The politics of Brexit: how should the parties respond?

I had thought things were going Remain’s way, after my near certainty of last week that Leave had won. A day helping get out the Remain vote in Wandsworth and Lambeth borders (mainly alongside Conservatives) helped cement that feeling. The vote for Remain there was 75% and over. But the backlash from the rest of England (aided and abetted by Welsh voters) was too great, and we ended up with a decisive vote for Leave. I’m still in the very early stages of grief for the country I love. British politics has suffered an earthquake. I want to  offer some first thoughts about how the different parties should respond.

The Conservatives first. As my experiences here in Wandsworth shows, they are bitterly divided. But they will now have to rally behind the result and be the unequivocal party of Brexit. David Cameron was clearly right to resign, albeit at a leisurely pace. It is very revealing about those that supported Leave that so many of them thought he should stay. It bespeaks denial about the gravity of what they have done. But Mr Cameron would have been a prisoner and puppet as Prime Minister and party leader; that is not what the situation demands. Personally I think Boris Johnson should take over; his leadership may well have been decisive for Leave; he should be made to answer for its consequences. He may not have enough support amongst Tory MPs, though. But he does have momentum.

There is a clear opportunity for the Tories tok benefit from the bitter divisions in England and Wales. George Osborne’s wish for the party to build bridges with voters outside London now looks altogether more credible. Quite what this means in policy terms is less than clear. But they will need a clear focus on limiting immigration to begin winning the trust of Brexit voters.

That they have a chance to do so arises from the problems of the political left. Labour’s leadership backed the wrong horse in this race, mainly through honourable and honest belief. But their core support now comes from educated public sector workers and minority ethnic groups. The gap between this core and their previously loyal working class voters outside London has turned into a gulf. This has become a strategic problem.

I believe that the best thing for them is to stick to their beliefs keep up the attack on the advocates of Brexit. They will need to play lip service to respecting the will of the British people, but what they really need is for the Conservatives to fall apart under the stresses of trying to follow Brexit through. A period of institutional chaos is about to unfold; they need to be the party of buyer’s remorse and even “told you so”. This should be combined with a bold move to the political centre, perhaps scooping up disillusioned Conservatives.

But they have a leadership problem. Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised for being a lacklustre advocate of Remain, because of his half-hearted support for the idea. I have a feeling that the problem is much deeper. I don’t think he is cut out for hard political campaigning of any kind. On the radio this morning he sounded like a damp rag; he offered no ideas about what the country should do next. The Conservatives will have to be in bad shape indeed if they can’t beat him in a general election. And it is not just leadership. I would take an amazing act of political skill to persuade Labour members back to the centre ground. But not impossible.

Ukip have been dealt an interesting hand. They have done much to bring this situation about, and will doubtless gain Kudos. They must continue their pivot towards disaffected white working class voters, and peel them away from Labour. But it will be a hard road under Britain’s electoral system. Their power base in the European Parliament is about to be closed down. That this will hurt so badly will be amongst the many ironies of the vote.

And my party, the Liberal Democrats? The party continues its flirtation with irrelevance, and Brexit for these enthusiastic supporters of the EU makes it worse. But it has much stronger party infrastructure than Ukip; it has more MPs, more councillors and more Lords. They should benefit from the manifest troubles of the Labour and Conservative parties, but it is hard to see exactly how. They do not offer an inviting prospect for disillusioned centrist Labour and Tory MPs. I don’t see that they have much choice but to slowly rebuild on core liberal values, and make a strong appeal to younger voters. A lot will have to change to make this credible; not least it needs an influx of women and ethnic minorities into its leadership positions. I will write more on what the party should try and do another time.

And the Greens? They, too need to compete hard for that younger vote, where they have an edge over the Lib Dems. They have a very interesting strategic choice though. Do they continue with their leftwing, pro public sector lurch, away from their environmentalist roots? Jeremy Corbyn seems to have shot that fox, and offered a home for these voters in the Labour Party. But if Labour start a serious march to the centre, this gap might open up again. But if Labour continues to be a prisoner of its new members this route towards relevance will be blocked.

And the SNP? They have been presented an opportunity for independence and another referendum. But Brexit poses challenges for Scotland. A Scotland inside the EU and an England outside poses some major headaches. Many of these are about to be rehearsed on the island of Ireland. It may be hard for the SNP to create an attractive prospectus.

And what is the best thing for the country? I see the vote as a cry of pain from the politically excluded. This has a very ugly face, and I fear the rise racism and xenophobia. But all politicians should heed that voice. We must develop a new economic model that brings the excluded back in. That is the only way to bring liberalism back into fashion. If the Brexit vote hastens the development of such a new model, it will have been a good thing. All of the parties, apart from Ukip perhaps, show some signs of understanding this but are bereft of clear answers. But I fear that instead too many politicians will draw the conclusion that they should pander to dark side.

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The EU referendum: the arguments that count

Britain’s vote on EU membership tomorrow (23 June) has produced a lot of emotional polemic, and very little dispassionate analysis. I was persuaded yesterday to click through to this article by Professor Alan Johnson (not to be confused with his namesake, the Labour politician) on the basis that “it was the most compelling case for Leave that I have read”, to find that it was anything but compelling, as it jumped off from premises that are highly flawed in my eyes. And it made no real attempt to persuade people of an alternative view either. Of course, I am guilty of polemicism too, for Remain. But I try to stand above such things, as well. So on the eve of the vote I will assess the arguments that I think hold water.

I will do this based on the three substantive arguments for Leave: that the EU project is fatally flawed; that free movement of people within the union is too high a price to pay; and that rejecting the EU would give a needed shock to the country’s political and economic system. I will then say something about the benefits of EU membership.

A flawed project?

First is the flawed nature of the EU project; this lies at the heart of Professor Johnson’s case. What is the EU? It is an association of sovereign states that have agreed to bind themselves by treaty to hold to common standards in a wide variety of areas, to act jointly in others (most importantly in trade negotiations), and hold the whole thing together with a system for developing common policy and resolving disputes. Some of the Union’s founders saw this as an intermediate stage towards a United States of Europe, on a similar basis to the USA, and some of the language of the treaties (“ever closer union” ) was drafted with that aim in mind. But it lacks the wherewithal to make such a transition without the consent of the peoples of the member states. Unlike the early USA, there is no federal army to bring dissenting states to heel. Nor can there ever be.

But that leaves the project with some serious problems. Staying within the Union binds member states to a whole series of standards on a take it or leave it basis. Individual countries have little ability to opt out of the bits not to their taste – just opting out of the whole shebang, as Britain now contemplates. That is because it is a carefully balanced whole, and opt outs would be seen by other member states as trying to gain an unfair advantage. But it isn’t very democratic. Much ire is raised by, for example, the way Irish voters have been bullied into accepting treaty changes in spite of initial rejection (Professor Johnson aerates about this). But neither is it democratic for Irish voters to impose their will on all the other member states.

This leaves a dilemma at the heart of the project. If you want to make the EU more democratic and accountable, you have to make it look like a more conventional state, taking decisions as a whole union, reducing the autonomy of individual states. If you allow member states to vary treaty terms at a whim, then the whole project collapses.

This dilemma is at its most acute with the imposition of a common currency – which, of course, does not include Britain. Its implementation has been flawed, leading to ugly disputes between debtor and creditor nations. Many say that the only way to make the currency workable is to promote political integration. I don’t happen to agree with this, but further integration of the Eurozone could make Britain’s status within the union untenable – but we haven’t got there yet, and can act accordingly if we do.

There is really no easy answer here. You have to weigh the benefits of joint action against the losses to autonomy. I will come back to those benefits, but there is one clear area of lost autonomy that upsets a lot of people: free movement of people.

Free movement: too high a price to pay?

Our rights within the union to travel to and work in other member states mean that member states have little control over immigration from other member states. Very large numbers have come to Britain from other EU countries, especially the new states of eastern Europe. This is not Britain’s biggest immigration issue – which comes from other migrants, who are more numerous and who integrate less easily – but there is a feeling among many that Britain is “full”, with excessive stress on housing and public services. Many Britons, especially less educated ones, sometimes feel like foreigners in their own land as they pass through districts settled by people of foreign origin. There is little evidence that European immigration has caused pay levels to fall, but it may have stopped wage rates in some jobs from rising.

Leaving the EU, and its single market, would allow Britain to put quotas on migrants from all sources. This would be popular amongst most of the population. It is Leave’s most powerful argument.

The main counterargument is that this would either make less difference to migration than most people suppose, or cause even more stress to services than it saves. Unemployment in Britain is low. Jobs are being created as fast as migrants come in to take them up. Our workforce is shrinking as more of us retire.  So if those migrants did not come, who how would be find people to do the jobs that need doing? The government would be under huge pressure to let the migrants keep coming. We can see that this has happened for migration from non-EU countries – which the government has tried to limit, but which remains high.

There are other arguments. The rights of Britons living in other EU countries (and there are many) would be endangered; the system for administering immigration (an Australian-style points system has been suggested) would be a bureaucratic nightmare; there may be an intractable problem on the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. And would the politics of immigration controls make the country a less tolerant and open-minded place?

It’s messy, and it comes back to the same balance between the benefits of autonomy over the benefits of being part of the union.

A shock to the system

There is also an angry argument. This says that Britain’s governing institutions have become complacent and need to be shaken up. There are two groups of complaints, which are not necessarily consistent with each other. One is that the “elite” ignore the social and economic tensions in communities outside the metropolitan South East of England (or devolved Scotland). A second, from businessmen, is that they are overregulating the way we live and work,  and holding back creativity; nothing much is being done to rectify a large trade deficit. There is substance behind both of these complaints. And a vote to leave the EU would constitute a massive institutional shock.

The trouble is that the results of that shock are incalculable. The British trade and government deficits leave the country vulnerable. A prolonged period of political and economic uncertainty would be extremely damaging.; it is not inconceivable that the country would have to call in the IMF, and face economic conditions much more severe than anything the EU imposes.  And who would take political control in the wake of a Brexit vote?

It really depends on how much risk you are prepared to run, and how likely you think that what emerged on the other side would be better than what we have now.

So what are the benefits of the Union

A decision on which way to vote may be affected by a worries about the short-term chaos that may or may not arise from a vote to leave. But the main factor behind any decision must be a view on the longer term benefits of the union – to weigh against the loss of national autonomy. There are three important ones: the single market, extended personal rights, and the Union’s political project.

The single market is the most talked about of these, and the most important – it was why, after all, that Margaret Thatcher was initially happy with the trade-off, though she changed her mind later. The important point here is that in order to have a true single market, in which businesses can sell to each other across the union on a playing field that is rather more level than otherwise, you have to go way beyond the absence of tariffs – which is implied by the idea of a “free” trade area. Barriers to trade  are about much, much more than this. It is about standards, regulations and subsidies. Is it fair that one country can undercut another through lower environmental standards, inhuman working conditions, or state subsidies? But addressing these issues is intrusive. Most of the power of the US federal government arises from its constitutional power to regulate interstate trade.

The EU single market is an imperfect compromise, inevitably, but it has taken the idea much further than any other association of sovereign states. The economic studies I have seen have shown that it has largely worked. Trade between the EU states has increased massively since the single market was developed (and not by diverting it from the rest of the world) – it has been much more effective in this that the single currency, which has had little measurable impact. There is bound to be a significant economic cost to withdrawing from it. It makes Britain a much riskier place to build a car factory, for example. This is why economists and businessmen so overwhelmingly support staying in.  The Leave campaign have resorted to quoting the same two: Andrew Bamford and James Dyson over and again; Remain can call on hundreds.

A second benefit is extended personal rights. We get these when we travel abroad, and, especially, when Britons live or work abroad. These are imperfect, of course, but life is much easier for us than, for example, for Australians. This will be irrelevant for those that don’t travel – but many of us do, if only to holiday in other EU countries.

A third benefit, on the other hand, is very indirect: the EU’s political project. This has been to spread the standards of democracy, the rule of law and good governance across the continent of Europe – to say nothing of making warfare amongst the nations unthinkable. From its initial core of countries the union has been the leading force in democratising first southern Europe, and then post-communist central and east Europe. This is reaching its limits. New members may be brought in from the former Yugoslavia and Albania, but Turkey and Ukraine look like steps too far. More important, there is much work to do to consolidate democratic standards in the post-communist members, especially in Romania and Bulgaria, but in most of the others too. This worthy project would be weakened if Britain left, even if we individually feel little impact. Closer to home the EU has also a vital part of the fudge required for the Northern Ireland peace settlement to stick; leaving would add to the already big headaches there.

In conclusion

I was going to mention the host of spurious arguments that have been put up in the campaign, mostly be the leave side (such as the one about the EU’s economy being weak, as if that would not be just as much a problem if Britain was out of the EU), but I’ve been going on for long enough.

It will be clear from the above that deciding the best way to vote means making some tricky judgement calls, balancing the costs and risks either way. This does not mean that the choice is marginal or unimportant – it would make a big difference to what this country becomes. In these tricky circumstances we are guided by value judgements.

If you are angry about the restrictions European treaties place on our politicians, that will point you towards Leave. If you are reasonably happy with the status quo, and want any change to be gradual, that points to Remain. If you feel that in order to make our way in an interconnected world the countries of Europe need to take joint decisions; if you are happy with the idea of Europe as an extension of “home”; if you don’t mind that so many of your neighbours are from other European countries; then that points to Remain also. Which doesn’t mean that you should be happy with the way things are, but that Britain leaving the EU would be a step backwards, not forwards.

And me? I was just to young to vote in the 1974 referendum – but I was a very keen supporter of Britain’s membership at the time. It has been a defining part of my political outlook ever since. I wanted to be part of something bigger than Britain, much though I love it. I still do, though I have fewer illusions about what is going to be possible. So for me voting Remain was an easy decision. For most of my compatriots it may not be.

 

 

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This is the wrong way to leave the EU

It is quite likely that the British public will vote to leave the European Union this week. Supporters of staying in are left with straws to clutch at. Perhaps the pollsters have overestimated the propensity of less educated Leave supporters to turn out and vote. Perhaps the awful murder of Remain supporter Jo Cox MP will give people pause. Polls show that there may be a modest swing back to Remain, but the political momentum behind Leave still looks formidable.

But the consequences of a vote to leave are incalculable, not because the aim of leaving the EU is necessarily so awful, but because Britain’s governing institutions are so unready for the consequences of the vote.

This shows the limits of the referendum as a means for governments to consult their electorates. Referendums work best when the electorate is offered clear and coherent alternatives. This is only likely if the government of the day is recommending a change from the status quo; it is clearly going to be accountable for the change – while the status quo is what the public and governing institutions are familiar with.

This is what happened in 2014’s referendum on Scottish independence. In that case the Scottish government ( though not the UK one) set out a prospectus for independence, and it was clearly up for leading the country through the transition process. A referendum proposal that had been cobbled together by members of the public without the support of major political institutions would have been a wholly different thing.

The EU referendum does not fit the bill. It was designed by David Cameron’s British government to make his Internal Conservative critics, who passionately oppose the EU, go away. But nobody has formulated a clear prospectus for life outside the EU; instead a number of half-baked and irreconcilable alternatives are advocated (characterised in an earlier post of mine, as following Singapore, Switzerland or Japan), and it is far from clear which the public is being asked to sign up to. And exit does not command a parliamentary majority, still less any of its particular versions. A Brexit vote would create political chaos. And, given Britain’s dependence on trade and external finance, this political chaos threatens economic chaos. It is the lack political leadership, more than the exit proposition itself, that threatens the country’s economic stability.

This was illustrated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. Last week he suggested that a Brexit vote would have to be followed by an emergency budget, driving through austerity measures as government revenues fell with the economic shock. This was clearly a stunt, which convinced few – even those, like most economic forecasters, who accept that Brexit would put government finances under pressure. And yet many Conservative MPs immediately said they would reject such a budget, and they were joined by the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who rejects all austerity ever. This presents the prospect that there is no working parliamentary majority for any given way forward. Neither is it clear from where any such parliamentary majority would emerge, even if there were a general election. There might even have to be another referendum to resolve the constitutional deadlock.

So it is not hard to imagine that a financial crisis could follow a Brexit vote. Inward investment would halt to see how the dust settled. Sterling could dive as a result, and the government could start finding it hard to fund the National Debt, with the still considerable budget deficit, as it loses its status as an international safe haven. Creating new money to fund the debt may solve the short-term crisis, but only at the expense of harming the country’s longer term financial standing. Britain has a large current account deficit, meaning that it depends on flows from abroad – a key point of departure from the inveterate money printer, Japan. This could be worse than the financial crisis of 2008 to 2010; the deficit may be smaller, but overall debt is larger, and political leadership then was clearer; indeed this was the most compelling logic behind the Conservatives forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010. In due course the British government might have to call in the IMF to stay afloat. Something like Mr Osborne’s putative budget might then follow. The irony than an attempt to become independent of EU institutions led only to becoming dependent on the much more intrusive IMF would be bitter.

I happen to think this sequence of events is quite likely if Britain votes to leave, though many would consider it absurd given how easily the country floated through the earlier crisis of 2008 onwards. But what is unarguable is that the lack of political leadership on the Brexit side, with no clear political accountability for any Brexit result, makes this outcome more likely.

This is the wrong way to leave the EU. What should happen is that one of the main parties puts leaving the EU in its election manifesto, gets a majority, and then takes the proposal to the country in a referendum. If it wins, it is clearly responsible for the consequences.

Curiously enough, in today’s grumpy politics, the lack of a clear prospectus, and the threat of political chaos, seem to be no disadvantage to the Leave side in the referendum. Indeed it adds to an anti-establishment appeal. There seems to be a curious death wish at large. The leaders of the Leave campaign thrive on their power without responsibility, seemingly relishing a ringside seat in the chaos that would follow.

Mr Cameron’s judgement looks poor in getting us to this dismal point. And yet what could he have done instead? His big mistake was his attempt to lead his party to a place it did not want to go. The most honest thing for the Conservatives to have done would have been to elect a leader that was explicit about leading the country out of Europe. If they had done that, then Gordon Brown might still be Prime Minister, but the politics would have been more honest, and the risks to nation fewer.

 

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An awful moment in British politics, and it could get worse

Yesterday I spent most of the day helping my local Liberal Democrats in the Tooting by-election. Alas there was little to show for it as the two main parties steamrollered all the others; we hope to have built something for the future.

But that, of course, is not what prompted the title of this article, though it hardly helped. During the day a British Labour MP, Jo Cox, was shot and killed by one of her constituents while she was holding a surgery. This comes on top of week where English football fans exhibited shocking, loutish behaviour at the European Championships in France, and in the EU referendum, the Leave campaign took a firm lead in the opinion polls, as it sank to new lows in ad hominem attacks and the raising of irrelevant fears. This included a poster showing refugees modelled on one devised by Goebbels in Nazi Germany.

I did not know Ms Cox. Her murder has shocked the political establishment, and she has drawn eulogies from across the political spectrum. Her attacker seems to have taken exception to her internationalist outlook, be it support for the Remain campaign or helping refugees from Syria and elsewhere.

I, and many of my friends, are linking these depressing events. The Leave campaign is riding on the crest of a public backlash, especially by older, less-educated English white males , against the political establishment. Immigration and Muslims are their subjects of choice. Political correctness is condemned. As this movement gathers momentum, people feel free to indulge in all manner of rudeness in the cause of “putting Britain first”, by which they usually mean England. This is a far cry from murder, maybe, and I’m sure that Leave campaigners are as shocked as anybody else, but the fire they are playing with reduces the psychological barriers to violence.

And it is leading nowhere good. A Leave result next week will provoke political chaos – and perhaps economic chaos too, according to the FT’s usually sober Martin Wolf. The paradox is that the aggressive anti-world, anti-establishment campaigning of the Outers leaves the country ill-equipped to deal with the consequences. While some Leave campaigners hope for a confident Britain making its way in a world without its horizons limited by the EU, it is not this which is giving their campaign traction. The country will enter one of the most politically and economically challenging periods of its recent history virtually leaderless, and with little sign of where any coherent leadership will come from.

And the world is not nice place at the moment. The week started with the shocking massacre in Orlando. Xenophobia is rising in the rest of Europe. The peoples of the Middle East are helplessly mired in conflict. And that is to say nothing of the self-indulgent nationalism of Russia and China who feel take no responsibility for making the world a better place except for their own ruling elites..

Still I hope that enough British Leave supporters will draw back at the last moment, after gaining a sense of the abyss into which they may push our country, and stay at home or perhaps event vote the other way. It is but a faint hope; deep down I think things are going to get worse. And the consequences of even a narrow remain victory look difficult.

At times like this my habit of political optimism is very hard to sustain. And yet we must keep trying for better.

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Britain after Brexit: Singapore, Switzerland or Japan?

What would Britain become if it left the EU after the Referendum on 23 June? To most campaigners for Leave this may seem an unfair question: they are not a government in waiting. To them EU membership is inherently bad, and we should sort out what the country is to become one democratic step at a time once we have decided to leave. But to many Remainers it is the lack of a coherent and convincing alternative vision for Britain that is one of the strongest reasons for staying in the EU. So it helps to think it through. One way of doing that is to look at the example of other countries.

One of the early alternative visions put forward by Leave advocates was Singapore. This is especially popular amongst businessmen. Singapore broke free from the Malaysian Federation in 1965 (it was expelled) and has prospered as an independent state. It now counts itself as part of the developed world, unlike the continuing Malaysia, which has advanced not nearly so quickly. Singapore made itself an easy country to do business in, and developed as a trading entrepot through, for example, very efficient port facilities. Meanwhile Malaysia became bogged down with the politics and corruption of a larger state, notably engaging in the politics of ethnicity.

Likewise Leavers say that Britain is bogged down with the politics and inefficient regulation of an entity that is too big and complicated to be efficient. Why can’t we be something nimbler and more entrepreneurial, like Singapore? There are many problems with this idea, of course, which is no doubt we don’t hear so much of it now. First is that in size and complexity Britain looks more like Malaysia itself, rather than Singapore, while the EU looks nothing like the Malaysian Federation, with its autocratic leadership. The second is that Singapore is run very autocratically itself: a firmly-led one-party leadership forces through its pro-business agenda in a way that Britain’s government can only dream about. What stops Britain from being like Singapore is less the restrictions of the EU, and more its own raucous and vibrant democracy. A common complaint of Leave campaigners is that the EU is not democratic; following the example of Singapore suggests that it is in fact too democratic.

Enter a second possible exemplar: Switzerland. Switzerland is prosperous and European; it is also probably the most democratic country in the world. Referendums are a very regular occurrence; Swiss people are constantly consulted. And they rejected joining the EU (and the EEA, a diluted version that includes Norway) exactly because it threatened its democratic standards. But the Swiss example throws up a couple of interesting problems. First, the country has found that the only way to make a proper democracy work is through a level of local devolution that is alien to Britain’s freewheeling ways. The central government is weak; most of the action occurs at cantonal level. This level of local government is actually quite intrusive; woe betide anybody that runs their washing machine late at night. A number of years ago many London firms threatened to migrate to Geneva in reaction to intrusive financial regulation; they did not follow through as their staff found the city a difficult place in which to live.

Well that is more interesting than a decisive argument over Britain’s choices. It may show that many Brexit campaigners have mixed feelings about democracy, but Britain can still choose to runs its affairs differently. The second problem is more difficult: in order to prosper, Switzerland has found it necessary to participate in EU structures to secure its part in the single European market. It must comply with many EU regulations, allow the free movement of EU citizens and even pay into the EU budget. There is a tension between these things and Switzerland’s democracy (especially over allowing EU nationals in to work), but Switzerland has been forced to compromise. The Leave case to the voters is based heavily on stopping the free movement of people and on stopping EU budget contributions; it follows that the country could not follow the Swiss compromise, and would sacrifice much of its prosperity as a result.  Indeed the Swiss compromise makes little sense – why not accept the EU structures and participate in their management in a way the Swiss are unable to? it is not as if we have such democratic traditions to protect. Indeed we might find some of the European structures useful to protect our citizens from our own government, elected with very unconvincing democratic mandates.

I think a third exemplar fits much more closely with where Britain would head if it left the EU: Japan. Japan is an island nation positioned just off a continent with which it has difficult political relationships. It values social cohesion beyond economic prosperity, which means that it maintains strict controls against immigration, even though its aging population is creating a crying need for younger workers. It would rather seek solutions in robotics. It is democratic, though not in the free-wheeling way that Britain has become used to.  But a post-Brexit Conservative Party could establish the dominance that Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party has achieved. The result would not be the business-friendly wonder of Singapore, but an even denser thicket of regulations and bureaucratic meddling than Britain has now, which helps to preserve social cohesion and stability, and protect the interests of established major businesses. In principle I think most of Britain’s voters would settle for this, even as they might moan (the Japanese do that too).

The problem for Britain is that Japan’s economy is based on a strong industrial base. This is a historical oddity that would be very hard for Britain to replicate starting from where it does now (though would perhaps have been feasible starting from where it was in the 1950s). The businesses at the core of Japan’s success are mature ones, like Toyota, which has become the world’s leading motor manufacturer, alongside Germany’s Volkswagen. These businesses are not growing – indeed Japan’s economy has been in the doldrums since the 1990s, but they nevertheless provide Japan with financial security. Japan’s government is not dependent on foreign investors as Britain’s is. To replicate Japan’s success would require a rebalancing of Britain’s economy, led by a substantial devaluation of the pound, and several years of pain as living standards were squeezed.

Are Britons really up for this? The country has already advanced far further down the road of multiculturalism than Japan could conceive of – a legacy of its Imperial history rather than of EU membership. Britons have got used to their holidays in the sun, and the country’s relationship with its continental neighbours has always been more integrated than that of Japan’s with China and (to a lesser degree) Korea.

But if Britain votes for Leave – which is having the better of the referendum campaign so far – they may find themselves following the Japan road, with much less benign results than Japan has been able to achieve. That is a good reason to vote Remain.

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Cuba: a lesson in the successes and failures of socialism

Australia CubaA week ago I returned from a two week holiday in Cuba. As always, there is a limit to what you can learn from a holiday, which tends to focus on the positive, and where deeper analysis is not the point. But there is nothing like seeing a place to get a clearer picture of it. So, what did I learn?

Cuba is a socialist country, following a Soviet economic model shortly after its revolution in 1959. The state dominates all activity; private businesses are allowed, but only in highly restricted contexts, such as tourist services. The state places a huge emphasis on universal services: health care, education, and a system of basic rations intended to ensure that everybody has the bare necessities. The government claims that homelessness and unemployment are rare – though overcrowding and underemployment is another matter. There is no commercial advertising; instead the are political slogans everyway, often featuring the revolutionary icon Ché Guevara, and also Fidel Castro and the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. These slogans generally claim that socialism is eternally victorious. It is not just the paintwork that is looking tired.

For jaded westerners, it is easy to see the positive aspects of this. Social welfare looks a lot better than for most poor countries. The universal services are certainly popular, and confer legitimacy for the regime. When comparing the country to its Caribbean or Central American neighbours, it is easy to see the bright side. The worst effects of poverty are ameliorated, including with very low levels of crime (compare that to Jamaica or Guatemala), though policing does not seem heavy handed (underemployment does not mean hordes of armed men everywhere, like in Egypt, for example). Health services are reputed to be better than many richer countries.

But a second reaction leaves you confronting the fact that the country remains very poor. The sight of people occupying crumbling buildings in Havana is quite shocking. Most rural dwellings have hardly moved on from shanty-towns. And the flip side to that is that productivity is woeful. We saw ploughs still being pulled by oxen, and horses were a common means of transport in rural areas. Every toilet has its attendant to hand out meagre supplies of toilet paper (and expecting a tip); workmen always came in groups; guards, often scarcely awake, watched over things that hardly needed guarding.

And the productivity is much worse than the use of too many people to do simple jobs. Whole businesses have collapsed, most visibly in agriculture. Perfectly viable land is untilled; factories are derelict. We visited a sugar plantation (called Australia) that has ceased to function as anything other than a tourist spot, offering short rides on steam trains. (That’s where the picture is from, of people sitting outside a derelict factory building – quite a good metaphor for the Cuban economy, I thought). Those trains were the only functioning ones we saw – yet there were plenty of railways.

Agriculture, infrastructure and industry are not the only places where work is not being done. Many apartment blocks in Havana look close to collapse – though many were clearly once magnificent. And new homes are not being built. A country that has a vaunted system of education, that can turn out good quality medical staff in quantity, can surely do much, much better than this?

The official blame is heaped on America, and its extensive system of sanctions that make it very hard for any western business to trade with it. That excuse is not without merit. Doubtless many critical bits of equipment or services became unobtainable directly, and indirectly through lack of foreign currency from exports. For a couple of decades the Soviet Union was able to partially make up for this – but its products were sub-standard, except for weaponry. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba nearly followed it. It says much for the strength of the Cuban regime that it has survived.

Survival in the 21st Century, in the face of US sanctions (which remain as the Congress must approve their lifting) has become much easier, however. China has developed an economy which is not beholden to the US, and Cuba has taken advantage. Our perfectly functional and modern tourist buses were Chinese made. China has also enabled many other parts of the world economy become less beholden to the US – and the influence of other countries (notably Spain) is visible.  There is a viable non US eco-system.

But Cuba clearly wrestles with a much deeper problem: the complete failure of a non-capitalist system to be able to do more than a very few things at a time well. It is to Cuba’s leaders’ credit that, unlike the Soviet Union, they chose universal health care over weaponry as the state’s top priority, but that only gets you so far.

The Cuban state must embrace capitalism if it is to improve its citizens’ lot. There are already role models out there: China and Vietnam, which show that you don’t have to scrap the socialist planned economy at the same time, contrary to western conventional wisdom of the 1990s. (Experts used to say that an economy couldn’t be half capitalist like a woman could not be half pregnant; Russia followed that advice with catastrophic consequences; China ignored it). And Cuba has started to do it, allowing the tourist industry, in particular, to grow. Private bed and breakfasts, restaurants and tourist shops abound, and show that Cubans have plenty of commercial flair. Less than vibrant, but successful enough, the Cuban government has set up joint ventures with commercial companies to build and run large hotels (though it must be added that individual members of hotel staff were generally very helpful, even if the system as whole never quite worked as it was supposed to).

But these developments need to go much, much further. They must embrace large enterprises, in the building industry, and export industries, including agriculture. Of course, Cuba needs to be careful here. Big multinationals can hollow countries out with soulless plantations that add very little human value while syphoning away most of the cash. But the country still needs commercial efficiency on a large scale. Which means less government interference. The government seems divided on how to go forward.

Would an embrace of capitalism lead to a political opening? China and Vietnam seem to show that this not necessarily the case. My guess is that the success of universal services (surely at least as good as China’s?)  will leave the communist regime with enough political legitimacy to survive, so long as these do not fall into decline.  That will be a challenge, of course, as rates of pay in public services will have to rise as the private sector competes for jobs. Medical professionals are paid pathetically little. Cuba’s populace, like China’s, may have grown out of the communists’ political rhetoric, but neither would they see a compelling need to rock the boat if the economy was successful.

It would, of course, be much better if Cuba could embrace political reform too. While they have much to learn from China, no doubt, they should also cast a glance to Costa Rica, much closer in size and geography. That country has shown the virtue of keeping the Yankees at arms’ length, while adopting many of their ways.

And as a holiday destination? Thoroughly recommended. It is a beautiful country, much of it unspoilt; its people know how to make you welcome; notwithstanding the dead hand of government, it is a cheerful and vibrant place. But think about the time of year. In May it was already getting a bit hot and sticky. February is probably best, but that is also peak tourist time.

 

 

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Brexit is winning the referendum campaign: what should Remain do?

I have been following British politics remotely for the last two weeks from Cuba, where I was on holiday, and where internet access is limited, even in international hotels. The EU referendum campaign seemed to be going well for Remain. A rash of polls after a bit of a famine showed them winning by about a 10% margin. But as I arrived home yesterday I was in for a bit of a shock.

First (hat-tip to politicalbetting.com – an excellent source of news on polling) any swing to remain shown by those polls was illusory. It came from the fact that most of the new polls were phone polls while those before them (showing a neck-and-neck result) were online polls; the online polls hadn’t budged. One of the curiosities of the campaign from the start is that phone polls have shown a distinct bias to remain (or online polls to Brexit, if you prefer). Then came yesterday’s shocker from ICM/The Guardian, which showed a 10% lead for remain being morphed into one for Brexit for 4%. And that was a phone poll.

Interestingly the evidence from ICM’s online polls (and a new online poll today) suggests that this movement is more to do with the phone bias disappearing than with a wider swing in sentiment. But since optimists like me had assumed that phone polls were more reliable, that is no comfort whatsoever. My best guess is that Brexit now have a lead. That is more than worrying.

Why? Well it’s nothing to do with my social circles, including those on social media, who continue to convince themselves that Remain is the only intellectually viable option, and pour scorn on the antics of the Brexit campaign. Unfortunately this is not the decisive battleground, and all the that sneering is probably not helping to convince the small numbers of Leave sympathisers and don’t knows that lurk in those circles. Brexit seems to have a decisive lead among the working classes, especially its ethnically white members, and in places outside London and its hinterland, and Scotland.

The Leave campaign seems to be well targeted here. Its early appeals to the intellect, around parliamentary sovereignty and an appeal to British history, have fallen flat – but the campaign has majored on two undeniable facts. First is that the taxpayer makes cash contributions to the EU; the £350 million a week repeated relentlessly by the campaign is a lie, but how much of a lie remains arguable – it is before an agreed discount (the “rebate”), and spending by the EU within Britain on farm subsidies and the like, which it is said could or should be spent on different things. This enables the campaign to suggest many alternative ways this money could be spent, with the NHS top of the bill, to appeal to working class voters. It makes no difference that most Brexit politicians are enthusiastic supporters of austerity cuts, or that they assure farmers that the spending by the EU would be replaced by similar spending by the UK government. The first rule of political argument is that you never have time to explain.

The second undeniable fact used by Leave is that membership of the EU includes freedom of movement, which allows people from other EU countries the right to live and work in Britain. That implies that leaving the EU would allow Britain to restrict immigration from other EU countries. Since immigration is popularly blamed for a wide variety of social ills, including stagnant wages and job insecurity, as well as high property prices and rents, and stretched public services, this is a powerful argument indeed. Cleverly today Leave campaigners proposed an “Australian style” points system to limit immigration. This moves the campaign from histrionic hand-waving to a seemingly sensible policy proposal from a government-in-waiting – just what Remain campaigners say that Leave couldn’t do. Even more cleverly, Leave campaigners are able to weave in fears about illegal immigration (some Albanians were caught trying to cross the Channel this week) and the refugee crisis in south Europe, even though these have nothing to do with Brexit, and might even be made worse by it. That libertarian Tories are signing up to an immigration policy based on bureaucratic central planning is one of the many paradoxes in the campaign.

So what should the Remain side do to neutralise this effective campaign? I can see two possible approaches. One is “no more Mr Nice Guy”, and the other is “keep calm and carry on” – in other words by copying Leave’s tactics or playing their opposite. Playing both strategies at once is possible too, but risky.

How might Remain copy Leave’s tactics? They need to start with some undeniable facts. What might these be? The most powerful is that all Britain’s trading relationships will have to be renegotiated by politicians and civil servants that have largely forgotten how to do it, and who would be overwhelmed by the task. This is bound to disrupt trade and investment for the short term, and it would surely create permanent damage too. Remain have tried to use this fact by way of warnings from authoritative figures and financial estimates of the impact on working families from economists. This has to be taken down market with visual images of redundancy notices and pay cuts – as well has trying to create more direct images of the scale of disruption involved (the number of treaties that would have to be negotiated, how long it would take, by how many negotiators, etc.). Remain have been accused of running a negative scare campaign – this strategy would mean living up to that description.

But would that be playing into Leave’s hands? The alternative is to keep pumping out the vaguely positive and reassuring images, to try and show that all sensible people support Remain, and let the sheer wildness of the Leave campaign sow the seeds of doubt, and allow them to play on the minds of Brexit inclined voters, so they then fail to turn out, or even change their minds.

This blog does not presume to advise on this choice. I am not in close to or in sympathy with the decisive group of voters; my advice on Lib Dem electoral strategy, notably in the European elections of 2014, was well received but wide of the mark.  These are scary times for those of us who feel that a British vote for Brexit would be a catastrophic result for the country, and a betrayal for what it has stood for since so many of our ancestors died on European fields 100 years ago.

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British politics is in stalemate

The British elections last Thursday were probably the most significant electoral test this parliament, with the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, the London Mayor, and many English councils up for grabs. Everybody had the chance to vote for something. The outcome was underwhelming. Where does that leave the political scene?

The analogy is overblown, but I am reminded of the war that ravaged Europe 100 years ago. In 1916 huge efforts by the major combatants yielded little return on the ground. While the military men looked for breakthrough tactics, these yielded limited results, and in the end it was a matter of stamina and fundamentals.

The results pose uncomfortable questions for all the political parties that took part, major and minor. Most of the attention has focused on Labour. They suffered a further catastrophe in Scotland, falling behind the Conservatives to third place. In England they mainly held their ground, with an impressive victory in London’s Mayoral election. Supporters of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn hail this as vindication – but that only shows how low their expectations have sunk. There is no hint here of how the party can regain power in Westminster. The myth of a hidden bank of left wing voters waiting to be energised by Mr Corbyn has been shown to be just that. But neither is there a disaster enough to fuel Mr Corbyn’s opponents; the Scots meltdown predates his tenure and so had already been written off. The best guess is that the far left will continue to hollow the party out from within, but that the party’s outward status remains largely unchanged. Come the next general election the question is whether the party will implode or simply repeat its dismal performance last time. On this year’s evidence it will be the latter.

For the Conservatives the position looks considerably better. They drifted only gently backwards in English councils; their performance in London was reversion to type, after unexpected success under their Mayor Boris Johnson; and they achieved a remarkable breakthrough in Scotland. But to keep governing beyond 2020 they will need to deliver a killer blow to Labour, while containing any Lib Dem comeback. Can they do that when they are riven by divisions over Europe, will replace their leader with one who has much less public respect, and while their government programme keeps being derailed by backbench discontent? Meanwhile their tactics in London, where they tried to toxify Labour’s Sadiq Khan by associating him with Mr Corbyn and Muslim extremists, failed, and may have damaged the party’s brand.

The SNP maintained their grip on Scottish politics but lost their overall majority. They have completed an astonishing pivot to the left, allowing the Tories a bit more breathing space, and leaving Scots to wonder what the point of Labour is. It is hard to see how anybody is going to deliver a knockout blow, but more Scots will surely start to tire of them. The only way seems to be down.

Ukip cemented their status as a major UK party, with breakthroughs in the Welsh Parliament and London Assembly, and consolidation of their role as Labour’s main opposition in parts of the north of England. But they are a party of oddballs, and it is hard to see how they can maintain their coherence. As a party of local government in England, they won only 15% of the seats of the supposedly down and out Lib Dems; this is a weak grassroots base.

The Greens moved forwards in Scotland, and held their own in London, where they are established as the third party by popular vote. But in English council seats for every gained they lost a seat somewhere else, to end up with even fewer seats than Ukip. Their switch to the left, while downplaying their environmentalism, looks to have been a strategic error, with the wind taken out of their sails by the revival of the Labour left.

And my own Lib Dems? There were quite  a few successes; they gained more English council seats than any other party, and are approaching half the Conservative total. They comfortably retain their position as the third party of local government. There were striking constituency wins in Scotland and one in Wales. But all the Lib Dem successes boiled down to pockets of local strength, where they are deeply embedded into civic society. They have shown their ability to claw back ground from the Tories in particular, and even the SNP. But talk of a revival of fortunes belongs in the same category of optimism as the Labour left’s. The party was reduced to a single seat in both the Welsh parliament and London Assembly, and fell behind the Greens in Scotland. They struggle to reach 5% in proportionally elected contests, an irony for a party that is so in favour of this type of election. The party has not established clear political ground for itself and remains confused as to whether its coalition years were its finest hour or a terrible mistake. The party fights irrelevance in most of the land.

Plaid Cymru continued to move sideways. The politics of Wales remains quite different from that in Scotland, and the party seems quite unable to replicate the SNP’s success.

And nobody else made an impact. The Women’s Equality party was launched last year in a big media splash, and tried its luck in London, but got nowhere. The nativist Britain First is another new party, which has a big presence on social media, and it put in a performance that beat other competitors in its space (such as the British National Party), but still only managed a derisory result. For all the claimed discontent of the public with established politicians, there is not even a faint sign of an insurgency that could take off.

So British politics is in deadlock. The Conservatives have a narrow majority in the UK parliament but lack the discipline to govern decisively. There is no evidence as yet that they are going to break out of this. But neither is there any sign of a party or coalition of parties that can knock them off their perch.

There is a broad lesson here about British politics that is not given enough weight by most commentators. Political success requires a strong grassroots infrastructure and solid organisation, built up over many years, as well as being able to chime with some part of the zeitgeist.  Labour and the Conservatives have achieved this more or less across Britain, now that the former are rebuilding themselves in Scotland. Fear of losing this vital political infrastructure stops either party from breaking apart, in spite of huge political divisions. The SNP has this in Scotland and is consolidating. That the Lib Dems are in the fight at all after failing so spectacularly to hit the zeitgeist is testament to their pockets of grassroots strength and penetration of institutions like the House of Lords; they have something to work with. Ukip and the Greens have attempted to build their own infrastructure but are finding it desperately hard going. Nobody else stands a chance. There will be no unconventional uprising like Italy’s Five Star movement. It is also very hard for a nativist insurgency, such as that of Donald Trump in the US, or the Front National in France, to get traction – though Ukip has tried.

And so we are locked in stalemate. The biggest threat to this dynamic is if one or other of the major parties breaks up under the strain. The second possibility is that the Tories get their act together sufficiently to deliver a knock-out punch to a Labour Party that does not look interested in government. As yet there is no sign of either.

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English education policy: battle looms between the think-tankers and the grassroots

Every so often I see a story that the British (or more correctly English – though she sits in the British cabinet) Education Secretary is pondering a bid for the Conservative Party leadership when David Cameron stands down. I find this entirely incredible. Her career to date (she is in the second year at this job) has been devoid of either vision or political nous. The Conservatives can elect lemons to their leadership, but surely not even they are that stupid?

The first reaction to Ms Morgan’s appointment amongst the small section of the public that cares about these things was relief. Her predecessor, Michael Gove, had some good ideas, but was too full of himself, and was guided by a vision of Britishness and education that looked back rather than forwards. He annoyed teachers even more than his Labour predecessor, Ed Balls. But the transition was followed by a deafening silence; nobody knew what Ms Morgan was about.  They still don’t, but two radical ideas are being put into play under her leadership – though it isn’t clear whether she is promoting them because she really believes in them, or because she is responding to pressure from elsewhere. They are to force all schools out of local authority management to became “Academies”, and to rationalise the financing of schools so that their public funding is based on a single, transparent formula. Both are classic Westminster-bubble policies, favoured by think-tankers and journalists little tainted by the practicalities of politics.

Most of the political heat so far is being taken by the Academies policy, which was announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, rather than Ms Morgan herself, very revealingly. Academies represent a new legal framework for running state schools, which do away with layers of accumulated regulations, and replace them with something more contractual, offering all concerned more freedom. That is the best bit about the idea. The politically important bit is that they are outside local authority management, and are instead run independently or as part of chains or localised groups. Many on the right, and not a few in the political centre, consider this way of running state schools to be a radical improvement, and project all sorts of benefits, such as empowering teachers or parents, onto it. I will not examine these claims in this article, though I have not changed my view that the issue is relatively unimportant, and not worth the political effort that has been put into promoting it. The question is whether the idea is practically feasible.

And here there is a basic problem. The idea, like so many neoliberal ones, is for a glorious welling up of initiative from the bottom up, from the schools who will take up the idea and follow it through. But in order to implement it across all schools, it requires a top-down process to make sure they all do it, and that it is done in an orderly way. Who is to do this top-down management? The Department for Education has not got the capacity. The academy chains are not geographically coherent, and in any case the current view is that big chains add no value. The obvious answer to this is that local authorities (LAs) will have to fill this gap. And yet the whole idea is to rubbish the role of LAs. This problem only now seems to be dawning on the government. It will require a lot of political skill to navigate, from a minister that has shown little of it to date. In the end the LAs will no doubt come to the rescue, but they will extract a price that will make the government look as if it backtracking.

Still, at least that problem looks soluble. I suspect the problems thrown up by the new funding formula will not be. “Fair Funding” as it is called is not a new idea, or even a bad one in theory. There are constant complaints that the current system, different in each LA area, favours some schools over more deserving ones. But the idea hasn’t been implemented because it, too, comes with major political snags. The essence of the problem is that a system designed to remove political discretion is, by its nature, very hard to manage politically. There will be many winners and losers from the new arrangements, and these will not fall in way that is politically convenient. It will punish friends and reward enemies. The think-tankers no doubt think the formula will punish Labour supporting  city boroughs, especially in London, while rewarding Conservative shires. Alas it will not be so simple.

We have had a trial run of this idea in miniature, when the coalition government forced local authorities to adopt a standardised formula to fund their schools, including any Academies in their geographical remit. I had a ringside seat on this, as I was (and I still am) a member of a Schools Forum, the body comprising school representatives that oversees school finance in each LA area. The first pass produced an arbitrary series of winners and losers, including some major ones. The priority quickly became to flex the formula so that the number of losers, or big losers, was reduced, abandoning any idea of theoretical principle. Other LAs did the same thing, and each has ended up with a different way of doing it. The exercise was hard enough to run at LA level; it will be yet harder to handle at national scale. Extra money could make the process more manageable, but extra money is not available.

The government seems blithely unaware of the coming storm. It has put out a first phase consultation on the structure of the formula, with the idea that the impacts of it will be discussed in a second phase, once this has been agreed. But without knowing the impact the proposal looks like motherhood and common sense, and so has raised little controversy – no doubt lulling all concerned into a false sense of security, while cutting down political room for manoeuvre.

Behind this looms an important political conflict. English schools co-opt civic society co-opt civic society to a much greater extent than any other public service. A large number of civically-minded and politically influential individuals are drawn into running schools, from PTAs to school governors. I am a case in point; it is my only civic activity that is not directly political. These individuals form the political grassroots on whom the political “ground war”, and most political careers, depends. These grassroots activists are being put in conflict with the young think-tankers for whom such low level civics is irksome, and want to change the world from the top with the sweep of a pen.

It will take real political skill to turn this conflict into a constructive tension rather than destructive warfare. My guess is that Ms Morgan and her aides lack that skill. Stand back for a political train-wreck

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Labour’s anti-Semitism problems reflects political incompetence at the top

At first pass you can have some sympathy with Labour’s leaders as they are engulfed by accusations of anti-Semitism, just a week before important elections in Scotland, Wales and London. It is, of course, impossible to have sympathy with Ken Livingstone, the senior Labour adviser and former London mayor who was suspended yesterday after making one set of ill-judged remarks too many. But on closer inspection the sympathy evaporates; it is yet another sign that the party made a colossal mistake by choosing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader.

But the first thing I want to say is that the issue is not quite as straightforward as some make out. The wisdom currently doing the rounds is that collective references to “the Jews” is almost always anti-Semitic, that criticism of Zionism is usually code for the same thing, but criticising the actions of the Israeli state is fair game.  The first of these is clearly true, and the second probably is too – though I think Zionism poses some challenging questions over the rights of Arabic-heritage Palestinians (who, I remember a veteran British diplomat telling me, are rarely true Arabs).

But the third proposition, that criticism of the Israeli government is fair game, is more problematic. Try it. To do so, if you are considered to matter in political discourse, is to invite a concerted attack from supporters of the Israeli state, who will try to associate you with supporting terrorism or being closet anti-Semite, and who can never admit that the Israeli state does wrong, ever. I have to admit that I often self-censor, and do not comment on what is going on in Israel. I broke this rule last year, and got myself into hot water – though I was probably a bit less restrained that I should have been.

One problem with criticising Israel is that many Israelis clearly are racist, and their influence seems to be growing – though just how much such attitudes infect government policy I cannot say. But many aren’t. And Israel supporters in this country generally aren’t racist either, understanding all too well the difficulties of being a minority in a liberal democracy. This makes it very easy to give offence, even when making legitimate points. The whole things reminds me a little of how it felt to be British in my youth. Criticising the British Empire and its history was considered by many to be unpatriotic, even though racism clearly ran through it, and many wrong things were perpetrated. We were told to gloss over this and look at the positives. Many people of Jewish heritage seem to feel something of the same way about Israel – for reasons that are perfectly easy to understand.

So it’s a minefield. But it is a very well-marked one. There is no excuse for professional politicians to blunder into it unknowingly. When talking about Israel you must be very, very careful. It is one of the most basic rules of politics. This is what the Labour leadership under Mr Corbyn does not seem to have appreciated, Mr Corbyn having lived in a leftist cocoon for most of his political life. Mr Livingstone has made a career from egregiously insulting people and getting away with it. They have learnt that once they get into the political big-time, the normal rules apply to them too.

But there seems to be a wider problem on the left. Many on the far left have found it convenient to make common cause with radical Muslim activists. This seems to start with the principle that your enemy’s enemy is your friend, and hatred of America is a strong organising principle on the left. Looking for common ground, they find criticising Israel is one place to find it. They see no reason to challenge the often casual racism of these Muslim activists, and become, at best, careless, and at worst infected with conspiracy theories. It’s the same sort of stupidity that sees many apologizing for Vladimir Putin’s attacks on Ukraine, or defending the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

This sort of lazy thinking has to be stamped on if Labour are to make progress in mainstream politics. The party’s Mayoral candidate, Sadiq Khan, seems to have grasped this, notwithstanding his own engagement with Muslim radicals – which, be it understood, is not necessarily a bad thing in itself.

Alas Mr Corbyn does not seem to have grasped the seriousness of the situation, or else does not have the skills to deal with it. Mr Livingstone loves to live dangerously, and is not a good friend to have. The Labour leadership need to get one step ahead, and come out unequivocally against anti-Semitism (and without the weasel rider that they are against all racism) and take some positive steps to heal the wounds with the Jewish community (as, to her credit, suspended MP Naz Shah apparently has). But that would require a sort of political vision of which they are incapable.

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