Stopping Brexit is a race against time. Labour MPs are in pole position

01/11/2017, 10:27:42 PM

by Rob Marchant

Perhaps, just perhaps, historians might look back at this week and say, that is the week that the tide started to turn against populist politics and at least some parts of the world managed to save themselves from it.

Probably for some states, Turkey, Hungary, Russia and perhaps Poland, from where I write, it is too late. But some with longer-established democratic traditions still may have the will and the mechanisms to turn it around, in time to prevent lasting damage.

It has been the week of two signal events: the first indictments in Trump/Russia, which may yet lead to the early collapse of an ignominious presidency; and a poll showing that public opinion may finally have twigged that Brexit negotiations are headed down a blind alley with no good result for Britain.

The first is the tip of an immense iceberg which is as yet far too early to call. But the second we can project a little into the future. So, when a YouGov poll says 53% of voters think we were wrong to leave the EU and 47% right, it is worth reflecting on. First, it could be a mere blip, an outlier. Second, this does not mean the Remainers in that poll think that we can even try and leave, as YouGov themselves argue here.

But let’s suppose that 53% were to become 60%, or even 70%. At what point does public opinion become strong enough that politicians have to sit up and think about remedial action? Clearly that point exists, if you can push the percentage high enough. Public opinion can be a fickle thing: but when it starts to decide something unequivocally, it cannot be ignored.

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If MPs privately oppose Brexit, they should show some public leadership and make the case against it

31/10/2017, 11:03:14 PM

by Jonathan Todd

To begin with a confession, when I heard that Douglas Ross, the Conservative MP for Highlands and Islands, was running the line in a Champions League match in the Nou Camp, I thought, “wow, how impressive and exciting”. While the hinterland – to use Denis Healey’s term – of too many MPs seems offensively and dangerously shallow, this is elite, non-political activity.

The generally negative reaction to Ross, including the oh-so-funny brandishing of a red card by SNP MP John McNally in PMQs, has felt to me curmudgeonly and small-minded. It reminded me of Roy Jenkins’ autobiography:

“I am strongly against the current fashion for full-time MPs … Being a full-time backbench MP is not in my view a satisfactory occupation … Excessive attendance at the House of Commons, with the too many hours spent hanging around in tearoom or smoking room which this implies, either atrophies the brain or obsesses it with the minutiae of political gossip and intrigue.”

These words have become heresy in the not quite three decades since written. We’d rather atrophy Ross’ brain than test it alongside Lionel Messi.

Yet we need MPs with brains more than ever. We need them, too, to have the courage, reinforced by a confidence that, if necessary, they’d prosper in careers outside of politics, to use them.

Shackling MPs to the tearoom limits their horizons. It makes them more likely to feel that their financial well-being can only be maintained by securing re-election, heightening the probability that their only instinct will be to follow constituency opinion. If this is all MPs are, we might as well have a legislature composed of 650 local sentiment algorithms.

Political life is a vocation or nothing. There’s scant point to any of it without animating purpose. There’s no socially democratic aim served by Brexit. Thus, social democratic MPs ought not to accept Brexit, or to only secretly hope that public opinion turns against it; they should, instead, stand for their pro-EU convictions and seek to move opinion with them.

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The Monday column: It’s time to curb the excesses of our lecherous legislators

30/10/2017, 07:33:08 AM

Westminster is full of priapic politicians and its casual culture of sexual opportunism has demanded attention for decades.

Yesterday’s Mail on Sunday revelations about trade minister, Mark Garnier – referring to his secretary as “sugar tits” while instructing her to purchase sex toys for him – feels closer to one of those dreadful 1970s Robin Askwith sex comedies – but its behaviour that would get anyone in any other organisation the sack.

Everyone in politics is aware of the few bad apples that lurk in each party’s barrel and further revelations about our lecherous legislators will follow in coming days.

The wandering hands, suggestive comments and leering looks are part of the fabric of our dysfunctional system that sees MPs – voting aside – generally left to organise their own working lives.

Late nights and constant boozing hardly help enforce desirable codes of behaviour. Throw in the seedy glamour of politics – the intrigue and back-stabbing – and it’s a combustible mix, for some, who perceive they have a free pass to behave appallingly.

And while laws to protect workers from sexual harassment apply just as readily to Parliament, those abusing their position are abetted by a culture of deference.

Not helped by the fact that the victims of harassment and predation in our political system are usually ambitious people themselves.

At the risk of stating the obvious, discretion is expected in politics. There’s a culture of what goes on in Westminster stays in Westminster and everyone who works there signs-up for that.

MPs demand loyalty, which is why they generally recruit from within their tribe. This inhibits staff facing unreasonable behaviour from speaking out. They know that to do so is career suicide.

None of this makes harassment acceptable, but it helps explain why it happens and why the victims of it are so reluctant to speak out.

Lacing the cafeteria tea urn with bromide might help, but the bigger aim should be to regularise Parliament as a workplace.

Reducing late night sittings and the endless round of receptions and dinners would be a useful place to start.

Ensuring that staffing disputes and complaints are arbitrated by a proper, functioning HR system, as Theresa May seems to be suggesting, is a sensible reform. The risk of investigation should be enough to make all but the most errant MPs behave themselves.

And rather than collecting dirt on their colleagues for the purposes of political leverage, perhaps the Whips offices should be held accountable for the conduct of their MPs.

Making them more accountable is the way to improve the behaviour of those MPs letting the side down. No doubt there will be a correlation between the lechers and the indolent. The hard-working and industrious parliamentarians have little to fear.

No-one enters political life – at whatever level – expecting it to be easy. Politics is and always will be a contact sport.

But when that contact involves being pawed or propositioned – or worse – by sozzled MPs there is clearly a line that needs redrawing.

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Irish reunification will land in our next Prime Minister’s in-tray

26/10/2017, 10:34:57 PM

by Kevin Meagher

Given the not inconsiderable amount of flak that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have both received for their views on Northern Ireland, it is perhaps not surprising that ne’er a pipsqueak has been uttered by either of them on the subject in recent times.

But the prospect of a Labour Government requires some hard thinking about how Labour will approach Northern Ireland. It is no longer enough to coast along issuing bromides about the Good Friday Agreement.

There will be no escaping Northern Ireland in the next parliament, particularly as its shifting demography means it’s now a racing certainty that its constitutional status will be brought into question.

An opinion poll this week asked 18-44 year olds whether they wanted to ‘leave’ and become part of a single Irish state or ‘remain’ in the UK.  Fifty-six per cent wanted to live in a united Ireland and just 34 per cent opted for the status quo. Irish reunification is a medium-term reality.

In response, Labour needs to do three things.

First, the party should do everything possible to help restore the devolved institutions. Government efforts at doing so, following the collapse of the executive back in January, have been faltering – to put it delicately. What has been a problem throughout 2017 is now metastasising into a full-blown crisis.

This follows revelations that Arlene Foster, in her previous role as enterprise minister back in 2012, botched the implemented of a renewable heating subsidy that is set to stack up a £500 million liability for the Northern Ireland Executive. A judge-led inquiry is currently investigating.

The Northern Ireland Secretary, the aptly-named James Brokenshire, lacks credibility and has struggled to set out a convincing way forward. He recently warned Northern Ireland was on a ‘glide path’ back to Direct Rule from Whitehall unless a breakthrough can be made. It’s an epithet that also sums up his dismal tenure in the role.

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Labour – the new stupid party

22/10/2017, 10:30:08 PM

The Monday Column

How many times can you write: ‘Labour is screwed’ before you give up and do something else? Whatever the limit is, there’s a good chance we’ve now reached it. You can tell because correspondents on Uncut and many other blogs and publications on the centre-left have given up saying it.

I mean, what’s the point? 

Labour’s direction of travel is now set for the next few years, certainly until after Brexit in 2019. In lieu of issuing Cassandra-like warnings about the lurch to the hard left, there is little else left to say or write. The unreality of contemporary Labour politics merits little serious analysis.

Of course, Jeremy Corbyn makes lots of speeches, but the content is invariably a reheated version of the same stump speech that he’s been making for the last thirty years (‘It’s not right that…’) There is little by the way of policy or strategy to scrutinise and discuss, with Corbyn’s recent Labour conference speech plumbing new depths of banality, culminating with a shout-out birthday greeting for Diane Abbott.

There is no attempt at widening Labour’s support base or providing a realistic programme for government. There is little to say about how an advanced market economy copes with Brexit and cultivates enough decently-paid jobs in a future of growing automation. Or how limitless demand for public services can be effectively managed and financed and our welfare state reformed so it provides affordable care for children and the elderly alike.

The mantra is simply ‘spend, don’t offend.’ There is no problem increasing public spending or extending public ownership cannot resolve. State-owned trains will never be late. The Royal Mail must be renationalised as a priority, apparently, just so the taxpayer can take on its pension fund deficit. Middle-class students’ university tuition will be eagerly paid for by working class young workers, (who themselves will never get the chance to go near a university).  Capital controls will ensure that jittery speculators and fund managers can’t rain on the socialist parade. 

Of course, the offer of ‘free stuff’ will not withstand a casual brush with the realities of government. But no-one seems to care about the small details any more. Even the Conservative Research Department must have given up keeping track of Labour’s open-ended spending commitments. (more…)

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Young Labour is just the start. Momentum is coming for Labour’s soul

20/10/2017, 01:56:15 PM

by Rob Marchant

Last week, in a set of motions to conference, Labour railed against British “imperialism”, decided to come out of NATO, nationalise the City and advocated that Israel can happily be abolished.

Actually, no. That was Young Labour. Bless them: there were probably tens or hundreds of sensible motions there which got no coverage (and you could almost forgive the howling historical gaffes in the text of these: Britain was in the Vietnam War? Really?)

But, as often in politics, the outliers tell a story: it was a useful indicator of what is likely to happen within Labour itself over the next few years, if there is no successful challenge to the current leadership.

The logic is not complex: the direction of travel of conference motions is clearly moving ever further towards the nutty. And naturally, what is commonplace in Young Labour today is going to be commonplace in Labour itself tomorrow.

It is typical in Labour circles – as in many unions – to argue that no-one pays any attention to such motions, it’s all a storm in a teacup, and so on. In the case of unions, that is almost certainly the case – union conferences rarely get much press coverage nowadays, and there have always been nutty motions.

The difference is that, in the case of the Labour Party, people do pay attention. In fact, the party spent years painstakingly recovering its credibility after its disastrous early 1980s conferences descended into farce, through precisely that kind of behaviour. It was only in 1985 when Kinnock raged brilliantly against Militant in his “scuttling around in taxis” speech, that there came a turning point in the party’s long, hard road back to credibility and, ultimately, to government.

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Gauke is tone deaf to the plight of UC claimants. He should resign

19/10/2017, 05:09:40 PM

by Joe Anderson

David Gauke had the opportunity to show that he recognised the problems with the roll-out of Universal Credit, specifically the appalling wait of six weeks – or often longer – than claimants face for payments.

But he fluffed it.

The Secretary of State’s ‘concession’ over the 55p a minute helpline at the DWP committee is small beer in the grand scheme of things. Frankly, the line should have always been free to use.

After all, the phone lines of the CAB, debt advice charities and the Samaritans will be ringing off the hook if this policy now proceeds unchecked.

Only millionaire ministers and salaried civil servants could be so tone deaf to the situation that poor and vulnerable people find themselves in, robbing Peter to pay Paul. It is no exaggeration to say that Christmas will be a misery for millions of families as a result of the botched implementation of Universal Credit.

Meanwhile Neil Couling, the DWP’s senior official dealing with the roll-out, added insult to injury when he told the DWP Committee that he wanted to make the appointments booking process for those struggling with their benefits akin to ‘when we book a holiday and reserve our seat’.

What part of this don’t they understand?

Leaving families and vulnerable people without money for weeks on end – all because Tory ministers regard them as the ‘undeserving poor’ – will lead to misery, debt and eviction in all too many cases.

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In-work benefits and the minimum wage: a story of callous Tory disregard for poverty, and the arrant hypocrisy of Jeremy Corbyn

12/10/2017, 03:57:45 PM

by George Kendall

During the coalition of 2010-2015, when the government was facing a record peacetime deficit, many Conservative cuts to welfare were blocked by the Liberal Democrats. In the 2015 election, the Tories took many Liberal Democrat seats, which gave them a majority. They then passed legislation to implement most of these cuts.

Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader on the back of trenchant opposition to welfare cuts, however, when his team wrote their 2017 manifesto, they chose to continue those that had not yet been implemented. According to the Resolution Foundation, they only allocated £2bn/yr to reduce these welfare cuts, which would leave £7bn/yr in place. There was confusion among Corbyn spokespeople, but, by the end of the campaign, Corbyn’s policy of continuing most of the planned draconian cuts to welfare was confirmed as still in place.

I’ve previously written about this here and here, and the responses I have received from Corbyn supporters have been varied, and contradictory.

  • Some acknowledged that Corbyn’s manifesto didn’t allocate the money to stop these future cuts, but said Corbyn would never implement them. Of course, they never explained which of Corbyn’s campaign promises he would break, in order to fund the gaping hole in his budget
  • Others claimed it was fake news. They dismissed analysis of the Corbyn manifesto by the Resolution Foundation as reported in the Guardianby the IFSin the Independentand the New Statesman, even statements by Barry GardinerJeremy Corbyn and Emily Thornberry. Their denial of reality is an echo of the supporters of Donald Trump
  • But the most common response was that these cuts would be offset by other Corbyn policies, especially a rise in the minimum wage

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J’accuse

10/10/2017, 10:10:00 PM

by Robert Williams

Almost the entire political class in the UK is a pathetic, cowardly disgrace. I don’t mean the committed Brexiteers, those anti Europeans who hate the idea of co-operation with our closest neighbours, and who fantasise about turning the UK into the 51st state of America, or some sort of low tax, low regulation, low quality, cheaper, nastier and colder version of Singapore.

Neither do I mean the strange group of Labour MPs, including the Dear Leader and his shadow chancellor, Dennis Skinner and Kelvin Hopkins, who believe in a left wing version of Brexit (“Lexit”) because they think the EU is a capitalist club, and they want to deliver “socialism” in one country.

These groups represent nothing but a tiny minority of their parties, and are even less representative of the country. They know this, which is why they scream and shout about the “will of the people”, deliberately ignoring the fact that the “people” amounted to 37% of the electorate voting to leave.

If you believe that leaving the EU will be a disaster, diminishing Britain permanently and wrecking our economy, those you should have real contempt for are the moderates. Some of these pro Europe centrist MPs, the vast majority in the Labour Party, and still making up the majority of conservative MPs, are now meekly and pathetically accepting that we will, in some form or another, indeed leave the EU.

It cannot be stressed enough that the Brexit referendum was utterly flawed and based on nothing but lies and fantasy. Young people between 16 and 17, most affected by the decision, were excluded from the vote. British expats were excluded from the vote. It was a non-binding referendum, won by a flimsy majority, following a campaign based on outright lies, misrepresentation, distortion, funded by extremely dodgy sources and with likely malign influence of American billionaires and Russian cyber bots.

Last year’s referendum was the most shameless example in British history of our democratic deficit.

And this was just the process. As events have developed the never ending stream of bad news about our economy, our credibility, our ability to take control of anything at all should be enough to make a sane and rational MP, to think again.

And yet we have the truly incredible sight of the weakest, most divided and intellectually enfeebled government in modern history, utterly clueless in what sort of Brexit they desire, who show not the slightest understanding of how the EU works, how trade agreements work, who can’t plan, prepare or negotiate, and are fast turning Britain into a banana republic, an international laughing stock.

And this is supported by the Labour Opposition, with the courageous exception of 52 Labour MPs who voted against the Brexit Bill. The rest really should know better.

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Letter from Barcelona: Labour’s Spanish lessons

03/10/2017, 10:13:45 PM

by Rob Marchant

In between the petty spats of the Tory conference this week or the surreal cult of Labour’s gathering last week, there was a potentially seismic political event for Europe (and Britain) a thousand miles away: Sunday’s referendum for Catalan independence. It is big news: while a major general election campaign was happening in the EU’s most populous country, this little region’s impending vote was stealing the headlines for much of it.

It seems suddenly shocking but, for those of us familiar with Spanish and Catalan politics, it is essentially an event that has been at least a decade in the making, but which has approached Spain’s now largely stable democracy like a relentless iceberg, and which the national government’s general cack-handedness has made it seemingly powerless to stop.

This time, around 90% of the votes have been cast for “Sí”, although the vote is technically illegal and many anti-independence voters have naturally boycotted it. Reasons are many: there is first raw, emotional nationalism; then more rational, economic unfairness (Catalonia is a net contributor to taxes and “subsidises” poorer regions; some may even have voted yes in the (mistaken) belief that Spain’s foreign policy had somehow helped precipitate recent ISIS attacks in Barcelona and an independent Catalonia would instead be safe.

So the result, illegal or otherwise, is hugely important for Catalonia, Spain and Europe. But how did they get here?

For about a quarter-century following the “Transición” (the transition to democracy after Franco’s death), the Catalans had a nationalist party running their regional government, the CiU (Convergéncia i Unión).

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