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Thursday, October 31, 2019

Anti-Semitism controversy hits Labour election campaign

The controversy over Labour's failure to tackle anti-Semitism has hit home this morning with the news that their official Jewish affiliate will not support them in the upcoming general election campaign because of Jeremy Corbyn's "failure of leadership" on the issue.

The Independent reports that the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) said it believed Mr Corbyn was unfit to be prime minister and claimed that "a culture of antisemitism has been allowed to emerge and fester in the party at all levels":

The organisation, which has been affiliated to Labour for 100 years, said it would only campaign for "exceptional candidates" who had been staunch allies in the fight against antisemitism, such as its own parliamentary chair.

The announcement will come as a blow to Mr Corbyn just a day into the six-week election campaign ahead of the 12 December poll.

During the 2017 election campaign, JLM organised more than 50 campaign events to promote Labour candidates and its members travelled across the country to knock on doors and deliver leaflets.

The group has been highly critical of Mr Corbyn response to antisemitism. At its Annual General Meeting in April, it held a vote on whether to disaffiliate from Labour but members vowed to "stay and fight", despite declaring that they believed Mr Corbyn was unfit to be prime minister.

Labour is currently being investigated by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission following complaints that it is institutionally antisemitic. While the watchdog is not due to report until January, Mr Corbyn's handling of the crisis is likely to be brought up frequently by his opponents during the election campaign.

While JLM said it would not campaign for candidates standing against Labour, it is expected to draw attention to Labour MPs who it believes have a poor record of tackling antisemitism.

In a statement, the group said there was "damning evidence of the party's moral slide" under Mr Corbyn's leadership and said that "a culture of antisemitism has been allowed to emerge and fester in the party at all levels".

It said: "This crisis of antisemitism in the Labour Party stems from a failure of leadership from Jeremy Corbyn. When the answer has been to take swift, decisive action, the reality has been equivocation and token gestures. Time and time again, the party has not engaged in good faith to try to implement the actions that we believe are necessary to tackle anti-Jewish racism.

Yes another indication of the uphill battle facing Labour because of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Boris Johnson accused of using General Election to push Tories to the right

The Conservative Party restored the whip to ten rebels yesterday but what is more significant is the names of those they left out in the cold. Amongst those still sitting as an in independent is former Tory Chancellor, Phillip Hammond.

Hammond launched his own broadside yesterday, when he claimed that Boris Johnson’s general election plan is an attempt to fundamentally shift the party to the right. He said the prime minister’s intention to get voters to the polls in December would enable party “entryism” and was also an attempt by former Vote Leave staffers who now worked for the government to replace MPs with “hardliners”:

In an interview with the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, he said MPs had supported Johnson’s deal but had simply asked for more time to scrutinise it. The government initially gave three days, and then until 6 November to ratify the bill. MPs voted against this time period last week, and after Johnson again failed to get enough support on Monday night to call an election, the prime minister said his EU deal was now off the table and MPs would not get a chance to amend it.

Hammond said: “Parliament signalled very clearly it was willing to progress this bill. It is the government that has blocked it, and the government should now stop blocking Brexit, allow parliament to get on with the Brexit bill and deliver a Brexit by the end of November.”

He suggested Johnson wrecked his own Brexit proposals by not allowing MPs enough time to debate it. He suggested five days would have been better than the three Johnson proposed through a timetable motion that was voted down in the Commons.

He said Johnson could have accepted amendments, such as adding in a customs union, before calling for an election. He could then remove the changes he might not like if he won a majority.

“I fear that the real narrative here is that the Vote Leave activists – the cohort that has seized control in Downing Street and to some extent in the headquarters of the Conservative party – want this general election to change the shape of the Conservative party in parliament. To get rid of a cohort of MPs it regards as not robust enough on this issue and then replace them with hardliners.”

He added: “It really doesn’t matter how many times my party kicks me, abuses me, reviles me, they are not going to stop me feeling like a Conservative. And I am not ready yet to give up fighting for the soul of the Conservative party.”

He referred to a tweet by the Leave.EU founder and funder, Arron Banks, which said “we have moved heaven and earth to shift the Conservative party to a leave party”.

Hammond said: “This is a piece of blatant entryism to change what the Conservative party is about.

This could be quite an entertaining election.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

More broken promises and wasted cash

In my decades in politics, my colleagues and I have always had to fight against the idea that politicians as a body are dishonest, liars, at best people who will say anything to get what they want, and people who break promises. Suddenly, we have a government who has adopted all the worst stereotypes and made them their own.

Since Boris Johnson came to power, we have had impossible promise after impossible promise - all broken. We have had grandstanding on a huge scale and we have had reckless, uncosted spending promises, seemingly made because the government know that they will never have to implement them. It is almost as if some ministers will say anything to get their own way and damn the consequences.

Is it any wonder that people are disillusioned. The noble art of politics is at the lowest ebb I have ever known it, and there is not a statesman in sight.

The Brexit commemorative 50p coin saga is a case in point. Boris Johnson swore he would have us out of the EU by 31st October or he would die in a ditch trying. To make that promise more concrete he had a commemorative 50p coin minted at a cost of £11.5 million.

Now the Prime Minister  has been forced to accept that we are in the EU until at least 31st January 2020 and the three million commemorative 50p coins emblazoned with the 31 October date are to be scrapped, shredded and melted down.

The intention is to have another go, once a new date has been agreed, but as somebody tweeted yesterday: 'Brexit has had more dates than me this year alone'.

We have seen more money poured down the Brexit drain with no measurable outcome. The whole project is turning into the biggest government white elephant of all time - and that is saying something.

In the meantime the economy is staggering about like a lost drunk, lost in uncertainty, and our view on politicians and government continues to spiral into the ditch that Boris Johnson has somehow dodged, yet again.

Whatever the government is doing, or thinks that it is doing, does not appear to be in our best interests or that of the country. The question is, do they care?

Monday, October 28, 2019

Did Wetherspoons break the law over Brexit?

I admit that I am not shedding many tears for the owner over this report in the Guardian, that JD Wetherspoon has been accused of breaching the Companies Act after failing to seek shareholder approval for spending on almost 2m pro-leave beer mats before the 2016 EU referendum.

The paper says that the pub chain spent £94,856 during the referendum campaign, comprising £18,000 on 1.5m “Brexit beer mats”, £8,400 on a further 200,000 mats, and £68,186 on another 200,000 mats, 5,000 posters and 500,000 booklets. But legal experts believe that shareholder approval was necessary because the spending constituted political expenditure under the 2006 legislation:

JD Wetherspoon’s chairman and founder, Tim Martin, is one of the business world’s most vocal Brexit supporters and has used his pub chain as a platform for his views.

Martin owns 32% of JD Wetherspoon. Most of the remaining shares are held by pension funds and managed by City investors. The Guardian understands some large investors have objected to Martin using the pub chain to promote his views.

JD Wetherspoon distributed the Brexit beer mats in more than 900 pubs during the referendum campaign featuring the message “‘vote ‘leave’ – take back control”. On one set of mats, Martin criticised Christine Lagarde, the then head of the International Monetary Fund. On another, he took aim at George Osborne, the then chancellor.

The company also published an edition of its Wetherspoon News magazine featuring a two-page pro-Brexit editorial by Martin, nine pages of Eurosceptic articles and just four pages of pro-EU articles.

The Companies Act 2006 states political expenditure includes activities “capable of being reasonably regarded as intended to influence voters in relation to any national or regional referendum”.

The legislation says political spending must be approved in advance by shareholders, but JD Wetherspoon did not pass such a resolution before the referendum. Companies are also meant to declare annual political spending above £2,000 in their annual report, which JD Wetherspoon did not do.

The more we look into it, the more unsafe the 2016 referendum result appears to be.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Sgt Pepper artist’s all-female version

I admit that until I read this article in the Observer, I had not realised how few women featured on the iconic cover of the Beatles Sergeant Pepper album. Of the 65 different people pictured, just 12 are women and that includes three different images of Shirley Temple.

The cover was put together by Jann Haworth and her-then husband, Peter Blake, though most credits just refer to Blake. Apparently, they asked the Beatles to list the names of their heroes but none of those offered were female.

Now, Haworth and her daughter, Liberty Blake, are trying to put that right with a work started in 2016 called 'work in progress'. This displays the faces of more than 100 influential women, who have either been written out of history or marginalised. These include Twiggy, Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the aviator, Amelia Earhart, the spy, Mata Hari and Rosalind Franklin.

This sounds like a long-overdue collection.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

How Boris Johnson is washing our money down the drain

It is Saturday and I am off the Welsh Liberal Democrats conference in Brecon so I will leave you with these words from yesterday's Marina Hyde column underlining Boris Johnson's irresponsible profligacy and warped priorities:

If you’re keeping track of the accounts, Boris Johnson has just blown £100m on an ad campaign insisting the UK was leaving on 31 October, even though the chances of this were always so slim they amounted to Conservative party election positioning. Given that seven months ago the prime minister was describing £60m spent on the historical sex abuse inquiry as money “spaffed up a wall”, it’s important that you get his Brexit ads in perspective. They were complete bollocks, and at the same time almost twice as valued as investigating mass institutionalised child rape. It’s a very exciting branding space for the Tories to be in.

Read the whole column. It is worth it.

Friday, October 25, 2019

The real threat to our democracy

A democratic system can only succeed if it is built on trust and respect. On that basis, most are in real trouble, but at the heart of all the western democracies, whatever people think or say about politicians as a group or even individually, the vast majority of voters are happy to get on with their lives, while leaving those they elected to continue to run the country.

There is no real demand amongst the general population to overthrow the government, other than by democratic means. In fact even proposals to better democratise our country by introducing proportional elections or reducing the voting age, are more likely to send people to sleep than rouse them into a revolutionary fervour. It is consent by default, trust and respect by another name.

It was disturbing therefore to read reports this morning that a majority of voters in England, Wales and Scotland believe that the possibility of some level of violence against MPs is a “price worth paying” in order to get their way on Brexit:

The poll from Cardiff University and the University of Edinburgh asked respondents what they would be prepared to see happen in order to leave or remain within the European Union.

This included a question on whether achieving their desired political outcome was worth the risk of violence being directed against MPs.

Most leave voters who took part in the Future of England study thought such a possibility was a “price worth paying” for Brexit to be delivered – 71% in England, 60% in Scotland and 70% in Wales.

The majority of remain voters felt that the risk of violence towards MPs was worth it if it meant we would stay in the EU – 58% in England, 53% in Scotland and 56% in Wales.

The survey did not imply that the responder would conduct the violence themselves or specify that the violence would be severe or even be carried out by those on the same political side as them.

If anything this shows increasing frustration with politicians and the political system. The unwritten UK constitution has always been complex. Representative politics has always been widely misunderstood. Many believe that MPs and other elected representatives are there to do what they tell them not, as is the case, to exercise their best judgement in the interests of the country and their electors.

In many circumstances, MPs are able to finesse the popular will, whilst continuing to fulfil their duty to the country as a whole. With Brexit it has not been that simple. The polarising nature of the debate has raised expectations on both sides that cannot be met. My concern is that, whatever the outcome, it will lead to unrest and possibly violence. Where will our democracy be then?

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Devolution of justice to Wales essential, but not straightforward

I believe that I have warned previously that advocating the further devolution of powers to the Welsh Government as a means of solving a specific issue or problem can be helpful, but is by no means a panacea.

Nevertheless, today's report by a Welsh Government commissioned review, led by the former lord chief justice of England and Wales, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, advocating the devolution of powers to control justice, policing and prisons to Wales, is to be welcomed.

As the Guardian reports, Lord Thomas calls for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised from 10 to at least 12 years, says “advice deserts” are appearing due to cuts in legal aid, and condemns high imprisonment rates as unsustainable:

The 555-page report, titled Justice in Wales for the People of Wales, sets out the findings of an independent study commissioned by the Welsh government in 2017. Commission members included Juliet Lyon, the former director of the Prison Reform Trust, legal academics, serving judges and a former chief constable of south Wales, Peter Vaughan.

The laws of Wales were codified in the 10th century during the reign of Hywel Dda, long before the English conquest of Wales by Edward I in 1282. The first UK parliamentary statute in modern times to apply only to Wales was the 1881 Sunday Closing (Wales) Act, which shut public houses in Wales on the sabbath – marking political acceptance of the separate identity of Wales.

The report’s most radical recommendation is the transfer of power from Westminster to Cardiff. It declares: “There should be legislative devolution of justice. Restrictions and reservations governing the [Welsh] assembly’s power to legislate on all forms of justice, including policing and offender management and rehabilitation, should be removed, so that it corresponds more closely with the position of the Northern Ireland assembly and the Scottish parliament. Responsibility for executive functions in relation to justice in Wales should be transferred to the Welsh government.”

A separate judiciary, up to the level of the court of appeal, should be established in Wales and the supreme court in Westminster should be required to appoint a justice with knowledge of the increasingly divergent laws of Wales in the same way it selects Scottish and Northern Ireland judges.

Thomas said: “The people of Wales are not well served by the current arrangements. Justice needs to be aligned with other policies and spheres of activity if it is to play the proper role it should in Wales. Devolution of justice functions is necessary. While the legislation is prepared, there is much that can and should be done to improve the delivery of justice in Wales.”

The report states: “Under the current scheme of devolution there is no properly joined up or integrated approach, as justice remains controlled by the Westminster government. Consequently, the people of Wales do not have the benefit which the people of Scotland, Northern Ireland and England enjoy by justice being an integral part of overall policymaking. There is no rational basis for Wales to be treated differently, particularly as Wales has its own long legal tradition.”

Many of the proposed solutions are sensible and much-needed. Wales is rapidly developing a separate body of law and taking different approaches to our English neighbours on youth justice, substance misuse problems and a whole host of other issues. It makes sense to establish a separate system here to reflect that policy divergence and to allow Welsh solutions to be developed to Welsh justice problems, administered.by Welsh courts.

But, a note of caution: if devolution does not come with sufficient new funding then Wales will struggle to make a difference. There is no guarantee that the Welsh Government will be able to restore nearly two decades of legal aid cuts for example. Access to Welsh justice after devolution could well prove to be as unequal as it is at present.

The last time the UK Government tried to reform Welsh police forces, they faced huge resistance from the police themselves, and the Welsh Government. It makes sense for policing in Wales to be controlled in Wales, but will ministers here really bite the bullet and try to create savings to be directed into front-line policing, by amalgamating forces - something they fought previously?

And finally, the Welsh prison estate is hardly fit for purpose. It needs capital investment. Some prisons need replacing. There is no adequate youth provision, no category A prison and no women's prison this side of Offa's Dyke. Obviously the Welsh Government will want to adopt legislation and sentencing policies that will reduce the prison population, but there will still need to be reciprocal arrangements with England.

I look forward to seeing how this debate develops.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Ex-pat pensioners suffer consequences of Brexit

When people talk about immigration in the context of the European Union they sometimes forget the millions of UK citizens who live on the continent, 220,000 of whom are pensioners and a large number of whom will be adversely affected by Brexit.

This issue was highlighted yesterday in the Guardian, when they reported on the proceedings of the House of Lords EU justice sub-committee. Note this inquiry is being carried out by unelected peers, not by the MPs who are meant to represent these pensioners:

Jeremy Morgan QC said retirees in the EU living exclusively or almost exclusively on British pensions have already suffered a decrease in their income because of the depreciation in sterling since the referendum.

They were hit by a second blow last month when the government revealed it would not give a lifetime guarantee to index-link their pensions if the UK crashed out of the EU without a deal.

“There is real hardship. The impression sometimes given by the tabloid press is that everyone on pension age living in the EU is supping prosecco on a terrace in Tuscany or something like that.

“There are huge numbers of people who made a very rational decision years ago to move because they could afford to move because they could make their pension go a bit further in countries like rural France or in Spain and they are in desperate straits because of this,” Morgan told peers on the House of Lords EU justice sub-committee.

One of the biggest concerns for these pensioners is that their health care will no longer be covered in the event of a no-deal Brexit. This should be a concern for the UK Government too. If Britain pays for the healthcare of its pensioners abroad it would cost roughly half what it would cost for them to come back here and be treated by the NHS.

I wonder if the Prime Minister has even thought about the impact his policies will have on these pensioners.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Northern Ireland enters the 21st Century - at last!

The Guardian reports that Northern Ireland is to legalise abortion and same-sex marriage after an 11th-hour attempt by the region’s assembly to block change collapsed into farce.

They say that anti-abortion groups led by the Democratic Unionist party tried to avert liberalisation by recalling the mothballed chamber at Stormont for the first time in almost three years. But discord and walkouts stymied debate and left the assembly deserted:

The new legislation puts the House of Commons on track to legislate for marriage equality by January 2020, paving the way for same-sex couples to wed from 14 February – Valentine’s Day.

The abortion law obliges the UK to ensure regulations for free, legal and local abortion services are in place by 31 March 2020.

After midnight there will be a moratorium on criminal prosecutions, halting police investigations into abortion cases, including a case against a mother who faced jail for buying her then 15-year-old daughter abortion pills online, said Amnesty.

For a party who believes in Northern Ireland being part of the UK,  the DUP's position on this makes sense only in the context of them wishing to create their own little enclave of Gilead on our western flank.

Northern Ireland has now been brought into line with the rest of the UK on two important liberal issues. We no longer have a situation where citizens of one part of the UK have lesser rights that those elsewhere.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Why is the UK Government supporting tax havens?

There was a very interesting report in yesterday's Observer, which revealed the findings of thinktank, Demos, that almost three-quarters of companies who have been given major government contracts have operations based in tax havens:

Value Added, published on Sunday by the thinktank Demos, reveals that 25 of the government’s 34 strategic suppliers – organisations that receive £100m or more in revenue from the government – operate in offshore centres.

According to estimates, they account for about a fifth of total central government procurement spend. Of these, 19 had operations in jurisdictions included on the EU’s “blacklist” or “greylist” of countries that are considered to be non-compliant with EU international standards for “good tax behaviour”, according to the report.

Given the problems over the last decade in trying to balance Government books, one would think that those responsible for these contract awards might wish to avoid encouraging firms basing themselves in these havens:

The Demos report states: “Large multinational companies, for example, continue to squeeze their tax contributions ever lower: the OECD estimates that US$100–$240bn (£78bn-£186bn) is lost globally in revenue each year from base erosion and profit shifting by multinational companies.”

Procurement is the UK government’s largest expenditure, valued at £284bn. Of the 25 organisations with links to tax havens, 20 benefited from contracts worth a combined £41bn awarded between 2011 and 2017.

Demos is quite right when they say that we need new measures, including minimum standards for public procurement that takes account of a bidder’s exchequer contribution.

An annual National Audit Office report on central government procurement transparency, including a “league table” ranking of departments, with the bottom three departments compelled to make a statement to parliament would also be useful.

It is not right that public money should be sent to tax havens in this way.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Schoolboy tactics drag the UK's reputation further into the mud

Goodness knows what history will make of yesterday's so-called 'super-Saturday' - the extraordinary session of the House of Commons that was meant to resolve Brexit once-and-for-all, albeit with a humiliating, union-breaking U-turn on the part of the Brexit-liar-in-chief

As is par for the course, MPs made the decision not to make a decision and booted the whole thing into the long grass again, with idea that they could perhaps force through a people's vote on Boris Johnson's s deal.

My fear is that everybody is so fed up with the whole thing that given the chance to decide themselves they will endorse the 'deal', without fully understanding the decade of economic misery, job losses, and further political angst and wrangling that it will precipitate.

By far the most humiliating moment in a day of passion, obfuscation and government-produced bullshit, had to be the three letters that the Prime Minister sent at the last possible minute. Instead of being, as the Irish say, 'the big man', and accepting that he now had to comply with the law, Johnson instead tried to finesse the Benn Act.

The prime minister sent a total of three letters: an unsigned photocopy of the request he was obliged to send under the Benn Act, an explanatory letter from the UK’s ambassador to the EU and a personal letter explaining why Downing Street did not want an extension.

Presumably, Johnson thinks he is presiding over the Bullingdon Club rather than a permanent member of the UN security council. These schoolboy tactics only demean his office and the country he serves. Furthermore they are irrelevant. In law the unsigned letter has the same effect as a signed one. Johnson has been hoisted by his own petard.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

UKIP plunges new depths of dysfunction

Just in case we thought that anything in the UK at the moment could be more dysfunctional than the House of Commons and Brexit, what remains of the UKIP party seems keen to prove us wrong.

As the Guardian reports they have moved to suspend its leader Richard Braine amid a fresh power struggle within the party:

On Saturday Braine confirmed that Ukip’s national executive committee (NEC) and the party chair, Kirstan Herriot, had attempted to oust him but questioned whether she had the authority to do so.

Braine said: “As I understand it the chairman has asked that I am suspended but I am not really sure whether that’s possible or whether she has the authority to do that. But at any rate – so what. I don’t really accept that the chairman has that power. “If the NEC of the party wishes to get rid of a leader then it has a vote of no confidence. I’m not aware that there has been any vote.”

He added the last time this had happened was when former leader Henry Bolton was ousted in 2018.

When asked about the motivation for his attempted suspension, he alleged that “Ukip’s NEC is carrying out a purge of members that it does not approve of. But I do not approve of that.”

He also alleged that members of the party’s NEC have been staying on past their agreed terms – an apparent contravention of the party’s constitution. Asked what he would do next, he replied: “Get on with the job.”

Former Ukip leader Gerard Batten tweeted in relation to the matter: “The chairman & NEC are out to destroy Ukip. In addition to running a gerrymandered NEC election they have now ‘suspended’ the membership of the party leader.”

Isn't time somebody put this party out of its misery?

Friday, October 18, 2019

How Johnson's Brexit deal is worse for the UK than May's

The Independent has taken a look at the deal which will be put before MPs tomorrow and have concluded that Boris Johnson has managed to negotiate a package that will lead to a harder Brexit than under the terms of Theresa May's rejected agreement, with less alignment between the UK and the EU and more barriers to trade.

They say that the agreement struck by the EU and UK on Thursday risks weakening workers' rights and environmental protections, while IPPR think-tank researchers have also warned that the deal could lead to a "decade of deregulation" and would leave the NHS "on the table" during discussions with the US over a trade deal:

The IPPR said that Mr Johnson's deal, unlike Ms May's, would not see the UK enter into a customs union with the EU if no trade deal can be agreed as a way of keeping the Northern Irish border open.

This means that there would likely be new barriers imposed on UK-EU trade in the event that no future trade deal is agreed. New customs and regulatory checks would also be needed on goods travelling between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK - a fact that appears to have cost Mr Johnson the DUP's support for his deal.

The new backstop plan only applies to Northern Ireland, whereas Ms May's would have applied to the whole UK. Because of this, the rest of the UK would operate on the same terms as in a no-deal scenario if thebackstop comes into effect. While Northern Ireland would not impose tariffs on goods travelling to and from the EU, Great Britain would need to.

Mr Johnson has also removed the so-called "level playing field" protections from the Withdrawal Agreement. These include workers' rights and environmental protections and are designed to ensure fair competition between EU states.

While the Political Declaration that accompanies the deal says standards should be maintained "at the current high levels", this document is not legally binding - a key difference that is likely to fuel concerns among some Labour MPs who were mulling backing the deal. The IPPR said there was now "less certainty" that these protections would be maintained.

Why there is not much outrage about the detail of this deal is difficult to understand. We must not allow relief that this whole Brexit sage is coming to an end to blind us to the consequences. The best deal is still the one we currently have.

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.

Monday, October 07, 2019

Is science threatening to make on-line security obsolete?

Having left school the year before computers were introduced in the classrooms, and having played catch-up ever since, I am still astonished at how quickly we have got to the stage when the internet, and smart phones in particular dominates our entire life.

With the convenience the internet brings, come risks of course, and incidents of scams, fraud, hacking, identity theft and fake news have grown exponentially in recent times. The only thing that offers us protection from those who would seek to use technology to exploit us is the encryption that is applied to many activities and applications, such as on-line banking. If we don't do anything really foolish then we should be okay.

It is alarming therefore to learn from this article in the Guardian that sudden advances in quantum computing is threatening to put that encryption at risk within years. The Guardian says that a paper about quantum computing by a Google researcher making a startling claim appeared on a Nasa website – and then disappeared shortly afterwards.

The paper apparently asserted that a quantum computer built by Google could perform a calculation “in three minutes and 20 seconds that would take today’s most advanced classical computer … approximately 10,000 years”. This is important because it means that the most sophisticated encryption could be more easily broken by such a quantum computer - and that may well put internet banking and a whole range of other applications at risk of being hacked:

The security of our networked world depends on public-key cryptography – the encryption that protects communications, bank accounts and other sensitive data. At the core of this approach is the fact that factoring very large numbers takes a long time. In 2016, for example, it took several hundred computers two years to crack a message encrypted with a key that was 768 bits long. The same process for material encrypted with a 1,024-bit key would take 1,000 times longer, and cracking anything encrypted with the current highest standard 4,096-bit key would possibly outlast the presence of life on earth. So our security depends on the speed of computers.

In principle, industrial-scale quantum computers could make a mockery of all this – but that’s in theory. In practice, quantum supremacy is still a long way off, as Scott Aaronson, a leading academic in the field, points out in a post on his blog. There are, he says, two big obstacles. The first is that a quantum machine capable of tackling current encryption methods would need several thousand logical qubits: “With known error-correction methods, that could easily translate into millions of physical qubits, and those probably of a higher quality than any that exist today. I don’t think anyone is close to that, and we have no idea how long it will take”.

The second caveat is that quantum machines would be able to crack some codes but not all possible codes. The public-key codes that would be vulnerable happen to be the ones we use to secure online transactions and to protect data. But private-key encryption will probably still be invulnerable. And researchers have been working on new types of public-key crypto that no one knows how to break – even in principle – after two decades of trying.

This is a development that warrants careful scrutiny.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

The Donald Trump Big Box of Facts

Saturday, October 05, 2019

How desperate is Boris to do a trade deal with Trump?

Boris Johnson must be used to the wheels coming off his schemes by now. Since becoming Prime Minister he has failed to win a single vote in the House of Commons, had his prorogation of Parliament overturned, after judges concluded that he had misled the Queen (an offence which in another era might have seen him lose his head), and put forward a rehashed withdrawal deal to the EU, which looks like it will be rejected once again.

Still, he has his good relations with Donald Trump to fall back on, and the promised trade deal. But that deal too, has several obstacles to jump before it can become a reality. The two most obvious hurdles are the pledge to protect the NHS from US predators and the differing food standards. Will UK voters tolerate our red lines being breached on those two issues? We may be about to find out.

According to the Independent, the Prime Minister is scrapping a commitment by Theresa May to stick to EU rules on the environment, safety standards and workers’ rights to raise his chances of getting a trade agreement with Donald Trump.

The paper says that the “level playing field”, included in the Brexit deal negotiated by the former prime minister, was a commitment to abide by rules similar to the EU’s in exchange for market access. However, right-wingers in Mr Johnson’s new cabinet want the commitments downgraded to give the UK more flexibility to lower its standards for American goods:

EU officials say that British negotiators are particularly keen to jettison EU restrictions on genetically modified foods – a key demand of American trade negotiators.

One EU official with knowledge of the Brexit talks suggested US trade officials appeared to have been in contact with British negotiators and told them standards would need to be slashed if there was any chance of a US trade deal.

Liz Truss, the international trade secretary, said scrapping the protections was “vital for giving us the freedom and flexibility to strike new trade deals and become more competitive”.

A cabinet source also told The Sun newspaper: “The level-playing-field promise has to go, and Boris is very clear about this.“It would seriously restrict our ability to deregulate and do trade deals with other countries.”

Could Boris Johnson's legacy become ditching our biggest trade partner to play footsie with Donald Trump, while imposing chlorinated chicken, lower environment standards and an Americanised profit-driven health service on the rest of us?  And that is before we even consider the relaxation of tax rules that could see us being turned into a second rate tax haven for dodgy foreign money.

Friday, October 04, 2019

How climate change is hitting wildlife

The latest State of Nature report, which draws on scientific monitoring since the 1970s, concludes that the UK’s wildlife is dying out and many species will go extinct if urgent action is not taken.

The Independent says leading professionals from more than 70 wildlife organisations have joined government agencies to create the comprehensive report, which warns wildlife declines continue “unabated”:

Among thousands of mammal and plant species assessed, 15 per cent are threatened with being lost from Britain, including wildcats and greater mouse-eared bats.

More than two-fifths of UK species including animals, birds and butterflies have seen significant declines in recent decades, the study found.

Since 1500 around 133 species have already vanished from Britain’s shores, including birds such as the wryneck and serin, which were lost as breeding birds in the 20th century.

The report continues: Data on nearly 700 species of land, freshwater and sea animals, fish, birds, butterflies and moths reveals 41 per cent have seen populations decline since 1970, while 26 per cent have increased.

More intensive agriculture is driving declines in farmland nature, while climate change is also having an increasing effect, with average UK temperatures rising by 1C since the 1980s.

Pollution continues to cause problems for natural areas such as streams, despite legislation to curb harmful pollutants, according to the report.

The study, which comes after similar analyses in 2013 and 2016, also shows butterfly and moth numbers have been particularly badly hit.

Butterfly numbers have fallen by 17 per cent on average and moths by 25 per cent.

Populations of some butterflies, such as the high brown fritillary and grayling, which need specialised habitats, are down by more than three-quarters since 1970.

However, the report also highlights successes such as the return of red kites, bitterns, large blue butterflies and beavers to Britain, and the establishment of lady’s slipper orchids at 11 sites in northern England.

It is difficult to know how to tackle this, but certainly more ambitious climate change targets and increased investment in protecting, enhancing and creating new habitats must feature strongly.

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Sorry is the hardest word

Over at The Times, my friend Ali Goldsworthy writes about how difficult it is for politicians to say they are sorry. She points out that standard advice in the crisis communications playbook is to “say sorry, say it quickly and keep saying it”.

However, this does not appear to work for politicians. She says that the US academic Richard Hanania found that when public figures said sorry for expressing controversial views the response of the electorate was either unaffected or more likely to want the individual to be punished. It can actually lead to the politician being ridiculed:

In 2012, when Nick Clegg apologised for the Lib Dems’ U-turn on tuition fees, the party’s poll ratings remained dismal. Voters were reminded by the apology of the bad decision he had made, reinforcing the betrayal. The exodus of student voters from the Lib Dems remained especially pronounced. Sheffield Children’s Hospital did experience a benefit however, after his apology was remixed, set to music and released as a single.

So political leaders do exactly what the prime minister has over the last week. Hold hard to their position — in this case that Mr Johnson believed it was humbug he could not use the word surrender. This doubling down has an extra benefit, it allows leaders to position themselves as strong in the face of criticism. As the UK warms to the idea of a strongman leader, that carries an increasing upside.

What can we do about it? It’s critical our political leaders, even the prime minister, are allowed to change their minds — some are going to have to if we want to move past the current impasse. If we want an environment where people are more open to listen, reflect and have empathy, including saying sorry, then there needs to be reward for doing so. As members of the public, we would do well to start there.

Ali has in fact sought to do something about this herself. She has helped to launch the civility in politics award. She is part of a group trying to show that there can be reward for thoughtful, reflective public debate that reaches across the aisle and seeks to improve our civil discourse.

There are three award categories: Politician of the Year; Bridge Builders of the Year; and Campaigner of the Year.  A £3000 prize that will be donated to a charity within the constituency of, and nominated by the winning Politician of the Year.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Irony consumes the Tory Conference

As the Prime Minister prepares to launch his 'take-it-or-leave-it-deal' offer to the European Union in his speech tonight, it is worth reflecting that he will be speaking in a hall only made possible because of European Union funding.

As Wales-on-line says, anyone leaving the conference centre and getting the tram towards St Peter's Square will see a plastic banner on the wall which says: "This project has been part-funded by the European Union". Anyone getting a coffee near the main hall will see a glass plaque proudly proclaiming the same.

In the list of UK projects receiving funding under the European Regional Development Fund between 2007 and 2013 line 737 of the spreadsheet shows that this very building received £3,760,552.18 of money for its £30m renovation in 2008.

The paper adds that in Manchester, it isn’t just the building the conference is in that received EU funding, trams, tram stations, museums and the science park all benefited from contributions.

Of course, the UK puts money into the European Union, but in terms of added value we get much more back. The Tories seem happy to benefit from decisions made in Brussels when it suits them. It is a shame they don't recognise the damage that will be inflicted on the UK if we walk away from the EU.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Prime Minister fails to learn lessons in dealings with EU

In politics, as in other walks of life, one of the signs that somebody has lost the plot is when they repeatedly do the same thing in the hope of a different result.

One should not therefore be surprised at this Independent article, which suggests that Boris Johnson is to bypass Brussels and the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier in attempt a last-ditch charm offensive on EU leaders to get a Brexit deal over the line. This is a tactic that had already been tried by Theresa May, and which fails to recognise, never mind understand the unity of purpose within the EU in protecting their own red lines.

The attempt to break off Irish premier Leo Varadkar and German chancellor Angela Merkel from the rest of the pack cannot be helped by talk about the construction of so-called customs clearance centres up to 10 miles either side of the Northern Ireland border, where goods would have to be declared and approved at the checkpoints, while their movement through the border zone would be monitored in real time.

Such a solution would completely undermine the Good Friday agreement, around which the EU's most significant red line is constructed. If such centres were to be constructed they might as well fortify them and staff them with troops straight away, as it would be a sure sign that the UK Government is resigned to the return of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

For a man who has been so adamant that he can defy the law and take the UK out of the EU on 31st October, deal or no deal, Johnson is coming across as completely clueless as to how he will do this, and on the nature of the institution he is seeking to negotiate with.

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