Wednesday, 29 June 2016

There is a way to save the Labour Party as a force in UK politics

The urgent priority for everyone concerned with progressive politics and social justice in the UK is to work to prevent the Labour Party splitting into two. People need to be hard-headed and pragmatic. (There will be plenty of time in the years to come for the arguments currently raging as to who is to blame for the current crisis.)

The Labour Party has long been an alliance of disparate views. The first-past-the-post system makes such an alliance essential. As happened in the 1980s when the SDP split from Labour, a divided left guarantees Tory rule. 

At the moment a split seems almost inevitable. On one side are 75% of Labour MPs and the entire Establishment. On the other there is, I believe, a large majority of Labour members and, it appears, Labour voters. A YouGov/Times poll today shows that 54% of Labour voters do not want Jeremy Corbyn to resign.

The reality is that neither side can win outright. Corbyn cannot function as a leader of the party if his MPs have no confidence in him, whatever the members may want. However, it is equally true that the MPs cannot demand a different leader, because the members insist on Corbyn.

I can only see one solution to this impasse.  I propose that Corbyn stands down and the MPs guarantee that John McDonnell will receive enough nominations to go into the leadership contest and that they will accept his leadership if he wins. 

If McDonnell is prepared to put himself forward, I doubt if Corbyn would stand in the way of such an arrangement as it has never been about him personally but about the policies. I would expect most members would accept this compromise.

The fact that their candidate for the leadership, Angela Eagle, is almost certain to lose to Corbyn should concentrate MPs’ minds and make them realise that it is in their interest to agree to this proposal in order to keep the party together.  

Furthermore, having McDonnell rather than Corbyn as leader substantially answers the MPs publicly stated objections to Corbyn. They have not raised any differences on policy with Corbyn (although clearly some exist); they have attacked Corbyn’s competence and related issues. McDonnell was generally considered to have had an effective campaign for Remain; he is a more authoritative figure than Corbyn and an effective communicator. 

This proposal would not be a “victory” for either side but any such “victory” would be hollow as it would necessarily lead to the disaster of the party splitting. 

Every possible effort need to be made now to save the Labour Party as a force in UK politics and this proposal may be the only way to do that.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Murder followed by disaster followed by stupid self-indulgence

In the words of Tom Paine: - “These are the times that try men’s souls”. I have never felt so despondent about British politics as I do now. All those who want a decent, socially just society must resist succumbing to despair.

It was only just over a week ago that Jo Cox MP was brutally murdered in the street. She was a strong advocate for the rights of refugees and for a tolerant multicultural society. The man who killed her was linked to an extreme rightwing group. Her murder led to a discussion about the toxic political culture in the UK. Many, rightly, criticised Nigel Farage and the Leave campaign. In my view, David Cameron, who has used inflammatory language in the Commons and elsewhere, also bore significant responsibility for the political climate.

One politician might serve as an example of a better way to conduct politics. Jeremy Corbyn, despite being constantly vilified, has remained dignified and has never responded in kind. He practices the kinder, gentler politics which he advocates for everyone. Corbyn is nothing like Cameron, nothing like Tony Blair, nothing like Boris Johnson, nothing like any other recent leader. Millions of people like him precisely for that reason.

Last Thursday, the UK inflicted a disaster on itself. The Leave campaign succeeded with the help of lies and fomenting of hatred. The British people will suffer as a result for decades to come, economically and in many other ways. It is no consolation at all that Cameron will go down in history as one of our worst and most destructive prime ministers.

It is now said that somehow Corbyn is to blame for the result in the referendum. Here, I need to explain something. I put it in bold for emphasis. The BBC and the Guardian give as accurate an account of Corbyn as the Mail and the Sun do of the EU. I know this because I follow events involving Corbyn on social media. I know, for example, that Corbyn travelled frenetically around the country during the EU referendum but he was not properly reported on the BBC or in the Guardian (or in most of the rest of the media). 

In any event, according to the journalist Paul Mason, Corbyn did get the Labour vote out.

And now, Corbyn’s enemies within the parliamentary Labour Party are moving against him. They say, as if it was as true as 1+1=2, that Corbyn “can never win an election”. What many, probably most, members of the party believe in contrast, is that it is these same MPs' refusal to accept Corbyn’s overwhelming mandate that hampers the party’s electoral prospects.  I certainly believe that if the party united behind him, Corbyn could win.

No doubt, the MPs will depose Corbyn. There will then need to be another leadership election. All candidates will need to get the nominations of a certain number of MPs in order to go forward to then be voted on by the party in the country.

If Corbyn’s name goes forward, I expect that he will be re-elected by an electorate composed of those who voted for him overwhelmingly in September last year plus many more who have joined the party since because of him. 

If, however, the MPs conspire so that Corbyn’s name does not go forward, I think it is inevitable that the party will split. The money and the members would then mostly go with Corbyn. 

The rebel MPs have no realistic prospect of achieving any outcome favourable for them: they are being stupidly self-indulgent. They are damaging the party and helping the Tories at a time when the country is crying out for mature leadership from the political class.

And here are some questions for the rebels

  1. Who is your candidate? 
  2. Do you have any significant policy differences with Corbyn, apart from Trident?
  3. If Corbyn wins again, will you this time respect the result and work with him to beat the Tories?

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Murdoch and Brexit with thanks to Mainly Macro

I have cut and pasted the blog below, headed Mainly Macro, as it says what I want to say about Brexit but much better than I possibly could. It is written by Simon Wren-Lewis, an economics professor at Oxford.

If the UK does leave the EU, it will in significant part be due to decades of anti-EU propaganda in the 70% of the press owned by five tax-cheating billionaire press-barons.

Rupert Murdoch, the most powerful of the press-barons, has been candid as to why he wants a Brexit. The journalist Anthony Hilton once asked him why he was so opposed to the European Union. Murdoch’s reply was: -“That’s easy. When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice.”

Murdoch is used to getting his way in the UK, ever since he struck a deal with Margaret Thatcher in 1981. Later he struck another one with Tony Blair in 1995. He has backed the winner of every General Election since that deal with Thatcher. In 2015, he backed the SNP in Scotland and the Tories elsewhere. 

In his last paragraph Wren-Lewis says "I hope one result of this referendum will be that otherwise sensible people will stop saying that our tabloid press is not that much of a problem. It might not be if our broadcast media were brave enough to report facts, but instead it is obsessed with balance, as well as being heavily influenced by what some tabloids say."  I completely agree, except I would not exonerate the broadsheets which can be just as bad as the tabloids. The BBC, certainly, too often allows itself to be bullied by the press.

If the UK votes to leave the EU, Murdoch and his close allies Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, will be ecstatic. It will be a very dark day for democracy in our country. 

mainly macro

Posted: 16 Jun 2016 01:21 AM PDT
Among everyone and everything I read at the moment there is a mixture of disbelief and despair over the now distinct possibility that the UK will vote for Brexit. Obviously that is partly because I tend to read other economists, and as Chris Giles noteseconomists are virtually united in believing Brexit will be bad for the economy. (If you cannot access the FT, read Paul Johnson.) But it is also because there is a cleareducational divide in support for Brexit, and I suspect most of what I read comes from one side of that divide. The only other event that I can imagine causing an equal degree of unanimous disbelief and despair would be if Trump looked like becoming President.

There is disbelief because it makes no sense. Of course there is a minority who hate the idea of sharing sovereignty, and another minority that really hate immigrants. But these two groups combined would not be enough to win a referendum. Instead we have a much larger group that are concerned about immigration, but their concern appears to be not worth very much to them. This was something I notedsome time ago, but it seems to be a robust result: in a recent ComRes poll68% say they would not be happy to lose any income to secure less immigration (perhaps because they believe less immigration will raise their income).

It makes no sense because economists are as sure as they ever are that people will on average be worse off with Brexit. But a large sectionof the population have either not got the memo or have ignored it. This will be an important point when it comes to what happens after Brexit: for many Brexit will have been a vote to control immigration, but only because a lot of those same people think that immigration can be controlled without making them worse off. In other words it will not be a clear mandate for voting against a Norway/Switzerland option, because anything else will make people worse off (as most MPs know).

There is despair because economists and others who think Brexit will make people worse off have no way of getting their message across to those that really need that information. I know Gove has said he is fed up with experts, but I’m not convinced most people are (for reasons given hereand reiterated here). But writing articles in the Guardian or letters to the Times will not get through to those we need to hear the message (see final chart here). It is why I wrote this. For academic economists I think it is part of a general problem that the media are losing interest in what we think, which is why I wrote thisfor the Royal Economic Society newsletter.

Whether we do or do not leave the EU, I hope one result of this referendum will be that otherwise sensible people will stop saying that our tabloid press is not that much of a problem. It might not be if our broadcast media were brave enough to report facts, but instead it is obsessed with balance, as well as being heavily influenced by what some tabloids say. How else can you account for 58% of people thinkingthat Turkey is likely to join the EU within ten years, which in reality is close to a zero probability event. Democracy can become dangerous when a few people have so much control over the means of information.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

The Left in the USA and the UK: arguments of 1. democracy 2. danger of Trump/Tories and 3. loathing

Do you agree that the arguments of democracy and the danger of Donald Trump, mean that the supporters of Bernie Sanders should now support Hillary Clinton against Trump? 

Or are you a Sanders supporter who so loathes Clinton that you will not support her regardless?

Do you agree that the same arguments that apply to Sanders and Clinton mean that the anti-Corbynites in the Labour Party should now support Jeremy Corbyn against the Tories? 

Or are you an anti-Corbynite who so loathes him that you will not support him, whatever the consequences?

Argument of democracy

It is the most basic principle of democracy that the loser of an election accepts the legitimacy of the winner. Clinton has beaten Sanders. He and his supporters should accept that and rally around her against Trump, as Clinton herself did for Barack Obama in 2008.

Last summer, Corbyn stood against three others for the leadership of the Labour Party. He stood under rules introduced by Ed Miliband which had been widely welcomed in the party, including by Tony Blair. Whereas Sanders has run Clinton quite close, winning 23 states, Corbyn won by a landslide. He won 59.5% of the votes as against Andy Burnham on 19%, Yvette Cooper on 17% and Liz Kendall  on 4.5%. Contrary to a persistent myth, he did not win because of the people who had paid £3 to vote. He won by a landslide among the full-time members.

Many prominent opponents of Corbyn accepted the straightforward argument of democracy and have duly supported him. These are people, who are serving under Corbyn’s leadership like Lord Falconer, Andy Burnham, Lucy Powell, Gloria De Piero and Chris Bryant. 

However, some Labour MPs and leading figures in the media - including at “left” publications, the Guardian and the New Statesman - relentlessly attacked Corbyn’s leadership and worked to undermine it from the very second it was announced. I cannot think of an example of such behaviour in similar circumstances in British political life. It has been extraordinary and disturbing for those who believe in democracy.

The arguments of the anti-Corbynites have been elitist and antidemocratic. They say the people who voted for Corbyn are out-of-touch/naive/Trots and they assert - as if it is an irrefutable fact, which it most certainly is not - that Corbyn cannot win against the Tories. But the electorate for Labour leader was agreed in advance (would the anti-Corbynites have criticised the electorate if they had won?) and that electorate had a different view to Corbyn’s electability against the Tories to the anti-Corbynites’ view. Deciding whose view prevails is the whole point of an election, surely?

Argument of danger of Trump or the Tories

If a Sanders supporter wants, as a priority, to beat Trump, the logic is clear. They must now support Clinton. Anything else increases Trump’s chances of winning. 

In the UK, exactly the same logic applies in respect of Corbyn and the Tories. 

It is deeply ironic that the anti-Corbynites like to claim that they are the hard-headed  pragmatists. They sneer at the Corbynites for being more interested in ideological purity than winning power. The precise opposite is the case right now. It is the anti-Corbynites who have lost touch with reality.

The reality is this. It is impossible for the anti-Corbynites to depose Corbyn and replace him with a leader of their choice before the next election. A recent opinion poll suggested that Corbyn is even more popular now among the party in the country, who would vote on a new leader, than he was when he won by a landslide.

Some anti-Corbynites say that next time Corbyn would be kept off the ballot by ensuring that not enough MPs would nominate him. This is a bizarre idea. First, enough MPs have been impressed by Corbyn that it is quite possible he would, in fact, receive enough nominations. Secondly the NEC may rule that the current leader is entitled to stand in any event. Thirdly if somehow the MPs conspired to keep the overwhelming choice of the membership off the ballot, the result would be a mass exodus of members and possibly a split in the party. The new leader would lead a party in far greater turmoil than the one Corbyn leads.

The defeatist argument that Corbyn cannot win against the Tories is plain wrong for many reasons, including that the world in 2016 is very different to the one in which Blair won elections. In any event, he is the best chance for anyone who wants to beat the Tories.

If the priority of anti-Corbynites is to beat the Tories, they should stop undermining him and support him now.

“Argument” of loathing

But people are not rational. Emotion rather than logic often dictates political behaviour. 

Many Sanders supporters loathe Clinton. For them, she represents everything they have been campaigning against. She is the personification of the arrogant political elite that has run the US for over 30 years.

Many anti-Corbynites loathe Corbyn for reasons they have made very clear.

Such is their loathing, some Sanders supporters and some anti-Corbynites are prepared to ignore the argument of democracy and are prepared to see Trump or the Tories triumph rather than support Clinton or Corbyn.

Faced with painful cognitive dissonance - “I should support Clinton/Corbyn but I can’t because I loathe her/him” - many will not be honest even with themselves about their reason for refusal to back Clinton/Corbyn but will instead rationalise. Of course, if Trump or the Tories win, these people will blame Clinton or Corbyn.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Muhammad Ali was a very brave boxer. A far braver man.

Muhammad Ali, who has died, was my first hero. He was beautiful and he was funny and he was a brilliant boxer. His rivalry with George Foreman and Joe Frazier was thrilling. He always remained a hero to me; not for his boxing exploits, but for his far tougher courage, his moral courage, outside the ring. 

Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay in 1942 in Kentucky.  Just as his later change of name was significant, so was his original name. The original Cassius Marcellus Clay was a white politician from Kentucky who at great risk to his life had fought to end slavery and had become an important ally to Abraham Lincoln.

Ali was born into a deeply racist society. Abraham Lincoln had abolished slavery in 1865, but when Ali was born, in the South only a few blacks could vote and their lives were dominated by segregation. Rosa Parks did not refuse to give up her seat until 1955. The position was better in the North but blacks were unquestionably second class citizens. 

In 1964, Ali sensationally beat the fearsome Sonny Liston to become Heavyweight Champion of the world, aged 22. At the same Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were leading their very different campaigns for black rights. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act, ensuring that all blacks in the South would be able to vote in future. A century after the abolition of slavery, finally the road to equality for blacks in the USA became more achievable. 

Ali constantly spoke of his pride in being a black man. By his words and deeds and his very presence he played a significant part in changing attitudes both in the white community and the black community.  

A defining political statement of Ali’s was his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, which led to him being sentenced to five years in prison.(He never actually went to prison due to appealing but he was not allowed to box for 3 years). Ali explained his refusal with a blunt directness : -  "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong—no Viet Cong ever called me Nigger.”

Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay, which he called his slave name, soon after he defeated Sonny Liston in 1964. He became a Muslim. Last year, he spoke out against a new nasty dangerous divisive force in US politics after Donald Trump attacked Muslims. 

Ali was a great man and a force for good. The world is much poorer without him.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

BBC news must tackle issue of bias against anti-establishment politicians

The political landscape in the UK has changed dramatically in recent years and BBC news is now faced increasingly with the issue of how to honour its commitment to impartiality when covering anti-establishment politicians and parties. 

Many of the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, Scottish independence, UKIP and others believe that not only is BBC news not reporting in an unbiased way but that it does not put a very high priority on doing so.

If BBC news does not tackle this issue, it is jeopardising its own future. After all, its USP, the justification for its privileged position, is that it is genuinely impartial.

The beating heart of the British establishment is to be found at BBC news. Certain 
contentious propositions are considered to be simple common sense. Here is a selection: -

  1. Politicians on the political spectrum between David Cameron and Tony Blair are generally sensible. Those outside that spectrum like Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn are to be treated with considerable circumspection; they are liable to be mad or dangerous or both.
  2. The UK should remain united. Scottish independence is not at all desirable.
  3. The UK should certainly stay in the EU. It’s obvious.
  4. The lack of social mobility into the UK’s elites is a shame but best to turn a blind eye to the role of private schools.
  5. The rise of absolute poverty, child poverty and food banks in the UK since 2010 is terrible but best not to dwell on such unpleasantness (and certainly should not give a platform to poor people).
  6. The monarchy is, obviously, marvellous and sycophancy is best approach.

Such a worldview, explains why BBC news has reacted with lofty dismissiveness to claims of bias made by anti-establishment figures. 

Jeremy Corbyn believes that the BBC “are trying to damage the leadership of the Labour Party”.  A petition calling for Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor, to be sacked due to bias against Corbyn, recently attracted 35,000 signatures before it was taken down because  some of the people using the petition had made sexist comments. 

Sir Michael Lyons, a former chairman of the BBC Trust has suggested that the BBC has bowed to political pressure to show bias against Corbyn. He said there had been “some quite extraordinary attacks on the elected leader of the Labour party….I can understand why people are worried about whether the most senior editorial voices in the BBC have lost their impartiality on this.

Today, some Corbyn supporters booed Kuenssberg, when she was called to ask a question. (Reports that she was prevented from asking a question are wrong. Corbyn quieted the booing. She was merely delayed for 5 seconds.)

During the Scottish independence campaign, Alex Salmond and supporters of independence were furious with Kuenssberg’s predecessor, Nick Robinson for what they regarded as his anti-independence bias. Thousands of pro-independence Scots rallied outside the BBC’s Glasgow headquarters to demand Robinson’s resignation.  Alex Salmond has said: - “The BBC’s coverage of the Scottish referendum was a disgrace’” and was a “significant factor” in the referendum result.

Nigel Farage has many times complained that the BBC is biased against him and UKIP.

These politicians may be anti-establishment but they are not fringe. Corbyn is the alternative prime minister and his party is level in the polls with the Tories and polled more votes in last month’s elections than them. No one doubts the significance of the support for independence in Scotland. UKIP won almost four million votes at the General Election.

In each of these cases, the BBC strenuously denied bias. To do otherwise would be to admit a breach of the BBC’s own editorial guidelines:- “Impartiality lies at the heart of public service and is the core of the BBC’s commitment to its audiences…”

The BBC regularly argues that the fact that it receives a similar amount of complaints from the “other side” is good evidence that it is not biased. This is a fallacious argument. It is obvious that some complaints may be valid and others may be groundless. Only a proper investigation can determine the truth.

BBC news ought to be worried by a BBC study published last month which found that viewers in Scotland, questioned after the referendum, were the most critical and least supportive of the BBC of any viewers in the UK. It would be surprising if supporters of Corbyn and UKIP do not feel similarly.

It is essential to BBC news’ long term future that it retain or regain its reputation for impartiality. It should start by demonstrating that it takes the issue very seriously. 

BBC news may need to set up an independent monitoring body, rather like the OBR in relation to the Treasury.  Like the OBR, such a body won’t be perfect but it would be an important advance and may reassure those who do not share the establishment’s view of the world that the national broadcaster, paid for by us all, will genuinely strive to be fair to them.