Friday, 12 August 2016

What I learned at my Labour nomination meeting


This blog is supposed to be on hiatus until September. However, on Wednesday night I attended the leadership nomination meeting of my own Constituency Labour Party. I thought I’d let you know what happened there, firstly as a bit of reportage (my journalism limbs having grown rusty for quite a while) and secondly as a bid to lay down a teeny, tiny historical document in its own right – one more bit of the national jigsaw reported by many others from their own nomination meetings.

I also thought that the detail should remain anonymous, to allow for a bit of frankness in the report, so let’s just say that this meeting took place in England outside London, in a seat with a Labour MP, and in an area fairly starkly divided between affluent areas to the north of the seat and some pockets of deep deprivation to the south of the constituency.

We met, nearly 200 strong, in the early evening of a fairly cool and cloudy weekday evening, in a stocky old 1930s barn of a redbrick community centre. There was a huge queue of slightly self-conscious looking Labour people snaking out of the door; inside, the layout was a load of round tables, like at a wedding or an open mic comedy night, at which some fairly good-natured chat was well underway when I arrived, about halfway through the attendees’ filing-in. First impression: this was a pretty huge turnout for a Wednesday night in the school holidays. Second impression: the room was overwhelmingly white, and quite old, with only a scattering of under-30s dotted about here and there. Third impression: there was quite a lot of energy in this room. Jittery doesn’t cover it.

The Chair first announced all the arcane rules that the Labour Party specializes in – that we had ten minutes to look over the statements of the two candidates, and then that although we were supposed to have three minutes each to get up to speak before moving to a vote, she felt that a minute and a half each would give more people time to speak. Each ‘side’ – Smithites and Corbynites, as it were – would then speak in turn, one from each camp. Having elicited at least a sense of assent in the room for that procedure, off we went.

My table had one of my friends at it, and some young-looking members who were keen to talk about the European referendum, Theresa May’s likely future problems, and the wider picture of Britain’s post-Brexit challenges. So far, so good – if you didn’t have the uneasy sense that everyone was trying not to look at anyone else in the eye about the leadership bust-up that we were there to actually address. Still, I thought, when did the British ever come at something unobliquely? Who wants to get in a shouting match with someone they’ve never met before?

So. Speeches started. First up was an Owen Smith supporter, articulate, sharp and clipped about what she saw as Mr Smith’s speech-making passion, socialism and commitment. There was a bit of a charged stillness at this point, as perhaps those supporting Jeremy Corbyn (above) wondered why a first mover advantage had been granted to the challenger, or were taken aback at the pointed nature of this first speech’s portrait of Owen Smith’s virtues – an intentional contrast, perhaps, with ‘their’ man. ‘Do we wish to remain a party of power?’ she asked, rather nailing one of the central questions before the meeting straight away.

Next was the first Corbyn advocate. This was a young, tall man who very quickly said that ‘first we were told that it was Jeremy’s policies that were unelectable, and now we are told that it’s his personality… it won’t wash with me, and it won’t wash with anyone else’. He seemed angry but hardly incandescent, perhaps ‘put out’ and nonplussed at most, but he wasn’t exactly what you’d call furious about it. There were a few scattered cheers at this point, but there was nothing like any overwhelming pro-Corbyn feeling washing around the meeting.

The rest of the speeches proceeded in a very similar pattern. The next speaker, a young woman near the front, said that ‘we need to achieve power to do good’. But there was a subtle change of mood going on, an emotional and biographical connection with Corbyn and his ideas that defied the dry and instrumental reasons so far mostly given for the Smith candidacy. The next person to speak, a middle age woman, countered with ‘I am a child of the Labour Party… this was where I feel I belonged’. The past tense was important here, for she was clear that the Blair and Brown years had lost her to Labour: ‘it’s going to be a long road and a hard road’, she said, ‘but we don’t need to sell out in order to gain our principles’.

Some pushback against this claim to unique moral (and Labour) virtue was inevitable, and it came fairly rapidly when an older woman argued back that she had been ‘inspired’ by listening to Owen Smith: ‘he is left wing, and you can see it shining through’. Having to claim that your candidate has the virtues often seen as uniquely or quintessentially attaching to his opponent, and having to plead ‘left wing-ness’, did however put Mr Smith’s supporters rather on the back foot.

The meeting gradually heated up, though it remained to be honest pretty tepid. It didn’t look and sound much like a set-piece ideological confrontation: it was more like a cut-up-rough staff meeting at a fading, failing conglomerate outmanouevred by nimbler new rivals. The next idea to be highlighted was one of the themes heard murmured through the hall: that Labour MPs had no right to overturn the members’ views. The next Corbyn supporter up spoke with some vigour to the effect that the Parliamentary Labour Party had tried ‘to deny us [our] democratic rights and deny us our leader’. They had ‘joined the Tories and the right-wing press in criticizing him’. The point about the media was another running theme: another pro-Corbyn speaker said in terms that since the media wouldn’t help Labour anyway, why should we co-operate them rather than building up our own media?

The meeting gradually built up towards a pro-Jeremy crescendo. I was at this point prompted to speak myself (something I hadn’t intended, since I have to do it all the time as a job anyway, and wanted to remain an observer). But the number of Smith supporters willing to speak seemed to dwindle pretty quickly, and I got poked in the ribs and given the microphone. I made two points: since the breach between the PLP and their leader seemed irreparable, and given the terrible things that had been said, how did anyone expect us to reunite if Jeremy was returned to the leader’s office? Further, if people wanted a say over the Brexit negotiations – and perhaps a second referendum on the terms of separation – they should vote for Mr Smith, not Mr Corbyn, who had ruled out any return to the polls on the issue. Anyway, a few points of process like that made not the slighted impression in the room, and perhaps they shouldn’t have anyway when the choices before members were on this scale.

Two further contributors stuck out for me. The first such speech, from a woman near the back of the room, said that she hadn’t felt able to be a Labour member because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; that she’d moved instead into trade union social activism via Unite; and that she felt that something more truly Labour and representative was now in place under Mr Corbyn. Then a passionate, fired-up and emotional speech came right at the end, from a woman who said of Corbyn that ‘he’s just changed everything. I’ve got hope. I’ve got something for my sons. If we move away from Corbyn now, the kite that we’ve put up will just deflate, we’re going to lose this moment, and I don’t care how long it takes’. There was a real sense of fervour here, a visceral hunger for social change, a deep attachment to one man as a transformative figure who just might change British politics forever.

These deeply-felt and highly-charged feelings centred and carried the room easily, with an energy and vibrancy all of their own that pushed the anti-Corbyn voices to the margins of the acceptable. You could basically argue until you were blue in the face, but the tide was going in only one direction. So it proved in the final vote: Owen Smith gained only about a quarter of the votes. It was a pro-Corbyn landslide.

I was able to see, here at the grass-roots, exactly those themes that will almost certainly carry Mr Corbyn to victory nationally. In the background was anger at New Labour’s ‘betrayals’: ‘part-privatisation', PFI and a perceived widening of the gap between rich and poor, as well as fury about Iraq, that paradigmatic betrayal and summation of all that is seen as wrong with the New Labour years of media management, spin and sterility. At one point Mr Smith’s smooth delivery and ‘sharp’ suits (and his previous career at the pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer) were held against him: what people seemed to mean was that he seemed to herald a return to business as usual, and perhaps that he reminded them a little of Tony Blair.

There was enormous anger at the actions of Labour MPs, who were felt to have acted anti-democratically and in an underhand, hidden, dishonest manner. Clearly present also was a sense almost of desperation – that this was a last chance for a more honest, decent, true, moral and above all socialist politics that may not ever come back. There was a once-and-for-all millenarianism in the room, a sense of hope and expectation, a deeply-held faith that something many members thought would never return– ‘true Labourness’ – had suddenly, unexpectedly, by chance and even magically, been returned to them.

What there was not was any claim of electability. Almost all the pro-Corbyn speakers deployed forms of words that said that they knew that the next election was lost, and had accepted it perhaps long ago – leading, all the more inexorably, to the idea that you might as well say (with Jeremy) what you meant in the first place. All the urgency, the ‘truth’, the moral drive, was with that side of the argument, just as it still is with the SNP in Scotland.

There was, however, little outright confrontation. Many members seemed to make a point of applauding speeches from both ‘sides’: there was only a little bit of groaning or murmuring at some statements; there were no grotesque claims made or slurs cast (unlike in some other nomination meetings, if reports are to be believed). Younger pro-Smith members, who mainly spoke with feeling about how betrayed they felt at the Labour leader’s half-hearted commitment to the European cause during the referendum, were particularly well-received even though the general feeling of the room was against them.

One supplementary: as I filed out of the hall, one of the pro-Corbyn speakers came up to me, praised what I had said, said he’d think over the point I’d made about a second European referendum. We shook hands. I said that the challenge, Jeremy or no Jeremy, was to harness all the thirst for change we’d seen in the room – and that the party’s new leftwards lean had encouraged. We parted on good terms.

Overall, there was still some comradeship on display here. Labour was still just about glued together. But there was also an undertow of anger, even fury, that the Corbyn experiment – defined as ‘natural’, ‘real’, ‘old’ and ‘true’ Labour – wasn’t being allowed to take root or even being given a chance. That feeling will only grow as the Corbyn leadership struggles unhappily on over the next few months. It may explode if MPs do stage an even more audacious revolt (such as seizing control of the party in Parliament), or if Labour is routed in an early General Election, an event which will cause many members to blame the MPs. Labour definitely isn’t disintegrating, if we go just by this one meeting: but it is probably heading at full tilt towards a very, very dark and bitter place indeed. 

Sunday, 3 July 2016

The end... for now


So it's been an enormously dispiriting and exhausting year, in which the idea that you should conduct public policy calmly, wisely and with some evidence has taken blow after blow after blow. It's been a year, indeed, in which rationality itself has often seemed to retreat headlong in the face of the angriest, shoutiest, most over-committed people in every room - a long retreat of reason that, yes, has to be fought every day, but which for now is still well in progress. From the Labour Party's seemingly-inexplicable detachment from reality to its more recent attempts to blow itself up, through Boris Johnson's disgraceful and ultimately failed attempts to sell his principles in return for some power, to the rise of Donald Trump in the USA and the UK's self-harming and quixotic vote to leave the European Union, it's not been a great time to advocate good governance. Sometimes - let's be honest - it's been a trial to continue.

But we'll have a go. We'll be back to monitor the UK's post-Brexit fallout, and a US Presidential election, in the autumn. Look for us to return with a new sequence of blogs on Tuesday 6 September. Until then, have a holiday. Take a break. You deserve it. Let's reconvene when we've all had time to get our breath. So: have a lovely summer. Let's hope that the next academic year is better for public policy than this one. It can hardly be worse, now can it?

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

How did Leave win?


Leave shouldn’t have won the UK’s referendum on the European Union. They were a very uneasy coalition. There were huge ructions at the top of their campaign. With just weeks to go before the vote, their whole effort basically amounted to Boris Johnson bussing around the country shouting about bananas. Almost every single expert in the world thought that their claims were nonsense. The official UK Statistics Authority trashed their main slogan and pledge – to spend more of ‘Britain’s money’ on the NHS. Solid, trusted, dignified figures such as the Governor of the Bank of England himself came out to say that they were charlatans. And yet – here we are. They won. If you’ll forgive us a detour into geekery, a load of Ewoks with sticks just derailed the Galactic Empire. Their tactics shouldn’t have even functioned, let alone delivered victory. Um. They have just unseated a Prime Minister, unscrambled an admittedly-fragile Labour Party, thrown the European Union’s institutions into chaos, and reshaped British politics for decades to come. How did they do it? Here’s five quick answers.

Immigration. There’s no other issue on many doorsteps. Everyone knows it. Everyone’s heard it. If you asked us three main issues that face us now, they would be immigration, immigration and immigration. It tops polling lists of voters’ concerns. It comes up everywhere. It’s poisoning the well of British politics, leading to a rise in hate crime, turning up the dials on the pressure cooker of some Britons’ sense of who they are, and what their country should be like. It’s an easy peg to hang tough times and tough lives on. It’s a good shorthand for globalisation’s damage and discontents in many of our most deprived communities. And it stands in for older Britons’ worries about a rapidly-changing, multi-layered and almost inexplicable world that they often don’t recognise and don’t like. But let’s be frank about it: immigration is high. It can lead to difficult hotspots of demand for housing and school places, brilliantly (if darkly) played upon by the Leave campaign. There’s bound to be tension. Overt racism is relatively rare in British life these days, though it’s there, it’s nasty, and it’s growing. So an influx of newcomers became both a lightning rod for other worries, about our rapidly accelerating sense of vertiginous economic insecurity, and a really viscerally-felt set of concerns about economic pressures that can be seen and easily conceptualised. No-one urging a Remain vote could say, in truth, that much could be done about the level of European migration if we stayed in the EU (though that's less than half the total). So we left.

Latent Euroscepticism – or the lack of it. It’d be easy to say that the British hate Europe. You could replay some footage of football fans chanting that they wanted Out; or put up some tabloid front pages about immigration and ‘Europe’. But actually, it isn’t quite like that. Most British people are quite open to, and admire, 'Europe' (opens as PDF). They like the food. The wine. They like free movement. They like the ability to live in Spain. They quite like our neighbours. They’d rather prefer to be part of the Single Market. It’s not anti-European feeling that’s important here. It’s the utter, utter lack of knowledge about the European Union and its institutions. Few Britons know anything about the Commission, the Council and the Parliament – and now it’s all too late. Apart from a few rather pathetic feints at instilling ‘Europeanism’ among the British at the start of our membership, successive governments have preferred to ignore or to fight about European governance. That’s left a complete blank space where knowledge of the EU might and should have been. That was easily filled by a load of Boris' stories about straight bananas and tabloid scare stories about toasters and kettles. None of it was true. But the lack of attachment to ‘Europe’ – something that’s perhaps rather more central to other Europeans’ identity – allowed a load of nonsense to flood in where true engagement and real debate might have been. By the time our now soon-to-be ex-Prime Minister David Cameron launched his bid to keep us in, it was all far too late to rectify any of this.

Anti-intellectualism. This was a Leave vote from those who enjoyed fewer years of education than the Remainers. The moment that leading Brexiteer Michael Gove said that ‘people have had enough of experts’, you knew he was on to something. Not just because this tapped effectively into long traditions of anti-scholarly and anti-intellectual British thought – that’s evident across the developed world, and perhaps a bit less in Britain than elsewhere – but because it took advantage of a whole slew of resentments. Yes, those experts who didn’t see the banking crisis coming? Those elitists who think they know what’s best for you? Those technocrats who pull the levers of the arrogant, distant, demanding state? What do they know? Well, they are pretty clear that growth will be slower, and that we will all be poorer, now that we’ve voted for Brexit – but why should you listen to them? They’re just as arrogant as those scientists who think that Genetically Modified foods might feed the world, with their unpopular Frankenstein technologies; and as high-falutin’ as all those politicians who think that everyone should accept gay marriage and multiculturalism. Or so the hemmed-in, angry and unhappy drumbeat of Leave resentments would have it – to great effect among the general public.

A sharper campaign. On one level, it’s all so simple. As soon as Leave pivoted towards talking about immigration, they sliced through every conversation and argument. They won. But there’s much more to this. Dominic Cummings and Matthew Elliott, veterans of the ‘No to AV’ campaign in Britain’s last referendum campaign, grabbed two or three issues like a rag doll and shook them until they broke. Don’t keep sending our money out in EU membership fees, they said: spend it on the National Health Service instead. That was a clever way of appealing to older working-class voters who need the NHS, and worry about immigration’s impact on the Service. Don’t let Turkey into ‘Europe’, they said – cynically and opportunistically playing on voters’ fears of Muslim immigration given that Turks would be free to come to the UK if they did join the EU. And control our laws, they shouted – even though the UK might well end up with less control over the legislation that affects all our lives if we want to stay in the Single Market, perhaps via membership of the European Economic Area. Firing back, Remain could only make very complicated points, about the UK’s votes in the European Council and Parliament, about nebulous and hard-to-account-for gains to the macroeconomy overall that many voters thought would only go to ‘big business’ and the like. ‘Look after ourselves’: ‘pull up the drawbridge’. Powerful, simple words – from the better campaign, well backed-up and targeted on social media. It worked. The lesson? Bold, technicolour, almost outrageous claims – they’re great if you want to win.

Lying big. Leave didn’t play fair. There’s no reason why they should, of course, but they smashed the ball out of the park with their blatant untruths. Turkey is about to join the EU, they said. No, not true. We can take back £350m a week and spend it on the NHS, they said. No, that wasn’t true either. If we had stayed, they threatened that we might have to join an EU army. That was nonsense as well. But they said it so loudly, so confidently, and with such conviction, that it just seemed so straightforward and believable. And if you challenged these falsehoods, you just publicised the Leave camp’s many misrepresentations rather than calling them out. It was a lose-lose situation for Remain. Stay silent, and the lies shot by them, slipping straight into voters’ minds all the while Remain said nothing; or fight back, and risk voters just saying ‘well, if it’s not £350m, it still seems quite a lot’. If you keep a straight face, and you can make it to the short campaign governed by statute, you can take advantage of broadcasting rules that force producers to give you equal time with the reality-based community: the BBC, bending over backwards in the service of supposed ‘balance’, was particularly easily manipulated in this respect. Basically, Leave had clearer attack lines. They had to bodge them up from less than nothing – to fabricate them from totally untrue factual remainders and nonsense scraps – but whoever said life was fair? Not us.

So there you have it – a good guide of how to win power and influence people in the late modern, and semi-decadent, West. Frighten people about foreigners. Take advantage of gaps in people’s knowledge. Lay into experts. Rage at people like a latter-day Foghorn Leghorn on a particularly ultra-patriotic acid trip. Trample all over people who know what they are actually talking about. Rely on television journalists’ impartiality to spray lies all over the place. Then, dear reader, you can take Britain towards danger and away from safety – if you want. It is a doleful prospect. But then again, as Britain’s political ice age has tightened, what aspect of its collective life does not present such an unappealing face to the world? 

Monday, 20 June 2016

Reasons to stay in the European Union, #7: because we are British


So bitter has our European referendum debate become, and so divisive has it sometimes seemed, that to be honest it'll be good to see the back of it. So today it's time to bring the curtain down on the case for Remain, and to indulge (if you will tolerate it) some use of the personal - some use of 'I', reserved here for critical occasions when the data and the statistics (and the thin gruel of neutrality) won't do. So here goes, all in the first person.

So far, and over the last few weeks, I've usually attempted to demolish the case for leaving the European Union on logical, instrumental and empirical grounds. Hopefully it's been effective. Here's a list, by way of recap. First: there is no way on God's Earth that we will get a better deal than we have now if we leave, as our long and bitter experience of trying to batter our way in on our terms in the 1950s and 1960s demonstrates all too well. Second: we'll be poorer - probably quite a bit poorer - if we do leave. Third: the Russian state would really, really like you to vote Leave, all the better to show how liberal internationalism and the free co-operation of peoples can't really work. Fourth: the British state's very existence might be threatened by Brexit, so angry might the people of Scotland (for instance) be at having their views overridden and ignored. And fifthly: social and environmental protections might be shredded. And so on - all perfectly respectable, falsifiable arguments subject to validity, fact, argument. Disagree if you want: fair enough. Let's debate. So far, so good.

But while I wrote all this, the EU referendum became something more: a battle over the nature of the truth, and a fight against an attempt to Trumpify British politics. The Leave campaign has sailed closer and closer to the edge of complete fiction, until - last week - it crossed over into a land of dark and vile fantasies about a Britain at 'breaking point' because it was faced with long lines of migrants. A world - if inadvertently - that looked like it had been grabbed from a Nazi poster. A nasty, bitter little pill that the British were supposed to swallow - and which they can still refuse.

Hear me out here, before you put your hands up and call for a 'kinder politics'. There's no point being overly polite to people who want to eviscerate the public realm's capacity to bear rational debate and (let's not mince words here) want to degrade our ability to winnow out truth from lies. So: Vote Leave say that the UK sends £350m a week to 'Brussels'. This is not true, and they know it. Vote Leave say that Turkey is about to join the EU. This is not true, and they know it. Some of Vote Leave's leading lights - and a Minister of the Crown, no less - go on social media and say that Britain doesn't have a veto on Turkish membership. This is not true, and they know it. Vote Leave say that a European Army is round the corner. This is not true, and they know it. They put leaflets through people's doors saying that Macedonia and Albania are going to join the EU. This is not true, and they know it. They say that they can leave the EU and squeeze down total immigration while letting more people come from the Commonwealth. This is very, very unlikely - and they know it. They are - how shall I put this? - charlatans. They are not fit even to aspire to lead the United Kingdom. Woe betide us if they do.

And don't tell me that all this is about the 'extremes' and the 'fringes' of the campaign, all hidden away among the slips and the folds of the United Kingdom Independence Party's nastier bits. No. They. Are. Not. As UKIP leader Nigel Farage pointed out when faced with Vote Leave's limp non-disavowals of on him and his nasty poster, they've done exactly the same thing, just in a slightly more polite manner and in a bit more of a lidded, hooded middle-class manner. Well, forgive us again, but these people are hiding behind the formal campaign's rules on 'balance' and 'fairness'. They are taking advantage of the British state's open liberalism to undermine some of its core shared attributes and meaning. They know they'll get airtime however ludicrous and far-fetched their claims, because the law dictates it. They are a clear danger to civility, public dignity and reason itself. They want to write British history in green ink and hatred. Sorry, but there it is.

And the worst part? The most disgusting thing about the whole farrago is that these people - Boris Johnson and Michael Gove as much as Mr Farage - are trading off this pack of lies to waltz their way to power. Just thirteen months after we had a General Election, thank you very much, and we chose a perfectly serviceable administration, they are seeking to overturn that judgement and mount their own Tories-oust-the-Whigs palace intrigue from the eighteenth century. You read it here all the way back in February, remember? Mr Johnson will be Prime Minister. Mr Gove will be Chancellor. It is rumoured (though surely impossible) that Mr Farage will be offered a peerage and a nice comfy position in a Johnson government. Iain Duncan Smith will be back at Work and Pensions. Maybe Priti Patel will take over at Business. Then they'll dole out a few humiliations to more liberal Conservatives who are used to living among the reality-based community, go for a snap election next spring, crush Labour and rule for a decade. Well, we can all see you, and your pathetic, tawdry, look-at-me-aren't-I-clever scheming. Leave might well win on Thursday. Boris might become Prime Minister. But no-one should think for a second that all the chaff and nonsense that's been fired off to hide this design has obscured the truth: that this is a coup against David Cameron's Premiership.

With what means? Telling working people, and people in some of the poorest and most deprived communities across the land - many of whom and which are crying out for some sort of change, any sort of change - that Brexit will make their lives better. Will return money to hospitals. Shorten waiting lists. Free up school places. Well, it won't. It will do the opposite of that. Slower growth will mean less hospital care, fewer school places, longer waits for treatment. More cuts. More pain. That's not my opinion. It's not even almost every single reputable economist's opinion (though it's that, too). It's maths. It's reality.

And when those people realise they've been had? When Boris signs up to the European Economic Area and declares himself all in favour of the free movement of people, or Britain has to accept it for Single Market access anyway? When we take five to seven years to get out of the EU, while immigration peaks as people scramble to get into the UK job market? When things are worse, gritter, more painful? When things haven't changed, but got worse? Well, the whole dark anti-politics mood will turn up another notch. Britons, especially low-income Britons, will poorer and even angrier while London and its elites walk off with even more globalised cash and Russian business than it has now. Maybe Mr Johnson and Mr Gove will blame 'Europeans'. Maybe they will blame 'immigrants'. Maybe that'll work. The truth will be this: the fraud that they are perpetrating against the British people, the plot against Britain, will have come to its bitter fruition. I hope they're used to being unpopular.

So we all have to respond to this wall of lies in our own way. We have to make a decision. An important one, and now one that isn't about the dry-as-dust institutional structures of the EU, about the pound in your pocket, farming subsidies, borders, barricades and tariffs, but about who we are and who we want to be. Are we really going to allow ourselves to be manipulated in this manner? To skulk away, run, hide? Are we truly destined to cower in the margins, to break our treaties, to dismay our friends, to abandon our allies in an ongoing but imperfect Union that needs us so much? To ignore the pleas of Denmark, Sweden, Hungary, the Czech Republic - our natural allies, and the necessary counterweights to Berlin and Paris in our common European home? Are we seriously going to threaten the existence of the United Kingdom, endanger peace in Northern Ireland, put up the barricades at Berwick and Carlisle, embolden our adversaries, walk out of the councils of our continent?

No. No, no, no. We are not. Not if we are British. Not if we are the people that I know, and not if this is the land that we all love.

This vote is not about Europe any more. It is about defending our shared public realm, defeating the mendacious untruths of those who seek to govern us, and defeating a coup that is going on, in all its arrogance and swaggering certitude, in broad daylight - gaming it all out in front of us as if we're not here. They think you are stupid, Mr Gove and Mr Johnson. They think that voters can't tell reality from fantasy. They think they can say anything, while maybe suggesting that perhaps Mr Farage goes a little bit too far sometimes. They can't, in fact, do this - or at least, not for long. Perhaps they will triumph on Thursday. But lasting relevance, decency, credibility, dignity and legacy? Oh, that? That will elude them for as long as they play these poundland games of chance with the future of Britain itself, dicing with hundreds of thousands of jobs, with people's pensions, savings and houses, just to suit themselves.

So: vote Remain on Thursday - for Britain's good, as much as Europe's. Good luck, and I will see you on the other side.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Reasons to stay in the European Union, #6: it has made all our lives better


We're nearly there now, in the seemingly-endless and usually-unpalatable debate about whether Britain should stay in the European Union. We've tried, five times, to demonstrate what an astonishingly bad idea leaving actually is, and now we've got to our penultimate post on the matter. This week, we want to point out how the European Union fights now, and has always fought for, protecting citizens from unscrupulous employers, as well as the social fabric more generally; and how the EU upholds environmental standards.

We've been a bit instrumental and technical in previous posts, but this time we want to show that this decision may make a lot of difference to actual normal people's lives. Sure, we can shout as long as we like about the fact that leaving would leave us worse off in outline and in terms of governance. So, for instance, if we stay in the Single Market, our budget contributions might remain - per head - pretty much the same as they are now. We are also not likely to have vastly more control over EU immigration than we do now under this 'European Economic Area' option, though there would be a few more ways for the London government to effect changes. But on the other hand, if we leave the Single Market and go it alone, trying to cut our own bespoke deal, there is likely to be very little there for service industries  - on which Britain relies more than most. So Brexit would involve an unpalatable choice of new realities - something that Leave voters haven't been told, and can't be allowed to hear from that side of the debate, until 24 June.

But all that sounds a bit technical - as dry as dust, if you ask us. What's needed here is a really concrete sense of what the EU has every done for the people of this country. And the answer is - quite a lot, actually.

Start here: the European Union has done a lot for wage earners. In almost every field, British legislation has been at least beefed up or encouraged by EU standards (you could say the same about many other countries in the Union). Yes, the Equal Pay Act was passed here before we even entered the EEC, as it was then: but the Equal Pay Directive substantially broadened the definition (and applicability) of those rights for women workers. And again, many British workers had enjoyed paid holidays since the 1930s, by law. But those were then repealed in the 1970s, only to be insisted upon again (this time generally, rather than in a piecemeal form) in the 1998 Working Time Regulations.

Nor has the EU really made working people poorer, despite the poorly-aimed charges of aloof and detached disregard for low income Brits having to cope with a migrant influx squeezing wages at the bottom end. They might well do, a little: but the extent of that effect is probably extremely limited indeed. Even if you believed that a Brexit would substantially reduce immigration (it won't, or the UK Government would already have pushed its majority share, from outside the EU, down already), the EU almost certainly does much more more to push up low income Britons' living standards that the free movement of people does to suppress them.

Exhibit one: if Britain were not to be part of the EU's Energy Union, it seems as if the interconnectors that we've increasingly come to rely on for energy supply might be quite a lot more expensive in the future than they might otherwise have been. If you're a low income family struggling to make ends meet, that might mean quite a lot to you - witness the brief popularity, in 2013 and 2014, of long-forgotten Labour leader Ed Miliband's pledge to freeze energy prices. Case two: EU structural funding to Britain's poorest regions (more than paid for of course by Britain's contributions), for instance Northern Ireland and Cornwall, would have to be replaced at a time when the Leave camp have promised Britain's budget savings on many, many other desirable projects. Would they get some of the cash? Probably. All of it? Highly doubtful. Example three: obviously the lower growth and even more parlous budgetary situation involved in a Brexit would hit spending, suggested by one study as between a completely unnecessary and self-inflicted two or three per cent off the welfare budget - on top of some of the very painful changes that have been made in recent years. We could go on here, but you get the point.

Next: the environment, an area in which the EU has a proud and decent record that Remainers have been far too reticent about trumpeting. One of the main reasons why our beaches and estuaries are a lot cleaner than they used to be is that the EU insisted, in the 1980s, that the Thatcher government officially 'list' bathing beaches and actually start doing something about their appalling state. This is a good example of what 'Europe' is doing, week in and week out, to sort out our shared and common environmental problems (the present author has an exceptionally readable and accessible book about this coming out soon, as it happens). Take the issue of air quality, an area in which a (slight) majority of the professionals involved think that regulation would get weaker and laxer if we left the EU. The UK has just helped to kill European proposals that would have saved many thousands of lives - an ominous harbinger of how the UK government might behave if freed from any controls at all.

The effect of Britain's exit elsewhere in, or across, the EU - from whose pollution we cannot escape - might actually damage the search for a better environment in the remaining EU states as well. The UK's self-deportation from EU structures, if Britain really did cut all its ties and refused even to remain within the EEA, would potentially weaken EU protection on a case-by-case basis in this country: but by removing an often-vociferous voice urging climate change action and decarbonisation in the European Council and Parliament, it would strengthen the hand of environmental reality-deniers, laggards and polluters within the EU in its turn. Neither is a smart option: both make the people of the United Kingdom less secure, and probably quite a lot less happy.

Now in theory the British government can do all this. It can clean up our beaches, stand up for air quality, safeguard our rivers, fight for workers' rights, redistribute cash both across the income scale and into Britain's poorer regions. So it's not absolutely necessary to appeal to some supranational authority if you believe in making the world better for actual working people and their families.

But ask yourself this: even though the Leave campaign has entirely dishonestly posed as an anti-elite crusade against all those 'top people', do you really think that any new Michael Gove and Boris Johnson regime would actually act on any of this? Do you really trust them to defend proper standards of fairness and equity at work, social spending, infrastructure and training in some of Britain's poorest regions, or the environment? Of course you don't. They won't. Boris has long spoken of the need to shred employment protection. Priti Patel, another Cabinet-level Outer, has talked of reducing the amount of regulation by half; Iain Duncan Smith, prime author of the Government's catastrophic and embarrassing Universal Credit money-burning machine, has refused to rule out getting rid of the Working Time Directive. And so forth.

All their talk of the National Health Service, and all that cash they could funnel into public services, will end at 10pm on 23 June. You will never hear a word of it again. That will haunt them and their new regime for as long as it lasts, of course, but they won't care. They'll be in power, Mr Gove and Mr Johnson - a mini-me sidekick of a journalist who is nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is, and a pound-shop echo of a Benjamin Disraeli tribute act. They'll be laughing at you, not-so-secretly behind your back - while the poor get kicked around and your children get asthma.

The Brexiteers' leaders don't care about any of this stuff. You do. So go out and stop them.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Reasons to stay in the European Union, #5: Brexit might smash the British state to pieces


As Britain apparently teeters on the brink of leaving the European Union - as voters weigh up the pluses and minuses of the choice, with some apparently increasingly convinced that leaving is a safe option - we'd like to draw attention to a little-known and little-understood reason why they should think again. It's the mechanics of what happens next - so painful, so complicated, so potentially deadly to the very existence of the British state as we know it now that anyone advocating it must pause and wonder: 'would this really be worth it?' Because we think that the UK isn't capable or intellectually, institutional powerful enough to get out of the EU without some massive wounds in the body politic. Let's show you what we mean. There are three areas here that should cause concern to anyone interested in, or who writes about, governance issues in the UK: so let's go through them one by one.

Legacy legislation and government powers

Start here: we're not even sure that Britain can 'leave' the European Union in any meaningful sense, at least for years to come. There would be the inevitable wrangle over the terms, of course, and as prominent Leaver Michael Gove admitted yesterday, it might be many years before we cease to be a member. Recall that it took little Greenland three years to leave, and that only fishing questions were contentious at all. Could we actually get out in the two years given in the Nice Treaty as the timeframe from triggering the process to a Brexit? No. No chance. We'll be negotiating for the rest of this Parliament and beyond - as Mr Gove, perhaps unintentionally, has now accepted. World Trade Organisation experts have made crystal clear that all the deals that the EU has made there will fall, for us, if we leave: the basic WTO rules that we would have to rely on are basically used by no-one at all, and we would face the prospect of thousands of days of bilateral talks, especially on services, so as to avoid falling back on them - just at the moment that the line-by-line details get worked on in Brussels and at one and the same time the other 27 member states. Civil servants won't be able to take the strain. There are too few of them, especially after years of managerial austerity. The UK Government will have to draft in as many 'irregular' newcomers as it can muster (and afford). You think that 'experts' and elites have too much control over your life now? You just wait until this lot get going.

But it's not just that. The insertion of European Union rules and regulations into British life has now gone very far towards bending the details of life in the UK towards Single Market norms. There are thousands and thousands of Statutory Orders which have not been 'ordered from Brussels', or reprinted out of Strasbourg, or anything silly like that, but which take account of or give effect to different cadences of Community law. Do you want to know what could happen after we leave the EU? The Government is going to have to go through all of them - tens of thousands of them - and decide which ones to keep. Administratively very hard, we're sure you're agree. More sinister? The Government's then going to be using pretty summary approaches to deciding which ones stay in law - a massive and unacceptable accretion of power to the executive that no good social democrat or conservative should accept.

The break-up of Britain?

Here again we've got to be careful. We could just say 'oh, Scotland will leave the Union if the UK leaves the EU'. And then point out how draining, how wounding that process would be, at the same time as London tries to negotiate its way out of its continental commitments. But it's not as simple as that. Remember that the Scottish National Party just lost its overall majority at Holyrood (though it still remains enormously popular) - and recall, too, that Scots tell opinion pollsters both that they are not keen on a rapid second plebiscite after a Brexit vote, and that they might well still vote 'No' even if there was one. The terms aren't likely to be all that enticing: joining the Schengen free movement area and the Euro, and potentially putting up a customs barrier at Carlisle and Berwick (if Britain's exit negotiations with the EU go very badly)? Not a prospectus that would self-evidently carry the day. That said, a Brexit would definitely re-open the whole question, and force us all to fight the same repetitive political war all over again - while Scotland's much more pressing needs to diversify its economy and fight educational division are ignored for another five years. Since the SNP itself, and last time's 'Yes' campaign, know all this, and would actually and very sensibly rather delay another independence referendum until the 2020s, this doesn't seem a particularly controversial point - in the Scottish context, at least.

Think, also, about the likely post-Brexit situation in Wales and Northern Ireland. It is perfectly possible that these two constituent parts of the UK will also have voted 'In', only to be dragged out by England. There seems little doubt that Northern Ireland will vote 'Remain', while the situation in Wales seems too close to make any definitive judgement. This stuff matters. Wales relies heavily both on EU funding, and on Foreign Direct Investment (potentially, for instance, at the Tata steelworks) to keep its very fractured and struggling economy on the road. Five or six years of negotiations with our European neighbours will make all that worse - though not as bad as things might get in Northern Ireland, where the Republic of Ireland's government will be forced to consider bringing back a 'hard' border with all the passport checks and bureaucracy that involves. Most British voters forget that the UK has a land border with an EU state. If the main aim of a Brexit is to limit immigration, such measures - with all their chilling effect on Northern Ireland's economy, and its fragile political system - will have to come in. There would seem to be little choice. One can only imagine what the people of Northern Ireland will have to say about this wanton trampling on their rights. Whichever way you look at this, you're left with the feeling that the United Kingdom's days will be numbered if there is an unbalanced, disorderly recoil from Europe.

Legislative chaos

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there's the political aspect. What you're doing if you go over the edge, and into the unknown, on 23 June is electing a new government. That's blatantly obvious now. Prime Minister David Cameron's enemies have got together and seized a stick with which to beat him down - perhaps forever. So Boris Johnson, Michael Gove or (even more worrying) Priti Patel are going to be Prime Minister after this. They're going to lead a government that's going to make Mrs Thatcher's look like a Trotskyite conspiracy. And in the midst of that takeover - all in the name of the little guy, you understand - they're going to try to work through all the above. Get real. Get serious. They're not up to it, and they won't be able to manage it. It will turn to an impossible wrestle with a whole sea of octupuses. Mr Johnson in particular, as pro-European a politician as Britain has ever produced, must get down on his knees every night and pray that 'Leave' don't win. Because then he'll actually have to go through with this absurd farrago. He won't enjoy it.

What will make their situation even worse is that Britons will have voted to leave the European Union, not the Single Market that is so vital to our economy. There is, of course, always the 'Norwegian Option' - to stay in the European Economic Area, and thus the Single Market, pay in and accept many of the rules, but get little say in how they're made. Now if this is where we're going, this blog would be much happier: although diplomatically sub-optimal and seriously damaging to Britain's influence, many fewer jobs would be lost in this scenario. Except the Leave camp have now painted themselves into a corner over immigration. They can't now sell the EEA to British voters, because it involves the free movement of people (albeit with a few more protections in the shape of an 'emergency brake'). A referendum that has been won purely on the basis of the fear of 'Other' foreigners cannot then be followed by a reversal of engines on that scale. No matter how cynical you are - and Mr Johnson appears to be one of the most cynical people on the planet - it's not a runner. Faced, however, with a House of Commons that will probably seek to impose just this outcome, what are Mr Johnson and Mr Gove going to do, as they face each other round the Cabinet table with little 'o's of shock as mouths, when they realise the vice they're in? Answer: they don't know. They're going to try to busk it, perhaps utilising a snap General Election to defy one side or the other. There's going to be some prolonged panic in the markets as this becomes clear.

Multiple crises - of administration, negotiation, nationhood, statehood, politics, party and personality - are going to smash into and against each other. All, dear reader, at your expense.

There is no doubt that leaving the EU would be an act of economic self-harm. No-one on the outside can make head nor tail of it, with foreign journalists turning to each other and whispering 'what are they doing?' But it's not just the economics. This is a wider public policy disaster in the making, still ill-understood and ill-measured even on its brink. It's not only the damage to our foreign policy, our relations with our friends and allies, the lowered sights and the turning-inwards that all this would mean. It's the legislative deadlock, the wearying and exhausting negotiations that will bring all other government business to a halt, the addition to the powers of the executive, the uproar in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the prospect of a crashed or zombie Parliament, the twisting and turning between the EEA and the open sea to which there can be no answer without yet another crisis.

Those of us who love the United Kingdom want to see it well governed. If you vote 'Leave' seventeen days from now, there is no prospect whatsoever that it will be.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Reasons to stay in the European Union, #4: you will probably be poorer if we leave


So now we're down to some of the business end of this European Union referendum campaign. To be perfectly honest, amidst all the claim and counter-claim, we would much rather be hitting the beach right now. In just a few weeks, we're all going to break up and head for our holidays. Can't wait. But for now, there's some serious - indeed generation-defining - questions to be asked. This week's is very simple: if you vote for the 'Leave' side in this plebiscite, how much poorer do you think you're going to get, and how much punishment are you willing to take?

We've already put three cases before you, urging you if you are a United Kingdom voter to cast a vote for 'Remain' on 23 June. The first is that Britain's trade deal with the EU is likely to be worse than the full access to the Single Market that we enjoy now, something that the tortuous history of our 1960s and 1970s negotiations to try to get in bears out more than any theorising now. The second argument that persuades us, at least, is the absolute nonsense pumped out by the 'Leave' camp, now parading around like a government-in-waiting, from their £350m-a-week claim to the idea that leaving would 'save the National Health Service'. Then, last week, we thirdly followed this up with a foreign policy question: do you really want to vote 'Leave', and do exactly what Russian President Vladimir Putin is willing, urging you to do, all the better to let him lay down terms to Europe's East and South-East? Well, excuse us if we don't grasp eagerly at a rubbish trade deal, a new load of not-so-honest rulers and more Russian influence in London, the Baltics and Syria. It doesn't really sound very appetising when you put it like that, does it?

This week we're going to focus on you: to the threat Brexit poses to your own personal bank balance and your own standard of living. Leave seem to be making progress at the moment, in pretty much the most favourable circumstances they could ever hope for - as stories grow of an absurdly over-hyped migrant 'crisis' in the Channel, and migrant data is published which makes the Government's efforts to limit numbers look not only doomed to failure, but shifty and manipulative. Leave is definitely having some success with the simple case that 'public services need more money, we give money to the EU, let's keep it and use it here'.

This is almost entirely disingenuous nonsense, as almost every reputable economist in the country could tell you. Experienced politicians such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove know that the economy will almost certainly shrink on a British exit from the European Union. They know the tax base will be smaller, and there will therefore be less money for public services, not more money. Austerity will go on longer, and the NHS and our housing and transport systems will be longer and harder squeezed than they would be on present presumptions. They are engaged in nothing more than a cynical smash-and-grab raid on older Labour voters, alienated from their 'own' party of many years standing by its trek away from their values and ideas, and an attempt to tell them that Brexit is in their interests. It isn't.

The British economy has enormous strengths, as this blog has noted again and again. Aerospace. Financial services. Computing. Film and television. Education. Tourism. Gaming. All of them are live, active areas of innovation, employment and foreign earnings. In the end, whatever happens, we will be okay - barring enormous shocks inside the Chinese economy, or American banking system, that we probably can't do much about. After 2020 (or thereabouts), the UK's growth path may be back on trend. But it's that 'after 2020' that, in the end, is classic wish-fulfillment for people who can afford an economic shock, and can just lie low for the rest of the Parliament until growth comes again. Many voters sense this, and get annoyed at Brexiteers' insouciance when it comes to any recession that we've brought on ourselves - one of the reasons why 'Remain' is still the favourite in this contest (for now). Anyone who hasn't got enough leeway to get through the next few years? Well, that's the price of 'freedom' - a national 'freedom' that never has existed, does not exist now, and will certainly never exist in the regionalist, interconnected, networked world of overlapping trade blocs, jurisdictions and authorities.

Start with this: a British 'Leave' will be a severe blow to confidence. Foreign Direct Investment will fall. Sterling will plunge, at least initially. Domestic spending will dry up. There is very little doubt of this. There is pretty much no modelling that suggests that this isn't true. Then we will be on to a protracted and very difficult set of negotiations, which (let's be frank about it) we doubt that Whitehall and Westminster have the institutional memory and intellectual power even to conduct, let alone to bring to a successful conclusion. It will be a total car crash. There will be two years between the moment we pull the trigger on telling the EU that we're leaving, and the actual moment of exit: there may be many more before we get to anything like a trade settlement worthy of the name. It took tiny Greenland, by the way, three years to leave - when all the negotiations were focused on the fishing industry alone. The UK, a country more than a hundred times bigger, will need to tear itself away from the economic mooring it has made itself for more than forty years, and start all over again from scratch - as the World Trade Organisation has recently made clear - even in terms of its trade with the rest of the world. If you think that growth will carry on unimpeded during all that, you need a lie down in a darkened room and some iced water.

In the meantime, all the Government's energies will be bent in that direction. Want energy market reform? New power capacity? Labour market re-equipment and a new, bolder apprenticeship system? Bigger infrastructure projects? Regional innovation, city lending, novel forms of local public-private innovation? You'll get none of it. You'll just get Boris Johnson saving around bits of paper as he huffs and puffs his way between London, Brussels and Strasbourg, fiddling with bits of lint in his pockets. He won't worry: he's made a fortune from 'book' sales and journalism. He'll still be rich. You'll be poorer. He'll drink champagne. You'll feel like drinking hemlock.

Look: it's this simple. If you have savings, if you have property, if you have a house which is your main source of savings value and security, if you have any exposure to a falling pound, if your job relies on trade with the other EU states, than 'Leave' probably will make you poorer. Don't want to listen to the International Monetary Fund, the Confederation of British Industry, the Bank of England, the Trades Union Congress, the President of the United States, the Prime Ministers of Canada, Australia, New Zealand? Try something a bit closer to home. Although a bit annoyed at the way his words have been pressed into use by the 'Remain' camp, Martin Lewis of MoneySavingExpert.com fame, will 'probably' vote to say in the EU 'on the balance of probabilities' - hardly a glowing endorsement, but from the most trusted personal finance expert in the country, something of a coup for 'Remain'.

It's your choice. It really is. But let us add our puny voice to the din: a vote for 'Leave' means that you will - for a while - be quite likely to be wreaking economic damage on your own country, and on yourself. You may well get poorer. Potentially, a lot poorer.

It's possible that the overwhelming balance of economists' views is wrong (they were more divided on the Euro, but a majority still favoured Britain joining). They are - sometimes - subject to groupthink. The precision of the Remain camp's warnings probably are overdone, as the prominent Remainer (and ex-Trade Secretary) Vince Cable accepts. You could gamble on all that. You could defy all these many, many warnings. You could leap in the dark. It might be that the pound's falls on bad news for 'Remain', and rises on good tidings, for 'Leave', won't be replicated in the early hours of 24 June if the Outers do win the day. It could always be the case that there won't be a large house price adjustment as confidence and certainty flood out of the UK (and into just about nowhere else). But not, we would advise on each and every one of these counts, very likely.

Ask yourself this: for yourself, for your family, for your children, why would you take the risk?