Grenfell Tower And Westminster’s Assault On Local Democracy

Kensington and Chelsea town hall

The latest casualty of the Grenfell Tower fire is local democracy

One of the key ideals of democracy – only ever half-heartedly observed in the United Kingdom – is the principle of subsidiarity, the notion that higher levels of government should take on only those duties which cannot be performed at a lower level by local officials more directly accountable to local people.

Most people would agree that local people are best placed to make decisions that directly affect them and their communities. Of course, in Britain this is balanced out by our terror at the thought of a “postcode lottery” when it comes to public service provision, that gnawing feeling that someone, somewhere might be getting a better deal from the government and that it would be far better if we all resign ourselves to the same low standard of uniform mediocrity than witness excellence in some places and failure in others (see the Cult of the NHS). But generally speaking, the principle of subsidiarity makes sense to people when it is explained in abstract.

It is sad, then, to see that the latest victim of the Grenfell Tower fire is (thankfully) not another person, but rather the ability of local councils, elected by local people, to manage their affairs in the way that suits them best. This was manifested today by Communities Secretary Sajid Javid’s request that the CEO of Kensington & Chelsea council submit his resignation as an act of public contrition for the council’s chaotic and disorganised response to the disaster.

From the Guardian:

The chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea council, Nicholas Holgate, has resigned after being asked to do so by the communities secretary, Sajid Javid. In a statement Holgate said that Javid “required the leader of the council to seek my resignation”.

His resignation comes after a tide of criticism of the council, not only for the way it responded to the Grenfell Tower tragedy but also for historical neglect of poorer residents of the borough and a neglect of social housing.

Holgate said: “Serving the families so desperately affected by the heartbreaking tragedy at Grenfell Tower remains the highest priority of the council. Despite my wish to have continued, in very challenging circumstances, to lead on the executive responsibilities of the council, I have decided that it is better to step down from my role, once an appropriate successor has been appointed.

He added: “Success in our efforts requires leadership across London that sustains the confidence and support of central government. There is a huge amount still to do for the victims of the fire, requiring the full attention of this council and many others. If I stayed in post, my presence would be a distraction.”

The local council has instead been instructed to “work in a new way with different partners” going forward until the disaster relief efforts are concluded.

In some ways this speaks to the urgent need to reform Britain’s lacklustre civil contingencies protocols, which (as this blog discussed yesterday in detail) were proven not fit for purpose, with contradictory guidance about who has ultimate ownership for disaster recovery and unclear lines of communication between local government, national government and the emergency services.

But more worrying, from a democratic perspective, is the fact that the Communities Secretary has the power to unilaterally intervene and demand that a local council fire one of its own officers – for any reason, let alone mere bad optics.

Personally, I have never seen the great wisdom in councils hiring Chief Executives to effectively run their jurisdictions. One wonders what the job of councillors is supposed to be, if not that very thing. Far better to have directly elected mayors with real executive responsibility – and in the case of London, powers should either be vested in the office of Mayor of London or in elected mini-mayors for each individual borough – who are then responsible for running the machinery of local government.

To separate out the roles of political leadership and administration is itself to subvert the democratic process, as elected councillors are essentially divesting themselves of any direct responsibility for running their own fiefdoms while giving considerable power to a typically overpaid and unremarkable individual who is not directly accountable to voters. This gives local elected officials “plausible deniability” when anything goes wrong – including disasters such as the Grenfell Tower fire. Rather than holding local politicians to account for their failures, instead the unelected CEO is offered up as a sacrifice to soak up the public rage while elected officials serenely glide on as though nothing had happened. This is no model for democracy.

But even though the CEO model is clearly flawed, it certainly should not be any business of central government in Westminster how the people of the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea manage their affairs. If people were politically engaged and had the will to do so – and if local elections were more than a glorified opinion poll in the gaps between general elections – then the local people could demand that the council dismiss their chief executive, or else punish the ruling party at the ballot box. But because we in this country look to central government to solve literally every one of our problems (and central government happily grants itself the authority to try), most people don’t care how their local government is organised. Turnout figures for any local election make this immediately plain.

Ultimately, there are two dangers here. The first is that by forcing the resignation of the Kensington & Chelsea Council chief executive – a huge overreach of authority by an already overcentralised Westminster government – we essentially paper over all of the cracks and flaws in our emergency response protocols. Rather than asking deep and searching questions about what went wrong at every stage of the process, we instead simply pat ourselves on the back for having forced one particular figurehead (or scapegoat) to resign and congratulate ourselves for a job well done.

But the second danger is the continued, seemingly limitless growth of the state. What is the point in having local elections or having a layer of local government if its decisions and appointments are to be arbitrarily second-guessed and overruled by Westminster? Sajid Javid is accountable to nobody in Kensington & Chelsea, and yet he saw fit to dismiss a local official whom local officials had entrusted with the running of the borough. This is appalling, and people should be outraged.

Never mind that the mere presence of an unelected borough chief executive is itself a shameful abdication of responsibility by local politicians and one of the key reasons why there are so few opportunities for elected officials to gain real executive experience in local government before seeking higher office. Ultimately, if Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council want to run their administration in this ludicrous way and the people are lethargic enough to allow it to continue, then Westminster has no business meddling in their affairs and picking and choosing who should be allowed to perform that role.

Some aspects of government – such as emergency response and disaster recovery – clearly require the close interaction of different levels of government and a variety of different agencies. But who Kensington and Chelsea council choose to keep in the position of chief executive should have absolutely nothing to do with Sajid Javid, Theresa May or anybody else in central government.

When it comes to designing protocols and procedures which clearly spell out how these different levels of government and different agencies work together during the emergency response and disaster recovery phases, there is clearly a vital role for national government. That is exactly the kind of high-level central planning that national government is designed to do. But when it comes to deciding who can and cannot serve in a position reporting to local government, Westminster needs to butt out. It sets a terrible precedent and undermines what little local democracy we actually have in Britain.

We are all outraged by the Grenfell Tower fire and we all want to see tangible actions taken to hold those responsible to account and prevent future occurrences. But mindlessly clapping along as the state makes yet another power grab and undermines the very idea of local democracy even further is not a sensible response to last week’s tragedy.

Theresa May’s beleaguered government has enough to be getting on with at the moment, without acting like a glorified parish council on top of everything else. We must stop encouraging Westminster to do so, and demand a revolution in local government instead.

 

Kensington Town Hall Protests - Grenfell Tower

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The SpAdocracy And Theresa May’s Flawed Manifesto Plans For Social Care

The Thick Of It

Social care funding and other important policy questions are too important to be decided solely by a couple of Bright Young Things and Special Advisers ensconced in Downing Street

The problem with Theresa May’s disastrous, miscalculated decision to shoehorn dramatic changes to the funding of social care into the Conservative (In Name Only) manifesto – and then perform a humiliating U-turn live on TV – is that it was cooked up by a couple of her closest, most trusted advisers and then foisted on the Conservative Party and the country with zero wider consultation.

The Guardian lifts the veil on the dysfunctional Court of Theresa May:

The manifesto for Mayism was stitched together on an upper floor of Conservative campaign headquarters over the past few weeks by a tight-knit team of the prime minister’s most trusted advisers.

While May has been out on the road giving stump speeches nearly every day, her policy team has been holed up in Matthew Parker Street in Westminster composing a document intended to redefine Conservatism, drawing a line under the elitism of the Cameron era and the individualism of Thatcher.

The document is pitched as representing May’s firmly held world view, but it also has the fingerprints of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, her two co-chiefs of staff, all over it.

The pair, who reigned supreme over May’s Home Office, have been the subject of complaints from MPs that they act like deputy prime ministers instead of Downing Street aides. Now the election campaign has started, they run the show at CCHQ with a tight grip.

Who needs cabinet ministers, think tanks, non-profit organisations, lobbyists, the general public or anybody else in the political ecosystem when you have two loyal SpAds ready and willing to deconstruct and rebuild core functions of the state quietly, in the shadows?

More:

MPs have complained privately over the past 10 months about the centralised nature of Downing Street, with May, Timothy and Hill sucking policy decisions away from Whitehall departments and other ministers. It comes as no surprise to them that May’s campaign focuses on her personal leadership qualities to the exclusion of other senior figures in the party, with the case for that focus bolstered by the prime minister’s strong poll ratings.

Cabinet ministers say they are not being sidelined, although the reality looks somewhat different. Of 15 campaign events for the press held by the Tories so far, all but one have been fronted by May herself, speaking of “strong and stable leadership” and the need for a mandate to carry through Brexit at every opportunity.

A few – including Boris Johnson, Michael Fallon, Amber Rudd and David Davis – have been used for some media interviews, but they are mainly kept away at constituency visits. By Wednesday, senior cabinet ministers such as Philip Hammond, Johnson and Rudd had seen the manifesto and approved its contents.

But its composition was very much a matter for May’s inner circle.

It is quite frightening to realise just how quickly harebrained, incomplete and otherwise controversial policies can find themselves shoehorned into a party manifesto (and then swiftly become law) if they are adopted and pushed by a well-connected member of the SpAd-ocracy.

In fact, prior to calling the general election the Conservatives had planned to hold at least a basic level of consultation on reforming social care, but some bright spark apparently decided that it would be far simpler to ram the changes through by including half-baked ideas as firm manifesto pledges, as the Telegraph reports:

Politicians who will deliver the Conservatives’ new care policy if they win re-election were left in the dark about their manifesto commitments, it can be revealed.

Senior Government sources have told The Sunday Telegraph they were left “completely surprised” by the wide-ranging package of reforms announced this week.

A series of social care policies were due to be put out to consultation this summer, including some of those adopted by the party in its manifesto.

However the changes would have been followed by months of consideration with less political risk if they were dropped or altered after industry feedback.

As I type, Theresa May is scrambling to defend her social care policy and her broader judgment in a television interview with Andrew Neil (the closest that the prime minister will condescend to participating in a debate) and frankly failing miserably, all of which could have been avoided if her core team behaved less arrogantly and if British political parties sought to formulate and enact legislation in a more open, inclusive way.

When President Barack Obama sought to overhaul the American healthcare system early in his first term, he didn’t slap a fully worked-out, prescriptive solution for single-payer healthcare on the table and demand that everybody get behind the main principles “or else”. While American conservatives rightly point out that the extensive consultation exercise was partly cosmetic and not nearly as welcoming of right wing input as it was portrayed, the fact remains that when American political leaders wanted to change something which impacted millions of people and a significant share of the US economy, there was a consultation (or at least the pretence of a consultation) before the first draft was issued. Sure, congressmen were expected to vote on the final bill having had only a few hours to read it, if they could even be bothered, but this was after every aspect of healthcare reform had been discussed in excruciating detail in committees, public town halls and in smoke-filled rooms with the special interests who (rightly or wrongly) have the power to make or break reforms.

This style of policymaking seems to be anathema to the British system. When David Cameron won re-election in 2015 based in no small part on the promise to hold an EU referendum, he cooked up his own list of demands for the European Union and marched off  to Brussels to negotiate them (and we all know how well that worked out). Cameron and his team presumed to know – without engaging in any special consultation, public or otherwise – exactly what changes the British people wanted to see in our relationship with the EU, without once bothering to actually ask our opinion. The only thing more laughable than David Cameron deciding on our behalf what issues to raise with Brussels was the fact that they still sent him away empty-handed and humiliated. This arrogant, presumptuous approach to government was, and nearly always will be, a recipe for failure.

Few people would disagree that the way we fund social care needs to be tweaked at the very least, if not wholesale reformed. But doing so is an enormously complex process, involving the intersecting demands and interests of numerous groups and political principles. There are the interests of homeowners, taxpayers, council and private care providers, current and future care recipients, all of which will be in competition with one another and must be balanced to maintain a functional system.

But whatever one’s view on the ideal model solution, the manifesto pledge as it stands – together with recent panicked talk of a potential “cap” on care payments, made after four days of relentlessly negative headlines – seems politically naive at best. It is a blunt policy solution, a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and the kind of half-baked idea that would have been kept firmly away from the media had there been any serious ministerial input to the drafting of the Tory manifesto.

Now, there is nothing wrong in principle with having a core team of advisers and ideological kindred spirits aiding a new prime minister as she seeks to put her stamp on the party and the country. Margaret Thatcher did just that when she came to power in 1979, bearing the ideas of the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies. As Leader of the Opposition she had read the famous “Stepping Stones” report which diagnosed Britain’s ailments and proposed radical solutions to lift Britain out of near-terminal economic decline.

But the emergency circumstances in which Thatcher pushed through her reforms were far different to today’s more benign environment. When the country faces existential threat, as we did in the late 1970s, some justification can be made for strong and decisive leadership which doesn’t wait around seeking to hand-hold and achieve consensus before acting. And while some people with a flair for the dramatic might claim that Brexit represents a similar crisis, Brexit and the rise of populism is far more a crisis of political legitimacy than economic survival – and political legitimacy is undermined, not improved, by ramming through ill-considered reforms to the social care system.

Ultimately, the cause of good policymaking is never well served when a couple of “Bright Young Thing” Special Advisers – often with wide but shallow portfolios, and no democratic mandate of their own – decide to rewrite government policy and plan to reshape our national institutions on the back of a napkin. I’m sure that Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, Theresa May’s collective brain trust, are extraordinarily bright and capable people – on paper, at least. But the accumulation of evidence increasingly suggests that they lack street smarts, let alone a decent political radar, which is rather strange given their respective biographies. Ted Sorensen they are not.

Hopefully Theresa May will learn from this debacle. She intends to lead the country – never mind the Conservative Party – in a direction that many people have reservations about, some of them quite justified. To succeed in office, she will need to draw on the best that the entire conservative movement has to offer, including those wings of the party that she continues to vilify (cough, libertarians).

And for somebody like Theresa May, a self-confessed pragmatist with no overarching vision for government of her own, that means widening the circle and taking some more advice before tearing up the social contract, crashing out of the single market without a transitional arrangement or implementing Ed Miliband’s 2015 Labour manifesto by the back door.

 

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Stop Applauding “Election Fatigued” Brenda From Bristol

If you are emotionally taxed by having to trundle off to your local polling station once a year, maybe you don’t deserve the privileges of citizenship

I know that the cardinal rule of politics is that the people are always right (unless they happened to vote for Brexit) and must be praised, flattered, bribed and otherwise pandered to at all times, but sometimes individual people are wrong and need to be told as much.

Among this category of people: those who have been extravagantly expressing election fatigue, as though having to spend 30 minutes travelling to their local polling station and putting a cross in a box is far too arduous a task to be demanded on anything more than a biannual basis.

On the day that Theresa May announced that she would seek an early general election on 8 June, “Brenda from Bristol” became an overnight celebrity for her comically exaggerated negative response to a BBC reporter’s request for a vox pop asking her opinion on having to choose a government again.

Naturally in this day and age, Brenda from Bristol immediately went viral, as George Osborne’s rag the Evening Standard reports:

A woman from Bristol whose nonplussed response to news of the General Election sparked a wave of support across the country has told reporters she cannot believe her new “celebrity” status.

Brenda from Bristol caused a stir this week when she was asked what she thought of the election and replied: “You’re joking? Not another one!”

“Oh for God’s sake, I can’t honestly… I can’t stand this.

“There’s too much politics going on at the moment. Why does she need to do it?”

She was later tracked down by BBC reporter John Kay who asked her what she thought of her newfound fame.

According to the same report, Brenda from Bristol is now being “inundated with offers” from other media outlets to offer her comically exaggerated world-weary take on the election campaign on an ongoing basis, by news outlets that would rather get their viewers to chuckle along to something inane than attempt the hard work of educating them on matters of policy.

Meanwhile, nobody seems to have stopped to question whether throwing a hissy fit about being summoned back to the polling station is actually praiseworthy behaviour in the first place.

Even the normally aloof and anti-populist New Statesman sycophantically applauds Brenda from Bristol’s anti-election tirade:

What was your reaction when you found out that there would be yet another election?

That your doormat would no longer be a doormat but a hellish rectangle tiled with garish leaflets of smiling white men making hollow promises? That the only thing on the news now will be people saying the word mandate with increasing passion and intensity? That your Facebook wall will no longer be a heartwarming collage of when you first virtually connected with your lifelong friends but one long sincere ill-written political screed with neither paragraph nor point, but asterisks nonetheless? That you will have to wake up, yet again, dead-eyed and clammy-skinned, on the morning after an election, yet again, to your radio telling you your country voted, yet again, to kick itself wholeheartedly in the teeth?

From the highbrow to the lowbrow press, in other words, Brenda from Bristol is being held up as a role model, lavishly rewarded for a fleeting moment of pointless fame in much the same way that Abby Tomlinson was forced into our collective consciousness after creating the “Milifandom” on social media.

‘Twas ever thus. Pitch a memorable hissy fit on Question Time or heckle a senior politician while the cameras are rolling and the nation’s political media will beat a path to your door as though you are some kind of political oracle, uniquely able to capture and channel the zeitgeist of the moment. Spend your time wading through important but impossibly dense documents and breaking them down so that regular people can get to grips with complex policy issues (as Richard North of eureferendum.com and Pete North do so well) and you can look forward to toiling in semi-obscurity, senior journalists well aware of who you are but determined to keep the spotlight away from anybody they consider to be a professional threat.

In a year’s time, Brenda from Bristol will likely have her own talk show, in which fawning politicians will appear to be mockingly berated for trying her patience. Or some enterprising millennial will have set up a YouTube channel for her, in which she records two-minute rants about various policy issues which grind her gears or overly stretch her powers of concentration.

And why? What did Brenda from Bristol do to deserve this fame and this overwhelmingly positive public reaction? She suggested that there is “too much politics”, and that it is unreasonable for ordinary people to march themselves down to a polling station as frequently as once per year to offer their input as to how the country should be run.

Brenda from Bristol is essentially Richard Dawkins’s haughty attitude about non-experts daring to dabble in politics made flesh. Dawkins is famously of the opinion that matters like Britain’s membership of the European Union are so complex and so technocratic that they should be taken permanently out of the hands of ordinary people and left to self-described experts, who of course think dispassionately at all times and are never prone to biases or antipathies which colour their judgments.

This is the real reason why the media is so overwhelmingly supportive of Brenda from Bristol, and why she is receiving so much unearned airtime. Most political journalists are themselves members of the political and cultural elite who have been most upset by Tory rule and further destabilised by Brexit. Nearly to the last person, they support the EU and revile populism because at their core they believe that the people and their base passions should be kept at arm’s length from the levers of political control.

Sure, the political and media class were happy for us to vote once every five years so long as we were picking from a palette of political opinions which are all just varying shades of beige – pro-EU, pro-mass immigration, pro-globalisation, pro-multiculturalism, pro-NHS, pro-welfare state and so on. But when true democratic choice becomes available – as it was with Brexit, and as Jeremy Corbyn currently offers with the Labour Party – they take fright, worried that the British people will select a future for themselves other than the one which the elite have carefully laid out.

No wonder that Brenda from Bristol unwittingly became their idol. Albeit for very different reasons – sheer laziness on the part of Brenda, a desire to regain the initiative and take back control on the part of the elite – both of them want the same thing. Both Brenda and the political elite want ordinary people to outsource the major decisions impacting their lives to an elite class of self-described experts. They essentially support technocracy over democracy.

The rise of Brenda from Bristol therefore damns us all. It puts much of our political and media class to shame for disrespecting democracy and seeking to put down the growing rebellion against self-interested rule of the elites, by the elites and for the elites. But it also puts we the people to shame for being so lacking in political engagement and civic virtue that we genuinely consider it an unwarranted imposition to have to remain educated on political matters throughout the five-year electoral cycle.

Brenda from Bristol represents a shared desire for a return to the stale old status quo, where bipartisan consensus on all the core questions made a mockery of democracy and rendered general elections a mere “rubber stamp” occasionally given by the people to the political elite.

For the sake of all the work we have done to overthrow this failed model of governance, we should stop praising her.

 

Brenda from Bristol - UK Britain General Election 2017 - Voter Apathy

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Will The Snap General Election Damage Trust In Politicians?

Theresa May - Snap General Election 8 June 2017

Does the prime minister’s decision to call a snap general election damage trust in politicians? No, but the actions of those MPs fighting a desperate rearguard attempt to overturn the referendum result and thwart Brexit certainly will

The received wisdom among the punditocracy seems to be that Theresa May has seriously damaged the public trust in her own leadership, and in the character of politicians in general, by reversing her earlier statements and calling a snap general election for 8 June.

The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman seems to be taking particular offence, singling out this decision as being emblematic of why voters distrust politicians and hold them in such low regard.

This might be true on the margins, but I would argue that most people do not devote a huge amount of time to storing up resentments over acts of political skulduggery and gamesmanship which impact the careers of individual MPs far more than the country as a whole.

The real reason for flatlining public trust in politicians is the fact that successive ministers, parties and MPs have continually promised radical change and sweeping improvement while offering nearly identical variants of the same centrist political consensus. People distrust politicians because for years they have claimed to hear public concern and anxiety about numerous issues – immigration levels, EU membership, state involvement in the economy, foreign policy – and then gone and done exactly what they wanted to do in the first place, without taking those concerns into account. People get angry about the real, material policy betrayals, not the cosmetic political ones.

Promising to cut net inward migration to the “tens of thousands” (wise or not) and then missing the mark by a factor of ten is liable to make people distrust politicians because it is a real and tangible failure. Offering a “cast iron guarantee” to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and then performing a complete U-turn is liable to make people distrust politicians because it actively takes away something that was promised to the electorate. By contrast, electoral shenanigans barely register on the same scale.

And yet the narrative that Theresa May has supposedly mortally wounded voter trust in politicians continues to grow, like a massive snowball picking up debris as it rolls down a hill:

Meanwhile, Isabel Hardman writes:

Today Theresa May broke her own promise about there being no early general election [..] She had been so adamant that even those who thought they knew her best after years of working together in Opposition and government had taken her at her world and were insisting until recently that May believed in keeping her promises and that there would be no snap general election.

[..] Oddly one of her complaints was that Westminster wasn’t ‘coming together’ after the referendum, as though it would be better if everyone agreed on everything she suggested, because consensus is such a good way of refining legislation so that it leaves Westminster in good shape.

This is great snark, but poor analysis. While unthinking, automatic consensus are never good, neither is blind, unreasonable opposition. The task before MPs is to help ensure that the UK achieves the best possible form of Brexit, given the clear instruction given by the British people to engineer Britain’s exit from the European Union. Yet there are many MPs – the entire SNP and LibDem caucuses, for instance – who have zero interest in abiding by the referendum result, and in fact have openly declared their intention to scupper the result and prevent Brexit by any means necessary and via any opportunity which can be grasped.

This is not reasonable. This is not respecting the will of the people as expressed through a majority of voters in a referendum whose legitimacy none of them complained about when they expected to win. In fact, this is deeply unreasonable.

To use a comparison from America, the behaviour of many Remainer MPs can be likened to Republican Senator Mitch McConnell declaring that the GOP’s main objective was to make Barack Obama a one-term president – not to help ensure American success despite their ideological differences, but to blindly and angrily oppose everything just for the sake of it in order to weaken the president. A temper tantrum rather than constructive opposition.

One can also compare the attitude of die-hard Remainers to the US Republican Party strategy when ObamaCare was being debated in Congress. Here was a president with a mandate and a congressional supermajority, but rather than engaging with the legislative process to inject conservative thinking and ideas into the eventual bill, the Republicans again chose blind opposition – including opposing policy ideas (such as the individual mandate) which were once approved by conservative think tanks and enacted by conservative governors. The result was a flawed attempt at American healthcare reform, which fell far short of achieving universal coverage or access and giving almost none of the parties what they really wanted (either single-payer or a deregulated insurance market).

Remainer MPs have a chance now to engage with the Brexit process, to apply pressure to help achieve the best kind of Brexit – in this blog’s view, an interim Norway-style option which preserves maximal single market access and avoids having to draw up alternative trade, regulation and customs arrangements against the clock. But this already unlikely goal cannot be achieved so long as so many Remainer MPs openly salivate at the idea of blocking Brexit altogether and brazenly boast about their intention to blindly oppose everything that this “Evil Tory” government tries to do.

Theresa May was right to state that Westminster needs to “come together” – not in blind obedience to a Tory manifesto but in acknowledgement of a legitimate referendum outcome which must now be enacted. Under this umbrella of basic respect for democracy there exists a vast spectrum for disagreement and opposition of particular policies and ideas, as is right for a liberal democracy. But unless we observe common rules and accept certain undeniable facts then we cannot work together productively.

Presently, too many pro-EU Remainer politicians are choosing the path of blind opposition as opposed to constructive engagement. They refuse to live in the real-world universe where they lost the EU referendum and the Brexiteers won. Living in denial is certainly their right – but in doing so they have given Theresa May exactly the cover that she needed to call this early general election.

Hardman concludes:

Actually, politicians are decent people, and all people can end up breaking promises. But the problem is that the voters have the same childlike sense of justice that doesn’t easily forget those broken promises (remember what happened to the Lib Dems in 2015 after their broken tuition fee pledge?)

Anyone who has worked with children who have been neglected in their early years knows that keeping promises is even more important, as each broken promise hurts terribly and reminds the child of the pain they felt when they were younger. Voters as a whole aren’t vulnerable in the same way, but they consistently show the same frustration with politicians when asked for their attitudes towards them in polls. And whatever they may say about their commitment to public service, but Theresa May and David Cameron have in recent years made it even harder for politicians as a group to gain the public’s trust.

This is a little condescending to voters, but there is some truth in it. I wouldn’t necessarily describe voter anger at broken material promises by politicians as being “childlike”. Rather, I think it represents that innate sense of fair play which is common to children and decent adults alike.

Promises should certainly be kept, but let us not pretend for another moment that all political promises are created equal. David Cameron standing down as an MP after first promising to stay on, and Theresa May holding a snap general election after promising not to do so – these acts simply do not offend the public trust as much as other, far more significant policy betrayals committed by all parties of government in recent decades.

Perhaps it is easy to lose perspective as an establishment journalist used to following every detail of the Westminster Game of Thrones, but out in the country actual tangible outcomes matter far more than the kind of palace intrigue which fascinates The Spectator.

But as even some Remainers (at least those outside of Parliament and the political elite) now realise, attempting to thwart the outcome of the EU referendum – either through procedural shenanigans or attempting to roll the dice with a second referendum, ignoring the fact that Article 50 has already been triggered – deeply offends that sense of fair play, and does so far more egregiously than Theresa May’s broken promise about not holding a general election until 2020.

 

David Cameron confronted by angry voter

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MPs Allege Foreign Hacking Of The EU Referendum, Provide No Evidence

Russia - Vladimir Putin - Brexit - EU Referendum - Hacking - Theresa May

Cynical, calculating and alarmist MPs are undermining faith in democracy with their conspiratorial anti-Brexit shenanigans

“A voter registration site that crashed in the run-up to last year’s EU referendum could have been targeted by a foreign cyber attack, MPs say”, screeches the BBC.

The Guardian, spurred by its anti-Brexit bias to step even further over the line of journalistic responsibility, declares “MPs are concerned about allegations governments including Russia and China may have interfered with EU referendum website”.

Wow. One might think that there would be some solid evidence, a “smoking gun” or at least an accumulation of circumstantial evidence for MPs to use their public prominence and access to media platforms to make such an accusation.

But we live in an age when the political establishment, spurned by the electorate and destabilised by defeats such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, have found solace in the kind of comforting conspiracy theories which they once decried. And so today we woke up to the insinuation that Russia (or some other foreign power, but really Russia) had covertly intervened in last year’s EU referendum and swung the result in favour of Brexit.

From the Guardian’s alarmist article:

Foreign governments such as Russia and China may have been involved in the collapse of a voter registration website in the run-up to the EU referendum, a committee of MPs has claimed.

A report by the Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee (PACAC) said MPs were deeply concerned about the allegations of foreign interference in last year’s Brexit vote.

The committee does not identify who may have been responsible, but has noted that both Russia and China use an approach to cyber-attacks based on an understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals.

The findings follow repeated claims that Russia has been involved in trying to influence the US and French presidential elections.

My emphasis in bold. In other words, MPs of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee went on the record to insinuate that a foreign power attempted to manipulate the EU referendum result while supplying zero evidence in support of their claim. Apparently their “concerns” were deemed worthy of inclusion in a lessons learned report on the EU referendum, even though none of the MPs on the committee could provide a single justification other than base paranoia.

The relevant section of the report states the following:

The Register to Vote website crashed on the evening of 7 June 2016. The Government has stated that this was due to an exceptional surge in demand, partly due to confusion as to whether individuals needed to register to vote. The Government should develop an online service to enable people to check whether they are already correctly registered. However, the Government clearly failed to undertake the necessary level of testing and precautions required to mitigate against any such surge in applications. The Association of Electoral Administrators criticised the government and the Electoral Commission for a clear lack of contingency planning.

We do not rule out the possibility that there was foreign interference in the EU referendum caused by a DDOS (distributed denial of service attack) using botnets, though we do not believe that any such interference had any material effect on the outcome of the EU referendum. Lessons in respect of the protection and resilience against possible foreign interference in IT systems that are critical for the functioning of the democratic process must extend beyond the technical. The US and UK understanding of ‘cyber’ is predominantly technical and computer-network based, while Russia and China use a cognitive approach based on understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals. We commend the Government for promoting cyber security as a major issue for the UK. We recommend permanent machinery for monitoring cyber activity in respect of elections and referendums be established, for promoting cyber security and resilience from potential attacks, and to put plans and machinery in place to respond to and to contain such attacks if they occur.

But rather than providing corroborative detail in the body of the report, the committee merely restate the unfounded allegations:

102. Although the Committee has no direct evidence, it considers that it is important to be aware of the potential for foreign interference in elections or referendums. The report on lessons learned from the website crash described it as “technical in nature, gaps in technical ownership and risk management contributed to the problem, and prevented it from being mitigated in advance”.138 However the crash had indications of being a DDOS (distributed denial of service) ‘attack’. We understand that this is very common and easy to do with botnets. There can be many reasons why people initiate a DDOS: commercial (e.g. one company bringing down a competitor’s website to disrupt sales); legal (e.g. a law enforcement agency wanting to disturb criminal activity on Darknet); political; etc. The key indicants are timing and relative volume rate.

103. PACAC does not rule out the possibility that the crash may have been caused by a DDOS (distributed denial of service attack) using botnets. Lessons in respect of the protection and resilience against possible foreign interference in IT systems that are critical for the functioning of the democratic process must extend beyond the technical. The US and UK understanding of ‘cyber’ is predominantly technical and computer-network based. For example, Russia and China use a cognitive approach based on understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals. The implications of this different understanding of cyber-attack, as purely technical or as reaching beyond the digital to influence public opinion, for the interference in elections and referendums are clear. PACAC is deeply concerned about these allegations about foreign interference.

Now this is just plain self-contradictory. The committee state correctly that rival powers such as Russia and China use a “cognitive approach” to their cyber warfare efforts, seeking to influence the minds of electors through dissemination of fake news and targeted releases of stolen information to undermine public confidence in one or other side of a political debate. This formed much of the controversy over the allegations of Russian hacking of the US presidential election, with some people arguing that Russia deliberately hacked and then leaked damaging information about the Clinton campaign to Wikileaks while withholding any damaging information about the Trump campaign.

However, the type of hacking described (or imagined) by the MPs in their report is a distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack, which is a technical, web-based attack designed to target computer systems and websites, not human minds. The MPs already conceded that the temporary unavailability of the voter registration website had no material impact on the outcome of the referendum; therefore, for Russian or Chinese cyber activity to have had any effect on the Brexit vote would have required them to have engaged in cognitive hacking – and the committee provides zero evidence, not even a suggestion, that this took place.

And besides, Russia had no need to wage the kind of “cognitive” cyber warfare that they are accused of deploying against the United States. Vladimir Putin didn’t need to hack David Cameron’s emails and leak the contents to Wikileaks for us to find out that he, and the rest of Britain’s political elite, considered eurosceptics to be “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” – the kind of damaging private remark that rightfully helped to erode trust in Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. No, David Cameron was bold enough to let the country know exactly what he thought of the 52% who ended up voting for Brexit, back in 2006 on a live radio show.

And interestingly, in 87 pages of findings, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee – so concerned about the influence of foreign powers on our sacred democratic process – could not spare a sentence, let alone a paragraph, to censure David Cameron for inviting President Barack Obama to a Downing Street press conference for the sole purpose of browbeating the British public and threatening us with being sent to the “back of the queue” in terms of a future trade agreement with the United States. In a supposedly comprehensive review of how the EU referendum was planned and executed, was this not worth a mention?

And what about David Cameron’s flagrant breach of purdah rules by making a speech from the steps of Downing Street during the prohibited period? Again, this egregious violation of the letter and spirit of the referendum rules is apparently not worth analysis or mention by the committee, who seem only too happy to ignore elected officials and civil servants deceiving and influencing voters in real life while getting worked up about unfounded allegations of foreign interference.

PACAC has every right – indeed a responsibility – to be concerned about foreign interference in British democracy, and to apply pressure to the government to do more to guard against such interference where appropriate. But in their “Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum” report, all the committee have done is foment unfounded suspicions of foreign interference – an attempt to hack the Brexit vote which does not even match the profile of the type of cyber warfare favoured by Russia and China – knowing that it will be picked up and repeated by a credulous media who care more about a dramatic headline than the mundane reality.

Everyone will read the headlines declaring “MPs suspect Russian and Chinese intervention in the EU referendum”. Far fewer people will read down a few paragraphs into the various articles and realise that the paranoid, grandstanding MPs offered zero evidence to support their incendiary claims, and in fact destroyed their credibility through contradictory allegations. Fewer still will make it to the bottom of the 87-page report and realise that the alarmist claim is supported by just two meagre footnotes, neither of which provide a link to additional sources.

MPs are savvy people, and they know how the media works. By including this unfounded allegation on page 5 of their report, in the executive summary, they knew that it would be picked up by the media, especially those credulous and anti-Brexit parts of the media who might seek to spin this “news” in as defamatory way as possible to undermine public confidence in the referendum and in Brexit as a desirable outcome. That the PACAC chairman, Bernard Jenkin, was a founding director of Vote Leave only makes the appearance of such unsubstantiated, manipulative remarks in the published report even more perplexing.

As a tactic employed by losers fighting a desperate rearguard battle against Brexit, throwing mud at the legitimacy of the EU referendum in the hope that some of it might stick is an understandable, if still reprehensible ploy. But persisting with this behaviour will have grave and wide-reaching consequences.

Brendan O’Neill gets it right:

MPs say foreign states may have tampered with the EU referendum registration website and helped to bring about Brexit. The big ridiculous babies. It’s David Icke meets Veruca Salt, half conspiracy theory, half tinny tantrum over the fact that for the first time in their pampered political lives they didn’t get what they wanted. Grow up. It wasn’t sinister foreign agents who crushed your political dreams — it was us!

Absolutely.

Faith in the British political and media class is already at a nadir. Any further transparent attempts to manipulate public opinion with unfounded accusations and cynical attempts to delegitimise the referendum outcome – a continuance of Project Fear from beyond the grave – will only create an even greater crisis of legitimacy.

 

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