Friday, 21 October 2016

Some thoughts on a couple of by-elections

(Photo: BBC)
So, the Tories held Witney while Labour easily topped the poll in Batley and Spen. No real surprises there.

However, there's a bigger picture. A much bigger picture.

Let's take Witney first - a by-election held because of the resignation of former Prime Minister David Cameron as the local MP. In 2015, just seventeen months ago, Cameron secured a majority of 25,155 with over 60% of the vote. Yesterday that majority was slashed to 5,702.

You might argue that's still pretty comfortable for the Tories. Indeed, asked yesterday by a former party member what I genuinely thought the result would be, I predicted a Conservative majority of 5,000-7,000, a strong Lib Dem second place and the Labour vote to collapse. You didn't need a crystal ball to predict that. However, I did add that I hoped I was wrong and that Liz Leffman might be able to pull of the impossible.

And it would have seemed impossible when the by-election was called all those weeks ago. Witney is hardly Lib Dem territory. Witney and its predecessor constituency Mid Oxfordshire have never voted for anything other than a Conservative MP, among them Douglas Hurd and David Cameron. It briefly was a Labour seat when its MP, Shaun Woodward, crossed the floor, but he knew he'd be on a hiding to nothing trying to defend his seat and sent off to St Helens instead. So for the Lib Dems to not only poll respectably but secure a solid second place finish is very good news for us, and clearly a number of positives can be taken from a campaign that has showed us to be a credible alternative and also suggested that those keen to write us off as a spent force may have to think again.

It's not just a question of the Tories' majority - although this isn't a typical "mid-term" by-election but the first of Theresa May's leadership and may give some indication of how she's perceived in this most Conservative of Conservative constituencies. Turnouts are generally lower in by-elections, and this was no exception, but the percentage of the vote can be a more reliable indicator of a change in voting intention. The Tories dropped from 60% to 45%, while the Lib Dem share of the vote went from 6.8% to 30.2%. This is astonishing, as it's the best vote share the Lib Dems have ever achieved in Witney since Philip Baston secured 30.8% in the heady days of the Liberal-SDP Alliance in 1983.

It's a 19.3 swing from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats.  By any measure, that's huge. Well done to everyone involved, and to those who across the country who have helped the "Lib Dem fightback" not only in Witney but in the various local elections in which we're making steady progress. This result shows what we can do. It shows that we're being seen as a serious and viable alternative, at least to the Tories. Taken into consideration with results from council elections, it confirms that attitudes towards the party appear to be changing and that our current leadership is having a positive effect on the party's image.

You'd think the media would find this sufficiently interesting to comment on what this means for both the Conservatives and Lib Dems. But it seems the significance has been lost on them, with a few exceptions. Sam Coates, in The Times, senses problems ahead for the government unless the Prime Minister calls a snap General Election before "Brexit troubles mount". He doesn't mention Witney specifically, but it is unlikely to be coincidental that in a constituency that voted to Remain the Liberal Democrats saw their support increase almost five-fold. From what I've heard from the campaign team in Witney in recent days, it's obvious that the local Tories have been pretty rattled and while they hung on, as expected, they won't have enjoyed the fight. Theresa May won't want too many more by-elections like this, especially where the incumbent doesn't have 25,000+ majorities defend.

The Guardian focused on the Lib Dem resurgence as well they might. My only words of caution would be that we didn't actually win here in spite of the immense campaign and while this may bode well for future by-elections there is something quite unique about Witney, the Tory safe seat with a pro-European outlook. I find myself agreeing with Alistair Carmichael, who said: "What we are getting very strongly here, as a part of the country that voted to remain, is that the idea of walking away from the single market, the unpleasantness from Amber Rudd at Tory conference, these things have not played well in a constituency like this. These people liked David Cameron, his brand of centre-right Conservatism and the modernity of it. And they look at what they’ve got now instead and they don’t like it.”

Liz Leffman, the Lib Dem candidate, added: “People here don’t want to come out of the single market, they don’t want jobs at risk and that’s what we were voting on today. People who voted for me are traditional Conservatives, who have voted Conservative for decades. Mrs May is the new Ukip and people are not comfortable with a party lurching in that direction.” This seems to confirm particular local factors (Liz is also a local councillor) and it's unlikely that reaching out to traditional Conservatives will work everywhere. There will also be places of course in which the voters very much like the Theresa May brand of Conservatism.

There was also of interest that while the Labour vote held up reasonably well, UKIP collapsed from a decent third place to finishing fifth behind the Green's Larry Sanders. It's difficult to make too much of that fact, but I doubt it's unrelated to UKIP's current difficulties. Mad Hatter of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party took the bragging rights in the battle of the satirical parties, finishing 8th - three places above Lord Toby Jug of the Eccentric Party (a recent breakaway from the OMRLP created after Jug was banned for making some derogatory comments about Nigel Farage and expressing criticism of Wetherspoons, an OMRLP sponsor - proving that every party has its problems).

Finally, in relation to Batley and Spen - the by-election to replace Jo Cox who was brutally and unnecessarily killed earlier this year - I was pleased to see Tracy Brabin elected (with 85.8% of the vote). Not because I support Labour or because I like Tracy personally, but because given the circumstances of Jo's death it only seems right for all parties to have stood aside and not contest the vacant seat.

The main parties (the Conservatives, Lib Dems, Greens, UKIP) did the right thing, and hopefully this will set a precedent for how they behave after such tragedies in future. There is no agreed protocol on this, and the last time an MP was murdered in an act of terror - Ian Dow in 1990 - the Lib Dems won his Eastbourne seat from the Conservatives. It seems right to have some kind of agreement in such cases. I can only hope that the example from the main parties will eventually be followed by the likes of the English Democrats, the BNP and the National Front, who opted to stand in spite of what Jo Cox's killer was reported to have shouted before his arrest.

We have two new MPs in Parliament and I genuinely wish both of them well. It cannot be easy for either of them to step into the shoes of their predecessors, for entirely different reasons. But we also have an "old" party that's refusing to die...and that's the real story.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Does Theresa May know what nationalism is?

Theresa May (Photo: BBC)
Finally, at last, Theresa May has shown us what she's all about.

I'm not sure I'm pleased to say it, but she's proved me right.

For a while I was having my doubts - I thought, perhaps, she was genuinely aware of the delicate nature of the situation and was attempting to act in a way that could both unite the country and provide a balanced and open approach to give the UK the best possible options during the pending negotiations. I shouldn't have given her so much credit. My initial instincts were absolutely correct.

We now know that "Brexit means Brexit" actually means "Brexit means appealing to the same right-wingers David Cameron did in calling the referendum". In repeating the mistakes of her predecessor the Prime Minister may well be inviting the same inevitable fate.

We now have a arbitrary timescale for invoking Article 50 - this announcement clearly is intended to show that Mrs May means business, but means that the EU will probably be in the driving seat when negotiations start and also - while answering one question - asks so many others. The "Brexit" being envisaged by Theresa May is so obviously of the "hard" type (to use media parlance) and her speech to Tory conference could well have been an address to the UKIP faithful.

A lot has been written in the last few hours about the kind of Brexit May is pursuing, and of the unsuitability of the Three Brexiteers/Three Blind Mice (delete as appropriate) supposedly overseeing the UK's exit. Tim Farron has already branded the "Hard Brexit" strategy "a disaster for British jobs" and described the Article 50 announcement as being tantamount to "jumping out of a plane without a parachute", which neatly sums up the irresponsibility of May's position.  I don't see much reason to add to the many expert analyses already out there or provide further comment other than to say that Mrs May's hard talk may actually serve to strengthen her political opposition (and, no - I don't mean the Labour party).

I know many who are appalled by Theresa May, who suggest that she shouldn't be seeking to pander to the Brexiteers in the way that she has or advocating the "Brexit" model that appears most damaging to UK's interests. And they're right. But, in case there was ever any real doubt, we now know what Theresa May is about. She's not a moderate. She's unlikely to listen to reasoned, nuanced arguments on how we negotiate Britain's exit from the EU. She also seems to relish conflict. All these things must shape the approach opposition parties take in the coming weeks and months.

This naturally provides opportunities for the Liberal Democrats as well as the SNP, Plaid Cyrmu, the Greens and potentially the Labour Party (if and when it ever decides it wants to get into the business of providing some opposition). Out-kipping the UKIPpers isn't the wisest thing to do, already alienating moderate Tories like Anna Soubry and risking inevitable backlash when negotiations don't go, erm, according to the Johnson-Fox-Davis script.

Interestingly, Mrs May also chose to identify, and turn fire on, her enemies. Surprise, surprise - those enemies aren't the Labour Party or UKIP. No, they're nationalists. Or Nationalists, even (capitalise them and they're even more nasty!

On the question of whether the devolved parliaments could be involved in the decision, the Prime Minister declared that there will be "no opt-out from Brexit" and that she wouldn't be held captive by "divisive nationalists". Which is laughable given how her predecessor, and now May herself, seem to be driven by a need to appease divisive nationalists.

I wonder if Theresa May actually knows what nationalism is. It's a bit much to take to hear May bleating about how she "will never allow divisive nationalists to undermine the precious Union between the four nations of our United Kingdom" while the divisive British nationalists in her own party (and, in fairness, others) have undermined the precious union between the 28 member states of the EU. It's also more than hypocritical to take a blast at nationalism in general terms and the evil forces of separatism when you're giving speeches about the UK "becoming a fully independent, sovereign country". And it's rich to describe the likes of the SNP, Plaid and the SDLP (as well as other voices in the devolved parliaments) as "divisive" given the Leave campaign's socially divisive rhetoric on immigration and race (amongst other things).

If she dislikes nationalists so much, why did she appoint so many Brit Nats to her own cabinet?

It's ironic that in the most heavily nationalistic speech a Tory leader has given in decades, the Prime Minister should see fit to condemn the nationalism of others. I cannot believe anyone who speaks about the need for the UK to be "fully independent" and "sovereign" can be anything other than a nationalist, or was ever anything other than a Leaver. At least she's now being true to herself. But she should also recognise that she is appealing to a nationalism, a British/English nationalism, and one that not only threatens to be divisive but also runs the risk of conflict with the more tolerant, inclusive expressions of "nationalism" she's already decided need to be attacked.

I'm not nationalist, but give me the SNP's "nationalism" over May's reckless disregard for parliamentary democracy any day. Give me their welcoming and inclusive approach over the genuinely divisive anti-immigration rhetoric May has consistently sided with. Give me someone of Nicola Sturgeon's or Leanne Wood's regard for human rights over Mrs May's. It's not "nationalism" that demands a parliamentary vote, or requests that all voices should be listened to, but democracy. May should perhaps learn the lessons of history - the last time a British leader tried to act on a whim, failing to consult parliament and taking on the Scots he overreached himself with fatal consequences.

By implication, of course, May was also suggesting that those who believe the devolved parliaments should be involved in the process are themselves "divisive nationalists". It seems Mayism is a bit like McCarthyism ("someone disagree? they're a communist/nationalist") and with a similar culture of paranoid suspicion.

I have, like most in my party, reservations about Theresa May's kamikaze-style Brexit. But I'm also concerned about the "divisive nationalist" rhetoric. It's a peculiar expression of Orwellian doublethink to condemn Scottish and Welsh nationalism while simultaneously promoting a backward-looking British nationalism. In regards the "divisive" accusations, perhaps Mrs May should take the plank from her own eye before commenting on the specks in others'?


Thursday, 29 September 2016

Scottish Government suffers NHS defeat

Something quite remarkable happened in Holyrood yesterday.

The SNP minority government experienced a rare defeat after all opposition MSPs united behind a Labour motion calling to protect local NHS services.

After the government's amendment, committing to "maintaining and improving safe and effective local services across Scotland" was defeated, the 62 SNP MSPs abstained from the final vote, meaning that the Labour motion was passed by a margin of 64 to 0.

Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives and the Scottish Greens want the government to call in proposals affecting services across Central Scotland. What is particularly concerning is that proposals to reshape services could be made without ministerial approval, and the opposition parties believe this is an unacceptable situation. As Labour's Anas Sarwar said: "It would be a democratic outrage if we allowed health boards to proceed with these decisions without individual members of this parliament or indeed this minister having a say."

The health board proposals for service change affect maternity services at Inverclyde Royal Hospital and the Vale of Leven Hospital, children's services at the RAH in Paisley and orthopaedics at Monklands Hospital in Airdrie (all, oddly enough, places I've previously worked). Glasgow's Centre for Integrated Care and Lightburn Hospital could also be affected, with the latter potentially facing closure. There can be little doubt that much of the decision making is being driven by financial pressures, resulting in plans for increased centralisation of services.

It's very easy to jump on the emotive "save the NHS" or "keep our local hospital" bandwagons. I've done it myself when there's been good reason. But I'm also sufficiently aware that clinical needs are constantly evolving and therefore how we provide NHS services should, too. There are often perfectly valid clinical reasons for revisiting service provision. However, how we do this is vitally important and the process must be transparent and accountable. There has to be adequate consultation, and there must be opportunities for ministers to have a full discussion with, if necessary, the option to oppose such changes.

Cabinet secretary Shona Robison said it would be “inappropriate” for her to discuss the proposals in detail, or indeed whether or not she supports them. She did state there is the possibility that the final decisions could come before her for approval, but didn't make any guarantees. She stated: "Local people can be ensured that in all such cases, ministers take all the available information and representations into account before coming to a final decision. I think that is the proper and responsible way to run our health services." This was not entirely convincing,

Lib Dem health spokesperson Alex Cole-Hamilton said afterwards: "This vote sends a clear message to the health secretary that these damaging NHS closure proposals need to be called in by ministers and scrutinised by the Scottish Parliament." During the debate he had claimed it was "astonishing" that the issue was only discussed in parliament due to the opposition tabling a debate, and while recognising that "challenging decisions" needed to be made, called for Ms Robison to "enlist [MSPs] as champions" in redesigning health services.

It's extraordinary for anything to unite all the opposition parties in Holyrood, and this unprecedented (but not entirely unexpected) reversal for the government demonstrates the need to ensure it has the confidence of parliament. Some level of opposition support will always be necessary and the Greens cannot simply be assumed to offer it unconditionally. The outcome of the vote is not binding on the government, and inevitably uncertainty about the future of the NHS can unite across party lines in a way that other issues cannot. Perhaps it would be wrong to make too much of it - but the Scottish government was fortunate to narrowly avoid defeat (in rather bizarre circumstances) last week on its council tax proposals and this will be another shot across its bows. The Herald described it as "a bloody nose for the SNP", which seems to be overstating the situation, but the government will have had better weeks.

It's a good result in that it's sent a clear signal to the government that decisions affecting the NHS must be accountable and open. Whether the government acts on the vote is another thing, but I fully expect given the nature and sensitivity of the issue that it simply has to. Certainly, as a former Lib Dem member Gerry McGregor suggested, the result puts to bed the notion that the SNP government is effectively a dictatorship supported by the ever-compliant Greens. It's also positive to see the opposition parties working constructively to ensure democracy holds government to account - and for Labour to be showing a little of the kind of leadership we used to expect from them.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

It's not Tim Farron's beliefs I don't respect, but the lack of openness

I've not been at Conference this year.

I love Conference, so it's quite difficult to have to follow it from a distance and miss out on the opportunity to meet old friends and make new ones. It's also not quite the same watching TV coverage to being on the conference floor, with the opportunity to vote and speak. You don't get quite the same feel for what's going on - which is why it's perhaps best that I leave commentary on this year's Conference to people who were there and actively involved in the political discussion.

But I will comment on something, and it's something I've commented on before.

On Sunday, iNews reported that Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has asked that we "respect his views as a Christian on gay sex". Now, I've had my differences with Tim before, and three years ago - after Tim had made a statement that the Bible is "either wrong or utterly [and] compellingly true" - I wrote this piece arguing that perhaps a party president should avoid making such statements, especially when it is implied that Christianity is an inflexibly prescriptive set of rigid beliefs and that those who think differently must by definition be something other than Christian.

That didn't mean I don't respect Tim's right to personal views. I might disagree with them, but I'd fight for his right to hold them. As a liberal, I naturally respect anyone's right to their own beliefs, but they are not worthy of respect simply by virtue of them being Christian and whether expressing those views is necessarily wise for someone in a senior political (and secular) position is another matter altogether.

So, what did Tim actually say this week to lead to that sensational headline? According to various news outlets, he was responding to not altogether unreasonable questions as to whether he understood why some people remained concerned about his inability to say whether he thinks same-sex relations are inherently sinful (he famously, shortly after being elected leader, refused to give a straight answer - no pun intended - to Channel 4's Cathy Newman.)  Tim is reported to have said: "No, is the honest answer, because I think people look at my liberalism, my desire to support people’s rights to make whatever choices they want, and I kind of also expect in the same way people – maybe it’s a naive expectation – to respect my beliefs as a Christian.

“And obviously that means a whole range of things about how I then choose to live my life. It also means that I don’t go around pointing the finger at anybody else. I don’t go making pronouncements on theological matters. And I think as someone who is a liberal, everybody has the right to marry who they want to marry, love who they want to love, and that’s the position we take."

There are a few things to say in response to this. But I'll give the first opportunity to these two members of the twitterati:











The first thing Tim has said is that he doesn't understand such people and that concerns me. "No, is the honest answer..." Really? Naturally there is scope in politics for disagreement, but I hope I make attempts to understand opposing perspectives especially if I have offended someone. When such a failure to connect results in people leaving our party and rejoining Labour - even if it's just one person - then unnecessary damage has been done. Indeed, in stating that he doesn't understand people's concerns, couldn't he be accused of not showing respect to their views and beliefs?

Let's now move on to what appears to be the real issue - that of respecting Tim's "beliefs as a Christian".

I should first make my own position clear for those who don't know me. I'm a member of the Liberal Democrats, a Christian in the United Reformed Church and someone who by fortunate accident of birth happens to be bisexual. I'm hoping in the near future to train for church ministry, so to suggest that I don't respect Christian beliefs would be utterly absurd.

However, there is one obvious flaw in Tim's plea for respect. It's this - I can only respect someone's beliefs if I know what those beliefs are. And so far he hasn't told us what he believes, simply that his beliefs are Christian.

And that brings us to another little difficulty - myself and many others hold Christian beliefs that tell us same-sex relationships are not sinful. My own church recently voted to allow local congregations to take their own decisions on whether they wish to marry same-sex couples. Others denominations are having their own conversations, most notably the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Church of Scotland. It's quite obvious to anyone with any interest in contemporary theology that there is no singular "Christian" position on same-sex relationships.

Unfortunately, Tim implicitly suggests that there is a single Christian belief on the issue, that should be respected without the need to be explained. The obvious inference is that, whatever his views are, they are the definitive Christian viewpoint.

It may surprise you, but I don't actually care too much if Tim thinks same-sex relationships are sinful. I don't care if he thinks my orientation is sinful.  What concerns me more is that someone who leads a party whose slogan is "Open, Tolerant and United" is less than open about his beliefs. It concerns me that tolerance appears not to extend to an acceptance of those Christians who take a different view. It also is of enormous concern that this issue won't go away, and that there seems to be a lack of appreciation as to how this could damage the party. It's not just the issue of members leaving; the influential LGBT+ media has had a field day and unfortunately this kind of thing creates more headlines that bold policy motions. We won't be able to draw a line under this until we get some...erm, well, some openness.

That doesn't seem too much to ask for. So Tim, if you're reading this, you'll know that I will never share the views you appear to have on same-sex relationships. You'll also know that I also will never take too kindly to the suggestion that your Christian belief is somehow more valid than mine. And you'll be aware that I disagree Christianity has a single position on very much - and that appeals to respect an assumed Christian position won't be effective on me. But be assured that I will respect your honesty on this, just as I respect your honesty on a raft of other issues.

Of course, disagreement doesn't imply a lack of respect. I vehemently disagree with, for example, Rev David Robertson of the Free Church of Scotland but I respect his views as sincerely held - I'm less respectful of some of his actions in openly criticising Christians whose perspectives differ from his own. In Tim's case, I respect his actions when he stands up (and he has, let's not forget) for a society in which "everybody has the right to marry who they want to marry, love who they want to love"; however, it's impossible to respect beliefs that are kept secret. Neither is it possible to respect the lack of openness from someone committed to that very thing, nor the insistence that we should respect unspecified beliefs simply because they are "Christian". That's an affront to logic.

I hope we can move on from this. I don't want our party leader to continually experience hostile questioning on what he thinks is sinful. So next time it comes up, I'll happily respect Tim's response if he says either "No, of course it's not sinful" or "Yes, actually I do. But that's a personal view and it in no way affects my political perspectives." I can agree to disagree, but I cannot respect the lack of openness.

If you want us to respect your beliefs, Tim, then please tell us what they are. You never know, it might be less damaging that the constant evasiveness.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Empty seats on train become huge political story...

Jeremy Corbyn on a train (Photo: The Independent)
Amazingly, the big political story today is that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's recent stint on the floor of a train was something of a stunt.

Well, there's a surprise! A politician with camera crew, out to document how crowded trains are, exaggerates for effect. That's never been done before...

And yet everyone's jumping about as if this proves how hypocritical Corbyn is. Even Lib Dem Voice is asking whether "train-gate could derail his re-election campaign?"

All this reaction has come about because Virgin Trains issued a statement, in which it refuted Mr Corbyn's version of events.

In fairness, I've been on trains before which look empty but has every empty seat reserved. It's actually interesting what the Virgin statement says (and doesn't). Mr Corbyn eventually found a seat, after filming, "with the help of the onboard crew". What does that mean???

Virgin didn't deny the train was pretty full, or that it was impossible to get an unreserved seat in any carriage but Coach H. Which kind of supports (broadly) what he's saying.

It's bad planning by Jeremy really. I mean, you're pretty much guaranteed crowded trains on certain routes at key times, but London to Newcastle in the late morning isn't really one of them. If I had been Jeremy's advisor, I'd actually have suggested doing different trains on different days (after researching which are the most crowded) and had him talking to commuters and passengers about their frustrations. That might have helped his image and avoided it all becoming about him. After all, it's more easy to believe someone's a "man of the people" if they...erm, actually talk to people rather than if they choose to sit on the floor for 45 minutes.

Oh, and who doesn't think about CCTV in trains? This just underlines how amateurish and ill-thought out the whole thing was.

While inevitably people will find this amusing, it shouldn't detract from the serious points being made about public transport. I hope that doesn't get obscured by all this silliness. On the real issue he's more right than wrong, but unfortunately I expect instead of focusing on the important issues we'll instead have plenty of political pointscoring and personality destruction. It's quite sad that this is what politics has become. We do need to have a sensible discussion on the future of public transport.

Perhaps the real story is how disorganised Labour have made themselves look. As Virgin said (with obvious smugness!): "We'd encourage Jeremy to book ahead next time he travels with us, both to reserve a seat and to ensure he gets our lowest fares, and we look forward to welcoming him onboard again." Ouch! The naivety of the leader and his advisors in believing this would never come out really is (for me) the most surprising thing about the whole saga and raises more questions (to my mind) about fitness for leadership than making a few exaggerations about how "packed" a train is.

There are problems with public transport, though, and they need to be addressed. It's just unfortunate that he's chosen to do it in this way and that he's given others the opportunity to ridicule him rather than focus on the substantive issues.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

A few thoughts on what the EU referendum told us

It's about 5am and I'm genuinely gutted about what appears to be the result of the EU referendum.

Like most liberals, I'm an internationalist. Without saying a great deal about my personal feelings, let me just make it clear that this hurts. It really hurts.

This isn't some kind of political game, as some political commentators are suggesting. This is a huge decision with real human, social, economic and political consequences - not only for the UK but also for Europe.

I don't plan to write a lengthy essay analysing what went wrong, but here are a few of my own observations on the referendum, the campaign, the result and what it all means.

Cameron made a serious mistake in calling the referendum. I recall Cameron making the announcement that he would hold an in-out referendum if he won the election. I was at Bob Maclennan's house at the time, and he asked "Does Cameron know what he's doing?" The dangers were obvious to both of us. Cameron's hubris and belief that he could outmanoeuvre UKIP while simultaneously reuniting his party proved a disastrous calculation. He overreached himself in his misguided attempt to neutralise the threat of UKIP with what was essentially an otherwise unnecessary referendum.

Putting party interests before the country was a huge error of judgment. There will, of course be consequences - for the Prime Minister and his chancellor, for the Conservative Party and also for the UK.

The vote was as much a vote on immigration as it was the EU. The Leave side was successful in convincing the public that leaving the EU would equate to a vote to reduce immigration. The claim was that "taking back control" would result in a tougher immigration policy, in spite of the UK's inability to reduce non-EU immigration via the current points-based system or the arrangements currently in place for Norway and Switzerland.

The vote was, to some degree, a proxy vote against "the establishment". Yes, I know that Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Michael Gove are hardly the anti-establishment figures they promote themselves as. But here was an opportunity to express dissatisfaction with many things - immigration, austerity, politics in general - and was effectively a by-election on the establishment. That establishment includes not only politicians (although there was a distinctly anti-politics element to Leave's campaigning) but also bankers, economists, journalists etc. and voters' willingness to kick elites - both real and imagined - should have been foreseen.

There is a lot of anger and frustration being expressed in this result. Unfortunately, while much of this is entirely justified, this is transferred onto the EU rather than those who are actually responsible for creating isolation, refusing to respond to societal concerns and disenfranchising people. One of the most disturbing comments in a campaign full of disturbing comments was Michael Gove's comparison of experts to Nazis, but his simple claim that "the British people are sick of experts" was proved right. It is galling to see such a blatantly anti-intellectual agenda succeed, especially as those behind it will inevitably be running the government, but there is no doubt playing the "anti-establishment" card (however disingenuously) was frighteningly effective.

Bookies are about as reliable as pollsters. Every bookmaker had Remain down as a dead cert until that Sunderland declaration. Opinion polls pointed to a narrow but decisive Remain win. How could they be so wrong?

Appeals to emotion work. Politicos imagine that the public like facts. They might, but ultimately what wins votes are emotional arguments. So, when the Leave campaign are able to use the David versus Goliath narrative so convincingly, siding with the "haves" against the "have nots", countering this by pointing out Leave's lies on Turkey and the cost of EU membership was never likely to be effective. The referendum was won on many things, but perception was more important a determining factor than facts.

Economic arguments don't work. The public aren't persuaded or inspired by economics. Yes, such arguments are serious and ultimately have huge impacts on people's lives, but crude financial statistics and predictions (some of them rather bizarre) simply don't excite emotions. Focusing on the economy was hardly the wisest thing for Stronger In to make.

Both campaigns were dismal. The Leave side was particularly nasty at times - or, at least, some elements within it were - encouraging xenophobia, making threats about the risk of british women being raped, apparently inciting "violence on the streets" and publishing posters reminscent of Nazi proaganda...all while (withiut irony) brandishing their opponents "Project Fear". They provided very little clarity while suggesting that the EU would be the solution to a range of difficulties. The Remain campaign was utterly dismal and uninspiring - in a word, insipid. It failed to use its best assets (such as Caroline Lucas, Nicola Sturgeon, Tim Farron) instead allowing David Cameron to become its figurehead. It failed to communicate a clear message, instead constantly reacting to what the Leave camp was doing, surrendering the initiative in the process.

Cameron was too visible. I mean, seriously...which advisors thought this was a good idea?  He should have followed Harold Wilson's example from 1975. As an unpopular Prime Minister, his involvement allowed him to be a focus of voters' anger and frustrations. The risk of allowing the Prime Minister to front the campaign should have been obvious to anyone.

Stronger In was like Better Together - only worse.  Why, oh why, did the In campaign not take lessons from Scotland, where BT won the referendum but lost many of the arguments? Why the relentless negativity? Why the focus on personalities? Where was the optimism, the humour, the emotion, the humanity? The Remain campaign simply didn't give people sufficient reason to vote.

Labour is in a real mess. It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to say this. The referendum provided Labour with a valuable opportunity to demonstrate its relevance and reconnect with both its core voters and one-time supporters who have deserted the party. Corbyn had a chance to portray himself as a real people's champion, standing up for the workers' rights that would be eroded by leaving the EU. He would have had far more authenticity on this point than, for example, George Osborne. But he preferred to play petty politics, refusing to share a platform with the Prime Minister and allowing Nigel Farage to speak for his core base - fatally, in Labour strongholds in the North East and Wales.

Labour has now lost Scotland, is clearly losing support in Wales and the North of England and seems to lack any clear purpose. I hoped Jeremy Corbyn would be able to provide principled and strong opposition to the Conservatives, but on the evidence of this referendum there's more chance of 76 million Turks landing in Dover.

Nigel Farage was not the asset many imagined he would be, but remains a major force. Gove was quick to distance himself from the infamous "Breaking Point" poster, and the official Leave campaign clearly has reservations. His "unconceding moment", followed swiftly by a suggestion that the decision had been swayed by extending voter registration, prompted Douglas Carswell to quip that "angry nationalism doesn't win elections or come to peaceful conclusions". Still, he's the man of the moment and, whatever we think about him and whatever his obvious weaknesses, he must now be considered one of the most effective politicians of our generation. Think about that for a moment.

This was largely an English debate. It was no surprise that Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. The political conversations here were very different in nature. Issues of identity were frequently identified as being significant, and these were generally questions of English identity. Essentially, voting Leave was perceived by many a proxy for English nationalism. Not altogether surprising, but underlining the failure of the main political parties to recognise and adjust to it.

The narrative was framed largely by the media. I won't labour the point, but few people were better informed as a result.

We live in a divided society. Yes, the referendum and the campaigning certainly served to divide the country - the very nature of the debate was divisive. But many of those divisions were pre-existing, the referendum result has simply clarified them - especially along generational, class, political and regional lines.

There is a need to bring our divided society together. The result was close, very close.  If there are winners, there must also be losers, who make up almost half of the electorate. Just as in the case of the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, there is a need to allow for healing, to reach out and build bridges.

The early signs, however, are not good. Nigel Farage, in understandably celebratory mood, seemed to suggest Remain voters were not "ordinary, decent people." The tone of the conversation during the "debate", inevitably descending to the politics of "us and them", also doesn't give much cause for encouragement. But if we are to be a "United Kingdom" then it must be resognised that we must move forward together. As Chuka Umunna said, we should all respect the result, but also recognise that it is a divided result.

No-one seems to know what will happen next. There are things we can be reasonably certain of - market volatility, political turmoil and serious questions being asked about the future of the Union - but on the substantive issues, the only thing that is certain is uncertainty.

In all likelihood, whatever happens during the next two years of negotiations, it's going to be impossible to deliver everything that many Leave voters believed they were voting for. What happens then - when they believe they have been betrayed by the negotiators and "sold out" by the establishment?

Another Scottish independence referendum now seems a near certainty. As many of us predicted during the last few months (even years) only to be told we were "scaremongering". Nicola Sturgeon is to make a fuller statement later today, but BBC News reports that she has said that "the people of Scotland see their future as part of the EU". Her intentions seems relatively clear and I for one wouldn't argue with her case for a further referendum, even if I would have preferred not to have this conversation against the backdrop of the UK leaving the EU.

Will the vote to leave the EU see the break up of the UK? I won't make a prediction, but the smart money must be on Scotland gaining independence.

The referendum campaign has been many things, but it hasn't been enjoyable. For people like me, political campaigns can be fun. But the political conversation has been utterly toxic. At least in the Scottish independence referendum people were inspired to become involved positively in politics and younger people felt actively included.

In Scotland, it's clear there is a broad pro-EU, progressive political consensus. In England, with the Labour Party in turmoil and the Liberal Democrats described by former leader Paddy Ashdown as "roadkill", where do those of us who favour building a tolerant society with an internationalist outlook go?

Monday, 20 June 2016

If you value your country, it's time to reclaim it

We've heard a lot in the last few weeks about "taking our country back".

It's not the kind of thing that would generally resonate with me. After all, I care far more for people than I do lines on maps. Patriotism doesn't really shape my politics, or my personal identity.

But what I do have in common with most people is an identification with my community and the society in which I live. As a liberal, and a Liberal Democrat, I naturally want that society to be open, tolerant and inclusive.

All this talk about "taking our country back" has got me thinking. Firstly, about where such people intend to take it (apparently, a romanticised view of the 1950s that only exists in selective memories). And, perhaps more importantly, what to they want to "take it back" from?

You only have to read the comments pages of the Daily Mail to see how hateful and intolerant some people have become. It's also impossible to escape the effect that the kind of inflammatory language used by some on the Leave campaign is having on social cohesion and community relations. Others have covered this is some detail following the tragic and utterly senseless political assassination of Jo Cox last week, and there is some merit to what they say. You cannot simply stoke up intolerance with inflammatory language and then absolve yourself of responsibility - at least for the wider problem of increasing racist and xenophobic feeling.

When people express the desire to "take their country back", they generally mean from those who have a liberal and internationalist worldview, who promote tolerance and acceptance and who favour collaboration over isolation. They may wrap this up "pro-democracy" language (ironically overlooking the undeniable reality that the EU is far more democratic than the UK) but their purpose is pretty clear. More often that not, such expressions of a need to "take back" the country involves assumptions about the erosion of undefined and non-specific "British values", and inevitably focus on fears that immigration is out of control and destroying our way of life (again, something that's generally undefined).

They may not all see immigration as being at "breaking point"; they may not all condemn those who think differently as "scaremongers" while simultaneously threatening that foreigners will rape British women unless we withdraw from the EU; they may not all identify Islam with ISIS. But the sentiment informed by misconception is undeniably real and, if allowed to flourish, represents a very real danger to our communities.

Those of us who belong to the LGBT+ community will need no reminding of the rights we've had to win in the last two decades - and the role the EU has played in facilitating better rights for LGBT+ people across the continent. We also recognise that while laws often change quickly, social attitudes take somewhat longer to follow. Can we trust a UK government, led perhaps by Boris Johnson or Michael Gove to build on what's been achieved? More seriously, should we be concerned when anti-human rights rhetoric is on the rise, promoted by a man whose party has a history of saying (to put it mildly) rather silly things about LGBT+ people?

And, even more importantly, what about the kind of work Jo Cox was so keen to champion - with refugees and asylum seekers? Last Thursday morning, I was speaking with a Salvation Army officer about the kind of xenophobic language I'd heard from intelligent people, and asked where it all would lead. Inevitably the conversation led to the Salvation Army's own work with immigrant families and refugees and she was as concerned as I was about the growing intolerance and the "inexplicable" rise of a thinly-veiled racism. She experiences it every day, especially from older people. "But how do you change people's minds?" Ah...

In spite of what they claim, people wanting "their country back" generally are uncomfortable with British values as they have evolved. They see little value in remaining part of European community that has overseen the longest period of sustained peace in European History (you see, Jacob Rees-Mogg, nothing like the Holy Roman Empire). They want it "back" from progressives who do not fear multiculturalism, or do not find simplistic solutions in scapegoating minorities.

There are some who say we cannot know with certainty what the result of a Leave vote will be. But, on the basis of probability, we can point to likely outcomes. Scotland will almost certainly stage a second referendum on independence, with the smart money being on Scotland going its own way within two years. Ireland is more complicated, but an increase in tensions caused by border controls and other political questions is hardly going to improve matters.  Surrendering our influence in Europe at a crucial time, when Putin's Russia is steadily increasing its threat to global security, would be unwise - and for what? Abandoning others hardly seems in the "British" way of doing things.

And what will the next two years hold? We don't know, but I'll guarantee one thing: whatever the government negotiators manage to obtain from their discussions with the EU and others, UKIP and other right-wing Brexiters will be condemning the deal and accusing the government of selling the country out and betraying the British people. It's all very predictable, as what most Brexiters appear to want isn't something that's actually possible to deliver. The political climate in what remains of the UK in two years' time is likely to be even more toxic than at present. And in the meantime the economy will inevitably unwind.

We have to ask ourselves this: what kind of UK do we want to see after Thursday's vote? Economics aside (and I'm genuinely concerned about our economic future), do we want to live in a country divided against itself, in which the politics of hate find increasing expression? This vote has very real human consequences that must be properly considered.

Let's make no mistake about it. The Scottish Independence referendum saw a fair amount of fear and intolerance being peddled. But, on the whole, people felt engaged and empowered by the campaigning. Most positively, it saw hundreds of thousands of people meaningfully becoming involved in politics for the first time. And while the conversation on Scottish independence did, at times, become quite aggressive and adversarial at least it wasn't characterised by the same toxic hate that is so obvious a feature of some of the campaigning from Leavers.

Neither Vote Leave not Remain have covered themselves in glory. But the description of Remain as "Project Fear" is more than a bit disingenuous coming from the likes of Nigel Farage. Sure, the predictions of economic Armageddon from the likes of Osborne and Cameron are embarrassing. But they are nothing compared to the barefaced lies (£350million, Turkey, bananas) and the inherent nastiness of the "enough is enough" rhetoric.

Yes, I want my country back. I want to take it back from those who are responsible for creating a toxic political dialogue on immigration. I want to take it back from those who deliberately play the racist card for political gain and take us back to the 1960s in the process ("The Turks are coming! They're evil, I tell you. And they'll be living next door to you if you vote Remain!" is no more responsible a slogan than was "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour"). I want to take my country back by those who either incite violence, or suggest it as a solution (A party leader saying "if people feel voting doesn't change anything then violence is the next step" is, again, little more responsible than a former government minister predicting "the River Tiber flowing with much blood"). As you may have gathered, I want to take my country back from those who seem determined to relive the political discourses of the 1960s.   I want to take my country back from those who believe British values are exclusive and narrow-minded. I want to take my country back from the inverted snobs who are utterly intolerant of expertise and learning.  And I want to take my country back for those who exchange the politics of openness for the politics of hate.

Because that is what it is. As Dan Hodges wrote in the Daily Mail (yes, the Mail!) Brexit has opened Pandora's box. He said: "The time has come to talk about Project Hate. Three weeks ago we all woke to the following quote from a pro-Brexit MP: 'I don't want to stab the Prime Minister in the back – I want to stab him in the front so I can see the expression on his face.' One week later Nigel Farage said that British women risked being raped if we didn't vote for Brexit. At the same time posters began to circulate from the Vote Leave campaign – replete with shadowy footsteps – warning of 55 million migrants entering the UK from Turkey.

"This followed a warning from Gove that if Turkey were granted access, 'extremists everywhere will believe that the West is opening its borders to appease an Islamist government'. They know what they are doing. Farage. Gove. Johnson. They have always known. That they were opening a Pandora's Box. But it glistened before them so brightly. Project Hate has brought us to the brink. Britain – the country we live – stands on the edge. This time next week it could all be gone. Our economic security. Our national security. Our international security. Imagine if it works. The overt racism. The overt demonisation of refugees. The graphic threats to stab the Prime Minister in the chest. Imagine if that is what constitutes a successful British political campaign in 2016...

"The voices of moderation have fallen silent. Actually, it's worse than that. They have not fallen silent, but actively joined the chorus of anger and hate."

What Hodges doesn't mention within his referencing of Pandora's Box is the one thing to remain in the box after all the evils were unleashed: hope. There will be hope so long as those voices of moderation, of reason, of tolerance, are brave enough to speak out. The toxic political discourse that has framed the EU debate does not have to be permanent. We have an opportunity on Thursday to stand up to the hate that has so driven much of what passes for political conversation in recent months.

Enough is enough! It's time to reclaim our country.