Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Some thoughts on the Manchester tragedy

Like many people, I woke up to hear the news of the awful tragedy in Manchester.

I was first alerted to the news by notifications on facebook telling me that some of my friends were OK. Which led to me then turning on the TV news and discovering what had happened at 10.35pm yesterday.

I took my daughter to school this morning feeling rather fortunate to be able to do this, when other parents were still agonising about where their own children were.

It was a terrible shock, and made all the more so when I discovered a friend has been trying to make contact with one of his own friends who was at the concert last night - but has so far had no success.

There are few words I can use to express my own feelings about the tragedy. It is a tragic and unnecessary waste of life, and whatever we discover in time about the motivations of the perpetrator there can be no excusing the deliberate targeting of a concert, where moist of the spectators were innocent young people.

As far as I am aware, this is the highest death toll from a terrorist-related attack in mainland Britain outside of London. It is tragic that it happened in Manchester - a city I know well and in which I am currently a parliamentary candidate (Bury South). Why should this wonderfully multicultural city be the victim of such a mindless and pointless atrocity?

It is dreadful that, already, the predictable anti-Islamic and even anti-Semitic voices have reared their ugly heads, seeking to capitalise on a human tragedy of immense proportions. While the country stands in unity, and in grief, with the people of Manchester so too must we stand together against the intolerance that feeds off such a disaster and fuels division.

Today, for the second time in a year, all political activity has been suspended - and rightly so. I hope we can all agree that this is not a time for party politics or making political statements.

And when the political discourse begins in earnest again, I hope that rather than propagate the kinds of easy answers that only create division, we instead reflect (as a society) on how we can produce a more peaceful and more tolerant world.

I don't wish to say much more, other than to express my deep condolences to all those who are grieving today. I'll leave the final word to fellow blogger Jennie Rigg, who made this observation:

"The arsehole who blew himself up with an IED full of nuts and bolts at a concert full of little girls was one man.

"The people who immediately took to the streets with bottles of water and cups of tea? The people who opened their homes to strangers for a sit down or a phone charger or a phone? The taxi drivers who offered free rides home when the trains were cancelled, the hotels who offered free rooms and respite and drinks to those affected, and the absolute heroes of the emergency services? Those people are legion. Those people are the ones who we need to talk about. Those people are the peak of humanity.

"Love, not hate. Helping, not hurting."

Thursday, 18 May 2017

What is the point of the Electoral Commission?

Image result for electoral commisionWe all know what the Electoral Commission (EC) does. In its own words, it "supports well-run elections and referendums in the UK, offering support and guidance to those involved", maintains registers of political parties and acts as a regulator of party finances. In regards this latter objective, the EC states that it "work[s] to make sure people understand the rules around political party finance.  Alongside this work, we also take action when the rules are broken and publish information on political finance."

Which, on the face of it, sounds pretty useful.

However, events in the last few years have shown the EC to be anything but. Indeed, it is completely unfit for purpose in modern political Britain. Admittedly, much if this isn't its own fault, but that of a failure of legislation to catch up with developing reality - but there can be little escaping that what once seemed a good idea is no longer able to fulfil the remit for which it was designed. Even Betamax video recorders were functional once.

If a week in politics is a long time, then 16 years is an eternity. The EC was established in 2001, with perfectly good intentions, under the provisions of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The EC's mandate included increasing public participation in democracy and regulating political donations, later extended to include security arrangements for postal voting (2006) and a number of investigatory responsibilities (2009).

The shortcomings of the EC were made obvious following the General Election of 2010. In what was described by The Independent as "one of the most chaotic general elections in recent memory", the inadequacies of a body charged with increasing public participation in the democratic process were revealed, ironically, on the back of high turnout. Unprecedented claims of electoral fraud, voters being turned away from polling stations and a failure to print sufficient ballot forms underlined the need for a review of how the EC worked.

Nothing, however, was done. The next test for the EC came with the Scottish independence referendum. Legally speaking, the referendum was advisory and non-binding - a product of the UK's constitutional position on referenda for which the EC can hardly be blamed. However, the EC's responsibilities include "working to ensure voters know everything they need to know about the process" questions may reasonably be asked about the lack of guidance from the EC about the legal status of the referendum.

More crucially, what the EC did and didn't do during the referendum campaign spoke volumes about the nature of the organisation. It revised the proposed question from "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?" to "Should Scotland be an independent country?" It produced guidelines on spending limits. It registered the official campaigns. It certified and announced the result. Significantly, it produced a report into the referendum - the most interesting sections of which consisted of proposals on how to run future referenda successfully. Unfortunately, these recommendations are no more than advisory and no action was taken to ensure the EU referendum conformed to these recommendations (most obviously in relation to votes for 16 and 17 year olds, restrictions on government advertising to promote a particular outcome).

The report also included a recommendation that "for each future referendum...a role in regulating the campaign arguments is inappropriate for the Commission, or any other organisation tasked with regulating the referendum." This is understandable from the EC's perspective, but begs the question: if not the EC, then who should regulate the arguments? And so, when another non-binding advisory referendum was announced on the UK's membership of the EU, it should have been predictable what the campaign would look like. With no real legal framework for legislating the campaigns, the referendum itself having no legal status and the body responsible for referendum responsibilities washing its hands of any duty to keep campaigns honest there was a certain inevitability to what followed..

As in Scotland, the EC was able to agonise over the precise wording of the question and decide which of the various campaigns should be declared "official" but could do nothing to prevent the dishonesty and blatant untruths that came to characterise the political conversation in the lead-up to the referendum. While admittedly the failure to bring the Representation of the People Act up to date is hardly the EC's responsibility, when Nigel Farage is able to use the same kind of inflammatory tactics that cost Phil Woolas his political career questions have to be asked about why law surrounding General Elections doesn't seem to apply to referenda. In terms of ensuring democratic standards were maintained, the EC proved completely ineffective - something made self-evident by the appearance of Vote Leave Campaign Director Dominic Cummings at a meeting of the House of Commons Treasury Committee.

In its own report into the EU referendum, the EC stated: "a robust regulatory regime should aim to promote fairness and transparency, and reduce opportunities for circumventing these fundamental principles; part of this relies on the effective deterrent of proportionate sanctions.  Currently, the Commission is only able to levy a maximum fine of £20,000." It recommended increasing this but, like the recommendations made following the independence referendum, it is likely simply to be ignored. Astonishingly, the EC's other recommendations make no reference at all to the dishonesty, such as the £350 million claim, or the xenophobic campaigning of Leave.EU in particular. Essentially, the EC seems happy for campaigners to say what they like with little regard for the truth, so long as leaflets contain an appropriate imprint.

The EC has evolved into what it is largely by historical accident. As already stated, its responsibilities are framed by legislation that is itself unfit for purpose and an unwritten constitution in which referenda have no legal status. However, when we continue to hear a narrow 51.9 - 48.1% margin of support for leaving the EU - expressed through what is, legally speaking, no more than a glorified opinion poll - as an unequivocal statement of the "will of the people" then there is clearly a need for referenda to be more effectively governed. If referenda are here to stay (and, regrettably, it seems they are) then legislation must be updated defining the scope of referenda in the same ways as other mature democracies do. Existing electoral legislation should also be revisited and strengthened. It will also require a body to oversee the governance of both elections and referenda - something the EC seems incapable of doing.

If the EC exists to "support well-run...referendums" then the EU referendum should be counted as yet another failure. It was anything but "well-run". Other than financially, the EC couldn't guarantee any kinds of standards of transparency and accountability during the EU referendum. This may sound like praise for the EC's performance on regulating donation, but it isn't. In fact, the EC's lack of power to enforce the rules should be of concern to everyone.

Take the recent example of the EC's investigation into Conservative Party election expenses in 2015. Thanks largely to Channel 4 News, the EC was made aware of various irregularities. It looked into these and found a great deal of evidence to confirm the party's returns were incomplete. The punishment? A fine of £70,000 - the maximum the EC can impose.

The EC also reported matters to the police - that it was difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt that people had knowingly acted dishonestly is perhaps unsurprising. But rules were broken - and the financial benefits of doing so (intentionally or otherwise) far exceeded the paltry £70,000 fine. Aside from delivering relatively meaningless slaps on the wrist, what then is the point of the EC? This episode points to a terrifying reality - that rules themselves are meaningless if you are the Conservative Party and have the money to pay the fines. And who can change the rules? Ah yes, the Conservative government. I won't put any money on anything changing anytime soon.

Money talks in British political life as never before. In 1992, a certain tabloid boasted "it was The S*n wot won it". Of course the media still retains huge influence over public opinion-forming, especially Paul Dacre's Daily Mail. But we've seen, with Arron Banks and Tim Martin as two examples, that there's a new power now very much in the foreground - multi-millionaires seeking to buy political results.

Wealthy donors have always been a political reality. But they have largely remained silent, simply bankrolling the political entity they feel best represents their views. All this has changed. This month another multimillionaire, Jeremy Hosking, proudly declared that he's going to use his wealth to pack the House of Commons with as many pro-Brexit MPs as possible. That, in the 21st century, is democracy.

Of course there will be debate about what should and shouldn't be allowed, and some of that is healthy. But the existing system and the funding rules, which find as their embodiment the EC, go beyond merely allowing such democratic injustice. They are complicit in it. The feeble and outdated rules, as well as the organisation that supposedly enforces them, actually enable the advancement of this kind of "anti-democracy".

The Guardian reported on this yesterday that the rules relating specifically to Northern Ireland - which allow secrecy of donations - were being misused by the DUP to enable what effectively amounts to electoral money laundering. Carole Cadwalladr, writing in the Observer, makes a comprehensive and credible argument that British democracy has been hijacked by US billionaires. She makes the claim that they played a significant part in the EU referendum. The EC are now investigating - something I doubt that Robert Mercer and his friends will fear. There are no penalties to act as a serious deterrent, and whatever the EC concludes it remains powerless to prevent this kind of thing from happening.

The EC has also failed consistently to address corporate interests and the effect they have on democratic outcomes.

Is this what democracy looks like? It shouldn't be, but where is the resistance? Certainly not from the EC, which looks increasingly like yet another body struggling to enforce the spirit of well-intended but outdated laws while enforcing the letter of such laws in a depressingly ineffective and self-defeating way. It is simply ensuring, to misquote Burns, that we're "bought and sold for right-wing gold". Sic a parcel of rogues, indeed.

Not all of this is the fault of the EC, of course. But we need to ask what kind of democracy we want, and how we want to EC to function. If it is to do more than simply rephrase questions, check for imprints and apply nominal fines for wrongdoing that actually encourage future misdemeanours then it needs empowering and equipping to do so. Currently it serves little discernible purpose, which represents a democratic tragedy.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Student protest leads to anti-LGBT MP standing down

Andrew Turner
Andrew Turner (Photo: BBC)
There's been a bit of controversy recently surrounding what Tim Farron thinks, or perhaps does not think, of homosexuality. But if a sense of perspective was needed today it has been provided by a Conservative MP apparently intent on demonstrating that there remain in the Commons some truly intolerant voices on LGBT issues.

In a remarkable story, Andrew Turner - who has been the MP for the Isle of Wight since 2001 - has decided to stand down after making what have been widely interpreted as "bigoted" comments.

At lunchtime today Mr Turner attended a school to talk to an A level politics class. Asked an innocent question about whether he has supported the work of the local Pride, he responded with "homosexuality is wrong and a danger to society". One of the students present, Esther Poucher, left the room in protest and shortly afterwards wrote a detailed description of the event on facebook - as a result, just a few hours after what should have been a straightforward Q&A session, the MP has been forced to resign.

Esther's facebook post stated: "So today our conservative MP Andrew Turner came into our A level politics class to let us ask him questions about his work. As a passionate campaigner for LGBT rights, and basically just a decent human being, I decided to open up a discussion about Isle of Wight pride. I asked him if he'd had any involvement in the event, and his answer has truly shocked me to the point of outrage. He told us that he'd been invited, but wasn't intending to go. This is because (and this is a quote) he thinks that homosexuality is 'wrong' and 'dangerous to society'. At this answer, I had to leave. It's terrifying that in this age and point in our development as a society, there are still people that can't care enough about a person's wellbeing to just accept who they are. And the most terrifying thing is that we as an island consistently vote him in to represent us. Well fuck that. HE DOES NOT REPRESENT ME. He never has, and never will. If there is anything I can give to you from this, it is that we need change. We can't wait, and we can't just nod politely and respect and opinion like that. Yes, we all believe different things, and that's wonderful. But when that belief treats a group as sub-human, and attempts to take away their fundamental rights, we can't respect it. I'm done with people not standing up and fucking shouting about what's right and not campaigning for justice. To those over 18- please do the right thing, and vote in a government that works for a society of diversity and acceptance. Don't be complacent."

It's difficult not only to disagree with that but also not to recognise the passion and sincerity behind it.

But what is truly astonishing is the outcome. Firstly, from the perspective of someone who grew up at a time when such views were considered normal, it demonstrates unequivocally that we've moved beyond that. No longer is treating LGBT people as a "danger" acceptable. That alone feels, to me at least, something worth celebrating.

But, even more significantly, Mr Turner's downfall is amazing because of how it happened. There probably hasn't been a quicker fall from grace since the crowd turned on Nicolae Ceausescu during a speech in Revolution Square and the speed at which a comment led to resignation is stunning. Confident in his being returned to what has become a safe Tory seat, Turner was expecting to win another term as the island's MP - although there have recently been calls by opposition politicians to select a single "progressive" candidate to stand against and hopefully oust him.

In the end, it wasn't political machinations, alliances or electorates that ended Turner's 16 year parliamentary career but the fact that a group of school students, who don't even have the right to vote, stood up to bigotry. And they did so using social media - uniting local people and organisations against Mr Turner in a way no other politician has been able to.

Never think you can't make a difference. Never.

And to Esther Poucher (and her friends) - you are truly amazing! Thank you so much for standing up to bigotry, and just being fantastic human beings.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

What can Lib Dems hope for from the General Election?

It's just over a week since Theresa May announced she would be seeking a General Election on 8th June, and MPs of various parties (including Labour's turkeys, intent on voting for Christmas) agreed, under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, to the Prime Minister's request.

Aside from the obvious fact that the FTPA now joins the likes of baby cages, the Sinclair C5, hydrogen airships and The Pussycat Dolls as ideas that seemed good at the time but were later proved to be anything but, there is the question of the timing. It's reasonably obvious to any semi-informed person that the Prime Minister is determined to use Labour's weakness to her advantage and claim a "mandate" for her Brexit approach. It's even more startlingly obvious that, with 20 MPs under investigation for possible misdemeanours committed during the 2015 election, it was in her interests to act quickly to ensure she didn't lose her majority. Quite what advantage there is for Labour in agreeing to this I don't know.

It's not an election I'd want now. I'm not remotely thrilled with the possibility of an increased Tory majority, let alone one on the scale of what the forecasters are predicting. That said, interestingly, the mood in the party is very different. Many activists are delighted with what they see as an opportunity to take the fight to the Conservatives. There's a lot of excitement. There's a sense that the momentum is with us after Witney and Richmond Park. The party's been doing extraordinarily well in local by-elections, with arguably the most sensation result of them all being Stephen O'Brien's victory in Sunderland's Sandhill ward - the kind of result that makes it believable we can win anywhere. Many also believe that the Liberal Democrats will be an obvious repository for the votes of "the 48%",  who have been consistently ignored (at best) by the Prime Minister. Tim Farron's message that we are "the real opposition" has inspired many to get involved with the party - membership exceeded 100,000 last week. We have some terrific candidates and not just former MPs like Julian Huppert and Jo Swinson, but also the likes of Kelly-Marie Blundell (Lewes) and Sue McGuire (Southport) to use just two examples.
Will Jo Swinson be returned
in East Dunbartonshire

But - and there is a but - we shouldn't get too carried away after a couple of very good by-election results. Polling is showing steady movement in the right direction, but it's nothing to get excited about. The same polling is also suggesting a dip in support for UKIP, with implications for us in England. There's also been the ridiculous questioning of Tim Farron on whether homosexuality is sinful, which has damaged his credibility and image (while he hasn't helped himself with his responses, the line of questioning was totally inappropriate), and the furore over David Ward that led to the leader making a statement indicating Mr Ward had been "sacked". Instead of talking about the real issues, the first week of campaigning has been dominated by questions about religious belief and anti-Semitism. Such things have an effect.

And then there's this: a study from Electoral Calculus that suggests the Liberal Democrats will actually lose seats. It's certainly an interesting read. Essentially, it observes that the "Brexit effect" will be minimal at best, that Conservatives are gaining Remain voters rather than losing them while simultaneously winning over UKIP supporters, that while the Lib Dems will gain some seats it faces a challenge to hold onto what they already have, and that Labour is in complete disarray. The data study projects the following outcome: Conservatives 422, Labour 150, Lib Dems 6.

It's certainly true that holding Carshalton & Wallington, Southport and Richmond Park will be tough, not least as the Greens appear to be standing in Richmond Park this time. But, lest we forget, we won the former two seats in 2015. Tom Brake has the valuable incumbency factor. It's also true that the "voting trajectory" diagrams within the study, which show overall movement towards the Conservatives, are based on current polling. And it's undeniably the case that we don't have that much of a "core vote". But is it reasonable to conclude that our parliamentary presence would be reduced?

I don't think so. I'm not contesting the research that has gone into the polling, nor questioning the expertise behind it - just as I didn't question the quality of the political scientists who predicted a Remain win in last year's referendum. Or those who failed to foresee a Conservative majority in the run-up to the 2015 General Election. Or even someone like John Curtice who, days before the Scottish elections of 2011, predicted that "few constituencies would change hands". That's because it's not the experts who are necessarily at fault but a system of polling that struggles to recognise electorates are becoming increasingly complex and that a General Election is, after all, a series of 650 local contests.

There was not a pollster anywhere who foresaw a Trump victory, or the Liberal Democrats losing seats in 2010. It's wise to treat these things with some caution. Polling also tends not to take into account tactical voting or the reality that parties such as our own focus energies on a limited number of constituencies. I'm also not entirely sure it's possible to ascertain the nature of the "Brexit effect" from opinion polls alone.

What can we expect from this election then? I think, at the very least, it would be surprising if the party went backwards in terms of both vote share and seats. While I wouldn't make the case for a Lib Dem "surge" or "revival", there are signs of improvement - and not just in by-elections. The local elections next week will probably give a better indication than data studies of the state of the parties, and those that make gains will feel confident of replicating that performance a month later. The Liberal Democrats have moved on from 2015 in many ways, and from such a low base surely the only way is upwards?

Vince Cable is hoping to regain
Twickenham for the Lib Dems
One thing I do accept from the Electoral Calculus analysis is that our chances are best in seats where our closest challengers are Labour. I fully expect us to regain Cambridge, and would certainly fancy our chances in Burnley, Bermondsey & Old Southwark - and possibly also Cardiff Central if the predicted Labour to Conservative swing in Wales is accurate. But there are also seats held by Tory incumbents - Lewes, Eastbourne, Twickenham, St Ives, Torbay, Cheadle and Bath - which we should be able to target effectively. The fact that some of those constituencies' current MPs are under police investigation over election expenses can only help our cause. I wouldn't want to make predictions in Scotland, where the vast majority of seats require huge swings to dislodge SNP MPs, but we're not targeting East Dunbartonshire and Edinburgh West for nothing.

There is also the one factor that pollsters always overlook, because it's impossible to quantify: positivity. Already this election feels very different to the last one. The party feels it's in a better place than in 2015. There has been justified cause for optimism with good progress in local by-elections and the Richmond Park victory. Of course, that progress is being made from a very low base but there has been a renewed confidence and it's become infectious. 100,000 members is testimony of an ability to reach out to people previously uninvolved in politics. Contrast that to the mood in 2015, when everyone had a gut feeling they'd probably lose and there was a general sense of despondency. It's that positivity that can make a difference in a tough campaign, and something I personally believe can provide that edge in marginal contests. Political battles have many elements, including psychological.

While I can't help but feel depressed about the likelihood of an increased majority for the Conservatives - and all that means and symbolises - I think it's realistic to expect the Liberal Democrats to make some progress. What I would say is that it's a marathon and not a sprint: getting back to 1992 levels - 20 seats - would be a decent achievement in itself. But we may do better - it certainly isn't outwith the realms of possibility.

As for the prediction of six seats - if that happens I'll be eating some headgear...

Friday, 24 February 2017

Some thoughts on Stoke and Copeland

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

And so the much anticipated by-elections of Copeland and Stoke threw up results that were interesting but not altogether surprising.

In Copeland, the result was what I feared it would be. True, there were positives for the Liberal Democrats - we increased our vote and moved into a creditable third place (up from 4th in 2015). I'm not sure it can be called a positive result for us, as a Tory win - the first time a party of government has gained from the official opposition since 1982 - has resulted in Conservative triumphalism and has inevitably been taken by the government as an indicator of approval in its policy direction. After Witney and Richmond Park, the momentum was very definitely with the Lib Dems - but there can be no escaping that the real winners last night were the government. Coming third of course represents some kind of progress, but I argued in December that our main objective should be to avoid a Tory win and that was, unfortunately, something we were unable to prevent.

The Conservative victory is as much a setback for everything we stand for as it is for Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party. It's a defeat for progressive politics. This is so self-evident that I shouldn't have to explain the point further.

Labour is clearly a party with some real problems, most of them of its own making. Copeland is an unusual seat in that while it has been Labour-held for 81 years, for much of that time it was a two-way Lab-Con marginal. But in usual circumstances a Labour Party in opposition would hold somewhere like this, and hold it comfortably. On the other hand, the Conservatives have proven themselves able to squeeze UKIP and effectively appeal to UKIP supporters. Labour have an identity problem; the Tories are happy to adopt a new Euro-hostile, UKIP-lite identity.

I asked in December whether we should stand a candidate in Copeland at all. In the final analysis, our vote made the difference. In the absence of any constructive dialogue with Labour it is doubtful that any "progressive alliance" would have been possible, but I think serious questions now have to be asked about how collaboration around by-elections can take place. I suspect that More United isn't the answer, but we can ill-afford too many more Copelands.

The media were naturally far more interested in Stoke, not least because of their UKIP obsession. Would Paul Nuttall deliver on his promise to unseat Labour in their heartlands? Well, no - and no-one should realistically have expected him to. Nuttall is clearly a liability and, unlike Farage, struggles to be taken seriously.

In the event Labour held on easily, with UKIP (in spite of all the hype) very nearly falling into third place. Dr Ali, for the Lib Dems, did well to significantly increase our share of the vote and finish in a decent fourth. For me, the Stoke result was the least interesting and unlike Copeland there is not an obvious winner - yes, Labour have a new MP in Gareth Snell but it is clear the party has little direction and that victory was owed, in part at least, to UKIP's counterproductive strategy. There is, however, an obvious loser - and that was Paul Nuttall.

The UKIP leader might only be twelve weeks into his new job, but he staked a lot on this campaign and it failed spectacularly. He went into the campaign in the shadow of Nigel Farage and came out of it with any credibility he once had in shreds. In a constituency in which 70% of voters opted to leave, this really was UKIP's great chance of a historic breakthrough, whatever Nuttall said subsequently about Stoke being way down the list of UKIP target seats. Nuttall successfully managed to transform himself from a relative unknown to a figure of fun and ridicule - quite a triumph in the space of a few weeks. His "honeymoon" period is well and truly over. Indeed, when he insisted that UKIP "aren't going anywhere, and I'm not going anywhere" he was inadvertently making a significant admission. His party aren't going anywhere. Like Labour they are directionless, reduced to unsubtle appeals to working class voters and taking populist potshots at "the establishment".

In all the excitement, for all parties (the Tories aside) there will be some disappointment. For the Lib Dems, there will be some encouragement that the toxicity that saw us reduced to eight MPs in 2015 is evaporating. In both contests our vote share was up on the General Election, which looks good on paper and is certainly evidence that we are moving in the right direction. However, given the huge effort in Stoke, can a distant fourth place be called a good result? There is clearly still progress to be made to get back to 2010 levels. And, while we moved into third place in Copeland at the expense of UKIP (even if it was the second lowest percentage of the vote we have received in that constituency since 1979) a Tory win was the last thing we needed - I suspect I'm not the only party member to see that as a disastrous outcome and a significant setback to the pro-EU, pro-inclusive, tolerant approach being advocated by Tim Farron.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Why we should stop speculating about Trump's mental health

US President Donald Trump (Photo: Quartz)
In recent weeks, there has been - unsurprisingly - a lot of speculation about the mental health of new US President Donald Trump.

I'm no fan of Mr Trump or his policies. I find him genuinely frightening. However, as someone who's spent most of their adult life working in NHS mental health services, I am uneasy to see so many people commenting in public forums on his mental health - usually in reference to whether he has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

I'm very uncomfortable with armchair psychology, but especially when it is reduced to some throw-away lines on twitter.

I'm also very worried about the scope for using mental health terminology as a form of abuse.

Of course, it's perfectly acceptable to look to make sense of someone's behaviour. Historians often do this retrospectively, using evidence from  a different time to suggest someone may have had a condition we now recognise as a medical problem. From Henry VI to Nicolae Ceausescu, historical figures have had their lives and achievements revisited to take account of likely mental health issues. Relatively recently David Owen wrote a book, considering world leaders including Tony Blair and George W Bush as potentially suffering from a "hubris syndrome". He brought both political and medical expertise to his work, and while I felt it unfairly judgmental in some respects, ultimately he was merely putting forward a medical theory. Should that be allowed? Should historians be permitted to speculate about physical health problems, while mental health is off-limits? I'm not sure I would support a "don't ask, don't talk" approach towards mental health, as if it should somehow be taboo.

But it is difficult - especially when mental health isn't so black and white and a great deal of stigma remains - and how we do it is of enormous importance. I'm reasonably comfortable with people questioning whether someone's behaviour is narcissistic, etc in general terms - I have more of a problem with people arriving at their own (public) diagnoses, however consistent a presentation may appear with the diagnostic criteria. We reduce both humanity and psychiatry when we do that. Those who make diagnoses about public figures can do more damage than they know.

I worked in both acute and forensic mental health services over 16 years, and have some experience of working with people with NPD. What I would say is that NPD is notoriously difficult to diagnose, and is rarer than people imagine.

It's not only on social media. This week a number of prominent psychologists have stated their belief that Mr Trump suffers from a "malignant narcissism". John Gartner described him as being "dangerously mentally ill and temperamentally incapable of being president"; Dr Julie Futrell believes “Narcissism impairs his ability to see reality so you can't use logic to persuade someone like that". While these people are undoubtedly expert clinicians, their public statements give fuel to others who use them as ammunition for their own insults on social media and elsewhere. So while their views may be informed, we should ask: are they helpful?

Added to this, yesterday House minority leader Nancy Pelosi has publicly stated she would support legislation requiring the President to undertake a mental health assessment. It should be obvious to anyone why that would be a terrible idea.

Equally unhappy at the NPD-focused conversations on twitter and in the wider media, psychiatrist Allen Francis has hit back in a series of tweets. Some of these raise very valid points, and are definitely worth repeating. For example, he warns that "instead of misdiagnosing Trump, we must analyze the societal sickness that gave someone so flawed the power to determine fate of the world", and observes that "calling Trump crazy also insults people who suffer from mental illness, most of whom are well meaning & well mannered. Trump is neither." So far, so good.

But he goes further, and insists that Trump has no psychiatric condition: "Constantly saying Trump's crazy wrong & misses point. He doesn't meet DSM Narcisssistic criteria (I wrote them). It's worse-he's bad, not mad".

So for Dr Frances it's open and shut. A closed case. Trump is pretty nasty. He's bad, not mad. All based, presumably, on his public appearances and statements.

The news article in Refinery 29, a US online lifestyle magazine, states that Dr Frances "wrote the diagnostic criteria for narcissism" - it's not quite true; he has never defined narcissism. He was part of the task force that helped to revise the framework for defining NPD (which has undergone several revisions). That's a significant distinction. No doubt it's possible to be narcissistic without having NPD, just as it's possible to be anti-social without experiencing Antisocial Personality Disorder.

I'm concerned about his response. Just as I am troubled about the kind of armchair psychiatry that positively diagnoses from a distance, and uses mental health related terms to insult and abuse, so too am I concerned that an eminent psychiatrist has weighed in, presumably without ever having met Mr Trump, to assert an absence of NPD. As he should know, NPD is notoriously difficult to diagnose. I have no doubts about his expertise and experience, but isn't he too guilty of making diagnoses from afar? Isn't this undermining psychiatry? Should health professionals be making any kinds of diagnosis of public figures on twitter?

I accept a lot of the points Frances is making, especially in relation to society, but did he need to go so far as to make a negative diagnosis? I don't know whether Trump has a mental health problem; he may have, he may not. He may need help, he may not. Bad guys can have mental health issues too. Ultimately, I think Frances is guilty of a similar "well meaning, but misguided" approach he accuses others of following - namely, of trying to destigmatise mental illness by public declaring that the objectionable Mr Trump doesn't have one. But at best it's an unprofessional approach - unless you sit down with someone and undertake a proper and full mental health assessment you have absolutely no right to speculate (publicly or otherwise) on their mental health, let alone make an unequivocal diagnosis.

For me, two wrongs don't make a right.

Ultimately, I think the problem here is how we view mental ill health. It is with dismay I see the words "personality disorder" used to insult and demean - or, even worse, used in a politically partisan way to depict someone as somehow less than human. That it's often liberals doing this, who honestly should know better, is equally worrying.

If we can strip away the stigma and it is seen as a health problem like any other, perhaps the idea of suffering from it will seem less offensive. A positive flip side would be fewer people using mental ill-health to abuse and insult others. We need to work to create a society - and health system - in which mental well-being is given parity with physical well-being, and in which stigma and discrimination towards mental ill-health are eradicated. In the meantime can we concentrate on resisting the President's destructive policy direction, rather than allow ourselves to be distracted by the question of his mental health?

Saturday, 31 December 2016

My predictions for 2017

So, that was 2016 - a year that many of us won't be too upset to see the back of.

For the last few years I've generally made predictions on New Year's Eve for the coming year - some serious and some not quite so serious. However, I decided to sit it out last year - in part because I'm not spending the same time on the blog I once did, but also because I genuinely believed the UK would vote to leave the EU and also suspected Donald Trump's chances of winning the US Presidency were higher than many thought. And I didn't want to think too much about what they would mean, privately hoping the bookies knew something I didn't...

In a sense the predictions I didn't want to share last year were more accurate than those in any year previously. So I've decided that I should trust my crystal ball after all, and have looked into 2017 to let you all know what you can expect. Will it be better than 2016? Hard to say...


The Liberal Democrats

* Tim Farron will become increasingly bold in his pronouncements. It will be obvious to anyone and everyone that he is unashamedly identifying himself as the voice of "the 48%". Increasing numbers of "the 48%" will look to him, in the absence of any real leadership on Brexit from Labour.

* The party's message of tolerance and inclusion sees steady gains, including another Westminster by-election in which we win a seat from the Tories. The Lib Dems will do very well in local elections in England and also make some progress in Scotland. There will be consistent improvement in the opinion polls.

* In spite of this progress, and the success of the leader in forging a positive identity for his party, it will also become clear that the Lib Dems still have no idea what federalism means in practice.

The Conservative Party

* There will be no general election. There really would be nothing for the government to gain. This comes as no surprise to anyone.

* The Conservatives will gain the Cumbrian seat of Copeland in a spring by-election. This is significant, because it will represent the first by-election win by a party of government over their official opposition since 1982, and the first time Copeland has had a non-Labour MP since 1935. More importantly, the victory will prove to be a huge blow for the government, which with some justification claims the result confirms public support for its Brexit strategy.

* As the Conservative Party becomes ever more populist, wrapping up its policy positions in jingoism and seeking to appeal to the most unsubtle aspects of British nationalism, it does increase the government's standing in opinion polls. The Prime Minister feels emboldened by the approval ratings and announces a hardening of her position on immigration, the European Court of Human Rights and Scotland.

* Theresa May will invoke Article 50 on the date of her arbitrary deadline, in spite of having to put the issue to a parliamentary vote in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling. It is, after all, "what the people want". As negotiations proceed, it becomes very difficult to see what the government's end goal is, other than to do "what the people want". By the end of the year it is obvious that the government underestimated its EU counterparts, and that (now the real war has started) it is not prepared to commit economic suicide. This supposed "compromise too far" leads to hostile reactions in the right-wing media (and from Nigel Farage) and puts May, Johnson, Davis and Fox under real pressure. It also becomes apparent in the confusion, claim and counterclaim that British voters have as much idea of what they want from negotiations as the government does.

* Rumours of a new banking crisis will also threaten to destabilise the government towards the end of the year. Anxieties are increased when Boris Johnson, caught off guard by Channel 5 News while opening a new trampoline at a nursery, reveals that the government has contingency plans for such an outcome and that we should simply trust Philip Hammond.

* Towards the end of the year, May's patience with Johnson finally becomes exhausted when he makes some comments about Strictly Come Dancing. There is relief all round until it is announced that his successor as foreign secretary is Peter Bone.

The Labour Party

* For all the talk, Jeremy Corbyn will remain as Labour leader. Indeed, he will not even face the serious challenge from his parliamentary party many in the media seem to want. This is partly because the party membership see no reason to displace him, and MPs know this - but also because there is no real credible alternative on the Labour benches. There simply isn't a Labour MP who is forward-looking, pro-EU, who understands how to win in Scotland and is popular with voters. Consequently, for better or worse, Corbyn is here to stay.

* Labour will lose the Copeland by-election. The surprising thing about it is that it doesn't really come as a surprise. Corbyn supporters accuse the losing candidate of not being sufficiently left-wing; his critics meanwhile insist Labour's predicament is all of the leader's making. None of which actually helps Labour recognise either the real nature of its existentialist crisis or how to address it.

* Labour will, finally, communicate a firm position on Brexit. Essentially it amounts to "the people have spoken; their democratic will is sovereign" and commits Labour to not opposing the government on the issue of withdrawal and pushing for Brexit to happen as soon as possible. However, Labour will be less sure of where it stands on the terms of Brexit - Jeremy Corbyn will be vocally critical in general terms of the government's "Red, White and Blue Brexit", instead promoting a "People's Brexit" which is predictably lampooned in sections of the media as "Red Brexit". But the real problem is no-one understands what the "People's Brexit" is, especially "the people" themselves, and not least when Andy Burnham makes further interventions about the need to "listen" and curb immigration.

* Burnham will win the Manchester Mayoral election, with around 25% of the vote and with the Lib Dems in second place. He will smugly make all sorts of claims about the significance of his win, neither of which will be remotely honest.

* Labour will continue to do poorly in elections, especially the local elections. The Scottish local elections will prove to be a disaster beyond imagination for Kezia Dugdale, who in spite of her best efforts cannot distance herself from the internal squabbling at Westminster or articulate an alternative, convincing vision to the SNP's. Kezia deserves better, but is inevitably blamed for the catastrophe by many who don't see the wider picture. After initially signalling an intention to stick it out, she leaves within weeks to be replaced by...well, the next person who has an inexplicable desire to take on the most thankless task in UK politics.

* While Jeremy Corbyn's position is secure, there will be talk in the media of Labour rebels forming a new party. Unusually, such talk has a basis in truth - the obvious suspects, and a few others, will be conspiring to create what would essentially be an SDP Mark II - but lack either the popular support the Gang of Four had in 1982 or the organisational/communications skills to make a success of the idea. Tim Farron wisely distances himself from the project before it even starts, insisting the nation's future cannot depend on "egotisical yesterday's men and washed-up Blairites", while a proposed launch descends into chaos when it transpires some of the MPs announced as defectors have had second thoughts. One Labour MP, disgusted by the whole saga, decides to defect to UKIP instead.

The Scottish National Party

* The SNP will have a very good year for the most part. The local elections in May will be dominated by even further SNP successes, aided by Labour's meltdown.

* Nicola Sturgeon will continue to command high approval ratings. However, it is obvious that this does not translate into support for a second independence referendum and her Brexit strategy changes accordingly (indeed, it already is). Sturgeon proves herself to be adept at adjusting quickly to rapidly changing political realities, creating significant difficulties for Prime Minister Theresa May in the process.

* Theresa May might think she's laid down the rules, but Sturgeon makes it very clear she has no intention of obeying them.


* Paul Nuttall's talk of leading a party the will challenge Labour in the North of England loses credibility when UKIP is soundly beaten in Copeland, coming a distant third (only slightly ahead of the Lib Dems).

* UKIP will struggle to get across its message, especially when much of the rhetoric usually associated with them is being espoused by the Prime Minister. Somewhat unfairly Nuttall is not taken as seriously as Nigel Farage by the mainstream media, which proves problematic for him - especially when Nigel Farage leaves UKIP to "enjoy retirement", only to found a rival party three days later. Recriminations and a split among MEPs inevitably follow.

* UKIP will do moderately well in the local elections, but will make no significant gains and will see a slight drop in their vote.

* Just as significant support for the government's Brexit strategy poses problems for UKIP early in the year, once negotiations being in earnest and the government's ineptitude becomes apparent, Paul Nuttall will see - and exploit - opportunities for his party.


* The destruction of Syria will finally come to an end. Opposition forces will finally throw in the towel, and the international community (for want of a more apt phrase) will facilitate talks to move the country forward. Such talks are, inevitably, dominated by Russia  - which insists that Assad and his allies cannot be part of Syria's future. Cue political uncertainty and tests of wills. Putin will seek opportunities (here and elsewhere) to reinforce his influence.

* France will elect a new president in May. It will most definitely not be Marine le Pen. Francois Fillon will have a small lead after the first ballot, and will cruise to victory in the second. Le Pen will blame association with foreign right-wingers for her defeat, including Nigel Farage.

* How will it end for President Trump? When you think logically, how can it possible end well? But politics now is no longer about logic, especially in the US. Expect a bumpy first year but one in which, like the election, adversity and accusations only serve to reinforce his position. Impeachment is something many are talking about, and it's a possibility, but I wouldn't bank on it.

* In the Dutch elections, Geert Wilder's Freedom Party (PVV) will do well, but make less progress than most tipped them to. However, the PVV will become the second largest party, behind the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). The real losers will be the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA).

* Turkey will not only not be admitted to the EU any time soon, they will also leave NATO. Which, presumably, was always Putin's plan anyway.

* Angela Merkel's CDU/CSU Alliance will secure another term in the federal elections and just hold on to their overall majority. This will be in spite of recent results (e.g. Berlin). The result is testament to the Social Democratic SPD's inability to take advantage of the government's unpopularity and surrendering the initiative on the immigration issue to Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) - who will do moderately well mainly at the SPD's expense. The inability of the German left to put together a workable electoral alliance will also contribute to Merkel's victory.


* Leicester City won't be champions this year (yes, I'm sure you knew that). They will, however, reach the Champions League quarter-finals and easily avoid relegation. Chelsea will secure the Premiership title with several games to spare. Manchester United will part company with the not-so-special one after a disappointing 6th place finish. The relegated teams will be Hull City, Sunderland and Swansea City. Newcastle, Brighton and Huddersfield Town will be promoted from the Championship. Tranmere Rovers will return to the football league - as will Barrow after a 45 year absence.

* Manchester United will lose 2-1 in the FA Cup final against Liverpool, after which Mourinho will blame the referee, the crowd, the weather and the BBC for the "shameful" result.

* Manchester City will win the Women's Super League in England, after a close fight with Chelsea. Glasgow City will be champions (again) in Scotland.

* Celtic will win the Scottish Premiership (again, I'm sure you knew that) with Kilmarnock going down. Dundee United will be promoted, as will Greenock Morton - yes, they will! - after beating firstly Hibernian and then Hamilton Accies in the play-offs.

In lighter vein...

* There will be new political scandals in Westminster. Some Conservative MPs will provoke outrage by voting against Brexit, while another one will make headlines for historic use of recreational drugs.  A Labour MP will be accused of racism and misogyny after suggesting Diane Abbott should "man up". Meanwhile, a Lib Dem parliamentarian will be threatened with withdrawal of the whip when they reveal to the BBC that they "really don't like Doctor Who".

* The Scottish Episcopal Church will make further steps towards sanctioning same-sex marriages. No-one seems to mind, other than the Free Church of Scotland, which The Scotsman seems to believe merits a voice on such matters.

* There will be some localised bad weather in Southern England that will dominate the BBC’s news coverage for most of January.

* Kim Kardashian will continue to appear on our TV screens far too often. Fortunately, however, we'll be seeing less of Simon Cowell after he announces the 2017 X-Factor will be the last.