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Thursday, October 17, 2019

Labour under fire for anti-semitism again

The Guardian reports that yet another female Jewish MP has left the Labour party, having apparently been bullied out of the movement she has worked in for decades.

In a tweet posted last night, Louise Ellman, the MP for Liverpool Riverside, said that she said: “I have made the truly agonising decision to leave the Labour party after 55 years. I can no longer advocate voting Labour when it risks Corbyn becoming PM. I will continue to serve the people of Liverpool Riverside as I have had the honour to do since 1997.’

The paper adds that in a longer statement, she attacked the Labour leader’s record on antisemitism, saying: “Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, antisemitism has become mainstream in the Labour party. Jewish members have been bullied, abused and driven out. Anti-Semites have felt comfortable and vile conspiracy theories have been propagated. A party that permits anti-Jewish racism to flourish cannot be called anti-racist.”

She added: “The overwhelming majority of the Jewish community is fearful of what a Corbyn government might mean for Britain’s Jews. I share those concerns. But this issue is not simply about the Jewish community. This is about the nature of our society. Jeremy Corbyn’s seeming tolerance of antisemitism would embolden racists, poison our public debate and damage the social cohesion of our country.

“My values – traditional Labour values – have remained the same. It is Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn, that has changed. He has presided over a culture of hatred, fear and intolerance in the Labour party.

“But this issue is no longer just about the Labour party – it is about the threat a Jeremy Corbyn premiership could pose to the country.”

This is pretty damning stuff coming from a senior Labour MP, who feels that she can no longer remain a member of the party she has effectively been a part of and represented at one level or another all her adult life.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The real threat to our democracy

While the Conservative UK Government propose to pursue legislation to suppress the votes of those most likely to support their rivals by introducing stringent ID checks at polling stations, the real threat to our democracy remains ignored.

The Guardian points out that a new study has concluded that Britain needs to take concerted action to reduce the risk of malicious actors in the UK and abroad from contaminating the results of a looming general election:

A group of experts say government, political parties and social media companies all need to take immediate action, at a time when there is rising concern within Whitehall about the integrity of the democratic process.

Lisa-Maria Neudert, who acted as the secretary to the author of the study, the Oxford Technology and Elections Commission, said there was growing recognition that “manipulation and propaganda which was only thought to happen in authoritarian regimes can happen in democracies like the UK”.

The research calls for: 
The paper adds that concern has been rising in government circles about electoral integrity in the UK. They say that the Cabinet Office is nominally responsible but intelligence agencies have been taking a growing interest in the rise of state disinformation online, principally from Russia and China:

There have been repeated warnings about Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, as well as questions about the impact of microtargeted internet advertising during the EU referendum, and the commission’s researchers, at Oxford University, believe the risks remain current.

During the European election campaign of the early summer, they highlighted the sharing of “extremist, sensationalist or conspiratorial junk news” typically involving anti-immigration and Islamophobic sentiment across the continent.

One example cited was the Notre Dame Cathedral fire, in Paris, in April which while not immediately a political story, was manipulated during the campaign period for what amounted to political purposes by Russian and other social media accounts.

They unearthed a trail of propaganda furthering the false idea that the fire in the Gothic cathedral was started by Islamist terrorists, or that plans for reconstructing the Paris landmark would include a minaret.

“We want social media companies to help us understand why such stories are so widely shared by their algorithms,” Neudert said. “They should be required to release information so we can understand why such disinformation so easily spreads.”

Other specific risks highlighted included the use of “non-transparent”, or dark, advertising where money can be spent on targeting voters by political actors without any visibility – unless a record is taken.

Facebook, for example, maintains an archive of political adverts, but not all technology companies do. The reporting is not standardised, meaning that “is usually rendered useless for statistical analysis because of inconsistent or incomplete metrics that make it impossible to compare and understand trends”.

Unless the government takes action to tackle these specific problems then the danger of future General Elections being subverted by outside forces remains very high.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

How Johnson's free trade deal is bad for the UK

Over in the Independent, Sean O'Grady argues that Boris Johnson's mooted free trade with the EU will add significant bureaucratic burdens on business, and inevitably lead to lower competitiveness, less trade, fewer jobs and less investment. It is effectively a hard Brexit.

He says that a free trade agreement expressly does not mean that the UK retains all of the free frictionless access it currently enjoys. The ability for businesses to transport goods across Europe unimpeded and of professional people to practise anywhere within the EU without having to secure new qualifications, will all disappear:

The only guaranteed outcome is that the goods made in Yorkshire would be free of any tariffs (import taxes) or quotas on their importation to any of the EU’s 27 remaining member states. That’s it. Some goods now flowing freely would be prohibited if they failed to meet EU type approval, or failed “rules of origin” tests (eg if they were, in reality, say 90 per cent American or Chinese in value) or otherwise were discriminated against by the EU (assuming it is lawful under global trade rules).

The British architect, meanwhile, would have to obtain an additional professional qualification in, say, Ireland to practise across the EU. He or she might lose the right to residence and healthcare in an EU state, or to live in one country and work in another. There would be delays at borders, more red tape, more costs and more incentive for businesses to operate inside the EU and outside the UK rather than attempt the hazardous business of trying to cross so many barriers for their goods and services the pan-European staff who help to make them.

So that is why, in reality, the cuddly-sounding free trade deal would make life far harder for British businesses and workers, and is not at all the equivalent of free access to European markets, as was promised by at least some of the proponents of Leave during the 2016 referendum campaign, and since. It would not be as tough as trading on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms, as some no-dealers argue for; but in all other respects the UK would be deprived of instant frictionless access to the largest single market for goods and services on the planet, one approximately 10 times larger than the UK. It may or may not be worth it to “take back control” over sovereignty – money, borders, immigration and courts – but that is the essence of the choice.

This deal will be a disaster for the UK economy and for business and should be voted down. We cannot secure a better deal that we have at present.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Labour's Women problem

Over at The Times, there is an interesting comment piece from Clare Foges, who believes that, although the Tories are perceived as having a 'women problem', it is in fact Labour who have most to answer for on this issue.

Foges points to Labour attempts to paint the Conservatives as anti-women, pinstriped chauvinists, the party of misogynists and Alan Clark throwbacks who care nothing for the rights and troubles of women. She refers to Labour making mountains of hay out of Johnson using the phrase “girly swot”, Diane Abbott finger-jabbing at last week’s prime minister’s questions that the government was “letting women down” and Labour peer Baroness Chakrabarti calling for a probe into allegations that the prime minister squeezed a female journalist’s thigh 20 years ago.

But Labour have their own problems:

In contrast to those wicked Tories with their wandering hands, we are meant to see a soft and cuddly political movement peopled by beta males wearing “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirts, a movement that embodies diversity and equality and inclusivity and every other progressive buzzword known to man. Sadly for Jeremy Corbyn and co, the most gentle probing of the facts reveals the rank hypocrisy. There is only one party riddled with sexism and misogyny in this country, and it’s Labour.

In recent weeks five Labour MPs have been threatened with deselection by their local parties, and four of them happen to be women. Though the party has called allegations of sexism “baseless”, the shadow minister Tracy Brabin believes “an element of misogyny” is at play. One of those facing the chop, the South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck, is threatening to take legal action against the party over the misogynistic bullying she has allegedly endured. Another Labour MP, Helen Jones, has said that given the “culture of contempt” for women, the targeting of Lewell-Buck and others comes as no surprise. “The truth my party ignores is that women Labour MPs, however well respected they are, often face bullying and harassment in their constituency parties,” she wrote last week. Since the earliest days of the Corbyn era, comrades on the hard left have been spewing misogynistic bile online, taking down any uppity women who threaten the coming revolution. During the 2015 leadership contest Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper were Twitter-spammed with “witch” and “c***”. Moderate female Labour MPs have become accustomed to a daily bombardment of rape and death threats from their socialist brothers.

To be fair to Corbyn, this issue long predates his leadership. The left has always had a woman problem, the sexism taking different forms according to the part of the movement it lurks in. There was the old-fashioned sexism of the old left: the swaggering, bullying trade union dinosaurs who felt that decisions should be made by men in smoke-filled rooms while women served the beer and made the sandwiches. Though things have come a long way since the days when Barbara Castle had to overcome the unions’ resistance to equal pay, it is still remarkable that the two biggest unions — Unite and Unison — have never been led by a woman.

On the hard left you find the out-and-out misogyny displayed by those keyboard Corbynistas: resentful, hateful, violent. It was displayed, too, in the fantasising about Margaret Thatcher’s death. The vitriol in all that “burn the witch” stuff could only be partly explained by the Lady’s legacy. It was her sex which really made their hackles rise. The hard left lionises men such as Julian Assange, who spent seven years holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in the face of sex assault allegations in Sweden; Ken Livingstone, who as London mayor welcomed Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Muslim cleric who was accused of supporting wife-beating and the stoning of gays; Red Ken’s old mate Gerry Healy, leader of the Workers Revolutionary Party, who was accused by 26 women of “gross sexual abuse” (allegations dismissed by Livingstone as an MI5 conspiracy). How could so-called progressives have such blind spots? Because set against the great class struggle, sexism and misogyny are dismissed as bourgeois concerns. If all that matters is the revolution, then the (invariably male) heroes of that revolution must be allowed their handmaidens, their “peccadillos” and God-awful attitudes.

Labour remain the only major party not to have elected a female leader, their attitude to Labour women MPs stinks, but to be fair they are not the only party to suffer a 'women problem'.

All the major parties have had issues at one time or another. It is just that finger-pointing does not go down well, when those pointing have not resolved their own issues.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

UK Government to pursue voter suppression in Queen's Speech

Over at the Telegraph we learn that the UK Government is to announce in the Queen's speech that it will push ahead with proposals to require voters across the country to show identification such as driving licences or passports before casting their ballot.

They say that Ministers are planning to introduce a legal requirement for voters to produce photographic ID, in order to safeguard against electoral fraud. A new Electoral Integrity Bill will also limit the number of relatives for whom anyone can act as a proxy, and outlaw the "harvesting" of postal ballots by political parties and activists.

Although there is limited evidence of fraud with postal and proxy voting, there is very little, if any at all, of identity fraud at the ballot box. The real reform that needs to be instituted is to better regulate party spending and donations.

Of course the Tories won't do that for fear of cutting off their own income, nor will they introduce much needed state funding because they do not want a level playing field.

Instead we are getting voter suppression, US style, as evidenced by the pilots where it quickly became clear that the requirement to produce ID was preventing ethnic minorities and people from poorer backgrounds from casting a vote.

This blatant gerrymandering needs to be stopped.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

A further £87 million cost to a no-deal Brexit

Eighty Seven Million pounds is small potatoes when it comes to UK Government expenditure but to ordinary people (and smaller administrations such as local government and even the Welsh Assembly) it is a fortune.

So when we learn that the latest contract to prepare us for crashing out of the EU without a deal has that price tag attached to it, it is worth reflecting on how that money could be better spent if we instead took the best deal available to us and stayed in the European Community.

As the Guardian reports, the government has now signed contracts worth almost £87m with four ferry companies to help ensure the supply of vital medicines in the event that the UK leaves the EU without a deal:

The Department for Transport (DfT) said Brittany Ferries, DFDS, P&O and Stena Line would be ready to deliver capacity equivalent to thousands of heavy goods vehicles a week from the 31 October Brexit deadline. The four firms will operate on 13 routes from eight UK ports that are less likely to face disruption in the event of a no-deal Brexit: Teesport, Hull, Killingholme, Felixstowe, Harwich, Tilbury, Portsmouth and Poole.

The six-month contracts are worth as much as £86.6m to the ferry operators. If the extra capacity is not needed, including under a negotiated Brexit deal, the government will pay the companies up to £11.5m in termination fees.

Before the previous Brexit deadline of 29 March the government signed deals worth £89m with Brittany and DFDS to secure ferry space in the case of no deal. Cancelling those contracts cost £43.8m plus other costs that took the bill to more than £50m.

Under the previous transport secretary Chris Grayling the government also scrapped a £14m contract with a company after it emerged it had no ferries.

The much lower termination fees raise further questions about the original deal signed by the government. The DfT said it had minimised the potential costs of cancellation this time through a competitive bidding process.

So much money wasted by the incompetence of this government and in pursuit of the lies that underlined the original Brexit campaign. Surely somebody should be held accountable for this mess.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Is the Brexit Party in denial on Russian disinformation?

To be honest, nothing about the Brexit Party surprises me anymore, bur it does seem as if they are no longer even trying to win over the majority of the UK electorate who failed to vote for them in May's European Elections.

It isn't that I believe they can convince people who have never supported them that their view on Brexit is the correct one. That would be absurd, they are completely bonkers when it comes to championing UK interests at home or abroad. It is just that, on other issues, they might make the effort every now and again to make us sit up and think that their voting decisions do occasionally recognise reality.

So yesterday, here we were again, with Nigel Farage and his fellow Brexit MEPs voting against stronger EU measures aimed at countering “highly dangerous” Russian disinformation. It begs the question, are they in favour of more Russian disinformation? Or is it that they don't believe in evidence-based policies? Okay, scrap that last question, I think we already knew the answer to that.

As the Guardian reports, Farage and co. cast their votes against a European parliament resolution calling for an upgrade of the EU’s anti-propaganda unit East StratCom, as well as support for public service media:

In the resolution, MEPs also criticised Facebook, accusing the social media company of not following up on most of the parliament’s demands to prevent a repeat of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where at least 87 million people had their data harvested without permission for use in targeted advertising campaigns in the 2016 US presidential election.

While the resolution is non-binding, it heightens pressure on the incoming leaders of the European commission and European council to keep a focus on countries seeking to meddle in elections and the operations of social media companies.

The text expressed “deep concern over the highly dangerous nature of Russian propaganda” and called on EU institutions to set a strategy to counter Russian disinformation.

East StratCom was set up on a shoestring budget in 2015 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea forced a rethink of relations with the Kremlin in Brussels, Paris and Berlin.

Its staff and funding have since been increased, but the unit has faced criticism for a handful of decisions – later reversed – to describe satirical or contrarian articles as “fake news”.

The party which embraces fake news as part of its raison d'etre, voted against enhanced measures to protect our democratic processes. No, I really am not surprised at all.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The drink and drugs culture at Westminster?

Just how bad is the drinking culture in Westminster? Well according to one of the candidates for Speaker of the House of Commons and current Deputy Speaker, it is so bad that there is a need for counselling for MPs and staff in the Palace of Westminster who abuse controlled substances and alcohol.

As the Guardian reports, Lindsay Hoyle believes that Parliament has a drink problem and may well have a drugs problem too:

During an intense debate over Bercow’s decade in the role and how to improve the House of Commons, Hoyle was asked by the Guardian if there was a drink problem in parliament.

He replied: “It’s not just drink we’ve got to catch out, there is a drug problem. I genuinely believe that counselling and real support should be available for all staff and members.”

Pushed to confirm whether he had just disclosed there is evidence of a drug problem within parliament, Hoyle said: “I think, I believe, there will be a drug problem – there is a drug problem right across this country.

“We should have health and wellbeing in place for drink and drug counselling, and real support for anybody who needs it.”

In Westminster there are eight licensed bars for MP, with more in the House of Lords. Most are accessible to all passholders and sell cut price alcohol. The question must surely be asked whether this is appropriate in what is effectively a place of work.

Perhaps Hoyle should be calling for those bars to be restricted and subsidies removed if he really wants to tackle the drinking problem in the Houses of Parliament.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Government failure to act led to voting injustice

The Guardian is being rather generous to the UK Government in asserting that it was an 'outdated law' that effectively disenfranchised thousands of European citizens in last Mays EU Parliament elections.

In fact, it was four years of inaction by a Government that chose to ignore clear recommendations because either (a) proposals put forward by the Electoral Commission were considered inconvenient and not politically expedient; or (b) they just couldn't be bothered.

In its report on May's European elections, the Electoral Commission says that the government’s failure to reform outdated legislation caused some EU citizens in the UK and British citizens overseas to lose their vote. They add that it was “deeply regrettable” that the government had not acted on recommendations made four years ago:

“The May elections illustrate that delays in government action, which are needed to properly update our electoral laws, now pose significant risks to voter trust and confidence,” said Bob Posner, the chief executive of the commission.

“It is unacceptable that some EU citizens living in the UK and British citizens living abroad experienced difficulties that prevented them from voting at the European parliamentary elections.”.

The commission found that government delays in “taking forward established recommendations for electoral reform led to difficulties experienced by those who wanted to vote”.

It said voter confidence in the election was lower than in any other recent polls, denting the democratic contract with the public. Research conducted by the commission found that confidence that the European elections were well run was more than 10 percentage points below that in the previous European elections in 2014.

Confidence in the running of local elections, which took place on the same day in some areas, was down 12 percentage points.

The government is being challenged in the courts after thousands of EU citizens on the voter register were turned away from polling booths in May because they had not been made aware they had to fill in a separate form declaring that they were exercising their vote in the UK.

Many others who were aware they needed to fill in the form said they were not able to complete it or did not receive the notification on time to be counted. There were also multiple complaints from Britons in Europe who had the right to vote but did not receive their ballot papers in sufficient time to return them by polling day.

Effectively, the conduct of the UK's European Elections were in this regard on a par with a third world country, all because our government did not change the law as they were asked to.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

No deal Brexit would break the bank

The Guardian reports on a warning from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) that emergency tax cuts and higher public spending to offset the impact of a no-deal Brexit would send government debt to its highest level in more than half a century:

In a warning to Boris Johnson as his Brexit plan risked unravelling in the face of stiff opposition at home and abroad, the thinktank said government borrowing was already set to more than double next year regardless of the outcome of negotiations with Brussels.

It also said the national debt – the sum total of all borrowing accumulated by the British state – would hit almost 90% of GDP if Britain crashed out of the EU without a deal, its highest level since the mid-1960s.

Coming as the prime minister increases funding for healthcare, schools and police, the IFS said a mini-boom in public spending would be followed by another bust because the government would likely struggle to handle the impact of no-deal Brexit, which would shrink the size of the economy and cause debt levels to rise.

In a warning that a new wave of austerity could be introduced in the future to limit further debt increases, Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, said: “You could well be on an upward spiral of debt and deficit – and in a world in which we have to go through another period of austerity to undo it.”

And we are already spending above our means:

In analysis ahead of a government budget this autumn, the IFS said the deficit – the shortfall between government spending and income from taxes – was already on track to rise to more than £50bn next year from £29.3bn currently, as a result of changes in the treatment of student loans in the national accounts and as Boris Johnson ramps up public spending.

However, it said no-deal Brexit could cause economic growth to flatline in 2020-21, even if the Bank of England cut interest rates and the government stepped in with emergency tax cuts and higher spending.

Describing the scenario emerging from a “relatively benign” no-deal Brexit, the IFS said the budget deficit would rise to almost £100bn or 4% of GDP by 2021-22, reversing the progress over the past decade of producing gradually smaller deficits.

The budget deficit peaked in 2009-10 after the banking crisis at almost £160bn, before gradually falling as David Cameron and George Osborne cut spending using a policy of austerity to reduce it.

The government’s tax and spending watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility, forecast this year that the deficit should fall to £21.2bn in 2020-21. However, it made its estimate in March on the basis of a smooth Brexit deal.

Successive budget deficits have caused the national debt to rise to about £1.8tn, or about 80% of GDP – more than double the level before the financial crisis. Although economists debate how sustainable such debt levels are, the IFS said that keeping such a debt level may prevent the country from raising spending on public services in future.

The Tories are now matching the spending levels promised in Labour's 2017 manifesto, one they condemned as irresponsible at the time. If we leave the EU on a no-deal then those spending levels will increase significantly, but will do so to stand still, not to improve public services.

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