Saturday, 7 January 2017

This is how to respect the referendum result

Originally posted 7th January 2017 on Liberal Democrat Voice.
I am frequently told that, as a “Remoaner” I must “respect” the result of the referendum. It seems to me that I am not being asked to respect it so much as to fetishise it.
Actually, I do respect it. I respect it for what it was – an advisory vote won by a wafer thin majority based on a mountain of lies.
Then, because I say that, I am criticised (virulently quite often) for being undemocratic and for not respecting the will of the people. And many people who did not vote Leave, and do not want to leave, seem to have accepted the line that the vote has happened and they must “respect” it.
But democracy is so much more than a single vote.
Generally speaking electoral votes stand, even if the majority is unsatisfactory. But that is premised on two conditions.  The first is that the voters get a chance regularly to change their minds. The second is that the voters were – at least relatively – well informed about the subject of their vote. All sides make their offers clear, and the media do a proper job of examining their claims.
Neither of these conditions applies to the referendum vote. There will not be a chance to change our minds about this one. Once we leave the EU, we will not be in a position to get back in for a considerable time. And if we do decide that rejoining might be nice, the conditions to rejoin will be the same as a new joiner, including having to join the Euro, which I do not see happening. So effectively, leaving the EU sets Britain’s course for at least a couple of generations. This vote is not sufficient basis for such a momentous and long term decision.
And the voters were seriously misinformed about what leaving meant. I blame both campaigns and the media for this. The Remain campaign was feeble, the most disorganised and ineffective campaign I have seen in British politics. Even Labour’s 1983 election campaign did not plumb the depths of this one. The Leave campaign was based on deliberate and sustained mendacity from start to finish.
The media failed completely to do the job they are required to do in a democracy. We do not have a free press in this country. We have a commercial press, which conforms to the requirements of its overseas owners, not the needs of the British public. Half the press amplified the Leave campaign’s lies; the other half failed to hold them up to scrutiny. In addition to that half the press has spent around the last twenty years softening the public up for this vote with an even longer sustained campaign of lies about the EU (in which Boris Johnson was a prime, and utterly dishonest, mover).
That is why I claim to be completely democratic in regarding this vote as inconclusive and this fight as unfinished (just as Nigel Farage was going to). To do anything differently would be undemocratic.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

"What I really wanted to hear from Remain"

Originally published on LibDem Voice on 23rd Dec 2016
I don’t know who Little Jackie Paper is but I am grateful to her / him for the following comment on  Katharine Pindar’s recent article on EU reform: “What I really wanted to hear from REMAIN in the referendum was, ‘if we remain in the EU the things that we would do differently in future are…..’”.
I think we all accept how ineffective the Remain campaign was overall. It is still quite painful to revisit it. I can still feel the daily gut wrenching at seeing opportunity slip by as the Leave campaign outthought and outfought us. We had so little to offer that was positive, and Little Jackie Paper’s comment sums that up. It focussed my mind, so here is my answer:
End within two years the silliness of the EU working in two places. It is a waste of money and time and it symbolises everything that is wrong about the EU. Find something to placate French feeling about the loss of prestige involved.
Invite every single EU country leader here on a rolling programme over the next two and a half years to explore concerns and mutual interests.
Get properly involved in the give and take of EU negotiation. We are so often a dog in the manger that we make people reluctant to give us concessions when they can.
Recognise (tough one this) that Britain needs the security of military and intelligence co-operation with all the countries that lie between us and Russia, and work to develop those links.
Give up our support for the remnant of TTIP, and support starting to work on a trade deal that benefits citizens, not corporations.
Work with others in the EU to ensure transparency, particularly in government spending. It should be UK and EU policy that any contract awarded by government must be subject to FOI scrutiny, and cannot be hidden by the fig leaf called commercial confidentiality. People have the right to see how their money is being spent regardless of who is spending it.
Develop an overall EU policy to tax corporations in the countries where they make their sales, not where they are able to set up their headquarters with sweetheart deals.
Make a point of publicising the benefits of immigration for this country, but at the same time recognise that central government policy has been unhelpful in dealing with effects. We should work to create quicker, more generous and longer term responses to places where immigration surges put pressure on housing, schooling and health services. We demand subsidiarity from the EU: we should practise what we preach and put more power, and more money, in the hands of local authorities who have to deal with the negatives of immigration.
That is one way of recognising that, as well as changing our approach to the EU. we need to change the way we do things in this country. The EU is not the cause of many of our problems. The bigger problem is the fascination that Tory, Labour and some LibDem leaders have for neoliberal practices which benefit elites far more than they benefit ordinary people.
We must develop a regional policy that spreads jobs and prosperity beyond the south east.
We must develop a housing policy that actually builds houses.
We must develop a principle that any major spending project, like HS2, must pass a test of benefit to the regions, rather than the de facto test of benefit to London.
We must immediately provide significantly more resources to HMRC to pursue payment of corporation tax.
That’s a start.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Tin of the year

I bought this in 1973. I used the last peppercorn from it this year.

I wonder if there is a museum somewhere that would like to have it.

Best technology of the year: the delivery paddle

Manufactured somewhere near Newhaven. Pressed hardboard. The originals had no thong. The thong was added after one disappeared through a letter box, and now has teeth marks on it.

Monday, 7 November 2016

I want to stay in the EU

This post first appeared in Liberal Democrat Voice.
There has been a bit of a sea change in British politics in the last couple of weeks.
Since June 23rd Remainers have had to put up with their lot, accept the referendum result as if it were a binding expression of democratic will and start preparing for a post Brexit world, or face howls of outrage. I guess that is still the likely outcome, despite today’s court ruling.
But it has become more possible than it has at any time since the referendum to say publicly that I want to stay in the EU, and I hope very much that we find a way to get out of the fix that the vote for Brexit has put us in. Partly it is a matter of courage. Any expression of dismay with the result has been met with a explosive mixture of nastiness, aggression, scorn and abuse ever since. The level has not abated but I have begun to summon up the courage to take it on. Partly that comes from having worked out more firmly the reasons why I stand where I stand:
  • The referendum was not an instruction to Parliament. It was a snapshot of opinion. Opinion was different before, and it has again become different since. (Current polls are around 52-48 for staying in – the margin Farage said he would not accept.)
  • The majority was wafer thin, and it is quite right that our sovereign body – Parliament – should decide “whether” to pursue monumental, damaging and long lasting changes to Britain’s political and economic structures on the basis of such a tiny majority.
  • The vote was won on the basis of a mountain of lies from the Leave campaign and therefore has no moral standing. I do not buy the subsequent lie that both sides lied. The Remain campaign indulged in what I regard as the normal level of exaggeration and selectivity of a political campaign. It never approached the industrial scale of the Leave campaign’s lies.
What has happened since has also stiffened my resolve. Every Leave voter I have spoken to knows exactly what the vote meant for them and everybody else. The trouble is they can’t agree. I have read a number of accounts applying the alleged stages of change to the result. I read one today. It said there are four stages: denial, anger, chaos, renewal. Brexit has not been going through these stages. Brexit has been chaos ever since June 23rd. Nobody, least of all the government, has a clue what is going to happen. It is not wise to plan our long term future on the basis of chaos.
So I want to stay in the EU. I want to be part of reforming it so that it works for its citizens, not its elites. And I want to be part of reforming Britain as well so that it works for its citizens, not for its elites. I want the people who voted to leave because they feel ignored to have a government that is interested in ensuring that they have jobs, houses, a health system and a future that works for them. That means massive change in our political priorities. It does not mean leaving the EU.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Don't believe it till you see it

The DWP's decision to cease re-testing chronically ill claimants is, a rare thing for the DWP in its current guise, welcome. It could be interpreted as part of Theresa May's ambition to govern for “everyone”, but it would be unwise to be too optimistic about further possible decisions and strategies. Firstly, we do not know yet who this will apply to. The criteria are yet to be drawn up, and they could easily turn out to be quite restrictive. Secondly, it is effectively a cost free exercise. The repeated assessments, with attendant reconsiderations and appeals, cost the department money, and save very little apart from those who are thrown off the benefit system because of the stress of repeated testing and because of wrong conclusions being drawn about people's fitness. Damien Green does not share Iain Duncan Smith's vindictive attitude towards claimants. Indeed hardly any Tories do, apart from Chris Grayling. Without that vindictive attitude it would be plain to any reasonable manager that the system should be stopped. Saving the government money by axing a pointless system cannot be interpreted as being one nation government. It means nothing politically. We also have to consider that other planned cuts will be going ahead, and these are a much more potent test of whether the Tories will be governing on behalf of everybody.

We need to focus on things which tangibly improve lives

Originally published in Liberal Democrat Voice on October 1st. Go there for a vibrant comment thread.

Are we barking up the wrong tree?

I have wondered for a while if we are focussing on the wrong things, particularly where the EU is concerned. For the record, I want to remain in the EU. I see it as a flawed institution, run by the same cadre of neoliberal capitalists as those who run this country and most of the other countries in Europe. It has, however, two things going for it. The first is the possibility of deeper co-operation across national boundaries. The second is that it has woven into it a thick texture of human rights which the neoliberals despite their best efforts have been unable to unwind – it was after all woven in before they came along.

But when I look at this country's biggest problems, the EU is neither the problem nor the solution. The media cacophony remains completely confusing as to why people voted to leave. The people who voted leave are equally confusing, and there are massive attempts to shut down debate by taking offence if suggestions are made that, for instance, cutting immigration will not solve any problems other than the fragility of some people's sense of national identity. Taking back control does not take back control, but merely hands it to different members of the neoliberal elite. We still need to identify and solve the problems which have caused such disaffection with the political process.

Advocating staying in the EU is the same as advocating different voting systems. There is no point in either if nothing changes. For a very large majority of those who voted to leave, the key problem is disillusionment. Their experience is that, whatever changes at the top, their circumstances do not change. That experience has, if anything, been reinforced in recent years as the elite gets richer and working lives become more precarious. They do not perceive the benefits of staying in the EU; if anything they have been seduced into blaming some of the features of the EU – free movement of people, for instance – as being the cause of their ills.

So, while the flag at the top of our pole still needs to fly – to remain engaged with the EU (and also to think in terms of fairer voting systems), this means nothing to many people if we do not have detailed and credible policies for improving the material conditions of their lives, and make it clear that we prioritise these over what voters see as more flighty, less relevant issues.

So we should focus on housing (100% on the Farronometer there) – making housing available and affordable. This goes whether it is for renters or owners, and we should encourage more use of different forms of tenure – co-ownership and so on.

We should focus on public services, particular in terms of adjusting financing when population movement causes pressure. This goes with localism, a great LibDem virtue, but again, localism goes nowhere in the public mind without tangible outcomes.

We should focus on regional policy, particularly those regions that voted heavily in favour of brexit. Not directly because of that, but because that vote was nurtured in a sense of loss for destroyed prospects that have never been recovered. The focus of any policy decision should be the benefit to the region: if, say, someone proposes a new rail link between London and South Wales, the key question should be what is the benefit to South Wales.

We should focus on employment and benefit policies which are fit for the reality of the precarious working lives of too many people nowadays. Universal Credit is a good idea, being implemented in a hopeless fashion. The idea can be salvaged while removing the vindictiveness at the heart of current DWP culture.

Political ideas work best with tangible benefits. We've been great at the ideas; we need to found them solidly in tangible outcomes.