State aid and the union state

Defending the Union is not the same as owning the Nats. Tory disdain for devolution post-Brexit endangers it even further

Constructing a UK internal market needs time and attention too

Some nationalists claim the United Kingdom has no such thing as an internal market. Granted, it has no formal project branded ‘UK single market’. But its four parts have sent MPs to Westminster longer than modern regulatory states have existed. Britain built an integrated domestic market long before it joined the then EC. Until 1999, EU law played no specific role in preventing divergence. And the UK has an unusual lack of internal barriers for a large state.

The problem is real, but the end doesn’t justify the means

When devolution arrived, a mix of reservations to the UK Parliament and EU law served to keep it together. That EU framework ceases to bind the UK from 1 January 2021, leaving our internal market vulnerable to erosion. In areas which are within devolved competence but constrained by EU law, ever more barriers could result.

As Canada shows, states can easily end up with major internal economic barriers, which you then have to try to negotiate away. In the UK this would do great economic damage, at least outside of England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have the rest of the UK as their main external market, and we are all deeply integrated.

Data from the Scottish Government, Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency and UK Government Internal Market White Paper. Figures do not add to 100% due to rounding. Flag images from Wikipedia.

So the issue is serious, as all three devolved administrations say they accept. It’s hard to see how you address it without action at a UK level. So far, so reasonable: hence a White Paper. It’s also true that even with common frameworks, many areas currently regulated at EU level will fall entirely to the devolved legislatures.

Nonetheless, powers devolved within an EU framework aren’t the same thing as reserved powers. Constitutionally, the UK Government wants to reserve some things which are currently devolved. The Sewel convention is clear: the UK Government shouldn’t do this without consent. That convention is core to making devolution work. Parliamentary sovereignty and decentralised power don’t easily mix. Sovereignty needs self-restraint for them to rub along.

Further, the EU doesn’t work in the same way as the UK. EU lawmaking is far more consensual and member states are part of the process. EU law is also likely to give member states more room for manoeuvre than UK replacements. The UK has no equivalent to directives as opposed to regulations, for instance. UK institutions are likely to be far more single-minded and far less prone to compromise. That means an ‘equivalent’ reservation in any given area could well mean less devolved autonomy in practice.

The principle of agreeing common frameworks with the devolved administrations isn’t new or controversial. Reserving subsidy control (state aid) makes sense in policy terms — though that doesn’t let us off the constitutional hook of consent. But the White Paper proposes new cross-cutting constraints on devolved policy:

the Government now proposes a Market Access Commitment, which will enshrine in law two fundamental principles to protect the flow of goods and services in our home market: the principle of mutual recognition, and the principle of nondiscrimination.

I don’t necessarily oppose some version of this. But it has major implications, depending on how it’s drafted and which sectors are excepted. It could well mean major new constraints, over and above EU-derived ones, in devolved areas. We’ve always had regulatory divergence within the UK in some areas. Building regulations differ in Scotland and England, for instance. Will changes now be subject to a market access test?

The White Paper also takes a profoundly asymmetrical approach, with policy in England as the implicit norm. The legal market access commitment will only apply to devolved policy. But policy in England (or England and Wales, or Great Britain) in the same areas could create market barriers too. How far will the UK Government constrain its own approach, and proposals to Parliament, in these areas? Could ministers at least have to certify whether such proposals discriminate against other parts of the UK, for instance?

Would this mix — some EU constraints gone, some powers reserved, a new general constraint — mean more or less de facto power for devolved institutions? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone can know without seeing the actual drafting. Even that’s not enough to gauge how the market access commitment will pan out in practice. I do know that it has huge implications for how devolution works. It’s a big constitutional change: it merits proper discussion. And in our system, convention is quite clear that consent is required.

So the Scottish and Welsh Governments have every right to be outraged by the idea of imposing it upon them. And to consult upon it for a mere four weeks (a third of the time to consult on a reformed judicial pension scheme, for instance) is outright farcical. The problems with devolution and our home market have been discussed for over four years. And the Brexit cliff-edge on 31 December is of the UK Government’s own (perverse) making. Yes, the SNP always takes any excuse to invent grievances. That doesn’t make it right, or good for the Union, to give them real ones.

This isn’t a first, either. Since 2016, the Sewel convention has been ignored several times, and not just for Scotland. Whatever you think of the arguments for an exception in any given case, it’s becoming a pattern. Among multinational states, the UK seems unusually willing to just override devolved competence. At the same time, secession is unusually — possibly uniquely — easy to seek. In a union state where a British nation overlaps with several other, older nations, that’s a strikingly unstable mix.

Voice, choice and consent

The mix is particularly dangerous to the Union in Scotland. Much of independence’s appeal comes down to agency — speaking to a view that Scotland has no real say in Britain. In response, UK governments yo-yo between ever-looser union and centralising confrontation. Neither works. On the one hand, there’s a limit to how far you can or should devolve within a state. On the other, preserving the Union and owning the Nats are not the same, though a certain sort of Tory seems unaccountably convinced that it is. If you don’t want the UK to break up or become a constitutional God of the gaps, you need to make its central institutions more legitimate in Scottish eyes.

Brexit has damaged support for the Union in Scotland. But it offered a chance to grapple with a more shared approach to governing the UK. The Welsh Government is the most sensible and least heard of the four administrations on constitutional issues. It made proposals for a UK Council of Ministers to decide on common frameworks. More recently, it has called for the successor to state aid rules to be enforced by a neutral body.

Whatever the detail, the principle is clear. Devolved governments need a real say in this area, and the UK Government can’t be both party to and arbitrator of shared rules. Yes, that will slow some UK decision-making down. It would be no bad thing if some UK decisions had to take some more time and be a bit more considered. But for good or ill, it’s part of the price of sustaining a complex union state.

The internal market debacle provides a good example of a core problem with how the Union currently works. Federal systems usually involve some element of shared rule as well as self-rule. The UK, unless and until it finds ways of dealing with the English Question and dividing legal sovereignty, can never be a true federation. But in practice, devolution often raises federal questions, and so does Scottish discontent.

When required to think about Scotland, English commentators often get worked up about money. In doing so, they miss the point about voice. Somehow, the British central state has to find a way to make itself more palatable north of the Border. It has to satisfy enough Scots that Britain as a state isn’t England-Plus with unreliable Scottish opt-outs.

If it can’t, the end of the Union of 1707 is only a matter of time. The Conservatives may think they’re standing up to the SNP. They’re actually dancing to its tune.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 18 July 2020.

Public good

The Cummings farrago exposes a government which doesn’t grasp its own role

Wars give us enemies with faces. Coronavirus does not. Social media delights in both putting war metaphors up and shooting them down, but I suspect the lack of a clear enemy makes national cohesion harder. And as we start to talk about exit strategies, whose interests come first and when may well divide us further.

Dominic Cummings has, if nothing else, given many people’s fury a face. And many have written already about how offensive his conduct — and his disdain for explaining himself — has been. But the defence of his conduct betrays a basic failure to grasp the purpose of government, which I think deserves a closer look.

Family first?

When push comes to shove, of course people care about their own children more than anything. But an unpalatable truth is that much of what the state does aims at keeping that impulse from running riot. One of the biggest challenges in education is stopping monied parents elbowing less fortunate kids out of the way in the interests of their offspring. Fair admissions, access to higher education, school funding formulae: keeping loving parents at bay is the bread and butter of education policy.

When politicians put their kids’ education first — as Diane Abbott and Tony Blair both found — we tend to censure them for it. Sometimes, as in Abbott’s case, that’s mainly about hypocrisy. But it reveals a deeper truth. We may nod as politicians say any parent puts their families first, but we don’t like it when they actually do. Because they set the rules which keep that truth in bounds.

Coronavirus poses a wider, sharper, harder challenge. The vast majority of us are vanishingly unlikely to die from it. We are asked — instructed — to act against our own and our loved ones’ interests (at least our immediate interests) every day. Do my friends gain or lose when I can’t help look after my nephew-in-all-but-name? Do children gain or lose from missing months of classes in favour of the trench warfare we call home school? Do families gain or lose from not having loved ones at funerals?

‘Parents always want to do what they think best for their kids’, ministers say. Of course. Why do ministers think we have laws?

Following instincts?

As maxims go, ‘follow your instincts’ may well be beloved of start-ups. It’s also precisely what the coronavirus rules try to prevent. Humans are deeply social animals. We want to see friends and family in groups, we want to hug people and not voice-project at two metres, we want sex. But all these things can transmit coronavirus.

So the state took draconian measures to get us to suppress our instincts. I don’t dispute the need for them: I merely observe that they remain draconian. After a shaky and ambiguous start, we were told to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives. And it broadly worked. Possibly it overshot: the British are now among the most cautious of nations, and UK ministers (rightly or wrongly) are struggling to coax them out.

But to judge from the Prime Minister’s press conference, many ministers think we’re mugs. Having demanded a national effort, having given a simple instruction, having thanked us all for the sacrifices we’ve made, yesterday Johnson said Cummings ‘followed his instincts’. But people who didn’t attend loved ones’ funerals, let their children roam freely or see lonely family members resisted their instincts. From Grindr to grandparents, we built an edifice to contain a pandemic by keeping our instincts at bay.

As Johnson says, Cummings did what lots of us would naturally do. Why does he think we have rules?

Public demands

There’s something inhuman about what government — in truth, the policy world — requires. To work in policy, you have to be the kind of person who knows most government choices can kill. You have to embrace choosing whose lives and whose futures to put first every day. Most people don’t want to do it for a reason.

Most people don’t have to acknowledge that up front and they don’t like it when they hear it. So politicians often have to pay lip service to human instincts when half their task is to constrain or countermand them. Yes, it’s hard. And they’re allowed to say it’s hard. But what they cannot do is cite it as a defence when they put their private interests before what they say the public good demands.

On the evidence of the past few days, ministers and advisers neither recognise a higher public good nor care to pretend otherwise. That does not just constitute a culpable failure in public office. It constitutes an intellectual failure to understand what public office is for.

Unless and until they realise that ‘Wouldn’t you have done the same?’ is not just inadequate, but irrelevant, we will have no reason to believe they grasp the point of their own jobs. And even if we ignore every other issue, for that reason alone, Dominic Cummings must go.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 25 May 2020.

Trashing the BBC comes at a price

Progressives should defend public service broadcasting. Flirting with the anti-BBC lobby has helped imperil it

Hatgate: one of the more ludicrous pieces of anti-BBC hysteria.

For a certain sort of Brit, the NHS and the BBC have long been at or near the top of their list of things to be proud of about their country. They’re both big public institutions which everyone in the UK knows. Their existence speaks to some of the core values of the left. They show that not everything should be left to the market, shared institutions matter and public provision can be popular.

The BBC produces a huge amount of high-quality content of all kinds — news, drama and TV. It makes lots of stuff I’d never want to hear or watch, and quite right too: it’s not supposed to just appeal to me or people like me. But because it’s not driven by market imperatives, it produces things I doubt I’d ever get to see or hear without it. It provides common coverage across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — a pan-UK public arena. It supports local journalists around the country. It’s an enormous soft power asset for the country and a news source people in dictatorships have listened to in secret. I’d be horrified to see it go.

Governments always have an uneasy relationship with the BBC. That’s natural enough: journalists are meant to be a thorn in governments’ side. One of the licence fee’s plus points is that it’s not general taxation, so the tension’s reduced a bit: it’s not a direct case of biting the hand that feeds you. But rows about what the BBC does, how it does it, whether it reports fairly and so on are nothing new.

What is new is a government as determinedly hostile to the BBC as Boris Johnson’s. Their hostility extends to public service broadcasting more generally and fits a wider pattern. Today’s Conservatives seem hostile to scrutiny and independent institutions in a way which goes beyond the norm. Threatening Channel 4’s licence in retaliation for empty-chairing the Prime Minister and the ongoing boycott of the Today programme both set an unnerving tone. Proposing to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee has far more to do with an anti-BBC agenda than its (dubious, in my view) policy merits.

Faced with the possibility — hinted at before the election, floated by the former Culture Secretary and trailed in this week’s Sunday Times — of actually moving towards a subscription model and slashing the BBC to the bone, the Opposition should be rallying to its defence. Frankly, if Labour can’t even defend the world’s best broadcaster and one of our great public institutions, I’m not sure what the point of it is.

Sadly, most of its would-be deputy leaders haven’t got the memo. Ian Murray was an honourable exception. But Angela Rayner said she was ‘no big fan of the BBC’. Richard Burgon referred to the BBC ‘misreporting’ the news. And reaching the real nadir, Dawn Butler said ‘in a way, I thought “OK, that will teach you”’. They all went on to support the principle of a public broadcaster. But it’s more than a little reminiscent of Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘seven, seven and a half out of ten’ response on how strongly he felt about not leaving the EU.

You don’t have to claim the thing you’re backing is perfect. But in politics, you can’t sound lukewarm about which side you’re on when the chips are down. Rebecca Long-Bailey’s comments on a ‘People’s BBC’ this weekend were equally unhelpful. For a start, electing BBC ‘top brass’ is an atrocious idea. It’s a recipe for a hideous battle of obsessives and special interest groups in an inevitably low-turnout election. It’s also a road to politicising the BBC — the exact opposite of what it needs and the public wants.

It used to be mainly the right which trashed the BBC — their self-interest is clear, given a print media far more congenial to its views. Many Scottish nationalists joined in with vim after 2011 — and as the BBC’s very existence embodies the British public space they want to abolish, that’s not too surprising either. But Long-Bailey’s wheeze (not without precedent: a number of Corbynite politicians mutter about ‘democratising the BBC’) and would-be deputy leaders’ curmudgeonliness fit a pattern.

Triggered by the hard left but abetted by much of the soft left, Labour and many of its members have sounded increasingly hostile to free media per se. It’s gone far beyond reasonable discussion of concentrated ownership — booing journalists, the harrying of Laura Kuenssberg, bringing up media reform as a reaction to unfavourable coverage. And with a characteristic blend of zest for public control and suspicion of the actually-existing public realm, the BBC has become a bête noire. The self-parodying row over whether the BBC doctored the appearance of Jeremy Corbyn’s hat to make it look ‘more communist’ was a case in point.

Faced with a pincer movement like this, you’d think the centre and centre-left would be loud in defence of a core public institution. They should fear what wrecking one of the last bulwarks against a retreat to rival echo chambers might mean. And in fairness, the Liberal Democrats have been clear where they stand in recent weeks. But far too many self-defining centrists have not, usually as a result of Brexit. Dawn Butler’s ‘that’ll teach you’ has its counterparts. Andrew Adonis advocating a subscription model and even calling for the BBC to be in court for giving Brexiteers a platform) is a case in point. AC Grayling offers a daily exemplar.

Together with a stonking Tory majority, the result is a better climate for an assault on public service broadcasting than ever before. Britain is not Twitter, of course: plenty of Conservative voters value the BBC. Unease is spreading on the Tory benches. It’s not a foregone conclusion at all. But Opposition parties — and campaigners — need to stop making the Government’s job easier.

Yes, the BBC can merit criticism. I think it’s too inclined to juxtapose factual claims rather than evaluate their truth. I think it struggles to deal with a level of political dishonesty and bad faith we mostly haven’t had to deal with until fairly recently. I sometimes roll my eyes at solecisms in policy areas I know about. At the last election, I think it was too quick to frame an initially much more multiparty contest as a battle between the big two. Its reaction to Samira Ahmed’s totally justified complaint was dire. Some of its journalists should probably just tweet less.

But there’s a difference between constructive criticism and wholesale trashing. Criticise the BBC’s calls on election coverage: don’t say it ‘decided not to be impartial’. Argue for it to be bolder in challenging factual untruths: don’t call it the Brexit Biased Corporation. And recognise that a public service broadcaster’s job involves giving space to views you don’t like, not just playing your worldview back to you.

Because if the BBC becomes a British PBS for lack of champions, Britain will be far poorer for it. The scrutiny of government will weaken. And if you’re on the left or in the liberal centre, you really won’t like the media world you’ll get once the BBC’s brought low.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 17 February 2020.

Give the voters credit

Don’t disdain the voters if they focus on character and credibility more than any single policy. They’ve got a point

They say the first step to recovery is recognising you have a problem. Perhaps it’s unsurprising, just before Christmas, that much of Labour hasn’t got there yet. More strikingly, much of Labour has decided that it’s other people who have a problem instead. For some it’s the media; for others it’s Brexit; for still others, increasingly, it’s the voters themselves.

But actually, even if we ignore the truism that the voters are never wrong, they deserve more credit than many are willing to give them. And looking at the early indicators of why they demurred, the reasons seem thoroughly fair. Labour would do well to start by recognising as much.

Fitness to govern

Challenged on Corbyn’s political record, many Labour supporters asked: ‘which Labour policies do you disagree with?’ That’s reasonable as far as it goes. The left places a great deal of weight on what manifestos say. It often dismisses those who focus on the character of those who seek to govern. They can sometimes ignore their own hero-worship in the process (this includes moderates, by the way). But more importantly, they miss the point of elections if they treat leaders as mere channels for manifesto delivery.

In every term, governments have to make decisions they never even considered before the election. They wield a great deal of power independently of Parliament. They usually set the agenda to steer through Parliament. And Prime Ministers have to take ultimate responsibility for all of that — and personal responsibility for decisions in a supreme national crisis. That makes a Prime Minister’s character, background and personal beliefs supremely relevant.

So it was entirely reasonable for voters to ask whether Corbyn was more or less fit to govern than Johnson. It is widely agreed that Corbyn’s personal stock was badly hit by the Skripal affair before the election, and that’s completely fair enough. People were murdered on British soil. Voters had good reason to question whether a man who suggested getting Russia to verify the Novichok it deployed could be trusted on national security.

Credibility

Many Labour people say their manifesto policies were popular. Ultimately, well-received Labour manifestos don’t end up producing large Tory majorities. But it’s true to say voters seemed to like a lot of Labour’s policies, in isolation and in theory. In combination and in practice, it’s a different story. And again, whether you agree with their judgment or not, the voters’ point is a fair one.

Basic common sense — or experience of trying to run any project — will tell you people have limited capacity. The same applies to a state — especially given that the British state’s capabilities have declined a great deal since 2010. So it’s not just understandable if lots of voters say they support a raft of Labour policies and then worry about their ability to deliver. It made good sense for voters to worry.

Similarly, whatever you think about the costings of Labour’s manifesto — regarded pretty dubiously by many — the way it behaved in the campaign made voter doubts very reasonable. Labour threw a £58 billion pledge (for the WASPI women) into the middle of an election campaign after its manifesto was launched. There seemed to be (because there was) no sense of prioritisation from Labour. According to YouGov, voters tended to say Labour had a lot of policies which didn’t seem to be thought through. And voters had good reason to be sceptical.

Leadership

I would have preferred a Brexit compromise to the fight to the finish we ended up with. I found Johnson’s ultra-hard Brexit too much to live with and disliked the Liberal Democrats’ pledge to simply revoke Article 50 (even if I knew it was just a symbol). So in 2019, while I doubted what kind of Brexit they proposed and the timescales in which they proposed to work, Labour’s policy was my least-worst option.

Except for the part where Corbyn refused to say which side he was on. I found it irritating, but it looks like the voters cared about Corbyn’s unwillingness to pick a side more than I did. It looks like it reinforced their pre-existing view of his inadequacy as a leader — more than taking either side would have done. And again, voters were right about the choice facing them. Labour didn’t want to take a clear Remain- or Leave-aligned position. Its leader didn’t want to tell them what he thought. That reluctance was where its policy position ultimately came from.

Leave voters were right to think that if they wanted to ensure Brexit happened, then the Tories were the party to do that. Remain voters were right to think the Labour leadership’s heart wasn’t in its Remainier pledges — but that probably mattered less in practice. Not unreasonably, Labour Remainers were much more likely to stay loyal than Labour Leavers.

Ethics

Antisemitism’s impact on Labour’s fortunes seems harder to pin down than broader fitness to govern, lack of credibility and obfuscation on Brexit. But anecdotally, more than one Labour candidate reported that it did real damage. Anna Turley reported: ‘what they said was, “My parents or my grandparents — they fought the war over this.”’

This was reasonable and right. Under Corbyn, two female Jewish MPs were driven out of Labour, antisemitic incidents soared and Labour found itself investigated by the EHRC for institutional racism. Corbyn himself was (rightly) challenged for antisemitic tropes he’d used in the past. Corbyn’s antisemitism became a point of near-consensus in the Jewish community.

Did the voters as a whole go so far? Possibly not. But doorstep unease suggests a lot of ‘less-informed’ voters deserve a lot more credit than some very well-informed people who found excuse after excuse to avoid the obvious. Frankly, the latter could do with learning from the former. Voters who recoiled at the Corbynite record on antisemitism were absolutely right.

The voters had a point

Blaming the voters, who cannot after all be deselected, never gets you far in a democracy. But even leaving that pragmatic reality aside, Labour will do itself no favours by ignoring their overall message. You might be appalled by the alternative (and I’d agree with you), but Labour’s thumping was richly deserved, and the voters’ main apparent objections to their offering were right.

The voters neither trust nor much like Boris Johnson. Labour shouldn’t rail against them for looking at their man and deciding he was even worse. It should, instead, take a long, hard look at how they came to put the public in a position where they came to that conclusion.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 24 December 2019.

Ends and means

Social democrats have every right to reject Corbynite guilt-tripping

Even by its prodigious standards, the hard left is being aggressive to ‘centrists’ this week. For the Twitter-uninitiated, these days ‘centrist’ includes everyone from actual centrists through to socialists on the radical left who oppose the Corbynites on democratic grounds. In particular, the hard left are accusing ‘centrists’ of enabling Boris Johnson and telling us all we have to rally behind Jeremy Corbyn to stop him.

After years of being told to fuck off and join the Tories, I suppose we could see it as refreshing that the Corbynistas want our votes again. But consider what they’re telling decent social democrats to support. They demand anti-racists vote for a leader with a lifetime’s history of anti-Semitic tropes and views, who with his allies reduced Labour to being investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission over institutional anti-Semitism. They expect reasonable people to support a leader whose every instinct — even when British people are killed on our own soil at the behest of a foreign power — is to excuse our enemies and decry our allies. They want democrats to set aside the records of extremism and the deep-rooted nastiness of the hard left.

And of course, they want pro-Europeans to support an incoherent mess on Brexit. I wanted Labour to seek a soft Brexit compromise and then, as the options narrowed, I wanted MPs to vote for the deal on the table. Most Remainers rejected meeting the other side halfway long ago. But Labour hasn’t even argued for a coherent compromise. And even now, when it’s calling for a referendum it mumbles. Labour won’t sing Remain or Leave’s tunes or stand up for meeting people halfway. It is of no use to anyone.

In return for moral collapse and strategic ineptitude, we are expected to be grateful for a domestic policy pitch rooted in nostalgia and a benefits policy to the right of the Liberal Democrats. So, out of arguments to persuade moderate social democrats their project isn’t toxic, of course the Corbynites seized on Johnson’s premiership. The hard left delight in being able to tell social democrats the hard right have captured the Tories and so they’ll just have to get in line. Sadly for them, other people have principles too. I regard Corbyn as a dangerous threat as well as Johnson. I want both of them gone, and failing that I want both of them kept in check in Parliament.

But there’s a cold strategic as well as principled logic to withdrawing support from Labour now. In my view, it is now clear the median Labour member won’t reject Corbynite politics because they’re wrong. I recognise the current median Labour member is probably still on the pro-Corbyn bit of the soft left, not the true hard left. I’m sure they wish anti-Semitism weren’t an issue in Labour ranks. I imagine they probably think the hard left sometimes has a point about foreign policy, but I don’t think they actively want to throw the Baltic states to Putin. I don’t think they like the viciousness that comes with Corbynism.

They just don’t see it all as a red line. Not really. Certainly not if it doesn’t lose Labour enough votes or overlap with something they really care about personally. (Which is why Brexit causes Corbyn so much more trouble internally than anti-Jewish racism.) I don’t think they ever will. Worse, I think plenty will minimise or excuse it to suit themselves. And I don’t think they’ll really and truly believe it costs enough votes for them to draw the line unless a general election proves the point.

As a citizen, I therefore have one weapon left: my vote. If Labour wants it, it will have to actually take anti-Semitism on, not deflect headlines and protect the Corbynistas’ friends. It will have to assure me that, in office, a Labour Prime Minister will take our NATO obligations seriously and in good faith. And it will have to convince me that the people it puts into Number 10 are committed parliamentary democrats.

Self-evidently, none of that will happen so long as Corbyn, McDonnell, Milne and Murray run the show. Nonetheless, Labour, that’s my price. I will not be guilt-tripped into lowering it. You can pay it or not as you see fit.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 28 July 2019.

Uncompromising compromisers

The self-inflicted fate of Labour’s referendum sceptics

Since the EU referendum, I’ve thought our least bad option was to implement it in moderate fashion — to meet each other halfway rather than poison our politics or burn down our economy. I still think that. It may be the third choice out of three on first preferences. But I prefer universal grumpiness to pleasing one half of the country, enraging the other and filling both with mutual loathing.

So I’ve had a lot of sympathy with Labour’s reasonable second referendum sceptics. I think Lisa Nandy is right to fear the damage it could do to our politics. I completely understand why Ruth Smeeth and Gareth Snell worry about killing off the alliance between Hampstead and Hull. I see the People’s Voters’ confidence of winning a referendum and think hubris begets nemesis. I don’t want the UK to become an embittered cuckoo in the EU nest.

But at some point a diagnosis requires a prescription. And Labour’s sceptics have almost all refused to grasp, still less follow, the logic of their views. That logic was fairly clear. Save for Kate Hoey (with whom I have no sympathy), their problems with May’s Brexit related to the future relationship, not the Withdrawal Agreement. It was and is abundantly clear that the Withdrawal Agreement is the only one on offer and the Political Declaration is not binding. Quite rightly, almost no Labour MPs are prepared to countenance No Deal. They therefore needed the Withdrawal Agreement, and as much input for MPs into the future relationship as they could get.

Further, many of the Labour sceptics didn’t want a Brexit all that different from May’s. They usually wanted to end free movement. They wanted a customs union, and they usually wanted more regulatory alignment than the Tory Brexiteers. The Northern Ireland backstop entails a customs union for the foreseeable future anyway, so the real differences were relatively minor. Dynamic alignment on employment law rather than a level playing field is not a stake for which anyone should gamble the country.

In fairness, five current and two ex-Labour MPs did, at some point, vote for what they said they wanted. Kevin Barron, John Mann and (no longer Labour) Ian Austin did from the beginning, along with Frank Field (who’d left already). Caroline Flint did from the second meaningful vote. And Rosie Cooper and Jim Fitzpatrick voted for the Withdrawal Agreement on 29 March. No other Labour MP in favour of an orderly Brexit has cast a single vote to concretely advance their cause.

They may have voted for one or more non-binding options in the ‘indicative votes’. But any option they cared to name required the Withdrawal Agreement first — the Agreement they refuse to help ratify. And it rapidly became clear that even when the Government offered the main procedural requirements they could reasonably have hoped for on MPs’ input into the future relationship, it wouldn’t be enough for them.

By then it was far too late not to hold the European elections. And in holding them, we gave new shape to the radicalisation of British politics on Remain/Leave lines. The Labour sceptics gave their internal opponents the electoral argument they’d always lacked before: that if Leavers would punish a reversal, Remainers would punish a compromise. The result? More Labour MPs now fear losing votes to the Liberal Democrats than to the Brexit Party.

Sealing the fate of the Withdrawal Agreement also, finally, sealed the fate of Theresa May. Obviously Tory MPs had far more to do with her political demise than Labour MPs, who could hardly be expected to sustain her. But the likelihood must be that our next Prime Minister will be more, not less, hardline than she is. And if the Withdrawal Agreement is dead in Westminster, Brussels has no intention of allowing another to be born.

Partly as a result, the middle ground is dying. MPs who want a deal and a compromise — rather than a culture war grudge-match via a second referendum or an accelerationist, destructive No Deal — have no viable leaders and no concrete offer. Unless a genuine pragmatist wins the Tory leadership election, the Withdrawal Agreement seems dead. We are staring down the barrel of a No Deal or No Brexit choice.

I’d have voted for the Withdrawal Agreement. And until lately I’d have voted against a second referendum. But I can’t call myself a realist and argue for all MPs to resist a referendum when MPs who say they want a deal have shown they’ll never vote for a real, not imagined, Brexit. Our legal default remains No Deal. And so we can either seek to reverse Brexit or be dithered off a No Deal cliff.

I prefer a second referendum to revocation with no democratic mandate and to No Deal. I really don’t want one. I don’t want to turn our politics into something like America’s without the checks and balances. If the chance for compromise re-emerges, I’ll be relieved. But for now, I see no such hope.

The diehards on all sides must take their share of blame. But a special responsibility rests with those who said they wanted a compromise and never followed through. They have no right to blame moderate Remainers who seek other ways to stop disaster.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 4 June 2019.

Blame games

Prime Ministers rarely acquire nicknames like ‘the Maybot’ without reason. We’ve mocked Theresa May’s inability to engage on a human level. We’ve despaired at her refusal to engage meaningfully across party lines. We’ve derided the Political Declaration she’s come back with as an incoherent mess. And we’ve condemned her hectoring, lecturing tone.

The Prime Minister’s faults are legion. In fairness, she inherited a deeply divisive task with sky-high stakes and a divided, complicated, multinational state. But for most of her premiership, she spoke only to the hardliners in her own party. She’s presided over perhaps the worst failure of expectation management in postwar British political history. She set red lines she couldn’t defend, retreated without admitting it, harangued people without persuading them and confused truculence with principle.

Wednesday’s statement was in many ways a classic of its genre. The woman who coined ‘will of the people’ and ‘citizens of nowhere’ showed as little ability to reach out as ever. Her pitting the people against Parliament has been greatly exaggerated, but it’s not a framing any Prime Minister should deploy. More than that, she launched a broadside against the people she needed to persuade. It was worse than outrageous: it was stupid. It is no wonder she came as near as she was able (being Theresa May) to apologising the next day.

And yet, I can’t help feeling the outrage misses a fundamental point. Like it or not, Theresa May is right that Members of Parliament have a clear, crucial choice to make. She is also right that they are declining to make it. Their indecision carries a heavy cost. Uncomfortable though it may be to say so, our government’s (extensive) faults are getting too much of the blame and our legislators are getting too little.

It’s not good enough to bemoan an unenviable choice forced upon the legislature: the legislature voted to have it forced upon itself. MPs voted by 498 to 114 to authorise the Prime Minister to trigger Article 50. It was no secret that would start a two-year countdown. They still gave her that power without conditions and without constraint. Of course many of today’s angry MPs voted differently, but literally hundreds of representatives who voted to give the executive carte blanche are now throwing up their hands in horror because the executive took carte blanche.

Since then, MPs have periodically taken the opportunity to block things. They’ve often taken the chance to express their dislike of certain outcomes — pretty much every outcome at some point or another, in fact. But they have so far proven totally incapable of supporting anything themselves. They’ve also failed to take the reins themselves: presented with two opportunities to seize control of the legislative agenda from government, they buckled. Yes, the votes were whipped. If it’s as important as that and the executive is as outrageous as that, then break the Whip.

Why haven’t they? To a large extent, because they don’t really want to be responsible either. The truth is that denialist fantasy is just as prevalent in Westminster as in Whitehall — if not more so. By default, we have 19 days until we leave the European Union with no legal relationship in place. The package deal on the table includes a legally-binding Withdrawal Agreement, a non-binding Political Declaration, an interpretive Instrument relating to the Northern Ireland backstop and a Unilateral Declaration on the UK’s view on when and how it can leave it. The road to any negotiated Brexit — any negotiated Brexit at all — begins with a Withdrawal Agreement. Short of carving it into the French coastline so we can see it from Dover, I’m not sure how the EU could make it clearer they will not renegotiate that Agreement.

That means that MPs who say they want a deal but won’t vote for this one are either rejecting any deal without having the courage to say so or gambling with the cliff to change, essentially, a very solemn press release. The EU have been perfectly clear, furthermore, that the very solemn press release can be built upon and evolve if the UK’s red lines change. They’ve also made it clear that delaying Brexit eats into the transition period, so we’re not gaining any time at the other end of this process by dithering now.

To add insult to injury, the ideas being thrown around by MPs are often either a joke or too difficult to square in a matter of weeks. The ERG’s absurdist fantasies and daydreams of No Deal liberation have been eviscerated elsewhere, and as I never expected any better from the ERG I’ll take them as read here. But the official Labour position dances around every possible issue. It promises a customs union with a meaningful say in EU trade deals, which we know can’t happen much beyond some souped-up consultation. It makes a customs union in the Political Declaration a red line when the backstop in the actual Withdrawal Agreement mandates one in all but name. It calls for a strong relationship with the single market and fails to tell us what that means.

‘Norway Plus’ or ‘Common Market 2.0’ is more carefully considered than many alternative plans. But what is their plan for making sure EFTA members will back UK membership of EFTA together with a derogation from EFTA’s fundamental purpose as a free trade association? Why is a bespoke arrangement laden with special exceptions being promoted as something we could join by the summer? What happens if customs duties are never sorted out via technology? They say the backstop is unlikely to be used, so what’s the plan for free trade in agriculture and fisheries, VAT for goods and excise? They argue for an ultra-soft Brexit by saying we’d be far more robust in using our EEA rights than Norway. That’s inevitable given our size and political culture. I agree the EFTA EEA members seem willing to accept us in the EEA as a constructive member. Are they going to accept us as a pre-pledged cuckoo in the nest?

Meanwhile, far too many People’s Voters are trying to shoot everything else down to try to force their option through and gambling with the cliff just as much as May. Even if they’d win a referendum, which I doubt, they’ve given no thought that I can see to what happens after an inevitably narrow victory. Do they have anything to say about the impact on the EU itself? What about the operation of our politics? Why are some MPs who say No Deal would be a catastrophe hinting at putting it on the ballot? Many of the MPs involved originally said they believed the referendum result should be upheld and told their constituents so in 2017 — so what changed their minds? Why do they blur the lines between the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration when it suits them and shout about a ‘blind Brexit’ when it doesn’t?

At the time of writing, we’re in too advanced a state of governmental and parliamentary chaos to be sure about anything very much. It looks like we will at last get a series of indicative votes, in the hope of finding something Parliament is prepared to support. It looks like we will at last get a series of indicative votes, in the hope of finding something Parliament is prepared to support. But if we’re going to do that, we need an honest debate, and MPs show little sign of having one. It’s not good enough for the ERG to prattle on about a free trade agreement for the UK, not Great Britain, as if the EU’s demand for the backstop can somehow be waved away. It helps nothing but Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral prospects (and possibly not even those) for Labour to carry on pretending that its Brexit plan is radically different from the Tories’. It’s no good for people to argue for soft Brexits on the basis that we can be suitably disruptive if we feel we need to be and expect the EU not to react. It serves no one to sell a refusal to take ‘Leave’ for an answer as a democratic boon.

For me, the reaction of some MPs to Theresa May’s statement by saying they were now less likely to vote for the deal was the final straw. Fine: the Prime Minister is as sensitive as a tank and as consultative as Sir Humphrey Appleby. Perhaps we could focus more on the fact that our country is still on course to crash out of the European Union with no deal in 19 days. The idea that deciding to let that happen in a glorified fit of pique bolsters liberal democracy is an insult to our intelligence. And as a citizen, I have had enough.

MPs should spend more time proving Theresa May wrong and less time moaning about her domestic diplomacy. They can do that by engaging, seriously and urgently, with the choices before them. They can recognise that any deal requires this Withdrawal Agreement, and cooperate with the Government in getting a Withdrawal Agreement Bill passed. That buys more time while we debate any changes to the Political Declaration, if we really have to threaten the country with No Deal just to change a glorified press release. (If we must go through a second referendum, its coming into force can be dependent on the result.) MPs could even surprise me by actually following through on the result of an indicative vote in binding votes.

If they can do some of that, they just might give the rest of us some reason to take their collective amour propre more seriously. There was a time when I believed in politics and defended politicians’ profession. I am almost out of faith. Please, Parliament, give me some reason not to become just as cynical as everyone else.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 24 March 2019.

Red lines

I should probably start this piece by apologising for writing it. There have been too many leaving Labour blogs already. But I’ve told many people to vote Labour over the past few years. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy fighting for decent Labour since 2015. I have many friends I’m leaving behind politically (though I hope not personally). I feel I owe them an explanation.

I understand the people who stay to try to fight. Anyone who thinks this is an easy choice hasn’t thought about it enough. You will get no attacks on people trying their best to hold back the hard left tide from me. But this is why I felt I had to draw a line.

Anti-Semitism

In Corbyn’s Labour, each new anti-Semitic incident follows a pattern. Despicable views and behaviours emerge. The alarm is raised. Corbyn supporters blame it on attempts to undermine the leadership. The leadership delays. Corbyn claims to oppose anti-Semitism — in delphic terms which avoid telling anyone to do anything about it. Incidents are dealt with reluctantly, kicked into the long grass or ignored altogether.

The left had a problem with anti-Semitism before Corbyn rose to prominence. The problem went beyond the hard left, too. But it was always strongest there, because the hard left has specific susceptibilities to anti-Semitism. Suspicion of capital lends itself to tropes about Jewish capital. Conspiracy easily shades into international conspiracy. If your politics are formed in an ‘anti-imperialist’ crucible with Israel as the ultimate enemy, people who hide their racism under an ‘anti-Zionist’ carapace will be willing and eager to stand beside you.

Corbyn comes from that world, and both he and his inner circle are deeply and personally culpable. This is a man who spent years in a Facebook group filled with vicious anti-Semitic rhetoric. This was a group he’d commented in, for which he’d organised events, whose organiser he knew personally: a group spewing hate he can’t possibly have failed to see. This month, we found out he suggested ‘the hand of Israel’ was behind terrorist attacks in Egypt in 2012. There was no evidence — just a shadow conspiracy speculation (‘theory’ is too grand a word) involving the world’s only Jewish state. And this week, we discovered this gem about ‘Zionists’: ‘having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, [they] don’t understand English irony’. I am a British Zionist. Corbyn was not talking about me.

Corbyn’s record proves he will at the very least live with anti-Semitism to promote ‘anti-imperialism’. Worse, he has repeatedly used anti-Semitic tropes himself. He will do nothing serious about anti-Semitism on the left: to do so would be to damn himself. It is no surprise that Chris Williamson’s sharing platforms with Assad apologists and belittling the anti-Semitism crisis merited a vague pledge of investigation, while Margaret Hodge and Ian Austin were threatened with disciplinary action for calling anti-Semitism out. It is frankly untenable even to think Margaret Hodge was incorrect.

A Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn will never tackle anti-Semitism, because to Jeremy Corbyn Jews are dispensable. I will not tell voters he’s a consistent anti-racist. I can’t even say I don’t believe he’s an anti-Semite. And a man who, so far as I can tell, most British Jews regard with disgust, anger and sometimes fear would be utterly unacceptable as prime minister.

Anti-Westernism

Commitment to your country’s security should be a political prerequisite for running it. Corbyn has worn his hostility to the West on his sleeve throughout his career. He opposed defending the Falklands in 1982. Falklanders didn’t want to submit to a military junta, but the UK had to be in the wrong. He opposed enlarging NATO after 1989. Eastern Europeans wanted to join the Atlantic world after decades of Soviet oppression, but NATO had to be in the wrong. He described the Russian invasion of Crimea as ‘not unprovoked’. Ukrainians wanted to move towards the EU, and the EU had to be in the wrong.

The man who called for NATO to be shut down in 2014 campaigned on a 2017 manifesto which supported NATO membership. But it’s a bad faith pledge he undermines at every turn. He has never once committed to defending NATO members under attack. Instead, he dodges the question. He thought the run-up to Donald Trump (a fellow NATO-sceptic) becoming US President was the moment to suggest demilitarising our allies in the Baltic (never mind their views on the topic). Corbynites might say this displays an admirable preference for exhausting peaceful avenues first. I suggest Vladimir Putin would say it meant NATO’s second military power was no longer committed to collective security.

This year, we had yet more proof that Corbyn’s first instinct remains to blame the West and excuse our enemies. People were murdered with chemical weapons in Salisbury. All the evidence pointed to Russian responsibility — Moscow didn’t even offer a plausible lie in response. Corbyn allowed Seumas Milne to imply that rogue elements in MI5 might be trying to blame Russia and raised the possibility of mafia involvement (despite experts’ view that this sort of chemical attack required state-level involvement). He only acknowledged the likelihood of Russian responsibility through gritted teeth. Most recently, on tougher sanctions against Russia he said: ‘We cannot just have a building up of tensions on both sides of the border.’ It seems responding to the murder of our citizens makes us the ones ‘building up … tensions’.

I do not believe a man who has hated the West all his life has had a Damascene conversion. Jeremy Corbyn’s promises on NATO aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. I believe in international solidarity quite as much as he claims to. But my international solidarity includes Estonia. I believe in a Europe whole and free. I oppose people who think imperialism is best opposed by consigning free democracies to some Russian sphere of influence.

I will not tell voters they should trust the Labour leader with the UK’s or the West’s security when the chips are down. Everything we know about him, and his circle, shows they cannot.

Anti-parliamentarism

Corbyn’s hostility to the West has deep roots on the hard left. So does his acolytes’ intolerance of dissent and their contempt for parliamentarians’ link to their voters.

Corbyn has a populist appeal I never foresaw. Still, the Corbynites’ democratic centralist understanding of the world doesn’t lead to a ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ approach to politics. It produces a politics of bullying, intimidation and heresy-hunting. MPs and Haringey councillors can attest to that. (So can I. I’ve been in the meetings.) It subverts MPs’ accountability to their constituents in the name of subordinating them to their local General Committee. It takes power away from voters and moves it to self-selecting activists.

John McDonnell exemplifies the hard left’s contempt for parliamentarism. This is a man who joked about lynching a (female) political opponent. This is a man who saw ‘students kicking the shit out of Millbank’ as a positive, exciting thing; a man who saw fit to give speeches about how ‘sometimes you feel like physical force — you feel like giving them a good slapping’. More recently, this is a man who wanted mass demonstrations to force early elections mere days after the last one.

Meanwhile, Seumas Milne was a ‘tankie’, deeply involved with the Communist Party of Great Britain — with a long history of minimising Stalinist crimes, of mourning the demise of the USSR and East Germany, of defending or equivocating over every odious regime so long as it hated the Americans. When the Council of Europe condemned the crimes of communism, Milne said: ‘For all its brutalities and failures, communism in the Soviet Union, eastern Europe and elsewhere delivered rapid industrialisation, mass education, job security and huge advances in social and gender equality.’

I do not believe that these people have changed their views after a lifetime of extremism. And I cannot stand behind them. I believe political power derives its legitimacy from our elected Parliament. I believe politicians have no business trying to rouse the streets to eject democratic governments. I believe in liberal constitutionalism and the rule of law. And I do not trust Corbyn, McDonnell or Milne to guard them. Their worldview is profoundly anti-parliamentary and would be dangerous if it ever controlled the state.

I cannot and will not go on doorsteps and pretend that a government with Jeremy Corbyn in 10 Downing Street, John McDonnell next door and Seumas Milne whispering in his ear would leave our democratic culture uncorroded. The fabric of our democracy already feels thinner than it did: a Corbyn Government would pull more threads out.

Standing by, not standing up

The decent left should be casting Corbynism out. Instead, Corbynism is being normalised. Like latter-day DDT, the levels of poison in our political bloodstream are building up as we swim along.

In a banal but crucial sense, it’s true that ‘centrists’ lack answers and complaining about Corbyn isn’t doing the job. Moderate politics is clearly failing to persuade people it can tackle their problems. Disliking Jeremy Corbyn, Jacob Rees-Mogg or Brexit does not make a programme for government. (Corbyn doesn’t have one either, but leave that aside.)

But the trope also shows how decent people can make the unconscionable unremarkable. Suppose centre-left politics is bloodless, soulless and visionless — technocracy plus tax credits. Do people who dislike Corbyn but think we’re complaining too much about him honestly believe enabling anti-Semitism is better? Are we even going to put them on the same moral plane?

People say that ‘we don’t like Jeremy’ isn’t enough. OK, it’s not a manifesto. But anti-Semitism alone should be enough to rule ‘Jeremy’ out. Much of the non-Corbynite left is forgetting that in the name of boxing clever. I want to reassert it.

Power and principle

People should think long and hard about the consequences of a hard left government. The UK has far fewer checks and balances than the US under Trump. We have no written constitution, veto-wielding second chamber or federalist constraints upon central government.

Only Labour MPs could prevent disaster if Corbyn won a majority. And having watched most of them kowtow most of the time since 8 June 2017, I am not sure they will resist his worst impulses. Anyway, backbenchers can’t make Corbyn’s word his bond on collective security: it would be too late by the time they acted. And the intimidatory style of politics — mob dressed up as movement — which characterises Corbynism could be much more dangerous with the state behind it.

So of course I don’t want Jeremy Corbyn to be Prime Minister. Of course I don’t want Seumas Milne advising in Number 10 or John McDonnell at the Treasury. The idea sends shivers down my spine. It must not happen. I will not help to make it happen. And if it’s the price of getting rid of the Tories, it’s a price I cannot pay.

That leaves me no choice but to resign from the Labour Party. Someday, I hope there will once again be an anti-racist, internationalist, reliably constitutional social democratic party worth joining.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 24 August 2018.

Exciting vision or doctor’s mandate? The problem for the centre-left

I wasn’t at the Progress Conference on Saturday. I’d promised my friends (and myself) a broadly non-political weekend after the past couple of months. But it seems that at least parts of the Conference were in ‘tell hard truths to our own side’ mode. In particular, Stephen Bush’s speech has attracted much comment:

There’s clearly plenty of truth in this. It is indeed wearing to hear social democrats talking about being divisive as if that were the issue. Quite clearly it isn’t. The issue is that we dislike Corbynite politics and want something different. Some allowance needs to be made for moderates’ exhaustion from trying to hold the hard left off. But to return Labour to its mainstream tradition, you need to persuade and inspire people who currently like Corbyn. Alternatively, you need to get people in to outnumber them. And no, Labour moderates can’t easily shout about electability in our current state.

But I’d make two main points in return. First, the Corbynite left can cross lines social democrats can’t. I’m not calling for a naive form of ‘straight-talking, honest politics’. (Bush is quite right there. Note to self: stop doing it.) But it’s hard to counter an entire prospectus based on the pretence that middle-class corporatism equals redistribution, sums we know don’t add up and a foreign policy which sells parochialism as ‘peace’ once people have bought into it.

If people believe fantasies, they’ll always sound better than messy trade-offs. In that case, how do you pit realism against the big lie mode of politics and win? I’m sure a sufficiently charismatic and inspiring leader could do a great deal to address that. And no doubt much more can be done to frame the issues differently. It’s still a huge problem.

The second problem is the unappealing truth of where we find ourselves. The UK faces several crises which we need to address, with limited state bandwidth to devote to them. Fortunately for all of us, I have neither any prospect of becoming Prime Minister nor any desire to try. But were I in charge, I have a rough idea of what I’d prioritise.

I’d need to find a substantial amount of money just to keep core bits of the public realm from falling over. The NHS, social care, councils, welfare and the justice system desperately need cash. To be clear, the cash injection wouldn’t even be to make things (much) better: it’d mostly be to stop them from getting worse. As we’re talking tens of billions of pounds of current, not capital, spending (and we’d better have some room for manoeuvre to prop the economy up if Brexit goes disastrously wrong), this means broadly-based tax rises. By all means try to hit the very rich too. But there’s a reason social democratic paragons have higher VAT than we do, not just higher top rates of income tax.

I would, of course, try to minimise the damage from Brexit. This means delivering the softest version compatible with electoral acquiescence and political reality. Unfortunately, a Brexit with a severely constrained trade policy and free movement probably won’t stick. If that’s true, it gets worse. The least-worst Brexit is different in Great Britain and Northern Ireland — but the consequences of substantial differentiation between the two are unacceptable. And it may well be that neither of these least-worst options can be agreed. Whatever the result, the question is how much worse off we end up — not what we gain.

I’d also look to our east and west and conclude we as Europeans were dangerously exposed. We have a currently indifferent hegemon across the Atlantic and a dangerous revanchist at the other end of the North European Plain. Democratic Europe should be planning for a real security crisis in which Washington abandons it. It shows little sign of doing so. The UK is of course one of Europe’s best defence and security performers. That doesn’t make it anywhere near good enough, and the 2% of GDP floor has ceased to be high enough. Unfortunately, we are in no position to advise others on pan-European policy and expect to be listened to. But Europe needs to make a start. To get anywhere, the UK will need to commit serious additional resources of its own.

I am well aware both that climate change is rapidly reaching a tipping point, if it hasn’t already, and that the UK can do little on its own to turn things around. We’ve long since reached the point where we need to talk frankly about adaptation and mitigation. This includes our responsibilities to the wider world, most of which got much less than we did out of the emissions which created the crisis. By all means try to push the wider world towards keeping climate change in bounds. But don’t bet the mortgage on the wider world responding.

I’d look to bolster our institutions and our constitutional safeguards. When the extremes seem on the rise and more and more politicians seem happy to pull threads out of our liberal democratic fabric, this is now urgent. There are many possible ways to do this. We could have a stronger and more democratic second chamber, no longer vulnerable to prime ministerial packing or easy charges of illegitimacy. It could have a power of veto over amending certain key statutes. (Better yet, we might try to require a parliamentary super-majority of some sort to do so.) Ideally the Commons’ voting system would make it harder for one party to control it, if reform could pass a referendum. (It wouldn’t. I know better than to try to hold one now.) But frankly, even a reliable defence of the roles of the BBC and the judiciary would be a start.

And finally — the one potentially cheery thing on the list — I’d want to start doing something about the housing crisis. That might mean planning reform, dropping the ‘every sperm is sacred’ approach to every acre of the Green Belt (can we all please note the M25 is in the Green Belt and stop confusing it with AONBs, by the way?), major capital investment in housebuilding (a much better use for public money than renationalising water and creating public option energy companies), untying local authorities’ hands and a dash of statist ‘use it or lose it’ when it comes to land banking. We could even tie a land value tax (or a property tax of some kind) to providing ongoing revenue for housebuilding.

The problem is obvious. This is a daunting list, quite possibly more than any government can realistically manage in five years while keeping everything else ticking over. It’s also a pretty cheerless prospectus, with one significant but deeply divisive exception. (Let’s not kid ourselves that the voters are going to hear ‘property tax’ and think ‘a home for my kids’.) Essentially, it amounts to ‘stop things from falling over, implement a bad decision tolerably and try to protect ourselves in a dangerous world’. But right now, I honestly think a sensible government needs to play doctor more than visionary.

Clearly, Labour members and quite a few British voters want to be inspired. Unfortunately, damage limitation doesn’t have much of a heroic arc. I’m not sure the centre-left has often, if ever, managed to win a doctor’s mandate. And I’m not sure there’s an obvious way to square the circle. Can the centre-left make making the best of things sound hopeful?

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 8 May 2018.

Labour’s despairing dissenters

Anyone who’s tried to hold the political or moral line in Corbyn’s Labour knows the drill. Criticise Jeremy and you definitely get nowhere. Cite something Jeremy’s said to back your argument and you probably get nowhere. Draw a pragmatic line and the Corbynites call you unprincipled (except on Brexit, which is of course completely different). Draw a principled line and the Corbynites think you’re hiding a conspiracy under a moral carapace.

Much ink is spilled about how moderate Labour messed up its response to Corbynism. I’m sure that’s true in many ways. Yes: from moaning about McDonald’s to a premature leadership challenge, moderate Labour messed up on plenty of counts. Yes: moderate Labour should realised that Labour members wanted clear red water, at least in rhetoric. (It turns out they’re much less fussed about actual redistributive policy, but I digress.)

That’s all perfectly true. It’s also beside the point. Because people who think sorting all that would be enough for the median Labour member now are kidding themselves. It’s far, far worse than that.

If we’re honest with ourselves, today’s terrible poll just confirms what we already knew. Only 19% of Labour members could bring themselves to answer that their party faced a serious problem with anti-Semitism which needed urgent action without equivocation. 30% of members actually seem to believe that, even though the main representative body for British Jews has effectively declared Corbyn beyond the pale until things improve, Labour has serious no anti-Semitism problem and it’s all being hyped up to undermine him and/or stifle criticism of Israel.

Some cite the fact that 47% think it’s a genuine problem, but deliberately exaggerated to damage Labour or Corbyn (or, again, to stifle criticism of Israel), as comfort. Quite which bits of the problem anyone can seriously deem exaggerated is, frankly, hard to tell. But I suppose it’s less bad than outright denial. I suppose some people will be new to the issue and won’t have fully processed the scale of the crisis. I suppose some will have read ‘exaggerated’ as ‘leapt upon by others’ and not quite clocked what they’ve signed up to. (None of this excuses failing to see the age-old ‘shadowy conspiracies’ trope lurking in the middle option, but there we go.)

Even discounting generously, it’s a grim figure. And 61% think failing to even call for Christine Shawcroft to stand down from the NEC counts as handling the issue well. In short, a comfortable majority of Labour members seem OK with how this is being handled.

That is damning. It also places Labour dissenters in an impossible bind. When I stood in solidarity with British Jews on Monday, I hoped this horror might at least be a turning point, that more people who claimed to believe in equality might put it before loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn. For a few hours I even kidded myself it felt different this time. But if you’d asked me before last Sunday, I’d have said dissenters would make themselves more unpopular for speaking out. And now I’ve seen the poll, I’m not really surprised by the results.

Corbyn loyalists: if you think Labour dissenters are acting from calculation, put it from your mind. So far as I can see, talking about Labour’s moral crisis makes our internal position worse, not better. But so long as we stay, we have no choice. How can we keep our heads down and live with ourselves? We have to think about the long game. But we also have to look at ourselves in the mirror. (No, I don’t have a game plan. There was a time when I hoped someone cleverer, preferably with some actual influence, might have one.)

So, yes: when certain lines are crossed, some Labour dissenters stand up. This time they’ve exploded in rage because Corbyn’s personal enablement of anti-Semitism was exposed once too often. And it makes most members angry. And they dig in deeper. And the dissenters’ plight gets worse.

Short of leaving, what else can they do?

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 31 March 2018.