Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Why would you do that?

I have not written about Brexit for some time. I have watched incredulously as the UK’s chief negotiator, David Davis, has failed to understand that the EU is a rule-based organisation that works linearly, meets 4 times per year and delegates work to qualified people such as EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier. I have also “enjoyed” reading in the Guardian John Crace’s sketches – yesterday being a case in point.

This morning the British Government – though I am being generous by describing it thus after a week when the now redundant Overseas Development Minister, Priti Patel, has been making her own foreign policy whilst on holiday, wheeled out another former minister, Theresa Villiers (left), to argue that the EU – Barnier – is being unreasonable in putting a two-week deadline on the UK sorting out the divorce bill as the final EU leaders’ meeting of the year is fast-approaching and he will have to make recommendations to them regarding exit progress. I’ve heard the arguments again – the EU is not negotiating. Trade policy is important for the British and Europeans. How can you negotiate the border between The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland before knowing what the trade agreement will be? etc. I do recall that Davis – and presumably what constitutes the UK Government – agreed to this on the first day of negotiation back in June 2017. Why agree to something that negotiators cannot honour?

But then this week, the UK’s illustrious and creative Prime Minister, Theresa May, decides that the leaving date, 29 March 2019 will be enshrined in law. Oh and the time will be 2300 (a recognition that the European Continent is on the whole, one hour ahead of the UK). My question is, when there is so much uncertainty about outcomes, why would a so-called leader commit herself – or successors – to such an absolute date and time? Politics was always the art of the possible. When negotiating with 27 countries whom the UK has alienated and distracted from more important global matters, this is unhelpful? Surely?

 

 

 

Picture Theresa Villiers: Chris McAndrew

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I passed an examination!

Since getting back from holidays in the Alps in August, it has been quite busy. The start of an academic year is always busy; this year had its own challenges. And they are persistent. Apologies to my readers. Something had to give.

I have, however, now passed my Goethe Institut B1 German exam. It was quite an experience. I have not taken a formal examination for maybe 20 years (since completing my undergraduate degree). So, I had to prepare. The Goethe Institut offers plenty of mock examination materials for that purpose. I have spent the best part of a year trying to improve my mock scores. Examinations are as much about technique as they are content. Answering the question helps – though because the questions and/or instructions are in German, that makes it a shade more tricky to get right. I practised hard answering questions alone and with my tutor.

Kaffee und Kuchen nach der Prüfung

I have to say that I thought – confidently – that I had failed the listening part of the examination. In my training, this was my weakest discipline. One has to listen to a cod radio-discussion programme and identify who said what. There is little concession to speed. Some of the voices seem similar and, as was in my case, in the first instance, I had no idea what the theme was! But somehow, I passed that part with a creditable 77 (84 overall from four disciplines).

Anyone is doing this examination in Munich, be advised that the online “pass checker” tool may not work. After two weeks the Institut wrote to me to ask when I was going to pick up my certificate! And against their own guidelines, they sent it to an address in Munich for me to retrieve rather than have to attend in person. At 200 Euros, it is not a cheap option. But I am unexpectedly proud.

The Economist and the UK General Election – what a squirm

Two years ago I critiqued the Economist’s advocacy of the Conservative Party to form the next UK Government under David Cameron. The magazine, in my opinion, disingenuously dismissed Ed Miliband’s programme in favour of the “stability” offered by more economic-liberal austerity by the Conservatives. The magazine overlooked the commitment to an in-out referendum on Europe despite its avowed support for the European Union, at least in the context of a single market and customs union.

Fast-forward 2 years and here we are with another General Election having been called – we are told by Theresa May – to protect the will of the people translated as her vision of Brexit from those who would oppose it (saboteurs according to the Daily Mail), like parliamentary oppositions are supposed to do under the Country’s usefully unwritten constitution. May, not being a democrat, or not one that I recognise, duly called her General Election after having been on a walking holiday. Though I am minded that she first had a word with the architect of the Conservatives’ last election victory, the benighted Lynton Crosby.

I was waiting to see what stance The Economist would take this time. Let me have a look. First of all, the leader of the opposition is called “ineffectual”. However, that is not the real story. May looks to achieve a landslide victory and increase her majority from the current 17 to something approaching 100. “For the 48% of voters who, like this newspaper, opposed Brexit, this may look ominous” says the Economist, un-reassuringly. However, we have mis-read this. Indeed, argues the newspaper, “[i]nfact, it offers an opportunity for those who believe in a more open, Liberal Britain”. Really? We need to know more.

If I read it correct, if May gets her increased majority, she will fear the Commons less when it comes to the final deal. The House of Commons fought hard to have a say on the final deal and would, if the “deal” was not as good as what the country has at the moment with EU membership, tell her to go back and try harder. One assumes she is particularly fearful of her “hard Brexit” backbenchers. If she has a bigger majority, goes the argument, she can accommodate their wrath as well as that coming from the depleted opposition benches. This means, continues the argument, that she is more likely to be able to make compromises with the EU with this safety net. And that means a softer Brexit. Brilliant!

Dear Economist, that is nonsense. May wants to close the borders. Only a hard version of Brexit will enable that. Plus Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, has himself described it as a “power grab”. Moreover, she also does not want to be bound by the current manifesto of her party written by her predecessor. So, her Finance Minister, Philip Hammond, who suffered ignominy when his budget tax increase was rejected, can now make this a manifesto commitment. Also, May herself is obsessed with selective education and already has in train a return to grammar schools at the expense of children from less privileged backgrounds. The Economist thinks that Theresa May with a majority can fix the housing shortage and make good the “funding crisis in social care”. Bearing in mind that her party is the cause of these two problems and policies so far pursued seek to make it worse, not better (for example, right-to-buy housing association dwellings).

We should not be surprised by this spin and support for the Conservative Party; but we are where we are because of the Conservative Party (austerity policies and THAT referendum). The solutions and future must lie elsewhere.

Brenda says…

Brenda is just an ordinary woman in Bristol. She was questioned on the street by a BBC journalist and she said that she was fed up with politics – there is too much of it about at the moment – and she just wanted to live her life in peace. That is a bit of a paraphrase, but only a bit.

Let me be clear, I do not want an election. What is the point in a fixed-term parliament if an insecure Prime Minister decides that she needs a personal mandate for her mendacity and push for majoritarianism and the limited state? However, if we are going to have one – precipitated to some extent by the EU’s interregnum over exit terms – then so be it. But this is no ordinary election. I’m 53 and I believe this is the most important election in my lifetime. We can let the Conservative Party for the foreseable future dominate the executive and legislature (not to say judiciary if recent experience is anything to go by) or we can stand up for something bigger.

This is not a party-political election in the normal sense. Notwithstanding Brexit, this is an election to stand up for public services, the NHS, education, housing, social care, the environment, liberty and decency. All of these things the Conservative Party seem to be willing to denude or abolish in pursuit of power. Not the public good.

This will be an ugly island if May achieves her aim. All opposition parties have to work together on this one. This is not about Labour, LibDems, SNP, Green. This is about a future. Brenda needs to engage, vote and learn.

End.

 

The nonsense of anti-trade union legislation

My trade union, the UCU, is in dispute with my employer. My employer seems reluctant to discuss the issues at the heart of the dispute, so the Union organised a ballot if members managed by the Electoral Reform Society, the experts in balloting and the law. The result was a legally acceptable (relative to current law) percentage of members agreeing to take strike action. The Union then called a two-day strike only to find that under the new law, before labour can be withdrawn, two weeks’ notice has to be given to employers. The strike had to be postponed.

We are getting close to the Easter non-teaching period. To withdraw one’s labour in a non-teaching period is a bit of a waste of time (and money). But to leave it until the start of the new term renders the ballot void. So, here we have a piece of legislation that forces members to strike in order to keep the legal mandate to strike. So, at the end of the coming week, we are going to withdraw our labour – symbolically – for half a day in order to strike on another two days later in late April. Brilliant.

What insights can I add?

I am observing, like most of us, events in the USA. This time last week, I shivered at that image of Theresa May, the UK Prime Minister, holding the hand of Donald Trump, President of the USA. OK, she held his hand to steady him as they walked down some stairs. He’s 70 after all.

I have struggled with Owen Smith, Labour’s leadership challenger and now rebel. But he has gone up in my estimation relating to the last week’s vote in the UK Parliament sanctioning the trigger for Article 50 – starting the process of exit.

Brexit in the context of Trump is a different proposition to the one at the time of the referendum in June 2016. Especially with UK International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, being linked to Trump’s sinister corporate Dark Money (and notwithstanding Nigel Farage’s recent antics).

More significantly, however, is the realisation that we are all being hoodwinked by the Trump administration. Take, for example, Jon Snow’s tweet this morning where Trump has a go at his successor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, at the Apprentice reality TV show:

Now Jon Snow is a good journalist. Indeed, he will be running next week a series of programmes about fake news (maybe this is why he sent the above tweet). US journalists persist with the White House briefings and are lied to by Sean Spicer, Trump’s media spokesperson. But they persist. It really is the only world they know. But the issue is different: the protagonist has changed. There is plenty of fake news about, for sure. Blatant lies, yes. But these are distractions from what is really happening. The media is being distracted apart from Fox News, the source of news for most Trump’s supporters.

Time to wake up? It seems to me that the EU has woken up. Theresa May’s offer to act as a bridge between the EU and the USA was rejected. I’m undecided whether it was laughable that the British even offered to play this role in light of Brexit, or whether this is a maturing EU. An EU that realises that it will be the bulwark of democracy in the new world. The USA is going to be lost.

The concerted attempts to destroy the post-war consensus in the UK

The UK at the moment is in a mess.

Daily I am subject to the effects of ongoing industrial action by two transport unions – one for train drivers, one for (what we used to call) guards. It being awp-1484414323498.jpg privatised and fragmented railway network, this is happening in a single region, and hence the effects are localised. The objective for the railway workers is to run the trains safely (drivers have recently been given total responsibility for safety on trains, over-and-above the driving, which they argue is not safe). The same unions are in dispute with Transport for London over safety and staffing on the London Underground.

Last week it was the turn of the National Health Service. People are dying waiting to get into a hospital. The Government is now blaming General Practitioners, the primary carers. Seemingly because they do not provide a 7-day service, too many people are going to the emergency departments in hospitals at weekends and evenings.

Then there is my own profession, university teaching. The Government’s priority is to push ahead with a bill that uct_leslie_social_science_lecture_theatre_classenables private companies to award degrees and add further metrics to the practice of teaching. This progressively turns teaching into a proscriptive exercise rather than a learning experience. The arrival of private companies, it is argued, will provide choice in the ‘education market’ (as if there are not enough universities to provide choice) and innovate.

My take is this. With respect to the railway disputes, this is a Government that wants to impose new working conditions on railway workers that have the potential to make travel less safe. We have seen this before at privatisation, It can be deadly.

With regard to universities, the advent of 9000 pound fees per year changed the relationship between teaching staff and students. The fees effectively commodified learning and universities have been complicit in this. Private companies such as the large publishing houses want to control content and merge their content production with delivery. This will squeeze out any critical thinking.

Euro_flag_yellow_lowAs we have seen with Brexit, all is not what it seems. The Conservatives, with hindsight, were always Eurosceptic. They never embraced membership or tried to change it from within.  The incoming Prime Minister, Theresa May, simply sees it as an opportunity. The opportunity to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and to control border (something that she failed to achieve as home minister in the Cameron Government). The mandate from the referendum is there, even if the damage done to the economy is significant. This is not about the economy, it is about nationalism.

And not unrelated is the situation with the National Health Service. It is the ultimate outcome of  a postwar rejection of conservatism. A majority Labour Government in 1948 enacted legislation to enable healthcare to be provided free at the point of use. The UK conservatives see now their opportunity to end this once and for all. They have prnhsogressively been privatising it with many familiar private-sector firms cherry picking services (leaving the public sector with the difficult stuff like geriatric care and chronic illness). Now, the crisis that has erupted in recent weeks with Accident and Emergency services struggling, the blame has been put on General Practitioners who are opposing 7-day working. It is reported today that some are indicating their intention to leave the National Health Service. On the one hand, this looks like something that the Government cannot ignore. On the other hand, maybe it is just what they are looking for in order to introduce an insurance system?

Pictures: A lecture in progress in Leslie Soc-Sci building in theatre 2A. Discott 

Researching Brexit and the effectiveness of dead cats

Lynton_Crosby_Political_StrategistIt was in the UK General Election of 2015 that we seemingly encountered the concept of the dead cat. It was a campaign innovation by the Conservative Party’s campaign strategist, Linton Crosby (left). Essentially, throw the dead cat into the arena even if it is not a cat. Or dead. It does not matter. For most observers, it is a dead cat and it is the only thing that people can see. So, for example, linking Labour and the SNP – with Alec Salmond calling the shots. Never on, but enough to worry English voters (and possibly Scottish).

I mention this because this is the year that the implications of all of 2016’s successful dead cats – Brexit and Trump to name but two – will be realised. At least partially. Both fill me with foreboding – the former because of the apparent incompetence of the Government to manage the transition; the latter because…well, anxiety about a Trump presidency is natural, is it not? The bigger questions, however, are about how to counter the dead cat when it is thrown in to the arena and to understand the causes of the Brexit vote. I have short observations oEuro_flag_yellow_lown both of these.

Let me deal with Brexit vote first. Over the Christmas break I read a very interesting academic paper with some poignant empirical observations. The paper is called “The 2016 Referendum, Brexit and the Left Behind: An Aggregate-level Analysis of the Result”. The authors are Matthew J Goodwin and Oliver Heath and is published in the Political Quarterly (Vol 87(3), July September 2016). This is an early peer-reviewed analysis of available data that the authors have interrogated to ascertain who were the key voters. This is a summary of what they found:

  • There is a statistically significant positive correlation between (high) levels of education and propensity to vote Remain (excluding London and Scotland).
  • The over 65s – particularly in areas where UKIP polled well in the 2014 European Parliament elections – significantly voted Leave. So, 19 of the 20 “oldest” local authority areas voted Leave.  By contrast, 16 of the 20 “youngest” local authority areas voted Remain (Oxford and Cambridge are the youngest of these). The exceptions again are London and Scotland.
  •  Areas with the fewest recent immigrants from the EU that were most likely to vote Leave (for example, South Staffordshire and the West Midlands). Of the 20 local authority areas with the most EU migrants, 18 voted Remain.
  • Those local authority areas that have experienced a sudden increase in the number of EU migrants over the last 10 years tended to me more pro-Leave.

What conclusions can be drawn from this analysis? The authors conclude that the Brexit vote was determined by a high turnout by older voters, those with lower educational qualifications and in lower-skilled jobs. Essentially, those “left behind” in terms of economic transformation and whose values are at odds with those of a “liberal elite”. I conclude that these are all political factors that successive UK governments have ignored.

new_worldSo, what do I have to say about dead cats? I was listening to an excellent suite of programmes on BBC Radio 4 this week under the umbrella title of The New World. In the the first of these, Jo Fidgen examined the concept of post truth. In this programme, there were a few uncomfortable findings. It seems that we are all as likely as each other to disregard the truth particularly if we disagree (with it) and live with others who disagree. Most disturbing is the dead cat syndrome. Fidgen uses the example of a murder inquiry to make the point. An aristocrat has her jewelry stolen. The media report that the gardener had been arrested on suspicion of the theft. However, the gardener was released with no charge; but in a controlled experiment, on his release, a sample of people still believed that he was guilty, despite the no charge report. It was not until the media reported that the butler had then been arrested and charged that the people in the sample were prepared to believe that the dead cat gardener was in fact innocent. Truth is perhaps beyond political.

It’s racism, not the economy

 

A couple of days ago, I wrote a post flagging up the considered view of Professor John Gray on the potential motivation of voters in the USA and the election of Donald Trump. The underlying point of his “letter” is that economic factors rather than social factors account for the result.

This opinion is not shared by all, and for good reason. The ever-vigilent Mehdi Hasan – has looked at the available data on the demographic that voted for Trump. It may not be as clear cut as we had thought. In actual fact, he argues, those who have been left behind economically – despite the logic – were not those who voted Trump. Rather it was those who have done better than average under neo-liberalism who put him in the White House. And the disturbing conclusion is not that the election was decided on economic issues. It was pure racism.

Reflections on a future

wp-1480168450862.jpgAfter the Brexit vote I was grateful to a number of thinkers who had contributed to a week of short talks on BBC radio. I wrote about them here. The BBC revisited this format last week to help us to make sense of the US election. It was – as with Brexit – left to Professor John Gray to present a hard truth. I’ve taken the liberty of uploading it below.

The stark reality, for Gray, and I fear for the rest of us, is that (liberal) progressivism is not the norm in European human history. Autocracy and war are more representative of earlier times over the continent. Moreover, humanity may get into an autocratic and illiberal mindset – indeed, vote for it – because progressivism is itself partial. Essentially, not everyone benefits and progresses. And this comes back to bite society. The question for us is whether what we are experiencing in 2016 – and probably further into 2017 with elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany – a reversible phenomenon. John Gray, I sense, is not so sure.

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