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The many dilemmas of Labour's leadership

As the Labour leadership election moves into its next phase with the five surviving candidates looking for support among constituency parties and affiliated groups, everyone with an interest in the long-term health of British politics should take an intelligent interest in the outcome. Doing so exposes some serious dilemmas.

I am viewing this through the prism of a Liberal Democrat who has always believed the party – and its predecessor – should plant itself firmly on the centre left of British politics, seeing many in the Labour Party as natural allies on issues of progressive reform but parting company with them over the role of the state. From that perspective, it is disappointing that Clive Lewis fell at the first hurdle. His advocacy of electoral reform was very welcome but it now seems unlikely that any of the other candidates will embrace that essential step towards modernising our democracy.

What of those who are left in the contest?

It does look, at this stage, to be shaping up as a contest between Kier Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey, although Lisa Nandy and Jess Phillips are both running vigorous campaigns. Emily Thornberry appears to be the rank outsider.

There are plenty of people, especially Liberal Democrats I speak to, who think that Long-Bailey would make Labour unelectable. I tend to agree with that analysis. This is taken to be a good thing. Of that, I am not so convinced.

First, we need a credible opposition that looks electable in order to keep the government on its toes. That applies whoever is in power.

Second, the idea that another far left Labour leader would clear the centre ground for the Liberal Democrats, especially with the Tories led from the right, seems to be a complete fallacy.

If this was true why did the Lib Dems do so badly in the recent General Election? The centre ground was wide open, yet they failed dismally. We know alot of the blame can be laid at the door of the ill-conceived Revoke Article 50 policy but fear of a Corbyn government also had a large part to play. The Liberals do not fare well when large numbers of people fear a left wing socialist government.

British voters recoil from the prospect of a left-wing socialist government

The scenario was similar to the 1980s. The Tories were led from the right by Margaret Thatcher and Labour had two successive leaders from the left – Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock. The Liberals were joined in the centre by the high profile Social Democratic Party. The result was three elections of relative failure and frustration for the Liberal/SDP Alliance and later the Liberal Democrats.

It took the resurgence of Labour under John Smith and Tony Blair to create a political climate in which the Liberal Democrats could flourish nationally. Without a Labour leader that could be easily demonised as a left wing monster, moderate voters felt safe in voting for a centre party rather than swallowing hard and taking cover by voting Conservative. Our polarising electoral system constantly forces people into such unpalatable choices.

Jo Swinson naively played to this dynamic during the campaign by appearing to be more hostile to Jeremy Corbyn than Boris Johnson, although she would have been dammed if she did and dammed if she didn’t, such is the difficulty of fighting from the centre when Labour is led from the left.

It will be better for the health of British politics and the future of the Liberal centre ground (which I make no apologies for caring about) if Labour opts for the dull common sense offered by Starmer over the left-wing purity of Long-Bailey. As the 1990s and early 2000s proved, a Liberal Democrat resurgence does Labour no harm as it takes votes from the Tories.

Revoke Article 50: the folly of policymaking by petition

There is still a vigorous debate raging in Liberal Democrat circles about the Revoke Article 50 policy that Jo Swinson and her team unwisely thrust to the forefront of their campaign and which cost them dear in terms of lost votes and seats.

One of the frequent justifications advanced by those still vainly defending this policy is that it had wide support among the general public. The only evidence they can produce for this claim is a single petition on the UK Government and Parliament website that attracted 6,103,057 “signatures”. This prompted me to reflect on the value of online petitions which are now commonplace, with many of us constantly urged to sign them.

This petition attracted considerably more than the 3,696,419 votes the Liberal Democrats received in last month’s General Election and shows the folly of being seduced by the large numbers some of these petitions quickly attract. Online petitions are created in haste and all too easily signed in haste with little real thought given to the subject, its implications and consequences, let alone any potential complexities. This one is a case study that proves all of those points.

It is badly worded. Leaving aside the poor grammar, it makes endless assumptions about the state of the Brexit debate in the middle of last year, the shift – or otherwise – in public support for Brexit, the likelihood of a second referendum and completely fails to address the question of “what next?” if Article 50 was revoked.

Clearly, many people clicked to sign this petition without giving it a moment’s thought. It appears the Liberal Democrat leadership did the same. I doubt very much whether there were ever six million people who really believed in Revoking Article 50. Interestingly, some earlier “Revoke Article 50” petitions on websites such as Change.org attracted only a few hundred or a few thousands signatures. This should have prompted Swinson’s team to pause before adopting this as their showpiece policy for the General Election.

Obviously, some hard core Liberal Democrat supporters believed it. Perhaps some Labour supporters believed in it too but there it ends. It was naive to believe otherwise.

Lib Dems seem powerless to stop the Labour squeeze

This has been the most dismal General Election campaign in my lifetime. The issues we face as a country have never been greater outside of wartime but no party has been capable of creating an engaging vision that addresses societal and economic divisions, the spectre of isolationism and the threat of climate change.

The two major parties have lurched to their extremes. Both are led by people it would have been unthinkable to have had at their helm a decade ago. Both have expelled or forced out moderating influences and both have produced manifestos that are frightening in their extremity. In doing so, they have left a gapping hole in the centre of British politics. It should have been an open goal for the Liberal Democrats but they have contrived to miss it completely.

Now, as we enter the last week of the campaign, the Liberal Democrats are being subjected to a relentless squeeze by Labour and seem powerless to stop it.

There are several reasons for this.

First, the Liberal Democrats themselves took an extreme position on Brexit: Revoke Article 50.

This was a worthwhile attempt to break out of the sterility of the Brexit debate but it was not thought through. It was based on the premise that it could happen only if the Liberal Democrats achieved a majority of MPs. Indeed, to demonstrate true democratic legitimacy for this policy the Liberal Democrats would have had to have commanded well over 50% of the popular vote: clearly, a fantasy.

That was not the biggest flaw, however. What really let them down was not having a narrative to support that policy in terms of what would come next. To my mind the only sensible development of that policy would have been to argue that revoking Article 50 would give us time to re-set the Brexit debate, free of the pressure of endless deadlines. This could have been used to sort out some of the important unresolved issues such as what happens to health insurance, motor insurance, expatriate pension rights and so on. Having done this, and this is the important point Jo Swinson’s team ignored, the decision could then be put back to the country in a referendum with either May’s or Johnson’s deal plus clarifications against a Remain option. If this referendum voted to Leave then, with a deal already agreed, this could happen quickly. The failure to promise a referendum has turned away people who would have otherwise supported the Liberal Democrats.

The Liberal Democrats should have had Labour on the back-foot over Brexit. Many Labour MPs support Brexit. They consistently voted against holding another referendum in the last Parliament. Corbyn talks about negotiating a “sensible” Brexit deal, one that many Labour MPs will be able to support in a referendum. Labour cannot be trusted to stop Brexit but the Liberal Democrats have failed to seize opportunities to hammer that message home.

Labour is eating into the Liberal Democrat vote

The obsession with having a distinctive Brexit policy seems to have left the Liberal Democrats exposed on broader policies. There are many worthy policies in their manifesto but they are not drawn together by any sort of coherant narrative. This has allowed other parties, especially Labour, to construct their own narrative for the Liberal Democrats. With the centre ground wide open the Liberal Democrats have failed to position themselves on the political spectrum with any clarity. This has allowed Labour to position them as centre-right and start the relentless squeeze of their vote.

This Labour campaign is intensifying. Look at the social media posts of Labour supporters. They are full of terms such as “LibCons” and “Yellow Tories” and claims that Swinson will support Johnson in a hung Parliament. the disastrous legacy of the Coalition looms large here. The Liberal Democrats have done little to combat this and are now losing the votes of progressives who would normally be repelled by Labour’s statist agenda.

They appear powerless to stop Labour squeezing their vote. It could be grim week for them.

World Communications Day: what it means to be a journalist

This Sunday is known as World Communications Sunday in the Roman Catholic Church. It is an opportunity to reflect on many aspects of what communications means in the modern world.

It is also an opportunity for those of us who work in the media to reflect on our roles and the values that guide us.

When Pope John Paul II came to the UK in 1982 he handed a simply typed note to all the journalists covering the trip. It was addressed to “My friends in the communications media”.

It was reprinted on the front cover of UK Press Gazette that week. I cut it out and framed it and it has hung by my desk, wherever I have lived, ever since. This is what he wrote.

••••••••••••••••••••••

Wherever the sounds of transmit are heard, wherever the images you capture are seen, wherever the words you report are read, there is your neighbour. There is a person you must love, someone for whose total well being you must work – and sometimes go without sleep and miss your meals.

You are the instruments through whom that person – and millions of others – enjoys a wider experience and is helped to become a more effective member of the world community, a true neighbour to others.

Your profession, by its very nature, makes you servants, willing servants, of the community. Many of the members of that community will differ from you in political views, in material prospects, in religious conviction or in moral performance.

The message stills hangs on the wall next to my desk

As good communicators, you serve them all the same – with love and with truth: indeed with a love of truth.

As good communicators, you build bridges to unite, not walls to divide. As good communicators, you work out of the conviction that love and service of neighbour are the most important business in your life.

All your concern then will be for the community’s good. You will feed it on the truth. You will enlighten its conscience and serve as its peacemaker.

You will set before the community standards that will keep it stretching for a way of life and a mode of behaviour worthy of its potential, worthy of human dignity.

You will inspire the community, fire its ideals, stimulate its imagination – if necessary taunt it – into getting the best out of itself, the human best.

You will neither yield to any inducement nor bend before any threat which might seek to deflect you from total integrity in your professional service.

••••••••••••••••••••••

I know many people reading that will scoff because they have just read or heard something they disagree with and think my fellow journalists fall far short of those ideals. Before you dismiss it I ask you to bear a few things in mind.

We are only human. In my experience, most journalists do strive to achieve many of those ideals but our human frailty means we often fall short. Our job means our shortcomings, mistakes and errors of judgement are there for all to see and criticise. The scrutiny is constant and intense. We should not be automatically condemned for our failings but instead be encouraged to do better next time.

Many journalists face immense pressures because of what they do. 54 journalists around the world were murdered for doing their job last year. 250 journalists are currently in prison for doing their job. Even those of us who haven’t faced such extreme dangers still live with threats, sometimes physical, sometimes financial. I have been threatened on many occasions by people and firms with deep pockets, seen libel writs with my name on them land on my desk and faced demands to reveal sources for doing no more than telling the truth, truths that some people would rather not be known but which I have believed a greater good dictates should be dragged out into the light.

We are not perfect and know that journalism is not a profession that will ever command widespread respect, at least not until it is gone. But the overwhelming majority of us will never stop seeking the truth, nor forget it is the interests of the communities we serve – our readers and audiences – that come first.

There is still a long way to go to produce a Remain majority

There is plenty of excitement among the Remain supporting parties, especially the Liberal Democrats, over the trends in the opinion polls for the European Parliament elections. They believe the polls show a significant move towards remaining in the EU if there is another a referendum.

I don’t want to rain on their parade but I just don’t see it.

I wrote a week ago that it is was being optimistic to believe a Remain majority is emerging in the polls. That is still the case, even after the huge YouGov/Time poll that came out yesterday and showed the Liberal Democrats overtaking the Conservatives.

If you take the latest BBC poll tracker and break down the support for the different parties into Remain and Leave, it suggests there has been very little movement in public opinion since 2016.

The combined Brexit Party/UKIP vote is 35%. That is the Hard Brexit vote.

You have to assume that the Conservative vote is a Soft Brexit vote as sticking with May has to mean accepting her Withdrawal Agreement. That is another 12%.

The pro-Remain vote is still fragmented across several parties with the momentum with the Liberal Democrats as the standard bearers. However, it still only adds up to 31%.

This brings us to the Labour vote, currently on 22%. Out on the election trail the Liberal Democrats and others have been keen to label Labour as a pro-Brexit party, not unreasonable as a campaigning tactic as Corbyn has been working to facilitate Brexit. However, we know that a significant proportion of the Labour vote – at least in the south east – is pro-Remain. In its northern working class heartlands it is a different matter.

Some of the Leave supporting Labour voters will have defected to the Brexit Party. We also know from some of the polling analysis done over the last week that a significant proportion of Remain supporting Labour voters have defected to the Liberal Democrats or Greens.

If we assume that the current Labour vote would split 2:1 in favour of Remain, where does that leave us?

It gives a 54:46 majority for Brexit. If you take a more optimistic pro-Remain view and assume the Labour vote would split 3:1 in your favour you end up with a 52:48 Brexit majority. If you impose the 2:1 assumption on the YouGov/Times poll you also get a 52:48 Brexit majority.

Has anything changed since 2016?

Where is this Remain majority so many claim?

The Financial Times has produced some interesting analysis of the likely voting intentions in the European Parliament elections in two weeks time. It exposes some of the shifts caused by the creation of two new parties and the threat to the Conservatives from the Brexit Party.

It also shows we are a long way short of seeing a majority emerge for remaining in the European Union.

The FT analysis shows the Hard Brexit parties already garnering 32% against the anti-Brexit parties 29%. In the middle are Labour and the Conservatives. The FT shies away from labelling them on the Brexit spectrum but they must be considered soft Brexit parties as they are both working to facilitate Brexit. Where is the Remain majority now?

Of course, there are supporters of both major parties who are in favour of remaining in the EU and who will stick with voting for those parties regardless of the fact both are led by people pointing firmly towards the EU exit door. Some of those supporters will also be in favour of a second referendum. Despite those important caveats, what the analysis does show is that claims of a major switch in public sentiment towards Remain are misplaced.

Most of those campaigning for a second (or should that be third?) referendum seem to be desperately naive in believing it will deliver a majority for Remain. They style their campaign The People’s Vote as if they know which way “the people” will vote once it takes place. The arrogance of that stance has unnecessarily angered those who want to leave the EU and has made the Remain campaign an easy target for Farage and his “the elites are against you” message, as crude and dangerous as that may be.

The only way to stop us leaving the EU is to have a second referendum but it is a course fraught with danger.

I find it hard to see how it might unify the country. The 2016 referendum surely shows us that referenda are divisive and polarising. Why should another one be any different?

What the voting intentions for the European Parliament elections show us – if we want to see them as a proxy referendum – it that the country is as divided as ever on this issue. There is no guarantee that “the people” will vote as the campaigners for a second referendum assume. It may produce a majority for Remain, but what if that is 52:48? Does that beat 52:48 the other way?

There is a real danger that another referendum will just deepen the divide and perpetuate the arguments which is why I remain a very lukewarm supporter of the idea. If Parliament cannot pass a Withdrawal Agreement then it will be a Hard Brexit or a referendum and I would certainly support the latter and campaign for a Remain vote but not with any great optimism that it will produce the result I want or solve anything in the long-run.

A Parliament not fit for purpose

The publication of the plans for a temporary home for the House of Commons confirm my worst fears.

Parliament is not fit for purpose, neither the building nor its occupants.

No imagination, no vision

The proposal to replicate the current chamber of the House of Commons is a huge missed opportunity to add to the many failures of imagination over the debate about what to to with the crumbling and dangerous Palace of Westminster. Complete and permanent relocation was the obvious answer years ago but our backward-looking, innately conservative politicians of all parties failed to grasp this opportunity.

Now, they have compounded that failure with this timid, lazy, and unimaginative design for a temporary chamber. It is not fit for purpose. Nor are the MPs who think this is acceptable in the 21st century

This was an opportunity to experiment with a semi-circular chamber that acknowledged the full range of political opinions now represented in Parliament. The two-party system of the 19th century disappeared decades ago but our politicians still grimly grasp its physical legacy close to them.

A very basic requirement should have been a chamber that can accommodate all MPs rather than just two-thirds of them. The sight of MPs standing, crammed in around the entrances to the chamber during the recent Brexit debates contributes to the farce of Westminster politics. It is simply unacceptable that every member of Parliament does not have a seat. Think: they could have even given them a small desk to put papers and computers on, perhaps even equipped with electronic voting facilities.

Clearly, that is all too 21st century for our backward-looking, unimaginative MPs and government.