Covid is not over.

Government

We’re still in a pandemic, yet the Government is treating it as if it’s already over.

As shops, pubs, leisure centres and beauty salons continue to reopen there is a definite unease around. Many people continue to be worried by the prospect of doing what, until a few months ago, were ordinary things. It is because there is no reassurance or clear signs that it is genuinely going to curtail the virus.

Frankly, this has not been handled well at all by the UK Government. A poll conducted here showed all respondents agreeing with that. There have been several reports of the failure to act quick enough on lockdown measures may have contributed to deaths being twice as high as they could have been. These numbers are not a political statement. They are a reflection of poor strategy and lax message discipline, which continue to seep through.

Compared to the response in the other three home nations, serious questions remain about the situation in England. There have been few deaths in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales in the past few days, even factoring in smaller population sizes. And yet, when there were over 100 deaths in England yesterday, up considerably compared to previous weeks, people continued to take to the pubs.

I have also seen people dismissing these figures as a one-off, but what this pandemic has shown is the importance of analysing the data, and that wishful thinking does not help in reality.

Now there is talk of increasing the mandatory use of face coverings in settings such as shops. It’s a sensible message – but one that feels like it has been adopted far too late and handled poorly.

The Government are giving mixed messages here, with Boris Johnson seeming to promote stricter mask-wearing during a photo opportunity in his Uxbridge constituency. Meanwhile, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said in the Marr programme that he trusted people’s common sense on the issue. It does not clarify anything and further increases uncertainty.

You would think that over a few months, Number 10 would have learnt that they need to handle things better, not just rely on common sense and give a decisive message to people. Take the second “Boris Broadcast” which was possibly one of the worst public addresses made by a Prime Minister, and something that every in Number 10 should have been trying to avoid repeating.

Is it that they are trying to pass the blame to the individual? Or is it an admission that they have given up or feel economically threatened?

Either way, the response in the past few weeks seems to be designed for short term popularity rather than long term public health benefit.

Why are we debating whether “conversion therapy” should or shouldn’t be illegal in the UK in 2020?

Government

It has only been four days since Pride Month ended, and yet, in an insensitive move that has rightly backfired, the Petitions Committee wanted to gather more intel on how to define “conversion therapy” and the impact that it has on the LGBT+ community by getting people to fill out a survey as a platform for people to share their opinions about something that is clearly wrong.

This sparked outrage because it felt like the process was being drawn out, and people were being asked to justify why something that causes incredible harm like this form of torture should be made illegal. It also came across as tone-deaf, with a handful of unsympathetic questions.

In a response that was welcomed, links to the survey were subsequently deleted, although there were some reports of the survey still being active hours after this. The apology itself (below) sounds incredibly arrogant, but at least they responded quickly.

What this does highlight is unnecessary levels of intransigence and delay, which characterise many other areas of policy I discuss here. And there is a clear way to approach this.

The Government committed to taking action on this two years ago. A petition (and I note, that petitions are something that the Government has not initiated) with enough signatures to be debated in Parliament may have reminded them of this, but the response will not exactly be reassuring.

When responding to the petition, equalities minister Kemi Badenoch said that the Government was still considering how to move forward with this “very complex issue”. I can think of other “very complex issues” which have been being discussed relentlessly at a similar time to this which apparently are not a problem (Brexit).

I would be interested to know what exactly is complex about “conversion therapy”. If anyone had undergone significant amounts of psychological trauma that were later revealed, action would be demanded. This is exactly what “conversion therapy” involves. Anyone who says otherwise is just trying to defend the indefensible. And yet, nothing obvious is being done about this issue which continues to have an impact on people’s lives on a daily basis.

Things like “conversion therapy” still being legal highlight the UK still has a long way to go in overcoming LGBT+ discrimination and poor treatment. It’s not just about putting up a Pride flag for one month a year, it’s about taking real action.

Action in the future is not good enough. Action needs to happen now.

Reshuffles, moves and scuffles

This Week in UK Politics

Meanwhile, things are carrying on in Stormont as they piece their new power-sharing agreement together. Amongst this are a slew of announcements this weekend. And the Lib Dems have declared their new leader will be revealed in the summer.

Something particularly striking this weekend that will have an impact next week came from Number 10. Effectively, the head of the Policy Unit, Munira Mirza, is to tell senior members of the Cabinet that a reshuffle is pending and the only way for people to remain in it will be to focus on “delivery” of policies over media appearances.

This may present a very early sign about the type of Government Johnson seeks to manage – one where he is very much the central figure and the party stays on message. Possibly an early idea of Cummings’ approach to overhauling the workings of power.

It does mark a departure from Theresa May’s administration where leaks and inaction often appeared to be the order of the day. This can be seen as an attempt to present the Government as united and in control, which may possibly be helping with polling (latest stats below). The Guardian has more on this story.

As UK MEPs were in Brussels for the final time, there were words of regret from many of their former colleagues – some of whom have formed a WhatsApp group. On the UK Government side, there is a hardening of stance, seen from remarks from Chancellor Savid Javid. He has said that there will be no alignment with EU rules after Brexit, which seemingly contradicts the previous approach.

By declaring a lack of alignment, alarm bells were raised in the food/drink and automotive sectors. It also has mired the Government in some controversy as it has been one of the first public acknowledgements from a senior Minister that some industries will not benefit from Brexit. Linked to this was an admission from these industries that prices are likely to rise significantly. The BBC has further coverage.

Perhaps the Government feels empowered now it has a difficult to attain majority to say the things it was not comfortable saying before in a public forum. Or maybe it is a strategy of ‘talking tough’ while pursuing a much safer course of action. This may also challenge conventional wisdom about the Conservatives being the party of business. At the same time, it could just represent Javid’s personal take being off-message – maybe one of the reasons why Johnson is seeking to instil more rigid discipline.

Another sign of Johnson wanting to make his mark is the news that Ministers are considering the possibility of moving the House of Lords to York or Birmingham to “reconnect” with voters. The Conservatives’ chairman, James Cleverly, told Sophy Ridge that it was one of the options being considered. This follows a report in the Sunday Times which claimed a decision could be made in the next few months.

On the face of it, the proposal sounds reasonable. However, Labour MPs like Nadia Whittome called it ‘superficial’. Ultimately, while this removes some of the Parliamentary institutions from London, it does not address the House of Lords itself which remains unelected and lends itself to undue influence from a dominant party in the House of Commons. While the idea itself may not have universal backing, there is a fair amount of talk about de-centralising power in the Labour leadership contest.

As an update from last week’s post, Emily Thornberry managed to secure the last-minute nominations she needed to enter the Labour leadership contest. There have been hustings in Liverpool for both leader and deputy leader. Meanwhile, unions and constituency parties are deliberating on who they should back, to secure passage to the final stage of the vote. So far, polling from YouGov indicates that Keir Starmer is likely to win the vote in the second round, with a comfortable margin against favourite for second place, Rebecca Long-Bailey.

In Northern Ireland, the Government has been criticised for its financial package not being enough to fill the gap in public services. Both First and Deputy First Ministers have united on the attack, putting pressure on the Government to release extra funds. The Conservatives are so-far remaining fixed in their stance, possibly viewing this as not a priority. One would expect this argument to carry on in the background of UK politics as a whole, and the foreground of Northern Irish politics. Given the Government was able to bail out Flybe to some extent this week – despite ruling out that possibility – it is not unreasonable to assume they may give way in spite of their obstinance if it keeps Stormont quiet.

Another development that is likely to ruffle a few feathers is the release of a cross-party report into electoral law and protecting the integrity of British elections. Some of the recommendations include unlimited fines for those who breach electoral law and in response to groups like Cambridge Analytica, a call to restrict the ability to micro-target voters on social media.

This would reflect a change in the law not seen since 2001 – but will people like Dominic Cummings who have benefitted from the existing laws block this from coming into effect? And will this actually help the Electoral Commission to have a much more meaningful role when it has struggled to keep up with a myriad of developments? The Guardian has more.

Something else that is worth a mention is an update on the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, who are to give up their royal titles, become financially independent and pay back the public purse for the renovation of their UK home in Windsor. While this is a huge development in the Royal Family, what is disheartening is the response to it. People have turned to the realms of conspiracy theories, disrespect and racism.

To those that say the UK does not have a problem with racism, stop kidding yourselves. The UK has a massive problem with racism – we have all seen it but many are uncomfortable to admit it. While so much progress appears to have been made in other areas, this appears to be persistent and needs to be dealt with urgently. It does not have a place in this century, let alone this decade.

Finally, an update on the latest stats. Labour maintained a council seat in Brislington East, Bristol with a marginal dip in vote share (1.1%). The Liberal Democrats saw a double-figure increase. This has been reflected in the State of the Parties page on this site.

After a short break, Westminster voting intention polls are back. The latest Opinium poll sees an increase in Conservative, Brexit Party and Green voting intention, at the expense of Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

It would seem that Boris Johnson is currently experiencing a honeymoon – which is not unexpected. A rare sign of normality in these unprecedented times.

Iran, Royals, the EU and Labour candidates

This Week in UK Politics

Just when you thought UK politics would calm down a bit with a newly dominant Conservative Party and the return to easy majorities for the Government – things seemed to flare up a bit.

Iran

First among these was the escalation of tension in Iran, where the US assassinated a senior general, and Trump took to Twitter to brag about it. Classy. The fact that this happened on another sovereign nation’s soil raised alarm bells with many who started talking about the possibility of World War Three – and drew comparisons with the ‘dodgy dossier’ ahead of the Iraq conflict.

Iran retaliated by bombing a seemingly unoccupied US airbase, and things seemed to calm down. What is now emerging is that caught up in this may have been a Boeing aircraft heading for Ukraine being shot down by Iran – although the facts of this are still being settled.

The Government was slow to respond, with Boris Johnson still being on holiday and seeming to ignore a letter from Jeremy Corbyn who still has the right to ask questions of the Government in these matters as a member of the privy council. This inaction opened the Conservatives up to a fair amount of criticism. Once the response came, it was ambiguous – claiming to be working on a European response; while condemning and praising the assassination at the same time.

In PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn asked the Prime Minister a series of questions around whether the activity was illegal, what would happen to British people living in the are and whether the Government’s response was related to a potential trade deal. The initial exchanges between them were helpful and there were constructive answers to the questions. Things took a turn when Corbyn mentioned links to a trade deal, where the Prime Minister started on the attack, criticising Corbyn and claiming the allegation was “absolute fiction”.

You can watch how this all played out below.

The Royals

When people thought nothing else could fit into the news agenda, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (Harry and Meghan) unilaterally declared they were going to step back as senior members of the Royal Family. This was apparently without the knowledge of anybody else and was apparently due to The Sun being on the brink of telling everyone anyway. And how did they announce this? Via Instagram.

Many people would probably wonder this is being mentioned on a politics blog, as surely the Royal Family is above politics? Arguably, there are massive implications here as even though these royals are working to be financially independent as they call it, this has not turned out well for other members of the family i.e. the Wessexes, and there will still be a fair amount of public money spent on the couple such as their security detail. It is telling that the Government is now involved with the “emergency” negotiations with the Royal Family.

Secondly, it has raised further questions about the role of the Royal Family – and how it should look going into a new decade. Many had touted that the Cambridges and Sussexes were the ‘new face’, and represented a new approach, but this has raised several questions. This also highlights potential issues with press behaviour towards certain members of the Royal Family, which has been invasive and particularly in Meghan’s case teetering on abusive.

In a broader sense, it relates to many comments made on here previously about the nature of debate recently being toxic and highly personal. It shows that this issue is not just confined to the explicitly political space and that a wider conversation should be started in society about addressing this.

The EU

Less than a month to Brexit (part one) and conversation has started to turn toward the future relationship between the UK and the European Union where negotiations cannot formally start until the UK ceases to be a Member State.

The new European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, made it clear in a speech at the London School of Economics that a full trade deal between the UK and EU (which Boris Johnson is aiming for) will be ‘impossible’ to conclude by the end of the transition period in December.

She took a pragmatic stance and said that the EU was ready to negotiate an “ambitious” partnership – but that the talks would be tough. As discussed in the 2019 review post on here, this reaffirmation of a trade deal being extremely difficult to achieve in less than a year is something to be expected and many in Number 10 and the Department for Exiting the European Union will be studying this closely.

It shows that even though the first hurdle may have been crossed by Johnson, the next one will be much more pressurised – where the expectations are much higher.

Labour Candidates

The Labour leadership election has started, with the party’s ruling committee meeting at the start of the week to decide the rules for electing a new leader.

There was much speculation about the rules potentially being tampered with to ensure a Corbyn 2.0 candidate had the most success. This was not the case, and the rules for the leadership election were not deemed to be too controversial.

In the early stages, Keir Starmer emerged as the frontrunner – easily reaching the necessary number of nominations from MPs and MEPs, and with Unison putting its weight behind him. Other candidates in the running (as of Sunday evening) are Rebecca Long-Bailey, Jess Phillips and Lisa Nandy.

Each of these candidates represents a very diverse range of opinions within the party, and the question that will be asked is how they will bring the party together when the election results sparked a new wave of internal disagreement.

The following week will be a key part of the campaign, with nominations closing for both leader and deputy leader before an extensive voting process takes place.

Meanwhile, there has been little word about the internal post-mortem that Corbyn spoke of after the election, which is highly likely to have an impact on the leadership campaign as it progresses.

Reviewing UK politics in 2019 – Brexit means ???

2019 Review

2019 has been a rollercoaster of a year in UK politics. There have been several themes throughout the year, including Brexit, the environment, the NHS, the General Election and the nature of the political debate. In the first of this series, the focus is on Brexit.

The B-word has dominated the conversation. The year began with the UK due to leave the European Union in March 2019, which was then gradually pushed as far as January 31st 2020. It has also claimed one Prime Minister in the process. After unsuccessfully getting her deal through Parliament three times, beset with difficulties from her party and others, Theresa May called it a day and Boris Johnson took over in a generally predictable Conservative leadership contest.

Johnson then faced challenges of his own and was able to negotiate a “better” deal (one that economic forecasts show is probably going to be worse). This deal faced challenges of its own, and although it passed its first stage in Parliament without an election, Johnson refused to give sufficient time for scrutiny and had to extend the Brexit deadline – something he promised would not happen.

Looking more deeply at this, there is a sense of weariness towards Brexit, as it has been all that many news outlets and commentators appear to have talked about. Many may have decided that the most expedient way to escape it is by accepting a less than ideal deal which was negotiated in a matter of weeks. Furthermore, this focus on Brexit has happened at the expense of other pressing concerns such as the environment and the health service.

It has also highlighted difficulties among all of the political parties. On the left, Labour has struggled to balance the coalition of voters it had come to rely on since the late 90s, and this led to an ill-conceived policy around a final say referendum that engaged one part of this coalition and switched off another who associated this with further delay.

In the centre, the Liberal Democrats sought to stand out by proclaiming “Bollocks to Brexit”, which made many question the “Democrat” part of their party nomenclature. This illustrates the problems of implementing a direct democracy decision (i.e. a referendum) with representative democracy (i.e. Parliament).

On the right, the Conservatives were under pressure from The Brexit Party to move their policy positions and after the European elections knew something had to change, given the success of Farage’s new organisation. It also really started to draw attention to dissension within Conservative ranks, and this was most profound when working out a solution to the Irish border, where the belligerent European Research Group refused to back any deal without approval from the Democratic Unionist Party.

In 2020, far from Brexit being signed, sealed and delivered on the 31st January, the second, more complicated stage of talks begins to establish the future relationship between the UK and EU. The deadline is tight, with Boris Johnson claiming that there will be a deal finalised before the year is out. Yet, most experts doubt this is possible, given the immense scale of regulations, logistics and EU/UK procedure. It also raises the prospect of a so-called “clean break” WTO-rule Brexit rearing its head again. The Prime Minister could be on a course to disappoint the voters who “lent” him their trust by not acknowledging the gargantuan effort required.

On the EU side, there are already indications that they will not make things easy and will use a range of powerful tactics to ensure the EU’s interests are protected, regardless of whether they are at the expense of the UK, illustrated through recent negotiations with Switzerland. With the tight deadline and pressures associated, will the UK have the ability to say no, given the high stakes involved?

How can Labour review its election failure properly?

Labour
Tired eyes? Listen to this piece above.

Today, we awoke to reports that Ed Miliband will sit alongside Jeremy Corbyn and others including Lucy Powell (who ran Miliband’s 2015 campaign) on the Labour Together panel.

While the overall idea behind Labour Together is sensible – looking at all of the data, running focus groups and interviewing candidates about what went wrong – the image this evokes is painstaking and rife with division.

It demonstrates the abdication of responsibility by Jeremy Corbyn to accept that he was a major factor in Labour’s defeat on the 12th December. Many Labour supporters I have had conversations with are quite rightly angry and frustrated with the approach to leadership and the people around Corbyn.

To add to this, the responses to the defeat from these circles have appeared self-righteous and ignorant to the truth. It is not possible to say you have “won the argument”, when your party’s election result is the lowest in almost 90 years. An important step is for the people in charge of the party to admit they got it wrong, which is not incompatible with reviewing other things to change. Lessons can be learned from the resignations of those like Gordon Brown, after the 2010 defeat.

A second point is about the members on the panel. This panel does not contain any party leader who has actually won an election or led a Labour Government. It is understandable that Tony Blair has a lot of baggage associated with him (namely Iraq), but one thing that cannot be doubted is he knew how to win elections and get people on side. Admitting him to this forum would provide invaluable insight about what needs to be in place to make the party electable.

There is benefit to Miliband and Corbyn being involved as they are arguably more in tune with the views of many Labour members; and the policy positions have shifted to some extent since the last Labour victory in 2005. Labour as a party is viewed as a broad church, so getting all these views in one place in a constructive manner would help to bring these different elements together.

Furthermore, the image this panel evokes is a divided, indecisive party which is struggling to find itself. It is possible that the process could become drawn out, and factional. This appears to already come across in a tweet from Labour Together this morning using the word “faction”. 

Just this single use of language has far-reaching implications, and only provides the Conservatives with an open goal. Appearance is as important as the substance; the panel needs to be effective and conciliatory, but also needs to be seen as decisive. Otherwise, there is a risk of similar policies to the Brexit ‘final say’ referendum coming through and suggesting a sense of inertia.

While the idea of the panel is not a terrible idea, it needs to be executed in a way that listens, engages and effects change in a decisive, constructive way – conscious of the scrutiny it will receive. It also needs to ensure Labour starts to not only be seen as a protest movement, but also as a viable party of Government. Only then can Labour start to rebuild.

Read more here 👉 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-50888060