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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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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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Jack Lesgrin’s week: Turns out there is a Magic Money Tree

02/06/2021, 08:49:54 AM

by Jack Lesgrin

Back during Theresa May’s ill-fated 2017 general election campaign, she told a nurse who had complained about low wages that “there isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want.” Standard fare of political and economic discourse, you might think.

Yet listening to BBC economics correspondent Andy Verity’s Today Programme news item last Tuesday helped those of us who have been trying to locate the ephemeral Magic Money Tree. Regarding recent government financial figures, he noted that while “borrowing £300 billion may sound a frightening number”, this is a much smaller amount than the figures for both world wars, and smaller than the Office for Budget Responsibility predicted last November. But the killer line was the last one of the report: “…and almost all the money borrowed is owed to the Bank of England, which created the money to purchase that debt from nothing.”

It seems the government borrowed money from itself (in the quasi-independent form of the Bank of England) to spend during a crisis, and now owes itself this sum. It begs the question why must the government owe itself money and therefore, presumably, go through the painful process of either cutting expenditure or raising taxes to repay itself this money?

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Jack Lesgrin’s week: An overload of political double-talk on Covid restrictions

25/05/2021, 11:31:21 PM

By Jack Lesgrin

Clearly unclear euphemisms 

At PMQs last week, while clearing up the lack of clarity on whether the government’s guidelines about travel to ‘amber list’ countries was clear, the Prime Minister was clear: “it is very, very clear: you should not be going to an amber list country except for some extreme circumstance”. Tory backbencher Huw Merriman MP, who chairs the Transport Select Committee, noted in a later Radio 4 interview that this didn’t clear things up: “No I’m not clear at all. I thought I was clear…it’s completely unclear.” Clear? The government’s chaotic updates to local guidance for areas worst hit by the Indian variant has seen more of the same clarity from government politicians across the airwaves.

When it comes to political euphemisms, it’s worth looking out for words that don’t just evade or distort meaning, but invert meaning. These are the ‘Jimmy Saviles’ of language; they hide in plain site wearing shell suits and gold. The speaker uses words like “clear”, like someone who wears a gold medallion. It’s bold, it’s blunt and it’s deployed because the opposite is true, but that cannot be admitted. This is nothing new: Orwell wrote about this in the 1930s and 40s in the context of the Spanish Civil War.

Another more recent classic of the genre is “what we are saying is”, or “what I am saying is”, uttered by hapless British politicians doing media rounds. They use the phrase to convey to the audience that there is an agreed, confident and coherent position. The rhetorical flourish is done without thinking, but actually hints that they are reading from a “lines to take” briefing note. Readers should listen out for the phrase and ask themselves whether the spokesperson sounds convinced of the message or has any clue about the issue themselves. The truth is nearer to “What I am saying is…that I don’t understand what I am saying, that we don’t really know what we should say, and someone has written these words for me to say so it sounds like I know what to say.”

The evidence says don’t wait for the evidence 

Professor Neil Ferguson, he of “Professor Lockdown” fame, was interviewed by the Today programme last week on the Indian variant. Regarding the virulence and transmissibility of the variant, the professor quite rightly said: “it will take more time for us to be definitive about that [a possible slight flattening of the curve]. As a scientist, the professor is of course seeking evidence to substantiate a hypothesis. The government has of course taken action to mitigate the risk of the Indian variant, although many claim its actions were too late and too little. As the future public inquiry may show, there seems to be an Achilles heel in how what is known as the scientific method, applies to pandemic management.

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Jack Lesgrin’s week: Labour’s big beasts on manoeuvres

18/05/2021, 03:45:43 PM

by Jack Lesgrin

Even Labourites could support paying former PMs for this…

Last week Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, independently of one another, entered the fray. Labour supporters normally condemn former PMs benefitting financially from the knowledge they gained in office. But how about Tony and Gordon joining together to provide a masterclass to Labour frontbenchers on how to frame a narrative, develop relevant policies to appeal to a winning coalition of voters, and communicate the above? Surely Labour members would happily contribute to the kitty so that everyone’s a winner!

New New Labour?

Tony Blair was on manoeuvres at the end of the week. His New Statesman article identified the urgent need for new thinking and action, given the dire straits Labour is in. Blair is usually very cautious in his interventions as regards the future of the Labour Party. He resiled from direct calls for Corbyn’s resignation and was careful not to be seen to be backing leadership challengers. He was also under or not even on the radar amid the rather lackadaisical and ultimately doomed discussions between ‘players’ from the Blair years and those who backed the Independent Group (TIG)/Change UK, and other attempts at creating a new political force such as United For Change, whose early briefing meetings were impressive, yet which faded quickly.

Although many prefer to comfort themselves with the caricature of Blair as all style, no substance, he has always been as good at the act of politicking and governing as at the art of communication. The tone of his recent writing, and indeed that of other big hitters of his era such as Peter Mandelson, show that (t)he(y) perhaps can no longer resist the lure of active participation.

Lord Andrew Adonis seems to think so, with his almost hourly tweets that it’s “Time for Blair”. It’s one of those down the (re-opened) pub conversations that goes: “I didn’t like what he did on Iraq, but I bet he would wipe the floor with Johnson in a general election.” Like so much pub talk, there is truth in the bluntness. Hitherto, the received wisdom was that Blair was too toxic, that Labour wouldn’t elect him leader again, that this kind of thing ‘just doesn’t happen’ and that he wouldn’t want it anyway.

Taking these in turn: 1) he won a 66-seat majority in 2005, despite the alleged toxicity of Iraq; 2) while this is probably true, his statement last week that Labour “needs total deconstruction and reconstruction” shows his keenness for radical change; 3) as noted in this column, Boris Johnson has shown repeatedly that conventions do not apply anymore; and 4) see 2)!

Northern Rocky (more…)

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