Theresa May Calls A General Election: First Reaction

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Here we go again

Okay, here is my hot warm lukewarm tepid pretty cold take on Theresa May’s shock announcement that the government will seek to trigger a general election on 8 June.

After a Scottish independence referendum in 2014, a general election in 2015 and an EU secession referendum in 2016, can we really muster the energy and enthusiasm for another vote in 2017?

Well, now we don’t have a choice (not that thinking a bit about the issues and then strolling to your local polling booth is very difficult). Theresa May made a bold decision to reverse her earlier protestations to the contrary and call an early general election, and from a purely party political perspective it was the smart move. Besides the jubilant Liberal Democrats, many of the whiners and naysayers on the opposition benches are unimpressed, bordering on terrified.

Many on the Left have been trying to have it both ways, first by criticising our “unelected” prime minister for daring to lead without an electoral mandate of her own, and now by carping at her decision to go the the public to seek that very mandate. It appears that “put up or shut up” time has snuck up on them.

But how does each party stand to fare in a June general election?

 

Labour

First and foremost, this is a richly deserved disaster for the Labour Party. Dan Hodges has already taken to Twitter trying to pin the blame for the party’s coming annihilation on Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, but this is to mistake the symptom for the disease.

Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership and retained it following the coup attempt – both times cheered on by this blog – because unlike the third rate nonentities who currently make up the centrist wing of the party, the Corbynites clearly stand for something. You may not like what they stand for – indeed, opinion polls show that most of the country strongly dislikes the hard left agenda – but at least they have clearly demonstrable values and principles which extend beyond the acquisition and retention of power.

What have the Labour centrists offered since around 2005? Nothing but bland, focus-grouped banalities, preaching enlightened compassion while shoring up a failing consensus (pro-EU, pro-mass immigration, eager to reap the benefits of globalisation but even more eager to throw its victims on the welfare scrapheap rather than help them adapt to the new world) that betrays the interests of its core working class (and principled eurosceptic) vote.

The Corbynite revolution gave the indolent centrists a richly deserved kicking, but Corbynism – with is aversion to patriotism, obsession with nationalisation and statism, obsessively anti-American foreign policy and seething hostility toward wealth generation – is not the solution, but rather a fringe obsession. Throw in the fact that even many Corbyn true believers disagree with Corbyn’s principled euroscepticism (one of the few issues where he happens to be right), and there are more faults running through the Labour Party than they can possibly resolve in the weeks leading up to 8 May.

The key test will be the writing and release of the Labour Party manifesto. Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour Party must quickly produce a compelling vision for the country that appeals to Corbynite true believers while not scaring off the rest of the country. Sounds impossible? That’s probably because it is.

And after the election? If (as seems likely) Labour end up treading water or going backwards, will that be the end of Jeremy Corbyn and Corbynism? Maybe, maybe not. You can pretty much find a pundit to tell you exactly what you want to hear on that question, depending on your own proclivities. But the centrists’ only hope is to hang the party’s impending defeat firmly around Jeremy Corbyn’s neck so as to discredit his worldview and leadership.

I half wondered whether some panicked shadow cabinet members might try to engineer another last-minute coup to depose Corbyn and replace him with a caretaker leader to see the party through 8 June, but it seems unlikely. The centrists have proven time and again that they lack all courage and conviction, and since victory seems impossible under any circumstances it is better from their perspective to let a general election defeat do what they themselves could not – rid the party of Jeremy Corbyn.

But if Labour does go on to lose the election and Corbyn then resigns, will what follows be any better? The last Labour leadership contest should tell you all you need to know about the calibre of individuals waiting in the wings to succeed Jeremy Corbyn.

 

Conservatives

One may not agree with Theresa May on all things – this blog certainly has sharp differences, particularly on the manner of Brexit and the role of the state – but one would be hard pressed to argue that she is an incompetent leader, particularly in comparison with the other party leaders. The public sense this too, which is why the Tories currently have a 20+ point lead over Labour in the opinion polls, why even many Labour supporters prefer Theresa May to Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister, and why the Conservatives will increase their majority following the election.

However, the Tories may not gain as many seats as their current commanding poll lead suggests. Some Tory MPs in staunchly Remain-supporting constituencies are vulnerable, particularly those who unseated Liberal Democrat MPs in 2015. Meanwhile, the Tories are potentially poised to pick up some seats from unapologetic Remainer Labour MPs representing constituencies which voted Leave, particularly in Northern England. Therefore we are likely to see a degree of musical chairs, where some formerly Tory seats go LibDem while the Tories pick up a number of seats from Labour. In my opinion, the net effect will favour the Tories (and the Liberal Democrats) at the expense of Labour, but the extent to which this is the case remains open for debate.

More interesting, though, is the likely impact on the composition and mindset of the Conservative Party following the election, assuming that they are returned to government. This will likely be a Tory party where some of its more pro-EU MPs are gone (excellent), but which also suffers from the loss of those MPs who otherwise exerted a more liberal influence on the government. The authoritarians and the head-in-the-sand hard Brexiteers will likely be strengthened and consolidate their grip over the party, which is a problem for anybody who wanted Brexit to act as a catalyst for further liberal reform and democratic or constitutional renewal in Britain.

 

Liberal Democrats

The LibDems did not deserve their electoral drubbing in 2015, in which they were essentially punished for finally behaving like a responsible party of government and abandoning an unworkable campaign pledge (on university tuition fee caps) in the face of fiscal reality. For this act – for graduating from a party of preening opposition to one of government – they were subject to endless hysterical screeds about “betrayal”, and lost the bulk of their parliamentary party in the process.

Just as the LibDems did not deserve the full extent of their defeat in 2015, so they will not have deserved their likely gains in 2017, which will be fuelled by marshalling hysterical establishment opposition to the outcome of the EU referendum. The party will likely pick up a brace of seats – many retaken from the Conservatives – based solely on their pledge to campaign against a “hard Brexit” they will be powerless to stop. At one time, the Liberal Democrats might have presented a potential fallback option for disenchanted Conservative voters unhappy at the more authoritarian direction of their party. No more. Under Tim Farron, the party has descended into screechy europhilia and blind hatred of that half of the country which voted for Brexit. Civil liberties and other one-time LibDem interests will take a back seat to their efforts to subvert Brexit.

As a further complication, the kind of Brexit that the LibDems now technically argue for is actually not inherently bad in the short term – retaining single market access, openness to immigration etc. But the LibDems are not to be trusted, because:

  1. Their true agenda is to reverse Brexit entirely, not merely to seek the best form of Brexit, and
  2. Rather than pushing for better models of European cooperation and trade regulation, the LibDems seek only to keep Britain as closely shackled as possible to the existing, failed systems. For a party which likes to present itself as the home of enlightened, grown-up pragmatism, the LibDems take their europhilia like a religion, worshipping the EU as something inherently good and never to be seriously questioned.

Finally, Tim Farron is already picking up a lot of flack in left-wing papers and on social media for his fundamentalist Christian beliefs, particularly as they pertain to homosexuality.

This is a shameful, ridiculous witch hunt. So what if Farron refused three times to say whether he considers gay sex to be a sin, as his moralistic tormentors are currently crowing in a bid to damage him? Does anybody seriously think that the Liberal Democrat manifesto is going to call for the recriminalisation of homosexuality, for putting sodomy laws back on the statute books? Be serious. There is a world of difference between private belief and public policy.

There has to be space for private religious belief in this country. Secularists have a fair point when they worry about the influence of religion on public policy, particularly given that we have a legislature where 26 unelected bishops of the Church of England sit in the upper house and meddle in our lawmaking. But religious faith should not and must not become an acid test of eligibility for public office, where anybody professing faith or traditional beliefs is portrayed as extreme and beyond the pale.

More than anything, this is a witch-hunt against Christianity, one which will be cynically used by the other parties of the left as they manoeuvre for political advantage. Interestingly, Islam also has a word or two to say about homosexuality, and one can argue that Islam has a lot further to go than Christianity in accommodating LGBT people and issues, certainly in this country. But one wonders how many of the perpetually outraged critics of Tim Farron would be as fervent in their criticism if Farron were a Muslim rather than an Evil, Backward Christian?

 

UKIP

I voted for UKIP back in the 2015 general election, not as an endorsement of that party’s more nativist, reactionary tendencies but as a means of expressing disgust in a Conservative Party which had drifted far from conservative principles under the leadership of David Cameron, and whose slide toward bland centrism did not deserve rewarding with my vote. I stand by that decision.

Needless to say, the landscape has changed in two years. Nigel Farage – a man with considerable political courage, if also numerous faults and demagogic tendencies – has retreated to the sidelines, if not quite sailed off into the sunset. And after a period of instability the party has settled on Paul Nuttall, who has shrunk into his leadership position, more of an inept clown than an existential threat to Labour’s Northern base.

Furthermore, the party’s raison d’être was essentially accomplished with last year’s referendum vote to leave the European Union. The party limps on, near bankruptcy and desperately insisting that its existence remains necessary as the guard dog of a hard Brexit, but most people either feel that the job is done following the triggering of Article 50 or realise that a party in such turmoil will be in no position to influence events any further, regardless.

The writing has been on the wall for some time. I attended the UKIP Party Conference in Doncaster in 2015, and spent my time interviewing various party figures and supporters about what role they saw for the party in a post-referendum Britain. Most senior UKIP figures, including Nigel Farage, spoke only in bland banalities.

Only Douglas Carswell had a plausible answer – a return to small-government, free trade, small-L libertarian platform – but this side was never likely to win out over the leftward turn to appeal to disaffected Labour voters. And indeed, Carswell has now left the party to stand as an independent candidate, firmly closing the door on any move in this direction.

At present, UKIP seem doomed to lurch incompetently to the Left, willingly shedding any remaining libertarian voters as they court the disaffected Labour vote by promising the same kind of consequence-free safety and security that Donald Trump promised to his supporters in America. A sad decline of a briefly promising political party.

Nobody can deny the influence that UKIP has had on our national politics. Nobody can say for sure that UKIP will not bounce back from their current political near death experience. But we can say with relative certainty that the party will fail to impress in 2017.

My take from the UKIP conference two years ago seems increasingly prescient:

I can’t help wondering if UKIP might not pay a price in 2017 or beyond for failing to pay enough heed to the type of party they want to be – and the type of supporters they want – by the time of the next general election.

I think it is fair to say that UKIP will now pay in a lump for their lack of foresight.

 

Scottish National Party

Nicola Sturgeon was quick to declare that Theresa May’s decision to call for a general election is a “political miscalculation”.

Sturgeon said:

“She [Theresa May] is clearly betting that the Tories can win a bigger majority in England given the utter disarray in the Labour Party.”

“That makes it all the important that Scotland is protected from a Tory Party which now sees the chance of grabbing control of government for many years to come and moving the UK further to the right – forcing through a hard Brexit and imposing deeper cuts in the process.”

Because in Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s mind, Scotland is a nation of adult-sized, diaper-clad babies requiring constant protection from the Evil Tor-ees, who are constantly threatening to do Bad Things like lower the tax burden and unleash free enterprise.

Will the SNP manage to sweep the three Scottish constituencies they failed to capture in 2015, or will they lose seats? One can only imagine that they will do very well again, and use their strong showing as an excuse to prance around acting as though the couple of million votes they received from a tightly concentrated part of the United Kingdom represent some God-given, stonking mandate to thwart Brexit for the rest of us or else attempt to sever Scotland’s historic union with the UK through another pointless referendum (they would lose, since the choice would be between remaining in the UK or being outside both the UK and EU).

At some point, one might hope that Scottish voters might look around them and realise what godawful, incompetent government they are receiving by lending such overwhelming support to the SNP. One might hope that those Scots who love liberty might balk at a party which introduces an authoritarian “named person scheme” giving the government oversight of every Scottish child, and whose decision to centralise the fire and police services into single unitary authorities is already costing lives. One might hope that Scots who are against independence or ambivalent about it might decide to stop rewarding a party which has abdicated any responsibility for government in favour of a single-minded obsession with independence, even after the 2014 referendum, to the extent that no legislation has passed the Scottish Parliament for over a year.

But all such hopes will be in vain. The SNP will perform well once again, racking up credulous low-information votes in defiance of their abysmal governing in Scotland and the scandal-plagued, ineffectiveTartan Tea Party in Westminster. By their actions and apparent preference for living in a one-party SNP statelet within the United Kingdom, Scottish voters are choosing to deliberately sever themselves from our shared national political discussion.

If the SNP is all but guaranteed to clean up regardless of their abysmal record in government and the ineffectiveness of their Westminster caucus, what incentive do the other parties have to make compelling pitches for Scottish votes, since these pitches will always be ignored? By choosing to half sever themselves from our United Kingdom with blind support for the SNP, Scottish voters are in danger of completely severing themselves from our national political discourse.

This is a tragedy, but it is a tragedy very much of Scotland’s own making.

 

Britain’s Rainbow, Unicorn-Spangled Progressive Alliance

Ah yes, the super-secret, silent progressive majority which is going to come together in the spirit of unity to lock the Evil Tor-ees out of Downing Street forever and save Britain from the evils of conservatism. Didn’t exist then, doesn’t exist now.

Disregard any breathless commentary about a Labour-LibDem-Green-SNP alliance.

 

Conclusion

One wonders what was the point in instituting a Fixed Term Parliaments Act if we were only to discard the idea of fixed terms for political expediency at the first opportunity.

Generally speaking, fixed terms of government are a good idea, but it must be acknowledged that they usually do not work well in a parliamentary system. Excuses can always be found to justify circumventing the normal timelines and going to the polls early, particularly when the government’s majority is small or when the country faces a particularly contentious issue which bisects normal party lines. The present situation meets both of these criteria.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early general election was clearly motivated by the opportunity to extend the Tory advantage in Parliament, with her stated rationale about “Westminster being divided while the country is not” being a convenient smokescreen. But that’s politics. If people didn’t like the idea of snap elections held for partisan reasons they had every opportunity to become more involved in campaigns for electoral and constitutional reform. Those who spend their time watching Britain’s Celebrity Horses Dancing On Ice and ignoring the nuts and bold of how their country is run have limited standing when it comes to complaining about outcomes they dislike.

Furthermore, those on the Left who spent the last nine months complaining that Theresa May has no mandate to govern can’t very well also complain when the prime minister responds to their wailing by seeking to claim an electoral mandate of her own. This applies particularly to snivelling Labour MPs (Liz McInnes) who seek to use the death of their own family members as political capital.

Brendan O’Neill perfectly critiques this attitude:

The speed with which Remainers went from saying “May doesn’t have a mandate for Brexit” to “How dare May seek a mandate for Brexit” is breathtaking. All that “no mandate” talk was such hogwash. They know there’s a mandate out there for Brexit — a historic, populous, swirling mandate — and they are horrified that it is being tapped into once again via a General Election.

It’s clear now that by “no mandate” they meant “ignore that mandate”. They thought they had wrestled the issue of the EU, and the whole question of Britain’s political and economic future, back from the people and into the hands of their expert friends and legal minds and level-headed lords and MPs. Wrong. Here come the people again!

When it comes to a summary of where we stand and predictions as to the likely outcome, Pete North makes the most sense as it relates to the election’s impact on Brexit:

If it is to be a shadow referendum then remain has already lost it given that their options are split and they’ve spent the last year telling most people they’re thick and xenophobic. I think it’s fair to say that the Lib Dems will achieve a restoration of a sort but there’s not much to get excited about. It is possible that they could form the next official opposition but by then Mrs May will have all the mandate she needs to do whatever she wants. There will have been a referendum, a parliamentary vote, article 50 and a general election. We are leaving the EU and that’s the end of it.

If I had to make a bet, I would predict that the next two months will see a lot of noise and intrigue followed by an electoral outcome not dissimilar to the one we have today, only with a slightly larger Conservative Party caucus gained at Labour’s expense and a moderately revitalised Liberal Democrat party who then go on to strut around as though their 30-odd seats represent some kind of stunning repudiation of the referendum result. UKIP and the Green Party will go nowhere, and by reaffirming Scotland as a de facto one-party statelet by rewarding the SNP for a job disastrously done, Scottish voters will continue to make themselves increasingly irrelevant to the UK-wide political debate.

Maybe I’ll be proven wrong. Maybe the Independent will come out with a hidden video recording of Theresa May murdering puppies a week before polling day, or maybe some of our EU “friends” will make some kind of infantile play to destabilise the British political situation for their own sadistic gratification. Perhaps Theresa May will astonish me and turn out to be pursuing an expanded Tory majority because she does in fact have an ideological backbone, and needs the wiggle room in Parliament to ram through a proper reforming Conservative agenda. Perhaps.

But if I had to guess right now, I would say that on 9 June we will be looking at “the same, but more of it”.

 

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

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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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Article 50 Appeal: How Can The British People Respect A Remote And Opaque Judiciary They Do Not Understand?

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The nation’s eyes were fixed today on the UK Supreme Court as it hears the government’s appeal to overturn a High Court ruling that ministers cannot trigger Article 50 and begin the formal Brexit process without first winning a vote of MPs in parliament. But the arcane, complex and remote British judicial system makes it almost impossible for even informed citizens to follow proceedings or judge the validity of the court’s eventual findings for themselves

Unlike the much more famous United States Supreme Court, the UK Supreme Court is televised – anybody can log onto the court’s website and watch cases being heard via live webcast, including the momentous case currently before the court, in which the government is appealing a High Court ruling that ministers cannot trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to formally begin the Brexit process without first gaining the assent of MPs in a parliamentary vote.

And so today the British news channels spent large parts of the day simply broadcasting the goings-on in Court room 1, where the appeal is being heard. Anybody with a passing interest was able to tune in and watch for themselves as the government’s legal team, led by the Attorney General, made their case to the eleven justices (incidentally the first time that all eleven had sat together for the same case).

And yet despite this wall-to-wall media coverage, I doubt that more than a fraction of those who watched any of the proceedings really understood what was happening, or could place the appeal and the arguments being made in the context of Britain’s judicial system and how it fits into our system of government. I include myself in that group of confused onlookers. And if citizens do not understand the basic workings of one of the three branches of government, how are they to know whether the decisions reached are just and legitimate? And how are they to confer their own legitimacy of acceptance upon those institutions?

If a case about mass surveillance makes it to the US Supreme Court, many Americans will automatically recognise that this concerns the Fourth Amendment (forbidding unreasonable searches and seizures of property by government). They may not know much more than that, but the fact that America has a written constitution gives even ill-educated citizens a basic frame of reference when discussing newsworthy legal matters, while a fundamental education in civics teaches them that a president or Congress cannot simply override the rulings of the Supreme Court if they find them inconvenient – and that trying to sidestep the court by amending the Constitution is prohibitively difficult, thus forming one of the famous “checks and balances” in the American system of government.

Contrast this basic civic awareness in America with the dire state of affairs in Britain. Although I do not have an opinion poll to back me up, I would be surprised if one third of British citizens knew that we even had a Supreme Court (it was only founded in 2009, taking over from the previous Law Lords), let alone the names of a single one of its justices.

(Incidentally, the PC Left and rabid practitioners of identity politics are missing a trick here – ten of the eleven current justices of the UK Supreme Court are old white men, with the remaining justice an old white woman. Are these people really the most qualified for the job, or did they get their positions through the chumocracy and establishment connections? Why is there no public confirmation process, to give democratic oversight to the selection of new justices, as there is in America? And yet how many times has the UK Supreme Court been picketed by angry Social Justice Warriors demanding gender and ethnic balance on the court? Never.)

I will be honest and start by admitting that prior to the EU referendum campaign this year, I could only name one justice of the UK Supreme Court – Lord Neuberger, the court’s president. And that’s awful. I write about politics and UK current affairs every day and consume several hours of news on television, the internet and social media besides, but I could only name one person on the bench of the UK Supreme Court. I could speak for hours about the US Supreme Court, its current and past justices and many of the famous cases it has decided, but not so for the Supreme Court of my own country. And if I can’t rattle off a handful of facts and names together with a brief commentary on their respective legal and ideological outlooks, how many people are actually able to do so?

How many laymen – people without a direct professional or personal interest in the workings or judgements of the court – actually do know who sits on the UK’s Supreme Court? How many could explain at a high level how the judicial system works, with the division between civil and criminal court, the work done by solicitors and barristers, and the hierarchy of trial and appellate courts? Or the difference between the Scottish system and that of England and Wales? All that I currently know, I learned from an Introduction to Business Law course while studying at university – there were no civics lessons in the 1990s National Curriculum while I was at school. And many others will not have even received this basic primer.

But how are we to fulfil our potential as informed and engaged citizens when we fail to understand how one of the three major branches of government works? Most people have a passable grasp of the executive and the legislature, even if they don’t recognise the Government and the Houses of Parliament using those terms. But I very much doubt that one adult in twenty could explain the fundamentals of our legal system, let alone the many layered intricacies.

But flip it around. Why would we know how our legal system works, or recognise the major personalities in the British legal scene? And why should we bother to take the time to educate ourselves?

People in America know the names and ideological leanings of the justices on their Supreme Court for a number of reasons. For a start, they take their civics a little bit more seriously on that side of the Atlantic – something that we could learn from.

But more than that, the American legal system is far more responsive to the citizenry than the British system is to us. One major difference is that many local judges are elected. Now, this may or may not be a good idea – and having watched a number of local races for positions on the bench, I have my grave doubts as to the wisdom of elected judges. But you can’t deny that you are likely to feel much closer to the legal system if you have a direct say in who gets to don the black robes.

Even more important is the fact that unlike we Brits, Americans have a written constitution to act as a common frame of reference when talking about legal matters. Even half-educated Americans will talk about whether something is “constitutional” or not, and apply this test to all manner of public policy debates, from government surveillance to gay marriage. This is important, because it gets people thinking beyond the mere fact of whether they agree or disagree with a particular law, and toward the broader question of exactly why the law in question is good or bad. That’s not to say the ensuing debate cannot still be ignorant and intemperate – it often is – but at least everyone is able to take part in the debate along the same parameters.

Consider the Edward Snowden leaks, when one whistleblower’s actions laid bare the extent of secret government surveillance in Britain, America and the other “Five Eyes” countries. In America, the people – outraged at this secret, systemic violation of their privacy – were able to haul officials in front of congressional committees and debate the legality of the government’s actions with reference to the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures of property. And in due course, the American government had to make a number of concessions and restrict its surveillance activity. In Britain, by contrast, we had David Cameron and Theresa May pompously telling us that they respect the “tradition of liberty” but are basically going to do whatever they want. And what recourse had we to stop them? None.

Then there is the central role which the US Supreme Court often plays in matters of great social importance in America. In Britain, Parliament’s “elected dictatorship” is the Alpha and the Omega for nearly all significant decisions made in this country – the government can pass or repeal any law almost at will and with no reference to any higher text or law, so long as it can muster the votes in the House of Commons. The courts then simply apply what has been handed down by Parliament, which is sovereign. Refreshingly, this is not so in the United States.

Consider just some of the most famous cases – household names, even to those of us living in Britain. Dred ScottCitizens United. Roe vs Wade. Brown vs Board of Education. We may know next to nothing about American current affairs, but we know that these relate to slavery, campaign finance, abortion and racial segregation. Because in America, the president is not the only person who matters in politics. Nor are the leaders of Congress. The third branch of government matters equally, and how the Supreme Court chooses which cases to hear and applies their interpretation of the Constitution to those cases constitutes a vital check and balance in the American system.

Can you name a comparably important British legal case? They do exist – the Al Rawi case, for example, with its implications for the legality of secret hearings, or Nicklinson vs Ministry of Justice, which confirmed the current illegality of voluntary euthanasia, or the “right to die”. But few people know about these cases or why they are important, because the British legal system is so much more remote and unaccountable to the people.

Finally, there is the question of sovereignty. The United States Supreme Court is the final arbiter of what is and is not constitutional, and therefore applicable to American citizens. It cannot be shunted aside by an impatient government if it holds up or overturns key legislation, and nor can it be undermined from the outside – the court determines for itself which cases it will hear, and a majority decision made by five out of nine Supreme Court justices will then bind the government and lower courts. This goes against everything that the current British establishment – who are only too happy to wreck every institution and overturn any tradition in pursuit of their short term goals – stands for.

But crucially, the US Supreme Court is also not subordinate to any external or foreign body. By contrast, until Brexit is completed, the UK Supreme Court is treaty-bound to defer to the decisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), and must interpret all UK legislation not through the lens of compatibility with a British constitution, but rather to ensure its compliance with EU law and the European Convention of Human Rights.

This begs the question why we as a country do not trust ourselves enough to be the final arbiter of important issues affecting our society. Are we naturally more corrupt, untrustworthy or barbarous than our European neighbours, and in need of constant judicial restraint by our moral betters on the continent? Whatever the answer, the inescapable truth is that legal subjugation to an external, supranational body is the antithesis of national democracy.

So to recap, there exist a number of deficits between the American and UK legal systems in terms of ensuring citizen understanding and engagement with the judicial branch of government, namely:

1. A weaker sense of civic duty and engagement in Britain

2. Greater democratic distance between the people and the legal system in Britain, compared to America

3. Lack of a written British constitution as a common frame of reference when discussing legal matters

4. A much clearer link between decisions made in the US Supreme Court with American social policy

5. Lack of sovereignty: the American legal system is sovereign and subordinate to no external body, unlike the British legal system which (for now) remains subordinate to EU law

But in 2016, in the wake of the Brexit vote and with a key court case relating to the government’s execution of the referendum mandate to leave the EU having reached the Supreme Court, there is simply no good argument for continuing to abide such a remote, elitist and unaccountable legal system as we suffer in Britain. None. Especially when other countries, including our closest ally, have demonstrated a far better approach.

And anybody tempted to sniff haughtily at the American system, with their elected lower court judges and Scopes Monkey Trial culture wars should remember that however passionate and unseemly the public discourse can sometimes be across the Atlantic, this is only because more American people are actually engaged citizens with a moderate grasp of how their country actually works, and therefore confident enough to participate in that process. We should be so lucky to have a system as simple, accessible and easy to explain as they have in the United States.

And it should be a source of great shame to us that our journalists, politicians and private citizens often know more about another country’s legal system through watching Hollywood movies or Law & Order than they do about our own.

Right now, the American public is fixated on the issue of who President-elect Donald Trump will nominate to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the late Antonin Scalia – a first rate mind and writer of opinions and dissents which are accessible and entertaining even to laymen like myself. Americans care about who takes up the ninth seat on their Supreme Court, because unlike Britain, their legal system is clearly more than a plaything of the establishment or a rubber stamp for the government of the day.

The ninth justice of the US Supreme Court may well end up casting crucial swing votes in important matters of human governance in the next decades, such as the right to bear arms in self defence, the right to privacy and the right to free speech. And these decisions could well have tangible, real-world consequences for the 330 million people who live under the court’s jurisdiction.

Elevating the people and the institutions into the public consciousness is not crass sensationalism, as some may charge. On the contrary, focusing on the personalities helps to elevate the issues to a place of prominence in our public discourse, which is exactly what we should be doing here if our own elites were not so busy trying to hide from public accountability anywhere they can scurry – be it behind the black veil of EU lawmaking in Brussels or the bewigged, dusty obscurity of the British legal system.

It will be ironic if it takes a bitter legal dispute over a referendum fought partly over the principle of restoring the supremacy of British laws to force Britain to finally take a proper, critical look at our currently impenetrable legal system. But public interest in legal matters peaks only very rarely, and so those of us who want to see real legal and constitutional reform have a slim opportunity – but also an obligation – to make our case.

For as things stand, a constitution and legal system in force over 3,000 miles and an ocean apart often feels more familiar – and less remote – than our own.

As things stand, the highest court in our country is hearing arguments and preparing to make a decision concerning the most significant political change to come to Britain since the Second World War, yet for most of us, the judges and lawyers may just as well be speaking in Klingon for all that we will learn from the proceedings.

And a legal system which is made deliberately opaque and inaccessible by definition can neither claim legitimacy nor deliver justice, on the Article 50 appeal or anything else.

 

Supreme Court Justices - United Kingdom

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Problematising Boundary Review Is Just A Way Of Entrenching The Labour Party’s Structural Privilege

parliament-westminster

There are many obvious reasons for delaying or scrapping the upcoming constituency boundary review changes – but no good ones

See what I did with the headline there? Right-wingers can adopt the wheedling, victimhood-soaked language of the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics too, if we think it is going to advance our cause or smite our enemies.

Left Foot Forward editor Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is in high dudgeon because the coming boundary review and shrinkage of the House of Commons from 650 seats to a slightly more manageable 600 MPs apparently means that too many of those who are left will be on the government payroll.

Ní Mhaoileoin writes:

The government’s plan to cut the size of parliament will increase the proportion of MPs on the government payroll, the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) has flagged.

According to new research, in a 600-seat Commons some 23 per cent of MPs would be on the government payroll, the highest proportion ever. The ERS warns that this could have ‘deeply worrying’ effects on parliamentary scrutiny and is calling for a cap on the number of payroll MPs.

‘This research shows we risk a crisis of scrutiny if the cut in MPs goes ahead without a corresponding cap on the number of payroll MPs,’ ERS chief executive Katie Ghose commented.

Having nearly a quarter of all MPs in the pocket of the PM is not a healthy situation for our democracy.

I think we can all agree that a body tasked with holding the executive to account which itself includes government ministers, parliamentary private secretaries and other hangers-on is always going to struggle to do an effective job – which is why many of us who think and care about constitutional issues all the time (as opposed to only when the system throws up a result we don’t like or disfavours our own preferred party) favour the total separation of the executive and the legislature.

Conservatives and progressives could potentially work together on reducing the size and cost of government while improving oversight by reducing the number of unnecessary junior ministers and official bag carriers, were it not for the leftist desire to have a government minister for everything under the sun, from Culture, Media and Sport to “Children, Young People and Families”. When your political philosophy expects and demands that the state be involved in every aspect of our lives, it inevitably necessitates a large cohort of ministers to do the meddling.

A cap on government payroll MPs would nonetheless be a reasonable (if typically British) compromise, but of course this is not what Ní Mhaoileoin really wants. And what Ní Mhaoileoin really wants is to maintain the current structural privilege currently enjoyed by the Labour Party. As Labour tends to perform best in urban seats, which themselves tend to be smaller and less populated than the suburban and rural constituencies where the Conservatives do well, the net effect for many years has been that it takes far fewer votes to elect a Labour MP than a Conservative MP.

Think of the gross anomaly whereby the SNP won 56 seats in Parliament at the 2015 general election with just 1.5 million votes, while UKIP won just a single seat despite winning 3.9 million votes. In the case of Labour and the Conservatives, the disparity is less pronounced – but it still exists. Boundary reform seeks to equalise constituency sizes, thus addressing the problem (though sadly not helping UKIP, who do not boast the SNP’s narrow geographic concentration of support). And this equalisation will enforce a basic fairness, the value of which makes it worth suffering through any negative side effects, particularly where these can reasonably be mitigated.

The concerns about the upcoming boundary review are well-rehearsed and rapidly becoming tedious. One might take them more seriously if those who raise the concerns showed any interest in solving or overcoming the issues that they raise rather than cynically using them as an excuse to halt something which – despite its inherent merit – is likely to be detrimental to the Labour Party’s electoral fortunes.

In short, this overwrought leftist concern about a toothless Parliament in the pocket of Theresa May is merely an attempt to problematise the issue of boundary reform, throwing a spanner in the works to prevent electoral disadvantage to Labour. Ní Mhaoileoin is doubtless in favour of reducing the size of the Commons as an abstrat theory, and if she were pressed through a hypothetical example would likely object to the current distribution of voters among seats which favours one party over another. But because the currently-favoured party in our system is Labour, and because Labour stands to lose out in relation to the Tories through this particular boundary review, Niamh feels compelled to oppose it.

But how to oppose something that is so self-evidently worthwhile and logical? The only way is to go grasping for every last flaw or possible technical hurdle in the review, inflating them out of all proportion and presenting each one as a show-stopper (or at least as justifiable grounds for interminable delay). As with the British Left’s general approach to Brexit, Ní Mhaoileoin is desperately problematising the boundary review, hoping to scupper it without ever having to reveal her true, grubby, anti-democratic reasons for doing so.

Smart politics? Maybe. The principled, moral, liberal thing to do? Absolutely not. Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin’s position is actually profoundly conservative – and not in a good way.

But apparently any behaviour, no matter how tawdry and self-serving, becomes noble and virtuous when it is performed in the service of the Labour Party.

boundary-commission-for-england

Top Image: Wikimedia Commons

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Julia Hartley-Brewer Is Wrong To Fear Mandatory Reselection Of MPs

Why are conservatives so concerned that the Labour Party is moving in a more socialist direction?

On last night’s Question Time, journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer – a journalist with whom this blog often agrees – held forth on the state of the Labour Party, and calls by some activists for the implementation of mandatory re-selection of MPs prior to a general election in order to make the Parliamentary Labour Party more representative of the membership.

Huffington Post reports:

Journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer said Britons would “never elect a Socialist Government” on Thursday’s edition of the programme, as Corbyn is expected to be re-elected Labour leader easily on Saturday.

She was speaking after Blairite Labour MP Liz Kendall was the target of an audience member who advocated the mandatory re-selection of MPs before they could defend their seats in a General Election, something Corbyn supporters could use to remove those critical of the Labour Party leader.

“What a depressing conversation, genuinely,” Hartley-Brewer said.

“I’m a great believer in democracy. The thing about democracy is you have a Government but you also have Her Majesty’s Opposition.

“The reality is the Labour Party needs to make a decision about whether it wants to be a serious alternative Government in waiting or a Friday night Marxist book club. It can’t be both.”

This, of course, is a common refrain from conservative types either hoping to have some fun at Labour’s expense or express genuine concern about what they see as an unbalancing of Britain’s political system.

Personally, I don’t understand why so many prominent movement Conservatives – people who would never vote Labour in a million years – are so upset that the Labour Party is once again expressing genuine socialist tendencies, and desperate for it to tack back to the centre and become an electoral threat to the Tories again. Even after the EU referendum have these people learned nothing about the dangers of a stultifying cross-party consensus in the middle of British politics which shuts out whole swathes of people who dare to hold staunchly conservative or socialist (or individualist/authoritarian) beliefs?

The Huffington Post continues:

Hartley Brewer then defended [Liz] Kendall, calling her a “very good, very sensible hard-working MP” who “talks about the real issues affecting real people”. She bemoaned the fate of Labour MPs who face either “deselection for speaking sense” or losing their seats at an election.

I can’t help but feel that Julia Hartley-Brewer is failing to consider the upside of mandatory reselection for conservatives. Finally, real small government conservatives would have a mechanism to get rid of statist, pro-European Tory-lite interlopers like the pointless Anna Soubry, and those numerous other MPs who pretended to be staunchly eurosceptic during their initial constituency selection procedures only to come running to the Remain campaign like loyal dogs the moment that David Cameron snapped his fingers. Don’t Conservative Party members deserve a parliamentary party – and a government – which more closely reflects their interests and priorities, too? And what better way to do this than through mandatory reselection?

Yet many people with whom this blog usually finds common cause seem to see this issue differently. They seem aghast at the idea that a party founded on socialist ideals should actually dare to be socialist, which is puzzling to me. Julia Hartley-Brewer will probably never vote Labour for the remainder of her lifetime – so why the concern that Labour avoid becoming a “Marxist book club”? At a time when the Conservative Party is so soul-sappingly centrist in outlook, would she really rather have a battle-ready, equally centrist Labour Party nipping at its heels?

As this blog recently commented:

It is as though it is no longer enough for the party we personally support to reflect our own views and priorities – we now expect opposing parties to reflect them too. This is a politically stultifying and increasingly ludicrous state of affairs. As a small-c conservative I believe strongly in maintaining our nuclear deterrent, a strong military, the NATO alliance, low taxes and small government. But I don’t for a moment expect the leader of the Labour Party to hold these exact positions, too. And while it would be calamitous were Jeremy Corbyn to become prime minister by some dark miracle and actually enact all of his policies, I trust in the wisdom of the British people to see through his policies and reject Corbynism at the ballot box.

And that’s the difference, I suppose, between this blog and the political and media establishment. I trust the people to look at the political parties and refuse to vote for a party campaigning on a manifesto which is so clearly damaging to our economy and national interests. The establishment do not trust the people, because they do not respect the people. They have no faith that the British people will make rational decisions when presented with a range of political alternatives – therefore they see it as their job to artificially limit our choice beforehand, taking certain options off the table by declaring them “unacceptable” and suppressing their very discussion by mainstream politicians.

Besides, who should be the judge of whether an MP is “sensible” and “hardworking”? Come general election time, surely the best people to pass judgment are those from the local constituency party, who know best whether their MP is adequately representing their values. If they are dissatisfied with their candidate, why should their views be steamrollered by a cliquish Westminster conspiracy to protect the centrist Good Old Boys (and Girls)?

If Labour’s centrist MPs really do speak such “sense”, they will surely have no difficulty in winning the support of thousands of non-aligned voters who do not subscribe to the Jeremy Corbyn agenda. If they are so wise and pragmatic, surely they could not fail to succeed by striking out on their own and forming a new centrist party?

And yet the centrists are going nowhere, because they have no compelling vision of their own to offer the electorate, and many of them would struggle to even win back their deposits if they ran as independent candidates or under the banner of a new centrist party. Therefore their only hope, in the short term, is to cling on to their seats despite often being loathed by their own local parties, in the hope that one of them will come up with an alternative policy agenda which actually commands enthusiasm and respect. And frankly, few Labour centrist MPs have done anything to deserve such an unfair helping hand.

The cold, hard truth is that the Labour Party has shifted decisively to the Left. Julia Hartley-Brewer’s attitude seems to be “to hell with the party members who actually do all of the hard work and unglamorous campaigning – they should be lumbered with a centrist leader they despise, just so that British politics can continue to be fought over a vanishingly small sliver of real estate in the centre ground”. Personally, I find that idea repellent.

In a democracy, decisions are made and influence is wielded by the people who actually bother to show up. And right now, the Corbynite Left are showing up and making their voices heard, while the various centrists (despite their prestige) are able to conjure up all the excitement of a cold bucket of sick. The left-wing have earned the right to be heard, while the centrists have demonstrably not. Hearing what the Corbynites have to say and abiding by their wishes is therefore not only the fair thing for the Labour Party to do, it is the only remotely democratic thing for the Labour Party to do.

And the proper reaction from conservatives is not to brim over with sympathy for the poor Labour centrist MPs who have so grievously lost touch with their own party base – it is to demand a similar rebirth of radicalism on the Right.

Julia Hartley-Brewer is aghast at the idea of mandatory reselection for Labour MPs, but I say bring it on. Let the Tories have their own version of Momentum too, something to put a rocket up the government’s complacent and depressingly un-ideological posterior – and then give Conservative Party members the same opportunity to shape the future of their party, hopefully by dragging it away from the smoking ruins of Cameron-era centrism.

 

Jeremy Corbyn - Labour Leadership Election - Victory Nears

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