If not Blair, then Who?

24th February 2017

By Keith Nieland-

If Not Blair… then Who?

The earth began to move and slowly part. A bony, emaciated hand grasped at the dank, putrid air. This was followed by a swivel-eyed, scab ridden head. Mothers held their firstborn close, the Daily Mail closed the window blinds in fear, Boris went hunting for stakes while Nigel ran in panic through the streets seeking a sledge hammer. Yes! Tony Blair had risen!blair-martin-rowson-guardian

The Hammer House of Brexit

The response in some quarters to Tony Blair’s Bloomberg Brexit speech was more akin to a horror film script than a continuing political dialogue that, despite the wishes of some, will be with us for years to come. The immediate reaction was to play the man with little attempt to respond to the real issues he raised so well, summarised in Steven Duckworth’s post. Blair was irrelevant, speaking out on an issue already settled, he was yesterday’s man forever blighted by the Iraq war.

The usual suspects, many of whom would have agreed with his every word just a few short months ago, ran for the nearest microphone and TV camera to do their bit to stick the knife in (or perhaps the stake!) Jeremy Corbyn went all pious saying the decision of the people should be respected.

The trouble with all the responses were that they were based on what his political foes had wished he’d said rather than what he did say. He was simply saying that while he fully respected the referendum outcome, and that there was little appetite for revisiting it, the great British public might just want to have a rethink once the fine details of the EU divorce become clear.

So, what exactly is wrong with that? It might happen automatically without any prompting if the exit negotiations do not go well and/or speedily. It all rather begged the question “why the excitable reaction?”

“Don’t Panic, Mr Mainwaring!”

Perhaps the real reason for the hysterical response was those at the front of the rush for the EU exit door – May, Corbyn, Farage, BoJo, Davis, Fox, etc do not want an articulate, clever, analytical figure with considerable gravitas – who still enjoys respect amongst sections of the electorate and commands media attention, from looking too closely at what they plan. They want everything neatly under their control, with limited information for Parliament, no public briefings on the exit negotiations and, above all, not to be held accountable for the Leave campaign promises.

The last thing May’s control freakery wants is to find Tony Blair smiling back at her as he dissects her every EU exit move. The Prime Minister wants the status quo – an anti-EU Tory backbench and a lukewarm EU fan leading the opposition.

I would suggest the driver for control of the process is those dodgy Leave promises sitting uneasily on the notion of the settled will of the public.

We All Loved Ratners Once

It’s an unwritten, unarticulated human right – the right to change our minds.

The deal was simple – if you do not want an EU army, the country invaded by Turks coming for our jobs, Europeans turning up when they want but would welcome a cut in VAT and an extra £350m each week for the NHS then vote Leave.

So what happens if and when these promises evaporate and issues never mentioned in the referendum campaign come to the fore? Voters might just feel let down, as if the whole thing was not worth it and, as bad as it was, that perhaps things were better inside the EU.

So how are we doing on the promises just eight months on? Well, there are no plans for an EU army, Turkey will not be joining the EU any time soon (or ever given the current state of the country) and, surprise, surprise David Davis tells us the free movement of labour will have to last until… well nobody knows! The VAT cut has never been mentioned again and the extra NHS funds have been spray painted over and dumped somewhere on the M1.

Davis, Fox and Boris have yet to sit in front of the EU negotiating team but already we know that, far from there being an exit financial bonus, there will be an exit bill, a sizeable one: fifty to sixty million Euros appears to be the opening figure. After all, not unreasonably, the EU will want us to cough up for developments we have already agreed to over the coming planning period.

Nobody mentioned that during the campaign and, if they did, it would have no doubt been branded as part of Project Fear.

Will the EU team want the exit bill issue settled before they are willing to discuss any other matters? Well, what do you do think?

It is still too early to say what the impact on the economy will be but we have to accept that leaving the world’s biggest free trade area cannot be achieved without any negative effect. It’s a bit like leaving the golf club and then demanding all the benefits of membership without paying a subscription. If the UK wants access to all, or selected parts, of the EU free trade zone there will be a cost. It is delusional to think we can abandon up to 45% of our trade and somehow replace it with deals elsewhere in the world.

IoD members are not full of confidence. The impact of Brexit on our vital banking and car manufacturing sectors will be watched with keen interest. It just needs bad news in one of these key areas, particularly car manufacturing, for the public to go sore on the whole Brexit idea.

The public mood could easily change – after all we once loved Ratners and would hear no word of dissent.

What the Opposition Should Be Doing

The Labour Opposition has a big problem – a very big problem.

It has a leader who is indifferent to the EU, who chose to go on holiday during the country’s most important referendum campaign in over 40 years, who gave the EU 7 marks out of 10 in a TV interview, whose support for his own party’s campaign was criticised by the campaign’s leader and who called for Article 50 to be enacted the morning after the result. 60% of Labour voters wanted to Remain as did 48% of total voters, the Party’s official policy is to support membership and to give every opportunity for voters to have a say once the conditions of Brexit are known. The Leader is out of step with many, and perhaps a majority, of Labour voters, members and MPs.

I would suggest that Corbyn’s lacklustre EU campaign and disinterest since runs the real risk of his party getting none of the credit should Brexit go well and some of the blame should it not. While others make the running, Labour has become an invisible player in the EU exit debate. Corbyn three line whipping his MPs through the lobby to support Brexit at any cost could well come back to haunt him and his party. How can Corbyn suggest that is not the case given his party’s failure to at least abstain in the final vote once it became clear the Government were not willing to compromise on any of the assurances being sought?

If Parliament is to have further opportunities to influence the exit deal, when and how will that happen?

I doubt the electorate know what Labour’s Brexit position is and, indeed, care much given the Party’s, and Corbyn’s, dire poll rankings.

Blair has a Blueprint

Is it possible the old class-based dividing lines that defined the core Labour and Conservative votes are fading to be replaced with a nation of Remainers and Leavers? Only time will tell, but I suggest it is a possibility. Labour runs the risk of being discarded into history because it failed to adopt a clear position on Brexit.

As the main opposition party, it has a duty to oppose May’s form of Brexit – what Blair would describe as “Brexit at any cost” – for two reasons. It is what oppositions do, but more importantly, given the Party’s beliefs and values, it is the right thing to do.

Labour should be saying that while Article 50 may well be triggered shortly, the Government has no blank cheque and the Party will resist a Brexit for Brexit’s sake. What the Government proposes will be crawled all over and the public will be advised of the consequences for them. The Party should be painting a picture of the post-Brexit UK which it believes is in the best interests of all its citizens but in particular, those sections that have traditionally looked to it for leadership.

The Party’s position on the Customs Union, the Single Market, EU citizens living, working and studying here and UK citizens doing likewise in Europe should be made clear and articulated. Labour should be highlighting the many, many issues that need a negotiated solution. It should be putting pressure on May to explain regularly where we are on new trade deals, on what they cover, who they are with and how long negotiations are scheduled.

Most importantly, if Labour believes what May and her team are doing is not in the wider national interest, they should be nudging voters to have a change of mind.

Regrettably Labour has put all its lifejackets in the Leave lifeboat, but the situation is not beyond recovery. If we put aside Corbyn’s poor personal poll ratings the Party can get back into the Brexit debate by following Blair’s lead because the Party will be clearly saying May has no blank cheque, we will watch and analyse her every step, she will be held to account and, if we believe the direction of travel not to be in the wider UK interests, then we shall urge voters to think again.

Blair pointed a way forward and Labour should follow it.

By Keith Nieland


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Why Tony Blair is right about Brexit and why Labour must ignore him

22nd February 2017

 -By Steven Duckworth-

Why Tony Blair is right about Brexit and why Labour must ignore him

I like to think of myself as fairly non-partisan on politics. Extremists aside, I believe most people get involved in politics because they generally want to improve society for all of its members.

Having said that, I am a supporter and member of the Labour Party, not because I’m a socialist but because I believe Labour is still the party that is best able to deliver and sustain a prosperous and fair society. It shouldn’t need saying that Labour needs to actually get into government before it can deliver anything, but in these febrile times for the party, it’s always a point worth making.

Bearing this in mind, it was with some pride and a great deal of sadness at Labour’s current plight that I watched Tony Blair’s Blooomberg/Open Britain speech last week.

Labour’s most successful leader riffed across many different, but connected, themes intelligently and effectively. His delivery was impeccable and he talked directly to the people his speech was aimed at, the 48% of the population who had voted to remain in the EU. Only a masochist would want to compare him with the Labour Party’s current leadership team, but compare I did and it left me in a state of despair.

In terms of detail, Blair was spot on too. I also believe that people believed that leaving the EU would help finance the NHS, cut down on all immigration and return sovereignty to Westminster. All of these assertions by the Leave campaign were demonstrably false and I do believe that Blair is right when he predicts that leaving the EU and the Single Market would have a highly negative impact on our prosperity and standing in the world. Blair also showed his political instincts and craft when he accused Theresa May of being the purveyor of “the mantle of patriotism abused”. Oh, how that would sound coming across the dispatch box on a Wednesday lunchtime.

So where does Mr Blair’s intervention leave us when we think about the politics of Brexit specifically? I tend to think it offers nothing much at all.

Theresa May has decided – for reasons of clarity and political expediency – that a hard Brexit is what she will pursue. Tim Farron has concluded the opposite, but for much the same reasons. The SNP are similar to Farron, but they think this all may well provide a tilt at another Scottish independence vote.

Which leaves the Labour party; of all the parties it needs to face both ways on Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn had no realistic choice but to back the government over triggering Article 50. I think it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

Blair may want a politically realigned movement that energises and engages Remain voters – as a Remainer I’m glad someone is making the case – but Labour has to get on with the task of running a party at Westminster and fighting elections and that means trying to straddle the Brexit divide.

So is there a way forward for Labour on Brexit? Well, there are no easy choices; the party will anger and ostracise many supporters whichever way it decides to go on the issue. But there are opportunities. Labour needs to be positive and start to describe what sort of Brexit the government should be pursuing: red lines on the Customs Union, what a fair immigration policy would look like and pushing for a settlement for those EU nationals already resident in the UK would all start to frame a different take compared to the other parties.

This is the right thing to do in itself, but it also lends Labour authority when – and I think it will – the government begins to flounder on its Brexit negotiations. An opportunity for a second referendum might even arise and Labour should support it, but from a position of a party that has tried to implement the referendum result rather than obstinately opposing it.

Labour faces a real Hobson’s choice on Brexit and will have many a difficult moment in the months ahead. There are no easy lines for a party that elected a Eurosceptic leader ahead of a momentous EU referendum. A different party under a different leader might well have been able to join a broad-based movement to oppose Brexit, but Labour’s tragedy is that it is in no position to take up Tony Blair’s rallying cry.

Massive mistakes over the past few years, particularly the last two, have meant that if it is to survive – and that is already in the balance – Labour will have to slowly and tentatively build its way out of the pit it finds itself in. There is no room for political quick fixes in that particular project.

By Steven Duckworth

@FoxHedgehog


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Charisma and Corbyn

20th February 2017

By Keith Nieland-

Charisma and Corbyn

Charisma! I love the word – it sounds a bit like Christmas and all those warm connotations of mulled wine, mince pies and open fires. My ever trusty Penguin English Dictionary defines the word as –

1. the special magnetic appeal, charm or power of an individual e.g. a political leader, that inspires popular loyalty and enthusiasm

2. an extraordinary power divinely given to a Christian.”

So the question of the day is does Jeremy Corbyn have charisma and does it matter?

The Populist Right

Those of us who like to describe ourselves as progressives despise the populist right. We reject their playbook of divide and rule. They promote the politics of hate and victimhood: it’s immigrants who take our jobs, suppress wages, jump the queue for housing and healthcare and live a life loafing on benefits (despite taking all our jobs at the same time!) They long for a never-never land like the 1950s when, apparently, all faces were white and Christian, we hung criminals, measured in feet and inches, weighed in ounces and pounds and bought things with shillings and pence. A Wagon Wheel was a foot wide, a Penguin bar weighed a pound and passports had a blue cover. Most importantly all foreigners began at Calais.

We reject all this partly because it is not evidence-based but more importantly it runs counter to the progressive dream of an inclusive, tolerant and sharing society where people are given opportunity and not judged by their skin colour or religion. Every year speeches at the Oscars and BAFTAs reinforce the progressive brand. This year’s Oscars should be good for a bit of Trump bashing.

So why is the populist right apparently in the ascendancy?

Trump, Le Pen, Farage et al

The answer to that question is complicated and will no doubt fill column inches and books for years to come. I would suggest, however, that one of the reasons is that the populist right is good at finding charismatic leaders who talk eloquently in a style that appeals to their audience.

They do indeed inspire loyalty and enthusiasm amongst their followers as they preach a sermon of blame and division. Many of us scoffed at Trump’s election campaign. His ignorance and limited vocabulary shone through as did his evidence-free policy platform. None of this mattered as he filled venues in a way Hilary Clinton could only dream of. He told his audience what they wanted to hear in a way they understood. None of their problems were of their own making and blame should be allocated to Mexicans, Muslims, the Washington elite (who for some reason live in a swamp) and the trade cheats China and Germany.

Whether we like it or not, folks like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage etc can captivate an audience and inspire unyielding loyalty. Evidence that charisma is an important quality in the world of politics.

It begs the question where are the progressive charismatic leaders on the centre left? Macron in France perhaps, but who else? In the UK it begs an urgent question: does Jeremy Corbyn have the necessary charismatic qualities?

Charismatic Corbyn

So does Jeremy have that special magnetic appeal, charm and power as an individual to inspire popular loyalty and enthusiasm? That question alone will inspire guffaws of laughter in some quarters for clearly he does not – just look at the opinion polls.

Despite the wishes of his band of merry followers not all the polls can be fake news as he lags behind the Tories by whatever means you choose to cut the electorate – by age, class or political loyalty. Not even Labour voters want him. The Tories hang around 40% in the polls while Labour slumps ever downwards towards 20% and perilously close to UKIP’s vote share. Amongst working class people they already prefer UKIP to Corbyn’s Labour.

His best opportunity to establish his charismatic qualities comes once a week at Prime Minister’s Questions. He can ask what he likes, he has the right to have six goes and May has no prior notice of his intentions. The press and TV await. The opportunity is laid before Corbyn for some charismatic sound bites to get the attention of evening and night time news watchers and listeners.

Open Goal to Bullet in the Foot

Jeremy Corbyn has plenty of material to chose from to establish his charismatic credentials. May’s disastrous management of the NHS and social care; her cavalier approach to the Brexit negotiations; the plight of the wider public sector and problems of the prison service. They lie before Corbyn like sweets in a sweetie jar but he is unable to register a hit partly because he lacks the personal charismatic qualities (he was just born without them) but partly because of a wall of his creation.

If Corbyn tries to pin May down on the NHS, her response is that Labour had 13 years to fix the NHS, and it did not but the Tories now are. He cannot counter this nonsense because admitting Blair and Brown actually did fix the NHS and all but eliminated waiting lists and times would be to surrender the Corbyn play book of hating all things Blairite.

One of the few things that glues his band of supporters together is the hatred of everything they consider Blairite.

If Corbyn tries to do likewise on social care back will come the same answer from May. He cannot claim Labour tried to get in place a new cross-party settlement on social care but the Tories rejected it because that would again require acknowledgement of those who names dare not be mentioned.

Defence is a no-go Corbyn area. Remember submarines going to sea without missiles or NATO being redundant or the “tragedy” of Bin Laden’s death? If you do not, May will be all too pleased to remind you.

The economy is just as bad as Corbyn has no coherent economic policy beyond a number of unfunded spending commitments (remember he got elected on a promise of abolishing tuition fees), vague calls for nationalisation and hints at tax rises. His contradictory desire for a closed shop economy with open borders is a hard sell at the best of times. I suspect that deep down he would like to return to the 1960s and call for nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy and sweeping powers for the trades unions. Now that would get him onto the BBC 9 O’clock News but for all the wrong reasons.

What about Brexit? Sadly Corbyn and May are singing off the same song sheet now and that particular fox bolted last week when Corbyn tried to straddle the Leave/Remainer divide and fell down the gap in the middle.

For Jeremy PMQs is an open goal but sadly the ball is chained to his ankle.

Why Does Jeremy Hang On?

Given that most of his Parliamentary colleagues think he is useless, the electorate certainly does and he is lampooned in the media most days, why does he not just bow out gracefully and go back to his allotment? He would have plenty of time to return to what he does best, which is lurk on the backbenches with his few House of Commons pals whining about the next episode of socialist betrayal by the Party’s frontbench.

Cynics might suggest that Corbyn does not care tuppence about his unpopularity and total inability to create a narrative voters will listen to. There is an old management training saying about “only getting one opportunity to make a first impression”. Corbyn blew his as he was unprepared for those first testing radio and television interviews when he became leader. Everything he said and did from then on just serves as conformation bias. He is beyond recovery.

While the hard left is pretty hopeless at public politics it is pretty good at plotting and planning its way to success when it comes to party meetings and conferences. Perhaps all Corbyn really wants is to ensure the dreaded Blairites are banished to the margins of the party for good and preferably out of it. He could be just hanging on for a party conference rule change that will make it easier for a hard left MP to get on the leadership slate, who would then be swept into office by the only group in the country that has any faith in Corbyn – his loyal band of followers in the Labour party membership. It might make Labour unelectable for a generation but that is not the point.

Where Are the Charismatic Hiding?

If Jeremy Corbyn has all the charisma of a hearth brush, where are the potential charismatic leaders on Labour’s benches? Where are those who can hold an audience in the palm of their hand? Can preach a progressive message that resonates with people? Who are policy-sound, evidence-based but with magnetic personalities? Who are clear, articulate and can give a good sound bite off-the-cuff to a reporter in the street and not run away? Who can command the House of Commons and ask a short, succinct question without having to read it?

Will our charismatic potential leaders please step forward – your country needs you, Europe needs you and the world needs you to stand up to Trump and Putin. Most importantly I need you!

By Keith Nieland


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Democracy

1st February 2017

By Barnabus Howard-

Democracy

I am disgruntled. I am a disgruntled former Labour Party member, and I have a problem. As it stands, I am not represented, and that is the source of some rancour for me. I look at the arrayed political representatives and I cannot see a place where I’d feel comfortable. Brexit has and will continue to destroy the political scene as we know it; I am reduced to finding solace in some unusual and peripheral areas.

For me, politics is about governing; I don’t live for campaigning, and as sad as it is I like to think about government and legislation. So finding myself thinking about peripheral (and in some cases long dead) figures like Ken Clarke, Edmund Burke, Nick Clegg and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. is a bit too much of throwback to my time at university. This does not feel like a place where I should be.

There was a moment during the debate for the second reading of the exiting the EU bill where Iain Duncan Smith briefly made sense, or so I thought. He was disputing the EU’s credentials for fostering piece in Europe since World War Two, and made a comment to the effect of it wasn’t the EU, it was the creation and support of strong democratic institutions in those countries that’d previously been at war.

I disagree with him, but he is right that strong democratic institutions are very important in creating stability. And this is my first real point, it feels to me that, since Brexit especially but also more broadly, that we (the people, the country, everybody) have forgotten what democracy is about.

Democracy is not just about voting, and it is not just about getting a majority. Democracy is hard to get right and although the involvement and engagement of the people is vital, it is exceedingly important that we have structures in place to ensure that the implied principles of democracy are observed. For example, freedom of speech and the rule of law.

The structures I refer to are of course the Supreme Court and Parliament’s oversight prerogative. I’d be inclined to give Duncan Smith some credit if he hadn’t been quite so lazily scathing in his comments about the Supreme Court’s recent judgement! A US Republican, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr once said, “taxes are the price we pay for civilization”. I think the same could be said for Parliament and the Supreme Court’s scrutiny of the government.

My problem with our lazy view of the democratic structures we have, is that we choose to forget how this all works. Parliament’s job is to scrutinise government, and make sure that many views are heard. And that is why I have been thinking about Ken Clarke. His contribution to that debate was in a part a rambling rehash of the referendum discussions, but in parts he was very eloquent. He may well have said plenty to irritate government ministers with his slightly predictable remarks, but he managed to highlight quite cleverly the quandary and ineffectiveness that the Labour Party has brought upon itself. He mentioned that the Eurosceptic MPs had not given up on their cause over the last 20 or 30 years. The Labour Party’s position on Brexit may well be based on a determination not to be cast as out of touch and to be seen as based in democratic instincts, but in so doing it makes itself an irrelevance. Elections are not about the answer, but the questions that the electorate deem important. Ignoring the issue and waiting for somebody to want to talk about nuclear disarmament or nationalisation is simply negligent.

I’m a private citizen, so I can choose to accept the referendum result even though I thoroughly disagree with it. The Labour Party has no such freedom; even if you do not intend to stand in the way, saying so only serves to do half of government’s job for them.

Which brings me onto Ken Clarke’s précis of Edmund Burke’s famous quote, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion”. I think this quote should be printed in big bold letters on every ballot paper. That aside, the point is that your MP should vote in such a way that represents your interests whether you see it that way or not. His constituents voted him out shortly thereafter, and perhaps the same would happen to MPs who chose not to accept the referendum result. But that is what is supposed to happen.

The Tories may have taken what seems like a risky position in accepting the will of the Leave voters lock, stock and barrel. I think they know that most of their Remain supporters are going to be more scared of a Corbyn government than they are of Brexit. I certainly won’t be voting for them, but equally Corbyn’s new approach of trying to appeal to everybody by taking no position on anything of consequence makes it impossible for me to consider the Labour Party should a general election be held tomorrow.

I strongly believe that most people sit a bit on the right, a bit on the left, and a bit in between. For me that means I want some sort of free society, a regulated capitalism, a society and a government that aim to meet people’s aspirations and look after those who are struggling or in need. Labour’s silent opposition can’t fulfil that, and neither can the Conservatives’ disregard for those who voted to Remain (as well as all the people they normally ignore).

That leaves me in limbo; and I’m not quite ready to join Nick Clegg on the periphery just yet!

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Straddling Two Horses Rarely Ends Well

30th January 2017

By Keith Nieland-

Straddling Two Horses Rarely Ends Well

I try to avoid them if I can as they are not good for the blood pressure. I refer, of course, to television interviews with Jeremy Corbyn’s inner cabinet members. But recently I accidentally came across interviews with Diane Abbott and Emily Thornberry. They were about the hot topic of Brexit and Labour’s stance. I usually avoid interviews with the holy trinity of Abbott, Thornberry and McDonald as they shed little light and just usually reflect Corbyn’s thinking that morning with little discussion with other Labour MPs or indeed anybody as far as I can gather.

I Will Say This Only Once

This is a summary of both interviews:

Q. What is Labour’s position on May’s Brexit plan?

A. Labour respects the verdict of the Referendum and puts the protection of jobs, workers’ rights and business as top priority.

Q. Does that mean Labour supports membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union which includes signing up to the free movement of labour?

A. Labour believes in maintaining access to the Single Market and Customs Union.

Q. Does Labour support the free movement of labour?

A. Repeat first answer.

Q. Repeat previous question.

A. Repeat first answer.

Q. If Labour does not support the free movement of labour but wants to negotiate access to the Single Market and the creation of some kind of new Customs Union does not that make Labour’s position the same as the Tories?

A. No, as we would not wish to turn the UK into some sort of offshore tax haven.

Q. So Labour does support membership of the Single Market and Customs Union?

A. We are only the Opposition; that is a question for the Government.

Riding Two Horses

I am old enough to remember the days when circuses actually had animals in them and Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit position reminds me of the rider who entered the ring with one foot on one horse and the other on a second horse. It looked pretty spectacular but after one circuit the rider usually dismounted before something nasty happened. Here we have Jeremy Corbyn doing a political version. He has one foot on the Remainer horse marked “single market and customs union” and the other foot on the Brexit horse marked “border and immigration controls”. His justification for this is that Labour needs to appeal across the board to both Leavers and Remainers and that the Party cannot win if it pins its hopes on one side or the other. After all there are Labour MPs from both strong Remain and strong Leave seats.

Opposition are Supposed to Oppose

As we currently stand the only nationwide political party implacably opposing Brexit are the Liberal Democrats and they have less than 10 seats. If for no other reason the 48% who voted to remain deserve better Parliamentary representation than that. It is not the job of the Opposition to quietly acquiesce with any Government’s plans particularly on such a vital issue – the clue is in the title. Being clearly set against Brexit and wanting a second referendum on the final exit deal with the EU is not doing the Lib Dems any harm as they take council seats from Tories in staunch Remain areas and rise in the polls albeit from a very low position. This has the virtue of the Party being able to present a clear and concise position which you can agree with or not, but Labour’s position is about as clear as the Thames’ mud.

Labour’s position is costing it voters. As was pointed out in the Emily Thornberry interview, the polls indicate the Party has lost 400,000 voters to the Lib Dems since the last General Election and a similar number to the Tories and UKIP combined. The extent to which this is due to Corbyn’s general unpopularity or Labour’s Brexit position (or both) is unclear. Some Corbyn fans will rejoice as what they see as Red Tories going elsewhere but those with the true interests of the Party at heart will just put their head in their hands.

The Flaw

It could well be that one unintended outcome of the Referendum was a move away from the old class-based party loyalties to irreconcilable groups of Remainers and Leavers. If that is the case Labour runs the risk of being trampled to death in the rush.

However, there is a flaw in Labour’s whole Brexit approach and that is, quite simply, if they think the Government is wrong why are they supporting it? If they think, as they appear to, that May’s Lancaster House speech put jobs and workers’ rights at risk; that the fall back position of an off-shore tax haven is unacceptable, why is Corbyn planning to support the Brexit Bill come what may? They should either vote against or at the very least put down amendments about guaranteeing access to the Single Market and Customs Union and rejecting the tax haven option.

Corbyn should be working with other parties to try and put together an alliance to defeat the worst aspects of May’s plan. It might not work but at least there will be credit in trying. By some indications there is a Remain majority in the House of Commons so there is potential to attempt to tie May to something less ideological and more realistic.

Corbyn’s current position runs the risk of sharing the blame if May’s plan falls apart and getting none of the credit if it succeeds.

An Honourable Position

It is quite tenable for Labour to say that while they respect the outcome of the Referendum they feel the Government’s plan is not in the best interests of the country, it is not what voters voted for, and Labour will, therefore, vote against the Brexit Bill. The fact the Government cannot give guarantees about job losses, workers’ rights, UK citizens living abroad and the dependence of many services (particularly the NHS) on EU labour are grounds enough for voting against. Labour should not fall into the trap of zero based decision making.

Secondly, Labour should be making the case for remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union. The economic priority should be the protection of 45% of our export market plus the potential for the future in the world’s biggest free trade zone. This is more important than running around the world begging other countries to fill the lost trade gap.

Thirdly, it is not immigrants that are putting a strain on the public services, instead they fill much needed skills gaps. Labour should be making the case for immigration and setting out plans for supporting immigrants and the communities into which they settle.

The Three Line Whip

Corbyn’s decision to impose a three line whip on voting for the Brexit Bill will be ignored by Leavers and will infuriate Remainers. In all likelihood it will split the PLP and, possibly, the Shadow Cabinet. At least the Party will get an audience if it were to adopt the position set out above and it might get some grudging respect from its detractors.

One of the reasons Corbyn drew support during the leadership campaigns was because Party activists were fed up with MPs voting with the Tories and supporting, as they saw it, Tory policies. I wonder what they think now particularly as Corbyn’s position is not in line with the policy adopted by the Party as last September’s Conference?

As Nick Cohen and others have pointed out on Twitter, Corbyn has now lined himself up with the Conservative Party, UKIP, Daily Mail, Daily Express, Sun, Putin and Trump.

The Labour Party has truly passed through the looking glass.

Keith Nieland


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May May Land

23rd January 2017

By Keith Nieland-

May May Land

Queen May has spoken! We now know the door through which we will exit the European Union is the one marked the “hardest of hard exits” – no single market and no customs union.

Everything thrown into the air, 45% of our trade with our nearest neighbours put at risk, cordial relationships with our longest standing allies also put at risk in exchange for a new order based on immigration control and an as yet to be negotiated set of free trade agreements. All to be achieved to the background music of the UK taking its ball home if it does not get its own way, and becoming a North Atlantic tax haven.

The University Professor

The PM’s speech was the ultimate triumph of political ideology over evidence-based decision making. In decades to come, professors on business Masters’ degree courses will be using it as a case study. The intention of all those fine words against the reality will consume thousands of essays. How many years before the new order of comprehensive worldwide free trade agreements is in place is anybody’s guess (assuming Trump does not turn us all into dust beforehand)? But one thing is for sure – the task will outlast May and her little gang of Euro sceptics.

Brexiteers will shout against the evidence base for remaining in the single market and customs union, but here it is.

The Evidence

We export more to Ireland that we do to China; almost twice as much to Belgium as we do to India; and nearly three times as much to Sweden as we do to Brazil. It is not realistic to think we could just replace European trade with these new markets.

In a stand-off between Britain and the EU, 44% of our exports is more important to us than 8% of the EU’s exports is to them.

Remaining inside the EU does make us more secure, it does make us more prosperous and it does make us more influential beyond our shores.

Now the three paragraphs above are not my words but Theresa May’s. And she finished by saying “I believe it is clearly in our national interest to remain a member of the European Union.” She uttered them during the Referendum campaign. So what changed her mind?

May the Populist

If you listen to May’s speech it is quite easy to hear it being delivered by President Trump. His populist dog whistle tunes were all there if you listen hard enough. Our problems are created by meddlesome foreigners and unwanted immigrants. “Britain First” was her unsaid cry to be achieved by breaking away from Europe and creating a new order based on worldwide free trade agreements and tough immigration controls at home. If things get difficult there was an appeal to the Dunkirk spirit and British bulldog traditions and a threat to piss off our allies of 70 years by becoming an offshore tax haven. She forgot to mention the extra £350m a week for the NHS this new order would allow, but I can only guess she ran out of time.

On one level May’s speech was a meek and pathetic surrender to the saloon bar politics of Nigel Farage. No wonder he welcomed it. The politics of blame and envy in full flow with a flourish of nationalism thrown in. At best it was a gamble (which some would describe as reckless) in basically stating we have got it all wrong for 40 years so let us start again.

The Reality

Very soon May and her team will face the reality of their offer to the UK populist vote which they hope will keep the Tories in power for years to come. Already the unrealistic amongst Brexiteers do not understand why we have not yet left the EU and for some of them any form of immigration control will not be enough. Any TV news vox pop interview on the streets finds them with ease. They will soon get bored with the lack of apparent action but UKIP will always be on hand to offer even more extremist policies to keep them happy.

Meanwhile, in the real world, May’s government needs to find and recruit an army of skilled, experienced negotiators to both get us the best EU divorce deal possible and negotiate an as yet unspecified number of free trade agreements. The EU, of course, already has a team of experienced negotiators as do some of the countries we will be trying to do deals with – China and the USA amongst them. Our lack of skills and experience could find us paying a heavy price. We will always want to close deals more quickly than the other side of the table as the future of our economy will depend on it, but that will not be a mutual risk.

America First v Britain First

So May’s first big test comes in a few days when she goes to Washington. Her office will make much of her being the first foreign leader to meet Trump but for many the reality is that they do not want to meet him – ever! Does anybody believe, given Trump’s inaugural speech, he will do us any favours? His aim will be the issue of a 140 character tweet informing his fans of the UK’s role in making America great again.

Is it outrageous to suggest Trump may want us to block car imports from Europe through tariffs so as to make US-made cars a more attractive proposition in the UK? Will he want the UK to take its steel from the US? Port Talbot could be under threat again. Will his aim be to make the UK just another state of the Union? What will Trump’s reaction be if May just says no to something he might want? I would suggest we have few bargaining chips beyond Marmite and bagless vacuum cleaners.

Immigration

If you scratch the surface of some communities it is easy to find discontent with immigration: there are too many immigrants, they depress wages, take houses and jobs and change the character of communities. However, we rarely look at the issue through the lens of the countries from which immigrants come.

I know from personal experience of Australians who have given up trying to come to the UK because it is just too difficult. Many countries now see us as unwelcoming and their citizens do not want to come and work and study here. So how will this go down, say with India, Australia, China and New Zealand, when it comes to trade deals? Will we be saying that we want you to take our goods and services and will take yours but not your people? May could find herself being bitten by that part of the populist vote that does not want Indians and Chinese people here at any price. May could find herself revisited by the ghost of the free movement of labour.

Calling the Bluff

What will May do if a country just says “Thank you, but no thank you. We just do not want to do a free trade deal with you”? Or the negotiations simply collapse or take years and years? Given how desperate we could be to strike deals to keep employment in the UK and the economy buoyant what will we do if, for example, Switzerland say “non”? Is there a risk the EU will happily negotiate our divorce then say – given your threats we have no desire to negotiate any form of free trade deal with you – and just leave us to stew? After all we could have maintained our trading status by remaining in the single market.

A Reckless Gamble

In many ways May’s speech was duplicitous. It played light with the practical consequences and time frame for basically achieving such a major rebalancing of the economy. Her response to challenges was a mixture of threats and appeals to the national spirit. Already some of the forecasts of what was branded “project fear” are coming to pass. The 20% fall in the value of the pound against the dollar has fuelled a 20% increase in the cost of petrol. Inflation is rising and thousands of high paid banking jobs are planned to disappear over to the continent. Those cheering the departure of the bankers conveniently forget that the high paid pay high amounts of tax and the spending of their disposable income provides jobs for others.

When Article 50 is triggered the uncertainty will only increase and there is nothing markets dislike more than uncertainty. At best it is highly ambitious for May to be able to negotiate our divorce from the EU and a totally new economic model within a two year time scale. Many would say it was totally impossible. It took the EU seven years to negotiate a pretty straightforward trade deal with Canada, which ironically we will not be part of once we leave.

Holding May to Account

It is little wonder May wants to keep the House of Commons as far away from the EU negotiations, and whatever follows on, as possible? There are greater minds than hers lurking on the backbenches to ask searching questions. I just wonder to what extent May was emboldened by a weak and poorly led official opposition – that’s the Labour Party if anyone needs reminding. The only nationwide party committed to representing the views of the 48% of voters who did not vote for May’s vision has less than 10 MPs. Corbyn’s long personal dislike of the EU makes him totally unsuitable to fulfil the proper opposition role to what May proposes. Labour should seek to amend any Article 50 legislation to maintain single market and customs union membership – the only assurance to stop May playing Russian roulette with the economy and jobs and livelihoods of millions of people. The minimum Labour should do is to lay down an amendment that reflects official party policy adopted at September’s conference.

May could be right and it will turn out fine. If that was the case why has it not been done before? The reality is she has dressed up in populist rhetoric what is a complex, time-consuming and potentially extremely damaging way forward.

It must also be mentioned that if the PM is such a convert to free trade why is she turning her back on the world’s largest free trade zone?

The House of Commons has not very long to get its act together to not just scrutinise what May proposes but to replace it with something more realistic and less risky. Otherwise, cheered on by her backbench Brexiteers and a compliant press, May will have a free hand.

Corbyn’s Brexit performance has so far been inept so he needs to step up to the mark and make Labour a serious opposition. The current situation is bad for democracy with 48% of voters all but disenfranchised. May needs to be properly held to account.

Keith Nieland


Please note: articles and posts on ‘Middle Vision’ reflect the views of the individual authors and not of all involved in ‘Middle Vision’

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Corbyn, Labour and Immigration

14th January 2017

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-By Cllr Sean Woodcock-

Corbyn, Labour and Immigration

Muddle. Mess. Chaos. Disarray. These are just some of the words that were used to describe Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘populist relaunch’ this week.

They describe how the Labour leader appeared on the issue that has been drawn into focus by the result of the EU referendum last June; immigration.

Corbyn has been under pressure, from northern Labour MPs in particular, to take a much tougher stance on immigration which so clearly contributed to the Leave vote in so many of their constituencies.

The briefing ahead of his speech suggested that he had moved from his previous, very relaxed position on immigration and that Labour was “no longer wedded to Freedom of Movement”.

But then in the interviews and speech, altered at the last minute, he suggested another thing entirely; namely that the only thing Corbyn wanted to stop was the exploitation of immigrants, not reducing the number of them who come in.

It is fair to say that the way this relaunch was handled could have been better.

But the key reason why it went so wrong was because Jeremy Corbyn was asked to suggest that he would deliver something which he did not truly believe in; reducing immigration.

It should have surprised no one when Jeremy, pressed by John Humphrys on Radio 4’s Today, refused to put a number on what he considered acceptable immigration levels. He doesn’t believe in one. Immigration is not a matter of grave concern for him, rightly or wrongly.

This puts Corbyn seemingly at odds with an increasing number of his MPs, with Stephen Kinnock, Chuka Umunna and Emma Reynolds as well as the likes of John Cruddas and Andy Burnham calling for limitations on Freedom of Movement in response to the Brexit vote.

I have a lot of respect for MPs like Cruddas who have persistently over a number of years spoken or written about the need for Labour to get to grips with this issue. As a councillor I encounter the issue of immigration regularly on the doorstep. I have also written on this site about the need for Labour to deal with the issue and that was before the EU Referendum.

The problem is, unlike Corbyn, their position is not based on genuine conviction. It is largely pragmatic. The proof of that lay in how many of these MPs campaigned for a REMAIN vote in the first part of last year. They knew then, as they know now, that staying in the EU, or even the Single Market, meant accepting Freedom of Movement. Throughout the campaign to REMAIN, there were very few calls from Labour MPs for reform of that key plank of EU membership.

Instead, what we heard, if immigration was mentioned at all, was about how immigrants made a positive contribution to our country. Which is true. We heard how we need immigrants because of our demographics in order to plug gaps in the skills market and to pay for our pensions. Which is also true.

That explains why so few MPs spoke about reforming Freedom of Movement during the campaign.

So why, now, are so many coming down hard against Freedom of Movement? Yes, a conversation about immigration is necessary in the context of BREXIT. But surely Labour MPs, following on the referendum campaign, should be arguing for at least some retention of Freedom of Movement as hard as they are arguing to remain in the Single Market? The answer as to why they don’t is that they worry about the electoral consequences of taking a pro-immigration stance.

This is important because it lies at the heart of the party’s current impasse. Seemingly struggling to convince the UK electorate that Jeremy Corbyn should be Prime Minister with a PLP that clearly does not have confidence in him, yet with a party membership that refuse to countenance removing him as leader.

Corbyn’s popularity with members is rooted in the perceived authenticity of his views. His views are seen as having been consistent throughout his time in Parliament.

Against him are moderate MPs who are perceived by the party as careerist and unprincipled. This is unfair. But when Labour MPs can go from staunch advocates of the European Union with Freedom of Movement to wanting to end Freedom of Movement as a matter of urgency with such seeming ease because they think it will help them to win an election, is it any real surprise that members opt for Jeremy, the ‘man of principle’?

Mark Pack, contributor to Lib Dem Voice, wrote recently that in the Copeland by-election, his party should not be afraid to put off voters by being openly against nuclear power. His logic being that whilst it may put off voters involved in the nuclear industry, it would set out an honest stall of what the party stood for, building up a core vote for them to take forward to take to the next general election. It would also help counter the perennial accusation against the Lib Dems that their views changed from constituency to constituency depending on who their biggest threat was.

And I think he has a point. Labour are a party aiming for government and so should want to win elections. But we want to win elections in order to improve or transform people’s lives.

This lies at the heart of Jeremy Corbyn’s current strategy of populism in the vein of Donald Trump. Not mirroring Trump in policy or style but in being seen as genuinely authentic. This is why members like him. It is why he had such a difficult day earlier this week; because he was trying to advocate something he didn’t want to advocate. My advice, were I one of Corbyn’s advisers trying to sort out the presentation issues, would be to be himself and say what he thinks.

My advice to moderates is that it is no longer good enough to be focused on winning elections.

The Owen Smith campaign showed that it is not enough to simply tell the Labour membership that you have a better chance of winning an election than Jeremy Corbyn.

This means refusing to follow the electorate everywhere they want to go, especially when you know it will damage the country. And that means not necessarily going with them on immigration.

So for Moderates instead of showing how their programme will improve Labour’s fortunes and dabbling with policies or politics that they nor the party genuinely want, should instead be showing how their programme will improve people’s lives. Or there is no point to them.

By Cllr. Sean Woodcock

Councillor Sean Woodcock, The Labour Party Candidate for Banbury Constituency in the 2015 General Election


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