The Russia Report, politics and the corruption of democracy in the UK

The Russia Report was, after significant fanfare following the (mis-)handling of the process of the election of the chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, finally released yesterday. On a first read through, there might indeed not be a lot of explosions in it, but that’s not to say that there’s no dynamite been planted. Indeed, and contrary to my earlier prediction, there was more than just embarrassment for the current UK government in its pages.

Remarkably, the text was released outwith the auspices of parliament.uk, which handles the publication of parliamentary business. After some searching, I found the page for the Committee on parliament.uk – but it is more or less blank, apart from listing the members of the committee (having been updated following the election of the chair). Indeed, this is a screenshot of what confronted me yesterday evening:

ISC page 21-7-20

Instead, the ISC has its own, entirely plain text website, including its history and publications, whose back-to-basics appearance initially made me wonder whether this was some spoof, malicious or otherwise. Furthermore, and remarkably, the report itself has been released through Google Docs. This I find quite extraordinary. A report on the highly sensitive question of interference in UK democracy, authored by a ‘joint other committee’ of parliament, having interviewed key witnesses some of whose evidence needs to be redacted, and seeking action from the UK government not least on the specific question of online harm, being released on Google Docs is, quite literally, incredible. More or less immediately on opening the report, Firefox informed me that it had blocked a pop-up window.

Perhaps there was not time, especially during the pandemic, to get the official parliament.uk webpages updated in time, and perhaps the page is already being updated (it hadn’t as of 2.45 this afternoon); or perhaps the Committee has chosen deliberately to emphasise its independence – the word is, after all, contained in the URL of its site – from the government (although all such committees are independent of the UK government: they have to be, to do their work properly in holding the government to account). But to release a report of this nature and dealing with such an issue as this through the medium of Google Docs is both astonishing and remarkable.

[EDIT 28 July: one week later and the ISC page on parliament.uk still looks the same – although of course the Report has been laid before parliament.]

The main points of the conclusions of the report are clearly now well into the public domain so I won’t waste any time in documenting them, other than simply pointing to the clarity of Foreign Policy‘s quick take; and to the Committee’s own press release (also on Google Docs…). I want here to explore just a couple of the implications.

First, this is clearly incredibly embarrassing for the current UK government. To have any independent criticism of its actions as being ‘asleep at the wheel’ while the democracy of the country that you govern is potentially interfered with ‘as the new normal’ is embarrassing enough. But – more than that, and of course the reason why we have a bystander government in the area set out by the report – is that it has been captured by one, or more (see below), foreign government(s). Russian oligarchs have been welcomed ‘with open arms’ as investors with tier one visas into the ‘laundromat’ of London (actually since 1994) and they have grown close to this government (and, indeed, to leading figures in previous ones). It is no coincidence that Johnson celebrated the 2019 election result the following day at a party hosted by the Lebedev family; the Tory Party has, over a period of time, accepted significant donations from Russian oligarchs seeking to build patronage and extend influence but to do so covertly. There is, of course, a reason that these oligarchs have become very rich and are able to live long enough to enjoy the wealth they have been given. And, if your state aim is to invest in disinformation and to further the goal of disruption, who better to invest in than today’s Tory Party? It’s not as though as it’s come particularly expensive.

Second, the report is, so far, a little short on recommendations, although the Committee may see this as the target of its future, continuing work. Nevertheless, it quite clearly identifies the lacuna which has been government action as regards the UK being a target for disinformation and influence campaigns going back at least as far as the independence referendum in Scotland in 2014. It is a disgrace that this report – which does not appear to have been added to under the new Committee – was not published prior to the last election: although, of course, there is a reason for this. That all parties – government itself, as well as the intelligence agencies – see the potential for external influence in the UK’s electoral processes not so much in the balloting but in the campaigning as too much of a ‘hot potato’ is damning enough. That no-one cares sufficiently about democracy is, ultimately, the reason why it dies – but it is astonishing that none of the agencies seems to have wanted to take some initiative in this area.

Partly, of course, this is because the agencies have come to see defending democracy as a political task. Astonishing as this, it is of course a product of the polarisation and the intensity of feeling that our referendums-based politics of recent years has engendered, and it is also a product of the opprobrium that official bodies – including, of course, the Electoral Commission – receive when they seek to go about their job. Here, as a sidenote, our democracy is lucky to have campaigners and whistle-blowers such as, for example, Carole Cadwalladr prepared to take the abuse to get some of this stuff into the open. For, make no mistake, the leaders and financiers of mobs such as these have, at the very least, no interest in preserving democracy.

At the same time, the reason for lack of action on the government side, apart from it being in hock to vested interests, is quite simple. It would be easy to state that, as a Vote Leave (Continuity) government, it has no interest in looking at the potential for disinformation campaigns to succeed since it has no reason in encouraging anything that might discredit the outcome for which it fought. That’s true, of course, but the truth is also a little deeper that that: this is, in style, a campaigner government, and on a single issue, and one that is, therefore, singularly ill-equipped to grasp the thorns of the detailed policy development work that is required of governments. It is not interested in doing the hard yards of a trade deal with the EU; it is not interested in the tough slog of developing a practical response to a pandemic; it is not interested in taking action when its senior adviser breaks rules which apply to all, or in its ministers dining with donors before planning decisions or engaging in pork barrel politics; and it is simply not interested in objective criticisms of its bystander nature.

This is not only because the government adopts the disinterested, lazy, irresponsible and fatuous character of its leader, or because its leading ministers are appointed not because of their actual capabilities but on the basis of their essential adherence to the One True Faith and their ability therefore to be co-opted into going along with anything which doesn’t disrupt that objective. This government is only interested in, and only capable of achieving, the campaign-based objective which brought it into office and in facilitating as much anarchic disruption as it can. Brexit now having been achieved, and the free trade deal with the EU either having been scuppered or else realised in only a minimal silhouette of an agreement, there is actually no reason for it to be any longer in office. As a Labour supporter, committed to social and economic justice and in redistribution to achieve those aims, and in facilitating a just transition to a sustainable, green economy, I would say that, I guess. But, objectively speaking, this government’s job under our current electoral system is done and it needs to get out.

Third, the Committee has done invaluable work in pointing out that:

The UK Intelligence Community should produce an analogous assessment of potential Russian interference in the EU referendum [i.e. to that in the US conducted by the Director of National Intelligence] and that an unclassified summary of it be published. (para. 47)

Given the careless approach of this government, as well as its immediate reaction in reiterating that it has seen no evidence of interference and that no such enquiry was necessary, it will need to continue to hold the government’s feet to the fire on it and to commit the necessary resources so that the agencies can make such an assessment. This is, by the way, a requirement of all select committees for as long as this particular government stays in office, and not only because it has a ridiculously large majority. Holding the government accountable within parliament is not only an essential pillar for democracy in ordinary times, it is, at this time, a vital task in keeping that democracy alive. Making it ‘illegal’ for spooks to be in the country unless, ludicrously, they have identified themselves as such spectacularly misses the point of the problems to which the Committee is pointing, i.e. of (dis)information activity having moved online. What action is required is to think more closely and much less casually about the use of social media platforms, particularly during plebiscites, in undermining democracy and in achieving the aims of foreign governments. It is good that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee is pressing the government on online harm; and it needs to keep on doing so.

Do I think that such an enquiry should lead to the 2016 referendum being re-run? No, I don’t – and that is of course not what the Intelligence and Security Committee is calling for. Digging in on this, as the government did yesterday, simply reveals that it fears it has something to hide. We are already out of the EU and so re-running the referendum is not only pointless, it is practically impossible. The issue of the UK’s membership of the EU is dead for a generation – much as I deeply regret this, we can’t now revisit it. Furthermore, this is not only now a question for the UK – it’s one for the rest of the EU, too. But the issue is also bigger than this partisan issue – we are all, on whatever side we stand, damaged when our democracy is attacked. If it requires an acknowledgment that there is no revisiting 2016 to make this government order an enquiry to assess how potential interference can – and should – be combated in the future, then it is a price worth paying.

I would like to see the closing of the Pandora’s Box of the use of referendums in ‘settling’ issues of national importance but, more than that, what has become clear from the Committee’s work is that we need to reform our electoral system to rebuild democracy. We probably do need state funding for political parties. We probably do need electoral reform: I was never particularly committed to this – indeed, I voted against in the 2011 referendum, albeit mostly because I was not in favour of the Alternative Vote system being proposed – but it is clear that our current, tribal winner-take-all politics is incapable of handling the nuances of modern political life and the task of rebuilding the country post-Brexit and post-pandemic, as well as in the face of the external pressures being put up against it. We can’t again have an extremist government elected with a sweeping mandate but whose actual capability is so poor; and neither again can we have the position where the leader of one small opposition party can block the efforts of all opposition parties to work together in the national interest, as was the case last autumn. And certainly we need to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with an upper chamber which evenly balances representation from all the countries of the UK and in which the voices of all the other countries can be heard and respected.

And, one final point, neither is this just about Russia. The Russian state might have had much to benefit from the disruption of the UK, in 2014, and then the EU as a result of Brexit (and, we might add, in extending war in the middle east when the migrants that action produces head for the EU); and certainly the hands of its agents are all over the Tory Party. But, to analyse the source of the funding of the campaign to leave the EU and the benefits this has, for some, and all the other tentacles of the Tufton Street network – the source of that is quite clearly the other side of the Atlantic. Our democracy needs protecting from the US, too.

Huawei – the UK malaise and what can be done about it

My spring 2020 column for BECTU, the union for creative ambition within Prospect, addressed some of the issues behind the January announcement in the government’s Telecoms Supply Chain Review.

You can read that post directly below, or via the separate page link over on the left, but it has now been superseded by yesterday’s announcement that Huawei equipment must be removed from telecoms networks in the UK by 2027. This stems from fresh advice from the National Cyber Security Centre that it could:

No longer offer sufficient assurance that the risks arising from the use of such post-sanction manufactured equipment can be mitigated (para. 18).

What has changed in the meantime is that the US, in reaction not least (although clearly not only) to the UK’s decision in January, decided in May to block Huawei from buying semi-conductors made by US manufacturers – this is the sanction to which the NCSC refers. The critical importance of this in yesterday’s decision is recognised by the NCSC in the title of its collection of pages on the subject. As neatly explained by Gordon Corera in his interview for the BBC’s Newscast (the news item, with three different interlocutors, covers most of the programme starting from 03:45; but see, in particular, Corera’s segment starting from 6.00), what this essentially means is that, firstly, Huawei needs to find a new source of semi-conductors; and, secondly, that the UK’s intelligence services, which examines Huawei’s equipment regularly, would as a result not be able to guarantee they could give the equipment the same security vetting.

I’m by no means a technical expert, so take this with the requisite amount of salt: but I simply don’t buy this as an explanation. The notion that the UK’s intelligence services are unable to investigate the security of alternative (non-US) sources of semi-conductors, as a part of their regular examination of Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s communications equipment, and then to vet their use, appears on the face of it to be an extraordinarily lazy, sloppy claim entirely unworthy of the men and women in the NCSC. But, like I say, I’m no expert here.

There are, of course, many reasons to be careful of dealings with China, new security law in Hong Kong and its internment of Uighur Muslims (China says that the camps are closed, former detainees having ‘graduated’) being but two.

What the decision does do, of course, is tie the UK (now ‘liberated’ from membership of the European Union) very firmly into the US orbit, and quite specifically a Trumpian view of the world. Whatever the technical and security aspects of the decision, such a decision is highly favourable to Trump and the UK has thus been heavily leaned on, Trump’s self-congratulatory pleasure at the decision doing nothing to minimise such a conclusion. It couldn’t be clearer, at this point in the UK’s history, as to where this country’s political elites see its future, regardless of the likelihood of Trump losing the forthcoming election and US foreign policy changing as a result. China has reacted angrily, foreshadowing ‘public and painful retaliation’ as a means of preventing China from being seen to have been bullied. At this point, I’m very much reminded very much of this wonderful cartoon, copyright of the New Zealand Herald:

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/EbnRsjQXkAEuqjl?format=jpg&name=900x900

Cartoon by Guy Body, NZH cartoonist.

And, once China has done for us, we’re likely to find the US agricultural industry next donning the guise of Uncle Sam.

Politics apart, the roots of the malaise in which the UK has now come to find itself, as a consequence of a decision which is likely to put back the broadband connectivity timetable, not least in rural and small towns, can be traced back to Margaret Thatcher, as my colleague Keith pointed out back in January. Decades-long reliance on ‘the market’, on privatisation and on an abandonment of industry and long-term investment in favour of profit-taking has left the UK exactly the sort of state which is not only reliant on the cheapness of foreign goods but which has come to see price as the ultimate determinant of decision-making. Be in no mistake, whatever the quality or advantages of Huawei kit, this country’s telecoms firms are using it because it is the cheapest around – as a result  not least of extensive R&D investment by the Chinese government – and because its deployment therefore maximises the return to shareholders.

Indeed, telecoms companies are now faced with greater costs as a result, not so much in having to strip out kit because the likelihood is that much of this is likely to have been replaced by 2027 anyway as a part of the continual upgrading of the network, but in terms of the likely greater expense that a removal of one of the three major players will entail, as Rory Cellan-Jones goes on to explain in his contribution to Newscast (from 11.40 and see, in particular, from 15.00). Nokia and Ericsson were already more expensive; they may yet get more so as a result of the narrower telecoms equipment supply market the exclusion of Huawei means. On top of this, there is the impact of the likely post-Brexit lack of a deal on trade in goods with the EU, judging by the current state of negotiations, as well as the continuing decline in the exchange rate (the £ has slipped by 6.2% against the euro since 1 January alone, standing today at just €1.10).

The decision raises a substantial number of policy questions, chief among which would appear to be these.

Firstly, there is the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), which gives private companies from one signatory state the right to sue governments of another when policy changes. This has a controversial history and was the cause of the EU (eventually) dropping negotiations with the US on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) free trade deal. The failure of the EU to tie up many free trade deals was, of course, one of the arguments mounted against it by Brexiteers, though we should note the involvement of trade unions and other civil society actors in persuading the European Parliament to put pressure on the Commission to drop the deal. The US (inevitably) is a fan of ISDS and we’re thus likely to see it included in US demands of the UK as part of a free trade deal. Representatives, activists and negotiators need to be prepared for that. In this context, China’s open question as to whether the UK can ‘Provide an open, fair and non-discriminatory business environment for companies from other countries‘ raises substantial, and reverberative, questions.

Secondly, BT reckons that the additional costs of this decision can be absorbed within its estimates of the cost of the original January decision (£500m). That may or may turn out to be so – it looks somewhat optimistic – but, equally, BT is not the only telecoms company. The potential costs of £6.8bn identified by Mobile UK in April last year look geared towards a somewhat different set of circumstances, but costs there will be. It is extremely unlikely that we will see UK companies sue the UK government for a change in policy affecting the climate of business decisions, in a kind of internal ISDS, but there will, instead, be substantial lobbying for other mechanisms under which these additional costs can somehow be recouped (in terms of forbearances on network roll-out, more favourable terms for investment, etc.). Those costs will, therefore, be born in the end by UK citizens.

Thirdly, and going back to the reasons why UK telecoms companies find themselves in the position of buying Huawei kit, there is the interesting context of the UK’s industrial policy. Non-existent since the time of Thatcher, which has seen all manner of technological companies either fail or sold off ahead of their time, from Marconi to ARM Holdings, while the UK government stood on the sidelines preaching about ‘the market’, industry policy seems to have gained a new focus. In this light, the publication last week of a policy paper on the UK’s Research and Development Roadmap looks like a step forward. This is, of course, Cummings’s grand plan. A commitment to spending £1.5bn more on R&D each year on average, taking the total to £22bn by 2024/25, to make the post-Brexit UK a global centre for science and innovation, certainly looks ambitious, not least in the face of governments’ deliberate act of vandalism in running down engagement in such areas and their encouragement of a privatised, share option focus to the rewards which such innovation ought to bring.

Now, this blog is no fan of Dominic Cummings, as readers might well be aware. But there is at least significant potential in this, not least in terms of establishing a route out of the malaise into which the lack of industrial policy has led us. There are questions that arise, including the extent to which public sector money can generate further private sector investment as well as, most critically, the ways in which this can generate, in non-military areas, a sustainable, zero carbon economy. The question of collaboration, across Europe, is also critically important to such a vision.

But what is also important is the question of ownership and the retention in the public sector, for the long-term benefit of everyone in this country, of what has been generated by public money. Capitalism, based as it is on inequality and exploitation, cannot generate a green economy nor, in the current context, a recovery which is geared towards sustainability. That needs planning and design, improved democracy, and it implies a key role for the public sector in the launch of a Green Recovery Act for which Common Wealth, a think tank supported, among others, by the Communication Workers Union and the Trades Union Congress, has recently called. Organisationally, it means democratising the workplace so that everyone has a stake in, and shares, the wealth that their labour is creating.

This is probably an issue which is not on Cummings’s horizon nor that more widely of the party actually in government, but it needs to be. The focus on short-term profit, and the focus on the supposed primacy of the private sector, have both had their day.

The route out of any malaise is – as with any pit – firstly to stop digging; and then to turn attention to thinking on how to build a ladder. If the Huawei decision means that we have indeed now stopped digging – and that is a big ‘if’ – it may be that the Roadmap, allied to a Green Recovery Act, provide some of the rungs of the ladder. Ultimately, however, we can’t build a new, bottom-up industry policy which puts right the problems ever since the Thatcher revolution without addressing that key question of ownership.

Edit 16 July: Worth noting in the context of the security concerns over Huawei that the European Court of Justice has this morning struck down the EU’s ‘privacy shield’ arrangement with the US on the grounds that US surveillance of data transferred to its territory (e.g. by Facebook) is ‘not limited to what is strictly necessary’ – i.e. that US data surveillance of communications is over-obtrusive.

Care and its opposite

Like many others, I’ve been appalled at the UK government’s reaction to the covid-19 crisis, watching on in horror as a rotating combination of the incompetent, the over-promoted, the keen but under-prepared and the downright nasty take centre stage at the daily Downing Street car-crash briefings. The lack of surprise that this is the case, given the Brexit ultras that are in charge, does not subtract from the horror of the show.

The gap between competence and need in terms of public policy is rarely more evident in the aspect of the crisis over social care, i.e. care provided outside the NHS. Care workers have always been at the frontline of the advance of the virus, both more exposed to it as a result of needing to travel to work and unable to observe social distancing rules while doing their jobs, as well as potentially playing a key role in the spreading of the virus. Yet this week we learn that people have been transferred into care homes, including from hospitals, without being tested as regards whether they have been exposed to the virus; and that social care providers are still among the desperately forgotten when it comes to PPE and, crucially, what little testing is being done. Giving out badges is indeed not enough in days like these.

In both cases, this is entirely symptomatic of a situation in which the image of a care sector that is ‘well prepared’ for the crisis is the product of presentation, news management and spin rather than on-the-ground reality. It is also reflective of the fact of casual racism towards black and minority ethnic people being more likely to catch, and die, from the virus not because of some or other genetic factor but because they are more likely to be key public service deliverers, both in a care context and in a public transport one, and because our policy-making process remains substantially indifferent to their needs.

The other reason why this situation has been allowed to go on is because it reflects the herd immunity policy that marked the early days of the UK government’s approach and which still does, albeit now by stealth – and which also accounts for the planned indifference to social care providers: herd immunity requires the young and the resilient to catch the disease and build resistance to it, and care workers are found often among this part of the population. The outcome of such a policy – social care workers, and indeed the BAME population, being expendable and the more numerous deaths of elderly people which result being regarded as collateral damage – represents a truly abhorrent government at work. Make no mistake, the government and its policy advisers who are exploiting the confounding lack of intelligence among UK government ministers see the deaths of substantial parts of the population as mere by-products in its eugenics project.

As some journalists have spotted, there is a link between Brexit warriors and those who are trolling on Covid-19 in the name of liberty and personal freedom and agitating for the earliest possible end to the lockdown. That link lies in ending the demand for carers, many of whom come from overseas – and including from central and eastern Europe – and who have managed to find work in the care sector as the result of free movement of labour. Ending free movement causes evident problems for such sectors – except, of course, where a virus happens to come along and, where unchecked as a result of the application of ‘herd immunity’ policies, reduces the labour requirement as a result of the decline in the elderly population.

The policy outcomes of ending free movement lie most evidently in public perception in terms of raising wages – though the impact of free movement on wages, even in ‘semi-skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ areas was always marginal – about a penny off the hourly rate, according to the NIESR research. The bigger, but less well-understood, desire to end free movement lies in the argument that it is low productivity that is holding the UK back as a global leader in innovation and technological development. Only by ending free movement and thus the source of labour for low-productive sectors, so the theory runs, will productivity gains accrue to the economy: confronted with shortages of labour, employers will be required to automate tasks thus raising productivity and establishing technological advantage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this doesn’t actually turn out to be the case: research into robot automation in manufacturing highlights the key role for public policy – in terms of national strategies, taxation policies, availability of subsidies, etc – in explaining the incidence of robotisation after relative wages are controlled for. The answer – as always – lies in a more sophisticated analysis of the problem than can be supplied by simple demand-and-supply economics alone. And, unsurprisingly, strong public leadership on this issue isn’t exactly , going on the record of neoliberalism over the last forty years, listed among the UK’s strengths.

Regardless of the semantics at today’s political lobby briefing about whether the UK would accept a extension of the transition period (@13.12) [and now confirmed that it won’t] or whether, in the circumstances, the EU, with its mind on other priorities, is simply tired of the whole process and no longer cares either way, the issue remains that the UK’s response to Covid-19 remains intrinsically tied to its policy on Brexit. That’s not a surprise since the adviser himself – now apparently back at work after ending a period of self-isolation – is one and the same. Back to business, indeed.

When all this is over, there does need to be a public inquiry into the government’s actions in response to covid-19; specifically its indifference to the unnecessary deaths of thousands of UK citizens in the pursuit of a dogmatic policy supported by a minority of enthusiasts the goal of which becomes ever smaller in the light of the major health and social care concerns that now face us. Further than that, however, the reckoning (I’m increasingly of the view that there is a Billy Bragg quote for everything!) that we need to have as a nation needs to take stock of the need to do things differently and expressly that the politics we espouse must be better focused. Neoliberalism has long had its day; but, if anything good can come out of the current existential crisis, a revitalised democracy, green economics and policies that put the achievement of people’s potential first must be in the driving seat.

[Edit: 19/04. Interested to see the Sunday Times‘s Insight team has produced a story today documenting the mis-steps of the government in addressing the virus (£) in February. It’s behind a Murdoch paywall, so I haven’t read it, but I’ve read enough reportage on it to understand something of the negligence it raises. The question remains one of whether that negligence was simply lazy, careless incompetence or whether something more malevolent was at work. Both at the same time are, of course, entirely possible outcomes given the different personalities involved.]

Book Review: How Democracies Die

I picked up this slim volume last year in the midst of political crisis in the UK with an increasingly minority government sacking large numbers of ministers and MPs from its own party ranks, and thereby stymied on the main issue of the day – itself, of course, emblematic of a democracy that had been hijacked. It was, of course, eventually (and inexplicably) released from the pegs on which it was so expertly hanging itself and the rest is now history. Vote in haste; repent at leisure, we might think, not least when confronted with a government of all the talents featuring Matt ‘Telegraph’ Hancock in charge of health and Chris ‘ferries’ Grayling in charge of the, er, Commons Intelligence Committee.

My purchase was to try and come to some form of understanding of the threats to a mature democracy and, perhaps, the myriad links between them. This book – for all its scholarly nature (one-quarter of it is endnotes) – really isn’t the tool for this since, for all the generic nature of the title, the authors’ concern is not democracy in general but democracy in the US: the book’s focus is the US constitution and party system and the checks and balances these offer (or not) against the slide into authoritarianism. Particularly, therefore, the authors – both Harvard professors – are concerned with whether US democracy can survive Donald Trump; the authors are not certain that it can and, indeed, wisely observe that it is vulnerable to the same pathologies that have killed democracy elsewhere. When demagogues are in charge, how could it not be?

Now, ‘The fate of the great United States/ [Might well be] entwined in the fate of us all’ but, not being a particular expert on the US political system, I’m not that well placed to comment on the detail of the authors’ policy prescription given that this is substantially concerned with the US political system. (I do know a man who is, though.)

Given events in the UK, I was, however, attracted by the thought that polarisation is the main problem in the US and that, unless leaders find a way of addressing that issue, ‘democracy will die’ (p. 222). The drivers of polarisation in the US – religious and racial realignment and economic inequality – might be different to those in the UK (although clearly economic inequality needs to be tackled here, too) but we do of course have a highly polarised society in the wake of Brexit. Just how much this continues to affect UK democracy is as yet unknown but, given that Brexit is driving fresh support for the independence movement in Scotland, while the position of Northern Ireland remains uncertain given the government’s apparent lack of scruple over playing fast and loose with the Good Friday Agreement, it is likely to do so for some time to come. A government whose response to crisis is to go absent and, otherwise, to give every sign of making it up as it goes along is singularly ill-equipped to undertake the ‘healing’ that a polarised society requires.

Brexit and Trump are, of course, inextricably linked in terms of rationales which explain the respective votes, the connections between Trump and Farage, and the financing of Brexit promoters in the UK and of Donald Trump by the Koch brothers and Robert Mercer. Brexit and Trump are, in both cases, the illegitimate offspring of climate change denialists and, for all that the ‘Russia Report’ does need to be released, the main failing of democracy in respect of Brexit is the extent to which Leave campaigns were funded by foreign interests. Further, there are parallels between the Tea Party in the US and the Brexit Party in the UK – and their implications for hollowed-out party organisation of the Republican Party, detailed by Levitsky and Ziblatt, and of the Conservative Party in Britain.

The main concern for Levitsky and Ziblatt is party organisation and the health and vitality of US political parties and the party political process. The authors do incorporate the issue of right-wing and partisan media and they also look at the impact of non-party campaigns, such as Americans for Tax Freedom and Americans for Prosperity (Koch vehicles, both) – and there are parallels in the UK here, too – but the focus is the potential for the takeover of moribund party organisations by extremists.

But, of course, democracies are more than just about political parties. Democracies also die when people no longer feel that their voices are being heard (and that’s as true where mass, peaceful street protests, from the Iraq War to anti-Brexit in the UK’s recent history, have little discernible impact on the political process) and where people’s democratic participation becomes limited to doing no more than casting a vote in a ballot box every so often. Citizens’ assemblies, currently one of the demands of Extinction Rebellion, have some things to offer here. Levitsky and Ziblatt don’t deal with this particular threat and neither do they include in their analysis the threat posed, in a global world, to nation state democracies by internationally-led campaigns of misinformation whose aim is to distort the political process – back, coincidentally, in the news today – and the pervasive, intrusive power of Facebook (made all the more threatening by its apparently neutral, ‘technical’ face). If democracy is all about ‘government by the people’ – and clearly it quite literally is – then international interests funding the operations of domestic campaigns and providing misinformation and misdirection represents a clear threat to those democracies and, therefore, a clear potential source of democratic death.

The absence of Lincoln’s famous quote from a book dealing with the crisis in US democracy is curious but, more than that, a book focused on the issue of failing democracies needs to address threats more broadly than the simple failure of party organisation to prevent the rise to power, within the democratic system, of an authoritarian demagogue.

#ReleaseTheRussiaReport

The Brexit withdrawal bill and ‘healing’

The conclusion of the Commons stages of the Brexit withdrawal agreement in just three days last week, with a majority of 99, gives the impression of a government in a hurry to deliver. Which it clearly is, in the sense of its self-imposed deadline of 31 January – though it seems in a little less of a hurry to deliver the ‘healing’, which cause Johnson espoused immediately post-election and then repeated in his New Year message. Though his wouldn’t, of course, be the first government to preach reconciliation and practise division – Thatcher did something similar in, and then following, 1979.

While the election has settled the principle of Brexit for, er, a generation, there remains a number of problems about what Brexit looks like which will continue beyond 31 January and as the future trade relationship is settled. Chief among these is that, while the 2016 referendum was, as Chris Grey has continued to argue, a vote against something, there has, opinion polls and politicians’ assertions apart, been no attempt to define what it might have been a vote for. Labour’s stance of seeking a fresh deal and then putting that to the electorate remains, in this context, the right stance to have taken in principle, however much it turned out to be electorally unpopular – though that is a battle now lost. In seeking that definition, there is a number of battlegrounds set out in last week’s passage of the Bill through the Commons which indicates the government’s general direction compared to the previous version (full list here):

– workers’ rights being removed from the Bill and re-located to a suggested new Employment Bill. The concern remains that this will be used to drive workers’ rights downwards in a race to the bottom

– a clause giving ministers the power to direct the courts on the interpretation of EU law and to allow lower courts the power to overturn rulings by the European Court of Justice, something of particular concern to those of us worried about workers’ rights

– a removal of the right of unaccompanied child refugees in the UK to be reunited with their families

– a rejection of a series of clauses to improve citizens’ rights and a potential withdrawal of teeth from the ‘independent’ monitoring authority, which has already attracted the attention of the European Parliament, whose role in approving the final withdrawal agreement remains critical

– a rejection of the attempt to impose in the Bill a requirement to seek continued participation in Erasmus, the EU programme facilitating study abroad

– a refusal to consider mitigating the impact on firms in Northern Ireland of the volte face over the presence of a border down the Irish Sea and checks on goods crossing that border east-west, together with the inclusion of ‘Henry VIII’ powers on the parts of the withdrawal agreement focusing on Northern Ireland

– a refusal to countenance a block on the negotiation of future trade deals until parliament had approved an overall mandate. Taking back control did not, it seems, encompass much of a vision for the role of parliament vis-à-vis the government.

The Lords are, given the outcome of the election and the super-majority that the Johnson government now possesses, unlikely to mess around with any of this too much, although Lord Dubs certainly isn’t giving up and the Lords Constitution Committee is sounding the alarm on lower courts being able to overturn ECJ decisions.

On any one of these issues, a government in possession of a desire to effect some actual reconciliation, and even ‘healing’, could have made some moves towards meeting the demands of the MPs sponsoring amendments and to limit the extent to which people not only working but building their lives in this country could be viewed as people rather than as an economic resource with all the division and rancour that entails – but, no.

The response to some of these is that further legislation will be brought forward – but there are no guarantees on that and the content is inevitably currently unknown. The response to others is that meeting such demands would have ‘weakened the hands’ of negotiators and that progress may still be made on them, presumably via trade-offs. That highlights that such issues as workers’ rights continue to be seen as potential bargaining chips – a matter of disgrace. In others, we need to remember that meaningful negotiations, outside the area of a free trade agreement, have all but finished. Furthermore, in terms of understanding, it represents a failure to understand that modern negotiations is based on conversing about the achievement of mutual gains in which your strategy remains hidden but in which your aims are very much disclosed – and, frequently, strengthened by demonstrations of extensive popular support.

There was a potential win – or even series of wins – for the government here which it has simply chosen to ignore.

Instead, we have the spectacle of Brexit ultras in parliament, whose numbers have increased as a result of the election and the deliberate selection of Tory candidates committed to Johnson’s approach, and who are little more now than lobby fodder, seeking to grind its victory humiliatingly into the faces of opponents. Furthermore, we have the ludicrous, time-wasting spectacle of a public debate over whether Big Ben should strike at 11pm on 31 January, with at least the early crowdfunding of the requisite ‘bungs’, i.e. ahead of Mark Francois’s donation appearing to fall somewhat flat (‘bob a job’ has got expensive these days, although it’s probably marginally more cost effective than Francois climbing up there to do the job himself). Not only that, but there is the approval (from the Mayor of London) for a ‘Leave Means Leave’ event in Parliament Square on 31 January, whose triumphalist tone and nature can only be imagined at this stage but which also just chances to coincide in the same place with a gathering of far-right street thugs being planned by the English Defence League. Likely to be a joyous occasion, I’m sure. But, if they want to celebrate it, then they can own what happens in its wake.

Healing it’s not. But then, healing is far from the minds of the ultras and, by definition, this government. Offering anything to the 48% of us who voted ‘in’ in 2016, or to the majority of the electorate which voted for remain parties in the 2019 general election, or to the probable majority of people who would now vote ‘in’ (currently the same as the general election outcome, incidentally) – such as dynamic alignment of rights, the Norway model, Canada+++ or, heaven forfend, single market membership – would be seen as a betrayal of the one true Brexit. Thus, the call for reconciliation is entirely superficial. The ‘People’s Government’ is just for Leavers – or, at least, that section of Leavers which also voted Tory, given that the Tories’ electoral base has become predominantly Eurosceptic.

Oh – and #ReleaseTheRussiaReport. We all know at this stage of Brexit that it’s more embarrassing (probably most of all for Johnson himself) than revelatory. Even were it the latter, it won’t now stop Brexit; as Brittany Kaiser’s (otherwise extremely useful) whistle-blowing revelations that Robert Mercer funded both Leave.EU and Vote Leave campaigns will also not do. Unfortunately. Nevertheless, people being defrauded and then having the wool pulled over their eyes is never an edifying spectacle – and prolonging the period in which the report is not released is just compounding it.

Election 2019 (2)

Disappointed, bruised and sore.

That a manifesto seeking to tackle social and economic injustice was rejected in favour of empty slogans; that lies, and the practise of lying, have been rewarded; that our democracy is incapable of dealing effectively with obfuscation and the deliberate avoidance of scrutiny; and that the healing which these nations which make up the UK need has been cast aside, to be replaced by further division, hatred and exploitation.

It was indeed a ‘grim’ night in which the balloon of my hope and optimism was punctured at about 22:01, before I finally called it a night just after 04:00. The only bright spot all night (there were two, really, but the failure of The Brexit Party to gain any seats, especially in Hartlepool, is rather meaningless in the circumstances) was the success of Matt Rodda in Reading East, the constituency of my birth. Rodda has been around for a while and his Tory opponent was new, and this might provide a partial explanation to his increased majority. However, a marginal drop in the Labour vote share seems to indicate that, whatever the situation nationally, Rodda – surely confronted with the same issues on his doorstep – is doing something right from which Labour might learn once its – essential – review gets underway.

Here’s a few initial thoughts about the implications of what happened last night.

1. Brexit will happen on 31 January 2020. There’s no way that this will not now take place. This was, after all, a Brexit election and Johnson’s determination to talk about nothing else than ‘get Brexit done’ – when he elected to speak at all, that is – clearly permeated into people’s consciousness, at least in key Tory target areas. Ultimately, this was a successful strategy, pains me though it does to say it. ‘Brexit, stupid’, as someone else might once have said, and keeping it simple, clearly worked.

However, we should note that Brexit remains a democratically-unpopular option. The votes cast for ‘leave’ parties added up to 14.98m, according to my quick calculations from the BBC election results website this morning, compared to a vote for parties committed to a re-negotiation/second referendum or remain of 16.63m (among the 16 largest parties attracting votes of 10,000+). So Johnson’s sloganeering was, across the UK as a whole, not successful. In the meantime, this therefore remains an utterly divided nation (note: the breakdown in favour of re-negotiate/remain is 53:47).

2. Labour’s pivot to re-negotiate to provide a Brexit which hit jobs and living standards less, and then to put this to a second referendum, was clearly not a success. It was either not understood or else it was dismissed – it doesn’t really matter at this point which. In hindsight – though some will claim foresight on this – this was perhaps only likely to work as part of a coalition (or understanding) between ‘remain’ parties. That was never going to happen and there is an argument that, looking at Brexit in isolation, Labour would consequently have been better on a platform that was, at least audibly, closer to one which ‘respected’ the 2016 referendum.

3. In the absence of any such understanding, tactical voting to keep the Tories out was a clear failure. The notion that tactical voting had more traction that it evidently did underpinned my optimism in my post below, as well as my anticipation of the fall of some big (Tory) guns. Neither happened. Evidence published only on Monday this week that people were quite attracted by the idea, though had little idea of the online tools available, ought to have provided sufficient warning (not least of the need to escape your own social media bubble once in a while). Nevertheless, it was not even close for any of the big guns – Raab, Duncan-Smith, Redwood and Johnson himself – and this looks a failure of the MRP technique which, at constituency level, had given gaps to the nearest challenger in these cases as low as one percentage point, whatever its apparent success at UK-wide level in predicting the scale of the Tory majority. In short, MRP got a little lucky.

4. We are heading for a constitutional crisis sometime in the life of this (up to) five-year mandate, once Brexit occurs. Neither Scotland nor Northern Ireland voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum; yet Northern Ireland now has more Sinn Féin/SDLP MPs (the former of course not taking their seats in Westminster) than unionist ones, while the SNP’s share of the vote in Scotland was 45% (a rather interesting figure in the light of the 2014 outcome of IndyRef1).

Much here depends on just what sort of government Johnson actually leads – and it is, by the way, a disgrace to democracy that Andrew Marr, the BBC’s former political editor, can post on the BBC Live pages this morning, and having interviewed Johnson only a week last Sunday, that ‘The biggest question in British politics this morning is, who is Boris Johnson politically?’ (at 07:34, currently p. 5/21). A ‘softer’ Brexit than the one envisaged under the previous government would, to some degree, head off some aspects of this challenge, in the sense of minimising the impacts of a Brexit which left us isolated from the EU. Were we to end up at the end of the transition process without a sensible free trade deal with the EU – i.e. one which protected jobs, working conditions and environmental standards – then Brexit will increase these constitutional pressures.

In that context, there would be a clear argument under which lending a vote to a nationalist project, where the focus was a re-joining of international social and economic structures in the face of a disastrous Brexit, may well have merit in terms of protecting the Scottish working class against such impacts. The SNP has a platform of seeking IndyRef2 in 2020, but that’s not incompatible with the timetable under which a free trade deal with the EU would need to be approved. It’s also quite clear that the only free trade deal with the EU which can be negotiated in that timescale is one which effectively minimises the impact of Brexit. Whether Johnson can cast aside his erstwhile buddies in the ERG to deliver that remains to be seen. So, ‘wait and see’ before making any such pivot would be a wise move – but, for me, it remains a more substantial possibility than hitherto.

5. A rather thin Tory manifesto contained a particular hostage in its promise to ‘look at’ judicial review from the perspective of ‘ensuring that [it] is available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays‘ (p. 48; emphasis added). This is a clear reference to the – evidently embarrassing – cases brought by anti-Brexit campaigners this summer (Gina Miller and Jolyon Maugham. That the cases were won against the government is evidently troubling were any such ‘look’ now to emerge with restrictions on the courts’ capacity to hold the executive to account. This is one of the essential checks and balances in any democracy and, where these are cut back, democracy will suffer. Any look at the example of Poland, where the governing party is attacking the judiciary, much to the consternation of at least the previous European Commission, is clearly illustrative. A UK outside the EU would, clearly, mean no such censure were the government to embark on such action after January 2020. This is clearly not the reason for Brexit, but a government that turns out to be hardline will see it as one of the bonuses of leaving.

In the meantime, I’m off to listen to some Smoove. Loud, I think.

Book Review: Early Riser

After the heft of Ali Smith’s Spring, I turned for a bit of light relief to the sizable wit and immense imagination, not to say comic realisation, of Jasper Fforde, whose 14th novel, Early Riser, was published in the UK last year.

Early Riser is set in an alternative universe Wales, around Talgarth in fact, in which climate change has rendered the winters so cold that most – though crucially not all – humans have evolved to hibernate in vast dormitoria, the UK has collapsed, society is divided into haves and have nots and is based on the exploitation of a slave class, and in which the rule of the gun, and nature’s own cruelty, dispenses summary justice.

I’m not joking.

Emerging from a two-year creative hiatus – his period of scribernation – stemming from an extended period of writer’s ‘textual jam’, this is an entirely stand-alone (almost post-Ffordist) novel but one whose themes and styles will be familiar to those used to Fforde’s style and approach. Thus, there are extended use of humorous footnotes and brief paragraphs quoting from established – but entirely fictitious – reference ‘texts’; the website and the novel’s endpages feature additional material designed to entrench the reality of world which Fforde is creating; there are in-jokes, including a self-deprecatory one referencing his own writer’s block; there is curiously odd, stilted dialogue in which the characters visually look askance at one another as well as dialogue which creates deliberate pathos in service of the characterisation; there are deus ex machinae galore; the patriarchal world is turned upside down with strong women characters and references to a feminised society; the world turned upside down encompasses the advised, and government-backed, requirement for people to lay down fat reserves before falling asleep in hibernation; and there is a certain, and clearly intended, mystery about the gender identity of the lead character. The whole is written with such wit and such panache that the reader can’t help but be caught up in the self-conscious creation of an alternative universe, clearly to be held up as a mirror against our own, to which Fforde is absolutely committed.

At the same time, we have many evident contemporary socio-political references on top of a timecale that is, deliberately and joyously, both imprecise and of all time: the Wales in which the characters move features (unseen) mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers; it neighbours an ‘Albion’ of dubious cultural value and contribution; transport is by train on pre-Beeching routes; there are feared ‘villains’ drawn humorously from English Edwardian upper-classes; and there are frequent references to sweet treats of the 1970s and 1980s. Yet, there are numerous contemporary references: the monetary currency in Wales is the euro; the UK has clearly dissolved into an independent Wales (in which everyone speaks Welsh), a loosely-formed ‘Albion’ and references to a Northern Fed which may or may not encompass an independent Scotland; there is sly commentary on shadowy ‘big pharma’ and the control exercised by faceless corporates determined to push the boundaries of ethics as far as and until they are found out; there is a sub-text of exploitation closely referencing modern debates on the terms and conditions of employment of peripheral workers; and the dreamscape on which the novel centres closely embodies ‘the internet’, somehow ahead of and yet behind the characters’ level of understanding, as well as the control which numerous, but hidden, others may exercise over our movements in that world. The central notion that here is a world in which its characters are, blindly and unwittingly, and apparently care-free, sleeping through a large part of their existence, and in which those ordinary people who are asleep as well as the tiny minority of those who, extraordinarily, spend their winters awoke are largely accepting of the ethos of the world they inhabit, will not be lost on contemporary readers. And, on top of all that, there is the novel’s underpinning of a weak, wholly inadequate and pathetic response to climate change in which the redundant coalfields of Wales have been set alight as a means of dealing with the catastrophe of climate change.

This is a joyful, rumbunctious allegory of a dystopian society which is barely able to acknowledge that it has gone somehow, disastrously, wrong but in which the seeds of hope and of youthful endeavour (à la Greta Thunberg) may yet be able to save the day where we are able to overcome the limits of imagination we impose on ourselves. This is not unfamiliar Ffordian territory, but the theme here is darker, bleaker and more desperately non-human than the worlds he has created in his novels hitherto. The body count is high, weapons are high-tech and absolutely terminal, and there is a disregard for human life symptomatic of a society which has inflated corporate values and sloganeering, and the winner-take-all mentality, over social cohesion, consensus and solidarity between people. The ride is somewhat rough, and there may be question marks over the exactitudes of the plot and the motivations of the characters, but those need to be put aside in a novel whose celebratory style of writing betrays precious little of the effort which authors put in to realise their own objectives. Thank goodness, instead of laborious written accounts, for verbal podcasts and interviews – the one referenced above as well as others featured on Fforde’s own Twitter.

Observers of Westminster not least this week, and of the post-Brexit world we are now starting to (re-)create, will easily recognise the world which Fforde describes. The solution to the dystopian world into which we are now falling – in working the hard yards of building solidarity between people and collective identity afresh – are less easily recognised in a plot resolution which owes a little more to fantasy and to individual chance than I might have preferred; but this is a novel in which the identification of the clear avenues which have led a society into a disastrous situation is a more important process than the telling of a Tressellian tale about what needs to be done in response. That fight, instead, is up to us inhabitants of that contemporary world.

And, in the meantime, of course: #StopTheCoup

Brexit negotiations after the Vote Leave coup

Now we have sight of Boris Johnson’s letter to Donald Tusk, we have a little clearer idea about where things are heading subsequent to the Vote Leave takeover of the government after Johnson’s election as Tory leader. While the press comment has – rightly – focused on the attention given in the letter to the backstop and the issue of Northern/Ireland, the key paragraph is surely the one on p. 2 which talks about the backstop being ‘inconsistent with the UK’s desired final destination for a sustainable long-term relationship with the EU’ and, specifically, this bit:

Although we will remain committed to world-class environmental, product and labour standards, the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU. That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy.

There is an easy point to score here in that not one aspect of our democracy ever put Vote Leave into Downing Street – check, for instance, the 2017 General Election which delivered a hung parliament and May’s Euro elections results in the UK. Brexit remains, as it always did, a battle for control of the Tory Party in which all of us have been caught up.

It’s also very easy to criticise the tone of the letter – in something purporting to re-open negotiations, in superficial pursuit of an expressed desire that the EU might compromise, it is clear that it very much closes them down by hardening the red lines which were already the logical conclusion to May’s botched negotiation. It has, entirely predictably, already received short shrift from the EU and presumably, this was its purpose such that the EU can be portrayed as the ‘inflexible’ enemy unwilling to compromise to secure a deal. This is evidently not a serious attempt at a re-negotiation. If further evidence was required, it’s surely there in the paragraph towards the bottom of p. 2 of the letter withdrawing from the commitment set out in the agreed Joint Report to ‘full alignment’ with the single market and customs union. Negotiation cannot sensibly proceed when one side is so publicly thumbing its nose at agreed commitments previously entered into.

Even so, we should note very carefully the threat implicit in the paragraph quite above – that, unless the EU gives us the exit deal we want, the UK will move to a de-regulatory ‘paradise’, undercutting the EU on its environmental, product and labour standards and becoming a sort of Singapore in Europe, sitting on Europe’s offshore and acting as a haven for the sorts of dodgy interests that have given us Brexit in the first place. If that is the ‘UK’s final destination for a sustainable long-term relationship’ (whatever that tortuous expression actually means in practice) – well, I can’t recall being asked to vote on that; and neither, of course, is it at all sustainable to be seeking perpetually to drive down standards, including on labour, in a race to the bottom. (Of course and not only labour – it makes absolutely no sense to have divergent standards on the environment when global action is required to save the planet: but then, climate change denial is one of the reasons we have Brexit – and it won’t stop there until the rest of the international institutions trying to address themselves to climate change have also been undermined). In this respect, proposals for no state pension until 75 (‘Don’t retire, expire!’) is only the start.

If indeed it it not a serious attempt at re-negotiation, and that the real target of the letter is not Brussels but the domestic audience, then it does, perhaps, further signal a general election prior to 31 October.

We should also therefore note the language in the letter around ‘anti-democratic’ which is not just Dominic Cummings’s word du jour to boil the debate around the EU into a soundbite – it also symbolises the verbal oppression to which those who would be likely opponents of a UK-as-Singapore policy would be subject. We have seen this sort of language before and very recently (‘saboteurs’, ‘traitors’, enemies of the people’, ‘collaborators’) but it casts here a very wide range of likely opponents of government policy as opponents of democracy. Environmental organisations and activists, food welfare and safety NGOs, and trade unions alike – all would oppose the driving down of standards in their respective fields and all, it therefore seems, are likely to be seen in the process as undermining a project which the unelected (oh the irony!) Cummings (a figure held earlier this year, remember, to have been in contempt of Parliament) now chooses to describe as ‘central to our future democracy’. Trade unions have famously before been seen as ‘the enemy within’, and both unions and environmental organisations are no strangers to infiltration by state agents, but the febrile political atmosphere in which we find ourselves as a result of the 2016 referendum and ten years of austerity politics, amidst the continuing trashing of the UK’s domestic institutions, to which we can now add the fifth estate to the fourth, and indeed the first, casts an entirely new light on the phrase.

It’s beginning indeed to look a lot like fascism.

 

The Euros and Brexit: stirring the muddied pool

I cast my vote on Thursday last week for the type of Europe I wanted to see over the next five years: socialist, re-distributive and for the many, not the few; for a fair, free and sustainable Europe. Elections of MEPs to the European Parliament should reflect the type of Europe we want to see – though, of course, these are not normal times in the UK and these elections, organised in haste and poorly with regard to European citizens excluded from the process, were not normal ones.

It would be a mistake to see these elections as reflective of how people would vote in a general election – a party with deliberately no policies other than ‘Brexit’ would not then top the poll when its candidates were compelled to say what they think about all the things they were deliberately silenced on in the run-up to last Thursday; and neither in a general election would the main parties be almost absent from campaigning, giving Farage and his odd mix of candidates such a free run. The only leaflet this household ever received was indeed the early one from the Brexit Party (and that includes the SNP whose favours were, otherwise, the only ones pinned to the lamp-posts outside our local polling station).

One of the things I note about this particular set of elections is that they have re-taught the lesson that electors cannot be taken for granted and that, if you don’t campaign, you don’t get their vote. It’s not so much that the parties that were clear on Brexit – either for or against – did better as a result than the mainstream parties who were less clear; it’s also that an absence of campaigning gives people other than the die-hards few reasons to vote for you. Here in Eilean Siar, it’s probably therefore not a surprise that both the SNP and the Brexit Party (44% and 20% of the vote, respectively) did better than they did across the rest of Scotland (38% and 15%).

One of the other things is that the parties who did well in the UK – the liberals and the greens – also did well in the rest of Europe. Elsewhere, this is likely to reflect the awareness resulting from the high publicity given to the actions of, and the surge in support for, Extinction Rebellion. There may, as a result, be good reason to assume that the European demos is alive and kicking, despite those who wish to deny its existence. It’s also likely to be the case that, right across Europe, the increased turnout (again above 50%) reflects higher participation among those aged 18-24, and that voter registration campaigns, and imaginative policies that appeal to younger people, are increasingly likely to bear fruit at the ballot box.

More generally, and because several parties had campaign platforms that were openly pro- or anti-EU, the election results do allow us to read into them some lessons for what they mean for Brexit. It is clear that the polarisation in UK politics around Brexit, with attitudes towards remain/leave counting heavier than traditional party loyalties, is continuing. We know, for example, how much of the voting electorate this time around are dead-set on leaving the EU even (or perhaps particularly) without a deal. Based on the turnout, this one in three of voters falls to around 22% of even the registered electorate who were qualified to vote. There is, therefore, no mandate for no deal and Parliament is – and will continue to be – right to reject it.

With 27 seats and a vote share of 32%, the Brexit Party did better than UKIP in 2014 (24 seats and 28%), before the farce of the intervening years saw most of its MEPs desert – but not so much better; and, indeed, that it did apparently improve was within the likely margins of error of a low poll and given the more or less free run it was given at the campaign by the mainstream parties. We don’t know from this that support for Brexit is increasing – and, indeed, it is likely that it is not, based on what we know about the age patterns of voters in this context and the fairly entrenched views that electors hold. It’s also well worth pointing out here that the pro-EU platforms put out by the Liberal Democrats and the Greens in the UK made their votes weigh more heavily than those of the Brexit Party and UKIP, even before we build in the greater complications posed by the similarly pro-EU support of the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales and the nuanced positions of the mainstream parties. And it’s also well worth contrasting the number of votes cast for no deal parties (5.9m) with the 6.1m people who have signed the Revoke Article 50 petition.

Farage has spoken of the results driving his wish to join the negotiations on Brexit. Well, as a career politician who has made his career while denying its own existence, he would do – but this is meaningless. There are no negotiations to join – and it’s not clear what a party committed to a ‘clean break’ Brexit based, essentially, on no deal would have to add in any case. The EU is content with the agreement it has reached (even if it has gone a lot further than some domestic politicians, like Macron, wanted) and, while it would no doubt re-open talks were the UK’s/May’s existing red lines to be relaxed, it is clear that the accommodation of a representative with such a poor record of activity in the European Parliament, and at least one of whose new intake has already talked of making life difficult in Brussels, is not going to persuade them to do so.

And neither is a new Tory leader – for party political reasons almost certainly to be a committed Brexiteer – likely to lead to the EU to consider re-opening negotiations. While it might in some respect leave the EU a little clearer than hitherto about what it is the UK actually wants, the threat of a no deal Brexit within the EU counts less than the threat to the EU single market of any bad deal which jeopardised it. And I don’t think that such a stance is negotiatory bluster: for the EU, no deal is indeed better than a bad deal. Further, as we know, there will be no free trade deal discussion in a post-no deal scenario unless the outstanding issues that have proved apparently so difficult for no-dealers so far (the border on the island of Ireland, the settlement of the UK’s remaining financial obligations and citizens’ rights) are properly dealt with first. There will be a polite reception in Brussels, as befits the arrival of a ‘world king’, but the threat of no deal is likely to lead the EU to choose not to extend beyond 31 October the extension under which we are now working.

So, the European election, in combination with the aftermath of May’s duressed resignation, has made a no deal Brexit in October much more likely. The few votes given in the election to the mainstream parties seeking to negotiate around how to get a withdrawal agreement through parliament highlights the polarised leave/remain UK in which we live – and, thus, the dangers of being caught in the middle. Of course, we do not know how those who did not turn out last Thursday would vote in a general election – and we may yet return to the two-party politics (at UK level) we last spoke of as recently as less than two years ago. But, that doesn’t seem likely as long as we rumble along without a resolution to the issue which continues substantially to divide us.

With the existential threat now facing the Tories, the time is right – in the likely absence of a general election – to press for another referendum. There is no track through parliament for a negotiated settlement and neither, on this most recent evidence of what the public thinks, is it clear that there is public appetite for one, anyway. Asking the public at this point what it wants to do now – in particular, whether it wants to remain in the EU or leave with no deal, given what we now know and given that leaving without a deal was not the argument put up by those promoting leave back in 2016 – is, therefore, the only way forwards. Such a binary question might overcome some aspects of the objections of those who do not want to be asked about their views in general, as before; and it is also likely to produce the decisive result required to allow us to put this issue to bed.

Perhaps then, after a fresh referendum based on a binary no deal/remain choice, given the failure of and apparent appetite for a negotiated settlement, we can make a focused start on bringing our polarised nation back together: a referendum and then the general election to wipe clean the post-2017 slate and facilitate a fresh start.

Bring on the Euros

So the UK government has finally capitulated and declared the inevitability of what just about all of us have known for several weeks: that the European elections, due on 23 May, must take place since there is simply not enough time for any withdrawal to be ‘ratified’ in the UK under the terms of the extension of the two-year Article 50 process  offered at the Special Council meeting last month.

Typical of the government’s style this might be – shut your eyes, put your fingers in your ears and pretend something isn’t happening until such times as reality becomes too much to bear and you have to cave in (TS Eliot was quite possibly right, by the way) – but an election is neither something to ‘regret‘ nor to object to on the grounds of cost, both of which, in their own way, seek to put a price on something which is priceless. Theresa May might regret having to hold an election given the calamitous state of the Tory Party – out of funds with donors running shy of leadership uncertainty, and consequently having to run a ‘cut-price’ campaign, and in internal ‘meltdown‘ over the state of her own leadership of it – but that is of course a different matter entirely; and, while the state of public opinion on the government’s mishandling of the Brexit negotiations is no doubt a reason for fear of May 23 by the government itself, holding people accountable is what democracies were designed for. (NB the 8% who ‘approve’ the government’s handling of the Brexit negotiations is an argument all by itself that all referendums should require super majorities – it’s twice the marginal 52:48 gap created by the 2016 referendum.) Bring it on.

Now the UK’s participation in the European elections is confirmed, and we have the increasingly real prospect of these delivering an annihilated Tory Party falling apart in office, the extended talks between Labour and the Theresa May faction of the Tories seem to have fulfilled a substantial part of their purpose. In contrast to Paul Mason, however, I wouldn’t argue that Labour should pull out of them just yet. They will surely fall apart in due course anyway under the weight of their own contradictions, with Theresa May unable to offer even a customs union on anything other than a meaningless temporary basis – itself incapable of resolving the problem of the Northern Ireland border, insufficient to deliver anything like a jobs-first Brexit and leaving the question of services entirely untouched – still less move on any other of her red lines. The talks are, quite clearly, going nowhere other than to underline that the current party of government is fractured, incapable and without a mandate.

But, that is useful purpose enough in the present situation. Furthermore, in the slightly more medium-term, were Labour to swing behind a confirmatory vote, as is my own hope, there is a clear strategic requirement for it being able to indicate to its leave-backing voters who have not already gone for the full Farage that it first did all it could to secure a deal with the government which delivered the mandate of the 2016 referendum (recognising its lies, obfuscations and fraudulent data manipulations); and that the reason for that failure lay entirely at the door of the government’s own intransigence. This is not just about triangulation; it is about driving that existing wedge in the Tory Party home and, providing that strategy continues to work as it currently appears to be doing, I’m still on board.

Mason (above link) is right, however, in arguing that Labour needs to campaign actively in the election; and with clear support for the Party of European Socialists manifesto (which affiliates like-minded parties from all over the EU and Norway, and forms part of the progressive Socialists and Democrats grouping in the European Parliament) and, subsequently, to engage where possible with the greens and the left. The European elections are about the future of Europe and, tempting as it is to see them as a referendum on Brexit, they are (and need to be) much more than about that. That said, it would be good to see an increase in the the low levels of turnout, historically 35-40%, this time around. The Labour manifesto will clearly embody the PES principles to which its candidates sign up, although it will clearly also be embodying existing Conference policy on Brexit. Much as I’m in sympathy with the intention of Tom Watson, and others, to gain a greater commitment to a confirmatory vote at the NEC meeting, the manifesto can do little more than articulate what is existing policy.

The difficulty here is, of course, that we cannot wait for Conference to debate a change in policy since, by then, it will be too late; if, indeed, only a clutch of European countries now want the UK to stay, then any further extension beyond 31 October is clearly already out of the question. Personally, I’m also reluctant to have my vote on 23 May depicted as a vote for a Brexit-supporting party: I will be voting on European issues and about the future of Europe, and with a view to the MEPs I help elect playing their full role in the next European Parliament to end austerity and construct a Europe for the many. With that in mind, and remembering the specificities of a European Parliament election being more than about domestic issues, let there be no talk of any vote for Labour as being a vote for a Brexit-supporting party.

With the news from at least one source (quoting a report in the Telegraph) that Theresa May is engaged in scenario planning for a three-way referendum – her deal/no deal/remain – if (and when) the talks with Labour fail and Parliament can find no other route forward, it’s clear that the time is right to keep on talking while, all the while, keeping on the pressure for that confirmatory vote.