Winner of the 2014 Editorial Intelligence Independent Blogger of the Year award

Friday, 31 July 2015

Is it time for some facts about those migrants?

Perhaps you'll think I'm naïve, but I still believe that when you have a debate, it's a good idea to have some facts readily to hand.

 So here are some facts that you might find useful next time you're thinking about that "swarm" (David Cameron's word, not mine) of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from north Africa. Why not keep them handy (the facts, not the migrants) on your smartphone, or print them out and shove them in a pocket.

Q.1: Why do they all want to come to the UK? A: They don't. Far more migrants head for Germany and Sweden, which dealt with nearly half of all asylum applications into the EU last year. The ones at Calais are a tiny fraction of the overall number, probably no more than 3,000 out of a total of well over 175,000 who have entered the EU so far this year.

Q.2: So why are the numbers higher than ever? A: They're not -- according to the EU's own figures, there were 672,000 EU asylum applications in 1992 (when there were only 15 members of the EU), compared to 626,000 last year (when the EU had grown to 28 members with a total population of 500 million). It is true, however, that numbers had dropped substantially in the interim. (Click here for the detailed figures.)

Q.3: How many actually apply for asylum in the UK? A: According to the latest government statistics: "There were 25,020 asylum applications in the year ending March 2015, an increase of 5% compared with the previous year (23,803). The number of applications remains low relative to the peak number of applications in 2002 (84,132)."

Q.4: Why aren't the migrants just sent back to where they came from if they're not genuine asylum-seekers? A: Because often we have no way of telling where they came from. Many have no documents, either because they have destroyed them, or because they have been handed over to traffickers who have disappeared.

Q.5: But they can't all be from Syria, can they? A: No, but about a fifth of the total are. The other main known countries of origin are Afghanistan, Kosovo and Eritrea. The biggest increase in asylum applications last year was from Ukrainians.

Q.6: Why don't Syria's neighbours look after Syrian refugees? A: They do. According to the UN, there are more than two million registered refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, and another 1.7 million in Turkey.

Q.7: If some of the migrants who enter the EU are genuine refugees, why don't they apply for asylum in the first country they get to? A: Huge numbers do exactly that: the number of applications more than doubled last year in both Italy (the main entry point for migrants who have made it across the Mediterranean) and Hungary (entry point for mainly Asian migrants who originally entered the EU from Turkey).

Q.8: So who are the ones in Calais? A: A huge mix of nationalities, most of whom have a particular reason for wanting to get to the UK: they may have relatives or friends who are already here, they may be English-speakers who believe they're more likely to find work here, or they may have heard that there's already a substantial number of others from their home country who have already settled here.

Q.9: Isn' t the real reason that they know they'll get benefits as soon as they make it across the Channel? A: No. According to the independent fact-checking organisation Full Fact, most citizens of non-EU countries who come to live in the UK have no recourse to public funds in the initial years after they arrive, nor are asylum-seekers eligible for welfare benefits while their claims are pending.

Q.10: So why are the media making such a huge fuss about the migrants in Calais? A: Good question. Partly because they're easy to find and easy to get to -- and those long lines of stranded lorries make great TV pictures. So do the desperate images of desperate people risking their lives as they try to leap onto trucks or trains as they head for the Channel Tunnel. And also, of course, because the story feeds into the current debate about the UK's membership of the EU and overall immigration policy. (Plus parliament is on holiday and we're all bored to tears with the Labour leadership contest.)

Do I have the answer to the global migration crisis? No, but here are some suggestions that might help: set up proper, EU-run processing centres at the main entry points: southern Italy, Greece, Hungary. Genuine refugees should be offered asylum according to an agreed quota calculated according to population and GDP. Those deemed non-eligible for asylum would be offered a choice: wait in a camp until your number comes up, and then go where you're sent -- or go home.

The tragedy is that so many people are so desperate that they're prepared to die in an attempt to find a safe place to live. And our response is so blinkered that all we can think of is building higher fences. 

Friday, 24 July 2015

Leave Labour alone to grieve


As you may have noticed, the commentariat has had a bad attack of the cobble-wobbles over the past few days: the idea that Jeremy Corbyn, a -- gasp! -- left-winger, might be regarded by party members as a credible potential leader has left the pundits reaching in panic for their smelling salts.

But ask your average Labour party member why they joined in the first place, and I imagine they'll tell you they want to make the UK a better place. So, I'm sure, do Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall -- it's just that somehow Jeremy Corbyn, the -- gasp! -- left-winger, seems to be rather better at articulating what so many party members believe.

Here's what I think Labour party members want: a party that speaks up for those who have least and need most; that develops policies to distribute the nation's wealth more fairly; and that believes everyone deserves an equal chance to make the most of what life offers.

And here's the central dilemma: for reasons that many party activists struggle to comprehend, not enough voters seem to agree with them (a) that these are laudable objectives, or (b) that voting for the Labour party is the best way to achieve them.

There's an uncomfortable, but unavoidable, truth in all democracies: however high-minded your goals, you won't get a chance even to try to reach them unless you win an election. So all those people you want to help will remain unhelped -- until and unless you can persuade enough people to vote for you.

After two successive election failures, Labour is now in deep mourning. That's why it's going through the five classic stages of grief: first, denial (remember that exit poll? It was obviously nonsense, right? Totally unbelievable …).

Second, anger (how could voters be so stupid? Why can't they see what they've done?). That's where party members are now. Rage, rage … at Ed Miliband, Tony Blair, Harriet Harman, Liz Kendall, anyone you care to name. Oh yes, not forgetting Jeremy Corbyn, who for some senior MPs seems to represent all four horsemen of the apocalypse rolled into one.

Third will come bargaining. How about we start again? Will you vote for us if we turn sharp right (L Kendall)? Sharp left (J Corbyn)? Elect a leader who speaks with a Liverpudlian accent (A Burnham) or is a "working mum" (Y Cooper)?

Then, it's depression: oh God, look what's become of us, we're finished, no one loves us, we'll never win again. And only then, finally, comes acceptance: OK, we lost. We'll never forget the pain, but we've learned to live with it and now it's time to move on. 

And that's when it'll be time to elect a new leader. Unfortunately, the timetable says different, so the new leader will be elected less than mid-way through the grieving process. It's like asking someone who's just been bereaved to choose a new partner within a week of the funeral.

According to some detailed focus group work done by two former Labour party campaign organisers, the main reasons why voters who had previously supported Labour turned away in May included doubts about Ed Miliband as a leader, doubts about the party's economic credibility, and a belief that Labour had nothing to offer for the "average family". They were also deeply unimpressed by the party's policies on immigration and welfare reform.

So the researchers have drawn up a list of questions that they suggest these lost Labour voters deserve to have answered by the party leadership candidates. What is Labour’s purpose now?  Why should we listen to you when we didn’t listen to Ed Miliband? How will you re-build Labour’s economic credibility, and what is your plan to help create jobs and wealth without taking the country further into debt? How will you reform the welfare state? And how will you help the country and our communities flourish within an increasingly globalised world that has growing migration of people?

Their report says that in last May's election, Labour lost six per cent of the voters who had backed them in 2010 (they also gained about 5 per cent from the Lib Dems). Of the voters who deserted them, about one-third went to the SNP in Scotland; one-third went to the Conservatives, and the rest went to the Greens and UKIP. In addition, according to some early work done by the polling organisations to discover why they ended up with egg on their faces, nearly 3 million previously Labour voters didn't turn out to vote on 7 May.

So the task for Labour party members as they choose their next leader is simply this: vote for someone who shares your ideals, but who can also appeal to all those former Labour voters who turned their backs on the party in May.

If you think that person is Jeremy Corbyn, fine, vote for him. And if he wins, and if in two years' time, Labour is still languishing miserably in the polls, dump him and try again. That's what the Tories did when they chose Iain Duncan Smith as their leader in 2001, and then dumped him two years later without even giving him a chance to fight an election. After a brief interlude with Michael Howard, they came up with David Cameron.

Five years is a very long time in politics -- and even for the Labour party, it should be plenty long enough to go through all five stages of grief. For the good of the country -- and for their own good -- they should be allowed to get on with it.


Friday, 17 July 2015

The future of the BBC: it's up to you

--> Who do you think said this? "The BBC is at the very heart of Britain. It is one of this nation’s most treasured institutions – playing a role in almost all of our lives."

Or this: "The BBC remains much-loved by audiences, a valuable engine of growth
and an international benchmark for television, radio, online and journalism. It has showed this countless times over the last Charter period: coverage of events that bring us together like the Olympics; television that entertains millions like Miranda, Sherlock and Bake Off or that educates and informs like the BBC’s many world-leading nature and history documentaries; award-winning radio, with half of adults in the UK listening to one or more of the BBC’s music stations each week; the UK’s most popular website; and trusted news coverage that is relied upon at home and abroad, with the World Service reaching a global audience of 210 million and continuing to play an important role in the way that the UK is perceived internationally."

Bizarrely, given what we know about the government's view of the BBC, both quotes come from its Green Paper published on Thursday. The corporation's most devoted fan could hardly have put it better. But do not be fooled: the government is pointing a dagger at the heart of the BBC -- and what emerges from the consultation process now under way could be, in effect, the weapon of its destruction.

So this is where you come in. As the BBC itself said in a statement: "The BBC is not owned by its staff or by politicians, it is owned by the public. They are our shareholders. They pay the licence fee. Their voice should be heard the loudest.”

Now is the time to start shouting. Sign petitions, write to your MP. Go to the consultation website; send an email to BBCCharterReviewConsultation@culture.gov.uk or write a letter to BBC Charter Review Consultation, DCMS, 100 Parliament Street, London SW1A 2BQ. Tell them what you want the BBC to do, tell them what you value. But don't put it off -- the consultation process ends on 8 October.

The key issue is not what is in the Green Paper, but what decisions are taken at the end of the process. The BBC's commercial rivals -- other broadcasters, online content providers and newspaper groups -- will all weigh in with hefty submissions arguing why the BBC must be scaled back. Their arguments will all boil down to the same basic point: if the BBC did less, we would be able to make more money.

It's as simple as that. In the words of the Green Paper: "A smaller BBC could see the public pay less for their TV licence and would also be likely to have a reduced market impact."

Let's examine that for a moment: yes, a smaller BBC that did less would cost less. If it cost less, the licence fee could be cheaper. But suppose the services it cuts (local radio, online services, BBC4) include the one service you value most -- how would you feel then about paying for a licence? The whole point about a licence bought by everyone is that it enables the BBC to provide something for everyone. Ninety-seven per cent of the UK population use the BBC every week. (If you haven't seen it yet, click here to see the BBC's own video.)

It's important to be clear-minded about this: arguing for a smaller BBC is the same as arguing for an end to the licence fee. If the BBC stops trying to make programmes for everyone, soon enough those who are no longer being catered for will stop paying. And with no licence fee, the BBC will shrivel to barely a shadow of its former self. Just ask any American what their public service broadcasters provide -- that's the future of the BBC with no licence fee.

Of course, it is right that there should be a debate about these issues. There are 101 things that the BBC could do better, and it is good that once every decade it is forced to take a hard look in the mirror and ask itself some tough questions.

But it is crucial that the right voices are listened to, not just the politicians who watch virtually no television and who listen to the radio only if they're being interviewed, nor the media moguls who can't bear the way the BBC insists on creating output that is more popular, better loved and more respected than their own.

It is also important to ensure that the debate is conducted in a historically accurate context. Let's have no more of this nonsense about how the BBC has grown into some kind of media monster, leaving far behind its "core mission".

As the media historian Professor David Hendy of Sussex university pointed out in a letter to The Guardian, as long ago as 1924, the BBC's founder John Reith said “it is most important that light and entertaining items” be broadcast, because “pleasing relaxation after a hard day’s work” was just as important as programmes of "edification and wider knowledge".

Perhaps you can't bear Strictly Come Dancing, Eastenders or The Archers. Perhaps you love Wolf Hall, David Attenborough and The World Tonight. For 40p a day, the current cost of the licence fee, you can have it all. As I pointed out in a piece I wrote exactly a year ago, if you scrap the licence fee, you'll end up paying more and getting less.

And if you don't believe me, I urge you read this excellent piece by Richard Sambrook, professor of journalism at Cardiff university and a former head of news at the BBC: "If the people of Britain do not want to see the erosion and dismantling of one of the country’s most successful public institutions, they need to make it unambiguously clear now."

It really is up to you. We know what the government wants. We know what the BBC's rivals want. The only people who can stop them are the people who use the BBC, and value it, day in and day out. That means you.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Whatever happened to sharing?


When I was growing up, I was taught to share what I had. I still think it’s one of the most important attributes of a decent human being – and, by extension, of a decent society.

So when did it go out of fashion? When did those people who have more than enough for their needs decide that they are no longer under any obligation to share their good fortune? Germany sees no need to help Greece; George Osborne sees no reason why the government – acting on behalf of those of us who are doing all right – should help provide a decent chance to those who are not.

Here’s what I don’t get: why, according to one of the central tenets of free market economics, is a government that does the least possible to redistribute wealth through taxation and welfare programmes, always better than one that does more?

I know the argument well enough, of course: individuals are always better at deciding how to spend their money than governments, and the prime role of government is to create an environment in which private enterprise can flourish for the good of everyone. But only the zealots on the fringes of the far right would argue that this should also apply to the provision of health care or education --  so why does it apparently apply to the provision of decent housing, decent help for disabled people, or, most incomprehensibly, to help for young people?

In any case, I have yet to be persuaded that private corporations paying their top executives obscene salaries and creating dividend wealth for their institutional shareholders necessarily provides benefits for society as a whole. Even Mr Osborne seems to have recognised that turning the UK into an oligarch’s tax-free paradise and providing tax breaks for private landlords who charge unaffordable rents while claiming tax relief on their mortgages is not perhaps the best way to run a chip shop.

The people of Greece are hardly responsible for decades of irresponsible lending by banks and institutions that never asked themselves how their loans would ever be repaid. (Don’t tell me the lenders were misled by Greek governments lying about the true state of their finances – have they never heard of due diligence?)

It’s as if those low-income Americans who were pressure-sold sub-prime mortgages were then told that they would have to starve while their foolish creditors sorted themselves out. I wish more commentators would point out that there would be no irresponsible borrowing unless there was also irresponsible lending – so while we’re on the subject of sharing, why not at least share some of the pain caused by putting right the wrongs of the past?

The people of Germany have done far better than almost anyone else out of the euro project – so why is their government not explaining to them the virtue of sharing their good fortune? Or indeed that the bulk of the bail-out money provided so far has gone straight to Greece’s creditors, not its people, who have seen nothing but hardship as a result of a grisly succession of botched decisions and muddled thinking.

Last Wednesday’s UK Budget was a classic example of what seems now to be the almost universally accepted principle that those who have shall keep what they have, while those who have not shall take a running jump. (And don’t be misled by the new National Living Wage, which sounds good, until you look at what the low paid will lose in working tax credits, leaving them, on average, worse off.)

According to what definition of the word “fairness” is it fair to raise the inheritance tax threshold while withdrawing students’ maintenance grants and cutting other benefits to the young and low paid? What kind of person thinks it right, as they gingerly step over increasing numbers of young people sleeping rough, that they should have less while the better off have more?

Yes, there are more people in work – but if they aren’t being paid a decent wage, why does that absolve the rest of us from a moral responsibility to pay into a common pot to provide at least a roof over their heads?

There’s a paradox here: we Brits are among the most generous people in the world when it comes to individual charitable donations: look at the enormous sums raised each year by Comic Relief, and look at the extraordinarily generous response to disaster appeals in the wake of emergencies like the Nepal earthquake or the Indian Ocean tsunami. Yet we tend to elect governments that pledge to squeeze benefits to the least well off at home, even as – in the case of David Cameron – laudably ring-fencing overseas aid.

I have another reason to regret what I see as the whittling away of a sharing ethos. When I see the BBC’s critics arguing that the licence fee has had its day because now everyone can choose what to watch or listen to, or what to read online, I wonder what happened to the idea that the BBC is, by its very existence, a public good.

People who have no children tend not to object to their taxes being used for children’s education, because they accept that the country needs educated children. Similarly, even those who don’t own a car are prepared to see their taxes used in part to build and repair roads. Personally, I derive little direct benefit from the money spent out of my taxes on encouraging sporting activities. Yet I accept that others do, and that by being part of a healthy society, I do gain an indirect benefit.

The BBC is probably among the UK’s top three things that foreigners most admire about this country: the other two would be the royal family and the Premier League. (I admit, I’m guessing – if you know different, do show me the evidence.) So why isn’t there more of a public outcry as the government slowly strangles it, squeezing the life out of it until it is no more than an empty shell? And all for the sake of 40p a day.

In a properly functioning democracy, a government is the expression of the will of the people. Is it really our will that those of our fellow citizens who have most need of help shall now be given less, so that we who are better off can keep more? Is it really our will that we jettison the notion of the common good in favour of putting personal benefit first and last? I fear I know the answer before I have even finished asking the question.

Friday, 3 July 2015

What's in a name?


If it weren't so tragic, it would be laughable. Within a week of 30 British holidaymakers being shot dead in Tunisia, David Cameron is complaining about the name by which the BBC refers to the group that is alleged to have been behind the attack.

Islamic State, he says, is neither Islamic nor a State. He's right -- on the other hand, nor was the Irish Republican Army ever an army. So what? A name is no more than what someone chooses to be called. Does he really think that a single one of IS's recruits was attracted to its ranks because they were misled by its name?

I wish the prime minister could be persuaded to focus on what's important, rather than taking easy pot shots at the nearest available target. (There's a well-established golden rule for all governments, of any political complexion: when you don't know what to do next, attack the BBC.)

I have not the slightest doubt that those who profess loyalty to IS and others who think like them do pose a serious security threat to Britain and to British citizens. (As if we needed reminding, next week will mark the 10th anniversary of the London bombings, when four suicide bombers killed 52 people and wounded several hundred more.)

So what should Mr Cameron be focusing on? Well, a good start -- given that last week's attacks took place in Tunisia -- might be to offer more help to the government of that country, which is just about the only (relative) success story to emerge from the chaos of the 2011 Arab uprisings. What that means is help with boosting its security forces without toppling back over the edge into dictatorship, and help with social and economic reforms, to give young Tunisians more to hope for than martyrdom.

As Claire Spencer of the Royal Institute of International Affairs wrote in the Financial Times yesterday: "In the small towns of the Tunisian interior such as the one where [the Sousse gunman] Seifeddine Rezgui grew up, young jobseekers face even gloomier prospects now than they did in December 2010," before the start of the ill-named Arab Spring.

Mr Cameron should also be rethinking his absurdly indulgent attitude towards the Egyptian military coup leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who seems to be doing everything he can to inflame a new Islamist revolt in the Arab world's most populous nation. You probably missed it, but just a couple of days ago 100 people were reported to have been killed in a clash beween Islamic State fighters and the Egyptian military in the Sinai peninsula. In Cairo, nine members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, including a former MP, were killed in a police raid.

And while he's at it, the prime minister might consider digging out the triumphalist speech about Britain's military intervention in Libya that he made in the House of Commons in September 2011: "Removing [General Muammar] Gaddafi from power was a major achievement ... Although the work is not yet done, the Libyan people can be proud of what they have achieved and we can be proud of what we have done to help them."

In that same speech, he also said: "The long work of building a new Libya is just beginning. But what is clear is that the future of Libya belongs to its people ... The task of the international community now is to support them as they build that future ... So let me be clear. We will not let up until the job is done."

How hollow those words sound today. Why is it, I wonder, that when you mention the words George W Bush or Tony Blair, people immediately think of Iraq -- but when you say the words David Cameron, no one says Libya? The gunman who slaughtered those 30 British holidaymakers in Tunisia was apparently trained across the border in Libya, where anarchy has taken hold since the overthrow of Gaddafi and where IS seem to be going from strength to strength.

Britain played a leading role in the international military operation that enabled Libyan rebels to topple Gaddafi, and Britain has done little or nothing since then to stop Libya sliding into chaos. This is a hard thing to say, but it may well be that if Mr Cameron had made a different judgement call in 2011, the holidaymakers killed in Sousse would not have lost their lives.

Nor might some of the nearly 2,000 migrants who have drowned in the Mediterranean so far this year while trying to make the desperate journey to a better life. Many came via Libya, which has now emerged as the favoured point of departure for the people-smugglers. Failed states are invariably attractive to criminal gangs, and that includes IS.

It cannot be said too often that for the overwhelming majority of Muslims -- whether in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, or Mali -- IS is a terrifying, alien force. The bloodthirsty zealots who commit atrocities under its banner are no more representative of Islam than Dylann Roof, the alleged racist killer of nine black worshippers in Charleston, South Carolina, two weeks ago, is representative of white people.

There is no easy or quick way to defeat IS. But Denmark has come up with one approach that seems to have had some modest success, at least in reducing the number of young Danes tempted by jihadi ideology, offering them intensive counselling and support via a network of social workers, teachers, youth club workers, and outreach workers. (It was featured in a programme on the BBC World Service this week and you can read more about it here.)

The Danish model doesn't offer a complete solution by any means -- but it does make a start, because the people who join IS are angry and alienated, whether they come from Denmark, Tunisia, or the UK. They believe in a perverted brand of Islam that is as far from the Muslim mainstream as the Christian Phalangists responsible for the Sabra and Chatila massacres in Lebanon in 1982 were from Lambeth Palace.

So will sending the RAF to bomb IS targets in Syria, which seems once again to be on the agenda, help to protect future British holidaymakers on Tunisian beaches? I doubt it very much. It might, however, help to prevent IS extending its reach in Syria -- and that would doubtless be welcomed by many thousands of Syrians.

We will probably never know exactly why Seifeddine Rezgui chose to open fire on Western tourists on that Tunisian beach a week ago -- but one thing I am sure of: dropping British bombs on IS targets in Syria wouldn't have stopped him, any more than it will stop others like him trying to emulate his murderous rampage.

After all, as The Guardian pointed out in an editorial this morning, the US, Canada, Jordan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are already bombing IS in Syria without significant effect.  A few more bombs courtesy of the RAF are unlikely to make much difference.