Friday 29 November 2019

Succumb to despair? A serious and dangerous mistake

Revulsion? Disgust? Despair? Reach for the Thesaurus and choose the word that most accurately describes your mood as we enter the final furlong of this miserable election campaign.

A prime minister who lies more often than he ruffles his hair, and who seems determined to duck out of a potentially bruising encounter with Andrew Neil.

A Labour party leader still in total denial over the anger and pain caused by his failure to grasp the anti-Semitism nettle and who can’t bring himself to tell the truth about his party’s tax plans. (Watch his encounter with Andrew Neil if you don’t believe me.)

You can agree or disagree with what the different party leaders say about the major policy issues of the day, but what I find most depressing of all is the sheer hopeless incompetence they display. Boris Johnson clearly doesn’t understand (or is happy to blatantly lie about) the Northern Ireland trade arrangements in his own EU withdrawal deal, and Jeremy Corbyn seems either unable or unwilling to spell out his tax and spending plans.

In fact, I have rarely seen a more abject display of political ineptitude than Mr Corbyn’s utter failure to handle Andrew Neil’s pointed questioning on Tuesday night. I cannot imagine that a single undecided voter will have been persuaded either by his refusal to accept that his party could have handled the anti-Semitism allegations better or by his foolish attempts to deny that people on relatively modest incomes will have to pay more in taxes if Labour come to power.

(I don’t intend to wade back into the anti-Semitism debate – I made my views clear enough in this piece sixteen months ago – but I found a great deal to agree with in this piece yesterday by Rivkah Brown.)

In the words of Philip Stephens of the Financial Times: ‘The campaign has marked out a contest between parties peddling competing fantasies and falsehoods. The sane answer as to which of the two leaders counts as fit for office of prime minister is neither of the above.’

You may think that politicians have never been held in such low regard as they are now. Certainly, if you spend too much time on social media – as I do – you will quickly come away with the impression that they are reviled and loathed more than at any time in history. So it may surprise you to learn that as long ago as August 1944, when the country was at war, fighting for its very survival, led by a coalition government under the leadership of one of Britain’s most admired statesmen, more than one-third of voters told Gallup that they believed politicians were ‘out merely for themselves.’ By 2014, that figure had risen to nearly half.

It is tempting in the current political climate to succumb to despair. If they’re all so miserably uninspiring, why on earth should we vote for any of them? Tempting it may be, but it would be a serious and dangerous mistake. The simple, unavoidable truth is that we need politicians, and if we don’t choose them, someone else will. Anyone who has been paying attention knows that there is no shortage of outside actors only too keen to meddle. (I do wonder, by the way, if the suppressed report by the parliamentary intelligence and security committee into alleged Russian interference in the UK’s politics will ever see the light of day.)

So our duty as responsible citizens is clear. Distasteful as we may find it, we will have to make a choice and cast a vote on 12 December. My advice is to take a look at the policies on offer, and at the candidates standing in your local constituency, and make a decision accordingly. There are plenty of decent, capable candidates standing – it’s just unfortunate that the two main party leaders, who inevitably are the ones who capture all the headlines, are such appalling examples of what’s on offer.

My hope is that once this election is over, someone will take it upon themselves to set in train a process that will enable us to come up with some serious suggestions aimed at mending what is clearly a broken and inadequate political system. Five years ago, after the Scottish independence referendum, I proposed a Reform Commission, which over a period of two years would hold public meetings and take evidence from voters all over the country before drawing up a package of proposals to present to parliament.

I have no confidence that any of the political parties will do it – but now that the Brexit debate has frayed old party loyalties, perhaps some of the liberated-cum-suspended ex-MPs of both main parties could find it a useful way to occupy their time.

And one last piece of advice: ignore the opinion polls. They may be right, and they may be wrong. Trouble is we won’t know until it’s too late to do anything about it.

Friday 22 November 2019

It's time to take Russian electoral interference seriously

I have a question for you: where do you think democracy is working more effectively – in Washington DC or in London?

You may well think it’s a tough call: after all, can any democratic system that throws up a Donald Trump or a Boris Johnson be said to be working effectively?

So consider the following.

In Washington, the President is effectively on trial, as one by one, senior administration officials are called to testify, on oath and in public, about his attempts to force the government of Ukraine to help him dig up dirt, real or imagined, relating to a political opponent, the former vice-president Joe Biden.

In London, publication of a detailed report drawn up by the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee into potential Russian interference in UK elections has been shelved. (A leaked version was published in the Sunday Times last weekend.) A few days after the decision was announced, the Conservative party received a £200,000 donation from Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of a former Russian deputy finance minister.

Coincidence? Maybe. She has certainly made big donations to the Tories in the past: £160,000 for the honour of being allowed to play tennis against Boris Johnson and David Cameron in 2014, and £135,000 to spend an evening with Theresa May and six of her female Cabinet colleagues earlier this year. (Mrs Chernukhin is a British citizen and therefore perfectly entitled legally to give as much as she likes to British political parties.)

There’s more. An investigation into Boris Johnson’s relationship with the American businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri, who was awarded grants from public funds while Johnson was mayor of London, is currently on hold while a police oversight body decides whether there is enough evidence to mount a criminal investigation against him. The oversight body has agreed not to announce its decision until after the election.

And on the subject of cash, did you see the details published yesterday by the Electoral Commission showing how much each of the political parties received in donations during the first week of the campaign? (The figures relate only to donations of more than £7,500.)

Nearly ninety per cent of the registered donations went to the Conservatives: as well as the £200,000 from Mrs Chernukhin, there was one and a half million from theatre producer John Gore, half a million from an investment firm, and another half million from a property company. The Tories’ one-week total came to £5.7 million, compared to £218,500 for the Labour party, £275,000 for the Lib Dems and £250,000 for the Brexit party.

In Washington, there is at least an attempt to uncover corrupt behaviour. It probably won’t succeed in removing the president from office (Mr Trump is only the fourth president in US history to face impeachment, and only one, Richard Nixon, was forced out), but from this side of the Pond, it looks significantly more effective than what we observe in Westminster, where the prevailing message seems to be ‘Oh, stop making such a fuss. There’s nothing to worry about.’

Johnson himself said as much in a BBC interview a few days ago: ‘There’s absolutely no evidence that I’ve ever seen of any Russian interference in UK democratic processes.’ Given the prime minister’s well-deserved reputation for uttering falsehoods (oh, all right then, telling lies), I would suggest that we are entitled to take his assurance with a large pinch of salt.

Contrast the disgracefully dilatory nature of the inquiries in the UK with what the exceptionally impressive British-born former top White House Russia expert Fiona Hill told Congress. She said the Russians ‘deploy millions of dollars to weaponise our own political opposition research and false narratives …’ Does no one in the UK think it matters?

It is surely not unreasonable to assume that what the Russians have tried so successfully to do in the US and elsewhere – subvert the electoral system – they have also been trying to do here. We already know of the links between Russian government officials and senior figures in the pro-Brexit campaign group Leave.EU and we deserve to know more.

So my answer to the question I posed above? Perhaps surprisingly, I conclude that the US system is working better than ours. Admittedly, it’s not saying all that much, considering how abysmal the UK record is on such matters.

But it is a shocking indication of how inured we have become to external interference in the political process that hardly anyone is making a fuss. I just hope that the bunch of MPs we elect next month will be up to the task of cleansing the stables.

(By the way, if you haven’t registered to vote yet, the deadline is next Tuesday. Here’s the link to the government’s registration site.)

Friday 15 November 2019

BBC conspiracy theorists: for God's sake, get a grip

Imagine the scene: it is very early last Monday morning, and a producer on the BBC Breakfast programme is putting together a report on the previous day’s Remembrance Sunday event at the Cenotaph in Whitehall.

A message from the programme’s editor pops up on their computer screen: ‘A word from the bosses – apparently Downing Street are fretting that the PM didn’t exactly look his best yesterday. They want us to spare his blushes by pulling up some archive stuff – can you dig out something that makes him look less of a prat?’

Do you believe that’s the explanation for why a sequence from 2016 rather than the previous day somehow found its way into that Monday morning TV report? Really? Do you seriously believe that BBC journalists take orders direct from Downing Street?

And that if anything remotely like that had happened, someone wouldn’t have blurted it out? I mean, please. Seriously?

Apparently, however, judging from the storm on social media that followed, a lot of people do believe exactly that. Including, to my amazement, some former BBC journalists who appear to have an extremely low opinion of their former colleagues.

One of them wrote on Twitter on Monday morning: ‘As a former [producer] on that programme, I can assure you that people who’ve been up all night don’t go to the trouble of finding three-year-old pictures and inserting them in an edit unless they’ve been told to. There is something very fishy about this …’

And after the BBC blamed the mistake on a ‘production error’, another wrote: ‘I used to work for BBC News. The previous day’s footage is right there in front of you. Footage from three years ago needs to be specially ordered from the Library. What sort of ‘error’ is that?’

A couple of hours later, that particular former producer admitted that they had left the BBC many years ago, ‘when we still used tape’. In other words, they had not the foggiest idea how the BBC’s digital editing systems are set up or how archive material is accessed in the digital age. But the damage was done: their first tweet was approved of by more than thirteen thousand people and retweeted by seven and a half thousand; the second by only a handful of people.

Similarly, a tweet from the former producer who had complained that there was something ‘very fishy’ going on was retweeted by eight thousand people and approved of by twenty thousand. A later tweet, from the same producer, in which they accepted the BBC’s explanation of how the mistake arose (‘I don’t doubt now that’s what happened’) was retweeted by just twelve people and approved of by a paltry twenty-five.

So here – just in case you have better things to do with your time than pore obsessively over the minutiae of the BBC’s production processes – is the official explanation for what happened. On Sunday morning, before the Remembrance Day events had taken place, BBC Breakfast ran some archive footage from the ceremony three years ago. When, the following day, a report on the event was being prepared, that archive clip – which, remember, had been broadcast on Sunday and therefore would have been marked accordingly in the digital archive, was included in the report by mistake. Did no one notice that Boris Johnson, who was foreign secretary in 2016, was carrying a green wreath instead of a red one? No, they didn’t. (Note to BBC news managers: that’s what happens when you slash staffing levels.)

UPDATE: The editor of BBC Breakfast gave a fuller -- and more accurate -- explanation of what happened and how on the Newswatch programme. Click here for the link.

Declaration of interest: I worked for the BBC for more than twenty years, and as a veteran of literally thousands of live news programmes – admittedly radio rather than TV – I can let you in on a secret: behind the scenes, they tend to be pretty chaotic. Often, taped items are transmitted before anyone has had a chance to check them; and often, no one on the production team is watching or listening to them as they are broadcast, for the simple reason that they are trying desperately to sort out the rest of the programme.

Former BBC journalists know all this well enough, so why are some of them so ready to join the chorus of ill-informed and sometimes ill-intentioned criticism, often from politically motivated sources, which descends on the BBC every time it makes a mistake? Some of them, I suspect, have convinced themselves that the place fell apart as soon as they left; others simply enjoy discomfiting their former employer. And some, I’m sure, are seriously concerned about what they perceive to be its shortcomings.

But here’s why I think all this is much more important than a row over a few seconds of breakfast television. There is a growing public perception that no news can be trusted these days, that politicians and journalists alike are all liars. This is a deeply dangerous development, and it is being encouraged by political forces whose goal is to weaken the standing of a free and independent press in a free and democratic society.

One commenter on (of all places) The Times website yesterday morning wrote: ‘It is na├»ve to consider news as true. Much or most is fake news.’ Which is exactly what Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and autocrats everywhere want you to believe. After all, if most news is fake, why should you believe anything journalists report when they uncover a politician’s malpractice or criminal activity? It is a blueprint for impunity.

As it happens, I gave a talk earlier this week to a group of secondary school students on the subject ‘True or false: how to survive in a world of fake news.’ I told them that they should be sceptical of everything they see and read (‘sceptical = not easily convinced; having doubts or reservations’) but not cynical (‘believing that people are motivated purely be self-interest; distrustful of human sincerity or integrity’).

I do not, of course, believe that the BBC is above criticism. I do believe, however, that those who for whatever reason encourage the view that it is part of a conspiracy to prop up a Conservative government and burnish the image of the current prime minister should take a long hard look at themselves in the mirror. (Does no one remember Eddie Mair’s direct confrontation with Johnson back in 2013?  ‘You’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?’)

Ponder the admirably honest words of the BBC Breakfast presenter Dan Walker: ‘We made a mistake. It’s an embarrassing error which our boss has apologised for. It’s annoying for everyone … and we have rightly been criticised for it. All I can give you is a guarantee that it was a genuine mistake.’

And the words of a friend and former BBC colleague, one of the cleverest people I know, whose blushes I shall spare by not naming him: ‘Scientists and philosophers who’ve devoted their lives to reason and empiricism are repeating the conspiracy that the BBC deliberately used incorrect footage to make Johnson look good. Get a grip, people.’

Friday 8 November 2019

Bidding farewell to the centre ground

Whoever wins next month’s election – or even if, as seems more than likely, no one wins it – the future shape of UK politics will have been profoundly changed.

RIP the Conservative and Labour parties as we have known them for the past hundred years. And RIP the notion that any party that hopes to win power needs to embrace a broad swathe of views and opinions.

Remember the ‘broad church’ theory? Just a few short weeks ago, the Labour MP Hilary Benn wrote: ‘To paraphrase Harold Wilson, the Labour party is a broad church or it is nothing.’ (What Wilson actually said, in a speech to the Labour party conference in 1962, was: ‘This party is a moral crusade or it is nothing.’ Which isn’t quite the same thing.)

Broad church: ‘a group or movement which embraces a wide and varied number of views, approaches and opinions.’ (Collins English Dictionary). In other words, a movement that can comfortably accommodate both Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson, or Boris Johnson and Ken Clarke.

No longer. Ken Clarke was one of 21 MPs who were booted out of the Tory party for daring to disagree with Boris Johnson. Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour party, has thrown in the towel after trying – and failing – to resist the Corbynite ascendancy. (He had more success in his efforts to dislodge Tony Blair from 10 Downing Street on behalf of his long-time ally Gordon Brown.)

Ian Austin, another former Brownite, who during a debate in 2016 about the Chilcot report into the Iraq war told Jeremy Corbyn to ‘sit down and shut up’, is now advising voters to support the Conservative party. (The former Labour MP, John Woodcock, who had the party whip withdrawn last year after sexual harassment allegations were made against him, has done likewise.) Philip Hammond, former Tory chancellor, foreign secretary and defence secretary, is quitting politics and says his former party has been turned into an ‘extreme right-wing faction.’

True, Boris Johnson still likes to claim that he is a ‘One Nation’ Tory – I’m not sure some of his senior Cabinet colleagues (Sajid Javid, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, for example) feel the same way. Likewise, Jeremy Corbyn insists he favours ‘gentler politics’ – tell that to Luciana Berger, Margaret Hodge or Louise Ellman. Shock news: just because a political leader says something doesn’t mean it is true.

For much of the period since the end of the Second World War, the UK’s two dominant political parties positioned themselves close to what they perceived to be the centre ground of public opinion. (Margaret Thatcher was a notable exception.) ‘Butskellism’, an approach embraced by both the Conservatives’ Rab Butler and Labour’s Hugh Gaitskell, was the order of the day: the Tories accepted the establishment of the welfare state, and Labour signed up to NATO and a British nuclear weapons programme.

In the years that followed, Tony Blair admired Margaret Thatcher; David Cameron admired Tony Blair. At election times, voters could be heard complaining that they couldn’t tell the difference between the parties. I doubt there are many voters now who would say they can’t tell the difference between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn.

There is a perfectly good argument to be made that this cosy centre-ground consensus did not serve the country as well as its proponents like to think. In 1997, Gordon Brown promised that Labour would match the Tories’ spending plans; in 2007, the Tories pledged to match Labour’s spending plans; and the global banking melt-down of 2008 was due at least in part to Labour and the Conservatives agreeing that the financial markets would operate best with only the lightest of regulation. Well, we know how that one ended …

The UK is not alone in witnessing the hollowing out of the political centre. In Donald Trump’s America, the Republicans have moved sharply to the right since the so-called Gingrich revolution of 1994 and the rise of the Tea Party faction since the late 2000s, while the Democrats are swinging left under the influence of would-be presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. In Italy, Matteo Salvini’s extreme populist and anti-immigration League party is outflanking more moderate parties, while in Germany, the centre-right Christian Democrats of Angela Merkel are under increasing pressure from the far-right anti-establishment AfD party.

Yes, there are a few exceptions: Emmanuel Macron in France, Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand and Justin Trudeau in Canada all position themselves more or less in the centrist tradition – and even in the UK, more voters still say they think of themselves as in the centre of the political spectrum than on either the right or the left.

But if democratic politics tend to resemble a pendulum, swinging first this way, then that way, what we are increasingly observing now is a pendulum swinging ever further in each direction. Why? Because no party in power has yet managed to convince voters that it has got a grip on the problems that matter most to them. ‘This lot are no good; so let’s try an even tougher lot.’

And then there’s Brexit. Which has given birth to a rare joint effort by three of the main pro-Remain parties – Liberal Democrats, Greens and Plaid Cymru – to maximise their chances of electoral success. So in nine English constituencies, the Lib Dems are standing down in favour of the Greens; the Greens are doing the same for the Lib Dems in 40 English constituencies; and in Wales, Plaid are being a clear run in seven.

It might help a handful of Lib Dems in the most marginal seats where they came second last time round – and that, in turn, might increase the chances of sending Boris Johnson packing. But as every commentator in the land keeps telling you, no one really has a clue what’s going to happen. One thing, though, is certain: if you want to make your voice heard, you need to be on the electoral register. You have until 26 November: here’s the link if you haven’t registered yet.