2018: The year of still living dangerously

04/01/2018, 11:03:44 PM

by Rob Marchant

If you thought 2017 was a disturbing time for world geopolitics, hang on to your hats. Last January we wrote about the potential bear-traps of a Trump presidency. One year into it, they are all still there and mostly look worse.

Current situations in Iran, North Korea, Syria, Ukraine and the Baltic states all look like either remaining, or escalating into, serious conflicts during 2018. Worse than that, we live in genuinely unstable times where the historical precedents are not great.

Aggressive powers – mostly Russia and its client states – have been appeased over recent years in a manner eerily reminiscent of the way fascist powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) were appeased in the 1930s, also following a few years after a major financial crisis and world recession. And that decade didn’t end too well.

The problem that Jeremy Corbyn has is, of course, that he is on the wrong side of the debate regarding all these potential flashpoints. While he will equivocate and be plausibly deniable over his support or not in each case, let’s look at the facts.

  1. Iran: Corbyn was paid to present on the regime’s propaganda mouthpiece PressTV (note that this is not the same as appearing on it, although frankly even that is a questionable action, given its banning from the airwaves by OfCom for breaches of broadcasting standards). He appeared on it even six months after its licence was revoked. Further, he has yet to even comment on, let alone support the protesters in, the ongoing scuffles and their violent suppression of the last week, or criticise Iran’s despotic and repressive government.
  2. With North Korea, although he has superficially appealed to both the US and North Korea for calm and argued for them to disarm (a somewhat optimistic appeal in either case), Corbyn’s inner circle also contains known regime apologists such as Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray. Until becoming leader, he chaired Stop the War Coalition (now chaired by Murray), an organisation which superficially advocates for peace but, strangely, never seems to criticise any governments apart from those in the West. Maintaining this disingenuous, “will both sides please step back” approach, while simultaneously implying that only one side is to blame, is typical of Corbyn’s “cognitive dissonance” approach to foreign policy.
  3. Similarly, in all his comments on Syria, he has never once criticised Bashar Assad, a dictator known to have committed mass-murder against his own citizens. He also said there was “very strong evidence” supporting the Russia-propagated position that the use of sarin gas was by the rebels and not by the Assad regime, later proven to be a lie.
  4. Finally, in Ukraine, Milne propagated the Russia-pushed (and blatantly untrue) line that the Euromaidan protestors in Kyiv were having their strings pulled by fascists. If Russia were to attempt a full takeover of the country, or march into one of the Baltic states (something not at all beyond the realms of possibility in the potentially limited window while Trump remains POTUS), you could guarantee that at best he would appeal for calm on both sides, rather than supporting Britain’s treaty obligation to respond in kind via NATO.For those who do not consider a Baltic invasion possible, by the way, please consider (i) the deep nervousness of the states themselves and (ii) the relative ease with which Putin has already browbeaten and manipulated the world into relatively passive acceptance of his invasion of three Ukrainian provinces. The cost so far has been only selective sanctions on Russian individuals, sanctions which Trump has already (unsuccessfully) attempted to lift. The only difference here is NATO: again, something which Trump is dismissive of.

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The Uncuts: 2017 political awards (part IV)

02/01/2018, 06:08:11 PM

Flash in the pan award – metro mayors

Eight months on from the election of the first swathe of ‘metro mayors’ in some of our larger conurbations, and, well…

Only Andy Burnham has anything close to a national profile, aided by the fact he has responsibility for the NHS and social care system across Greater Manchester and easily rose the occasion, responding to the ISIS suicide attack on Manchester Arena last May.

The Tories’ Andy Street – former John Lewis boss – is assiduously working away on a second tranche of devolution for the West Midlands, but his strong anti-Brexit stance will hardly endear him to his colleagues in Westminster.

The basic problem for the metro mayors is that the whole idea feels like it’s reached its peak.

They have two big problems.

First, they have a near-impossible task in showing they’ve achieved anything by the time they’re up for re-election in 2020. They have precious little in the way of retail powers. Producing a draft spatial strategy, or appointing a ‘fairness czar’ is hardly going to cut it with the voters.

The second problem is that Whitehall has moved on. Devolution was Osborne’s thing and there’s little sense Theresa May – more excited about her ‘Modern Industrial Strategy’ – is remotely interested in prolonging the experiment.

You can imagine a scenario in the Downing Street bunker when a solemn Burnham appears on the television, and the PM flings one of her garish shoes at the telly. ‘Why have we given Burnham a platform to slag us off every day?!’

‘Dunno boss,’ a flunky will say, ‘Osborne thought it was a good idea…’

And that will be all it needs. Local authority leaders on the Combined Authorities will get to keep the devo deals they’ve negotiated but they’ll no longer be contingent on having an elected mayor. The Prime Minister can leave Labour council leaders to wield the dagger quicker than you can say ‘Infamy! Infamy!’

Little local difficulty award – Ireland & Brexit

It all seemed so easy, the Irish border issue. Last January, during her Lancaster House speech setting out her initial approach to Brexit, the Prime Minister breezily passed over the issue entirely. Not one specific mention was made of how the border would be sorted, post-Brexit.

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The Uncuts: 2017 political awards (part III)

31/12/2017, 03:13:07 PM

Global winner of the year – Vladimir Putin

While it must be obvious to the world that, under latter-day Putin Russia is no longer a free-speech democracy – if, indeed, it ever truly was one – there is no denying his effectiveness as a manipulator of world affairs. After convincing Obama to strike an ineffectual nuclear deal with Iran and that Russia should be empowered to mediate a “peace” in Syria; or that no-one should lift a finger to help Ukraine when he invaded; last year it was apparently interfering in US and other Western elections.

This year he has been more audacious than ever: he has managed to nurture a tenant of the White House – the White House – who is actively blocking attempts to curb his informational power, such as propaganda, hacking and social media trolling; let alone any attempts to see Russia as the frighteningly real military threat it has increasingly become.

And if you doubt that last statement, you need only note that Russia spends double what most NATO nations do on defence as a proportion of GDP, while considering that it is hardly defending itself from other, belligerent nations. It can only be for aggressive actions: in old-fashioned terms, empire-building.

Yes, North Korea might be a more immediate threat to the West but, oh, guess who visited Kim Jong Il in May? Stirring up chaos is what Putin delights in.

When in 2012 Mitt Romney described Russia as “our no. 1 geopolitical foe”, Obama and many others laughed haughtily. “The 1980s are calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” They ain’t laughing now.

Straight talking, honest politics awardJeremy Corbyn

A few weeks ago, Jeremy Corbyn’s aides admitted a few weeks ago what we all knew: that he had, in fact, been consciously appealing to both sides of the Brexit debate. Corbyn, a lifelong Eurosceptic, knew that he could not get away with going for an all-out, hard-Brexit position, given the opposite view of most of the parliamentary party and party policy as set by conference. Straight talking, honest politics indeed.

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The Uncuts: 2017 political awards (part II)

30/12/2017, 10:40:47 PM

Honourable Order of Sisyphus – Theresa May

There’s something of a trend to the fate of Uncut’s politicians of the year. In 2015 it was David Cameron, followed by his 2016 which earned him the Honorary Order of Suez.

Last year’s politician of the year was Theresa May and in 2017, once again, she’s among the awards. This time she wins the Honourable Order of Sisyphus.

To refresh, Sisyphus was condemned for his hubris by Zeus, to push a huge boulder up a hill in the underworld, only for boulder to roll away back to the bottom as he neared the top, compelling Sisyphus to start again.

Unending frustration. Useless effort. Interminable repetition.

These are the traits of Sisyphus’ torment and the day to day life of Theresa May in Number 10.

Shorn of her majority, she’s endlessly trying to make progress on Brexit or domestic legislation, only to have the boulder roll away at the last, pushed by Conservative Remain rebels, Conservative Brexiteer rebels or the DUP.

If the experience of Tory rebellions in the 1990s is any guide, this is just the start.

These are the early adopter rebels. New rebel groups will form across new interest groups – health, education, defence – as backbenchers become used to defying the whip and getting what they want.

Legislation will pass on Theresa May’s watch. Often, it just won’t be what she intended and after each compromise or defeat, she’ll have to start the whole process again, in preparation for the next big vote.

Speech of the year – Ken Clarke

From Theresa May’s disintegration to Jeremy Corbyn’s show of strength, this year’s headline conference speeches felt telling. It may be, however, that Ken Clarke’s powerful speech on the triggering of Article 50 lives longer in the memory. As Robin Cook’s resignation speech over the Iraq war aged well as his warnings came to pass, we might come to look back ruefully on Clarke’s Brexit concerns, while the agonised faces on the Tory benches are almost as funny as his jokes.

Political comedian of the year – Ed Miliband

Ed Miliband has transitioned from a leader who lacked the timing to eat a bacon sandwich smoothly (or the sense not to attempt to do so with cameras around) to an ex-leader with the timing to unleash comedy zingers – whether on TV or Twitter, podcasts or parliament. If he keeps this up, he’ll end up as a national treasure, as Tony Benn did over his last decade or so.

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The Uncuts: 2017 political awards (part I)

30/12/2017, 12:45:42 PM

Politician of the year – Jeremy Corbyn

2017 was the year when everyone lost. The Tories lost their majority, Labour lost the election, the SNP lost a third of their Westminster seats and the Lib Dems, well, 60% of Lib Dem general election candidates lost their deposit.

Yet despite this litany of defeat, one politician had a very good 2017: Jeremy Corbyn.

Labour might have fallen short in June, but it was nothing like the wipeout predicted by the polls, pundits (not least at Uncut) and Labour’s own candidates.

At the 2017 general election Jeremy Corbyn was able to tap into seams of Labour support among the young and non-voters that have been beyond the reach of the party for over a decade, if not longer.

Expectations, however, are a tricky taskmaster.

Having wildly exceeded the bar for success in 2017 – let’s not forget, even Len McCluskey was talking about 200 seats as a decent performance – the political world now expects much, much more of Labour’s leader.

Jeremy Corbyn has done his bit to help fuel these expectations, predicting he’d be prime minister by Christmas when at Glastonbury in June, and more recently, in his Grazia interview, forecasting that he’ll “probably” be prime minister next year.

When expectations rise like this, either there needs to be demonstrable progress – for example, establishing a commanding poll lead over the Tories – or the media narrative will turn to why Labour is under-performing.

The local elections in May, which are being fought in metropolitan areas, will likely give Labour a boost but at some point Labour is going to have to win big votes in the House of Commons and bring the government down.

If not, those expectations, which contributed so much to Jeremy Corbyn’s happy 2017, will be a lot less benign in 2018.

Early-bird shameless leadership bid – Emily Thornberry

Emily Thornberry wins for realising that the anti-Semitism currently infecting parts of the party membership was poisonous to opinion-formers, as well as many party members. Visiting Israel and the West Bank, she staked out her position as clearly differentiated from that of Corbyn himself, who refuses to visit Israel, despite numerous invitations.

Ah, if only it were the result of a deeply-held belief, rather than political expedience. We need only go back a few years to 2007 to find the now Shadow Foreign Secretary speaking at an anti-Israel rally with all the bigots of the BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) crowd.

No, she’s polished up her act a great deal since those days; not to mention cultivating the party’s most important single backer, one Len McCluskey of Unite. A journey indeed from tweeting herself out of a job in 2014, by way of a patronising photo of a White Van Man’s house.

Question is, can she keep a lid on her flexible principles, and that contempt, if she ever makes it to leader?

Pragmatist of the year – Angela Rayner

Angela Rayner gets on with things: whether it is pregnancy at 16, taking on a shadow cabinet job when many were walking away from them, refusing to be pigeonholed as being of the left or the right.

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Five questions about the next general election

22/12/2017, 10:54:09 AM

by Jonathan Todd

Here with five questions about the next general election:

When will it be?

“I will probably win. I’m ready to be prime minister tomorrow,” Jeremy Corbyn told Grazia.

If the Tories thought Corbyn was going to win, they’d do everything possible to avoid an election, wouldn’t they?

They will also want to fight the next election when:

  • They have a new leader.
  • The economy is performing well.
  • Brexit is a ‘job done’. With the minimum of fuss.

There is a possibility that defeat for the government in the Commons on Brexit terms will precipitate an election. Equally, few Tory MPs – even Ken Clarke – would so vote if they thought that in doing so they were enabling PM Corbyn.

One way to manage this tension would be for Theresa May to pursue the form of Brexit – closer to Norway than Canada – for which there is a majority in the Commons. Her Chancellor will also reassure her that this is the way to deliver the best possible economy.

If Brexit becomes ever softer and more gradual, the date of the next election may recede into the future, potentially as far as June 2022.

Who will be the Tory leader?

If Norway feels too much like, to use the Foreign Secretary’s term, “a vassal state”, the Brexiteers might seek to eject Theresa May and install one of their own.

They lack, however, a convincing candidate, which may encourage them to reluctantly accept Norway as a staging post. They would have secured the UK’s exit from the EU, while creating a base from which a more complete separation might be achieved.

“The next Tory leader will be the person who has had the best six months before the contest,” one party grandee says. They will also be the person who best symbolises what the Tories want to be – a vehicle for renewed confidence and prosperity in a country outside the EU.

It is not clear that this is best personified by a Brexiteer – who feel too cranky and dusty. Amber Rudd, for instance, seems more at peace with herself and – though lacking “the necessary hashtags” – contemporary Britain. While she did not vote for Brexit in the referendum, she might, as a member of the government that delivered Brexit, be stomached by Brexiteer MPs and welcomed by party members looking for the best means possible of defeating Labour.

Who will be the Labour leader?

Jeremy Corbyn will be 73 in June 2022 – and it may take the Tories take this long to satisfy (or attempt to satisfy) the conditions that they are likely to want to see met before triggering an election.

If Corbyn were to lead Labour to victory in an election at that time, he’d become the oldest prime minister in British history. Another scenario, however, is Corbynism after Corbyn.

We hear, for example, rumours that Emily Thornberry has offered Seamus Milne a continued role in a Thornberry-led party in exchange for Momentum’s support in a Labour leadership election.

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If there is hope for Labour, it lies in the collision course being set with unions over workers’ rights

21/12/2017, 11:27:05 AM

by Rob Marchant

“If there is hope, it lies in the proles”, wrote George Orwell in 1984. If we ignore the negative connotations of the word and interpret the word “prole” to mean simply “workers”, he might have had a point with a direct resonance for Brexit Britain.

It has been apparent for some time that the legitimate arguments of Leavers in favour of a Britain which would “take back control” were not generally made with the intention of increasing protections for workers. Naturally we might expect Tory or UKIP voters to be less interested in such protections (even among Tory Remainers), and even keen to remove them to have a supposedly “more dynamic, less red tape” economy.

And although evidently a significant portion of Labour voters (I calculate it at around 2.9m voters*) still voted Leave, given that this segment was less than 10% of the voting population, it still seems believable that the inhabitants of this modest demographic were either (a) further-to-the-left middle-class voters, who did not require such protections and further, felt it more important that the EU was preventing Britain becoming the standalone socialist paradise envisaged by Corbyn; or (b) people on more modest incomes who were simply unaware of the impact on protections that the EU afforded them and how they personally might miss them once they were gone.

And that is because in a party of “the many”, any other explanation would imply a significant number of turkeys deliberately voting for Xmas. The reality is unarguable that there are a number of basic workers’ protections which would suddenly vanish in the event of a poor deal (just ten are listed here); an outcome more Bermuda than Switzerland, certainly.

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It is indeed Labour’s greatest crisis. This man should know

07/12/2017, 09:58:05 PM

by Rob Marchant

On Saturday, Labour’s Deputy Leader during the terrible 1980s, published a piece entitled “Labour’s greatest crisis. Time to fight back”. It is not a bad summary of Labour’s current troubles.

The trigger for the article was the Militant-style takeover of the Haringey party this week, providing uncomfortable echoes for those of a certain age of what happened in Liverpool and many London boroughs in the 1980s.

It is fair to judge that Hattersley, like his old colleague Kinnock – although, as he writes in his autobiography, “we were never soul-mates”, one traditional right, one soft-left – might have erred a little in their eagerness to embrace the Miliband years. Perhaps because both of them instinctively reacted against the New Labour years as evidence that the pendulum of Labour policy had swung too far towards the Tories for either to bear, they did not seem to see the creeping rise of the far left he facilitated as a real threat, more as a natural correction back to a world they understood.

They surely do now. And, as someone at the top table during the rise of Militant, it is instructive to read the former Deputy Leader’s practical comparisons of Militant and Momentum. That is, Hattersley – and no Blairite he – should surely know.

  1. In the 1980s, moderate MPs fought back. The central pillar of Hattersley’s argument is that, during those years, there was an organised resistance to Militant among the PLP. It was there on Corbyn’s election, but seems to have all but evaporated two years later.
  2. Militant “commanded less support and was active in fewer constituencies”. In the activist base at large, that is certainly true; Momentum now has a national penetration where Militant’s was in pockets, such as the London and Liverpool parties.
  3. Militant had no trade union backing. Momentum has the backing of Britain’s largest union, Unite, with the second and third, GMB and Unison, being actively organised within to achieve the same support. Within the union movement, only a few, smaller and traditionally right-wing unions such as Usdaw and Community, are resisting.

We might add to this perhaps the most obvious point: Militant did not have a leader sympathetic to them – indeed, in the end, what is Momentum, other than a fan club for Labour’s leader? – nor a Leader’s Office happy to work the voting arithmetic in the NEC towards that organisation’s goals.

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Theresa May has one last chance to write her epitaph

05/12/2017, 05:53:44 PM

by Kevin Meagher

Theresa May is single-handedly ensuring that the next generation of this country’s brightest and best will never venture near politics as a calling.

What a miserable advertisement she is for reaching the top of the greasy poll.

Her premiership is a pitiful, joyless existence devoid of purpose or conviction.

Yet again, she is the acme of political failure and confusion, assailed on all sides and unable to make a single decisive act.

This week’s unforced error is the Irish border issue.

Granted, it’s only Monday and there is plenty scope to top yesterday’s shambles, where she went to Brussels fully intending to agree a bespoke deal that would effectively keep Northern Ireland in the customs union and single market.

Before she bottled it, allowing Arlene Foster to veto a move that was manifestly in the interests of the British people, in order to keep the DUP leader sweet.

Before she drifts back to Brussels for further talks at the end of the week, Theresa May should take stock.

She has two choices.

Either she can placate the DUP, which means achieving no agreement on the Irish border question, preventing Phase Two talks on trade from beginning and increasing the prospect of a hard Brexit.

Or she can put the country first.

She can stand up to the DUP, agree a deal with the Irish Government, proceed to Phase Two, agree a trade deal and secure a soft Brexit.

Let’s recap. Her spin doctors have spent every day since last Thursday briefing that this deal was in the offing.

Northern Ireland’s economic regulations would stay in ‘alignment’ with the Republic of Ireland, protecting it from the incalculable damage Brexit will cause.

But Theresa May possesses neither the political courage nor sense of history required in a British Prime Minister.

As a result, her indecision has managed to alienate both the DUP and the Irish Government in one fell swoop. In Europe she is a laughing stock. At home, a figure of contempt.

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Leo Varadkar has done Britain a favour. He’s shown that the voices shaping Britain’s future need not be only Farage’s and Rees Mogg’s

04/12/2017, 10:31:07 PM

by Jonathan Todd

There’s much to admire among the world’s new generation of leaders. The election of Justin Trudeau (now aged 45) as prime minister in 2015 on a pro-immigration, pro-investment platform made him Uncut’s overseas inspiration of 2015. Since then Jacinda Ardern (aged 37), Emmanuel Macron (aged 39), and of course Leo Varadkar (aged 38) have been elected to the leaderships of New Zealand, France and Ireland, giving hope that centrism might not be quite dead.

Over the past 48 hours, the last member of this group may have had the most significant impact on the future of the UK. By insisting on de facto all-Ireland participation in the single market and customs union, he has shown that the voices shaping what comes next for Britain, need not be only Farage’s and Rees Mogg’s.

“Brexit and the election of President Trump were inextricably linked,” recently observed Raheem Kassam, the Breitbart London editor and former chief of staff to Nigel Farage, leaving the prospects of centrism bleaker in the UK and the US.

In the past week, Trump has retweeted three inflammatory and unverified anti-Muslim videos shared by the deputy leader of Britain First, secured wide-ranging legislation on taxation that Bernie Sanders decries as the “looting” of the American treasury, and witnessed his ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn become his administration’s most senior member to be charged in the investigation into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 US presidential election.

In the age of Trump, Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian, it’s time to ditch the special relationship. Bold moves are easier executed from positions of strength. Which is hardly what UK, teetering on the brink of exit from our most important alliance, now enjoys.

The prime minister’s main focus is to resist every EU demand, before capitulating, having realised – contrary to her earlier insistence – that any deal is better than no deal. This pattern emerges across each of the divorce issues: the EU budget, the Irish border, EU citizens rights. This strategy will deliver Brexit. At any cost. Leaving an isolated UK looking for new friends. Which, particularly after the past week, only the foolish would think are to be found in Trump.

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