Tag Archives: British politics

Today’s political madness

Between the time of starting to write this (1:38pm on Monday the 11th of July) and publishing it, I should imagine that an awful lot has happened in British politics. Andrea Leadsom just pulled out of the Conservative leadership, leaving Theresa May as the de facto prime minister. Meanwhile, Angela Eagle has launched a leadership bid against Jeremy Corybn, just a few days after he lost a vote of no confidence by the parliamentary Labour party (PLP).

I’m a some-time Labour voter, but not a member of the party. The recent fiasco puts me off even more. But if they are to have a chance of winning sufficient seats in Parliament to form a government and implement some sensible left-wing policies, then they need to have a decent strategy to win, and that seems to be lacking at the moment.

I like Jeremy Corbyn. He’s a centre-left moderate and I agree with many of his views. What I don’t like is the short-sighted vehemency of some of his supporters, who mistake a fervency of support for widespread support. Having thousands of people turn up to a pro-Corbyn rally is very different from convincing Conservative voters in marginal constituencies in England or SNP voters in Scotland. In particular (and this was highlighted last week, with the eventual publication of the Chilcot report) there is the toxic legacy of Tony Blair. The last Labour leader to win a general election propagated a war that left hundreds of thousands of people dead.

The idea then is that no Labour leader who voted for the Iraq war could ever become prime minister. Though Blair still won in 2005, after the war started. David Cameron voted for the Iraq war, as did Gordon Brown and Theresa May. So the idea that someone who voted for the Iraq war (as horrendous as it was) cannot win an election, is simply untrue.

But Blair’s toxicity is double-edged. The term “Blairite” has spread far wider than those MPs who supported Blair over Brown in the 2nd half of the last decade. It has become a pejorative term for anyone on the left who someone else on the left doesn’t like, though in particular of anyone who might subject Jeremy Corbyn to any level of scrutiny or criticism. I’ve lost the link [update: I found it], but I read a piece yesterday that referred to the author JK Rowling as a Blairite. The other side of this is now generally “Corbynista”. In my view, these very terms, used as insults, are part of the root of the problem. It is a case of “Othering” – whereby, in the desperate desire for simplicity in a complicated world, the whole view of a group of diverse people is summed up in a single word that is used to demonise.

As things are at the moment (now 2:07pm), the Tories have an open goal. The British political left’s idea of unity is “[well, if we’re disunited now, then you must agree with me in order to be unified]” – with no one willing to compromise, jostling to be an opposition of protest, rather than a government in waiting. When Gordon Brown became leader of the Labour party, he was wrong not to call a general election. My opinion is that was fear of losing that stayed his hand. There ought to be no such fear on Theresa May’s part if she were to do the honourable thing by calling an election, though it has been made more difficult since the coalition government introduced the ill-thought-out fixed-term parliaments act. Difficult, but not impossible, though.

I just pray that this whole ruddy mess gets sorted out, but that in doing so, we don’t see a further rise of the far right. Good government needs a strong opposition. The ideal situation would be for a left-wing government with a strong Conservative opposition holding them to account, but we seem to be a long way from that. For now, we need a Labour party that is willing to cooperate with itself, as well as with, inter alia, the SNP, the Lib Dems and the Greens to hold to account and oppose whatever shape of Conservative government will emerge from the rubble.

Thoughts on the EU referendum

With the date for the referendum announced and campaigning underway, I wanted to try to enunciate my thoughts on the subject. I’ve written before on my desire to have a referendum. 3 years ago I said that I “would likely vote to remain in Europe”.

Likely, but not certainly. I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument from either side. So I wanted here to think aloud, as it were, and hopefully either prompt you in some questions you may not have thought of, though I’d rather like to start a reasonable discussion.

By ‘reasonable’ I have in mind cutting out a lot of unnecessary bickering, demonisation of the other and acknowledgement that there may be good reasons on both sides. I’m fine for someone to have made up their mind, but not for them to become belligerent in putting forward their case at the denigration of the opposite view.

The idea of “project fear” has been touted quite a lot. There’s a problem with it, though. It is right for the Remain campaign to point out the risks that are associated with leaving the EU and to ask questions about how those risks would be mitigated. Some of that has been worded a bit too strongly, possibly with the intention of trying to scare people into sticking with the status quo, but it is wrong for every legitimate concern raised and question to be dismissed as part of this “project fear”. Thus far, the Leave campaign has used this as a means of not answering questions which I, and others like me, want to hear the answers to.

An interesting thought I had regarding the referendum centred on the Scottish National Party (and, by inference, other nationalists around the UK). On the Andrew Marr Show, Nicola Sturgeon said that she would be on the side of the Remain campaign but that were the UK to vote Leave, then that would likely trigger a 2nd Scottish independence referendum (you remember, the “once in a lifetime” referendum that we had about 18 months ago).

So it would make a kind of sense if the SNP were to not be too persuasive in their case for remaining in the EU. i.e. be seen to be supporting the Remain case, but don’t actually try to win (rather like Manchester City’s team selection in the FA Cup). That way they get a second bite at the independence cherry, even though it would then be their intention to apply for membership to the EU.

I say “a kind of sense” because I must admit I don’t understand the view of some nationalists who want to be independent of the UK but not independent of the EU. If anyone can explain that one to me, I’d be most grateful.

Finally, I wanted to look at the theological perspective. Which of Leave or Remain better fits the maxim: Love your neighbour as yourself.

My issue with the Leave and Remain campaigns is that both have, thus far, put a large amount of stock in the idea of which makes Britain “better off”. But no one’s saying at what cost. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the UK is better off leaving. Does that mean also that our neighbours in France, Greece, Hungary  or Ireland will be better off? Or is it a case of making ourselves better off and choosing to not care about others?

When you try to dig into the matter, what does “better off” mean anyway? Is it purely a cold measure of macroeconomics, or are we factoring in the cultural and the spiritual? If it is purely economic, then one must be careful that the “better off” argument isn’t merely a form of prosperity gospel.

Possibly the strongest argument the Leave campaign has (in terms of appeal to the general public) would be that it would signal the end of UKIP. They would have achieved their aim and then all could see whether or not their myth of withdrawal from the EU being the panacea to all our ills would bear out in reality.

The strongest argument for the Remain campaign has actually come from one of the cheerleaders of the Leave side: Michael Gove. He claimed that the Conservatives have been stymied in pushing through some of their punitive measures because of the European legislation. In my book, anything that helps to tie the hands of Tories from hurting citizens is a good thing.

For now, I lean slightly inwards, but that lean is ever so slight. Those who promise than a UK outside of the EU will be a land flowing with milk and honey are not people to be taken seriously. Neither are those who speak as though withdrawal from the EU will be the end of civilisation. It’s a choice between two different shades of beige.

Persuade me, entice me, allure me to your point of view. Just don’t beat me about the head and call me an idiot. Such tactics rarely work in evangelism, whether religious or political.

Opinion regarding Jeremy Corbyn’s bid to lead the Labour party

By stopwar.org.uk [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By stopwar.org.uk [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It has been with some interest that I have viewed, as an outsider, the Labour leadership contest. One name has been spoken of far more than any other: Jeremy Corbyn. It seems quite possible, as is often the way by self-fulfilling prophetic medium that is the media, the attention paid to him may result in the success of his leadership bid.

Because the media has, under the direction of a small number of men, moved to the political right, that which is reasonable and formerly regarded as “centrist” is now called ‘the left’, often with a pejorative overtone. After all, how often do we hear of politicians or political commentators being introduced as ‘right wing’? The reason they’re not is that it is the assumed position. It is only those who differ from the prescribed political view who need to be labelled as different, as an outsider, as a threat.

It is precisely in this role that the media has cast Jeremy Corbyn, which has certainly gone some way to dilute attention paid to the campaigns of Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall. As has been evidenced by the ‘Tories for Corbyn’ campaign, the Conservatives are taking a risk that the media on whom they have been able to count for faithful support (in return for certain favours) will be able to cast such aspersions upon Corbyn that he will be seen as unelectable. And if anyone is seen to be unelectable, then they become unelectable.

Yet it is a gamble.

If it doesn’t come off then we will have, for the first time in many decades, a prime minister who doesn’t kowtow to the god of neoliberalism. What support Corbyn has is strong, but is it widespread? For a widespread but half-hearted support will always win an election against a fervent minority. For an example of this, I would point you to the result of last year’s Scottish independence referendum.

Corbyn’s campaign has undoubtedly stirred up the imaginations of those on the fringes of the party whose views have been marginalised in the last 20 years. But is he likely to win over the floating voters in the marginal constituencies in England and Wales that Labour would need, as well as win back the voters of Scotland who voted SNP in May?

The idea that Corbyn would be unable to do so is the main argument used against his leadership bid. There are some within the Labour party who think it is better to choose someone who could win an election; so long as they are in charge of a party called Labour, it doesn’t matter what their principles are. The idea being that a party called Labour is better in charge than the Conservative party, regardless of whether or not their policies are indistinguishable. Such a view is indicative of the collective move to the political right where power is the end goal, not service to society.

So for some, there is little good about Corbyn. To some in the Labour party, he must be stopped as he represents a possible hindrance to regaining power. To this end, he ought to be demonised and every flaw pointed out and made known so as to dissuade people from voting for him. Appeals are made back to Tony Blair, the only leader of a party called Labour who has won any general in the last 30+ years. The argument goes roughly like this: people may have hated Thatcher but she won elections; people may hate Blair but he won elections; people hate Cameron and he’s won an election; so it doesn’t matter what your policies are – so long as you have a good PR machine you can win power. That is far more important than having The Other Party in power.

It is partly because Corbyn represents a break from this hegemony that he is so popular, though one would be naive to think that he doesn’t have some advisors in his ear, telling him what to wear, how to make sure he is listened to and how to combat any negativity he may face.

Yet there is a danger inherent in choosing someone who makes a break from the norm. That is, that the reason they get chosen is because they are the only alternative. This can foster the belief that they are the best person for the job, when in fact they may not be, but the novelty factor may supersede any scrutiny that they may be placed under. With Corbyn, one factor that has been brought up is his unwillingness to condemn some terrorist organisations such the IRA and Hamas.

That said, the ‘Friends with Terrorists’ label never did Thatcher too much harm, given her support for Pinochet’s reign of terror in Argentina or Blair’s endorsement and participation in the illegal war against Iraq.

Still, the fact that he represents something different, could attract those who want ‘just anything different’. i.e. that people are so fed up with the norm that they accept the first new thing that comes along.

Whoever does win the Labour leadership (and at this point, my expectation is that Corbyn will win), they will not be perfect. They’ll make errors of judgement both in matters of policy and of PR. They are not the person who will be able to undo the Conservatives’ legacy of public sector cuts, underfunded services, selling off government property to the private sector at cut prices and a massive increase in the use of foodbanks.

The only advice I have is to beware of those who speak uncritically of Corbyn or any other candidate. If they portray their chosen candidate as the person to solve all of Labour’s ills, then they are not a person to listen to. For support is not the same as sycophancy and no one is perfect.

End Austerity Now: The Witness of One Participant

Gathering by the Bank of England

Gathering by the Bank of England

On Saturday the 20th of June, I took part in a protest march in London. It was the first march I had been on since the days of the Blair government introduced top-up fees and launched an illegal war against Iraq. Organised by the People’s Assembly, it was an anti-austerity protest directed against the planned cuts to public services.

Here is my account of the day.

The itinerary on the People’s Assembly website stated that we were to gather together outside the Bank of England at midday, there would be some speeches and then we would set off at 1pm through the City of London, down Fleet Street and Strand to Trafalgar Square, then turning left onto Whitehall, past Downing Street and finishing in Parliament Square.

I got off the train at London Bridge shortly before 12, where the first signs of a protest were visible. One or two banners were visible, but they were furled up, their messages hidden for now. Walking out of the station, there were pockets of people gathering together. In the shadow The Shard was a group of about a dozen people, with a very prominent NHA (for the National Health Action party) in its familiar shade of blue.

Going across London Bridge, there were far fewer people than expected. I recall my days of commuting this route and the east side of the bridge would be packed with medium paced, middle aged, middle class white men in suits. On Saturday, we had more guitarists and the first of the placards were visible.

Getting across to the north end of the bridge the first of the road blocks was visible, so I was able to wander down the middle of the road, which was quite liberating. Though I soon discovered it was only closed to motorised traffic as a cyclist ting-ed their bell before passing by in close proximity.

Getting to the bank of England, the crowd was huge. The junction with Mansion House is a very large one, and there were people as far as you could see (which, admittedly, as a little limited due to the banners having been unfurled). A few opportune salesmen were offering whistles for a pound. The stewards in their fluorescent tabards were encouraging people to move towards the front which I duly did until I could go no further.

I had been hoping to join with the Quakers for some of the march, but at no point did I see any sign of them. In the throng at the start, I found myself standing alongside the anarcho-Marxists and the members of the Socialist Worker’s Party (SWP). They’re not groups that I would readily identify with, but it was testament to the unity in diversity that we could stand shoulder to shoulder. From where I was stood (just between Mansion House and Poultry), I could see the big balloon that was suspended from the Fire Brigade Union’s (FBU) and there were a few Green Party signs dotted about.

The organisers had made sure there was something of a carnival atmosphere to it, with plenty of music. Every now and then, for no apparent reason, there were whooping cheers and mass whistle-blowing. It was a difficult balance to strike, as this was a protest, not a celebration. So I didn’t cheer, nor did I dance. In fact, I was quiet pretty much the whole time, apart from the occasional conversation with those around me. I was most vocal on Twitter, where I was providing updates, primarily for those who wanted to be there but couldn’t. There was some very heartwarming feedback, saying that people felt I was marching for them.

Looking round, there were some who (purely due to my own prejudices) thought might have been there to cause trouble. With any mass protest consisting of tens of thousands of people, there are often a handful who do something daft and who draw the attention of the right wing press. In this case, it was those wearing black bandana-style covers over their mouths and noses. On closer inspection, each had a logo and some words on them, and it was clear that this was to protest against state surveillance. Chatting to one bloke near me who had one on, he said that it was a reaction against the kind of surveillance that was revealed by Edward Snowden and also against the proposed snooper’s charter, which Theresa May has recommended, after its previous incarnation was scrapped during the coalition. To get the negative out of the way in one paragraph, I wasn’t in agreement with some of the tones of the banners. There was one that read ‘Fuck the fucking fuckers’ and another that called for unilateral free markets. I’m more in favour of protest by education (making sure that those to whom you are protesting understand what your complaint is, why you are making it and what you are proposing they do about it) rather than insult and I am also not a free market fundamentalist, preferring good corporate governance and a strong regulatory system in place to ensure that the business sector acts for the good of all society, not just the narrow segment of investors and analysts.

To that end, I was much more in favour of a group entitled ‘Economists against austerity’ and I’ll take a look at that group later this week.

In contrast to what had been promised, there were no speeches at the start of the march. We eventually started to move at around quarter past one, as a few people had started to complain about the prolonged standing and wanted to get their legs moving. As we got going, the throng thinned out a little, so it was less like rush hour on the Underground and a bit more civilised. The main upside was that I no longer got the whiff of cigarette smoke from nearby chimneys.

There was a sort of MC who was reading out some of the placards. A lot were from the People’s Coalition and a variety of trade unions. Some construction workers looked down on us, as did a couple of helicopters. The route was dotted with police, though their presence was unnecessary. Some looked on with seemingly stern disapproval written across their faces, others were much friendlier, chatting to the crowds and helping to direct people to the nearest public toilets.

Once we got beyond St Paul’s cathedral (we didn’t go immediately next to it, but another road down), the chanting began to subside and people marched on in relative quiet. Occasionally, there’d be pockets of noise, but being the City, we were going through an area that is generally deserted on a Saturday anyway. Off to the side of the main crowd, the route was dotted with some side shows. There was a brass band, some Hari Krishnas, a rat pack style singer doing a piece of satire on Iain Duncan Smith and someone dressed as a crab. In many ways, it reminded me of the Great North Run in terms of atmosphere.

One place in London I’d never been to before was the Royal Courts of Justice. It’s a really spectacular building, and I couldn’t help but think that justice was a theme that underpinned so many of the strands of protest.

As I went along, I marched alongside a number of different groups. There was the group Disabled People Against Cuts. One of their big concerns is the scrapping of the Independent Living Fund, which currently helps to pay for the costs that allows disabled people to live with the independence and dignity that many of us take for granted. The Conservatives wish to take this dignity away from disabled people.

Another group was Sisters Uncut. They are primarily concerned with the effects that cuts have on women, arguing that they have been unfairly targeted, as well as that not enough is being done to prevent violence against women or to adequately prosecute those who perpetrate such violence.

Coming down Whitehall, past Downing Street, the volume began to pick up again as people made various chants and songs, mainly directed against the incumbent government, some against particular members (David Cameron, Iain Duncan Smith, George Osborne, Theresa May and Michael Gove being those mentioned most frequently) and a few that were bordering on the abusive. The police by Downing Street were the most densely packed and the most stony faced. Previous to this, it was their guarding of Coutts bank that was the most superfluous (7 officers in uniform). It struck me as more symbolic, verging on the futile, to aim slogans at Downing Street directly, since it’s likely the weekday residents would be spending their Saturday at their 2nd homes in the country.

Arriving in Parliament Square, the place was pretty packed. I found a tiny spare patch of grass and sat down at about quarter to three. It wasn’t long before the speeches started. Most of the speakers I hadn’t heard of. The only one I was familiar with was Len McCluskey, the democratically elected leader of the Unite union. As I have the foresight to take a notebook with me, I couldn’t catch all the names or the details of the speeches. So I can only convey the general sense that I picked up. They were all passionately given, with a mixture of well-researched evidence and rhetoric. All were strongly pro-trade unions. It seemed to be fairly standard fare. The question was, who was listening? Because unless the anti-austerity message gets beyond those of us on the left and has the positive effect of educating and persuading those in government and those who voted for this government, then it will all be for naught.

As I had made sure I was well hydrated along the march, it became necessary to make a visit to a nearby pub to use their facilities. As I left the square, I checked with a policeman that the figure of 250,000 was correct, as had been claimed by Len McCluskey. To be precise, he said that that was the police estimate, though later reporting in the media said that the police did not make an estimate. The officer I spoke to confirmed verbally to me that “that was the estimate we were working with.” However, there were signs of an increased police presence around, with them massing in large groups outside Westminster Abbey. To me, it looked like they were getting ready to instigate a kettle. So I made the decision to not come back for the rest of the speeches (missing out on Jeremy Corbyn, whose praises had been sung throughout the march, in contrast to Liz Kendall who was roundly booed every time her name was mentioned). I headed down to Victoria to get a bus home.

There was a small group of vocal protesters (about 15-20) outside Westminster City Hall. They were being very closely watched by the police, in a ratio of 1 police officer to every 2 protesters. On hand also were the legal observers, seemingly taking the numbers from the epaulettes of the officers nearby and talking with them. Earlier, the same observers had been handing out cards advising people what to do if they were arrested. I simply stated that I would give no cause for possible arrest. As it turns out, no one else did at all as the whole event went without any trouble whatsoever. Any suspicions of possible mischief-makers were unfounded.

Here ends my observation of the day.

Reflections

It was a fantastic day to be out and extremely heartening to be part of such a diverse group of people, united in standing up for what is right. Yet the point of it was not to make us feel good. This was to ensure that the message was delivered: Austerity isn’t the best way; there are fairer ways to do politics.

There are many sub-stories that make up this narrative, many of which were represented on Saturday. Yet effective protest has to not only be large and loud, it has to be clear and clever. If the only ones who listen to the message and understand are those on the political left who would never dream of supporting Conservative neoliberalist ideology, then we are speaking to an echo chamber. We need to demonstrate the human cost of austerity to those who tacitly or openly support it, in order to bring about a change of mind.

Key to this is ensuring that the press are not allowed to twist the message. If you read the reports of the march in the Mail or the Telegraph, then you will end up with a highly distorted understanding of what went on. Many doubted the BBC would report on the march, though to their credit they did. Yet the only person they interviewed was the one chap from the right wing pressure group The Tax Payers’ Alliance, which is hardly representative of the views of the thousands who marched. This is partly why I’ve written my eyewitness account, and I hope that others will do too.

Earlier I stated that it one needs to state 3 things: what your complaint is, why you are making it and what you are proposing those in power do about it. It seems only right then to finish with a brief summary of these 3 points.

My complaint

The last 5 years of austerity and the current plans for further cuts to public services is not the result of sound, well-thought out economics. At the end of the last Labour government, after the 2008 crash, the economy was recovering. We had growth in GDP and falling unemployment. So Conservative claims that their policies were the sole factor in the recovery are untrue; things were getting better.

Some cuts were necessary, that is clear. We needed to try to reduce the debt and the deficit, very few deny that. But the manner in which the Conservative-led coalition did this was not fair. The burden of the cuts fell hardest on disabled, the unemployed and the poor. There was some good here (the raising of the personal allowance, as championed by the Liberal Democrats) but the bad far outweighed the good. This is why we have a country where around a 1/3rd of children live in poverty, where over a million meals have had to be provided by foodbanks.

This is not right. This must change.

Why make it?

I am not one of those who has been badly affected by the cuts. But that is not sufficient reason to refrain from protesting. I am compelled by a sense of decency to stand up for my fellow human beings. Many couldn’t make the protest because they were housebound. Right now, I am healthy and employed in the private sector on a salary that is more than the national average. But there is no security in this position. If I become unemployed again, or homeless, or ill or disabled, who will stand up for me?

My proposal

I have laid out my ideas at some length in A Voter’s Manifesto. In short, we first need to ensure that government supports those who most need it. This includes an NHS that provides universal healthcare, free at the point of need. It means a system of social security that helps people to have a decent standard of living when they are unable to earn enough. It is also ensuring that employers provide a living wage so that there is an end to the need for in-work benefits.

To fund this, there must be a fair tax system, where those who earn more than they need to live on pay their fair share. Where companies providing valuable goods and services at a fair price are managed and regulated well, allowing them to do business and to earn sufficient, but not excessive, profits from which they may pay their fair share of tax.

We may also need to cut some aspects of spending, but not those that the current government proposes. We can phase out the renewal of our weapons of mass destruction and scale back expenditure on those industries and government departments whose function is warfare and death. Yet this need to be done in a careful manner, so as to not increase unemployment.

In short, I want a fairer, more just society where no one is left behind.

Book Review: Magna Carta – A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas Vincent

Today, the 15th of June 2015, marks the 800th anniversary of the meeting at Runnymede when the Magna Carta was first ‘signed’. 3 weeks ago, I visited the British Library which is running an exhibition all about the Magna Carta. Just before I did, though, I thought I ought to try to get clued up a bit about it. My aim wasn’t to become an expert, but just to sketch in a rough form where there was a massive space of ignorance in my knowledge. This VSI by Nicholas Vincent, then, was the book I chose.

Those of you with good memories may recall that I picked this up when I was last at the British Library in February, having been somewhat disappointed by the VSI on the British Constitution.

Here, Vincent was keen to put Magna Carta in its context. That context takes up more than half of the book, so the contents of Magna Carta are somewhat relegated to an appendix. It wouldn’t be too unfair then to say that this is much more about politics of the late 12th and early 13th centuries. So if you expect this to a summary of the Magna Carta and a discussion thereof, then you will likely be very disappointed by this work (don’t worry, though, there are plenty of publications available at the moment; I’m sure some of them take this approach). This is likely because Nicholas Vincent’s specialty is medieval history. So rather than foregrounding Magna Carta and filling in the background detail, he spends a lot of time and effort bringing to life the background, seeming to hope that the Magna Carta speaks for itself.

In favour of this last statement, a modern translation of the Magna Carta is provided in an appendix, though it seemed slightly unfair to relegate it to this position. It is only when one is about 2/3rds of the way through this VSI that we get the occasional reference to specific clauses, though there’s no specific instruction to the reader to turn to the appendix, so one might be a bit wrong-footed by this.  Even then, we are not exactly guided through it, but instead we are given a scattergun approach.

As an overview of the politics of north-western Europe in the medieval period, it is a very good work. It’s not a period of history that I could claim any expertise in, nor even much familiarity, so cannot really comment on Vincent’s accuracy or choices of emphasis in his portrayal. As an amateur reader then, I came away with a better appreciation of the circumstances that led to the Magna Carta’s formation, though this wasn’t really a magnification of it. Rather, one could see a developmental stage that led towards it. This was later added to by my visit to the aforementioned exhibition at the British Library which is very well done (apart from the actual copies of the 1215 Magna Carta which I must say were a tads disappointing). There were several videos running in the exhibition, one of which featured Nicholas Vincent talking, so when I listened to him, it rang strongly of this book that I had finished reading the day before.

One thing that is picked up on by both the book and the exhibition is that almost as soon as the Magna Carta came into force in 1215, it was annulled. So we ended up with a slightly farcical situation whereby it went and came again, with there being various versions going about, each differing slightly different from the last. Only Durham Cathedral (I miss seeing it from the dining room window) has a copy of each edition. We get an overview of which sections got dropped from the statute book over the years.

The thing is, the Magna Carta is more often invoked by name than in substance. How relevant is it that clause 33 calls for the complete removal of fish-weirs from the Thames and Medway? Well, a lot less than clause 39: “No free man will be taken or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor shall we go or send against him, save by the lawful judgement of his peers and by the law of the land.” The book finishes then with an evaluation of the legacy of Magna Carta. It is somewhat brief, and might perhaps have been better written by a legal or constitutional expert, rather than a medieval historian. As a starting point, though, it’s not bad.

You may well hear a lot about Magna Carta at the moment, but a lot of it comes with an assumption of a knowledge and understanding of its background and content. If you think you have a gap in your education around this, then I would certainly recommend this as a very short remedy.

The election happened, what next for the left?

Since last week’s general election, many have been quick off the mark with writing the post mortem, suggesting what went wrong and a few early hats have been thrown into the ring for the vacant party leadership roles.

I hope you’ve not become bored of reading such articles. I’ve written this over the course of the weekend; so I’m sorry that’s not been as quick off the mark as others have been. The plan is to look at the disparity between what was widely expected to happen and what did happen, try to look at some of the reasons behind this, suggest how the UK political left might start the fightback and what the ordinary citizens of this country can do in the meantime.

What was expected to happen?

With the opinion polls that were published prior to the election, there was no clear winner. It seemed likely that the Conservatives would win the most seats but fall short of an overall majority. Labour were expected to suffer heavily at the hands of the SNP in Scotland, but that they might gain a fair few from the Liberal Democrats, meaning an overall small loss in the net number of seats.

My own particular guess was that in the Lib/Con marginals, the Liberal Democrat voters would, in spite of their party’s betrayal, remain loyal. After all, their sin was to go into coalition with the Conservatives, so it would make no sense for voters to go from Lib Dem to Conservative. I thought they might lose some voters to Labour, ultimately diluting the Lib+Lab vote and allowing the Conservatives a few wins, but not many, as they would vote with the Lib Dems as a tactical manoeuvre.

I also thought that, given the cuts the Conservatives unleashed in the last 5 years that Labour would pick up some Lab/Con marginals. Further Labour gains would result from the rise of UKIP which would dilute the Conservative vote.

The result would be that the Conservatives wouldn’t be able to win a majority and that another attempted coalition with the Liberal Democrats would still fall short. The other possibility was that Labour would try to form a coalition with the SNP but that too would fall short of a majority. Yet crucially, Lab+SNP would be greater than Con+Lib.

As a result, I thought that we would end up with a minority government. Such a government would not last long, being unable to pass a queen’s speech and losing a vote of no confidence, triggering a second election this year. Given a quick failure, whoever formed the minority government would likely lose the subsequent election, making this May a good election to lose. My hope then was that since the Conservatives had the most seats, they would be the ones to drink from the poisoned chalice.

What happened?

My estimate was wrong. I’d bought in too much to the published opinion polls prior to the election and when the exit polled showed a clear lead (though not quite a majority) for the Conservatives, I didn’t believe it.

The expected windfall of seats for the SNP did happen, with a number of high profile people losing their seats, including Douglas Alexander, Danny Alexander, Jim Murphy and Charles Kennedy.

The first real warning sign, though, was in Nuneaton. It was a target Labour seat that they needed to win if they were going to beat the Conservatives. But instead of that happening, the Conservatives won the seat with an increased majority. This happened in several marginals, though Labour did take some (and the Conservatives won a few Labour-held marginals). This was not a case of a significant victory (though I would say it was a notable victory) for the Conservatives; more a stern defence of that which they held most precariously. Also, the success that UKIP had in the last round of local elections was not replicated, meaning that they did not dilute Conservative support as much as had been expected. A case in example was my incorrect prediction about what would happen in Crawley, where I lived for 7 years.

The real surprise was what happened in the Lib Dem dominated area of South-West England. Here, contrary to my (and others’) expectations, the Lib Dem voters did abandon their party in droves, and went to the Conservatives. It was these wins that really helped to ensure the Conservatives won a majority.

Why it happened?

We have to acknowledge that this is now a highly divided country. Scotland is undoubtedly the country of the SNP. London is predominantly a Labour city. In England, outside of London, the Conservatives are the dominant party except for in former mining communities. Wales is predominantly Labour, by population, at least. As with London, their support is greater in more urban areas, though the constituencies with larger areas are more mixed, so the Labour majority doesn’t show up well on a map. Northern Ireland has a quite different politics altogether, which has a far deeper and more painful history than I can reasonably go into here.

I would need to add: the SNP ensured that Labour had a bad night. But the SNP are not to blame for allowing David Cameron back into Downing Street. If they had increased their share of the vote, yet not won a single extra seat, then David Cameron would still have a majority. The difference would be that Labour would have a greater share of the opposition benches.

I have long maintained the idea that governments are not so much voted in as they are voted out. In 1997, the Conservatives had lost any shred of credibility and all Labour needed to do was present a credible alternative. They did that successfully and won the election with a landslide. At the time, people asked if it was the end of the Conservative party. It wasn’t. It was damaging, yes, and they were unlikely to win the next election either. But then Labour took 418 seats, with the Conservatives on 165. Compare that to last week, when the Conservatives won 331 and Labour won 232. So I think one cannot say that 2015 was as bad for Labour as 1997 was for the Conservatives.

In 2010, Labour were the ones who had lost credibility, so it should have been a cake-walk for the Conservatives to win a majority, but it was a reflection of their electoral failure that we ended up with a hung parliament, resulting in a coalition. A part of this may well be due to the fact that the Conservatives came off worse than Labour did in the expenses scandal. Though trust in both sides was severely dented by that episode.

They key thing that happened in electoral terms was where the disaffected Lib Dem voters went. In London, having looked through some of the constituency results (I haven’t done a full numerical analysis yet), they seem to have gone largely to Labour and the Greens, with some to UKIP and a handful to the Conservatives. This is what I expected to happen nationwide, but elsewhere, particularly in the south-west, the largest chunk of Lib Dem voters went Conservative. I confess, I don’t understand why they would really do this. It’s not a part of the country I live in and I haven’t been able to speak to anyone who did switch their vote that way.

Beyond that, though, my view is that the Labour message was too piecemeal. They were chasing the agenda set by the mainstream media (see below), coming up with policies in response to what others had said, instead of leading the way with an alternative vision. Much of the discussion over the last few days has asked whether they were too far left (which doesn’t wash with Scotland, nor with the opposition to their ‘control immigration’ mug) or too far right (which doesn’t explain why they didn’t take the English marginals that were ripe for the picking).

How to fix it?

There has to be a long term strategy from the left. Ideally, this should be a 13 year strategy, starting from now. Why 13? Well, there should be 3 phases: the first starts now and needs to establish a plan for bringing down the Conservatives at the next election, replacing them with a credible, progress and egalitarian government. But it would be too short term to say the aim is to be elected. The strategy has to include a full 5 year plan for government. Yet we know what the Conservatives have done in the last 5 years of coalition, and we have some idea about what they will do, untethered, in the next 5 years. Will a single term be enough to unwind the legacy of the David Cameron, George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith? Maybe not. So we need to think about how to start undoing the damage they’ve done as well as the further damage they will do; this will entail fixing the country and preparing for a 2nd term.

The strategy has to be two-fold: national and local.

On the national level, there has to be a whole, coherent and credible alternative. The first thing is the substance of the message, be it on business, on housing, on debt, on immigration, on debt, on taxation, on education, on defence, on health, etc. More than that, though, any election strategy has to incorporate the media. While there has been some progress with social media, it remains the BBC and the newspapers who set the agenda. Given these are largely Conservative biased (the BBC’s main political team of Nick Robinson, David Dimbleby, Andrew Marr and Andrew Neill being the most notable of the pro-Tory group) then an infiltration strategy is partly what’s needed. One can combat the right-wing hegemony head on, to sing a different tune. Yet one can also attempt to change the tune from within the choir. In the wake of the election, people have been joining both the Liberal Democrats and Labour. Yet party members are unlikely to find employment in press run by Murdoch, Dacre or the Barclay brothers. A little more subtlety is required. In short, to be as clever as a fox, whilst remaining as innocent as a dove.

Then we have the matter of the Independent’s betrayal, as they encouraged a continuation of a Conservative-led coalition, while the Evening Standard, owned by the same tycoon who runs the Independent, backed the Conservatives. My proposition is that we need a new left-leaning national newspaper. I suggested this on social media on the election and was subsequently trolled for saying it. Amongst the irrational rantings that were aimed at me, they said that the Guardian and the Mirror were sufficient and that there was nothing wrong with the over-arching dominance of the newspaper market by a very small number of very rich men with a vested in interest in keeping the Conservatives singing their tune.

On the local level, the obvious answer is to set about targeting the seats to win. However, there has been a strong suspicion that to counter this, the Conservatives will attempt to rig the next election by changing the constituency boundaries so as to favour them. I’ve read comments from Conservative supporters saying that their primary aim is to make sure than Labour are locked out of government for decades. As an example of how this could be done, they might enlarge the London constituencies (making sure they are larger both in terms of population and area), thus reducing their number; or they might take two adjacent Conservative constituencies and make them into three.

For the Liberal Democrats, they have space to come back. First of all, though, they need to acknowledge their responsibility for helping to introduce the bedroom tax, for Sure Start centres, for cuts to disability benefits, for targeted sanctions against the unemployed. They can’t say that because they were in coalition they were forced to do those things. They need to acknowledge that they were wrong. Then, depending on how the majority Conservative government play things out, they can (as some have before the election) list out the things they prevented happening during the coalition’s reign. Things like the Conservative plan to repeal the Human Rights Act, to change the boundaries, to make even deeper cuts or further and faster privatisation of the NHS. If they can do this, then they stand a chance of taking back some of the Lib/Con marginals they lost, particularly those in south-west England and south-west London.

In the mean time

I am not a politician. I am not a journalist. I am someone who cares. Someone who is worried and fearful of the harm that this government will do.

On Saturday there was protest held in Westminster. I had looked around to see if I could find any plan for a protest but could find none. The first I heard about it was on Twitter after it had begun, by which time it seemed a little late to go and join. I supported that protest, and let me say why.

Democracy should not be an event that happens one day every five years. Democracy should be woven into the fabric of the society we live in. When we’re not at the ballot box, we can protest, we can petition, we can march, we can write letters, we can go and see our MPs at their local surgeries. Such expressions of democracy can be firm, they can be loud and at times, they can be disruptive. There are lines to be drawn, though. I do not advocate violence, nor do I advocate inappropriate protest, such as the graffiti that one person put on a war memorial.

Protests against austerity or against the removal of human rights are not, as some Conservatives have been saying, moaning or whinging about the result of the election. While there is a debate to be had over the effectiveness of our current democratic system (c.f. the referendum debate and the outcome of every close election – my particular favourite example is 1951), I do not dispute the Conservative’s right to govern. It has been suggested to me, by several on the political right, that accepting the legitimacy of the result means that we shouldn’t protest. I cannot agree with that.

When Labour won the 1997 general election and sought to introduce a national minimum wage, Conservatives would have been well within their rights to take to the streets to demand that employers should be allowed to employ people for as little pay as they saw fit.

Nor do I agree with the accusation that protest is in any way sanctimonious or self-righteous. To speak out against the Conservatives is an act of compassion; of standing up for those who have been, and will be hurt, by the acting out of Conservative policy. To turn one’s back or adopt an “I’m alright, Jack” attitude is an act of wilful negligence. There will be a time for gentler persuasion, but right now the time is right to give Conservative voters a metaphorical slap across the face, show them what they have allowed to happen. So that, like the end of The Bridge On The River Kwai, they may realise what they have done. I do not wish to demonise Conservative voters. Instead, my prayer for them is “Father, forgive them. For they know not what they do.”

Book Review: The British Constitution – A Very Short Introduction by Martin Loughlin

When reading the Very Short Introduction (VSI) series, I find them to be ideal for subjects where one has some modicum of understanding, but where any level of detail is currently unknown to me. Having grown up and lived in Britain all my life, and having observed our politics for most of my adult life, I get an idea of what it means for something to be “constitutional”. Unlike the Americans, we don’t have a fixed, codified constitution. It is very much something of a ‘sense’ that we have, but which is instilled in us through roughly 800 years of history since the signing of the Magna Carta. As we mark the octocentenary of that famous document it seemed appropriate to have a read of this.

The opening discourse is about the nature of a constitution and what could count as one. The most famous example is, of course, the American constitution, but it’s noted that that’s quite an odd example as it was designed as a founding document to a country with no history, no legal precedent of its own. So Thomas Paine (whose Rights of Man I have, but haven’t read yet) makes a rather post hoc argument defining a constitution as a single document with several features which just happen to coincide with a description of the American one.

One might well think, as I did at the outset, that there would be considerable focus on the Magna Carta and its legacy, but its role in British constitutional history is heavily downplayed here. Instead, Loughlin opts for a “common law” approach, claiming that what we understand as the British constitution is the combined history and tradition of the laws of the land. In order to colour the picture in we get a rundown of some specific pieces of legislation that have been passed over the centuries and their effect on the democratic make-up of what we now know as the United Kingdom.

Oddly enough, the author never mentions Erskine May, the guide to parliamentary procedure. This prompted me to then have a look at the author’s background, and here we can see that perhaps Loughlin was not the best choice to author a book on the constitution, as his expertise is in law. So it is little wonder that he views the constitution as the combination of various laws passed through the centuries. If it were labelled as “British legal history – A Very Short Introduction” then we might be less disillusioned.

In amongst a bit of a hodge podge of pieces, there is some really good stuff. For example, we get a good summary of the political history of the various unions that have taken place to give us the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland that we now have. Interestingly, it’s very much a book of its time, as it frequently references the current coalition government. So it will be interesting to see how later editions may be changed to reflect the government of the day.