London Bridge

The recent terrorist attack at London Bridge left two dead and several injured. What was the politicians’ response? They indulged in a bout of the political game rather than speaking of the grief of the moment. As far as I understand the chronology, Johnson began this by issuing condolences and then blaming (wrongly) the Labour government’s legislation for the release of the killer from prison. Corbyn then joined in by blaming austerity and Tory cuts to the prison service and police. Of the two Corbyn made more sense. But that is cold comfort to the bereaved who, rightly, expect something more heartfelt. Indeed, the father of the man who died has insisted that politicians should stop using his son’s death to justify their stance. Further, he argued that his son would be appalled to find his death being used to justify penal policies that speak of revenge.

The London Bridge attack is a time in which we should expect prime ministerial candidates to be prime ministerial. This is a solemn time that should be outwith the daily dose of election politics. And Johnson should take the blame for this not happening.

Boris Johnson is also at fault over his attitude towards interviews. He has refused the invitation to be interviewed by Andrew Neal. Neal’s interviews are aggressive, robust and searching. All the other leaders have undergone this purgatory; Jeremy Corbyn had a peculiarly difficult time over antisemitism. It is customary for all prime ministers seeking re-election to be interviewed by Mr Neal. It looks as though Johnson is running scared as he refuses this form of accountability. He knows that he has been caught out in being utterly untrustworthy. It is time Johnson stops being the coward and faces up to his fate.

Finally, I want to know where the other parties in my seat have gone to. I’ve had leaflets from Labour (2), one from the Conservatives (at least I think it was the Conservatives, it was so badly written as to be unintelligible) and none from anyone else. I know that Labour members have been out canvassing but I’ve seen no-one else.  The Greens and Lib Dems appear to be backing Labour. This reduces my choices to two candidates. I guess that might be three with the Brexit Party. I shall be holding my nose as I vote Labour. This vote is to keep out the Tories in a marginal seat. Fortunately, my local Labour candidate is a good MP.

The Lib Dems are having a torrid time. Jo Swinson is not proving the draw they thought. It may be that there is prejudice against a younger woman. The Lib Dems have lumbered themselves with a policy that does not look liberal or democratic as well as being silly. If the Lib Dems form a majority government (absolutely impossible) then they will revoke Article 50 and return us to the EU. Even fervent Remainers believe that a referendum can only be cancelled by another referendum. The Lib Dems used to be in favour of the Peoples’ Vote; their policy has questioned whether this is still so. The Brexit policy is so unpopular that the Lib Dems have returned to the Peoples’ Vote.

But the basic problem the Lib Dems face is that of the first past the post system. With poll ratings of 15% that means getting only a similar number of seats; in a proportional system they would be getting a magical 100 and being the holder of a balance of power. On top of that comes a traditional squeeze. People wishing to block Boris and liking the Lib Dems opt for Labour to block Johnson. Others like the Lib Dems but wishing to stop Corbyn will vote Conservative. The upshot is that the Lib Dems, nice as they are, lose out.                     


Going public

So the Labour Party manifesto has been published. Jeremy Corbyn looked extremely proud as he presented the manifesto. And rightly so because he was presenting a radical vision for the future. If Labour gains power they will nationalize the rail system, Royal Mail, the power companies and the water companies. For too long, long suffering commuters have suffered the poor administration of the privatized railways. And those same companies have been more focused upon share prices rather than getting the system right. The utilities and water companies have become money-making machines for shareholders rather than providing the service at the right prices for the consumers. Royal Mail needs investment, not profit-taking. 

The problem is that I don’t want to go back to the 70s. Nationalized industries were riddled with corrupt practices. I remember seeing two BT vans each day in the same lay-by as they knocked off early. We must not return to the inefficiencies of that time. The industries need to be truly accountable to the people. That means that even the unions will have to take responsibility of when things go wrong. Just one problem that will be inherited will be the move to driver-only trains. Do the nationalized railways turn aside from the efficiencies those trains will provide?

The other eye-catching element in the manifesto was the investment in Britain that Labour will undertake. Financed out of borrowing and judicious tax increases on the rich and on corporations, Labour will invest £83bn per year. This will go on a pay rise of public sector workers, on hospitals, schools, and the staffing of the same; and infrastructure projects. Public spending will be increased to roughly match that of Germany. Britain will be joining the European mainstream for public spending. 

One Conservative commentator said he disagreed with the manifesto but then said that the manifesto was thought through, coherent and reasoned. That I think is high praise indeed. The program is thought through and costed. It is questionable as to whether Britain will be able to handle the amount of money coming through. But this program does mark the re-formation of our economy.

I think that this manifesto is to be welcomed. It promises the proper levels of investment in a country that has become threadbare. This manifesto is the fulfilment of the 2017 manifesto and bodes well. Unlike the 2017 manifesto, the 2019 version has not had the same eclat and is probably not a turning point in the polls. Those remain dire.


Finding a future

Yesterday (Thursday) was the time limit for declaring candidacy in the general election. Hopefuls and the hopeless rub shoulders; joke candidates are connected with the deadly serious. The lists of candidates also give a strong hint as to what will be the shape of the Commons.

Firstly, the two main parties, Labour and Conservative have initiated long-term changes in the make up of those parties, in terms of straightforward politics. In Labour Jeremy Corbyn has been able to impose his own candidates on a number of “safe” constituencies. The chances are that the newly-elected Commons will be more Corbyn-friendly than before. This will take Labour to the left. The moderate centre and right are in flight. However, Corbyn has not had all things his way; one of his advisers failed to gain a seat. On the Conservatives there has been an almost total dissolution of the Remainers. Of the 21 who lost the whip, only 3 have stayed in the party and are fighting for their seat as Conservatives. Of the newly-chosen candidates, almost all are Leavers. The Conservative Party has become the Brexit party. 

Secondly, there will be many more women in the Commons. The Labour party’s policy of women-only shortlists has won through and now there are many more women candidates, including in safe seats. The Conservative party is less likely to have women elected but there will be some more. On the Labour party, the has been a party-wide reselection process. Four women MPs came under threat of deselection. There was just one man under threat. The women were victims of a misogynistic campaign by Corbyn’s supporters. However, the women, including the redoubtable Margaret Hodge who had critiqued Corbyn’s antisemitism, won through. For once the Commons may come close to representing the population of the country.

Thirdly, there will be many more ethnic minority MPs. In London, something like 18 Labour MPs could be BAME. The Conservative Party has managed to elect BAME MPs in non-urban areas. Potentially there will be more such Conservative MPs. These new MPs will all add to the richness of the Commons and add to the cultural awareness of that body. 


First shots

We have had the first shots in the 2019 election. The most significant of these has been the economic prospectuses promoted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and John McDonnell, his shadow. 

Sajid Javid, the chancellor, argued that a forthcoming Conservative government would spend £21-25bn each year, focusing upon infrastructure projects. The money would come from increased borrowing; such borrowing was sensible because of the current low interest rates. He described McDonnell’s economics as being fantasy economics.

John McDonnell argued that a forthcoming Labour government would spend £55bn per year for ten years on infrastructure projects, hospitals, care homes and council housing, and on the greening of the economy by getting people to ensure that their homes were properly insulated and where appropriate, installing heat pumps and solar panels. The £55bn would answer two emergencies: that of the people caused by Tory austerity and the climate emergency. The money would come by borrowing for low interest rates allowed borrowing to take place. 

Both parties have increased borrowing after a decade of shrinking the State. Both parties are increasing the size of the State. Labour does both of these things to a much greater extent. Javid argued that too much borrowing leads to the ruin of the economy; this view contradicts his own proposed borrowing. 

But there is a trap here for the Tories. If they argue that Labour is proposing a ruinous level of borrowing, then the Tories’ own borrowing plans are called into question. It becomes almost impossible for the Conservatives to attack Labour’s plans. Indeed, it is clear that McDonnell has a clear, radical plan to answer the two emergencies. This is in contrast to Javid’s rather tired exposition of Conservative economics. Indeed, McDonnell’s approach emphasised the northern orientation of the spending plans, giving hope of good quality jobs in left-behind communities. 

It is a pity that McDonnell is not leader of the Labour party.

Among the other first shots has been a number of candidates, Conservative and Labour, who have had to stand down or who have come under attack for things said years ago. These things would, probably, not be said now. There is a question of forgiveness here. When do things wrongly spoken and apologised for become forgiven. There is accountability and then persecution. Perhaps we need to take a more nuanced approach. I am not seeking blanket forgiveness; three of these episodes demand that the candidates should stand down. But there is a point when censuring what is said becomes censorship and loses the freedom of speech, even wrong-headed speech.


Not another one!

In 2017 Brenda from Bristol, on hearing that we were about to have an election cried out, ‘Not another one!’ I wonder what she would say now, hearing that in 6 weeks time we are to go to the polls. But that is exactly what is going to happen. December 12th is the date of the election and we’ll trudge wearily through the dark to cast our votes.

This election is completely unnecessary. It has been called to ‘fix Parliament and get Brexit done’. In actual fact there was no need to call an election. The Commons had passed Johnson’s agreement at second reading by the majority of 30 – a handsome majority in the circumstances. It was the unnecessary rush to pass legislation that fell foul. If Johnson had just given the legislation time for proper scrutiny, as is right for all legislation. Johnson was giving the legislation a few days to be passed; the circus animals’ act had more time for scrutiny that the withdrawal act. If he had given the process due time, the chances are that his legislation would have passed the Commons. All without an election. The election is completely unnecessary.

The election will solve nothing. Johnson may want the election to focus on Brexit. But that was Theresa May’s strategy in 2017 and she lost her majority. Jeremy Corbyn has already begun the process of nullifying the Brexit trend by focusing upon day-to-day issues of fairness in taxation, nationalizing the railways, Royal Mail, electricity and water companies as well as the NHS and schools. And Corbyn even sounds authoritative as he does this; Johnson is heard to be blustering.

The election is perhaps the hardest in living memory to forecast a result. The coalitions that are the major parties are all threadbare with many people having switched party since the election of 2010. Further there is the Brexit effect. Are people more loyal to the Remainer/Leave binary than to their original political identity? Then there is the Brexit Party. In theory the Brexit Party takes 3 Conservative votes for every 1 Labour vote. But Farage knows from his UKIP days that Labour is vulnerable in seats dominated by the elderly, poorly educated, White voters. It is being said that the Brexit Party will only field 20 to 40 candidates but focusing on Labour seats.

UKIP actually failed to win Labour seats. It is possible for Labour to fight back and win.


A new settlement?

So Boris Johnson and Michel Barnier have announced the formation of a new deal for Brexit. About 90% of the Johnson deal is found in the May deal. The big changes are that the backstop has gone and that Johnson has betrayed his allies in the DUP by fixing the customs border in the Irish Sea thereby compromising the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. However this border is all part of the cunning plan whereby Ulster can leave the EU with Great Britain and still handle a borderless Ireland. So how is this done?

A car for sale leaves GB and crosses the Irish Sea and clocks up a tariff to be paid to the Irish Republic. The car arrives in Northern Ireland and stays in the North. That means that the car’s tariff is refunded. If the car had gone onto the Republic it would have crossed unchallenged at any border posts for Ireland is borderless. The tariff would have been charged in the Irish Sea. Effectively, the Irish boundary has been moved to the Irish Sea and separates off Ulster from GB.

This solution to the customs part of Brexit had been proposed by Michel Barnier at the beginning of the negotiation with Theresa May. May had turned down the proposal on the grounds that it would separate the North of Ireland from GB. Then Boris Johnson launched his leadership bid at the DUP conference saying at no Conservative and Unionist prime minister and he certainly could not agree to such a thing. So Johnson ends up doing precisely that. Not surprisingly the DUP feel betrayed and stand going to oppose Johnson’s agreement.

The second new element is that of democratic acceptance. Every four years the Stormont Assembly is to vote on whether to agree to the system or not. The EU insisted that the vote be by simple majority, thereby stopping the unionist veto. Indeed the Assembly is likely to be split by every non-Unionist party voting in favour of the system, providing a narrow majority over the Unionists.

This, too, has understandably upset the DUP. They have seen their precious veto disappear. They claim that the Good Friday settlement insists on voting by communities, so there should be majorities in the Nationalist and Unionist communities.

Parliament is to meet on Saturday. This is very unusual and betokens the “drama” being played out. It is being assumed that Johnson will put his settlement to the vote. Even if the DUP votes with the government, the government majority will be one. It is very tight and with the DUP likely to vote against there is a narrow majority of Opposition parties to vote against the deal. As I said, it is very tight.

If the vote is against the Benn Act comes in and Johnson will have to seek a Brexit extension and go to re-negotiate the deal. The EU could refuse to do this but I think that this is unlikely; the EU does not want to be seen to force the UK into a no deal situation.

Saturday really is the moment of decision.


Does Trump ever think?

The Americans had a group of fifty soldiers in northern Syria acting as look-outs and peacekeepers. This week Donald Trump ordered them home. He did this knowing that northern Syria is a place of great instability. The Turkish border abuts the Kurdish population of northern Syria. This matters because of the presence of a Kurdish militia calls the Syrian Democratic Forces; the SDF has been the ally of the USA in the fight against Isis, indeed the SDF has lost 11,000 soldiers, the Americans none. Turkey defines the SDF as allies of the Kurdish militants the PKK and has called the SDF ‘terrorists’. The Turkish government has long planned an attack on the SDF and the creation of a safe-zone in which to send Syrian refugees thereby changing the demography of the area.

Trump announced the withdrawal of the troops knowing that the Turks would attack. Hours after the departure of the Americans the Turks did attack. Now some 60,000 Kurds are fleeing the fighting. The SDF is being overwhelmed by NATO’s second largest army and air force.

Trump betrayed the trust of the SDF. Trump stabbed his allies in the back. Trump did threaten economic sanctions if Turkey went beyond its bounds. It is hard to see that worrying Erdogan, the Turkish premier. In the USA, Democrats and Republicans have condemned Trump; even his most loyal followers have turned on him. But it is all too late. Turkey has acted and the SDF are doomed; they will be forced to withdraw. Trump acted on his own with marginal consultation; the man never thinks. Let us hope that the Democrats get their act together and win the 2020 election.

On Brexit this week, the Irish pm and Boris Johnson had what they called constructive and hopeful talks. Both of them can see a pathway to a settlement. However one commentator remained resolutely pessimistic in that they were not talking details. And indeed, there remain the sticky areas of a customs union to avoid a hard border (the UK rejects a customs union) and the democratic check on the settlement. The latter involves a four-yearly vote to say if the Stormont Assembly still wishes to keep the settlement. This is essentially a veto by the Democratic Unionist Party. The Irish object to this.

At best we are now in the game of whittling concessions out of each other. At worst this is another game by Johnson to make a show of negotiating whilst always going for no deal.