Friday, 23 August 2019

With friends like these. . . ?

Last  Tuesday, 20th August the Guardian (one of only two of our national newspapers opposed to  Brexit -the other, I hope, being the Daily Mirror) headlined Polly Toynbee's article on the front page of its Journal (ie opinion) section "Remainers  must do 'whatever it takes'  to prevent no deal."  In the same section the first leader was headlined "The cost of no deal is brutal.  MPs must work together to stop it."

An inside article by a Poppy Trowidge, formerly a special advisor to Philip Hammond, mentions "no deal" ten times and "leaving without a deal " twice, but nowhere does she mention the option of revoking Article 50 and remaining in the EU.

M/s Trowbridge's article acknowledges that the  "[Johnson] administration has done a brilliant job of branding and broadcasting its approach" - that is of framing the debate as between leaving with or without a deal rather than the better  choice of leaving or remaining (as spelled out in previous posts.)

Sadly the Guardian has not seen fit to print the letter I sent on this topic, the essence of which is that they have:
 "fall[en] into the trap, possibly as a result of the dark arts of Dominic Cummings, of allowing the ardent Brexiteers to define the question before us as between “Deal and No-deal” thus enabling them to declare any deal as a triumph of Mr Johnson’s dogged British determination.   Yet we still leave the EU.

What needs to be spelt out in any article on this topic in the next two months
 is that  leaving the EU with any deal - and the most we can expect is a 
cosmetic re-tweaking of that already agreed with Mrs May - will damage 
our political stature, our economy, our comforts, our culture, the 
opportunities available to  our young people,  and  our capacity  to avert the
 climate catastrophe. 
The real question before us now is not ‘Deal or No deal' but still ‘Remain or  Leave.’  MPs are now  in a position to compare the promises made in 2016 with the facts as they  have now emerged and answer this question by voting to revoke Article 50. If they haven’t the guts to use their judgement and do their duty, they can pass the buck by insisting on a People’s Vote. These are the true options before us."

If our major serious supporter in the media allows itself to seduced by Johnson's fairly obvious ploy, what hope is there for a rational discussion about the realities of our situation?

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

The Dark Arts of Moulding Public Opinion

A report by the electoral commission has called for the regulation of targetted political messages sent digitally.  In general, the report calls for limits  to the amount of  money spent during election periods, the prohibition of foreign money, and the identification of the senders.  You can see the details here.

Sadly it is probably too late to bring in relevant new laws before a snap general election or even another referendum, but it is vitally important for us,  the public, to be fully aware of what is going on.

A recent article by Peter Pomerantsev tells of a world of "dark ads, psy-ops, hacks, bots, soft facts, deep fakes, fake news . . .[and] trolls."  I don't pretend to understand what most of these are but they are sent digitally not to the population as a whole, but to carefully targetted audiences.  Without regulation the target does not necessarily know  from whom the message comes, nor who else is receiving it, or an entirely different message.

The result is that the recipient is deceived into believing that there is a consensus of opinion where none actually exists. This perhaps helps to explain the unexpected result of the 2016 Referendum

Apparently the person in charge of targeted digital messaging for the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 Referendum was a Thomas Borwick. He claims  

"that the most successful message in getting people out to vote had been about animal rights.  Vote leave argued that the EU was cruel to animals because, for example, it supported farmers in Spain who raise bulls for bullfighting.  And within the "animal rights" segment Borwick could focus  even tighter, sending graphic ads featuring mutilated animals to one type of  voter and more gentle ads with pictures of cuddly sheep, to others."

It's  a world away from "Question Time" the "Today Programme," "Newsnight," election addresses and our Liberal Democrat Focus leaflets. The Tories are said to have earmarked  several millions to digital advertising since Mr Johnson became Prime Minister.

A contributor  to a thread on Liberal Democrat Voice, where a version of this post has already been published, claims that she received lots of these "animal" messages, and that it was clear that thy came from the Leave campaign.  Good, but I am not convinced that this applies to all these mystery messages.

If elections (and referendums) are to be freely and fairly fought we all need to know who is sending what messages  to whom, and, where there is distortion of the truth, have the opportunity to put alternative views.

Without such safeguards I suspect Dominic Cummings, the mastermind behind the pro Brexit campaign and now No 10's Chief of Staff,  will take every opportunity to deceive us again.

 Post script

On a different tack, Ian Dunt, in an article  criticising  the Daily Telegraph on the 13th August for distorting the results of an opinion poll. writes:

 [It's] an example of completely degenerate journalistic standards. But it is also part of a sustained
psychological campaign from across the Brexit-supporting press and government, which is just as
baseless. It's an attempt to convince opponents of no-deal that they are doomed.
In a sense, the whole function of Johnson's government is to entrench a sense of the battle already
being over. Diplomats retreat from Europe. Remorseless countdown clocks are put up all over
Whitehall. Briefings are given to the press of the detailed daily no-deal preparation meetings under
Michael Gove.
And most importantly of all, a sustained information war is being fought to convince critics that it's
too late. MPs already lost their last chance to stop no-deal.
But there is a problem with all this. It is false. MPs have not lost their chance. They can still stop it,
quite easily in fact, and there are several avenues open to them.

Thursday, 8 August 2019

Take back the question.

As predicted in the previous post  the real question facing us, whether to continue with Brexit or stop it altogether (either by revoking Article 50, as I'd prefer,  or having another public vote) has now morphed into the quite different question: deal or no-deal?

A letter to the Guardian from  a Stephen King on 6th August puts the matter clearly:

'. . .Boris Johnson has changed the conversation. The debate is no longer "Brexit v referendum /no Brexit", it is "no deal v deal."  This smart strategy positions a deal as the best possible outcome , and removes from the debate any notion  of reconsidering  the whole project.'

Sadly the Guardian's editorial policy seems to have fallen for this sleight of hand.

 An article in yesterday's paper (7th august) was headlined 'Hard Brexit  would harm ability to fight crime', thus giving the impression that some other sort of Brexit would be OK, not so bad, perfectly acceptable. . .
Today (8th August ) the leading article, after surveying the areas in which agreement on a deal may still be possible,  urges Mr Johnson  to 'engage with EU leaders in a spirit of professionalism and respect.'

An article by Martin Kettle, also in today's paper,  is headlined 'Deal of no deal: it's not really up to Dominic Cummings.'

With friend like these (and the Guardian and Daily Mirror are about the only friends we have in a largely Brexit supporting media) who needs enemies?

Whether this shift of emphasis has been engineered by Mr Johnson himself, or his wonder-working media manipulator Dominic Cummings, I have no way of knowing, but there is little doubt that we are being manoeuvred into a situation in which any sort of deal, even  merely a cosmetic tweak on the May deal that already exists, will be hailed as a major triumph of British grit and Johnsonian guts and determination, and no deal  purely the result of European obduracy.

It beggars belief that, in the final three months of this crisis our MPs have chosen to go on holiday.  Heaven knows what future historians will make of it.

At times of crisis in the past parliament has been recalled, notably in :

  • 1949 to discuss the devaluation of sterling (from $4.03 to  £1, would you believe, to $2.8)
  • 1950 to discuss the Korean war
  • 1956: the Suez Crisis
  • 1961: Berlin Crisis which led to the building of the Wall
  • 1982: Falklands War
  • 1995: Bosnia
  • 2001:  Iraq and WMD
  • 2011:  Riots following the shooting of Mark Duggan
  • 2013: Syria.
The present crisis is arguably the most serious since Suez.  Yet the government are given free rein to massage the news, and make ludicrously optimistic  spending promises in apparent preparation for a general election which may undermine the constitution, without any serious opposition.

 I just cannot help reflecting what an outcry there would be from the establishment and just about everyone else if an even slightly left of centre government were implementing similar self harm.

Someone, somewhere, should be constructing  the coalition of remain forces to stop this madness..

Brexit or No-Brexit: that is the question, and the only question that should be preoccupying us now, and could and should be resolved well before 31st October.

Saturday, 27 July 2019

Mr Johnson's win-win course?

Our new prime minister A B  de P Johnson (I shall try to avoid calling him Boris because that plays into his technique of deflecting criticism by pretending to be a joker) has followed Paddy Ashdown's rule and  "hit the ground running."

Mr Johnson  has made outrageous and undeliverable promises, purged the cabinet of all criticism rather than seeking the usual balance (at least in his party) and stands a chance of converting much of the North to his cause by promising a high-speed rail line between Leeds and Manchester.

Some of the commentators claim has has boxed himself into a corner. I strongly suspect that he has created for himself a win-win situation.

If, as seems to me extremely unlikely, his up-beat bravado actually does produce another deal from the Europeans. even if the deal is only a cosmetic tweak of Mrs May's, the sycophantic press will hail him as a hero, Tory MPs will be delighted and they will go into an election go as the likely winners.

If, as is much more likely, Johnson fails in his quest for a deal and we "crash out" on the 31st October, (which is precisely what the Tory extremist  ERG want) he and the sychophantic press will blame the intransigent Europeans, Johnson will be praised for his determination and being a man of his word, his "that will show them" gung-ho attitude will be portrayed  as a revival of Britain's bulldog spirit and again the Tories will enter a general election as a likely winners.

That, I suspect, is Johnson's game plan.

The outcome remains the more likely the longer the Labour Party continues to sit on the fence.

However even without the Labour leadership seeing the light Johnson's plan can be stopped.

There is a danger that, in the remaining three months, the debate will be narrowed down to a choice between an new-deal and no-deal.

 But  neither is anywhere near as good for the country as the deal we already have by remaining in the EU, an option with is still open to us.

A majority of MPs, from all parties, know this very well.

There is still time for our MPs to avoid the damage to the cultural, social and economic future of our country, and rescue our political reputation,  by plucking up the courage to revoke Article 50

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Jo Swinson- an open letter of welcome

Dear Jo Swinson,

Congratulations on winning the leadership of our party by a majority of two to one (or nearly).  The press acknowledge your enthusiasm and communication skills, and I hope they will be effective, especially in attracting young and idealistic campaigners.

There are one or two things in your opening remarks as leader on which I'd like to offer some  notes of caution.

First, you invite existing Labour and Conservative MPs to come and join us.  Fine if they immediately resign tier seats and fight as Liberal Democrats to regain them.  If they don't then their present constituents, and especially those who actively campaigned for and financed them, will justifiably feel cheated.   Swapping parties without confirmation by the electorate leads to even further distrust of and cynicism about our politics when we need the reverse.

Admittedly now that we have accepted Chuka Umunna into our ranks without a by-election it will be difficult to insist on that provision for others.  Therefore, in the interim, I suggest that we invite potential defectors to remain with their existing parties, but to vote with us on all matters concerning Brexit.  Then, if their parties expel them, they can fight as Liberal Democrats in the General Election which will probably ensue.

Secondly  be careful of offering Liberal Democrat membership to any Tom, Dick or Mary just because they are in favour of our continued membership of the EU.  We need also to know that they share most of our Liberal values.  At least one of the ChangeUK MPs (I think it is Anna Soubry) was even keener on the shameful and unnecessary austerity cuts than Danny Alexander and David Laws.  The neocons have already done enough damage to our party, heir to that of Beveridge and Keynes, without adding to their number.

Thirdly, you are reported as saying that you will not form a coalition with either Mr Corbyn or Mr Johnson.  I sympathise in relation to Johnson though I suspect your are accepting the right-wing press's demonisation of Corbyn rather than the real thing.  But it is not up to us to choose the leaders of other parties: stick to policies, not personalities.

Fourthly, you seem keen to co-operate with other parties and that is sensible, even inevitable, for a party that believes in proportional representation by singly transferable vote in multi-member constituencies.  But do be careful to deliniate carefully what we will and won't support in any agreement or coalition.  That was the mistake we made in 2010: "We must support everything -we can't pick and choose."  We need to define  categories: what we will support and campaign for;  what we can't support but will offer "confidence and supply";  on what we choose to offer alternatives,:and  what we will oppose both in public, parliament and in the voting lobbies.  These categories are discussed in more detail in Liberator 365.

Finally, don't be bounced into some sort of agreement or coalition in haste because of some sort of perceived crisis (as happened in 2010).  Continental democracies can take weeks if not months to form partnerships.

You take over the party when the tide is moving, indeed has moved, in our favour. 

The best of luck.

Peter Wrigley
Member since the early 1960s

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Bishop Baines's Five Points

Towards the end of his Harold Wilson Memorial Lecture (referred to in the previous post and which can be reached from here) Bishop Nick Baines argues that, whatever the outcome of Brexit, the controversy has exposed five areas in which we need to to take action.  We need:

  1. A codified constitution.
  2. A more representative electoral system.
  3. Rules for referendums.
  4. Rules for devolution to, and the powers of,  the parliament and assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  5. A redesign of the chambers in the Palace of Westminster to reflect our changed political makeup. 
Baines does not go into detail on these proposals.  My own comments are:

1.  Yes, Britain's famous "unwritten " constitution is now open to abuse.  It depended on a sense of fair play, a common purpose, and that all would observes established conventions.  The current threat to prorogue parliament in order to allow the executive (under Johnson?) to get its way is perhaps the most glaring example of abuse.

At the same time, as was pointed out in a recent article in Prospect, we need to be careful not to "set in stone" rules and procedures which are relevant  only to today's circumstances.   The US, for example, is lumbered with the "right to bear arms" and an electoral college which allowed Trump to become president even though Mrs Clinton had  thee million more votes, just because they are in their (now semi-sacred) Constitution or its Amendments.

2.  Yes indeed, preferably proportional representation by single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies.  This is the system which confers maximum power to the voters, reduces the powers of the parties but avoids fragmentation by ensuring that parties have a significant, even if modest, level of support if they are to achieve representation.

3.  If we are to have more referendums.  Now that they have been introduced they will be difficult to get rid of.  We need to define the circumstances and issues in which they can be used, with provisions for safeguards in the veracity of the campaigning, the right to vote and the size of the majorities necessary for change.

4.  The powers  of the devolved administrations should be defined and safeguarded in law, as should the powers of local government, and regional governments in England when we get them.

5. The adversarial bear-pit of the Commons chamber should be replaced by one which reflects  the diverse opinions of the electorate and promotes "quiet calm deliberation" rather than knockabout  abuse.

When will the electorate be ready to tackle these issues?  Which political party will be brave enough to campaign on them?

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Eton ethos

Our former prime minister Harold Wilson was born and brought up in Hundersfield and to mark the connection the University of Huddersfield holds an annual Harold Wilson Memorial Lecture.  This year the topic was "The Will of the People" and the lecturer was the anomalously styled (Anglican) Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines.  The entire lecture is well worth reading and can be found  here

Early in the lecture Bishop Baines quoted this comment on the transition of the premiership  from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown in 2007

“[It's a] transition about as democratically proper as the transition from Claudius to Nero … It’s the arrogance. It’s the contempt. That’s what gets me. It’s [his] apparent belief that he can just trample on the democratic will of the British people. It’s at moments like this that I think the political world has gone mad, and I am alone in detecting the gigantic fraud. … Everybody seems to have forgotten that the last general election was only two years ago…”

Surprise, surprise: the writer was Boris Johnson, current contender and front runner to take over the premiership from Theresa May.

Bishop Baines continues:

[Johnson] went on to say: “They voted for Tony, and yet they now get Gordon, and a transition about as democratically proper as the transition from Claudius to Nero. It is a scandal.” But, he doesn’t leave it there; he goes on to speak of a “stitch-up”, a “palace coup”, “North Korean servility”, a “fraud and double fraud”, and demands a “mandate from the British people” – a “democratic mandate … by asking the public to vote at once on him, on the new EU treaty, and on the implications of the devolutionary settlement”. He concludes: “Let’s have an election without delay.”

Can we now assume that Johnson, if and when he ascends to No 10, will  promptly  call a general election to validate his accession?

Of course not.

Johnson, who was sacked from The Times for making up stories about the EU when he was their correspondent in Brussels, and from Michael Howard's Shadow Cabinet for lying about  an extra-marital relationship, uses words off the cuff to suit whatever is his present situation, and , like Donald Trump,shows no shame in the future for doing the opposite of what he has said in the past.  The famous "British " value"; "My word is my bond" seems to have no resonance

A more extensive list  of examples and incidents which demonstrate Johnson's unsuitability for any form of public office, never mind the highest in the land, is given in an earlier post.

Johnson's rival, Jeremy Hunt, is only marginally better.  Both of them promise they will be able to negotiate a better leaving deal with the EU than Mrs May did, Johnson because of his "oomph" and Humt because of his experience as an entrepreneur.  Both promise extra spending, Hunt for the Navy (his dad was an Admiral) and Johnson on anything you care to mention. Nine years of austerity and  no  Magic Money Tree are now in the dustbin of history.  Both pander to the lowest instincts of the 160 000 largely male, elderly and white Tory electorate - demonising immigrants, getting tougher on criminals and cutting taxes for the already well-heeled

What values were they taught at school, Johnson at Eton, Hunt at Charterhouse, where he was head boy?

Both would do well to recall the third verse of our Recessional Hymn for tomorrow:

Cure thy children's warring madness,
Bend our pride to they control;
Shame our wanton selfish gladness,
Rich in goods  and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Lest we miss they kingdom's goal.*

I know Eton has a chapel because you see pictures of it.  I'm sure Charterhouse will have one too.  I imagine this hymn will lbe sung frequently in both.

Maybe its sentiments are meant to apply only to we lower orders.

 * from H E Fosdick's "God of grace and God of glory" to be sung to Harry Smart's "Regent Square."