GRASSROOTS: Jack Lesgrin’s week: Sleazy does it

12/08/2021, 10:30:49 AM

by Jack Lesgrin

Sleazy does it

Last week, domestic politics was somewhat dominated by allegations that, as one paper put it, “the chairman of the Conservative Party [Ben Elliott, nephew of Prince Charles] is using his business partner in a secretive company to help manage party donors and arrange access to Boris Jonson.” Journalists had not previously reported the existence of this company. Other companies he is apparently associated with, such as public affairs consultancy Hawthorn Advisers and Quintessentially, a luxury concierge service. A hugely murky picture is painted. It ticks all the mental boxes of conspiratorial journalists and opposition party activists. Lobbying company: tick. Company servicing the high-end whims of UHNWIs: tick. Connections to the Royal Family: tick. Political donations: tick. Access to government ministers and the PM: tick. All sounds awful, no?

Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine a range of political pantomime villains guaranteed to tweak the anger sensors of devout Tories (instead of devout anti-Tories, as above). Let’s tell the story again. Mr A, a general secretary of a large and influential trade union, has set up a secretive sub-committee (because it would have to be a sub-committee, wouldn’t it!) of fellow trade unionists. The committee’s purpose seems to be to coordinate fundraising for local Constituency Labour Parties. Since the story broke, some right-wing journalists have alleged that this influence enabled the committee to pressurise local CLPs to select union-friendly parliamentary candidates and CLP chairs. Although this has been denied, the close former union colleague of Mr A, Mr B, has been selected for a safe Labour seat. The sub-committee’s existence and terms were not made public and the members have said that there was no requirement to do so and that nothing they did was illegal or immoral. Sunday’s papers revealed that the sub-committee had also arranged private meetings with the PM and Business Secretary in the run up to Labour Party conference and a contentious new bill on employment rights.

Tories would perhaps find this offensive. But things like it occur all the time. None are illegal. Many don’t particularly like them, but until our system of political funding is reformed and, more broadly, our party system is opened up, through genuine proportional representation, the major parties will continue to have their pantomime villains of access and funding. The noises off are off target.

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UNCUT: Why is Keir Starmer playing the Orange card?

02/08/2021, 10:48:44 PM

by Kevin Meagher

You might have missed it because it didn’t really register in the British media (quelle surprise), but Keir Starmer’s trip to Belfast last month caused something of a stir.

While Starmer used the trip to meet victims of the Troubles and to voice his support for the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol – chiding Boris Johnson for not being ‘straight’ with voters in the process – he also dismissed any prospect of Irish unity and indicated that he strongly backs Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom.

In a tough interview with the BBC’s new Northern Ireland political editor, Enda McLafferty, the Labour leader was quizzed about how support for holding a border poll – the colloquial term for a referendum in Irish unification – might be measured, perhaps by the performance of pro or anti unity parties in an assembly election?

Starmer replied: ‘I don’t think that’s a particularly accurate way of measuring it.’

Really? Surely, it’s the most accurate way of accessing whether there is support for a change in Northern Ireland’s constitutional position? Each of the party’s views on the matter are well-established, so it offers a pretty good measure of the state of the debate. Notwithstanding the fact we have an assembly election next May.

McLafferty pressed Starmer for further clarification. ‘I think there have to be conditions,’ before any vote could be held, he said. ‘I think there have to be lots of discussions. Look, I don’t think [a border poll] is in sight and this is a very hypothetical discussion.’

Asked whether he would campaign with unionists in the event of a vote, Starmer replied: ‘I personally, as leader of the Labour Party, believe in the United Kingdom, strongly, and want to make the case for the United Kingdom, strongly, and will be doing that.’

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GRASSROOTS: Jack Lesgrin’s week: Is it time for UN climate-keepers for Brazil’s rainforest?

01/08/2021, 12:44:04 AM

by Jack Lesgrin

Is it time for UN climate-keepers for Brazil’s rainforest?

Thursday before last, we learnt that the appalling, man-made destruction of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil has meant that this, the world’s largest carbon sink, may for the first time be emitting more CO2 than it consumes.

Here’s a thought experiment. Most people (although not many of the hard left) think that state sovereignty should be overruled when a genocide is happening, to protect victims, prevent broader instability and deter future violators by punishing those who commit crimes against humanity. What if a state, through act or omission, was causing environmental and ecological damage that will affect the long-term health of not only the citizens of their own territory but the whole world? What if this damage caused not merely ill-health, but the long-term viability of life as we know across vast swathes of the world?

We might be reaching a time when the egregious actions in the Amazon, of far-right populist, President Jair Bolsonaro, may require the international community to take action that prevents the destruction of what is a global environmental asset, as well as a national territorial possession. Of course, the first steps would need to be diplomatic and seek to induce better behaviour. Next might come sanctions of some kind. But countless cases in recent geopolitics show that diplomacy, international sanctions and strong words often have no effect. The time might soon come when the international community will have to be far more robust with states that cause irreparable damage to our environment.

Fortunately, the UN Environment Programme is doing interesting work in this area and in June, an international panel of legal experts defined and proposed a new category of international crime – ‘ecocide’ that if taken up by the Parties to the International Criminal Court, would become the fifth category of offences prosecuted by the court alongside war crimes and so-on. Increasingly, legal cases are being taken by campaigners and individuals to hold companies to account for the environmental damage they cause. But as countless victims of oppression or genocide know only too well, international law normally only has effect after massacres have occurred, to prosecute only a tiny minority of offenders, decades later. In other words: ‘too late’. As recent news about how the UK climate has already undergone damaging change shows, we cannot wait before acting. What if the whole of the Amazon was destroyed? Would anti-interventionists cling to the notion that ‘sanctions and diplomacy works’ or that ‘state sovereignty is everything’ or that ‘the UN Security Council didn’t pass a resolution, so your intervention was illegal’? Or might we need a UN climate-keeping force to protect the rainforests?

Premium presenters promoted to plum positions preventing progression

I’ve been on holiday so have been listening to even more Radio 4 than normal, hearing its talented journalists, producers and editors, creating content that by itself is more than worth the licence fee. You can deduce that I’m a fan. So what I’m about to say is in no way a criticism of the individual presenters or journalists, all of whom are brilliant and I’m sure decent people who try to help out their colleagues.

I have a hunch that the BBC management, like management everywhere, decides who are the golden boys/girls and gives them the most challenging and often rewarding roles to the exclusion of others. A couple of years ago, in a single weekend, Andrew Marr presented a TV political documentary on Saturday, the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, followed by Start The Week on Radio 4 on Monday. I thought this must be an aberration, for surely it would be more equitable to share these prize positions around the BBC stock.

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GRASSROOTS: Labour in local government is the launchpad for general election victory. But right now, it’s over-stretched and the party leadership needs to pay attention

19/07/2021, 11:00:15 PM

by Paul Wheeler

As the political world staggers towards the summer recess let’s spare a thought for Labour local government.

Because lost in the spats at PMQs and Parliamentary by-elections the sad reality for the Labour Party is that the local election results in May 2021 were much worse than the General Election in December 2019. May saw the continuation of the collapse in Labour support in many traditional towns and shire county councils such as Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Lancashire which were Labour controlled within the last decade now have substantial Conservative majorities. Durham a Labour council for over 100 years is no longer controlled by the party. Labour now has only one Police and Crime Commissioner in the English shires and Cleveland, a Labour fiefdom until recently, elected a Conservative Metro Mayor with over 70% of the popular vote. In many district councils Labour groups are in single figures.

Obviously, politics can change quickly. After the April 1992 general election Labour continued to lose support at the subsequent local elections and there was much speculation that the Conservatives were the natural party of government’. Along came the collapse of the Exchange Rate Mechanism and with it the Tories reputation for economic management and within a year they had lost every shire county bar Buckinghamshire. By 1994 Labour gained over 4000 council seats – its largest ever margin of victory – destroying the Conservatives in local government and paving the way for the 1997 general election.

But those hoping for a similar post Covid reaction need to remember that history or hindsight are never suitable explanations for future events. In the past Labour generally faced challenges from mainly Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. The local elections this May have shown new challenges from the Green Party in Sheffield and Bristol and from a range of hyper-localist independents in towns such as Bolton and Bury and traditional shire and new unitaries such as South Yorkshire and Stoke.

You don’t need to study ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu to know that fighting on four different fronts presents considerable challenges to any political party.

Yet if Labour is to continue as a mainstream party across England we need to develop campaigns and policies that can respond to these multiple challenges

And amidst the gloom there is hope. Labour was able to advance in local government in new localities such as Worthing and West Oxfordshire. And even more encouragingly we were able to win the new Mayoralties of the West of England and Peterborough with Dan Norris and Nik Johnson (although spoiler alert: the Government have announced plans to abolish the electoral system that made such victories at regional level possible).

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GRASSROOTS: Jack Lesgrin’s week: Hypocritical hype

17/07/2021, 09:33:19 PM

by Jack Lesgrin

Hypocritical hype

The last two weeks have been about dashed sporting dreams. We know all about the football and everything surrounding the final. But the week before last, on Monday, the BBC’s Wimbledon team, led by the normally calm and collected Clare Balding, carried out a morning after analysis of Emma Radecanu’s unsettling exit from the quarter finals. Brows were furrowed, foreheads scratched and all wore a stupefied, concerned demeanour. They pondered whether the enormity of the occasion had perhaps got too much. But just what could have caused this? Lots of suggestions were forthcoming, but one they omitted to mention was the previous day’s pre-match BBC Sport trail for the match which the Beeb had clearly worked hard on. It was glitzy, edgy, projected excitement and even had the name “Radecanu” emblazoned across the screen like an advert. One might even describe this as an unnecessary, somewhat exploitative example of hyping up to the nth degree a great British hope, out of all proportion and without thought about the interests of the object if the hype. But naturally, the BBC presenters weren’t ready to admit their own role in all this.

Guilty of being not guilty

Readers will know that this column has an editorial stance on whether there are checks and balances at play regarding this or any government. ‘Told you so’ is an annoying thing to read, so apologies, but a classic of the genre of the establishment pretending that it holds the executive to account occurred last Wednesday when the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone, issued a report that found the Prime Minister to have been in breach of the Code of Conduct regarding his declaration on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests about holiday accommodation provided to him on the island of Mustique in St Vincent and the Grenadines between 26 December 2019 and 5 January 2020. She found ‘Mr Johnson in breach of paragraph 14 of the Code because he did not “make sufficient inquiries to establish the full facts about the funding arrangements for his free accommodation, either before his holiday, as he should have done, or in 2020”.’

Sounds damning, but by some quirk of good fortune and happenstance, the happy outcome of which top legal counsel would normally be needed to generate, apparent inaction in investigating the origin of this holiday assistance, meant that the authorities couldn’t even rule on what the entry in the Register should have included. The report notes that: ‘The Commissioner stated that she was unable to establish the arrangements, if any, for funding the accommodation. The Commissioner did not conclude that Mr Johnson’s Register entry was inaccurate since, as she notes, she was unable to conclude what Mr Johnson’s Register entry should have contained.’

But it gets better for the PM. What good fortune! You see it’s the Committee on Standards itself, comprised of MPs, that has the final say on these matters. Despite Ms Stone finding the PM in breach, the committee itself ‘concluded it did not have sufficient evidence to reach a determination as to whether there had been a breach of the Code…The Committee therefore found that Mr Johnson’s Register entry was accurate and complete, and found no breach by Mr Johnson of paragraph 14 of the Code.’

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UNCUT: In the most important union election in decades, Coyne is the only choice to rehabilitate Unite and Labour

10/07/2021, 09:28:41 PM

by Rob Marchant

This is not an idle claim. In the 1980s, the unions were still largely regarded as centrist ballast against the worst excesses of a hard left spearheaded by figures such as Derek Hatton, Ted Knight, Eric Heffer, and Tony Benn. But they are so no longer: over the last decade, unions have been way to the left of the party, and that has had a major impact on its political direction.

And never, prior to Corbynism, has the party been so much under the thumb of a single union leader. Len McCluskey’s place-people sat for five years at the heart of power in the party.

Admittedly, it is less so now – scandal-hit McCluskey is now a busted flush and Unite in an interregnum until the new leader is chosen – but that could easily turn out to be a temporary state of affairs. Choose the wrong leader and, doubt it not, there will be a return to the bad old days.

At this point there is the clearest of choices: forward into a world where corruption, far-left politics and what can only be described as political blackmail become a thing of the past in the party; or backwards, Unite once again dragging Labour towards an electoral abyss and providing a rallying-point – and, most importantly, deep pockets – for the far left.

Its propaganda. Its vexatious prosecutions. Its expensive-yet-futile legal defences of its chosen sons and daughters and its vanity projects. All areas on which it openly squanders its members’ subs.

Gerard Coyne has not only shown himself an honourable candidate, looking to wipe out corruption in the face of terrible attacks on him personally and professionally (you may recall he was sacked by McCluskey in 2017, on apparently trumped-up charges). But he is self-evidently the only candidate interested in prioritising the labour rights of Unite’s members over far-left politicking.

Yes, it is a relief that McCluskey’s most obviously-annointed successor, the tainted Howard Beckett – currently suspended from Labour after a race-tinged tweet about Priti Patel and previously embroiled in a miners’ compensation fund scandal every bit as dodgy as that of another Corbynite, Ian Lavery MP – has withdrawn.

But the two remaining candidates, Steve Turner and Sharon Graham, despite seeming marginally less combative towards the Labour Party under Keir Starmer than Beckett, both have pretty much exactly the same far-left politics as him. Furthermore, after the deal Turner did with him to drop out, it seems a reasonable bet that Beckett will have a significant role in any Unite led by him.

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GRASSROOTS: Jack Lesgrin’s week: Put seven-year-olds, not experts, in charge of Covid response. Seriously.

09/07/2021, 11:45:30 AM

by Jack Lesgrin

Put seven-year-olds, not experts, in charge of Covid response 

Throughout last week, the airwaves were a-buzz with the monotone, trance-like speech patterns of a plethora of the scientific community’s “usual suspects”, called upon by the media to fulfil their role providing endless commentary about an imminent event – the PM’s pre-announcement of a later announcement about so-called “Freedom Day”.

This is much in the same way as with general elections: the commentary does not change a single vote; the votes will be counted; there will be a winner; so why not commentate once the result is in? I digress… The scientists, all of whom are, somewhat implausibly, part of one or other of the government’s advisory committees – SAGE, NERVTAG, SPI-B, SPI-M and so-on, are of course, hugely talented people, doing a superb job. But often, these interviews do not show them in their best light.

First, what they say is almost always conditional, nuanced and non-committal. Not only do they all end up playing the get-out-of-jail-card of “advisers advise, ministers decide, and so I’m not able to answer the question of what should actually be done”, but they seem terrified of saying anything quotable. Instead, they equivocate, they seek a balanced line: “well, if we did this then that, and if we did that then this, and I’m not able to say which is right as that’s the job of ministers”. They’re so wedded to the scientific method that they cannot bring themselves to act on an intelligent hunch. The answer is always, “the data are incomplete, so we must wait for another couple of weeks before we can see that for certain.”

Normally, this would be fine, but a deadly virus does not do nuance, or equivocation; it does not wait for “the evidence”, nor does it defer to ministerial edict. Its defeat or suppression can only be achieved through the application of the scientific approach, carried out by scientists. Yet this is a necessary, though not sufficient condition. What was needed last spring, and is needed now to deal the continuing pandemic, is intelligent hunches that are acted upon. Here is my hunch about hunches and how they would have saved far more lives. Here we go…

First, gather together some seven-year-olds – call them a junior citizens’ jury. Have a primary school teacher explain to them the basics of how respiratory viruses transmit and the pre-Covid evidence from the WHO on how to control pandemics. The teacher explains such matters as how borders work, how graphs show numbers of infections going up or down, the basics of the Spanish Flu, how quickly it spread and what mitigations worked a century ago.

Second, ask them, given what they know, whether they would assume that there was no asymptomatic transmission (in children’s terms, you could say: “do you think we should be careful around people even if they’re not coughing, or just the people who are coughing?). I think they would veer towards caution. Yet our experts last March, chose to assume no asymptomatic transmission because “there was no evidence to suggest this”. As this diary has said previously, a lack of evidence “proving” something now, does not mean there will not be evidence of it later. This is quite possibly one of the biggest flaws of the scientific approach in the context of a pandemic.

Then ask them whether they thought that Covid could be transmitted through the air? Again, unlike our experts, who waited for the evidence to accumulate, I wager that our seven-year-olds would knock this one out of the park. They’d think: “I know that when my pal was coughing and sneezing, I caught their cold”.

How about the question of whether or not it’s a good idea to allow large numbers of travellers in from a country with a clearly dangerous rise in cases and a new variant. Again, the non-expert children would likely say “close the border”. We did not close our border properly until the Delta variant had seeded itself in our country.

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GRASSROOTS: Jack Lesgrin’s week: Defender pokes the Russian bear with no consequence

01/07/2021, 10:41:57 PM

by Jack Lesgrin

Defender pokes Russian bear with no consequence

Last Wednesday caused a bristle of excitement for active and retired armchair admirals and generals (aka most of the adult, male population) when one of our Type 45 destroyers sailed in the Black Sea near enough to Crimea to prompt the Russian military to send boats and planes to angrily usher her away. She held course, and there was much speculation about whether the presence of British journalists onboard meant that this was a deliberate, coordinated display of British and Western naval strength in refutation of Russia’s claims over Crimea. Some commentators believed that the strategy of sailing this warship through an internationally recognised shipping lane using the right of “innocent passage” was an important assertion of international maritime law and a show of strength. Others, such as former British ambassador to Moscow, Sir Tony Brenton, appeared on BBC Radio 4 and wrote in The Times that the British government “knew very well the intensity of the response the Royal Navy’s incursion would provoke and deliberately went ahead with it.” He described this as “dangerous” and also “counterproductive” because it will have “strengthened Russian intransigence and aggressiveness on Ukraine-related issues.”

It seems the kind of military escapade perfectly suited to “Global Britain” at this moment in time: an action that gives the outward impression of strength and confidence, the maximum PR fanfare baked in, almost zero risk of any actual fighting or there being any cost to us, and with dubious or limited strategic coherence. For all the justifiable pride in our sadly small number of new ships, for all the wish to bask in the afterglow of the G7 meeting and brandish the freshly printed Atlantic Charter Mk II, I fear that the Russians, while angered by recent events, know in their hearts that the West, and certainly the UK, does not have the stomach to challenge it in a meaningful way.

They only came to this conclusion relatively recently, back in August 2013, when then Labour leader Ed Miliband’s parliamentary manoeuvres stymied David Cameron’s intention to join international air strikes to punish the Assad regime for breaking international law so egregiously by dropping chemical weapons on civilians. It isn’t sailing shiny new ships along international shipping lanes that counts in geopolitics, it is the big calls. The Kremlin was watching in August 2013, and concluded, correctly that the Western democracies are not as strong as they pretend. They may have economic strength, and their military hardware may be more advanced, but unfortunately, they do not have strength of will to act, nor a strong strategic position that they hold to at all costs.

Had we been truly strong in this sense, we as the UK could and should have intervened unilaterally to declare a no-fly zone long before Assad used chemical weapons. We should have done it when it became clear he was dropping barrel bombs on civilians from helicopters in 2012 or earlier. Do not let people argue that intervention of this kind was impossible. It only became impossible after the Russians intervened in large numbers and by bringing in their sophisticated air defence system, which was done only after they concluded that the West was washing its collective hands of Syria.

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UNCUT: Are we really going to see the Second Coming of St Tony?

28/06/2021, 10:38:48 PM

by Kevin Meagher

Tony Blair always struck me as an unlikely convert to Catholicism. He is much too messianic. He would have made a great evangelical though, or even a cult leader. The Branch Tonyians, perhaps?

The idea of him returning to British domestic politics, descending from the skies as the clouds part to lead us once again in His Second Coming, is fantastically absurd.

Yet that is precisely what the Sunday Times reported yesterday.

‘Labour sources say Blairites have abandoned hope that Starmer can save the party and a small group is trying to convince Blair to return to the Commons.

‘The Labour peer, Andrew Adonis is at the heart of a network of Blairites who believe he is the only leader who could win a Labour majority…’

Seriously?

Its the kind of story the papers run on April 1 – a spoof with just enough in it to hoodwink readers that have overlooked the date.

Don’t get me wrong, Tony Blair had a good run, serving as prime minister for a decade, winning three thumping elections along the way, but he is now past tense. Seeking to disinter him from his political sarcophagus, like Dracula in a Hammer horror film, is proper death cultist stuff.

Granted, there is a very funny mood in Labourland this week ahead of the Batley and Spen by-election, where there is a strong prospect of the party losing the seat, and even some siren voices predicting it could crash to third place behind George Galloway.

People are jittery and there are clearly figures in the party like Adonis that do not believe Keir Starmer is on the path to winning ways, yet the suggestion that a better way forward is to bring back Blair – fourteen years after he quit as PM – is demented. A comical absurdity.

The serious point is that it is a silly distraction from the work of shaping a new political project that can succeed in radically different times to those that Blair – and Adonis – governed in.

And what of Mr. Blair, you ask?

The Sunday Times report added: ‘His spokeswoman said: “His view is that he is not considering doing this.”

So that’s not a no, then?

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut

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GRASSROOTS: Jack Lesgrin’s week: Sophistry, semantics and spin on the road to freedom

24/06/2021, 10:56:49 PM

by Jack Lesgrin

Sophistry, semantics and spin on the road to freedom 

The government’s armoury against Covid-19 in addition to science, medicine, vaccines and public health measures, is messaging. Throughout the pandemic, the importance of communications has become apparent in a good and a bad way. Simple, repeated, consistent messages were effective at the outset of lockdown last March. But when “Stay at home” morphed into “Stay alert”, the clarity was lost. “We’re following the scientific advice” was reassuring but only while the government actually did follow it. The government, much of which graduated from the Leave Campaign Comms School, knows that it is not enough to have a catchy phrase, you must repeat it, even if you create a hostage to fortune such as around how Northern Ireland will trade with the UK without any additional measures.

Thus, all through the various stages of the roadmap out of lockdown, the PM and his ministers repeated, ad infinitum, that they could see nothing in the data that meant that the next step could not take place. As late as 3 June, the PM said: “I can see nothing in the data at the moment that means we can’t go ahead with step 4 or the opening on June 21st.” A few days later, on Monday 14 June, he postponed step four, with good reason, but with hugely damaging consequences for parts of the economy.

He said at that Downing Street press conference that: “As things stand – and on the basis of the evidence I can see right now – I am confident we will not need any more than 4 weeks and we won’t need to go beyond July 19th.” As per the communications posture, this Monday, the Prime Minister said: “I think it’s looking good for 19 July to be that terminus point.” The government leaves itself wriggle room with small print. But the clear impression they give through their messaging, which dissipates outwards via headlines and tweets, is that unlocking will happen at a certain date.

By reiterating statements as above, they allowed the 21 June to develop in people’s minds, and more importantly, in the minds of people running businesses in the hospitality sector, as ‘Freedom Day’, even though it was just the earliest date before which the step could not happen. People might be forgiven for bulk buying salt so that they can take a coal sized lump with each of these statements in future. You never know, but they might start to doubt the veracity of other utterances, such as the government’s official spokesman agreeing that the PM has complete faith in the Health Secretary. Perhaps these statements are only true at the moment they’re said, while in the background the evidence that points in a different direction is accumulating.

Mr Speaker gives PM a frosty dust down, yet there are no mechanisms to make it count Read the rest of this entry »

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