Outside the marginals

A commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010, 2015 & 2017 elections (and THAT referendum)

Stepping into the Abyss

Tomorrow is election day in the UK and the country seems poised to step into the abyss. This is the most dismal prospect that I have faced in my adult life and in my Tory Safe Seat – so safe the others are not even working it, I have no say. Facing retirement, with a small uncertain occupational pension pot, and poor health, I am scared for my future and of probable social unrest. I (in my stupid uncomprehending prejudiced dotage?) believe that sorting out the mess that will be precipitated by the votes of others tomorrow will take decades.

How have we got to this state?

Long term

Long term (past decades) we have been brought to this place by a failure of parliamentary democracy which has been unaddressed because it suits two elitist parties to take turns in having majority power on minority votes. That lead to the Brexit spasm when the blister of discontent, resentment and lack of representation was burst.

Short term

Since 2016 we have seen (1) incompetence by the Government without a plan as to how to get to Brexit – it is almost as if they did not expect the referendum result and are consequently condemning us to Tusk’s Special Place in Hell.

We have seen (2) Whitehall disparaged and sidelined. I believe our Civil Service is far too London-centric, but they are usually the flywheel of our democracy able to keep things going through periods of government incompetence. Not now.

The (3) absence of effective opposition has exacerbated the situation. The main opposition party as been absent without leave, the Liberals are still toxic because of some significant incompetence in Coalition, and a party that is uniquely Scottish has been unable to get traction within the UK Parliament.

The lack of effective opposition and the removal of administrative resistance has given the Government a free run. This has not really been commented on by (4) the media. The press media is overtly right wing with few exceptions and the broadcast media has been cowed into a level of uncritical, incurious, subservience that almost defies belief.

(1) Government Incompetence

We have seen Conservative Administrations post 2016 rush to fire the starting gun on Brexit, giving the Article 50 Notice of intent to leave the EU when their plan was literally not much more than “Brexit Means Brexit”.

Since then we have seen further incompetence. Apart from a failure to gain a Majority for Brexit in 2017 we have seen two definitions of Brexit proposed by Theresa May mown down. This has been through a combination of Hard Brexiteer MPs claiming “this not what Leavers voted for” (as if they know) and Remainers concerned that the proposals would be damaging to the country. Johnson has since redefined Brexit yet again!

The incompetence continues with the idea that by voting Conservative tomorrow, that “Gets Brexit Done”. All it will do is enable the Conservatives to cut us loose from our closest and biggest ally and trading partner on 31 January. Rebuilding Trade and Diplomatic relationships could take at least a decade.

(2) Civil Service Side-lining

The Civil Service has been systematically disabled through both Tory and Labour governments introducing political appointees as “special advisers”, ignoring civil service advice, and then blaming civil servants when the inevitable cock-ups occur.

We are in danger of fully politicising our civil service – American style – which is probably the intent of at least the “Conservative” Party. That destroys “the flywheel” which keeps the system going whenever we change political gear.

(3) Lack of Effective Opposition

Labour under Tepid Jeremy was caught on the hop by the referendum vote and has been torn between supporting the interests of their voters (who YouGov found supported Remain, 65:35) and some half-baked miss-understanding of “respecting the will of the people”. At least in the 1980s Michael Foot did not say “well the will of the people is that we have a Thatcher Government, we must respect that to the extent that we collaborate with it, enable it and remove all effective scrutiny”.

Analysis of How People Voted in EU Referendum 2 (2016) © YouGov

Labour have failed to recognise that deep in the entrails of the Conservative Party there is now a very effective and determined political machine. It used the coalition to pull the Liberals into a situation where they could be smothered and disabled for decades. It is capable of doing far more.

That same machine has used language to demonise the sick, the disabled, welfare claimants, foreigners, the EU and the BBC. It has also realised that Labour is so ineffective at countering it that they can impale Labour on the anti-Semitism hook so thoroughly that the only way they can get off it is to so radically change their leadership and attitude towards Israel and Palestine (a false equivalence but these Tories will fight dirty) that the Labour party just cannot do it, preferring to be shackled to such claims.

There is anti-Semitism in Labour (and there is in other parties, just as there is Islamophobia and other prejudices in the Conservative and other parties), but whilst Labour is hooked, they lack the moral credibility to call out the Tories as the discriminatory party that they are.

With Labour out of the frame, who can offer opposition?

The Liberal Democrats have still not got to grips with how toxic they are; they believe it is “not fair” that they should forever be beaten around the head with the claim that they broke promises whilst in coalition. It isn’t fair, coalitions should be about compromises and that often means broken or unimplemented promises. But fairness does not come into it.

The Liberals need to realise that they are not “the next government” and that they will, for the foreseeable future, only get a sniff of government through a coalition. That means they should not publicly sign pledges (e.g. on tuition fees) unless they intend them to be red-lines enforced in any coalition agreement. It also means they need to educate us, the voters, about the implications of coalitions and how we have to be more grown up in how we approach elections, manifestos and campaign promises. Short-term that does not help them.

However, they have been impaled on the hook of being Tory Collaborators by the Tories and then kept there by Labour who see that stick as a useful electioneering tool even if in many constituencies that helps the Tories to win the seat. But then both Tory and Labour parties are elitist parties (without themselves being elite in any way) who do not want others muscling in on their comfortable but corrupt system that keeps one of them in power.

The nationalists are by definition focused on their own countries and it is hard for them to have a significant effect on a Parliament they want to leave.

The result of this has been a paucity of parliamentary opposition to either the Government in general or to Brexit, a policy that is looking bankrupt and undeliverable without significant pain and no gain. (And that ignores all the concerns about whether the referendum was “free and fair”.)

The most effective opposition has been from outside parliament, Gina Miller, who thorough two high profile legal actions has sought to give parliament the opportunity and the right to scrutinise and oppose this policy.

And yet parliament has spurned this opportunity and seemingly abdicated the right to oppose the Government. That is a massive failure of democracy.

The polls show that now we see the mess that Brexit is, we probably would vote Remain in a confirmatory referendum, yet Remain has no effective leadership.

A nasty cabal within, or at least closely associated with, the Conservative Party has been very effective.

(4) The Media

This mess should have had the media up in arms. Yet for much of the media, it probably suits them.

The Press

Much of the press is owned by a few very rich people – rich enough to be able to afford print media as a self-aggrandising play-thing. Newspapers are now not a good way to directly make money.

They are cheer-leaders and opinion shapers, but of and for what? Follow the money.

To make a lot of money nowadays you either need some form of monopoly or oligopoly that you control or own, or you make money “on the markets”. Directly making money from taking something, adding value to it and selling it on at a fair price to consumers who want it is so twentieth century!

Owners of monopolies and oligopolies need them to be protected not attacked by governments.

To make money on the markets you need disruption, even a level of chaos. Nice stable economies just do not cut it, there is no opportunity to make a quick buck by exploiting the situation either by shorting a commodity or currency or by “judicious” trading of stocks and shares – usually someone else’s! Governments promoting change – particularly the right type of change are to be supported.

Both these means of making money, Monopolies / Oligopolies and through market disruption, require exploitation – someone makes a profit and someone makes a loss. With monopolies and oligopolies this usually means the consumer suffers the loss. With market disruption it is more indirect and subtle, the cost is spread amongst everyone else.

So the press cheer-leaders are not directly supporting Johnson and the Conservatives, but a money making situation that suits them and their “people” – which means their friends, not most of their readership. In this respect Brexit is great, lots of opportunity to make money from disruption and afterwards to make money from more unregulated monopolistic power.

If that means disparaging 48% of the electorate, so be it. If that means calling judges who uphold the law (determined over the years by parliaments), as “enemies of the people”, so be it. If that means using privacy busting means to generate celebrity stories to retain readership, so be it. If that means being partisan in an election, ignoring the failings of one side whilst demonising the other, so be it.

And yet we buy newspapers! And they get reviewed every night by the broadcast media.

The Broadcast media

I used to think of the broadcast media, particularly BBC News and ITN as impartial and unbiased, the former by statute and the later by imitation and habit (even though my parents brought me up to believe the latter was biased by “commercial considerations”). But not now.

I am not sure whether this is a recent change or one that I have become aware of since 2016. The coverage of the run up to the referendum was so shallow, so incurious, so uncritical that I started to doubt.

I started to doubt my previous confidence that, on the whole, the broadcast media were basically impartial and fair – save for a blind spot when it came to groups that were poorly represented in Parliament; the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats and even UKIP. Brand Farage may have been built by the likes of the BBC, but not because he represented an otherwise unheard voice, but because he was a controversialist who would stir things up and therefore gave “good [talking] head”.

In the run up to the referendum we were failed by a lack of critical analysis of two main issues.

One was what was really behind the five letters “LEAVE”; there seemed no curiosity, no probing as to what Brexit Britain would look like, whether there was a (single, agreed) plan for implementation, how to reconcile the different voices.

The other was the lack of probing what the various Leave campaigns called “Project Fear”. Through the lack of a critical evaluation it was neither debunked nor substantiated.

Both these failures to hold to account allowed both campaigns to lose contact with reality and ultimately allowed us the electorate to vote for what we emotionally desired rather than one of the two options before us.

Once the referendum was narrowly won, it seems that the broadcast media, the BBC in particular, just swung to “Brexit is a done deal”. This not only allowed for no questioning of the result (even as disturbing stories would germinate and poke their head above ground), but it helped add to the chastening atmosphere which made parliament shed its duty to scrutinise and hold the executive to account. Partly as a consequence, Parliament, despite Gina Miller’s action giving them the right to question and scrutinise, just nodded through the Article 50 motion without asking “do we have a plan?” – let alone a credible plan.

Brexiteers have complained that “the media” (by which I think they mean Broadcasters) are “against Brexit”. But if you review the coverage, you find no questioning of the result, no critical coverage of malpractice during the referendum, no calling for reform of campaign regulation, no significant examination as to whether a viable Brexit is possible or even desired, and a downplaying of extra-parliamentary demand for a confirmatory vote.

It is true that the media has at times ridiculed ministers for their ineptness in negotiating with the EU or preparing for Brexit (it’s not been difficult). But ridiculing ministers is different from fundamentally questioning the policy. If that is seen as a stance “against Brexit” it is a fake veneer covering a stance that (for the BBC at least) is entirely along the lines of “Britain will be leaving the EU”.

Once you have laid aside your critical faculties it becomes very difficult to pick them up again. So during this election we have seen coverage that is biased both in selection and in reporting.

This week we have seen senior correspondents for both the BBC and ITN swallow whole stories from official Tory sources that a “Labour protester” (they always are!) had assaulted a Tory aide. The Tory spin was then broadcast as fact. The subsequent climb-down when video evidence showed the Tory aide walking into a protester’s hand (Tories do have blind spots!) were minimal; there was no naming of the sources who had so completely conned senior correspondents, no examination of the Tory spin machine that so very competently planted the story, no apparent internal resolution to be more careful in future.

It is no good a correspondent just “taking down” a tweet if it is subsequently shown to be untrue. Twitter is a very fast media; by the time it was taken down it had been seen by hundreds of thousands (promoted and retweeted by many – including the Tory spin machine) and taken as gospel (or as good and convenient enough) by other correspondents who then amplified the fake story and published it in the press. In this respect these senior correspondents (and their organisations which seem so content with the mode of operation) are collaborators in the Tory fake news spin machine.

Image © inblix (similar said by Churchill referred to “putting its boots on”)

This election seems to have made more use of Pox Vops than ever before. The idea seeming to be

  • you take a camera and microphone out
  • during working hours
  • into some street or market,
  • usually in a leave voting constituency and
  • you ask someone (either a stall holder or an elderly shopper)
  • some inane question like “Do you think Boris can get Brexit done?”,
  • stick a microphone in front of the poor startled individual
  • and record their panicked response “I’m sick of Brexit, so let’s get it over with; Clean Brexit” and
  • you do not challenge members of the public

This is such poor journalism that is so redolent with bias (selection of time, place, interviewee, choice of question, lack challenge etc.) that I struggle to understand how it passes any form of editorial control – unless the editor wants to get out the message everyone supports Boris Johnson and thinks that 31 January will bring a “Clean Brexit”.

This just normalises fictions straight out of the play-book of Dominic Cummings (© Trump Campaign 2016). It is not the job of the broadcast media to uncritically amplify the lies of one campaign. Yet they do, day after day, channel after channel, programme after programme.

Image © AZQuotes

If the media cockup they (Channel 4 News excepted) are exceptionally grudging in admitting it. So when a slightly dishevelled Prime Minister on Remembrance Sunday makes a mess of placing his wreath on the Cenotaph, the BBC was in a quandary as to what to report next day:

  • Honestly broadcast what happened, pointing out that he laid the wreath upside down
  • Broadcast what happened without comment
  • Edit out (or choose not to use) the mistaken placing of the wreath
  • Edit in a completely different bit of footage of him (when foreign secretary and slightly less dishevelled) laying a completely different wreath made up of flowers from Kew Gardens on a completely different day
Images originally from BBC Coverage of Remembrance Sunday 2019 (right) & 2016? (left)

Well, for a reputable broadcaster, the second option is probably the most honest and balanced. The last option however is rather obvious, but very difficult to explain away given how an editing suite works. Yup, the BBC chose that option and when inevitably caught out blamed it on a “production error”.

This morning on the programme we incorrectly used footage from a Remembrance Day service that was not filmed yesterday.

This was a production mistake and we apologise for the error. — BBC Breakfast (@BBCBreakfast) November 11, 2019

BBC Tweet when “caught out”

This is like a minister blaming his civil servants for a cock-up – par for the course – what else should we expect?

Andrew Neil may well have railed against the PM for not coming through on the agreement to be interviewed, but by then the damage was done. The other party leaders had been willing to be scrutinised and duly savaged where appropriate, but Johnson the entitled gets away with it. Channel 4 at least put an ice sculpture in place when they empty chaired the leaders of both the Brexit Company and the Conservative Party.

It is true that during an election broadcasters, if wishing to cover a party leader or specific candidates, can only use available footage, but they should realise when they are being manipulated. Likewise if the Government refuses to put up a spokesman, that does not put the onus on the broadcaster to act as devil’s advocate promoting the government line (purely “in the name of balance” you understand) when interviewing other parties. That just makes them part of the Government Propaganda machine.

Conclusion

So tomorrow we vote at the end of an unedifying campaign covering “Good old Boris pulling japes”, parroting his “Get Brexit Done” “Clean Brexit” fictions, demonising Labour over a situation it has known it needed to get in control of, and avoiding any significant scrutiny of the minor parties who could in the event of a hung parliament have a disproportionate impact on the shape of the next government’s program. (See Liberals and 2010, DUP and 2017, SNP in 2019?)

We go in ignorance or prejudice and make the mark of an illiterate on a ballot paper – the vast majority of which will have no impact what so ever.

We tolerate this situation, will we get what we deserve? Do we despite our ignorance and our prejudices deserve better or do we deserve to see a small coterie in what used to be the Conservative and Unionist party grab the reins and gallop us over the edge into an uncertain future most of us don’t want.

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