Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Today, the Lords must stop Tory attempt to rig electoral system

Yesterday, the unelected Lords did their democratic duty by their vote on the tax credit cuts, which David Cameron had denied he would make before the election. There are important constitutional issues raised. The most obvious is that politicians should not lie to the electorate. Today, the Lords must block the Tories shameful attempt to rig the electoral system itself. 

Jeremy Corbyn spoke about this issue in his Conference Speech: -
"Just before the summer, the Tories sneaked out a plan to strike millions of people off the electoral register this December - a year earlier than the advice of the independent Electoral Commission.

"It means millions could lose their right to vote. It's more than 400,000 people in London. It's 70,000 people in Glasgow. Thousands in every town and city.

"We know why the Tories are doing it. They want to gerrymander next year's mayoral election in London by denying hundreds of thousands of Londoners their right to vote.

"They want to do the same for the Assembly elections in Wales. And they want to gerrymander electoral boundaries across the country by ensuring new constituencies are decided on the basis of the missing electors when the Boundary Commission starts its work in April 2016.” 

The media barely mentioned this at the time. Imagine how they would have reacted if such a grave accusation had been made against a newly elected Corbyn government.

This issue relates to the transition from the previous method of compiling the Electoral Register to the new method called Individual Electoral Registration (IER). The timetable in the original legislation was for the transition to IER to end in December 2016. However, the Tories are trying to bring the date forward to December 2015. Corbyn was warning of the likely consequences.

The Boundary Commission work referred to by Corbyn relates to drawing up new constituencies. If this work is done on the basis of millions missing from Electoral Register, then it will affect the fairness of the 2020 election and beyond.

The Electoral Commission are independent experts and they have advised strongly against the Tory plan. Their reasons are clearly set out in the dry document, Assessment of Progress with the Transition to Individual Electoral Registration June 2015.

Here are some extracts from the Electoral Commission’s advice to peers today.

“We are disappointed at the Government’s announcement and still recommend that the end of transition should take place in December 2016 as set out in law. We therefore recommend that Parliament does not approve this order. 

The Commission believes that there should be a compelling case for bringing forward the end of the transition. [And there is not such a compelling case]

On 1 December 2015, should Parliament approve the Government’s order, any of the 1.9 million entries on the register that have not been individually registered or already removed through the annual canvass process will be deleted from the register.”

There is no doubt that deleting all or some of the 1.9 million entries referred to by the Electoral Commission will benefit the Tories and harm Labour. IER particularly affects those in rented accommodation, younger and poorer voters and also students - universities no longer register automatically those in halls of residence, for example.

Today the airwaves are full of Tories invoking democracy. Their protestations ring particularly hollow on a day when they are trying to force through parliament a measure designed to rig the Electoral Register in their favour in the teeth of advice from the independent experts, the Electoral Commission.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

The Suffragettes; which side would you have been on? Power of nonsense arguments

A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right 
- Tom Paine 1737-1809

It was not until 1928, that women were able to vote in the UK on the same basis as men. In the decades before the First World War, most people - women as well as men - were opposed to women having the vote. 

What arguments were used to oppose giving women the vote? There were no good arguments. So, those who were opposed to this happening, came up with plenty of nonsense arguments.  Nonsense arguments can be just as effective as good arguments.

Sometimes, those putting forward these nonsense arguments, did so cynically, knowing very well that the arguments were nonsense and also knowing they could not simply state the truth, that men wanted to deny women the vote so as to maintain men’s power.

Other times, those putting forward these nonsense arguments completely believed in them. It is very easy for people to convince themselves that something is true, if it is in their own interest for it to be true.

Here are some of the nonsense arguments used against giving women the vote.

In a debate in the House of Commons on 25 April 1906, Mr Samuel Evans said: -
“All really sensible men…think women have their own honourable position in life…accorded to them by nature, and their proper sphere is the home…If women were to be entitled to privileges of citizenship, they ought to share its responsibilities. Would it be desirable that women should have to go to battle?”

Mr Cremer said: -
“There are times and periods in women’s lives when they require rest not only for mind but for body and to drag them into the political arena under those conditions would be cruel indeed.”

And from the Commons debate on 28 March 1912: -

Mr Harold Baker: -
“The question is…the enfranchisement of politically inert masses who take no interest in politics and do not desire to do so…The vote is a badge, not of superiority, but of difference, a difference of masculine character and coercive power…”

Viscount Helmsley: -
“…the mental equilibrium of the female sex is not as stable as the mental equilibrium of the male sex. The argument has very strong scientific backing.
I believe that the normal man and the normal woman both have the same instinct that man should be the governing one of the two and I think that the undoubted dislike that women have for men who are effeminate and which men have for masculine women is nothing more or less than the expression of this instinct…”

The Prime Minister, Mr Asquith: -
“The question [is] why should you deny to a woman of genius the vote, which you give to her gardener? [The answer is] you are dealing not with individuals but with the masses…[any] gain would be more than neutralised by the injurious consequences…to the status and influence of women as a whole."

Mr Stewart: -
“Men are under the potent influence of women already. They are controlled in childhood and cherished in old age. And between childhood and old age they are more subject to their influence than at any other period of life…[Women] can [already] win any election or carry any measure they set their minds to…”

Mr MacCullum Scott: -
“The argument against Woman Suffrage which has always impressed me most is the physical force argument. …women as physical force units are not equal to men… Therefore, if you include women when you are counting heads, the result is not reliable as an index of the physical force in the country…By giving votes to women you are destroying the value of a General Election.”

Other commonly used nonsense arguments as to why women should not be allowed the vote were
  • Married women would only double or annul their husband’s votes 
  • Voting would destroy chivalry
  • Voting would stop women getting married and having children 
  • Women are too precious and innocent to be involved in public life

These nonsense arguments might be laughable now but at the time they were made in earnest and many people found them persuasive. 

Not everyone, of course. Here is the Labour MP Philip Snowden in the 1912 debate, identifying the nonsense arguments for what they were: -“The opposition to the enfranchisement of women is not argument; it is a masculine prejudice.”

Many, like the Suffragettes, who opposed the nonsense arguments of their time, were dismissed as either ridiculous crazies or as dangerous extremists. 

In 2015, the malign power of nonsense arguments is as strong as ever. They are used to justify all sorts of arrangements which suit the powerful. I will consider some contemporary nonsense arguments in future pieces.

And the powerful still dismiss the people who challenge their nonsense arguments as ridiculous crazies or as dangerous extremists.

Sadly, our media is no more helpful in combatting nonsense arguments than it was at the time of the fight for votes for women. 

There is only one way the power of nonsense arguments can be combatted. As many people as possible, need to be alert and engaged and able to identify such dangerous nonsense for themselves.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

What links poverty, living wage, asylum-seeker, centre-ground, affordable and annexe?

“When I use a word”, Humpty Dumpty said to Alice, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean.”

Today the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, declared that a school built over nine miles away from an existing Grammar School is not a new school but is an annexe of the existing school. It is currently lawful to build annexes to existing Grammar Schools but not to build new Grammar Schools. So, Morgan’s decision that  the word “annexe” means something that it clearly does not, allows her to avoid the difficulty of a vote in parliament to reintroduce Grammar Schools - a vote that would split the Tory Party and which she might well lose. 

Morgan’s linguistic trickery puts her in good company in this government. Iain Duncan-Smith improved the government’s record on poverty at a cynical stroke by redefining the word “poverty”. 

George Osborne announced a new National “Living Wage” which - combined with his attack on tax credits - leave millions worse off and with an income significantly below the previously accepted level of the Living Wage. 

Theresa May, in her deeply nasty and unsettling speech at the Tory conference, deliberately undermined the true meanings of “asylum seeker” and “refugee”. 

David Cameron has described property as “affordable” when only those on well above average incomes can afford them. And he has laid claim to the “centre-ground” despite this government being the most right wing since the 1930s.

Orwell’s 1984 is all about a dystopia where one of the main tools of control is the manipulation of language itself by those in power. The behaviour of these Tory politicians is frankly sinister.

Perhaps worse are all those media outlets that fail to report on this twisting of words. A properly functioning democracy requires a media that has basic standards of decency and honesty. I worry about our democracy.

GUEST POST Calling out Laura Kuenssberg by William Bolton

This may seem like a trivial thing, but it exposes the language and the mindset of an establishment – a BBC that stubbornly refuses to accept that Labour party members and supporters are allowed to have their own views, and that they are allowed to vote and decide who should be the leader of the Labour Party.  

On Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg unilaterally decided that the leader of the Labour party, elected with an astonishing 60% of the vote, could not be described as mainstream Labour, whilst anonymous Blairite MPs, who mustered less than 5% of the vote for their candidate at the election, could and should be described by her as “mainstream Labour”. 

Background: there’s a very annoying recent tradition on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that literally the second after any leading politician has stopped speaking on the top-rated 8.10am interview slot with John Humphries, the supposedly “neutral” political editor is interviewed by the same Humphries to interpret for our benefit what the politician we have been listening to actually meant.  

On Tuesday, Kuenssberg was providing instant reaction to an interview with Diane Abbott, shadow international development secretary, about the Labour leadership’s U-turn on George Osborne’s budget surplus legislation. Kuenssberg clearly decided it was legitimate to portray Diane Abbott as not representative of the ‘mainstream’ Labour party, but that unidentified Blairite MPs supposedly in fury about the U-turn were.  Here she is on the Radio 4 podcast at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06gqx6b (skip to 2:19:10).

Yet the preferred candidates of these supposedly ‘mainstream Labour’ MPs mustered a derisory vote in the recent leadership election, and lost badly.  Many of them were then offered places in the shadow cabinet, which they turned down.  The Blairites in the parliamentary Labour party are not mainstream Labour;  they are right wing rebels – extremists, in a very real way - entitled to their views, but not entitled to be called ‘mainstream Labour’ by the BBC.

Let’s be charitable and assume it is possible that Kuenssberg can’t see how biased her language is.  Her bias is a purely a result of her failing to get out more – failing to talk to enough people outside the Westminster bubble, and so she has simply has no idea where the ‘mainstream’ is, and what it thinks. 

A less attractive scenario is that Kuenssberg is in fact a more zealous guardian of the Overton window than the political editor she replaced, creepy former President of the Oxford University Conservative Association Nick Robinson.  

The jury is out.  Either way Laura Kuenssberg needs to raise her game quickly, and do her important job better.  She must consider how she can use her role to serve the public - to spread rather than suppress understanding of what is going on.  

Friday, 9 October 2015

Cameron, Bin Laden and the media

In his conference speech this week, David Cameron said this - “ Thousands of words have been written about the new Labour leader. But you only really need to know one thing: he thinks the death of Osama bin Laden was a “tragedy”.”

Cameron then went on to use this “fact” to launch a searing personal attack on Jeremy Corbyn: “we cannot let that man inflict his security-threatening, terrorist-sympathising, Britain-hating ideology on the country we love.”

The crowd in the hall were rapturous. 

But Cameron had knowingly quoted Corbyn out of context. He had twisted his words to give a false impression of what he had said. 

Cameron took Corbyn’s words from an interview Corbyn gave to an Iranian TV station in 2011.

This is what Corbyn said: - “There was no attempt whatsoever that I can see to arrest [bin Laden], to put him on trial, to go through that process….This was an assassination attempt, and is yet another tragedy, upon a tragedy, upon a tragedy…The World Trade Center was a tragedy, the attack on Afghanistan was a tragedy, the war in Iraq was a tragedy. Tens of thousands of people have died….”

Corbyn went on to say:- ”the solution has got to be law not war”.

Corbyn’s view is hardly extreme - let alone “security-threatening, terrorist-sympathising, Britain-hating”. 

Barack Obama is quoted by Mark Bowden who wrote a book about the killing of Bin Laden as saying to him: - "Frankly, my belief was if we had captured him, that I would be in a pretty strong position, politically, here, to argue that displaying due process and rule of law would be our best weapon against al-Qaida, in preventing him from appearing as a martyr….the full rights of criminal defendants would showcase America’s commitment to justice for even the worst of the worst.”

And in December 2001 Boris Johnson, wrote in the Telegraph that a trial of Bin Laden would assert “reason over madness and revenge….He should be put on trial, because a trial would be the profoundest and most eloquent statement of the difference between our values and his. He wanted to kill as many innocent people as he could. We want justice.”

Cameron’s cynical and malicious twisting of Corbyn’s words is bad enough. 

But even worse are all those media outlets that repeated - often gleefully -Cameron’s attack without properly explaining what Corbyn had actually said. A properly functioning democracy requires a media that has basic standards of decency and honesty. I worry about our democracy.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Thanks to Corbyn the country can now, at last, properly debate issues like Trident

The great 18th century democratic revolutionary, Tom Paine, wrote: - “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” Jeremy Corbyn is now challenging the received wisdom over a whole range of issues. He is making people think. 

Corbyn is also forcing the country’s politico-media elite to engage in debate on issues which they have effectively kept off the public agenda for decades. They will find it increasingly hard to dismiss challenges to the status quo by simply dismissing the people making them as flaky, mad and extreme. They will be forced to engage with the actual arguments. 

Corbyn is a twenty first century equivalent of those brave people who challenged the consensus of their own day that slavery was acceptable, that it was right that only rich men could vote, that women were second class citizens, that non-white races were inferior, that gays should be locked up.

A good example of what Corbyn is doing is the issue of whether the Trident replacement is a good idea for our country.  Should Britain retain an “independent nuclear deterrent”?

In the last election campaign, the Tory and Labour front-benches were united in favour of replacing Trident. The media were supportive. There was no real public debate except in Scotland, where the weapons are based and where the SNP are opposed to them. 

Those in favour of renewal of Trident have generally taken the attitude in public that the case for renewal is so obvious that they would not waste their time engaging with those who are too na├»ve, foolish or pacifist to see it. 

Corbyn faces opposition from both inside and outside the Labour party. David Cameron’s response has been to say that Corbyn’s views show that he is “unfit for office”. 

Now that Corbyn is leader of his party, Cameron and others are unlikely to be able to close off debate by name-calling. They will be forced to engage.

People will judge the issue on the arguments. Whether people are ultimately persuaded by them or not, Corbyn has plenty of arguments that cannot be dismissed as mad or dangerous.

Here are some of them. 

1. Can the weapon system really be used independently of the USA? If so, the two countries are not always in step. They were not in 1939 or over the Falklands. What if there is a President Trump?

2. Why do we need these weapons for our security when the vast majority of countries in the world do not?

3. These weapons are useless against terrorists. Post-Cold War, is there any at all likely scenario in which they could be of any practical use?

4. Do these weapons in fact make us less safe against IS type terrorism, as there is always the risk of a security breach? 

5. The weapons always carry the risk of accidents.

6. The SNP is against having nuclear weapons in Scotland. Would people in the South East of England feel differently if the weapons were based there?

7.  If the £100 billion cost of the new weapons was all kept in the defence budget, could it not be spent more productively to ensure our security? There are people in the military who think the money would be better spent on conventional weapons.

8.  If, alternatively, some or all of the £100 billion cost was used outside the defence budget, it could make a significant difference to the prosperity and well-being of the country.

9.  The moral arguments against using WMD against civilian populations.

10. Should we ignore the words of former Tory Defence Minister, Michael Portillo? Earlier this year, he said: - “You're probably familiar with these men who are worried about their own virility and buy large sports cars, and this I think is a case in point. [As the army and navy] have become smaller, so the status symbol of having nuclear weapons becomes more important, at least to some people. Our independent nuclear deterrent is not independent and doesn't constitute a deterrent against anybody that we regard as an enemy. It is a waste of money and it is a diversion of funds that might otherwise be spent on perfectly useful and useable weapons and troops. But some people have not caught up with this reality.”
And what about the famously bellicose Tony Blair? In his memoirs, he said of Trident: “The expense is huge and the utility … non-existent in terms of military use.” He said he could clearly see the force of the “common sense and practical argument” against Trident, but in the end he thought that giving it up would be “too big a downgrading of our status as a nation”.

Maybe it is all about concerns over virility/status and not really about defence, as claimed, at all. Or maybe we really do need to keep nuclear weapons because without them we can never be safe. Thanks to Jeremy Corbyn, we will now have a proper debate. That’s progress.