Thursday, 19 January 2017

My week on Twitter - the #Brexit edition

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Cross post from Lib Dem Voice: Brexit means... Keeping Mum

The following was first published on Lib Dem Voice, here.




Brexit means Brexit… The oft repeated mantra has become as synonymous with Theresa May as Major’s “Back to Basics”, Blair’s “Education, Education, Education” and Cameron’s “Compassionate Conservatism”. Like those, the phrase has become something of a joke – not helped by the assonance of the words “Brexit” and “Breakfast”, and the trap this has provided to ministers and commentators alike. So far, so funny, so harmless. Well, not harmless, but there is a world of difference between soundbites and actual policy. Originally “Brexit means Brexit” seemed designed to simultaneously pander to those who want a hard Brexit, whilst leaving the government leeway to work out what to do.
Of course, the official explanation of a lack of policy is that we cannot “reveal our hand” in advance of negotiations. There can be no escaping the whiff of sophistry about this answer – particularly when you consider the conflicting signals from the various departments charged with coming up with some form of coherent plan for those negotiations, preferably before Article 50 itself is triggered. It is patently obvious that no such plan yet exists, and all the while the clock is ticking towards the government’s self-imposed deadline.
If taken at face value, then May’s approach shows a shocking disregard for parliament, and the people. Her original desire to exercise Royal Prerogative to trigger Article 50 was but a symptom of a wish to retain control over every aspect of Brexit. I doubt those who voted to “Take Back Control” meant “take back control and hand it to the whoever is selected to lead the Tory party to do with as they wish”. Nonetheless in a few short months we have gone from having a government elected on a manifesto in which they said “yes to the Single Market” to a situation where the new Prime Minister will not now categorically repeat that affirmation.
This desire for control was evident in the advent of “Red, White and Blue” Brexit. Back me, or be unpatriotic was the message. Brexit is British: if you don’t get behind it, then your loyalty and even national identity is suspect. Get with the programme or get out… I exaggerate, but there is a serious point here: Brexit has given licence to those whose idea of Britishness is ethnic rather than civic to voice their opinions in ever louder and more aggressive ways. The tone from May, and from elements of the press, add fuel to the fire. It’s all very well to call for unity, but you need to act like you want it.
It is impossible to shake the suspicion is that the government, or parts of it, is intent on withdrawing from the single market whatever their public pronouncements, or lack of them, say. Certainly, having already gained the upper hand once, Tory eurosceptics will now press for “Maximum Brexit”. In building their coalition of support the Leave campaigns deliberately obfuscated on whether we would (or could) remain a member after a Leave vote. Now most of the leading campaigners tell us that Brexit means complete extraction not just from the EU but from all its institutions.
So, we have three possible, and overlapping, reasons for the government’s silence on their vision for the future: 1) a lack of a plan for the negotiations, 2) a certain control freakery, driven by May and 3) an unwillingness to admit that leaving the single market is an aim of at least some of our leaders, if not the settled goal of the government as a whole.
But is there a fourth reason?
Traditionally uncertainty has been the enemy of the markets – and this was evident as the currency markets tumbled following May’s refusal to admit that her aspirations to control migrant numbers would inevitably mean a hard Brexit settlement. But it was more than this, it was a window on what will happen if, or when, it becomes clear that we are leaving the single market. May can ill afford a further sustained devaluation of the currency, the attendant monetary and fiscal measures that would accompany this, or the potential backlash that the resultant cost of living might bring against her and the road she has embarked on.
Perhaps uncertainty is better than certainty, if the latter is suitably grave. Perhaps that’s why, for now, mum’s the word when it comes to Brexit plans.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Cross post from Lib Dem Voice: Is a Progressive Alliance the way forward?

The following was first published on Lib Dem Voice, here. It has given rise to a number of comments which, whilst I've not been able to address them individual, I'm sure I will revisit in further pieces.


Is a Progressive Alliance the way forward?

Since the last general election - and even more so since the EU Referendum and the election of Donald Trump in the United States - there has been talk of a need for a "Progressive Alliance" between Labour, Lib Dems and Greens, in an effort to beat the Tories.

Much of this talk has come from Green Party members, with Caroline Lucas being a prominent voice in favour, but there are those in Labour and the Lib Dems for whom this would seem to be a beguiling idea. Indeed, former leader Lord Ashdown has long hankered for a realignment of the left.

Personally I'm a sceptic; for all sorts of reasons.

First, just how do you define "progressive"? To me it's one of those political phrases that gets thrown around a lot, but means so many things to so many different people it has lost any real meaning. There are, for example, many in Labour who are perfectly happy with its authoritarian tendencies (evident in its internal organisation as well as in many of the policies it pursued in office) who would describe themselves as progressive, whereas I would not.

Many of these same people would be vehemently against any form of alliance with the Liberal Democrats: either because we are their natural political enemy in their locality or because we committed the "sin" of entering a coalition with the Tories in 2010. There are those in the Green Party who also feel this way too, despite such a pluralist approach to politics being a natural result of the PR electoral systems both our parties support.

Tribalism exists across all political parties and is fostered in the First Past the Post environment. For me, though, true progressive politics has to be pluralist in its approach: something that many on the left, with its many factions, find difficult.

So much for pragmatism, what about the pragmatics of any alliance? What, say, do we concede to the Green Party for their help in Richmond Park? Do we stand down in the successor seat to Brighton Pavilion? What about Bristol West, which is often mentioned in these terms despite the fact it has not been Tory since 1997 (having been held by Labour from then until 2005, then Lib Dem and, since last year, by Labour again.)

Given the scarcity of seats that the Green Party has a realistic chance of winning, and that their top two targets (Bristol West and Norwich South) are both held by Labour, after a spell as Lib Dem seats, you rapidly move away from the idea of a "Progressive Alliance" and towards pre-election pacts with seats, and presumed results, being horse-traded in the backrooms of Westminster.

Once such an alliance or pact has been made between parties, there is no guarantee that the voters will follow. Indeed, many voters may be turned off by the "alliance" candidate, or they may turn away and vote in precisely the opposite way from that intended. They may well resent the removal of choice, whatever the intention of the parties involved.

So, where does this leave us? Well, I'm not completely shut off to the idea of some form of an alliance, but for me it would have to have a very specific aim. Seeking a mandate to stop Brexit could have been one, but that ship appears to have sailed as far as Labour are concerned. The next big prize for an alliance would, to my mind, be electoral reform. A unified ticket of a short, time-limited parliament specifically to remove FPTP (and the Lords) and replace with PR (and an elected second chamber).

Sadly, I can't see this happening either which leaves two remaining possibilities (other than the status quo). One is a more informal arrangement of parties running "soft" campaigns so as not to cannibalise the progressive vote. The other is the approach of More United, where a member-led third party effectively endorses a candidate who subscribes to its values and seeks to rally support for them.

I understand there are moves to launch a progressive alliance body in the new year, but I fear that they are on a hiding to nothing. In the meantime, we Liberal Democrats have a distinctive message to tell on the key issue facing our nation today. In the absence of a broader movement for a more open, tolerant and united Britain, and for a continued role for the EU and its institutions, then we must keep flying the flag for what we regard as progressive politics.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Castro, Trump, Brexit and Liberalism


The original version of this post can be found on my Facebook Page. This version has been expanded to incorporate my response to a comment on the post, and one or two musings elsewhere.



Much has been written about the rise of the populist right lately. With the advent of Brexit, and the election of Trump, the left is being challenged in ways it hasn't been for decades, and certainly not in the era of post-war politics.


For some, the answer is to retreat further to the left: the left of class war, the left of opposition-ism, the left of intellectual purity. So we have the spectacle of a Leader of the Opposition paying tribute to a dictator who ruled for 40 years.

I've jokingly said on the past that the reason that Corbyn's opposition is so lackadaisical is because in the societies he admires dissent isn't allowed. It's not, however, a laughing matter to have a Leader of the Opposition that lauds a leader of a state where no opposition is allowed, and not acknowledge the fact that he's speaking from a position of political luxury that Castro never extended to his critics.

Or we see people comparing the stability of Cuba with a cycle of crises attributed to capitalism. "Look at their health service!" is something I've seen a few times in relation to Castro. But this isn't about the relative merits of capitalism and communism/marxism - it's about the tendency of extreme left and right to totalitarianism, and - in the UK - of parts of the left and right to authoritarianism. Capitalism has its flaws - as do democratic systems - and Cuba and North Korea are, largely stable on a civic level. But if the price of stability in a society is to be supportive of the repression of dissent, then count me out.

For others the response to the right is to talk of a "progressive" alliance: although to me this falls down on a) differing definitions of "progressive" and b) practicalities. (I wouldn't rule out a joint-ticket committing to a short parliament to implement electoral reform - but that is complicated by Labour's approach to Brexit, and their innate tribalism*.)

Today's news on the death of Fidel Castro reinforces where, for me, the fault-line of politics really lies: between liberalism and authoritarianism, open societies and closed ones, internationalism vs isolationism and freedom of speech vs the routine imprisonment of dissenters. It matters not if threats to liberal ideals come from the right or the left.

If, a fortnight ago, you were spitting feathers at the Daily Mail's "Enemies of the People" headline, or suggestions from prominent UKIP members that the government should have more control of the judiciary, and you are now acting as an apologist Castro and Cuba, then you need to take a long hard look at yourself - and the Amnesty International summary of the situation in Cuba. (Click here for the full report.)



I know the world is complex, and Cuba may be far from the worst offender. But an offender it is. I'm happy to criticise America's record on human rights: both within CIA rendition programmes and it's use of the death penalty amongst many other things. There are also many things I am concerned about here in the UK - not least the recent passing of the Investigatory Powers Bill, with the acquiescence of Labour.

In addition, it's notable that in the Amnesty report both the UK and US have longer entries than that for Cuba. But that, of course, is not least because much of the information that Amnesty report on is freely available in those countries... whereas Cuba hasn't allowed AI access in over two and a half decades.

The job of Liberals is to shine a light on authoritarianism in whatever manifestation it presents itself. And to remind people that the answers to our problems have never been met by those at the extremes where left and right meet totalitarianism.

Where that aligns with others on the left - and right - we should work together for a better future. Where it doesn't, we must take a stand.

Ultimately, though, my point is that Human Rights abuses of the left are no different from those of the right. If you're on the receiving end of state-sponsored torture or human rights abuses, or your freedoms are restricted in some other way, I doubt you care much for the ideological purity of the perpetrator, whether fascist of communist. So I will call out those who have a tendency of some to turn a blind eye to atrocities committed in the name of their favoured ideology. The right did it with Pinochet, the left now with Castro.


* Labour's tribalism is alive and well in Richmond Park where their candidate seems to have forgotten that the defending MP - the so-called "Independent" Zac Goldsmith - is the primary opposition.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

What I think Lib Dem MPs should do on invoking Article 50.

Over recent years, my blogging has become quite limited. Parallel to this, my political thoughts have been increasing expressed on Facebook - either through status updates shared with friends, or in discussions on various pages, profiles and groups.

A couple of months ago, I set up my own *public* Facebook Page as an halfway house between full-on blogging and those ad-hoc debate contributions. You can find that page here, and the latest entry below.


To my mind there are two main aspects to the decision:


The "Respecting the Will of the People" argument.

Whether we like it or not, the nuance* of the fact that the referendum was advisory, or that MPs are representatives not delegates, is lost on people. Further, one** of the reasons many people voted "Leave" was to kick out against a system that they perceive doesn't represent them whether in Europe, Westminster or their local Town Hall.

Set against this, is the fact that all Lib Dem MPs were elected on a manifesto that proclaimed our commitment to the EU, and that we were active campaigners for "Remain" in both our own right and as part of Stronger IN***.

If a Commons vote were *just* on Article 50, then I would be comfortable with MPs splitting between abstaining and voting against, depending on their own view of the weight to be given to the referendum result, either nationally or in their own constituency.

But the vote will not be context-less. Whether or not it any motion put to MPs expressly refers to the terms of negotiation, there are likely to be indications from government as to what outcome they are seeking. Which brings us to...


The "what type of Brexit is it to be" argument.

The referendum result was only clear in delivering a "Leave" result but this was as a result of a coalition of people voting Leave for many different reasons - "Hard Brexit" would have been unlikely to command the same majority. It is this that makes this second argument over how to proceed so key.

Post referendum, the party laid out a list of "key issues for negotiation" as part of a post-referendum policy which also called for parliament to have a vote on Article 50.****

I took this - and still do - to be a list of our red-lines***** in consenting to any negotiation. As a result, I would expect us to vote against triggering Article 50 if these points have not been positively addressed: something which seems unlikely at present.

I started this piece expecting it to be more ambivalent than it turns out. As things stand, though, I can't see how our MPs can't vote against given that the government seems bent on hard Brexit.

But there is a balance to this that, to me, transcends a simple cry of "we must represent the 48% unequivocally" and which makes our position difficult to "sell" in the meantime. To be honest, I'm not sure how we square the circle without being left open to misrepresentation by the right wing press on the one hand, and the harder fringes of the 48 on the other.

I suppose the position above could be outlined as: "We respect the result of the referendum although we continue to believe that leaving the EU would be bad for Britain. Should the government pursue an agenda of hard Brexit, we will vote against this. If it brings forward proposals that satisfy our red lines, we will give them the benefit of the doubt subject to any agreement being put to the people in a referendum including an option to stay in the EU. In any such referendum we will campaign for staying in."

It's not the catchiest soundbite ever...


P.S. If Article 50 is blocked by Parliament (or, at least, the House of Lords) and a snap election results, then I believe we should fight the election on an express commitment to vote against Article 50 in the new Parliament, regardless of the negotiation terms proposed.

*I appreciate this is cold hard legal fact but to many it's incidental to "we had a vote on this"
** There were, of course, many reasons people voted "Leave" including those who just genuinely took a different view of things.
*** Of which the least said, the better, for now...
**** http://www.libdems.org.uk/europe
***** I hope we stick to this list better than we did over our demands on the vote on airstrikes on ISIS in Syria...