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Friday, December 09, 2016

Labour's crisis continues after by-election

It was always going to be an uphill struggle to repeat the heroics of the Richmond Park by-election in deepest, darkest Lincolnshire, but the Liberal Democrats nevertheless emerged from the contest with credit, being the only party to increase its share of the vote and pushing Labour into fourth place.

Labour's performance in Sleaford and North Hykeham also confimred a trend, as they continue to struggle to make any sort of impact in areas where they need to improve significantly if they are to win he next General Election.

As the Guardian says, the party’s candidate, Jim Clarke, a refuse collector, put in a valiant effort but Labour slipped embarrassingly from second place at the general election to fourth place in Sleaford.

His big argument was protection of the NHS and a campaign against the closure of a local A&E unit, but the minds of voters appeared firmly still fixed on the EU referendum, the dominant issue in politics affecting the direction of the country for decades to come:

Clarke had been a remain voter on account of jobs and the economy but spent much of the campaign stressing his commitment to triggering article 50, in tune with the frustrations of the local electorate anxious for May to get on with Brexit.

But why would a leave supporter opt for the remain-voting Labour candidate and his party’s nuanced position on the EU over his full-throated Brexit-loving rivals? Caroline Johnson, a children’s doctor who won for the Tories, reminded everyone how she had always wanted to leave the EU and that her prime minister was in a position to carry it out. Likewise, diehard Brexiters will have plumped for Ukip, which accused Theresa May of being a “Brexit backslider”, although the party -like others - actually lost votes compared with 2015 amid a very low turnout.

It was certainly nowhere near a Ukip surge, with voters seemingly still willing to offer May a chance to carry out her Brexit plan instead of giving Nigel Farage’s party credit for forcing the referendum in the first place.

It left little room for Labour as it scrabbled around for votes along with the Tories and Ukip among the 60% of the constituency who voted to leave the EU. That was good news for the Lib Dems, who had the pick of the 40% of remain voters and almost doubled their share to come third.

Looking at the numbers, it is clear many people who voted Labour at the general election, putting the party in second position, simply stayed home. Labour has acknowledged that this was not the result the party was seeking. But together with its loss of its deposit in the Richmond byelection, this should be a warning klaxon about extreme electoral danger for the party in England if May decides to call a snap election.

The failure of Labour to adopt a clear position on Brexit is costing them dear, leaving the door open for the Liberal Democrats to make a come-back on the basis of their strong and principled pro-Europeanism.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Threatened species

Appeals to save the growing list of threatened species are becoming quite common. According to this list, these include the Amur Leopard, the Javan Rhino, the Sumatran Tiger, the Indian Elephant and the Snow Leopard.

The appearance of the giraffe on that list though is a shock. The Independent says that giraffes are being pushed towards a “silent” extinction due to illegal hunting and habitat loss. They add that numbers of the world’s tallest animal have plummeted 40 per cent in the past 30 years.

A growing human population, increased farming and civil unrest have also contributed to a decline of 66,000 since 1985. There were estimated to be just 97,000 left in the wild as of 2015.

Human activity has a lot to answer for. We need to be a lot more careful as to how our actions impact on nature before all the wonders that we value in this world have been lost to us.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Pressure mounts on Theresa May over Brexit

Irrespective of the outcome of the ongoing Supreme Court hearing and whatever the phrase 'red, white and blue Brexit', it seems that Theresa May will be forced to offer up more than enigmatic but meaningless sound-bites before she can invoke Article 50 and take us out of the EU.

The Guardian reports that Tory backbenchers have now joined in demands for more meat on the Brexit bone before being asked to vote for us to start negotiations.

They say that May's backbench MPs will demand today that the plan produced by the government before it triggers article 50 is a detailed policy document that fully outlines the type of relationship Britain will seek with the EU. These MPs, want a so-called “soft Brexit” in which close economic ties are maintained, and are arguing that ministers ought to publish no less than an official pre-legislative white paper:

Among those who are likely to call for a more detailed white paper are Neil Carmichael and Anna Soubry, who both said they would now back the government amendment, but wanted it to be taken seriously. “It is a victory for us because the government is now committed to producing a plan,” said Carmichael, the MP for Stroud. “The question is what it looks like.”

He argued that support for “soft Brexit is gaining ground” among Tory MPs, but also in the language being heard from the secretary of state for exiting the EU, David Davis. Carmichael said he had always supported the principle of article 50, but wanted a serious pre-legislative document to understand the government’s direction.

Soubry agreed, suggesting that the “vast majority” of Tory remain voters had accepted the referendum outcome but wanted a serious conversation about what came next and how to unite the country. “If there is any messing around, or silly politics, that will backfire,” she said of the suggestion that the government would produce the absolute minimum. “When the crunch comes, and the hardline Brexiteers put the needs of their ideology in front of the needs of constituents and the country, [May] will need us.”

She called on the prime minister to take this seriously. “It is bigger than egos, ideology and playing silly games. This is serious, grown-up stuff. That would mean a white paper for me, or at least a serious document.”

Another pro-remain Tory suggested there would be “hell to pay” if the government failed to make good on its promise of publishing a serious plan.

This is an encouraging sign that the Government are starting to take concerns about Brexit seriously. It falls far short of what is really needed however, a vote by the British people on whether to accept the final agreed terms of Brexit or not.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Can we start to put 2016 behind us?

Sometimes a holiday is all that is needed to put things into persepective. Alas it may take more than a week in the sun to put right the travails of 2016. You will forgive me therefore if I ease myself back into blogging.

Nevertheless, in the week I was away, there were two victories for the forces of progress. The Liberal Democrats stormed from behind to take Richmond Park off pro-Brexiteer and erstwhile Tory, Zac Goldsmith and a far-right candidate was soundly beaten in the re-run race for the Austrian Presidency.

Meanwhile, it is business as usual for UKIP. Within days of being elected leader, Paul Nuttall appoints Leicestershire's David Sprason as the party's national spokesman on welfare and social policy.

As Jonathan Calder reports, Mr. Sprason, while still a Conservative, stepped down as deputy leader of Leicestshire county council after a DVD entitled She Likes It Rough was found in his council-issued PC.

Maybe we can start to put 2016 behind us after all.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Labour's dissarray over Brexit continues

One of the biggest threats posed to the country and our economy by Brexit is the failure of the official opposition to adopt a clear position and to properly scrutinise the way the UK Government are dealing with this issue.

There are honourable exceptions of course such as Kier Starmer but, as reported here before, he is being constantly undermined by other Shadow Cabinet members.

The Independent reports that this lack of clarity is frustrating many within the Labour Party as well as without, with senior Labour MPs accusing their party leadership of paving the way for a hard Brexit while aping the populist language of Nigel Farage.

They say that Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell is facing a furious backlash over a speech, which urged Labour to “embrace the enormous opportunities” of withdrawal – instead of fighting to prevent its most damaging consequences. Mr McDonnell also horrified many high-profile backbenchers by accusing pro-Europe MPs of siding with “corporate elites” – a charge normally levelled by Ukip.

The most incendiary sections of the speech were briefed in advance to a right-wing newspaper only, adding to suspicions that the Labour Chancellor is attempting to bounce Labour into a tougher anti-Brexit stance. A string of former shadow ministers told The Independent that the shift would make it easier for the government to pursue the hard Brexit apparently sought by Theresa May.

Yet Labour, in alliance with up to 30 Tory MPs and the other parties, has a potential Commons majority in favour of staying as close as possible to the single market, to protect trade and jobs – a so-called soft Brexit.

Some MPs are prepared to give quotes to the paper but not do so on the record:

One prominent Labour MP said: “John gives the impression that we will simply lay down and accept a hard Brexit with joy in our hearts, but that is a million miles away from where the Labour Party should be.” A second warned: “If we carry on with that sort of language, it will play into the hands of the hard Brexiteers, who claim we can leave the EU without the downsides and the risks.”

And a third, a former minister, turned on Mr McDonnell for suggesting anyone making a pro-Europe case was somehow playing the game of “corporate elites”. “A lot of people see the EU as having done much to preserve peace, to introduce good employment and environmental standards and having allowed Britain to be a good place to invest,” he added. “They don’t want to be told that, if they believe those things, they are in the pocket of corporate elites – which is the Ukip, nationalist, right-wing position.”

Only the Liberal Democrats are outlining a clear and united position on the way forward and we are the only party advocating a referendum so people can decide to accept or reject the final deal.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Who is entitled to see our entire internet history?

As the Investigatory Powers Bill passes into law, internet providers will be required to keep a full record of every site that each of its customers have visited and that means that a number of government agencies will have the right to inspect our full browsing history.

The snoopers charter forces internet providers to keep a full list of internet connection records for a year and to make them available to the Government if asked. Those records will serve as a full list of every website that people have visited, rather than collecting which specific pages are visited or what's done on them.

They will be made available to a wide range of government bodies. Those include expected law enforcement organisations such as the police, the military and the secret service, but also includes bodies such as the Food Standards Agency, the Gambling Commission, councils and the Welsh Ambulance Services National Health Service Trust.

The Independent provides a full list of agencies that can now ask for UK citizens’ browsing history set out below:

Metropolitan Police Service
City of London Police
Police forces maintained under section 2 of the Police Act 1996
Police Service of Scotland
Police Service of Northern Ireland
British Transport Police
Ministry of Defence Police
Royal Navy Police
Royal Military Police
Royal Air Force Police
Security Service
Secret Intelligence Service
Ministry of Defence
Department of Health
Home Office
Ministry of Justice
National Crime Agency
HM Revenue and Customs
Department for Transport
Department for Work and Pensions
NHS trusts and foundation trusts in England that provide ambulance services
Common Services Agency for the Scottish Health Service
Competition and Markets Authority
Criminal Cases Review Commission
Department for Communities in Northern Ireland
Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland
Department of Justice in Northern Ireland
Financial Conduct Authority
Fire and rescue authorities under the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004
Food Standards Agency
Food Standards Scotland
Gambling Commission
Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority
Health and Safety Executive
Independent Police Complaints Commissioner
Information Commissioner
NHS Business Services Authority
Northern Ireland Ambulance Service Health and Social Care Trust
Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service Board
Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Regional Business Services Organisation
Office of Communications
Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland
Police Investigations and Review Commissioner
Scottish Ambulance Service Board
Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission
Serious Fraud Office
Welsh Ambulance Services National Health Service Trust 

I am at a loss why some of those agencies would need this power at all. 

Friday, November 25, 2016

What Brexit will cost us

As we digest the contents of this week's autumn statement and the economic forecasts of the Office for Budget Responsibility, it is worth reflecting on how exactly the decision to leave the European Union is going to hit ordinary working people.

The Western Mail reports on an analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies which concludes that workers face the “dreadful” prospect of real wages still lagging behind 2008 levels in 2021. Paul Johnson, speaking on behalf of the IFS told the paper:

“Overall real average earnings are forecast to rise by less than 5% between now and 2021.

"To put it another way around half of the wage growth projected for the next five years back in March is not now projected to happen.

“On these projections real wages will, remarkably, still be below their 2008 levels in 2021.

"One cannot stress enough how dreadful that is – more than a decade without real earnings growth.

“We have certainly not seen a period remotely like it in the last 70 years.”

He further warned that the “real value” of working age benefits such as the Jobseeker’s Allowance will “fall by 7.7% rather than 6.5%”.

The Resolution Foundation have also waded in. They expect a hit to wages, stating in their Autumn Statement analysis: “Average earnings are now forecast to be £830 a year lower than expected in 2020, with this decade now set to be the weakest one for wage growth since the 1900s.

"Growth of just 1.6% between 2010 and 2020 compares with an increase of 12.7% in the 2000s and over 20% in every other decade since the 1920s.”

The foundation warns that “real weekly earnings are forecast to grow by just 1.6% over the decade, compared to 12.7% in the 2000s and over 20% in every other decade since the 1920s”.

It further warns: “While top earners were hit the hardest following the financial crisis, the big difference looking forward is that the biggest losers are lower income families, with the entire bottom third of the income distribution set to see incomes fall in the years ahead.”

Brexit then is going to hit the lowest earners and those on benefits the hardest. Meanwhile Nigel Farage, who was instrumental in getting us into this mess, is set to go on a tour of the USA, where he could earn half a million dollars for 20 lectures. Nice work if you can get it.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The figure they didn't put on the side of a bus

Any pretence that we will have an extra £350 million a week to spend on the health service surely went out of the window today when the Chancellor stood up in the House of Commons and outlined the financial consequences of the Brexit vote.

As the Daily Mirror reports, the Independent Office for Budget Responsibility's figures estimate the national debt will spiral above 90% of GDP. While estimates for growth in 2016 are marginally higher, up from 2 to 2.1%, the paper reports that they drop staggeringly from 2.2% to 1.4% in 2017.

The OBR said hugely increased borrowing will total £122 billion over the next few years. And its analysis shows £58.7bn of borrowing over five years was "related to the referendum result and exiting the EU".

According to the paper, the Open Britain group say that this means Brexit will cost £226 million a week, a far cry from the Leave campaign's claims of £350 million extra a week for the NHS that were plastered down the side of a bus.

If those who lied about the money the NHS would receive after Brexit and then left others to sort out the mess they created, had put on the side of the bus that actually it was going to cost us an extra £226 million a week and that the health service would not see an extra penny, maybe the country might have voted differently.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Distant memories of the campaign trail

There are many examples of politicians overreaching themselves on the campaign trail, making promises that prove to be impossible to keep, or miscalculating the deliver-ability of a particular policy, but I think it is safe to say that as in so many other matters, Donald Trump has broken the mould on that one too.

Will the great wall of Mexico ever be built along the shores of the Rio Grande? Can he really set up a register of Muslims, the fastest growing religion in the United States? And what about Obamacare? Has he already signalled a retreat on that promise too?

Ultimately, the pledges that are most difficult to deliver are those caught up in the rhetoric of the campaign, when Trump threw caution to the wind and sought to be as outrageous as possible to maximise his publicity and energise his core support. Now, he has started to row back from some of those positions.

The Independent reports that the President-elect has backed down on his vow to appoint a special prosecutor to probe Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. This has apparently disappointed many of his supporters who genuinely thought that he would do it.

And now there has been a second, equally fundamental u-turn on climate change evidenced in an interview with reporters and columnists of The New York Times. Trump told them that he accepted some possibility of “connectivity” between global warming and human activity and signaled he may after all embrace the new international treaty on emissions.

The paper says that Mr Trump predicted his supporters would get over their disappointment because 'his administration would “save our country” in other ways. That sentiment is unlikely to mollify Judicial Watch, a right wing group that seeks to influence the country’s legal landscape.

“It would be a betrayal of his promise to the American people to 'drain the swamp' of out-of-control corruption in Washington,” it fulminated later on Tuesday. “President-elect Trump should focus on healing the broken justice system, affirm the rule of law and appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the Clinton scandals.”'

Trump hasn't even taken office yet and already he is acknowledging the reality of power. The problem is that there is still a substantial list of excesses to be put into place. We can only hope that his penchant for u-turns continues.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

UKIP continue to lose Parliamentarians

UKIP's unique record of losing MEPs at a rate unparalleled amongst any other political party has continued with the departure of their former leader, Diane James. Of the 40 people ever to have served as UKIP MEPs, thirteen, 32.5% of the total, have either now quit the party or been expelled

Once considered a rising star, Diane James left Ukip, saying her relationship with the party had become "increasingly difficult" and will now sit in the European Parliament as an Independent.

As the Independent reports, infighting has plagued UKIP since Mr Farage stood down, with one high-profile dispute involving leadership hopeful Steven Woolfe culminating in him leaving the party and claiming it was in a "death spiral":

In a statement, Ms James said the president of the European parliament, Martin Shultz, had accepted her request to stand as an independent.

"At a high profile public event in Cambridge last week, I was asked why I had not completed the process to become leader of UKIP," she said.

"I had little option, but to give the truthful response that, although nominated leader by popular vote in the membership, I found that I had no support within the executive and thus no ability to carry forward the policies on which I had campaigned.

"My decision to retire from the election process and not complete it was very difficult personally and professionally, given that Ukip has dominated my life and all my efforts for over five years.

"In recent weeks, my relationship with the party has been increasingly difficult and I feel it is now time to move on."

It is looking increasingly like Steven Woolfe may have been right and that UKIP, now devoid of a purpose, is in a death spiral.

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