Thursday, 28 April 2016

Why the anti-Semitism row could pave the way for Corbyn's downfall

First of all, I have to lay some cards on the table. I do have a vested interest, as my father is Jewish. This makes me Jewish enough from a Nazi perspective to have been persecuted in Germany in the late 30s and early 40s. I would have been charmingly classed as a ‘Mischling of the Second Degree’ under the terms of Hitler’s race laws.  My abhorrence of anti-Semitism is therefore quite visceral.

Labour has done exactly the right thing in suspending Naz Shah MP and Ken Livingstone for their recent comments. Unfortunately, there will be plenty of people now in the Party – or affiliated via the £3 sign-up scheme last year – who silently support their offensive views. That’s because the election campaign and subsequent elevation of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 opened the floodgates to cranks, extremists and a whole variety of people with far-left affiliations.

The argument of these people is that whenever they condemn Israel, they are accused of anti-Semitism. This is not true. I’m absolutely fine with people criticising the actions of the Israeli governments over the years. I would criticise many of them myself. You cross the line into anti-Semitism, however, when you confuse the Israeli government with the state of Israel as a whole or with Jewish people in general.

There are many who would prefer the state of Israel not to exist at all. These range from extremists on the far right to extremists on the far left and Islamic fundamentalists. For them, the term ‘Zionist’ and ‘Jew’ are often interchangeable. Privately, they wouldn’t distinguish between them, but they are usually canny enough to use ‘Zionist’ when publishing their opinions online or speaking in public. It becomes a kind of defensive shield for them. When they say ‘Zionist’ they think they are magically protected by a cloaking device against charges of anti-Semitism. But the Jewish community isn’t that stupid.

And so the debate goes on. It was much the same when I was involved in student politics in the 1980s. Now of course, under Corbyn, the whole of the Labour Party is reminiscent of 1980s student politics.

What’s interesting is that this furore could be a turning point in the battle to reverse the result of the disastrous leadership election of 2015.

There is little hope of changing the minds of the three-quid fly-by-nights who signed up last year specifically to vote for their hero Jez. These are his loyalists and he has their votes in the bag. I’m interested though in how other Labour Party members are feeling.

A good proportion of Corbyn’s votes came from well-meaning people who’d been members of Labour for years and felt uninspired by the rhetoric of the other candidates. These are folk who are left-leaning, often working in the public sector and opposed to austerity introduced in the UK after 2010.  Many were disillusioned by Tony Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq back in 2003.

There has, I’m sure, been a growing sense of unease within this part of the Labour electorate. They liked Corbyn’s politics, but many will have despaired over his gaffes and general incompetence since he assumed office. They will also be troubled by the fact that the Tories still lead in the most recent polls, despite a catalogue of catastrophic stories and splits in recent months. After the Budget, IDS, Tata Steel, the doctors’ dispute and so on, Labour is still behind. In their heart of hearts, they know Jez to be a loser, but they have a residual loyalty to him.

I feel the anti-Semitism row might just be a wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee moment. Most decent people know that Hitler was no Zionist and that there wasn’t any period before he ‘went mad’. They will know that Livingstone has previous on this issue and that he has been a big pal of Corbyn over the years. They will look at Bradford MP Naz Shah and feel distinctly uncomfortable. Is it really true, as MP Rupa Huq suggested, her behaviour was simply an example of someone sharing ‘silly pictures’ online?

They will think about two characters who’ve been suspended from the Labour Party and they’ll recall the embarrassment regarding Oxford University Labour Club and the other examples of anti-Semitic behaviour that have been documented recently. Will they conclude these are all isolated incidents that have been overblown? Stories about nothing which have been whipped up by the ‘pro-Israeli’ lobby?

I suspect – honest and sincere people that most of them are – that they will start to rethink their political stance just a little. The Labour moderates may be sensing some light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Why sovereignty won't save us from climate change or help us regulate banks

I had a short, but fairly intense, discussion with an avid Brexiter about the EU referendum the other day. His fundamental case for voting to break away on June 23rd was to reclaim British ‘sovereignty’. He yearned for a country with a Parliament that could make its own laws.

Of all the arguments advanced by the ‘leave’ campaign, the reclaiming of sovereignty is, to my mind the least compelling. Merriam-Webster defines the term as ‘unlimited power over a country’ or ‘a country’s independent authority and the right to govern itself’. It sounds fine in principle. Who could possibly disagree? But what exactly does it mean in the world of 2016?

Naturally I’m keen for the UK Parliament to retain power over matters that affect the British people. But over the past 20 years or so, we’ve made decisions that have transferred much of that power to other bodies, institutions and executives. The Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament are the most obvious examples, although the London Mayor has been slowly accruing more responsibilities too. Manchester was recently granted the power to control its health spending, conceivably paving the way for a two-tier NHS.

So we’re quite happy to transfer power downwards when we believe that certain decisions are better taken regionally or locally. And the reality is that other decisions are best taken at a level that goes beyond our national borders. Particularly when we’re talking about issues that transcend the boundaries of individual nation states. Climate change, for instance. Security against terrorism. The regulation of corporations and global financial institutions.

In order to act effectively at a multinational level, we need multinational government, just as much as we need local and regional government. And in order to achieve this goal, we pool our sovereignty with others. We make compromises. It’s what grown-ups do.

When we joined NATO, we accepted that our ability to make autonomous decisions on defence was limited. Under Article V, if one of our allies is attacked, we commit to defend them. We’re bound by the treaty to do so. We consciously restrict our ‘independent authority’ because we would like our allies to support us if we were attacked.

Of course, the Brexiters would no doubt say that the EU has become a monolithic bureaucracy, which sets its own agenda and direction under the influence of Germany and France. But the reality is that enormous checks and balances are included in the system – including the incredibly restrictive requirement for every single member state to agree most important changes. Perhaps if the UK had been a more willing and energetic participant in the European Union over the years, we would have shaped it in a way which is far more to our liking.

There are all kinds of figures kicked around for the percentage of UK laws supposedly originating in Brussels. But one thing the Brexiters need to be asked is exactly which of these laws cause them such great anxiety. Is it the ones that enhance the rights of employees? Those which give us clean beaches on which to sunbathe? Or the regulations that provide protection for consumers?

If you ask, you’re likely to get vague waffle about ‘red tape’ and a hotch-potch of old wives’ tales about the regulation of the size and shape of fruit. Put them on the spot. If they start talking about human rights, it’s hardly worth pointing out that the European Convention actually has nothing to do with the EU. Just tell them that most people actually quite like having some rights. Perhaps they’d care to explain why they don’t?

Allied to the protests about sovereignty is the bleating about democracy. Our government is democratic, whereas the EU is not. Well, our Parliament has an unelected second chamber of people appointed through political patronage. Hardly a paragon of democracy.

Our elected House of Commons survives on an archaic first-past-the-post voting system which wouldn’t pass the scrutiny of intelligent primary school children if they were told how it worked and asked to compare it to alternatives. Government ministers regularly use sweeping powers including so-called ‘statutory instruments’ to make changes to existing Acts of Parliament.

The European Parliament has actually gained in power and stature over the years. It was granted greater authority by the Single European Act in the 1980s and by treaties such as Maastricht and Lisbon. Has the authority of the British legislature been enhanced in any way over the same period?

So spare me the lectures. The EU isn’t perfect, but it might well be a much better place to tackle the really important issues facing all of us in the coming 50 years. Provided it’s not destroyed by those who hate its social agenda and politics of compromise.

Monday, 18 April 2016

The feedback loop from a Brexit vote will come back to haunt us

Two things really worry me about the EU referendum.

The first is the incoherent messages emanating from ‘remain’ supporters because of Labour’s determination to separate itself from the mainstream campaign fronted by David Cameron and George Osborne.  
Following the vote on Scottish independence, there has been an impression that any connection with the Tories is an electoral liability for Labour. South of the border, I very much doubt this is the case, even in the context of the recent string of PR disasters for the government.

Nevertheless, Corbyn insists on putting his own spin on the issues.

He proclaimed last week a ‘socialist’ argument for the EU, which seemed only designed to shore up the support of people on the far left who have yet to embrace their leader’s remarkable and Damascene conversion after 35 years of anti-European rhetoric. The Conservatives focus on the financial cost of quitting the trading bloc, while Labour talks of some imaginary world in which the EU transforms itself into a workers’ paradise.
My second concern is over the engagement of younger people. The polling evidence is that they may be less likely to vote, despite being broadly more pro-European than their parents and grandparents. As someone who teaches and trains a great many people who early in their professional careers, I can confirm that this nightmare scenario is borne out anecdotally. Chatting to people who were born in the early 90s, I sense only a vague awareness of the issues and a general sense of apathy.

It may be that the campaign will come to life in the coming weeks, but at the moment, I feel it is far more an obsession of the media elite than it is a preoccupation of ordinary people on the ground. How many posters are in windows and how many conversations are happening in pubs, gyms, supermarkets and around the kitchen table?

At this point, I don’t think we can discount the possibility of a narrow win for the Brexiters, particularly if the turnout doesn’t head far north of 50%. So it’s time to start preparing for the consequences – not just for the UK, but also for the EU as a whole.
One of the weirder aspects of the debate, whether we’re listening to ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’, is the belief that the June 23rd referendum is really just a matter for us.

It’s not.
If the UK voted to quit, the seismic shock to the wider union would clearly be at the upper end of the political Richter scale.

First and foremost, it would reignite the debate over the future of the Eurozone. If it’s possible for a major nation state to leave the EU as a whole, why should any country feel obliged to remain a part of the struggling (albeit moderately stabilised) single currency? The danger would move from the so-called ‘peripheral’ countries of Portugal, Ireland and Greece, which managed to hang on to Euro membership by the skin of their teeth, to major powers such as France, Italy and Germany, where there has been increasing disillusionment with the European project.
We may end up with a domino effect, as anti-EU factions of both left and right continue to gain ground across Europe. And while the initial clashes might be over the membership and operation of the single currency, it would all too quickly spill over into a discussion of EU membership as a whole.

The UK would be diminished internationally by a choice to exit the EU (particularly in the eyes of the world’s biggest economic powers, the USA and China), but the EU would itself be diminished by losing the UK. The world’s fifth largest economy abandoning the trading bloc is a monumental blow, no matter how good any subsequent bilateral deals.
So where might this leave us by, say, 2020?

The Eurozone is still precarious and any attempt by members to extricate themselves would almost certainly signal huge market shocks and the collapse of the currency. The recession that followed any disintegration would impact not just the members of the Euro, but also all the EU’s trading partners.  
Meanwhile, an increasingly incoherent and dysfunctional EU would find it harder to deal with the cross-border issues of terrorism, migration, climate change and financial regulation.

There’s a feedback loop here, which will become largely uncontrollable. The UK quits the EU with a view to being notionally in control of its own destiny. But in the process, it may hasten the demise of the EU itself. When that happens, we’ll find that we’ve set in motion a chain of events which will prove exactly how interlocked we are with our neighbours. Trying to forge new bilateral trading relations with countries mired in recession and grappling with nationalism and internal conflict will not be easy. Particularly when our own foolhardiness has played no small part in provoking the situation in which they find themselves.



Monday, 4 April 2016

Why Labour's silence on the EU is incredibly dumb

I do feel sorry for fans of Jeremy Corbyn.

No, seriously. 

There’s a hell of a lot of psychological turmoil involved in playing follow-my-leader these days.

I was talking to a Corbynista recently and she admitted that she signed petitions to protect the BBC, even though she didn’t actually watch or listen to any of its output. She’d gone ‘indie’ in recent years, feeling that the Corporation had abandoned its remit as a public-service broadcaster and simply followed a Tory agenda.

In other words, she buys into the narrative – quite common now on the left – that the ‘mainstream media’ cannot be trusted. But still she goes through the motions with the ‘save the BBC’ stuff online, perhaps out of some residual loyalty to what she imagines the institution might have been. Pretty weird stuff. Hard to get your head around.

No doubt, when confronted with the European referendum on 23rd June, she goes through the same agonising process.

In the eyes of the Corbynite left, the EU is a terrible institution, which screwed Greece and is determined to sign secretive trade agreements with the US, handing more power over to multinational corporations. Corbyn, of course, has spent his whole political career opposing the European project. But now his supporters hold their noses and say they support the ‘remain’ campaign. Maybe – just maybe – a better, kinder EU can be forged, they tell themselves, with the help of Jez and his pals in Podemos and Syriza.

But are they going to say anything positive in advance of the referendum? Are they going to speak to their relatives, friends and work colleagues in support of the EU?  Probably not. And if they do, there will be so much equivocation that the conversation will be next to useless.

And there’s the problem.

A poll in The Observer by Opinium shows that 40% of people don’t know what Jeremy Corbyn’s position on the EU referendum actually is.  More than one in ten people think that he is in favour of Brexit.

With two and half months to go until the vote, the Labour leader has been so unwilling or unable to mount a full-scale defence of the EU that he has left voters in the dark. Meanwhile, the appointed party spokesman on the issue – the affable and credible Alan Johnson –  appears to have been locked in an attic somewhere.

Polling evidence suggests that young people are much more inclined to want to stay in the EU, but are less likely to vote. Older folk tend to favour Brexit and are much more certain to turn up at the polling station. This presents a prime opportunity, surely, for Corbyn? His supporters claim that he has a large following among young people. So will he actually issue a rallying call? Somehow I doubt it.

Instead, he broadcasts an SOS to ‘Save Our Steel’ – certainly a worthy cause, but one which falls entirely within his natural comfort zone of backing trade unions and supporting old-style manufacturing. It reminds him no doubt of the ill-fated ‘Coal Not Dole’ struggle of 1984-5, which remains a massive ideological rallying point (or spectre, depending on your viewpoint) in the modern history of the British left.

While in no way belittling the strategic importance of the UK having its own steel production capacity, it is worth pointing out that the industry contributes the tiniest of fractions of the nation’s economic output in 2016.  We already only produce half the steel of Italy and about a sixth of the amount that comes out of the factories of South Korea. So if we’re concerned about the state of the UK economy and the long-term future of job security, by far the bigger issue of 2016 is whether or not we remain members of the European Union.

And ironically, of course, the steel issue is used by Brexiters to point out the failings of the EU to agree effective protectionist tariffs, as well as the UK’s supposed lack of control over its own destiny. So by placing such an emphasis on steel just two months away from a critical referendum, he succeeds simultaneously in diverting attention away from the much bigger economic problem and playing into the hands of the anti-Europe brigade.

As time ticks by, I have a worse and worse feeling about the EU referendum. If younger voters and Labour supporters broadly support the idea of staying in, but do not feel strongly motivated to vote, we may well sleepwalk into Brexit. If that happens, the consequences will go way beyond the UK and might spiral into a crisis for the whole continent. It would be terrible to think that this unfolding nightmare might be presaged by the Labour Party’s disastrous leadership election in 2015.