Posts Tagged ‘Jack Lesgrin’

Jack Lesgrin’s week: Time for pledges not pamphlets Keir

25/09/2021, 10:05:21 PM

by Jack Lesgrin

Time for pledges not pamphlets Keir

This week Labour leader Keir Starmer published a 14,000 word essay. My immediate thought was that this risks getting us into ‘longest suicide note in history’ territory (after the labour manifesto of 1983 was so described by a Gerald Kaufman). Maybe he should have spent a bit more time inspecting plans for internal party reform than writing this opus.

Do Sir K’s PR advisors not think through the optics of such news? Perhaps the strategy is to set expectations so low that a grateful public will be relieved when instead of having to read 14,000 words they hear a few soundbites on the news?

Or is it an authenticity strategy: it worked for Jeremy Corbyn after all. I recall much hyperbole from MPs I know, as well as normally sensible activists, coming back from Corbyn rallies satiated with the industrial strength Kool-Aid dispensed both by cults and political leaders who tell their supporters what they want to hear, no matter how magical.

But the essay story projects the kind of authenticity that reinforces negative stereotypes of scholarly intellectual debate among and for socialists.

If the rise of Mr B Johnson has taught us anything, it is that the next election will not be won or lost on the intellectual coherence of an exceedingly long Master’s thesis.

Perhaps one or two other lessons might be learnt, and rapidly, if we are to have any hope of winning the next election. The first is that people want to hear what labour will actually do about any given issue. Not why the Tories are wicked, but how Labour would do things better. It’s a simple concept that is often lost by oppositions.

Then they want to hear an optimistic vision, set out in a clearly understandable narrative that tells a credible story about why voting labour is better for them and for the whole country, underpinned with policies that validate this.

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Jack Lesgrin’s week: Government U-turns on Triple Lock and National Insurance, but still the young lose out

12/09/2021, 11:13:00 PM

by Jack Lesgrin

Double U-turn on Triple Lock and NI, but not on preferencing old over young 

Last week saw two U-turns by the government. First, they temporarily suspended the Triple Lock for pensioners because of an unusual and statistically anomalous rapid rise in earnings caused by the pandemic.

The second U-turn saw Johnson finally putting meat on the bones of his famous pledge, delivered in his first ever speech as PM in Downing Street in July 2019, to “fix the crisis in social care…with a clear plan we have prepared”. Tuesday’s mini-budget announced a National Insurance-funded Health and Social Care Levy. Note the sentence that preceded this: “My job is to protect you or your parents or grandparents from the fear of having to sell your home to pay for the costs of care.”

The government made the levy apply to some share income and on state pensioners’ income if they continued to work, in an attempt to mitigate criticism that using the National Insurance mechanism makes younger people, by definition of working age, subsidise benefits enjoyed by the elderly.

Yet this was only a fig-leaf, covering the sensitive nether regions of our system of taxation: namely that we have for too long preferred to tax income from work over other forms of income derived from other forms of wealth. Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, the excellent Rachel Reeves, eloquently put it thus: “Which types of income will be paying no additional tax after today? They include those who get their income from financial assets, stocks and shares, sales of property, pension income, annuity income, interest income, property rental income and inheritance income… Some 95% of the revenue the government plan to raise from this tax bombshell comes from employment. What a contrast.”

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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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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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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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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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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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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 (more…)

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Jack Lesgrin’s week: Stonewall have got it wrong. We all know it. So why are many on the left so nervous about calling it out?

16/06/2021, 02:40:00 PM

by Jack Lesgrin

Perhaps it was forever the case that some moral or political issues are so sensitive, so toxic that they stultify debate or cause rancour between former allies. The case of so-called gender-critical beliefs is such an example. Recently, Matthew Parris, a co-founder of Stonewall claimed that the charity has lost its way on the issue. New Stonewall boss Nancy Kelley also appeared to lump anti-Semitic beliefs in with gender-critical beliefs as part of her defence of legal remedies when “controversial” beliefs are “harmful or damaging”. In last Sunday’s Observer, columnist Sonia Sodha wrote an article with this at its core, headlined: “Stonewall risks all it has fought for in accusing those who disagree with it of hate speech”. The headline implies that the writer might be exploring this issue without fear of favour. The semantics were expertly crafted, providing the reader with glimpses, chimera-like, of supposedly bold positions taken by the columnist, which on reflection were more the repetition of others’ views. Hence it is “gender-critical feminists” who believe that “in a patriarchal society women’s bodies and their role in sex and reproduction play a major role in their oppression.” Ms Sodha didn’t actually say whether she believes it.

She then reflected on how her own “two decades of womanhood” had allowed her feminism to mature into “understanding that male violence is a more important tool of oppression in a patriarchal society than board appointments.” She cited horrific stats on male violence against women as rightly necessitating the need for “women’s rights to single-sex services, such as refuges and women’s prisons.” She notes that this clashes with Stonewall’s “campaign to abolish legal provisions for single-sex spaces, so that males who identify as women have the same rights to access them as those born female”. There are disagreements on whether being a woman is “solely based on a feeling or whether it is related to sex”, she writes. With reference to Nancy Kelley’s statement, she asserts, confidently, that “women must be free to express the view that it is risky to allow men who self-identify as women to access female-only spaces as default.”

Yet it’s hard to decipher from this what her personal views are. What she could have said, in clear terms, is that men who self-identify as women should not have access to female-only spaces. But she didn’t.

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Jack Lesgrin’s week: ‘Catch-Up Tsar’ or ‘Level-Up PM’ show Rhetoric and Reality are the new Jekyll and Hyde

10/06/2021, 10:08:11 AM

by Jack Lesgrin

Eventually, the two opposing forces of rhetoric and reality will collide. They always do with Tory governments. For most of the 20th and 21st-centuries, the Tories have been better at creating and owning the narrative, at opportunistic and sometimes vicious campaigning, and some might say, for short periods, at governing too.

As with all parties, they look upon the social, political and economic consensus of the day, that was moulded by governments of different colours over decades, and adapt accordingly, seeking to shift the dreaded ‘dial’ up, down, right or left-wards. The Tories accepted the NHS and welfare state, and Labour came to accept reform of trade unions and a greater role for private enterprise. In seeking election, parties sometimes seek an armed annexation of opponents’ territory, as with Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”, or indeed Cameron’s 2006 embrace of environmentalism and oft mis-quoted literal embrace of “hoodies”.

But no amount of spinning, campaigning, Johnson-esque ‘hope-for-the-bestery’ can prevent the clash between a hardwired mentality among most Conservatives that lower spending is more important than higher achievement. This is because, ultimately, despite a few admirable exceptions such as Rory Stewart, or Jeremy Hunt, most Tories, in their heart of hearts do not believe that it is the state’s responsibility to seek to make society fairer, or safer. They will try everything under the sun to avoid admitting the obvious truth that the state is the only actor capable of affecting genuine change, hence Tory governments’ default position of seeking ‘consultation with industry’, or attempting a ‘voluntary code’ to do X,Y or Z.’ Usually, about a decade later, they have to concede that only the state, and law, can sort the issue out. Sugar tax is a good example. Perhaps the most egregious recent example is cigarette advertising. It’s no surprise that it was a Labour government, believing in the role of the state, that banned indoor smoking.

We should beware the illusory effects of the pandemic on British politics. As noted in last week’s column, the clouds parted long enough for the Magic Money Tree to be glimpsed, but the tree is already being hidden away, protected by heavily armed Conservative policy boffins. The government is to be praised for the largesse the state bestowed on people needing support during this crisis. But it would be foolish of the British people, especially the vulnerable, to infer that this is a government of an epoch changing nature akin to that of Atlee, or elements of Blair/Brown.

The Tories’ messaging, and campaigning efficiency in 2010, 15, 17 and 19, conveniently combined with their facing an ineffectual opposition, can convince large enough numbers of voters that compassionate conservatism is on the rise, as Cameron’s environmentalism, or May’s rousing initial emphasis on meritocracy and “fighting against the burning injustice” attests.

Mr Johnson won in 2019 largely on the back of his “Get Brexit Done” mantra, but no one can doubt that the “levelling up” and “Build Back Better” agenda was part of the allure. All rational voters would agree that alongside enjoying apple pie, it would be better to lift-up poorer areas and people to the level of those doing better and it would be good to build a more prosperous and fairer society post-pandemic.

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