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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Is 2016 the year that conspiracy theorists became mainstream?

Over at the Independent, John Rentoul explains that he has had a bit of experience of conspiracy theorists and they are always “just asking questions” rather than esposuing a specific theory. So you may see what I have done with the title of this piece.

Rentoul says that something strange has happened to politics in America, and something alarmingly similar seems to be afflicting the UK as well. It is the adoption of conspiracy theories by mainstream politicians to make a point or to distract us from shortcomings in their case.

For example, he points out how Donald Trump responded to the humiliation of Ted Cruz’s failure to endorse him at the Republican National Convention:

Trump tried to draw the cameras from Cruz’s speech by making an unscheduled entrance to the convention hall in Cleveland. Then, after Cruz explained that he wasn’t going to be a “servile puppy” to someone who had been rude about his wife and father, Trump repeated the attack on his rival’s father.

“All I did was point out that on the cover of the National Enquirer there was a picture of him and crazy Lee Harvey Oswald having breakfast,” Trump said. The conspiracy theory is that an old photograph of Oswald, who killed John F Kennedy, shows him with Rafael Cruz handing out leaflets in New Orleans in 1963. Yesterday Trump went into classic conspiracy theorist mode: “Ted never denied that it was his father... I’m not saying anything… This had nothing to do with me. Except I might have pointed it out… Nobody ever denied – did anyone ever deny that it was his father? It’s a little hard to do, because it looks like him.”

This reflection on the use of conspiracy theories has been prompted by the assertion by Len McClusky that MI5 have been behind the problems of the Labour Party:

Three weeks ago he accused Portland, the PR company set up by Tim Allan, one of Tony Blair’s early advisers, of orchestrating the challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. McCluskey said that left-wing MPs such as Angela Eagle had been “seduced by sinister forces” and urged the BBC to investigate Portland.

Yesterday, he proved this wasn’t a one-off malfunction. He said, echoing the Scottish nationalist JK Rowling conspiracy theory, that MI5 was behind online abuse of Corbyn’s opponents in an attempt to discredit the Labour leader. Only he didn’t assert it, of course, he was just asking a question. “Do people believe for one second that the security forces are not involved in dark practices?”

And he went on: “I tell you what, anybody who thinks that that isn’t happening doesn’t live in the same world that I live in.”

Rentoul explains that most recently conspiracy theories feel as if they are becoming more mainstream in British politics. He explains that Scottish National Party supporters in the 2014 referendum campaign accused MI5 of hiding the discovery of new North Sea oil fields, and of trolling JK Rowling on Twitter to try to discredit them.

He says that it was these SNP supporters who started the original campaign to persuade people to take pens to the polling stations, to prevent MI5 from rubbing out pencil votes, a campaign taken up by Leave campaigners in last month’s EU referendum.

In my experience the simplest explanation is normally the best one. The famous double-negative applies that just because you are paranoid it does not mean they are not out to get you. Equally though, why waste the effort when those you may wish to do down are already in self-destruct mode?

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Corbyn's plans for big drugs companies could undermine the NHS

Just over two years ago Jeremy Corbyn signed an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons that expressed concern over the proposed takeover of AstraZeneca by Pfizer. It called on the Government to act as necessary to protect employment and skills in the UK, ensure that the development of the new headquarters in Cambridge continues as planned, with the associated infrastructure needs, and ensure that the UK continues to be a world-leader in science and pharmaceuticals research and development.

Now he is proposing to withdraw tax relief for research by drug companies, and suggesting that the development of new drugs should be a job for the NHS. At a billion pounds per new drug that sort of commitment could cripple the NHS, wiping out many times over the mythical windfall hospitals all over the country were promised by Brexiteers.

Surely it cannot be a coincidence that this back of an envelope initiative has come in the wake of the challenge to his leadership by Owen Smith, a former lobbyist for Pfizer. Corbyn says he wants to fight on the issues but in fact he is feeding the abuse directed by many of his supporters at Owen Smith because of the Pontypridd MP's former profession.

The big drug companies are an easy target for the left. One of the reasons given  by the First Minister for Wales not adopting the cancer drug fund for example is that it sends more public money their way. Instinctively I agree that we should not be using public money to swell the profits of multinational companies. The reality though is that without them we would not be getting the sort of medical advances we need if we are all to live longer and healthier.

As the Spectator points out last year the Medical Research Council spent £506 million on research grants. Pfizer spent $6.6 billion (£4.8 billion). And Pfizer is just one drugs company. The world’s top 10 pharmaceutical companies between them spent just under £50 billion – 100 times as much as the Medical Research Council.

We simply cannot afford to insist that all research is funded by the Medical Research Council. What are we going to do with those drugs that are developed by the pharmaceutical companies? Because they are going to continue to carry out research for other markets. Will we refuse to use new privately funded drugs in our NHS? Is Corbyn really saying that he is going to deny patients life-saving medicine because they were not developed by the state?

I am interested too in what the unions are going to say about this policy. There are thousands of high quality, well-paid jobs in the UK dependent on research by companies like Pfizer. Is Corbyn happy to drive those job opportunities abroad?

The Labour Party likes to style itself as the founder of the NHS. This policy could well see them undermine and destroy that achievement.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Time to stop the intimidation

To be honest I don't care who is responsible for the abuse and intimidation on social media and elsewhere over the attempted coup by Labour MPs against Jeremy Corbyn. This behaviour has no place in modern British politics.

Like others I have been shocked by the ferocity and nature of the backlash. Today's news that Angela Eagle has stopped holding public surgeries for constituents on police advice after she received abuse and threats because she challenged for the Labour party leadership, goes to the heart of the issue.

Stop and reflect on this for a moment: an elected MP in the UK is being stopped from doing her job because of threats and intimidation. What does that say about 21st Cemtury Britain?

By all means use democratic methods to make your point, but surely there is a place for a difference of opinion between MPs and their constituency party without activists opting for the nuclear option of deselection?

We are living in a representative democracy. You cannot reduce the democratic process to one of command and control. MPs and other elected representatives are not delegates. They need to make up their mind on issues on the basis of information and experience that may not be available to others.

And we have to respect that they are trying as hard as they can to act in the best interests of their constituents. We accept it, because it is true.

The murder of Jo Cox shocked everybody. But many have not learnt the lesson that no matter how harmless the abuse appears to be, somebody will pick up on it and take it further.

We cannot exercise our democratic rights through the prism of a police cordon surrounding our elected representatives. This is not just about their safety, it is about the future of our democracy. It is time to stop the intimidation.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Active citizenship targets the Leave campaign

We are always being encouraged to report hate crimes when we come across them so kudos to the 39,800 people who have lodged a complaint with the police alleging that Nigel Farage incited racial and religious hatred during the European Union referendum campaign.

The tone and content of the Leave campaign's propaganda was not just offensive it was dangerous and insulting to the many immigrants who actively work within their local communities and contribute to this country's economy.

As the Independent reports figures released by the National Police Chiefs’ Council earlier this month show a 42 per cent spike in race and religious hate crimes during and in the wake of the EU referendum campaign.

The so-called “Breaking Point” poster, unveiled by Mr Farage on the morning of 16 June, depicted Syrian refugees crossing a border in central Europe, thousands of miles from the UK. Critics noted that it only depicted ethnic minorities and that its text appeared to equate the EU with immigration from the Middle East.

The paper says that campaign rhetoric referenced in the police complaint include such reported statements by Mr Farage as:

Incidents of hate crimes reported on social media since the reported hate crime surge began tend to involve members of the public telling people speaking foreign languages – or simply people who are not white – to “leave” or “go home”.

Others involve racist anti-immigrant graffiti, such as that daubed on the Polish cultural centre in Hammersmith, west London.

This complaint is active citizenship at its best and I hope that the police act on it so we can draw a line as to what is acceptable and what is not in public discourse.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Pokemon Go invades the Welsh Assembly

As a budding old fogy I am having enough trouble coming to terms with the latest Pokemon Go craze. So kudos to one Tory Assembly Member who clearly has a young person in his office to brief him.

Montgomeryshire AM, Russell George has tabled a question to the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure asking what assessment has the Welsh Government made of the effects of Pokemon Go on the transport network in Wales?

Cue Welsh Office civil servants running around looking for somebody to explain Pokemon Go to them.

Have the pesky creatures been staging sit-ins on Arriva trains? Have they been disrupting bus timetables or causing traffic jams? Have they lodged a submission to the public inquiry on the M4 extension around Newport?

I am expecting a substantive answer to this question that indicates that there is a problem. If one is not forthcoming then an explanation is due from the AM as to why he is wasting public money just to show that he is 'down with the kids'?

So who is Owen Smith?

With the departure of Angela Eagle from the Labour leadership contest, members are now faced with a choice between two straight white men. We are of course in Liberal Democrat territory there but it could have been very different.

Labour members outside Wales will now be asking themselves who exactly Owen Smith is? In fact some members in Wales may need educating on that point if the conversation I had with a Labour Councillor on Monday is typical.

Owen Smith is crachach, a lifetime member of the Welsh establishment. The crachach are usually said to be Welsh-speaking and are said to be found in influential positions in the arts, politics, academia and the media.

His father is Professor Dai Smith, a former Chair of Arts Council Wales. Professor Smith was born in the Rhondda and grew up in Barry, where he was taught at the local grammar school by the acclaimed writer Gwyn Thomas.

Owen Smith is a former BBC producer, who worked on the 'Today' programme, 'Good Morning Wales' and 'Dragon's Eye', he left journalism in 2002 to go to the Wales Office as special adviser to the Welsh Secretary, Paul Murphy. He then moved with Murphy to the Northern Ireland Office. He went on to become a lobbyist for the drugs company, Pfizer.

In 2006, he was the Labour candidate in Blaenau Gwent for the Westminster by-election. It had once been one of Labour's safest seats but the majority had evaporated when the local AM, Peter Law, broke with the party and won the parliamentary seat the year before. He lost to Law's former agent, Dai Davies, on the same day as Law's widow took the Assembly seat. polling just 37% of the vote.

During the by-election campaign, Smith spoke with Wales Online and expressed his support for the private sector playing a supportive role in the NHS, private finance initiative schemes, and removing foreign dictators, though he also told The Daily Telegraph the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. He has since spoken out against the 2003 invasion of Iraq and distanced himself from his NHS comments,stating that PFI was a failure.

After the by-election he was attacked by the Labour MP for Newport West, Paul Flynn, who described him as a "drug pusher":

Mr Flynn said, "The lobbyists are a curse, a cancer in the system. It's insidious. One of my main interests in politics is areas in which lobbyists used their wicked wiles to get access to government. One example is the pharmaceutical industry, who are the most greedy and deceitful organisations we have to deal with."

Interviewer Patrick McGuinness then said, "Some of their lobbyists end up as candidates in Welsh Labour. Blaenau Gwent for instance."

Mr Flynn responded, "Indeed - I wasn't too pleased by the fact that we had a drug pusher as a candidate."

Paul Flynn is the current shadow Secretary of State for Wales and shadow Leader of the House of Commons.

Owen Smith was chosen for his home town of Pontypridd when Kim Howells stood down just months before the 2010 General Election. He had impressed the Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain, during the Blaenau Gwent campaign and within months he was Hain's deputy in opposition.

Hain was responsible for the Labour party's internal review, and this provide Smith with the opportunity to make his mark at Westminster. He was promoted in 2011 to the shadow Treasury team. He was the obvious choice to succeed Peter Hain as Shadow Secretary of State for Wales when the MP for Neath left the front bench.

There is no doubt Owen Smith is a clever, talented and ambitious MP. Whether he will be able to command the sort of popular support needed to unseat Jeremy Corbyn is yet to be seen.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

What would happen if politicians could be sued for breaking their promises?

The anger directed at those politicians who campaigned for us to leave the EU in some sections of society is palpable. People say that both sides lied but the reality is that all the big porky pies were on the Brexit side and, having won the day, they are backtracking on their commitments as if there is no tomorrow.

Given that the Brexit vote has left all our tomorrows very uncertain, and certainly poorer than before the referendum, should there not be some comeback on those politicians who promised the earth and then fled when they were asked to deliver? Why should it be those who wanted to stay in the EU who have to pick up the pieces?

Theresa May certainly appears to hold that view. She may say that her entire government are responsible for implementing withdrawal from the EU, but it is to brexiteers such as Liam Fox, Boris Johnson and David Davis she has turned to do all the heavy lifting, and to take responsibility if they fail.

Meanwhile, a crowd-funding campaign which aims to prosecute “dishonest Brexit politicians”, including Boris Johnson, and prevent Brexit from occurring has received over £27,000 in donations. The Independent says that the page has been set up by #BrexitJustice and hopes to “raise £100,000 minimum”, but acknowledges it is “going to need a war chest.”

Those behind it intend to “prosecute vote leave leaders based upon fraud, misconduct in public office, undue influence and, possibly, inciting racial hatred”. They also hope to “fund a judicial review and other legal action to prevent Brexit”. At the very least, it wants to “ensure that Article 50 will not be triggered without an Act of Parliament”.

So far, #BrexitJustice has received support on Twitter from Lord Alan Sugar, A.C. Grayling and Paloma Faith. To reach its target of £100,000, the campaign needs to receive just over £70,000 in the next 12 days. Even that may not be enough.

Of course all this is wishful thinking. If people could sue politicians for breaking their promise and misleading the electorate it would have happened a long time ago. No judge is going to risk setting such a precedent. Still, full marks for trying and I hope you get your day in court. It will be interesting to see if I am proved right.

N.B. I am aware that this would apply to Nick Clegg and Tony Blair (twice) on tuition fees. That is fine. They were both wrong to break their promises on this issue. It was not a decision I supported.

Monday, July 18, 2016

A new centre left party should not be the focus of Liberal Democrats activity

Those of us who have been around a long time may well have had an uneasy sense of deja vu when Tim Farron told the media at the weekend that he has been in talks with Labour and Greens about forming a left of centre alliance.

The Independent says that Farron believes the calamitous environment of British politics presents an “historic opportunity” to build a new political party or alliance on the centre-left, involving both the Labour Party and his own MPs. Asked whether he was open to creating a new political party in Britain, the Lib Dem leader said: “I think we write nothing off.”

It is my hope that this is just a case of avoiding scaring away possible detectors because, Tim is right when he says that his job is to "defend the Liberal heritage of our movement". The rest of his analysis though is only good in parts:

“The whole current scenario reminds us that the Labour and Tory parties in particular are completely and utterly false and uncomfortable coalitions. You’ve got the far left and the soft left of the Labour party… and in the Tory party you’ve got English nationalists versus pragmatists and even some liberals within the Tory party. In any other democracy in Europe those people wouldn’t be in the same party as one another – and quite a few would be in the same party as us.

“My sense is that one of the many outcomes of the referendum is the fact that progressives have rather enjoyed one another’s company on the campaign trail… there are loads of people out there who you realise in this most calamitous and febrile set of circumstances you share a lot more in common with them than the fact you want to be in the European Union. So realignment is a real, real possibility”.

But, he added, it is too early to tell if the election would be contested with such an alliance. “A form of any kind of movement does depend upon what happens in the Labour party,” Mr Farron said. “The main situation will be how members of the Labour party relate to Liberal Democrats. We have to respect what’s going on in the Labour party at the moment and see what happens. My genuine sense is that I can’t see a happy ending for them.”

There are senior members of the Liberal Democrats who are obsessed with realigning the left in British politics with little regard to the Liberal heritage that our party represents. It seems that their voice in being heard very loudly in the Leader's office. He would do better to talk to grassroots members.

The last attempt to realign British politics in the 1980s foundered on the British electoral system and overlarge egos. Both factors continue to stand in our way, albeit the personalities are different. If we are to have a realignment we cannot be distracted by yet more new parties, it must be a loose coalition focussing on securing electoral reform.

That is the best way to guarantee its longevity and to enable the loose coalitions within the Tory and Labour Parties, which Tim correctly identifies, to find their philosophical homes.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The damning fact about every post-war UK cabinet

As Therese May's cabinet reshuffle draws to a close it is worth reflecting on the conclusions of this article in the Independent. The paper says that she has appointed the lowest number of privately-educated ministers in a new Prime Minister’s Cabinet in over 70 years. That statistic includes Labour Governments.

The social mobility charity, the Sutton Trust, has analysed the backgrounds of her new Cabinet to find only 30 per cent have received a private education, the lowest proportion since Labour PM Clement Attlee in 1945.Only 30 per cent of the new cabinet have received a private education, the lowest proportion since Labour PM Clement Attlee in 1945.

They add that  the new Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is the only Old Etonian to have remained under Mrs May, while seven ministers went to grammar schools. New Education Secretary, Justine Greening, is the first in the role to have gone to a comprehensive school.

Despite this, Cabinet ministers are still over four times more likely to have gone to a fee-paying school for most of their secondary education when compared with the overall UK population, of which just seven per cent went to private school.

There is a story, which is most probably apocraphal, that when one of the post-war Tory cabinets was considering the mortgage rate, some ministers had to have it explained to them what a mortgage was. I find that unlikely, but when the governance of our country is being conducted by people whose educational experiences are so exclusive, is it little wonder that voters feel that politicians do not relate to their day-to-day concerns?

Saturday, July 16, 2016

So which countries have our new Foreign Secretary offended already?

Congratulations to the The Independent who have very helpfully produced a map of all the countries that Boris Johnson has offended. If you click on the link you will find an interactive version in which you can get all the details by running the mouse over each country.

I am sure Foreign Office civil servants and diplomats will find this to be a useful tool over the next few months.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Will it be back to the future with new Environment Secretary?

Whilst the appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary has grabbed all the headlines, bear a thought for the future of the environment and rural affairs portfolio in the hands of one-time leadership contender, Andrea Leadsom.

According to the Guardian, Ms. Leadsom, the new environment secretary, supports foxhunting and once said she wanted to end farming subsidies. Her support for Brexit may well achieve the latter outcome.

The paper says that Leadsom’s new role has alarmed environmentalists, who highlighted her previous confusion about whether climate change is real and her support for a repeal of the hunting ban:

During her short leadership campaign, Leadsom pledged to hold a vote on bringing back foxhunting, saying it was “absolutely not proven to be in the interest of animal welfare whatsoever”. She said there was a “need to exterminate vermin, which foxes are” and called for a “proper, licensed regime”.

After becoming energy minister in 2015, Leadsom admitted having asked officials whether climate change was real.

“When I first came to this job one of my two questions was: ‘Is climate change real?’ and the other was ‘Is hydraulic fracturing safe?’ And on both of those questions, I am now completely persuaded,” she told the all-party parliamentary group on unconventional gas and oil in October last year.

However, since then she has repeatedly made it clear that decarbonising the energy supply is crucial and that this will not change after leaving the EU. “It is an essential responsibility that we hold towards our children and grandchildren, as the only way to effectively counter the threat of climate change,” she said this month.

Despite this assurance, Andrew Cooper, a Green party energy spokesman, said: “By appointing Andrea Leadsom – a woman who supports foxhunting and has consistently voted against measures to tackle climate change – as environment secretary, and scrapping the Department for Energy and Climate Change entirely, May appears to be sending a clear message that fighting climate change is simply not on her agenda.”

Climate Change does not appear in any of the portfolio names of course, which is a worrying portent for the future direction of the government and there is a real danger that Leadsom will take us backwards on this crucial issue.

As for animal cruelty and specifically fox hunting, it may well be that the government does not have a majority to undo the key animal welfare measure that banned it in the first place, but having a pro-fox hunting minister does not bode well at all.

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