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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Why it’s Caroline first and Sadiq second for me in London elections

While much of the news coverage in Britain is taken up by the EU london ballotreferendum, in under two weeks important elections take place in London. They are for Mayor and the London Assembly.  There are also even more important elections in Scotland and Wales, for their parliaments, but I have less to say on these. The postal ballots are already out. Here is how I am voting and why.

The most important of the London elections is for Mayor. Under the system of regional government implemented by Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, and fully endorsed by his Tory successor, David Cameron, the Assembly has few powers beyond asking questions and kicking up a fuss. There is always a balance in these things, but the sneering disregard that Whitehall and Westminster politicians have for local councillors is very evident. As a condition for any serious devolution they insist on powers going to directly elected Mayors, about as far as you can get from the way local politics has usually been done in Britain.

So let’s talk about the Mayor first. The electoral system involves a first and second preference vote. This is widely misunderstood by Britain’s electorate, who are used to single vote first-past-the-post. What it means is that your first preference vote is never going to be wasted, because if your preferred candidate fails to get anywhere, your vote is switched to your second preference. If your second preference goes to a hopeless candidate, it will be wasted. So your first preference vote should be strategic (with your heart, if you like) and your second preference tactical (with your head).  Alas most voters get this the wrong way round, so used are they to voting tactically under FPTP.

Indeed, I think it is a waste to use your first preference on one of the front runners, Labour’s Sadiq Khan or the Conservative Zac Goldsmith, except in the unlikely event that you actually really like one of them. To be fair, Zac, as I will call him, has a certain sort of charisma, so quite a few people probably do really like him, though few will be reading this blog. That hardly applies to Sadiq (as I may call him with rather more propriety, given the different conventions for names of non-European heritage), though many admire him in a certain sort of way.

So I have no hesitation in voting for Caroline Pidgeon, the Liberal Democrat candidate with my first preference. This is entirely unsurprising. I am not just a party member, but an officer of the London party (Treasurer); I have known Caroline for a decade. Still, let me make the case. Caroline is hard-working, determined, unpretentious and very sharp. She has spent 8 years on the London Assembly (the only of the candidates with anything like that experience of London government), having chaired various committees, including police and transport, the critical areas for a Mayor.  Caroline would be a very different sort of Mayor, but there are many examples of where a commonsense and unpretentious female politician can make very a very successful mayor (I’m thinking of Watford’s Dorothy Thornhill – but there are US examples too, up to state governor level). This is what London needs, surely, rather than more male grandstanding.

But if you are not convinced by Caroline, give a thought to Green or Women’s Equality candidates Sian Berry or Sophie Walker. They have nothing like Caroline’s credentials, but would be much better than one of the “main” candidates. The rest are mainly right wing, and at odds with London’s liberal ways, though Ukip’s Peter Whittle is miles better than the others. Don’t even think about George Galloway – a self-regarding trouble-maker who would do no good. He can do a good rant sometimes, but that is about all.

When it comes to second preferences, though, you must be tactical. If you haven’t voted for one of the big two with your first preference, then you must with your second. Anything else is a cop-out. These Mayoral elections are the only time when I have had to choose between Labour and Conservative. In the first two elections I voted for Labour’s Ken Livingstone (not strictly Labour first time), who showed real political courage with his congestion charge policy. But he got complacent, and too into machine politics, so I reluctantly switched to the Tory Boris Johnson on the next two occasions. I have very little good to say about him, but Ken (his opponent both times) would surely have been worse. But neither Boris no Ken are standing this time. I have to choose between Sadiq and Zac.

I have not found the choice hard. I have seen Zac in the flesh once, at a Lib Dem conference over a decade ago (maybe two decades), before he was a politician, and when he was editor of Ecologist magazine. He alarmed me then: he struck me as a bit crazy, convinced of his own rightness, and not listening to other points of view. No doubt he has matured somewhat, but he has not held any serious administrative office, and I have severe doubts of his capacity to do so successfully. That’s a bad start. But the Tory campaign has removed any lingering doubts. It has been advised by Lynton Crosby’s organisation (though not the man himself), and it shows. There is a lot of dog-whistle, innuendo politics, shamefully picked up by London’s Standard newspaper. This has tried to suggest that he has links with Islamic extremists. Even the Prime Minister was roped into this last week, just as postal ballots were hitting the doormats. This sort of campaigning must not succeed.

What of Sadiq? I know him a bit better, because his base of operations is in Tooting, where he is MP, and that is where my local political experience, such as it is, has been. He did not make a particularly good impression, especially at first. He was utterly graceless in his election victories of 2005 and 2010, though he’d clearly learnt a thing or two by 2015. He is ruthless, and unscrupulous, in his local electioneering. He has ducked this way and that on many issues, including, shamefully, London’s proposed Garden Bridge, a dodgy proposal if ever there was one.  I would not buy a used car from him. He is actually less trustworthy than Zac.

But there is a certain sort of courage too. It was not easy for somebody of his heritage to come out in favour of gay marriage, instead of some kind of fudge. And his defence of Guantanamo internee Shaker Aamer – or rather his fight to ensure that he was subject to proper processes of justice – was both right and courageous. He has ministerial experience. He has a better chance of actually getting things done. He gets my second preference vote.

And what of the Assembly? The election uses a system of proportional representation with list and constituency votes.  The party list vote is easily the most important. It matters little for the Labour and Conservative parties, but does give a chance for the others to create a political foothold in the system. I am voting for the Liberal Democrats, of course. Caroline Pidgeon tops their list, and I am keen she stays in place; she has a strong list of candidates behind her, with housing lawyer Emily Davey number two (it would be very good to have this sort expertise on the Assembly – and she’s good), and Merlene Emerson, third, would be the first Chinese heritage member of the assembly – an important community in London’s mix.

And the constituencies? It’s hard to get excited about the main party candidates; this is a bit of a backwaterfor them. I would vote for whichever candidate catches your fancy as a bit different. In Merton and Wandsworth I would strongly recommend equalities activist Adrian Hyyrlainen-Trett, the Lib Dem, or if you dislike the Lib Dems, the Green Esther Obiri-Darko. Stay well away from Ukip’s Elizabeth Jones, who demonstrates that party’s tendency to come up with whacky candidates. Between the big parties, Labour’s Leonnie Cooper is miles ahead of the Tory David Dean.

But biggest hope is the Caroline Pidgeon and her team will do as well as she and they deserve.

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The #EUref campaign so far: Leave 2, Remain 1

First an apology. I haven’t been posting much on this blog in the last few weeks. This is for two reasons. First life is intervening, in the form of school governance duties and London election work (administrative rather than political). But also because I am experiencing severe performance problems with my website, which are entirely mysterious to me. Having tried a number of things I have now migrated to a new  hosting company which is both cheaper, and billed as a WordPress specialist, and so better able to provide the technical support I need. It does seem to be working better already. Strangely enough yesterday I had an email from my old hosting company (5Quid) to say that it was being taken over by my new one (TSOhost) and would be migrating anyway. It may help that I have got in first. Still I now feel free to post again.

The big political story of the moment is the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, which is due on 23 June. I want to offer thoughts on how the campaign is faring.

The first thing to say is that it is not an edifying experience. I have heard it suggested that regular public referendums help educate the public on political issues. That may be the case in some countries, but it is not how it works in Britain. I learnt that from the 2011 campaign on the Alternative Vote. No argument was too spurious to field. The public found the “raucous” mudslinging enjoyed by the press more engaging than any attempt to grapple with the issues. Public understanding of electoral systems advanced not an inch; even quite respectable, educated people still say that it was all about proportional representation. And so it is this time. No argument is too spurious. Much easier to tackle the man rather than the argument. It is in this context that we must judge the progress of the two camps.

Leave scored an early goal when two senior Conservatives, the Justice Secretary Michael Gove and the London Mayor Boris Johnson came over to their side, after rumours that they wouldn’t. Personally I find it hard to take either of these politicians seriously, but they are clever men, and have followings. They gave the Remain camp respectability and gravitas (in a funny sort of way with Mr Johnson – but he’s a serious politician) that they other wise lacked.

Leave scored again, in my view, with a coherent and well-chosen core message in the first weeks, supported by some effective sound-bite arguments. This is quite remarkable since their campaign was and still is the more chaotic, with rival camps eager to dominate the argument. This shows some strong political instincts on their part. Their slogan “Take Control” gives a reassuring flavour to their proposition, in spite of it leading the country into a daunting political space. Two soundbite arguments stand out. First is that the gross contributions made to the EU (alleged to be £350M a week) could easily be spent on other things, specifically the NHS. This is nonsense of course, since most of the contributions come back into the economy in one way or another. Spending the money on the NHS would mean taking it away from farmers; the contributions end up being spent several times over with this sort of reasoning. And, of course, the financial effect could easily be swamped by bigger economic developments. No matter; all this requires explanation, and nobody is interested in stopping to listen to complicated explanations. The second soundbite argument is a more defensive one: which is that the UK’s trade deficit with the EU means that the UK can dictate trading terms, because otherwise those German exporters would get upset. Of course that only lasts as long as the trade deficit itself – and don’t we want to fix that? Even so, in the first weeks of the campaign this line of argument has been quite effective at neutralising Remain’s claims that the country will lose access to EU markets.

Meanwhile, Remain’s efforts seemed to fall flat. They tried to promote the idea that there would be short and long term damage to the economy. Leave called this “Project Fear” , which I thought was a mistake (drawing attention to the opposition’s claims), but it seemed to do the job. Steadily the polls started to drift Leave’s way. They had started with a Remain majority (which undermines my football metaphor a little – perhaps the campaign should be looked at as a return leg with Remain already 2-0 up from the previous one). A week or two ago the polls looked neck and neck – though phone polls (usually considered more reliable) showed a Remain lead, this was shrinking.

But this week Remain have pulled a goal back. This came with a weighty Treasury report suggesting that the economic costs to the UK of leaving, short and long term, would be very high indeed. The convenient headline figure was £4,300 per family – no doubt just as spurious as Leave’s headline numbers, but what the hell? This wasn’t news particularly, but it seems to have struck home. Why? Well it was weighty, and more objective observers, such as the FT’s Martin Wolf, consider it to be fundamentally sound in its analysis. But it also laid out in stark clarity the disadvantages of each of the various alternative trading arrangements. Again this is not new, but it had authority. It is the strongest intellectual argument for Remain, since each of the alternatives either has mighty drawbacks, or leaves you wondering what the point of leaving the EU would be, if you are still paying contributions and signing up to free movement of people.
That this move struck home was plainly evident from the Leave camp’s response. It was angry and panicky, and went for the man (George Osborne the Chancellor in particular – and economic forecasters in general). But they really didn’t want to take on the substance of the Treasury’s argument. Leave fielded their heaviest hitter, Mr Gove, but his economic arguments were  based on hope rather than substance, and he quickly tried to move the argument on to different ground. To do so he promoted his strange and a anachronistic ideas about Britain and its historical destiny, which will resonate with few. He accused the Remain side of treating the voters like children – but that felt like the pot calling the kettle black. As Martin Wolf says, “Avoiding needless and costly risks is how adults differ from children.”

Remain’s next step will be to use US President Barack Obama’s forthcoming visit to promote his support for Remain. Mr Obama has star quality in this country, if not his own, and it will undermine the optimistic picture painted by Leave of life outside the EU. Leave are already panicky about it, suggesting his views are hypocritical because he would never recommend restricting US sovereignty. But that is to suggest the countries are equals; in fact Britain is roughly the size of California economically; it is universally understood by Americans from Mr Obama down the California is better off in the USA than independent. Remain should score the  equaliser. The polls are already moving back their way.

But it’s not over till it’s over. Leave can certainly pull the contest back. Their strongest suit is the country’s anxiety over unrestricted migration from EU members, which can be used to promote all kinds of fears, from job security to terrorism. This is a genuinely open contest with at least a third of voters are not truly convinced by either side. And we haven’t even reached half-time.

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Brexit divides the middle class but the vote will be decided elsewhere

It’s often said the Britain’s referendum will be decided on emotions rather than facts. Well facts belong to the past, and the referendum to the future, so perhaps that is as it should be. The critical question is about the sort of country we want Britain to be. There is a difference between factually based opinion and raw emotion – but usually the former is just a tidy veneer on the latter. Our attitudes are driven by who we are, amongst the middle classes anyway.

There is clearly something cultural about it. It is very striking that amongst my friends and family, those with whom I feel able to talk about politics, the almost universal wish is for the country to remain in the EU. I have been politically active in the Liberal Democrats and its predecessors for 35 years, so perhaps this is not surprising. But it includes people who support Labour, the Conservatives and the Greens too. It also spans a wide range of ages; it is an issue where the younger generation agrees with its parents.

Who are we? We are middle-class, usually university educated, professional, civically minded, and political and social liberals. We hold a wide range of shred beliefs about the world, which go beyond the EU, including, for example, a belief in man-made climate change and the priority to reverse it.

And middle class folk who take the Brexit side, whom we hear every morning and evening on our radios and see on TV, are the fellow-citizens whom we most detest. We view them as self-interested, greedy hedge-fund managers and businessmen, or the sort of annoying intellectuals who take pleasure in disrupting consensus and ruining any kind of cooperative progress. Interestingly, from what I can make out, the Brexiters view us as the soft-minded, cosy consensual ruling elite, and themselves as the brave tellers of truth to power. They reject a whole range of our beliefs, including climate change, or what to do about it. Funnily enough, we Remainers, most of us, don’t feel that we rule anything more than school governing bodies, and we feel besieged. Indeed we trust our ruling elite so little that restricting them with constitutions and systems of rights seems to be a good idea. We don’t think that driving out he EU means taking back control – just handing it to an even smaller elite whom we distrust. The “elite” is always somebody else.

I think that this clash of values is based on civic-mindedness rather than liberalism. Many of the Brexit middle classes (think of Douglas Carswell the Ukip MP) have a basically liberal outlook. They like engaging with foreigners, are socially liberal, though some struggle with the idea of cultural diversity within their own communities. But they invest more effort in self-promotion, or individualistic activities, as opposed to cooperative, or civic ones (being school governors, helping at the church, and so on). Of course many Brexiters take part in civic activities, like supporting their local Conservatives or local business networks – but these seem to have a strong self-promotion agenda. People who join the Lib Dems after being with the Conservatives remark on how different, and less dominated by personal ambition, the culture is – though the Tories have many civically-minded people in their ranks too.

The idea of individualism against cooperation seems to be the central one. Individualists distrust government structures, and struggle to understand the point of cooperative ventures like the EU. Some think the EU is a plot to establish control over our lives by a shadowy elite. One such is the pseudonymous Alexander Niles, whose latest book on Europe I was asked to review. But it was so paranoid as to be unreadable by somebody not already in sympathy with that way of thinking. Cooperative ways of working seem simply to be beyond the imagination – they are either futile and ineffective, or a cover for a hidden elite, covering their tracks with lies.  And yet to many of us cooperation (and attendant compromise) is the very essence of how a complex society must operate. And the process of engagement with others often gives us energy. We are disposed to like other people rather than despise them. We are slower to condemn people as fools.

What has this to do with the EU? It is in essence a cooperative organisation, of course. That gives it permission to exist in the view of cooperativists, but it does not necessarily justify it. There is something about freedom of movement, and the right to go to another part of the continent and take many of our civic rights with us – or invite people from other parts of the continent to join us- that we like. We feel this openness is the surest path to human progress. It expands our horizons. And European-ness is part of our identity – it is particularly useful in setting us apart from Americans, that nation of individualists whom we struggle to understand.

If the polls are to be believed, we cooperativists outnumber the individualists in Britain’s middle classes – there is a solid majority for Remain in social groups A and B. But the vote will be decided elsewhere, by people with a very different outlook. Traditional working classes, a dying breed, but with a substantial hinterland of retirees and victims of economic advance, are disposed to vote to Leave. The arguments and passions of the middle class Remainers will cut little ice. They are not culturally adventurous; freedom of trade and movement seem more threat than opportunity.

I suspect that the decision rests a new working class of service workers, whose jobs are often insecure, but for whom opportunities remain. I’m thinking of the “new affluent workers” and “emerging service workers” from Mike Savage’s recent book on class. These are more culturally diverse and adventurous than the traditional working classes, but less secure than the middle classes. They may worry that free movement of people is a threat to their job security or pay; they may also fear the damage that the disruption of leaving the EU is likely to wreak, even if it is only for the short-term.

We, the divided middle class, rehearse our arguments about the EU in front of this decisive audience. But neither of us really understand what will make up their minds. And it really is very hard to see who will end up on top.

 

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