Monday, 24 October 2016

Batley and Spen by-election

Last Thursday we had a parliamentary by-election in my home constituency of Batley and Spen.  This was to replace our Labour MP Jo Cox who was murdered last June. Out of respect for Mrs Cox, and acknowledging that for this parliament anyway, or unless there was a vacancy for a "normal " reason, the replacement MP should be Labour, we Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives, Greens and UKIP decided not to field candidates.  That didn't stop nine others, mostly right-wing minorities or independents, taking advantage of the free leaflet delivery to flaunt their creeds.

Top of the ballot paper was Mr, Mrs or Ms Corbyn Anti.  Since on ballot papers surnames come first she/he therefore came across as Anti Corbyn.  How he or she managed this I don't know.  I'm reminded of a Liberal candidate, Frank Davies who, in the days before party affiliations were allowed  on ballot papers, added "Liberal" to his forename by deed poll.  So this appeared on the ballot papers as Davies, Frank Liberal.  As far as I can remember he didn't win, but his ploy was a significant part of the eventually successful campaign to permit party affiliations on the ballot paper.  What Mr Mrs of M/s Anti's policies were other than to be against Mr Corbyn I don't know as I received no leaflet from him/her

Nearly all the others sent literature, all were in favour of "motherhood and apple pie" issues such as supporting the local hospital, the NHS and being a "strong voice for the constituency" (though most of them lived somewhere else), and most wanted to stop immigration, even ALL (sic) immigration.

The one exception was an Independent, Henry Mayhew, who stood "4democracy" and felt that the people of the constituency  should have a choice other than "Mr Corbyn's Labour."   He was the only one to put a local address on the ballot paper.  Most identified only an "address in the xxxxx constituency."  Things have changed since my day, when a specific address was compulsory.  Perhaps today they're afraid of having their privacy invaded, or worse, by demonstrators.

The best performing "other" was the English Democrat with 969 votes, not quite enough to save her £500 deposit.  Third was the BNP with 584 votes, way below the 5% deposit-saving level, and all the others were even further below.  The national Front managed only 87 votes.

Nevertheless it is disturbing that in our constituency  a total of 2 646 people gave their votes to no-hope far right candidates in an election which many regarded as an opportunity to show respect to the memory and idealism of Jo Cox, and the proper, decent and non-violent conduct of politics. It is also rather sad that, in in contrast to the outpouring of emotion when Mrs Cox was killed  only 25.78%  of those entitled to make such a gesture bothered to do so.

The Labour winner with 85% of the vote was Tracy Brabin, an actress who is well known as having appeared in several soap operas on television.  She is, like Jo Cox, locally born and bred and her literature, of which I've seen three different leaflets,  is almost entirely devoted to details of her career and the names and pictures of local people who are gong to support her.  There is little about her, or Labour's, policies, other than that she will protect services at the local hospital, ensure every single young person has "the best possible education and life chances" (a tall order), hold the government to account and"back our local police" -  (who wouldn't?)

Does  she back Corbyn or will she join the dissidents; is she keen on the closest possible relations with the EU, maybe even wanting to Remain, or is she inclined to be a Brexiteer; is she in favour of or against the replacement of Trident; will she raise taxes in order to support the local hospital and the rest of the NHS; how about fracking, HS2, renewable energy, renationalising the railways?

She can't be too concerned about  supporting local industry as two of her her leaflets were printed in Cardiff and the third in Manchester.  I also noted that her address on the ballot paper was "in the Chipping Barnet constituency" which sounds too close to Chipping Norton for comfort.

I know that normal party conflict was suspended for this by-election and support that decision, but a valuable opportunity for political education has been lost.

If mainstream politicians are wary of declaring their policies for fear of frightening off some people  then the extremists will flourish.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Happy results, and food for thought, at the Witney by-election

At this by-election to fill the Witney seat after David Cameron broke his promise to continue being their MP and resigned after all, the first surprise is not that the Conservative candidate won it, but that their share of the vote fell from the 60% they achieved in 2015 to a more modest 45%. The Theresa  May brand of Toreyism is not carrying all before it.

But the even pleasanter surprise is that we Liberal Democrats quadrupled (yes, quadrupled ) our share of the vote, from the paltry 6.8% received in 2015 to a healthy 30%.   I have been out walking in the Pennines all day so haven't heard many news bulletins but I'm sure Tim Farron and et al have been out and about trumpeting loudly and clearly that our  fight-back is taking off and neither Tories nor Labour can take anything for granted.

This is not actually the first "green shoot" of our recovery: We have won several local government seats up and down the country from both Labour and Conservatives  since May 2015, but these are noticed only by political anoraks. The Witney result will resonate much more loudly, even if it isn't quite another Orpington.

There is, however, another lesson, or perhaps two, to be learned from the Witney result.  The Liberal Democrat, Labour and Green votes combined would have beaten the Tory.  With Jeremy Corbyn leading the Labour Party I believe we really are in a new era of politics.  If our three parties, with so many overlaps in policies, ethos  and intentions, had combined to put up a joint candidate we could have kicked out the Tories in the seat of the former Prime Minister.  Now that would have been another Orpington of cataclysmic proportions.  Our party apparatchiks should be quietly exploring this possibility ready for the next time.

An alternative approach, in the present circumstances, could be even more relevant.  The Tory candidate is a Brexiteer.  If our three parties, all  pre-Referendum in favour of Remain, had combined, perhaps even with others who share our views,  to field a pro-Remain candidate, a victory would  undermine the complacency of the Referendum victors who are making the running in the government at the moment..  A series of such by-election victories could put an end to the nonsense of continuing to dig a hole for ourselves in the basis of the narrow Referendum result achieved on a false prospectus.

Remain Tories could be co-opted into such a scheme, and the nation rescued, with dignity,  from its present self-harming course.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Refugees: can Britain fall any lower?

It has been a bad couple of years for those of us believing that we lived in a country  imbued with a Christian ethos supplemented by the humanity of the Enlightenment.

In that time Germany has given a generous welcome to refugees. "We can do this" said Mrs Merkel.  True she is now receiving a domestic backlash, but is still odds-on favourite to win her next election.  By contrast Britain has renounced our long held reputation for hospitality to those felling hardship and persecution, and is at the back of the queue, having received  but a grudging trickle of refugees.

This year's EU referendum campaign has been tawdry in  the extreme and the Brexit result has been taken by many to legitimise hate crimes against an assortment of foreigners, here as EU citizens, migrant workers, asylum seekers refugees - or simply foreign.

For  months the government has dragged its heels  over the reception of a number of youngsters in Calais with a legal right to come to Britain becasue they have relatives here.

That the arrival earlier this week of a mere 14 of them made headline news is shameful enough.

But  to our deeper shame a Conservative MP, Mr David Davies, has claimed that some of the  youngsters look a bit old to his eyes, and so should  have their teeth examined to determine how old they really are. Our gutter press, the Sun and the Daily Mail in particular, have not hesitated to back him up

Here is a comment from the poet and translator Georges Szirtes,  who arrived here as a refugee from  Hungary in 1956.

"In August 2015 I returned to Budapest  again.  This time, rather than  people desperately fleeing , they were desperate to enter.  I saw mostly young families, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, sleeping on the cold stone floors  with their babies and small children.  

This didn't bring  back memories for me.  It is not how we were treated.  British people and the state were incredibly supportive - they were receiving a lot of desperate people from a range of backgrounds, who ultimately had a lot to offer the nation.  I believe Britain should remember its previous generosity now."

Yes indeed.

What on earth has happened to us?  It is precisely 60 years since 1956.  Materially we are approximately three times richer.  We have all enjoyed (or endured) universal primary and secondary education; we have a higher proportion in higher education than ever in our history;  in addition to the Red Tops we are served by some high quality media, especially the BBC, now freely available on the radio and for a modest fee on television.

We need to examine very seriously what is going wrong, and why?

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Antisemitism: where angels fear to tread.

When Billy Elliot's coal-miner Dad was asked if he were a supporter of the ballet he replied that he wasn't exactly and expert. I feel much the same  in daring to discuss antisemitism but it does seem to me, as a non-specialist, that the Labour Party is receiving far too much stick as the result of  the parliamentary committee report published this weekend.

In my view the problem arises becasue  it is far too easy to conflate criticism of the actions of the Israeli government with antisemitism.  Jeremy Corbyn, and some prominent members of the Labour party, have a long history of being critical of the Government of Israel.  That does not, in my view, necessarily make them antisemitic.

Unfortunately the standard definition of antisemitism:

a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

is ambiguous if  "criticisms of Jewish community institution" is taken to include criticism of the actions of the government of Israel.  Outside this definition there also seem to be instances in whcih support of the Palestinians can be construed as antisemitism.

The Liberal Democrat party does not have a good record in making a proper distinction..  Jenny Tonge, when an MP (she is now a peer and sits as a cross-bencher) was rapped over the knuckles for saying, after a visit to Palestine, that whilst she would not condone the actions of Palestinian suicide bombers, she could understand why they they did it.

 David Ward, one-time MP for Bradford East, was similarly reprimanded  and temporarily suspended from the party for criticising the Israeli government's treatment of the Palestinians.  He commented at the time of the "veritable tsunami" of public condemnation which resulted from any such criticism.

It is clear that there is a well funded and well organised lobby which is quick to organise in defence of the Israeli government  in the face of any criticism. It is also clear that parts of this lobby are not slow to distort legitimate criticism with the accusation of antisemitism.

The Israeli/Palestine problem  is a classic case of two wrongs  not making a right.   The  wrong done to Jewish people in the holocaust by Europeans was an enormity beyond description.

At the same time, the action of the ruling powers in the post war era of ignoring the second part of the Balfour Declaration, that in the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people it should be  "clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine" was a wrong done to the people living there, compounded by the continues occupation of the Occupied Territories in defiance of UN Resolution 242, and others, whcih exacerbate the wrong.

A solution to the problem can only be achieved by both sides backing down on what they see as fundamentals and reaching a compromise.  Such a solution requires open discussion, and will not be helped by one side attempting to stifle  arguments made on behalf of the other.

I am not now and never have been a member of the Labour Party, but I'm pretty certain that the bulk of their discussions on this topic will be limited to political aspects of the Israel/Palestine situation, and not concerned with abuse of Jews as individuals or collectively.

I have not read it but assume that is the conclusion of Shami Chakrabarti's report. . I have been a member of Liberty for several years, have met Shami Chakrabarti,  heard her speak at least twice, and enjoyed many of her contributions to the BBC's  Question Time. She is one of our most respected  commentators on legal, social and political matters.  I only with she had joined the Liberal Democrats.  I find it nonsensical that she could have produced a "whitewash" report as a quid pro quo for a Labour peerage. That this accusation has received  so much coverage is evidence of the effectiveness of the pro-Israel lobby.

I have never looked at Twitter and don't really understand Facebook but am well aware that people, usually under a pseudonym or unanimously, can post vile suggestions.  An example, albeit nothing to do with antisemitism, was mentioned in the Guardian magazine over the weekend, of someone who had posted , with regard to a 14 year old Afghanistani refugee, Raheemullah Oryakhel, killed on the fringe of the Calais "jungle": "Can't they show it happening I would enjoy watching it one less to worry about."

So I understand that  disgusting things can be said on social media.  I'm sure some are said about Jews.  I doubt if many are by serious members of the Labour Party.  One method of reducing their incidence would be to insist that  the posters identify themselves properly, save in exceptional circumstances, as in newspaper letter pages.

Finally I find it a bit rich that the Conservatives are making such a meal of Labour's alleged culpability.  After all, in my lifetime among the last organisations to abandon bans on Jewish membership were the golf clubs.  Not many socialists there.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Our pick-'n'-mix democracy

Earlier this week our central government overruled the the clearly expressed wishes of most of the residents of the Fylde, a coastal part of  Lancashire, and of their elected county council representatives, and gave permission for private extraction companies to go ahead with fracking.

Curiously, when local residents object to the erection of wind turbines in their area, they have the last word - the government does not have the power to overrule them.

Some of the objectors to fracking, aware of the possibility of contamination of their water supplies, minor earthquakes, escapes of methane gas and the despoliation of their surroundings, could be motivated by NIMBY -ism (not in my back yard).  But many will surely believe that, at a time when the effects of climate change are becoming increasingly obvious, we should not be seeking to exploit yet another carbon-based fuel, but instead be exploring and developing techniques for harnessing renewable energy (my own favourites are wave and tidal power).  Most will have objected for a mixture of motives.

However the objections to wind turbines can only be the selfish NIMBY ones -  that they look a bit ugly and make a bit of noise.

Surely in all logic the power of the government to overrule "in the national interest" (indeed, the planet's interest) should apply to the wind turbines rather than the fracking.

Here's another anomaly.  When the first referendum on devolution to of powers to Scotland was held in 1979 a condition was written in that at least 40% of the total eligible electorate should have voted in favour for a "Yes" vote to be valid.  The result was 51.62% in favour and 48.38% against - a margin not all that dissimilar to that  in the recent EU referendum..  However, since the turnout in this Scottish referendum was 64% the "Yes" vote amounted to only 33% of the eligible electorate, so the result was invalid.

In the recent referendum on EU membership 51.9%  of those who  voted opted for "Leave".  The turnout was 72.2%.  So those in favour of BREXIT represented only 37.5% of those entitled to vote. Had the "Scottish rule" been applied  to the EU referendum the BREXIT vote, too, would be invalid.

Monday, 10 October 2016

What centre ground?

Claiming  to occupy the "centre ground" is a popular ploy in British politics and the Tories did  so vociferously in their conference last week.  However, Ian Dent (5th October) and  Simon Wren-Lewis (6th October) have paid more attention to the detail of the conference than I have and between them have enumerated the following proposals:

  • to phase out foreign doctors
  • to cut down on the number of foreign students
  • to jail landlords if they fail to check their tenants' residency papers
  • to "name and shame" companies with a high percentage of foreigners in their workforces
In addition, leading-up to the conference, the government has announced plans to :

  • build a protective wall round Euro-tunnel entrance at Calais 
  • reintroduce educational selection at 11 plus
  • use the status of EU migrants already here as a "bargaining chip" in the forthcoming negotiations.
Happily they have already rowed back on  "name and shame" part of the proposal  regarding companies employing a significant percentage of foreigners - they will now just collect the information - but the intention reveals the true nature of the their  thinking.

If this is the centre ground then one shudders to think what a far-right party would sound like.  With these proposals the Conservatives shame themselves. 

Thursday, 6 October 2016

"Sorry: we got it wrong!" (The Tories)

"Sorry, we've been getting it wrong for the past six years.  We'll try to do less badly from now on."  In an honest world that would  be the message beamed loud and clear from the Tory Party's conference.

Remember, in 2010 when the Tory-led government took office, we were told that the government's overwhelming priority was to eliminate the  internal deficit and preserve our international AAA rating for economic dependability.  The deficit was to be eliminated by the end of the parliament, after which the National Debt was to be gradually reduced.  To achieve this government expenditure was to be savagely cut.. 

So public services were cut, the civil service reduced in size, grants to local government were cut (most severely to areas with the greatest problems), recipients of social security payments were demonised, the toxic bedroom tax was introduce, and  the disabled were subjected to humiliating harassment, to name but a few.

Macro-economists ranging from the great and the good to this humble blog, screamed that this was the wrong thing to do. As Keynes pointed out, in a depression the proper  government reaction is to undertake public works and the resulting increases in incomes, employment and growth will eventually, and before we're all dead, rectify the government's finances through an increase in the tax-take and fall in social security  expenditure

As predicted, and in spite of the suffering experienced largely by those at the bottom of the pile, the policy failed.  The AAA rating was lost in 2013, the "balancing of the books" was postponed to halfway through the next parliament, and then, after the defenestration of Cameron and Osborne, to the one after this.

A record of economic competence it is not.

On top of that the EU Referendum, a device simply to solve an internal party difficulty and for which there was no real  public appetite (EU matters came about 13th in the public's list of concerns, way behind employment, the NHS, housing, and education) has produced the biggest government fiasco since Lord North lost the American colonies over and argument about the tax on tea.

Mrs May's declaration  that "things must change" - and that in future we'll have "a country that works for everyone"   is clearly an admission that for the past six years  it didn't.

This is received with rapturous cheers by the party faithful, and magnified by the sycophantic press, as though  Mrs May, and they, were absolutely nothing to do with the previous administration.

It is perception management at its best, but an honest appraisal it is not.