing in this document stating that the Queen must enter the fray and dismiss a PM who falls below certain standards, firstly because the PM alone arbitrates on ministers’ fitness for office (presumably also his own fitness as he is the “Sovereign’s Principal Adviser”) and writes the Ministerial Code, which has no legal authority anyway. And if any onerous rules were written into a new edition of the Cabinet Manual, they’d have no legal effect, since everything in our system is “by convention”, and we all know that not all PMs are conventional.

Sturgeon is a success even at failure Read the rest of this entry »

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GRASSROOTS: Jack Lesgrin’s Week: Heads, not troops in the sand

21/04/2021, 02:42:15 PM

by Jack Lesgrin

Heads, not troops in the sand 

President Biden’s decision to bring all US troops home from Afghanistan by 11 September risks the Taliban once more taking over the government and reverting to their medieval ways. Our concern should of course be for Afghan citizens, whose hard-won rights are now jeopardised. But spare a thought too for the Anti-Intervention Brigade in the West. Their policy of active inaction is normally very difficult to challenge, even when huge losses of life result from no or minimal intervention, as with Rwanda. On the surface, Biden’s move is their dream scenario: Western troops are out, leave it for ‘the people’ of a sovereign country to ‘work it out’, and if goes pear-shaped follow the mantra of a former Labour leader and ‘get everyone around the table.’ Interventionists are often accused of having ‘blood on our hands’, yet those who favour inaction must be reminded repeatedly of the consequences, should they transpire: women’s and girls’ rights traduced, more violence and perhaps international terrorism, hostility to the international community, an end to democracy and possibility a refugee crisis. You can stick your head in the sand, but the problems of the world will, ultimately wash up around you.

Outragitis pandemic

Political Health England (PHE) has identified a dangerous new e-virus that appears to cause inflammation of ‘outrage’. With the R-number already thought to be above one, meaning that one malign idea will be transmitted to more than one other, PHE has issued a national warning and are conducting surge testing within SW1 postcodes, where a particularly aggressive strain is feared to be transmitting. Those with an interest in current affairs are thought to be most at risk, as the e-virus can probably survive for up to 24 hours in tweets and remain infective in op-eds for as long as two weeks. There are thought to be reservoirs of the e-virus within ancient ideologies of the left and right. Political scientists are currently investigating how the e-virus may have jumped from its original source into the mass-market. The leading hypothesis is that it infected a small number of political activists who found that while ultimately self-defeating and deadly, a short-term uptick in support and electoral advantage arises from claims that everything a government does is part of a Machiavellian conspiracy to undermine the public good and weaken democratic institutions. Another hypothesis is that the e-virus may have spread in the UK through the importation of campaign techniques, political practices and narratives endemic in the United States. PHE has asked the public to be alert in the traditional and social media, in cafes and pubs or at the dinner table, for phrases such as “we’re no longer a democracy”, or “…is no longer fit for purpose”, or “…threatens everything we hold dear”, “…is worse than it’s ever been”, or simply “I hate his/her politics/idea”. Political scientists and private sector companies such as newspapers and media outlets are working on a vaccine, although none has been developed in less than a decade during previous outbreaks.

Resist the Trump Disinfectant Doctrine over lobbying Read the rest of this entry »

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UNCUT: Labour should be excited about President Biden demonstrating that another future is possible

19/04/2021, 10:28:47 PM

by Jonathan Todd

“I’ve been hired to solve problems, not create division,” President Biden told a press conference at the end of March. This contrasts with his antagonistic predecessor and imposes his interpretation on a mandate gained with 81 million presidential votes.

When Barack Obama won the presidency with a then record-breaking 69 million votes, no one imagined that his vice president would go nearly 12 million votes better 12 years hence. Even more absurd would have been the idea that the 2020 election would also see Donald Trump beat Obama’s 2008 tally by 5 million votes.

Trump’s appeal may have been strong enough to secure victory without Covid-19 – which raised the stakes of the election. If profiting from division was all that mattered, we would be in Trump’s second term.

As performative patriotism abounds and blame for Brexit’s shortcomings is heaped on the EU, we do not need to look across the Atlantic to know that manipulation of division can seem a route to political dividend.

Labour’s challenge – like Biden’s – is to make a politics of solutions more compelling than that of division. The former is about tangible optimism, the latter stoking grievance.

The historically unprecedented speed with which Covid-19 vaccines have been developed is testament to humanity’s enduring capacity to think our way to reasons for cheerfulness. But now is not the time to stop thinking.

We need to vaccinate the world more quickly than the virus can mutate to evade our vaccines. To not do so risks global economic and social calamity.

We need to tackle climate change with the same innovative intensity as produced the vaccines. The alternative is disaster to dwarf Covid-19.

We face tremendous challenges that evade borders. What happens in Brazil, for example, does not stay in Brazil. The more Covid-19 skyrockets in south America’s most populous country, the more likely we are to suffer a vaccine-resistant mutation. The more the Amazon is destroyed, the harder it will be for us to limit climate change.

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GRASSROOTS: If Keir Starmer is serious about equality, Labour must start thinking in constitutional terms once again

14/04/2021, 10:45:56 PM

by Sanjit Nagi

Since his seminal speech ‘A New Chapter for Britain’, Keir Starmer has made clear the fundamental value which drives his politics: equality. Or rather, Labour’s central aim under his leadership is to remedy the severe inequality that has stemmed from eleven years of deregulation, low pay, job insecurity, child poverty, inaccessible education, and health and racial disparities. Because of this, it is completely correct for him to say the very fabric and foundation of our polity has been severely damaged and needs repair.

Thus far Labour have been policy shy. But reading between the lines there has been some indication of how a Labour government would address inequality; all of which broadly hit the right note: better public services, racial parity, investment in skills and training, education reform, affordable homes, a care system that treats old age with dignity, and tackling the climate emergency.

But if Keir Starmer and the Labour Party want to secure Britain’s future and really entrench the value of equality across all walks of life, they have to start thinking in constitutional terms once again. By this, I mean there must be a commitment to a new settlement of socio-economic rights, guarantees, and responsibilities extended to all citizens.

Constitutional change in the form of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA 1998) was a monumental moment in respect of liberty. Thanks to Labour, an era of individual rights began where we the people were entitled and able to enforce fundamental civil and political rights (located in the European Convention on Human Rights) domestically. Despite the Conservatives’ consistent attacks and threats to replace the HRA 1998, it has (so far) stood the test of time and delivered: key victories in areas of privacy and family life, fair trial, right to life, and freedom of religion; a duty on all public bodies to act in a way which is compatible with a person’s human rights; and increased executive accountability via judicial review. This piece of legislation is now so deep-rooted within our constitutional make-up, it is not controversial to say that taking it away from us would result in major political ramifications.

Labour should now commit itself to introducing a second Human Rights Act which guarantees the social and economic needs of citizens. The right to: health and social care, social housing, education, social security, disability protection, safety at work, parity between all genders, and the protection against poverty and social exclusion. It might also recognise and seek to protect the position of unpaid labour within the system e.g. parenting or those in the voluntary sector who are so often overlooked and underappreciated. The European Social Charter provides some indication of what this second Human Rights Act might look like.

The pandemic has shown what socio-economic guarantees we all need to survive. A commitment to codifying these key human interests could shift the constitutional terrain once again, providing for: new fundamental entitlements for citizens, a new duty on the state to meet basic standards, and greater accountability – via judicial review –  of things which are of relevance to us all.

Labour have already committed to a new Race Equality Act to tackle the structural racism present in modern day. Whilst this is most welcome and much needed, it would be even more effective if coupled with an enforceable regime of socio-economic rights. As there can be no real discussion about structural racism without understanding accessibility and discrimination within health, work, education and beyond. This is even more pressing in light of the Conservative government’s Commission of Race and Ethnic Disparities downplaying and dismissing the extent of structural racism.

A new piece of constitutionally-significant legislation as described would seriously begin Labour’s task of building a fairer, more equal society. It would also clearly set Labour apart from the Conservatives in terms of narrative and principles: Labour believes in enshrining rights and protecting your interests.

The move towards a second Human Rights Act might be resisted with weak arguments such as its unviability or it skewing policy and resource allocation towards the courts. But like the HRA 1998 ensures greater government accountability whilst resisting judicial overreach, the design of a second Human Rights Act could do the same. A better argument against social and economic rights are their democratic legitimacy. Where new interests are created and affect everybody, everybody should have the greatest equal influence over them. This might be solved via multiple citizen assemblies; bringing together a representative cross-section of society – lay persons and experts – to decide on the shape of the socio-economic guarantees.

Moreover, Labour should supplement this second Human Rights Act by reviving Gordon Brown’s government proposal for an ethical framework of ‘Rights and Responsibilities’. The aim of this bill is to give practical expression to shared community values, foster civic responsibility and tolerance of others. For example, the Green Paper released identified a number of duties that we might all owe one another: respectful treatment of public sector workers i.e. NHS staff et al; civic participation in the form of voting and jury service; respecting our environment for future generations; obeying laws and paying taxes; and protecting the welfare of our children. These duties are not exhaustive and might be expanded on e.g. a greater emphasis on diversity and race or on our environmental obligations. There would be no physical enforcement of these obligations. A supplementary constitutional document of this kind simply seeks to codify the feeling of collective responsibility – that does exist in Britain and has been seen during the pandemic – and help to build a society that is both fairer and more cohesive.

The great social and economic advancements of all Labour governments – Attlee, Wilson, and Blair – were secured through political change and implemented through parliamentary legislation. But there has never been any form of constitutional protection of the NHS, public housing, state education and all the other socio-economic guarantees listed above. Nor has there been any real campaign or drive to do so. But we cannot fool ourselves in thinking these ordinary means are enough. We’ve seen how the Conservatives have left vital services in decay and have reduced access of large sections of society to the absolute basic minimums human beings require to live – causing gross inequality for a generation. We’ve seen how fragile our own lives are when we do not have shelter, are unable to eat or drink, are out of work, or have no support for loved ones who are either ill or elderly.

So, if Keir Starmer and Labour truly wish to rid Britain of its inequalities and insecurity, deep-rooted constitutional change – which will survive future governments – is an essential starting point.

Sanjit Nagi is a PhD Researcher and Visiting Lecturer

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GRASSROOTS: Jack Lesgrin’s Week

13/04/2021, 10:46:47 PM

In a new regular feature, Jack Lesgrin gives a wry perspective on what’s caught the eye over the past week

A shepherdess speaks

In a fluff piece to promote her new Channel 5 documentary, celebrity Yorkshire shepherdess Amanda Owen opined in The Times about how “the snowflake generation, they can’t do anything”. Laying the blame at the door of parents, and not knowingly affected by self-awareness, she noted of her own situation that “living here gives you a different mindset, a can-do mindset.” I imagine her motivational tips will go down as well as a tank full of slurry among the millions of parents who do their best to bring up children in small houses or flats in our inner-cities, with tiny or no gardens, limited outdoor space, low incomes, high crime levels, and sky-high property prices due to a planning system that favours rural NIMBYs. After all, not everyone is blessed by living on a 2,000 acre farm, or having lucrative second jobs such as presenting a hit Channel 5 show or being a best selling author. What next, tips on entrepreneurship by someone who inherited the seed capital from a rich relative?

Add Fennel for the flavour of success

Speaking of which, your correspondent was intrigued to gain yet more insights on the magic of success during BBC Radio 4’s Profile of the obviously talented Emerald Fennell – who readers may know as The Crown’s Camilla and who is currently Oscar-nominated for her film Promising Young Woman.

It is important that the world understands the elixir that could explain her mastery of more career roles by the age of 35, than most provincial towns could muster across their entire population during two centuries (actress, novelist, television writer, screenwriter, film director, television producer, film producer, and playwright).

Could it be the bohemian household of her childhood, which welcomed the great and the good from showbiz? I guess had most people been asked by family friend Andrew Lloyd Webber to re-write Cinderella for him, it might have boosted their confidence, too.

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GRASSROOTS: A plea to Keir Starmer: put community at the heart of all of Labour’s policies

12/04/2021, 10:33:34 PM

by Joanne Harding

Roll up, roll up, there’s a new show in town.

We are going to do things differently now, we are going to call it PLACE BASED WORKING.  This just makes me want to breathe into a brown paper bag as I think, here we go again.

Another slogan, more jargon. Can’t we just keep it real and talk about what we really mean?

Communities and people.

The word community means something to all of us.

A sense of belonging, a sense of togetherness and at the heart of it lies people.

As we recover from the past, horrific year we must surely recognise the value and importance of communities and people.

I am therefore making a plea to Labour, under Keir Starmer’s leadership, to put community front and centre in all the policies we develop. Labours policies need to be genuinely relatable to the people we aspire to govern. Speaking a language that we all understand. Let me make myself really clear here, I do not mean Labour Party community organising, I mean genuinely listening to people.

As executive lead for adult social care, I see regularly first-hand just how amazing people are. From the huge outpouring of kindness as the pandemic took hold, the letters that were dropped through neighbours’ doors with an offer of shopping, collecting prescriptions, walking the dog. Those WhatsApp groups that became known as “ mutual aid networks” (subtext: people, communities stepping up and finding their own solutions) , the Marcus Rashford campaign to make sure children didn’t go hungry during school holidays, people and communities stepping up and helping each other.

Here in Trafford I was proud to be part of a team that led on the setting up of 6 community hubs. Hubs that have proved to be a lifeline to the people they have supported. We broke down barriers in the space of ten days that in ten years as a councillor had caused endless hours of frustration.

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UNCUT: Keir Starmer’s task is to show how the Tories’ choices left Britain so exposed to the ravages of the crisis. Just like David Cameron did to Labour in 2008

06/04/2021, 10:35:20 PM

by David Talbot

When Gordon Brown took to the despatch box for Prime Minister Questions in late 2008, his slip of the tongue – that he had “saved the world” – was, of course, mercilessly mocked by his many detractors. Brown’s handling of the financial crisis, both actual and perceived, went on to form the nucleus of the Conservatives’ electoral strategy for the election two years later – and to dominate British politics for the next decade.

History has since judged the efforts of Gordon Brown to recapitalise the world economy in a rather more favourable light. Indeed, a rather noted economist may even agree with his assessment. But it provided a perfect wedge opportunity for the then opposition Conservative party who, as history has also rather forgotten, had hitherto pledged to match Labour’s spending plans.

The Conservatives’ ruthless exploitation of the global recession, and its central accusation that Labour’s profligacy had largely caused it, was the platform on which it fought the 2010 and 2015 elections. It was a conscious and potent choice to blame Gordon Brown and the Labour Party as being solely responsible for the recession and to continually fuel fears that the country was on the brink of bankruptcy. ‘Borrowing’ became the bogey word in British politics and the deficit the fulcrum in which all political decisions were taken. In a perfect illustration of how it is the victors that write history, the budget deficit today is exactly double what David Cameron and George Osborne were apparently so apoplectic about in 2010.

What, then, are the lessons to be applied to today’s, COVID-dominated, politics? Sir Keir Starmer marked his year in post with a missive in the organ of the left, the Observer, stating that the Prime Minister’s “slowness to act at crucial moments cost many lives and jobs”. It was possibly Starmer’s most damning assessment to date of the government’s handling of the pandemic, but it was mentioned only in fleeting, and not as a central thread of an event that, as the Prime Minister himself has admitted, the country will be dealing with for a lifetime.

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GRASSROOTS: Will the UK’s relationship with coal burn on?

06/04/2021, 08:30:55 AM

by Benjamin Robinson

Near the end of 2020, the UK government published ‘The Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’. It outlined how the country will emerge from the Covid pandemic through a green recovery and achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. In doing this, it promises hundreds of thousands of high-skilled high-paid jobs as, in the words of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, investment turns the UK “into the world’s number one centre for green technology and finance”.

The importance of this plan goes beyond domestic borders. At the end of 2021, the UK will host COP26, the UN conference in which Johnson’s Government must convince the gathered international parties to fulfil the Paris Agreement and ultimately tackle climate change. By setting out a seemingly impressive carbon reduction strategy, the UK is also challenging other countries to follow suit in a game in which the stakes could not be higher. According to US Climate Change Envoy John Kerry, the conference to be held in Glasgow “is the last, best opportunity that we have” for the world to avoid the catastrophe of rising global temperatures.

With this in mind, one could understandably be confused to learn that only a month on from the publication of the plan for a green transformation, permission was granted to open the first new deep coal mine in the UK for thirty years. The £165m mine, near Whitehaven in north-east England, was given the green light by the Cumbria County Council who were drawn in by the prospect of jobs. The ward has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the UK and the 500 jobs provided by the mine and the many more it will support are seen as a lifeline to the deprived area.

Whilst Cumbria Council shortly succumbed to pressure from environmental groups and announced they were reconsidering the mine’s application, it took the Government three months to do likewise. The protracted time to do so asks real questions of Johnson’s green agenda. The mine is projected to have an appreciable impact on the UK’s carbon budgets, with greater annual emissions than that of all of the current open UK coal mines combined. Moreover, the UK is one of the leading countries in the Powering Past Coal Alliance, a coalition of governments supposedly working to move the world on from coal.

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