Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Jeremy Corbyn just doesn't get it.

In his response to the government's dramatic defeat in the Commons last night Jeremy Corbyn claimed that the most serious crisis facing the country was that we are led by an incompetent government.  Therefore he was moving a motion of no confidence in it.

He was wrong.  True the government is incompetent, and most of us can't see much sign of competence in the official opposition either.  But that is not the most serious crisis facing the country.

The most serious crisis facing the country is that we can't make up or minds what to do about Brexit.

Unless we take pre-emptive measures, we have  only 71 days to go before we leave the EU without any deal at all, which is almost universally regarded as catastrophic..

So if there were any sense in our politics, every  single hour and every ounce of political energy between now and the 29th March  should be devoted to trying to reach agreement on the best, or failing that the least worst, solution, either for parliament to implement itself, or to put to the people in anther referendum

Instead Corbyn and his fellow Labour leaders will spend the day lobbing pretty predictable accusations against thee government.  He and some of this supporters will presumably enjoy it.

There is no shortage of easy targets: the dire consequences of universal credit; feeble attempts to solve the housing crisis; increasingly precarious employment; squalid conditions in out prisons;a roaring balance of payments deficit appallingly low productivity; transport policy chaos; continued harmful privatisation in the NHS; growing inequality between peoples and the regions; our international reputation besmirched as we appearer to prefer to leave refugees to drown in the Channel rather than rescue them.

None of these problems would be made any more solvable by leaving the EU: in fact, most would become more difficult.

The government will produce some stilted defences and the "no confidence" motion will be lost.

Even if it were to be won, does anyone seriously believe that we should  abandon finding solution  to Brexit for three weeks or so in order to have a general election? Or that a general election campaign would be conducted exclusively on Brexit?

No wonder the rest of the world looks on us a slightly bonkers, and  an increasing number of our own people regard our politics as an  irrelevant game played by politicians for their own amusement and with little relevance to their own lives.

Here, as far as I can see, are the various possible Brexit options on which our MPs, instead of  a showcase debate, should be concentrating:.

1. The Norway option:  this involves remaining in the Customs Union and Single Market , assuming the existing EFTA members would allow us to join them.  It would do least economic damage.  However it would entail following all the EU rules, existing and future (in which we should have no share in making) and continuing to  allow free movement of capital,  goods, services and labour. It would avoid  any problem on the  Northern Ireland border, but we should still be subject to the jurisdiction of the ECJ (on which we should no longer have any representation) and continue to pay a "membership fee." It is effectively "Brexit in name only" or BINO.

2.  The Canada option: this would give tariff free access for most goods, though there might be some customs checks to assess regulatory compliance. Trade in services would however, be much more limited and could probably not include financial services.

3.  LEXIT: a "left wing version of Brexit," the details of which have not yet been specified, but which the Labour party thinks it would be able to negotiate and which would better protect jobs, wages  and employment standards than the May deal.  Most commentators regard it as "having your cake and eating it."  Presumably the implementation of Article 50 would have to be postponed (which would require the agreement of the 27 remaining countries) in order to give put the clothes on this option.

4. No deal:  simply leaving on the 29th March and trading with the EU and the rest of the world on WTO terms.  This is the preferred option of the most ardent of the Brexiteers. Interestingly Jacob Rees Mogg rebuked a commentator for referring to it as "crashing out."  That , he claimed, showed bias from someone who should be neutral.  Most commentators thinks this would be the most damaging outcome for  our economy.  Even Rees Mogg has admitted that  it might take 50 years to see the benefits.  Some Brexiteers claim that if we took this option we should not pay the £39bn "divorce bill" though most others would see that as an international obligation to which the UK is legally and morally committed.

5.  After discussing all of the above, and perhaps even agreeing on a preferred option, putting the matter again to the people in another referendum.

6.  Deciding that there is no option anywhere near as good for our economy, reputation, cultural, scientific and political standing as revoking Article 50 (which we can do unilaterally) and Remaining.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Brexit crunch day.

Today, 15th January 2019. the UK parliament finally gets its chance to have its "meaningful vote" on Brexit.  Voting starts at 7pm tonight though I doubt we hall be much wiser than than we are now.

The print media and airwaves have been full of opinions from people who pretend to know, and who doubtless receive substation fees. I doubt if most of them know much more than I do.

One who does know more than most must surely  be Mrs May, but her expressed views are clearly designed to persuade (secure her position?) rather than enlighten  She pretends that there way be better terms coming from the EU, and, indeed, may yet spring a last minute surprise, but it seems unlikely.  The EU negotiators have been pretty adamant for weeks that the terms are the terms (agreed with all 27 remaining members) and the deal is the deal and that it that.  Listening, or, at least, receiving messages,  does no seem to be one of Mrs May's strong points.

Her main mantra is that to reject her deal  will be a betrayal of our democracy, so she doesn't seem to understand much about democracy either.  We are a representative democracy, sovereignty lies in parliament.  She was the one who did her damnedest to keep any decision on Brexit out of parliament, and a private citizen had to go the the courts to force her to allow this "meaningful vote."  Her chief supporting newspaper, the Daily Mail, called the judges "enemies of the people," for  insisting  that parliament's constitutional rights be observed.

Mrs May's loudest supporting voice remaining in the cabinet, Michael Gove, was interviewed on the radio this morning.  It was a tour de force.  The interviewer accused him of peeking so rapidly and without pauses  to prevent him, (the interviewer,) interjecting with any questions. He. Gove, told us (yet again) that 17+ millions had voted to leave the EU: no mention that 16+ millions had voted to stay in, 12m hadn't bothered to vote although entitled to do so,and another 3+ million with a serious interest in the result.hadn't been allowed to. 

The result of this ill-constructed exercise; unnecessary, distorted by lies, illegal over-spending and possible foreign interference, must be observed as the "will of the people."

Unfortunately  the Brexiteers have the best shorthands.  Constructive estimates of the economic and political damage leaving will do are so easily dismissed as "project fear."  Britain, freed from the shackles of EU regulations (many of which we've devised and to most of which we've willingly agreed) will soar into the sunlit uplands of great economic property and political clout,without the least explanation of how or why.

In warning that a failure to observe "the people's will" could lead to riots in the street, Chris Grayling, arguably the government's most inept minister,  more or less invites, even legitimises, potential civil disobedience.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party, the Official Opposition, paid to criticise the government and offer alternatives, stands incoherently on the sidelines.

If (when?) Mrs May's deal is rejected they will move a motion of no confidence.  When?  Well, soon.

Then they'd like a General Election.  No recognition of the fact that it would now require a two thirds majority of the Commons to vote  for it, and that even if they did, Labour would be unlikely to win it ( the two parties are neck and neck in the opinion polls.)

And even if they did that, there is no probability the the EU would negotiate a deal more favourable to the UK than they have with Mrs May.

 Labour's policies remain in the la la land of "have your cake and eat it" which most people left behind two years ago.

We shall see if the Commons have the guts to "take back " the control  which is their entitlement.  The  Commons Speaker is accrued of anti=Brexit conniving, by allegedly re-interpreting the rules to strengthen their hand.  Another "enemy within?."  But guarding the independence of the Commons against an over-mighty executive is his historic function.  That's why he pretends to struggled when appointed (because in the bad old days Speakers who stuck up for the Commons could get their heads chopped off, or worse.)

Let us hope that our MPs have the courage to act of what they know is the truth:   Brexit is a bad idea; a backward idea; an idea promoted by the very rich for the very rich; supported by a largely foreign owned press; not in the interests of the public but  "sold" to that  public with dishonesty and dissimulation.

The quickest way out of the mess is for MPs to withdraw Article 50, apologise to the EU for wasting so much time, remain members on the present highly favourable terms, and promise to be engaged and co-operative members in the future.

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Lib-Lab "co-operation"

Each year I have a pre-Christian lunch with three fiends; one a fellow Liberal Democrat, the other two keen Labour party supporters, one whom campaigns actively in a Labour/Tory marginal.  He asked me how I would vote in such a marginal , and without much thoght or explanation I replied "Liberal."  Afterwards and on reflection, I thought this might have been a bit blunt, so I wrote him the following letter (names have been changed):

Dear Jonathan.

At our pre-Christmas lunch you asked me how I would vote in a Labour/Troy marginal where a Liberal Democrat candidate had “no chance” and I replied “Liberal.”

This deserves a little more explanation.

Perhaps it would have been a bit more tactful if I had said that voting Labour rather than Liberal Democrat would be worth considering if there were a reciprocal arrangement in a similarly placed Liberal Democrat/ Tory  marginal where  Labour voters undertook to vote Liberal Democrat.  This idea has been floated from time to time but I’m not aware that it has achieved much.  Further research is needed.  The Labour leadership is strongly against such arrangements but sometimes voters take matters into their own hands.  

More broadly, a “realignment of the Left” has been hovering in the background for most of the last half-century, if not longer.  The late Paddy Ashdown was very keen on it, as you may have gathered from the obituaries.

The first “realignment” in which I was involved was in the late sixties or early seventies. David Steel, Ben Whittaker (a Labour MP) and Des Wilson  (the Shelter founder, but not then in the Liberal party,  but dubbed “the country’s best known Mr Wilson") tried to form a cross-party Radical Action Movement (RAM).  I went to a meeting. It came to nothing when the other Mr Wilson (Harold) won a small majority in February 1974 and a bigger one later in the year.

The formation of the SDP and eventual merger with the Liberals was another attempt which ended in failure because the overwhelming majority of  Labour MP remained loyal to what became “Old” Labour .

More recently was the “Project” which Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair toyed with in the 90s.  Proportional representation of some sort (possibly not STV in multi-member constituencies) featured prominently.  Blair lost all interest once Labour won its massive majority in 1997.  

In other words, Labour tends to be interested in cooperation with the Liberal Party /Liberal Democrats when Labour is weak, and loses interest when it wins, or looks as though it can win,  a majority, however small.

Many Labour members are bitter that the Liberal Democrats formed a Coalition with the Tories in 2010.  As you know, neither Jack (the other Liberal at the meal)  nor I think the formation of that Coalition was a mistake. If you believe in proportional representation then a balanced (better word than “ hung”)  parliament is almost inevitable so the making and breaking of coalitions will, with PR, become a normal feature of our democracy (as it is in Germany and many other European countries.)  

The mistakes in the 2010-15 Coalition arose from the naïve way in which the coalition was conducted – Liberal Democrats supporting everything rather than defining: these are the policies on which we agree and will give open support; these are the policies on which we have reservations but will not vote the government  out; these are the areas in which we disagree and on which we will campaign and vote independentl.   We should have been able to  say on so many policies:  they have 300+ MPs; we have only 57 – we don’t agree but we can’t stop them, only modify the damage this will do.

Also it is now evident that Nick Clegg trusted Cameron  while from the beginning  the Tories did their best to shaft us, among other things by pouring campaign funds into the seats we held in order to gain them – very successful.

What Labour critics fail to acknowledge is that, while the Liberal Democrats adopted a policy of negotiating  first with the party with the biggest minority in the Commons. ie the Tories, there were also parallel but less publicised negotiations with Labour.  Gordon Brown was very keen on these but prominent Labour figures, Jack Straw, David Blunkett and others, were strongly opposed and these negotiations foundered.

So from this, possibly somewhat biased, outsider’s perspective it appears that “die-hard Labour" believes that:

  • ·         Labour holds the monopoly  blueprint by which society is to be improved:  
  •   e   those with alternative suggestions (Liberal Democrats, Greens, some nationalists, feminists, et al )are trespassing on" our"  turf and should jolly-well get out of the way.

In support of the second proposition, Liberal Democrats holding public office often get the impression that Labour  hates us more than the Tories.

Add to that, not only did the Tories shaft us in the Coalition, but Labour, in my view shamefully, did so too, on two key rises of the Liberal Democrat programme:

1.       Electoral Reform.  We purposely ran the referendum on the “Alternative Vote” because this was policy  the Labour Manifesto.  Your then leader Ed Miliband publicly supported it and so did some other Labour leaders, but others publicly campaigned against and many MPs and much of your membership remained indifferent. 

2.       House of Lords reform was also in the Labour manifesto. Labour supported the Coalition proposal in principle and then blocked it by the back-door method of failing to vote for the parliamentary time to debate it.  What hypocrisy.

These two shameful acts (of lack of action) support the two criticisms above: good ideas are only good if they come from Labour.

Tom asked if I thought our party would survive and even revive.  

 Of course it will, or something like it.  There is a need in any democracy for a party which gives the highest priority to individual liberty commensurate with the liberty of others (increasing levels of surveillance made possible by modern technology make this increasingly vital);  is enthusiastic about international co-operation; wants to set limits to inequality; advocates sharing sovereignty  with Europe, the UN and eventually the rest of the world: is keen to  promote real equality and not just equality of opportunity, wants a generous welfare safety-net for those who,  through their own fault or otherwise, fail to flourish without help; puts long-term considerations (eg on climate change) before short-term advantage; believes in stake-holder participation in the conduct of economic enterprises  and the profits made; and wants to  reform the constitution to devolve as much power as sensible to the lowest possible e level.

In summary, a major difference between us and Labour arises from that last point.  We are bottom-up reformers, Labour is top-down.

That doesn’t mean to say that there isn’t a lot of overlap in our policies, especially in regard to welfare.  So a re-alignment of the left could come as and when Labour recognises that it does not, after all, have a monopoly of what “the good society” should look like and is prepared to work  with parties which share some of its ideas.

The key to this co-operation is electoral reform.  For Labour to adopt that your die-hards must accept

a)      that it is unlikely to be able in the future to win over-all majorities by itself, and

b)        even if you do, that one party-massive majority government is not often good government (as witness the errors of the Blair years, for example)

One last point.  Your argument about Liberal Democrats et al  handing seats to the Tories by “interfering “ in your marginal seats is probably invalided.  It assumes for example that, in the absence of a Liberal Democrat candidate, most or even all our vote would transfer to Labour and thus dish the Tories.  

Whereas it is true that most Liberal Democrat activists are to the left, that is not necessarily true of our electoral support (just as not all Labour voters are Socialists).  Some of our support comes from “centrists”  or those disgusted by the bullying arrogance of the two larger parties.  Some will be “one-nation Tories” who (with god reason) feel  that the Tories have moved too far to the Right.  It is a fair bet that, in the absence of a Liberal Democrat candidate, some of our supporters wouldn’t vote, and only about half of the rest would vote labour, with the other half voting Tory.

I believe there is research evidence to support this.

So I do not believe we are “queering your pitch.”  I shall go on campaigning for my principles, and urge you to continue campaigning for yours – at least until you see the light.