How does Labour get elected – and what does it do then?

Introduction

Our Government in the United Kingdom has been taken over by reckless and incompetent right-wing fanatics who achieved power by telling lies, and who are implementing policies that are disastrous for the majority of the population. This note offers an explanation for how this came about in a democracy, some thoughts on how we might win our country back, and some suggestions on how we can make it more likely that future Governments will be truthful, honest, reasonably competent, and less dangerously extreme.

How did extremist liars take over our Government?

For most of the period that the House of Commons has existed, the vote has been limited to those with wealth or property. The fear of the rich and powerful has always been that universal suffrage would result in the poor majority of the population voting to redistribute wealth and income from the haves to the have nots. Representative Democracy based on universal adult suffrage is still a new form of Government, less than 100 years old in the UK.

The Labour landslide after the second world war did bring to power a Government committed to creating a more equal society. It achieved an enormous amount in terms of social welfare, but the economy was slow to revive. It was followed by a thirty-year period when Governments of both political parties favoured a mixed system. Both parties accepted the role of private capital in generating economic growth, and they also accepted the case for Government to provide an effective social safety net, and to use the tax and benefit system to support greater equality of opportunity. Labour favoured a bigger role for the state and a bigger share for the working class, while the conservatives were more sympathetic to the private sector and the owners of capital, but the difference was one of emphasis. Democracy worked well because there was little disagreement about fundamental objectives, the political debate concentrating instead on the means to achieve them and on which party was better able to manage the economy.

The shift to the right that began in 1979 and has accelerated since the conservatives returned to power in 2010 has seen a complete breakdown of the post-war consensus. Surprisingly, the Conservatives were able to gather support for a right-wing agenda that does not at first sight appear to be favourable to the interests of the majority of the population.

The initial victory of the conservatives in 1979 was in large part a reaction to the winter of discontent, when a series of strikes by public sector trade unions caused major disruption to people’s lives. Labour efforts to limit the power of the trade unions had been rejected by the party, and the Conservatives were elected because they were perceived as better able to address the issue. The severe monetarist policies that they implemented resulted in a deep recession, high unemployment, and the loss of much of the manufacturing sector – destroying the power of the trade unions as a by-product of the loss of jobs in manufacturing and mining where most of the trade unionists were employed. These policies ought to have resulted in defeat at the next election in 1983, but the conservatives were returned to power on the back of victory in the Falkland Islands and opposition to a labour party that had responded to the rightwards lurch of the conservatives by itself going to the radical left – the 1983 Labour manifesto was described by Gerald Kauffman, one of its own MPs, as ‘the longest suicide note in history’.

The loss of manufacturing jobs not only weakened the trade unions, it also severed the close linkage between the working class and the labour party. Renewed growth was concentrated in the South, in service sectors that were not unionised, and where those who were employed did not necessarily see themselves as working class, and did not naturally identify with the Labour party. The aspirations of this rapidly expanding class were cleverly exploited with a series of measures to give them a direct financial stake in the conservative Government – notably the sale of the public housing stock and the sale of shares in privatised companies, both at attractive prices. The electorate was grateful for the bribes and voted Tory, ignoring the problems of housing shortages, rising inequality, and private sector monopolies being created for the next generation.

Labour learnt the lesson of 1983. In a mirror image of the Conservatives response of moving to the left after the 1945 Labour landslide, Labour eventually ended the period of Conservative dominance by moving to the right. It was able to return to power in 1997 and hold it until 2010. Although the economy performed well, and they achieved a lot in addressing poverty in the UK, the policies pursued by the Labour Government were in many respects further to the right of the spectrum than those pursued by Tory Governments prior to Thatcher.

Until 2016, the electoral system worked after a fashion. Governments of both parties respected constitutional conventions, they submitted to Parliamentary scrutiny, were generally honest and truthful. The major exception is the lies told by the Blair Government to justify the Iraq war, but the eventual exposure of the dishonesty of the case made to Parliament did irretrievable damage to the reputation of Mr Blair and the Government that he led.

The 2016 BREXIT vote and the three general elections that followed have witnesses a new and far more damaging lack of respect for truth, for constitutional convention, or even for basic honesty[1]. The conservatives have demonstrated that it is possible for a Government to fail on every one of the aspects of performance that we used to think determined election results, and yet still be returned to power.

Part of the explanation of how this has been possible is the deliberate circulation of lies and misleading information. The media have reported the statements of leading politicians on both sides of the argument, but have proved unable or unwilling to challenge statements that are often misleading, and sometimes blatantly untrue. It is worth unpacking a little why our media has been so reluctant to point out the lies.

Television remains the most used platform for news, and the most trusted of the major sources, with 77% of adults over 16 still using it for news and with the BBC still dominant, followed by ITV. It is followed by the internet, which is used by 65% of adults for news, and is the most used source by 16-24-year olds. Some 47% of adults use newspapers and newspaper web sites[2].

The fragmentation of news sources makes it easier to target biased, false or misleading content to specific target groups in ways that are difficult to challenge, because it is only seen by those who are more likely to believe it

The continuing consumption of TV news, and specifically BBC news, by more than half of the population may appear reassuring. However, the BBC, still the largest single provider of news, has been increasingly timid and unwilling to hold Government to account. In a world where news sources have fragmented, the BBC recognises that it is harder to sustain the argument for a compulsory licence fee, and appears to have one eye on not appearing to be biased against the paymasters. In an attempt to appear unbiased, the BBC have given minimal attention to analysis of BREXIT. They have reported the claims of BREXIT advocates and of remainers without facts or meaningful quantification, so that a casual consumer of their news coverage would be unaware of the overwhelming weight of expert analysis confirming that BREXIT will make us poorer and lead to massive disruption and loss of jobs. Only now, when it is too late to have any impact, has the BBC begun to analyse some of the consequences.

The nature of news coverage has also changed. The most read ‘newspapers’ carry less political analysis and more celebrity gossip. With one or two exceptions, they are right wing, reflecting the views of their wealthy owners. The 24- hour news coverage endlessly repeats a few headline items, but lacks detailed analysis. News picked up via the internet is targeted to the interests of the consumer, and mostly assumes a short attention span. Users are unlikely to encounter views they disagree with or subjects they are not interested in.

Engagement in politics has drastically reduced, raising the risk that our political parties will more easily fall into the hands of extremists and those who provide the funding. Conservative party membership has fallen from a peak of 2.8 million in the 1950s to less than 200,000[3]. The membership is older, more socially conservative, and more reactionary than those who vote for the party. A smaller and more centralised party is also more vulnerable to being influenced by the wealthy donors on whom it depends for finance.[4] The donors presumably expect some return in personal favours or policies favourable to themselves.

BREXIT is a surprising policy for the Conservatives, who were traditionally the party of business. The explanation may lie in the increased dependence on donations from wealthy individuals rather than major corporations. Wealthy individuals may be more concerned to protect their personal wealth from EU legislation to control tax havens or from threats to tax wealth directly. They are less concerned with protecting manufacturing enterprises, because they can always shift their money elsewhere. Our PM’s notorious comment ‘fuck business’ perhaps reflects the new reality that those with money can shift it at will, and need have no loyalty to specific companies, still less to specific plants established in a particular country. It is ironic, and perhaps highly cynical, that the wealthy backers of BREXIT have little real interest in UK sovereignty or the UK ‘taking back control of it’s borders.’ Their wealth is definitely under their control, it is held and managed globally and shifted across borders at will with no loyalty to any particular jurisdiction or particular company. It doesn’t damage their interests if cars are manufactured in Germany instead of the UK, but they do care that they can continue to shelter their wealth in tax havens.

The victory of the extreme BREXIT faction was also facilitated by the nature of our first past the post system of Government. In 2019, the Conservatives won an 80-seat majority in the house with just 45% of the votes cast, and just 30% of the electorate. For half of the electorate, voting makes little difference because only one party has a realistic chance of winning in their constituency. It is actually even worse than that, because the candidate is selected by the party, which ensures that there is little diversity. A conservative supporter who would like to vote for a moderate is likely to find that the candidate in his constituency is a right wing BREXIT supporting fanatic.

A well-resourced party can win a general election by focusing on the electors in a limited number of marginal seats. It can target its messages using social media in ways that make misinformation hard to challenge. It can target election promises on messages appealing to that group. If the campaign is supported by the wealthy and by the media barons, it can outspend its rivals, and ensure that the message is reinforced by a predominantly right-wing media more than willing to distort facts in order to support the conservatives while smearing the opposition.

To summarise, the two-party system worked well when Labour represented the working class, while the conservatives were the party of business. Both had an interest in economic growth and prosperity, seen as good for both wages and profits. The liberalisation of capital markets from the 1980s has broken this commonality of interest. The owners of capital are still the backers of the conservative party, but they are no longer closely linked to specific locations or businesses. They maximise their wealth by moving their money across borders and between companies, and no longer have interests in common with a workforce tied to a specific job or location. Despite this divergence of interests, the wealthy and radical right-wing extremists have been able to dominate our electoral system. This is possible because the population as a whole is not well informed or actively engaged, and is therefore vulnerable to a well-resourced campaign based on endless repetition of simple half-truths and deliberate misinformation.

How can Labour win back the Government?

Age is now the biggest dividing line in UK politics, with the old predominantly voting conservative or BREXIT party, while the young predominantly vote for left of centre parties[5]. Young people want a Government that is less socially conservative, and more committed to addressing the issues around climate change, poverty, inequality and inadequate social services. History should therefore be on the side of change, as the weight of the current generation of the very old in the electorate gradually declines. One problem is that a lower percentage of young people vote or have much knowledge or engagement with the political process. Less than half of 18-24-year olds voted in the 2019 general election, compared to nearly three quarters of over 65s[6].

A more general point is that many of the electorate have felt ignored and let down by the political system. They feel that all politicians are the same, only in it for themselves. Experience since 2010 has taught them that the Government does nothing to solve their problems. Few remember the very real progress in reducing poverty and inequality under labour in 1997-2010, even fewer know about the leading role that labour played in mitigating the global financial crisis, and instead blamed Labour and voted them out in 2010.

The negative attitudes of the electorate towards politicians in general and Labour in particular are not based on any sophisticated understanding or knowledge of the causes of their problems. Ignorance leaves the electorate very vulnerable to the arguments of populists. If you start with the assumption that your vote makes little difference anyway, it is very tempting to give populists with simple solutions a try: perhaps it really is all the fault of the EU, or the Chinese, or immigrants, or benefit scroungers, or whatever scapegoat the Government and the right-wing press are touting this week as the cause of all our troubles.

We have learned to our cost that a Government willing to blame foreigners and immigrants, willing to tell lies about its own policies and those of the opposition, and able to find a few juicy bribes for potential voters can get itself elected. Even more remarkably, it turns out that The Who were wrong and the electorate will get fooled again – change the leader, and pretend it is an entirely new Government.

When the Government goes to the extreme right, it is tempting for the opposition Labour party to settle in the stodgy middle ground. The new Labour leadership at the time of writing in January 2021 have finally captured a small lead over the Tories in recent polls of voting intentions, and are arguing that this is evidence that the middle ground is where they will gain a victory at the polls. I am not convinced that this is the case. The conservative Government has presided over a decade of severe austerity, has negotiated a thin BREXIT deal that is predicted to shrink the economy by 4%, and has presided over total chaos and confusion in its response to the Coronavirus. Add to this a succession of scandalous contracts going at high cost to Tory party chums who had no relevant experience and who charged exorbitant prices and still failed to deliver. With that record, Labour should be trouncing the conservatives with a lead in the high teens. The fact that they are not suggests that the electorate remain uninspired by a leadership that is perceived to offer little that is new. Indeed, with Labour votes concentrated in urban areas, and with Scotland lost to the nationalists, the current lead is too small to even make Labour the largest party.

I would suggest that four key elements are essential to a successful Labour election strategy: –

  1. Work with Allies: The parties of the centre and moderate left will need an electoral pact. The disastrous experience of coalition should not be repeated, but it is essential to minimise the number of seats won by conservative candidates. Other progressive parties should stand down in favour of the candidate with the best chance of defeating the conservative. To secure such a pact, Labour may need to be relatively generous in ceding to minor parties some seats that might be winnable. The bigger picture should be the focus.
  2. Communicate effectively: relentlessly focus on just three or four messages, but also have a strategy to deal with a hostile media. In 2019, the leadership was not active, agile and articulate enough in refuting the lies. It will be essential to re-establish a rebuttal unit, to instantly correct lies or mis-information and get the corrections out on every available platform. It would not be wise to get into bed with media magnates to the extent that Tony Blair did, but it would make sense to invest in improving relations with the media as far as that is possible without compromising on policy.
  3. Attack: The conservative record has been truly appalling. Lies, waste, corruption, incompetence, every target missed, promising everything, delivering nothing, apart from an extreme BREXIT that will severely damage the country for a generation or more. Labour have been too hesitant in defending their own record in Government and far too restrained in attacking the record of the conservatives.
  4. Organise: Build on the mass movement of younger supporters created under Jeremy Corbyn, making smart use of new media. The trick will be to focus on a policy agenda that is both inspiring to the members, and perceived as credible and attractive by the broader electorate.

Without getting into policy detail, I would suggest that the three or four key messages that Labour should focus on are:

  1. Genuinely take back control –a fair distribution of expenditure, managed by local Government with restored powers, and an end to the scandal of public services delivered through dodgy deals with private sector spiv companies.
  2. Invest in a green revival to achieve zero carbon.
  3. Things are better under Labour –the statistics show that the Labour record in managing the economy, providing public services, and reducing poverty has been consistently superior to the conservatives, and Labour needs to own that proud record rather than seeming embarrassed by it.
  4. The BREXITERS lied to you: Restore our trading relationships and end the chaos that a very thin BREXIT has caused.

In 2024, an incoming Government is certain to inherit a collapsed economy, with high unemployment, massive poverty and inequality, dilapidated and under-funded public services, inadequate infrastructure in dire need of rehabilitation, and a much depleted and impoverished private sector, shrunk by COVID and by BREXIT, with those businesses that have not relocated facing higher costs of doing business. It will face a very high public debt as a share of GDP, an on-going public sector deficit, a much smaller tax base, and a more difficult environment for funding the deficit, with higher interest rates and probably further deterioration in the HMG credit rating. It will face a hostile media, intensified pressure to break the union of the United Kingdom, and international relationships in urgent need of repair.

In order to win the election and not take the blame, the campaign needs to hammer home the cause of all of these problems. They are mainly the result of stupid policy decisions, and were avoidable. There is no need to be afraid of ‘project fear.’ Labour should own it. The remainers were right to be fearful of the consequences of BREXIT, and those who told us not to be fearful were lying.

It is unfortunate that Keir Starmer voted for the Tory BREXIT deal, and has said that Labour must accept it, and that it may not even mention the issue in future election materials. It seems like a major error to offer this unnecessary support just at the point when polls suggest that a majority of the electorate now think BREXIT was a mistake, a majority that is likely to increase when the full consequences hit home. If things go as badly as seems inevitable with this crisis prone and incompetent Government, the Conservatives will be very quick to share the blame, pointing out that both parties supported the deal. I accept that it is not realistic to argue for re-joining in the short term, but a far closer relationship, perhaps including membership of the single market, is something that should be discussed.

Labour should also be honest and transparent about the public finances. Labour is simply not believed when it makes expenditure promises while saying most people will not face higher taxes. Labour may as well make a virtue of promising to dig the country out of the mess left by the Tories. Arguments to make are: –

  1. We intend over time to raise taxes as a share of national income to levels similar to successful European countries like Germany.
  2. The burden will fall more heavily on those best able to pay it, particularly through wealth taxes, but we will not pretend that the necessary repair to public finances can be accomplished without some increased taxation of those on middle and higher incomes.
  3. Public expenditure will be repaired as quickly as our limited resources permit. Highest priority will be given to repairing the damage that has been done to local Government services, with increased revenue raising powers, linked to a comprehensive deal to redistribute public sector revenues in favour of poorer parts of the country, with less central control of how money is spent.
  4. A health service funded from general taxation and free at point of delivery will continue to be a cornerstone of Labour policy, and will be properly funded -with steady progress towards spending the same share of national income on it as those of our European neighbours with highly effective health systems.
  5. Education continues to be a high priority, but with less focus on private sector providers, and a reduced burden of testing and inspection. As and when resources permit, we will relieve students from the anxiety of student debts that raise little revenue, but that systematically discourage participation by the most disadvantaged students. The priority will be education for life – not the soulless production of employment fodder.

How do we stop it happening again?

This final section discusses how we can build our democracy to be more representative, honest, and accountable.

Build a more representative democracy

A two party, first past the post system can work where there is a high degree of consensus about fundamental values, and broad participation by the population, including party membership that reflects the make-up of society. None of these conditions are met in the UK. There are fundamental fissures on every major issue: – relations with Europe and the rest of the world, how to deal with climate change, the role of the state versus the free market, the extent of decentralisation of power, and even whether Scotland should leave the Union.

If a Labour Government gains power with an absolute majority it will be tempting to conclude that the system does not need to be reformed: – politicians tend to think that any system that elected them can’t have much wrong with it. However, electoral reform is essential if we are to protect the country from once again falling victim to a Government of extreme zealots. In 2016 it was BREXIT bigots intent on severing ties with Europe at any cost, but it would be equally unfortunate to find ourselves with a Government of Maoist revolutionaries, or intolerant religious bigots. The point is that parties with a small membership are vulnerable to being taken over by extremists. In a two-party system, this means that a Government can end up with a majority in Parliament, even though the majority of the electorate do not share its views.

The best protection against this happening again is to introduce a form of proportional representation. A specific version of PR was rejected in a referendum in 2011, partly because the specific option was complex and hard to understand, and the two major UK parties did not support it. Next time, it should be presented as a protection against extremism, it should be a priority in the manifesto, and the details should be worked out in Parliament and not subject to a yes/no referendum.

The aim would be to ensure that, as far as possible, every vote is of equal value. If 10% of the population vote for the green party, then that is the proportion of MPs that they should have in Parliament.

Three main objections are commonly raised to PR: –

  1. It may result in weak and unstable coalition Governments. A more positive way of expressing the same thought is that a coalition Government will need to seek policy positions that are genuinely acceptable to representatives who reflect the views of the majority of the voting population. This may mean that action on significant issues might take longer to be agreed, but it should be more sustainable and less likely to be abruptly reversed because future Governments will also need to reflect the majority view, making abrupt changes in direction less likely.
  2. Minority parties may exact a high price for their support, while extreme and dangerous views may find themselves reflected in Parliament. With a larger number of parties, the scope for any one party to acquire excess influence as a price for supporting a coalition is arguably less than under first past the post, where Theresa May was left with no option but to pay a hefty bribe to the DUP in order to sustain her Government. Representation of extreme views in the national parliament can be genuinely upsetting, but the constitution should be able to keep behaviour within the confines of legality and decency. Giving a legitimate outlet for views that most people find abhorrent might reduce the pressures for non-parliamentary violence, and provides an opportunity for them to be challenged.
  3. PR breaks the link between individual MPs and their geographically based constituency, something that many of them greatly value. The first point to make is that the need for MPs to take up the cases of individuals within their constituency reflects the weakness of local Government, which has been allowed to atrophy under successive Governments. Local issues facing individuals or households should be dealt with by local Government representatives, who will be able to do so if given more devolved power and resources. The second point is that, when it comes to national issues, there is little point writing to a local MP who represents the party you did not vote for. If your point is not in line with existing party policy, you will get a stock response and no action. Moreover, most MPs will only respond to letters from their constituents, which means that those of us not represented by an MP of our choosing have no effective route for raising our concerns. Any form of PR would reduce this problem. Much larger, multiple member constituencies elected on PR would retain links to a geographical area, while giving everyone within that area access to at least one member who broadly represents their views and priorities.

It is true that some countries that use PR have suffered from short lived Governments that have been unable to address their problems. It is equally true that others, notably in Northern Europe, have enjoyed stable and effective Government for decades. What is undeniable is that UK Government over the last decade has represented the worst of all worlds – unrepresentative, divisive, and hopelessly inept, making a series of disastrous decisions, and then executing them with startling inefficiency and a degree of cronyism that reflects appalling Governance and gives the appearance of corruption.

Rebuild Local Government

Many of the worst disasters that have beset us are caused by the long -term erosion of local Government under both parties, but especially under austerity since the conservatives returned to power in 2010. Over centralisation of functions that would be better performed locally has been at the heart of repeated disasters, with track and trace merely the most visible. The steepest cuts have fallen on local authorities, while their freedom of action has been eroded by a culture of micro management. Local Government is impeded by centralised setting of targets, severe restrictions on the ability of local Government to allocate funds based on local priorities, and the ability to plan services compromised by introducing private providers in education and health, leading to considerable waste and inefficiency. Dealing with inequality and alienation from politics requires a much stronger role for local Government, with central Government ensuring a fair distribution of revenue based on need, with extra support for those authorities least able to raise local revenue. This is critical to winning back the ‘red wall’ constituencies lost to the conservatives in 2019.

Strengthen engagement in politics

There is a strong case for education of both children and adults in the tools they need to make sense of politics and to identify lies, distortions and exaggeration. All citizens need at least a basic understanding of how central and local Government operates, and at least basic understanding of statistics.

Improving Governance

The most depressing aspect of our declining Governance has been the willingness of HMG to tell lies, including telling lies in Parliament. Until quite recently, a Member found to have deliberately lied would be expected to resign from office and usually from his seat, as Minister of War John Profumo did in the 1960s.

Standards have slipped so far that the Johnson Government lies continually, in all forums including Parliament, and faces no sanctions or comeback for doing so.

 It is difficult to over-emphasise how catastrophic it is for a society when the word of the Government cannot be trusted. It wrecks treaties and alliances, it makes fair elections impossible, it undermines law and order, and creates a cynical and despairing society in which nobody can be believed.

In a world where we can’t rely on our Right Honourable Members of Parliament to be either Right or Honourable, we need some statutory protection against deliberate lying in Parliament. How best to achieve this needs study, but a possible approach might involve establishment of an independent body responsible for checking the veracity of statements made in Parliament. It would need to have a budget set independently from the Government of the day, and access to professional staff with relevant skills.

To be relevant, the fact checkers would need to issue their findings on the truthfulness of statements within days, if not hours. This would involve no more than a quick and simple check of statements that can be definitively determined to be either true, false, or needing qualification to avoid misleading. The fact checkers themselves could be accountable to a select committee of Parliament, to whom they would make regular reports on their work.

The point of the exercise is not just to catch Government out in a lie, but to provide an incentive for changed behaviour. If possible, it would be great to have a statutory requirement that a Minister found to have deliberately lied to Parliament is required to resign, and is barred from holding public office.

Restore a strong, permanent, apolitical civil service

When I joined the civil service in the mid-1970s, special advisers were unknown. Before each election, the permanent civil servants in each Department would scan the party manifestos, and set out in briefing papers how the commitments in the manifesto could best be delivered. We would implement what our political masters decreed, but we would provide impartial analysis of the consequences of each policy option, and might point out better approaches to achieve the same ends. In my experience, Ministers did not interfere in decisions on civil service postings or promotions.

The model began to change under Thatcher. Special advisers were brought in, initially with a role limited to political advice, but the distinction was never clear cut, and they increasingly encroached on the permanent civil service role of fleshing out the practicalities of how political priorities could be realised in practice. More and more functions that had been undertaken by the civil service were either privatised or hived off to ‘next steps agencies’, semi-commercial bodies intended to operate under market disciplines. More and more roles were filled by people brought in from the private sector on contract, usually on far higher salaries. Many of them were brought in explicitly to implement a particular political vision of how an area of Government should operate, and they wanted to surround themselves with others who shared that vision, not with cautious civil servants who would tediously point out the pitfalls. The character of the civil service began to change. The ambitious recognised that true believers were more likely to be the high flyers. A period in the civil service was increasingly seen as a stepping stone to well paid work outside. The key to success within the civil service began to depend on being ‘one of us’ rather than a boring Sir Humphrey.

A more open civil service brought challenges to the independence and impartiality of civil servants. Those moving back and forth from private sector roles inevitably came with baggage. They had worked for firms with an interest in Government contracts, and would expect to return there when their contract ended. They had close relationships and investment interests that were potentially compromising. Attempts to avoid the appearance of bias were only partially successful, because those charged with implementing the rules would themselves wish to return to the private sector at some point, and were therefore inclined to be sympathetic.

If we charitably assume that the current chaos in Government is due to incompetence rather than graft, it suggests a need to return to a system where all salaried Government jobs require competitive recruitment. The main exception to this has been the proliferation of political appointments. There is a strong argument for requiring a competitive recruitment process for appointments to all posts that draw a tax-payer funded salary. If Ministers wish to appoint special advisers to fulfil political roles, they should be paid for from party funds, not by the taxpayer, and they should not have any role in the management of public funds. This is not only important for ensuring that posts are filled by competent officials with relevant experience, it will also be essential if equality of opportunity is to be extended to all groups within the population.

Ideally, it would be good to prohibit civil servants (or anyone who draws a public sector salary, including Ministers and SPADs) from working in any capacity related to an area of the economy where they had a decision-making role for a minimum period long enough to avoid the risk of corrupt influence, I would suggest 2 years. To be feasible, this might require better salaries to be paid – something that would be politically contentious.

Ensuring Probity

One of the most depressing aspects of current Governance in the UK has been the proliferation of high value contracts being let without competitive tendering to companies completely lacking in relevant experience. If this were happening in a developing country, nobody would be in any doubt that corrupt motives lay behind such bizarre decisions. The remedy is the same in both cases. We need procurement guidelines to be agreed and enforced by statute, with waivers from normal tendering processes only agreed in exceptional, defined circumstances, and able to be challenged in the courts. This needs careful design to avoid vexatious court cases being brought by every firm that loses a tender, but there does need to be some process to prevent the current chaos.

It is difficult to understand quite how public procurement became so dysfunctional. Procedures to ensure competition in procurement have long been in place. The Permanent Secretary in each Government Department has remedies he can take if asked to sign off on inappropriate expenditure, the most extreme being to write a formal letter to the PAC. Reports by the PAC can draw attention to wasteful or potentially illegal expenditure. For whatever reason, these remedies have not succeeded in restraining the behaviour of a Government that has a large majority and is indifferent to conventions or criticism. If convention no longer works, it may be necessary to make it much easier to prosecute Ministers for wasteful, negligent and corrupt expenditure of public funds. 

Ensuring Government is not for sale

An equally dangerous source of undue influence on policy is the dependence of both political parties on large donations from businesses, trade unions, and individual wealthy donors.  The large donations are clearly not provided out of public-spirited charity. They are given in the expectation that a future Government will return the favour by ensuring a policy environment that is favourable to the interests of the donor. This limits the appetite for taxing the wealthy, or insisting on green measures that inconvenience carbon-emitting businesses, or that threaten the jobs of union members.

There has long been a debate about replacing the current ad hoc funding of political parties with a system funded from taxation. This has not been pursued because it would be politically unpopular, and because of difficult issues surrounding how best to allocate any funds. These questions are not insurmountable – funding could be shared on the basis of the share of the vote, or individuals could be asked to nominate the party they would like to receive their contribution, perhaps when filling in their annual tax or benefit form. Irrespective of whether state funding of political parties is introduced, there is a very strong case for imposing a low annual maximum ceiling on the contribution that any individual, firm, trade union or other organisation can make to a political party. This needs to be set so low that no individual or organisation acquires significant leverage as a result of its contribution. Suitable safeguards will be needed to prevent donors disguising the size of their contribution by paying it via multiple agents acting on their behalf.

The implication is that party funding would drop, and would be more dependent on developing a broader membership base and more diverse funding. Both would arguably be good for our democracy.

Reform the Media

The ‘post truth’ society has been led by the media, dominated by rich oligarchs able to push out lies and distortions through multiple platforms without significant consequences. The related problem is that messages that are false or misleading can be sent exclusively to target groups that might be swayed by them, without being seen by those who would be able to correct or challenge what is being said.

BBC journalism, still the source from which 60% of the population obtain their news has sunk to abysmal levels. This may be partly due to a new vulnerability to political pressure. With the fragmentation of media, the BBC knows that it can’t rely on independent financing via the licence fee forever. Accused of bias against the Government, it has felt unable to subject Government plans to rigorous analysis. It has been reduced to reading press releases and conducting far too many vox pop interviews that provide neither information nor insight. Throughout the BREXIT debate, the BBC has been a fact free zone, quoting both sides of the debate as if they had equal worth, conducting no analysis of its own, and failing to ask the hard questions.

The future income of the BBC needs to be secured and insulated from Government control, perhaps with a long- term deal on the licence fee. The BBC charter may need some amendment. It should have an explicit remit to hold the Government of the day to account for the accuracy of their claims, and an explicit responsibility to give space to independent analysis and views. This ought not to need saying, but clearly does. If they would like to be reminded how to do current affairs, they should take a close look at how Al Jazeera English operates. They should also have an explicit remit to uphold the constitution and the institutions of democracy, and to draw attention to any threats to them.

Turning to other media, it is clear that media oligarchs have acquired an unhealthy dominance over news outlets. In addition to the direct consumption of their output, it is shared and re-tweeted multiple times on other platforms in ways that are hard to control. Even if most people are getting their news via their mobile phones, the ultimate source of a lot of what they are watching is from more conventional TV or newspaper on-line sources.

There is a strong case for imposing a lower limit on the audience share owned by any one provider on any communication channel. If they have more than the agreed maximum share, one approach could be to require the excess to be leased to other providers, perhaps overseen by an independent body.

There should be higher fines and more effective redress for knowingly broadcasting falsehoods.  Corrections should be required to be broadcast at the same time and with the same prominence as the original falsehood. If the BBC were to reform itself to be a credible news organisation, the fines could be paid to the BBC for the explicit purpose of generating the content to correct the original error, for broadcasting on the offending channel as well as on the BBC.

Conclusions

The UK is in a dangerous place. It has a reckless and extreme Government that does not represent either the wishes or the interests of the bulk of the population, and that is doing severe damage to our economy, our society, and our international reputation.

Changing the Government, and ensuring that Parliament does not again fall into the hands of rogues and scoundrels, requires progressive parties to work together to win the next election, and to then reform the electoral system with the introduction of a form of PR. The behaviour of the current Government confirms that MPs can no longer be relied on to be truthful and honest, while the news media are too fragmented and biased to hold them to account. We therefore need to bring in some statutory protections to discourage the circulation of deliberate falsehoods, both lying in Parliament, and the circulation of lies and misrepresentation through other media.

Genuinely levelling up the more disadvantaged areas of the country requires local Government to be re-built. Resources for local Government need to be significantly increased, with a formula to channel more funds to those areas least able to raise revenue locally, and with expenditure priorities set locally rather than by national targets. This provides a more meaningful form of ‘taking back control’ than the empty promises made concerning BREXIT.

Finally, we need to encourage the population to re-engage with politics, with a particular focus on education. Our citizens need reminding that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.


[1] According to First Draft News, 88% of Tory advertisements during the 2019 campaign featured ‘questionable’ claims.

[2] Ofcom, News Consumption in the UK:2020

[3] Stuart Wilks-Heeg and Stephen |Crone, Funding political parties in Great Britain: A Pathway to Reform, Democratic Audit 2010.

[4] 48 people on the Sunday Times ‘rich list’ donated more than £200,000 in 2019 to political parties, 43 of them to the conservatives. The London Economic 23rd December 2020. Donations and legacies accounted for 60% of conservative party income in 2005-09, double the proportion of labour income Wilks-Heeg and Crone, op cit.

[5] You Gov analysis of 2019 election results

[6] IPSOS MORI polling research.

What is racist, and what is not? A contribution to the debate in the Labour Party

What does anti-semitism mean?

 

We would all agree that hatred or dislike based on something fundamental that individuals are unable to change is always unacceptable – whether it be skin colour or some form of disability or any other characteristic outside their control. None of the allegations about anti-Semitism in the labour party fall into this category.

 

The problem with religious discrimination is that it involves criticism not of what someone is, but of what they believe – and in the interests of free speech, we need to stress that the right to criticise the beliefs of others is legitimate and should be protected. The alleged cases of anti-Semitism do not take this form either.

 

We are instead dealing with Labour party members expressing views about the policy and conduct of the state of Israel, both within it’s own borders and, more particularly, within the territories that it has illegally occupied since 1967. We are all presumably in agreement that the policies and practices of the Government of Israel must be a legitimate field of debate within a national political party that has to articulate policy positions on all current international and national questions.

 

The accusation of anti-Semitism thus derives from the fact that Israel is the only majority jewish state, and that for many jews the state of Israel as a homeland for jewish people is a core component of their jewish identity. This dual identity inevitably leads to the potential for confusion when the behaviour of the state attracts criticism.

 

The issue then comes down to questions about how individual party members have chosen to prosecute the discussion. There is a spectrum:-

i. Open and civilised debate of the issues is presumably acceptable to all of us, using facts and analysis that are open to challenge.

ii. Deliberate lies and mis-representation are clearly not acceptable, though they are all too typical of the current level of political discourse in the UK. Where facts are contested of course it can be difficult to distinguish case i from case ii.

iii. Social intimidation of those holding different views should never be acceptable. We may dislike what others have to say, but should protect their right to say it.

iv.The more extreme ends of the spectrum of discrimination, involving physical assault or worse have not been alleged, although it could perhaps be argued that a discriminatory environment dangerously lowers the taboos and barriers that protect individuals from the risk of assault.

 

If we apply this framework to the three cases that have recently attracted most attention, they seem to fall into the category of legitimate discussion of the policies of the Israeli state.

 

In the case of Naz Shah, there are two separate facebook allegations, neither of them in my view straying outside the bounds of legitimate political debate.

 

The post which was the proximate cause of her resignation showed a picture of Israel superimposed over the United States, with the comment: “Problem solved and save you bank charges for the £3bn you transfer yearly.” In comments below, Shah said she would tweet Barack Obama and David Cameron with the suggestion and said it would “save them some pocket money”.

It is obvious that this was not intended as a serious political suggestion. It was a satirical comment on the close US-Israel relationship, and the financial support that enables Israel to continue to be militarily dominant in the region. Critics of Israel would argue that it is US financial support that has enabled Israel to ignore all pressure to negotiate a settlement. It is not necessary to agree with this view to accept that it is legitimate to hold it. The original post that Shah was re-tweeting did not come from some jew hating extremist site, but from Professor Norman Finkelstein. He is described in Wikipedia as “an American political scientist, activist, professor, and author. His primary fields of research are the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and the politics of the Holocaust, an interest motivated by the experiences of his parents who were Jewish Holocaust survivors.”

 

It may be a poor joke, but it is hardly anti-semitic, and nobody was harmed by her comments. Had it been a serious suggestion to forcibly transport the inhabitants of Israel to the US it would of course have been offensive, but it was clearly no such thing.

 

Other re-posts and comments by Naz Shah make the following points:-

 

  1. “The reality is that through its historical and current colonial project the Zionist apparatus in Tel Aviv and globally continues to enact policies and practices that are deeply inhumane, that are unequal and have created physical realities that have left the mantra of Tony Blair precisely what it was meant to be an ‘(un)viable two state solution’.”
  2. During the Gaza conflict, Ms Shah posted a link on Facebook to a newspaper poll asking whether Israel had committed war crimes. She wrote: “The Jews are rallying to the poll.” And then called on people to vote “yes”.

iii. Naz Shah claimed that no Israeli children had been killed by stone throwing Palestinians.

 

The first point is certainly well within the realms of legitimate political debate. There is widespread agreement in the academic literature that the continuing expansion of Israeli settlements has resulted in a reality on the ground that makes a two state solution now unviable.

 

The argument that Israel committed war crimes is also hardly controversial. During the Second Intifada, the UN Commission on Human Rights reported “widespread, systematic and gross violations of human rights perpetrated by the Israeli occupying power, in particular mass killings and collective punishments, such as demolition of houses and closure of the Palestinian territories, measures which constitute war crimes, flagrant violations of international humanitarian law and crimes against humanity.”[138] In 2014 Amnesty released a report with similar findings, criticizing Israel for excessive and reckless use of force for which Israeli soldiers are not held accountable. Amnesty said characteristics of the violence suggested it was employed as a matter of policy, and that there was evidence some killings amounted to war crimes.[171]

 

The third point could be argued to be a case of mis-representation by Ms Shah, as there does appear to have been one such case. However, even if true, the critical point (as Ken Livingstone pointed out) is the enormous disparity in the body count with far more Palestinians killed than Israelis.

 

Were any of her tweets or comments anti-semitic?

 

I would say they are not. It was perhaps careless to refer to ‘the jews’ voting in support of Israel rather than more precisely suggesting that Israeli supporters were highly motivated to vote. However, all of the comments are concerned with the conduct of the Israeli state, and have nothing to do with personal hatred of jews. If anyone is guilty of deliberate mis-representation it is those who are making the accusations of anti-semitism.

 

The deliberate identification of an opposition to the Zionist project with anti-semitism is made explicit in comments by Joan Ryan, Labour Friends of Israel chair, who said: “This incident underlines yet again the need for the Labour Party to take urgent action to combat antisemitism and anti-Zionism in all its forms.” The two are however clearly quite different things. Zionism was a political movement to establish a homeland for the jewish people. It was a legitimate aim, but aspects of the way in which it was in practice carried out, with expulsions of Arabs without compensation or right of return, continue to be problematic, as does the continued expansion of illegal settlements.

 

The second case relates to Oxford University Labour Club. A decision by the club to support Israeli Apartheid Week, which seeks to highlight Israel’s “ongoing settler-colonial project and apartheid policies over the Palestinian people”, has angered some Labour MPs, who have called for the party to dissociate itself from OULC. Louise Ellman, vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel, said: “I am deeply disturbed by the news that Oxford University Labour Club has decided to support Israeli Apartheid Week and by the revelations from Alex Chalmers about the troubling tone of the discourse in which this debate appears to have been conducted.” She said comparisons between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa were “a grotesque smear and the Labour party should dissociate itself from them”.

 

The allegedly ‘grotesque smear’ has a prestigious pedigree.Israeli treatment of non-Israelis in territories occupied by Israel for nearly fifty years, has been compared to South Africa’s treatment of non-whites during the apartheid era by the Congress of South African Trade Unions,[148], by former US President Jimmy Carter,[149], by archbishop Desmond Tutu and by Michael Ben-Yair, attorney-general of Israel.[150] In 2009, South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council released a 300-page study that concluded that Israel practiced colonialism and apartheid in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.[151]The accusation of anti-semitism appears to be unfounded unless all of these prestigious individuals and bodies are also guilty of it.

 

The final case is that of Ken Livingstone. The most annoying thing about his intervention is that it kept a damaging debate going and escalated it at a time when efforts should have been focused on the coming elections. However, for what it is worth, he appears to be factually largely correct in what he says, and again it is difficult to see how his comments can be taken as evidence of anti-semitism. He said that Hitler initially wanted to expel the jews because he hated them and that his officials held discussions with the Zionists to that end. He did not suggest that the Zionists supported Hitler, nor did he suggest that Hitler was anything but repugnant in his attitude to the jews. His comments were in answer to a question, and were largely irrelevant to the debate on anti-semitism.

 

His other points were to draw attention to Israeli brutality towards Palestinians including the gross disparity in the body count, and the tendency of the pro-Israel lobby to label anyone criticising Israel as anti semitic. All of which is fair comment.

 

My conclusion is that there may have been some unguarded language used at times, but the cases that have received such publicity and had dire consequences for the individuals were of startling triviality and were not evidence of anti-semitism. They are explained perhaps by common cause among those wishing to damage Jeremy Corbyn, and those wishing to deflect all criticism of Israel.

 

The startling thing is that the ‘Labour Friends of Israel’ receive so little criticism for their support of a regime that has been repeatedly accused of war crimes and of imposing unacceptable levels of suffering on the inhabitants of the occupied territories. As a labour party member, I am hurt and offended by labour party members appearing to defend the indefensible, and bringing my party into disrepute by associating it with a regime that has a long history of oppressing the rights of the Palestinian people. That is the real issue. A little mild upset or irritation experienced by some party members because of strongly worded criticism of the conduct of a foreign power seems utterly trivial in comparison with the lethal and discriminatory behaviour by Israel that her critics seek to highlight.. The accusations of anti-Semitism seem to be contrived in my view to stifle a debate that needs to be brought into the open. There are indeed examples of unacceptable bullying within the labour party, but they are not coming from those now accused of anti-Semitism, but from those who are making the accusations to silence necessary debate.