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

Friday, 25 September 2015

Migration and the EU: an institution crumbling?


The bonds that bind the European Union are fraying. And the looser they become, the easier it will be for the UK to slip those bonds entirely and make its escape.

Or, to put it another way: the EU's migration crisis could well hasten Britain's exit. If you're in the mood for real drama, how's this for a new mathematical formula? Greek debt crisis + EU migration crisis + Brexit = end of EU.

Fanciful? Perhaps. But after the latest emergency summit in Brussels on Wednesday, even the president of the European Council, the former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, said: "What is at stake is … the future of Schengen, the sense of order in Europe and the common European spirit." In other words, the future of the EU itself.

The European Union is built on a labyrinthine system of rules and regulations designed to ensure that all members have equal rights and responsibilities. Once member states start tearing up the rule book with impunity, the structure soon starts to crumble.

The rule book is already in a sorry state. Rules about propping up weak economies were jettisoned when Greece teetered on the brink of debt default. The same thing happened to the rules on processing applications for asylum (the so-called Dublin convention) when first Italy and Greece, and then Hungary, buckled under the sheer weight of numbers.

Then Angela Merkel said "Willkommen" to just about everyone, regardless of the Dublin convention, only to kick the door shut again and tear up the Schengen free-travel agreement. In 1989, Hungary hastened the end of the Cold War by opening its borders with Austria, thus enabling citizens of the Soviet bloc countries free access to the West; in 2015, it started re-building the fences, and in doing so may have hastened the end of the EU, or at least of Schengen.

It's not a pretty picture. Mrs Merkel said in Brussels on Wednesday, as leaders gathered to discuss the migration crisis: “It cannot be that Europe says ‘We can’t handle this.’” It sounded like a whistle in the dark -- because the truth is that the EU can't handle it, doesn't know how to handle it, and can't agree on how to handle it.

For David Cameron, it's all a very mixed blessing. On the one hand, he is no longer the only EU leader unhappy at the way the institution is being run. Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania are all deeply unhappy at the idea that other EU countries can simply gang up on them and order them to take in people whom they don't want to take in. (Prediction: they won't do it.)

He also has the satisfaction of noting that his fellow EU leaders have, belatedly, come round to his way of thinking that the most effective way to try to slow the numbers of people leaving the refugee camps in Turkey is to provide sufficient funding so that conditions in the camps, especially with winter approaching, remain tolerable.

But on the other hand, as long as the EU is embroiled in ugly recriminations over migration, no one will have much appetite for the nitty-gritty of the UK's demands for a re-negotiated relationship with Brussels. Besides which, if we take Mr Cameron at his word -- that he wants the UK to remain a member of the EU -- a rising tide of anti-EU sentiment is not what he was hoping for.

Nigel Farage and UKIP have made significant electoral headway over the past couple of years by equating EU membership in voters' minds with immigration policy. It is, of course, true that as long as the UK remains in the EU, it can't impose restrictions on the entry of citizens of other EU member states. But this is wholly unrelated to the treatment of people seeking asylum from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea or elsewhere -- yet in many people's minds, the two issues have become fused into one over-riding fear: too many immigrants.

Now add to this unstable mix the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party. He says he can't imagine a situation in which Labour would campaign for Britain to leave the EU -- yet his support for British membership remains less than wholehearted and he has in the past been extremely critical of what he has regarded as the EU's pro-free market ideology.

If you believe the opinion polls (and yes, I know that's a big "if"), the public mood is shifting towards a referendum vote in favour of leaving the EU. The day after the general election last May, I wrote: "It is not entirely fanciful to imagine that by the time of the next election, Scotland will have split away from the UK, and the UK, or what remains of it, will have left the European Union."

I'm not so sure about Scotland, but the prospect of the UK leaving the EU is looking even less fanciful now. Mr Cameron has a tough task ahead of him.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Corbynism: A farewell to power


Only one thing matters for the future of the Labour party: does Jeremy Corbyn have any ideas about how to woo back the voters Labour lost to the Tories last May?

We know the Left love him; what we don't know is whether he has any idea how to win enough votes to return Labour to power in 2020. Because what his devoted fans have not yet taken on board is that there simply aren't enough Lefties in Britain to install Mr Corbyn in Downing Street.

This isn't just my opinion; it is a verifiable fact. When UK voters are asked where they place themselves on the political spectrum, the average is seven points to the left of centre. (Before the 2015 election, voters thought Labour was 36 points to the left, and Ed Miliband 40 points to the left. Goodness knows where they'd put Mr Corbyn.)

Yes, some Labour supporters who voted Green or SNP in May may return to the Labour fold under Mr Corbyn. So will some who didn't vote at all -- although the evidence suggests that when non-voters decide to vote, their choice doesn't necessarily match the expectations of the Left.

One of the first lessons that any political activist learns is that their way of looking at the world is not shared by everyone. No matter how clever, or how decent, they are, some people simply have different views.

It is a lesson that Mr Corbyn and his supporters might do well to learn quickly. Ask them how they intend to win the next election, given the huge electoral hurdle they have to overcome, and they reply that millions of people who have either deserted Labour or who haven't voted in the past -- the young, the poor, the least educated -- will now be inspired to vote, because at last they have a champion in whom they can believe.

It's possible that they're right. Possible, but unlikely. Arithmetic can be cruel, and the numbers are not Corbyn-friendly. Yes, a quarter of a million people voted for Labour's new leader last weekend -- and yes, it is a hugely impressive figure. But it is not quite so impressive when compared to the 11.3 million people who voted Conservative last May.

Let the numbers do the talking. In a report called "The mountain to climb", the left-leaning Fabian Society spelt them out. Labour will need to gain more than 100 seats in 2020 if it is to win a Commons majority, and four-fifths of the extra votes they'll need to win in English and Welsh marginals will have to come direct from Conservative voters.

The report's key conclusion was this: "The litmus test for Labour’s strategy is simple: can the party win over large numbers of people who voted Conservative and SNP in 2015?" The reason is that there aren't enough young, poor and disillusioned voters in the key marginals to make the difference -- it doesn't matter if the votes pile up higher than ever in Hackney, Tottenham and Islington, because those seats return Labour MPs anyway.

What matters is votes in all those Labour target seats that the party failed to win in May, and so far, Mr Corbyn has said nothing about what he intends to do to win those voters over.

Some of his supporters insist that winning isn't everything -- they loathe the Blairites' constant reminders that Mr Blair won three consecutive election victories -- and it is true that winning without ideals or principles is an empty victory. But principles that aren't coupled to an electoral strategy are worthless to the people whom Mr Corbyn's supporters say they care about.

It is too easily forgotten that Britain was a far better place after 13 years of New Labour than it would have been under the Conservatives. The Blair-Brown tandem was a pretty neat invention until it turned toxic, because it sent the charming Mr Blair to woo the middle classes while the quietly wealth-redistributing Mr Brown set about reducing child and pensioner poverty and setting up Sure Start centres. Between them, they introduced the minimum wage and the Human Rights Act, and they hired hundreds more doctors, nurses and teachers. What's more, economic growth, measured as GDP per capita, between 1997 and 2010 was higher than in Germany, the US, France, Japan or Italy.

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, this was the Blair-Brown record on poverty reduction: "Reforms since 1997-98 resulted in an £18 billion annual increase in spending on benefits for families with children and an £11 billion annual increase on benefits for pensioners by 2010-11 …Child and pensioner poverty would either have stayed the same or risen, rather than fall substantially, had there not been these big spending increases."

But there was also the invasion of Iraq, a policy error of such magnitude that it has overshadowed everything else. No one much under the age of 30 will remember the pre-Iraq Blair, just as no one under the age of 40 will remember the days of Thatcherism. That, perhaps, helps to explain why Mr Corbyn does so well among the young: they have not yet had a chance to see how a centre-left government can deliver real benefits to those people who need most help, and how the right-wing alternative can do real, lasting harm.

The New Yorker wrote woundingly after Mr Corbyn's victory last weekend: "There is a cruel caricature, hard to erase from the popular imagination, that depicts the archetypal resident of the British far left: a bearded, bicycle-riding, teetotal vegetarian from Islington, in north London. The image is lazy and unjust; in Corbyn’s case, unfortunately, it also happens to be true."

Mr Corbyn's first faltering mis-steps as party leader were unforced errors that he should never have made. (Prime Minister's Questions was a rare first-week success.) He can't claim to have been taken by surprise when he came top of the leadership poll, yet no one seems to have warned him that he would be expected to turn up at the Battle of Britain commemoration on Tuesday, and that, yes, he'd be expected to sing the National Anthem.

Wearing a jacket and trousers that don't match, and a tie with the top shirt button undone, doesn't matter a jot to his supporters (it doesn't matter to me, either), but it does matter to the voters Labour needs to win back. Giving the impression that you just don't care what they think is simply unprofessional.

It may be that Mr Corbyn is a quick learner. The word is that from now on, he will mouth the words of the National Anthem when required, and his earlier prevarications on the EU have given way to a much less ambivalent statement that he wants the UK to remain a member. (In the world of old politics, it would be called a U-turn.) The shadow chancellor John McDonnell's apology for having praised the "bravery" of the IRA is another sign that the practice of political pragmatism has not been entirely abandoned.

At least it's a start. But I still believe that Mr Corbyn is so far from the British political mainstream that he will never lead his party to victory. In which case the only remaining question is how long it will take him -- and his party -- to realise it.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

It's May 2019: Jeremy Corbyn resigns

This is the (draft) text of his resignation speech:

Comrades:

It is with very great sadness that I am announcing today my resignation as leader of the Labour party. After the deeply disappointing results of the European elections, and the equally disappointing results in Scotland three years ago and in recent by-elections, it has become clear that our party needs a new leader to take us into the general election next year, a new leader better able than I have been to reach out to the voters who are still not convinced that Labour offers them a better future.

When you elected me in 2015, we shared a passionate conviction that together we could achieve something of real importance: the building of a new, fairer Britain, offering a decent life to all our citizens, built on social justice and a strong economy. We knew it would not be easy, and it hasn't been. But we have achieved much over the past four years: we have reignited the debate over fairness and equality and we have opposed the Tories whenever and wherever they have acted to damage the interests of the least advantaged in our society.

This great party of ours is nothing if it is not a party of principle, and I am proud that we have rebuilt a party of which our founders would be proud. We have been proud to be socialists, and proud to be internationalists. I shall never renounce my principles, and I know you won't either. We shall continue to fight, together, to build the Britain we want and which our people deserve.

The past four years have taught us a lot about our party and about the people who joined us and registered as supporters in 2015. But we have also learned that unfortunately too many of my colleagues in the parliamentary party are still out of touch with what is happening outside the Westminster village, and they have forgotten the principles on which this party was built.

I wish I could have persuaded more of them to follow my lead in promoting policies that we know would offer our people a better life; instead, too many of them chose to remain wedded to the policies of the past, the policies that lost us elections in 2010 and 2015, and which, if we're not careful, will lose us the next election as well. They will not be forgiven for the damage they have caused this party, nor for the way they have betrayed the people who elected them.

We face a formidable enemy, a Conservative party still convinced that it has a God-given right to rule, with a new leader, George Osborne, who represents everything we have fought against over the past nine years. We cannot allow him to remain in office a day longer than necessary. We also face, as we always have, a disgracefully dishonest press, owned by billionaire tycoons who will lie day after day, week after week, year after year, to try to prevent us returning to office.

They have lied about me and they have lied about our party. And after the next election, when we have been returned to office, let there be no doubt that we shall legislate to put an end to the media monopolies, to ensure that never again will the Labour party be traduced as it has been over the past four years.

Comrades, friends, we are hugely fortunate to have a deputy leader, Tom Watson, who I know will make a first-rate leader and take us to victory next year. I urge you to elect him as our next party leader, and I pledge my unstinting support to him as he fights to deliver what we all want: a fairer, decent Britain that we can all be proud of.

I am immensely proud of what we have achieved together, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all your support. Let us now redouble our efforts, true to our principles and with unshakeable faith in our ideals, to win the victory that we know this country deserves.

Friday, 11 September 2015

It is time to talk to Assad

It is one of the great mysteries of modern political life that our leaders seem so reluctant to learn from their mistakes.

You would have thought, after the dismal experience of the recent past, that they would have learned by now that when you put the words "military intervention" in the same sentence as "regime change", bad things tend to happen.

Today of all days, the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, let's look at the record:

Afghanistan, 2001: A US-led alliance overthrows the Taliban following 9/11; 14 years later, after countless deaths, the country is still in deep trouble and the Taliban are still a force to be reckoned with.

Iraq, 2003: A US-led alliance overthrows Saddam Hussein; 12 years later, after countless deaths, the country is still in chaos and at risk of permanent fracture.

Libya, 2011: a NATO-led alliance helps local forces overthrow Muammar Gaddafi; four years later, after countless deaths, the country is in chaos with no effective government and has become one of the main embarkation points for refugees seeking sanctuary in Europe.

So now, when I hear David Cameron say he is again contemplating asking parliament for authorisation to take military action in Syria -- and foreign secretary Philip Hammond says that President Assad "cannot be part of Syria's future" -- my heart sinks.

I also wonder why they think that striking at the "controlling brains" of IS is likely to be a good move, given that doing the same thing against the leaders of jihadi groups in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen seems not to have been spectacularly successful. Old thinking, someone once said, equals lazy thinking.

But I mustn't be unfair, because there are, in fact, some signs that a few lessons may have been learned. At least Mr Hammond told MPs: “We are not saying Assad and all his cronies have to go on day one." And it seems there is significant behind-the-scenes diplomatic activity aimed at drawing up a multi-national Syria strategy involving both Assad's main sponsors, Russia and Iran.

Bashar al-Assad is responsible for some of the most heinous war crimes of recent times, including the use of chemical weapons, the mass imprisonment and torture of political opponents, and the indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas causing massive casualties. Yet the unpalatable reality must surely be that, despite his grim record, he remains indispensable in the search for an end to the conflict.

The Western powers, Russia and Iran share with him a common enemy: the blood-thirsty zealots of the Islamic State group. It is in everyone's interests to limit IS's capacity to spread suffering across Syria and Iraq, and, allegedly, to plan attacks against Western targets well away from the Middle East.

It shouldn't be beyond the wit of the world's best diplomats to find a formula for a peace process that satisfies both Assad's backers and the Saudis and Gulf states who want to halt what they see as Tehran-sponsored Shia expansionism across the region. The risk is that the Saudi-Iranian, Sunni-Shia battle for regional hegemony, of which Syria is a part, develops into a semi-permanent succession of proxy wars, much as the capitalist-communist Cold War did between 1945 and 1989.

And while we're on the subject of Cold Wars, it's worth noting the rising concern in Washington and elsewhere about Russian military moves in Syria. According to a report in Foreign Policy: "US officials are concerned that a dramatic Russian military buildup in western Syria over the past week signals preparations by Moscow to fly combat missions in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime … At least four Russian Condor cargo planes and several naval ships have delivered an array of military equipment and hardware in recent days at an airfield near Latakia on the Mediterranean coast and at the Russian naval facility of Tartus."

Washington and London are right that Syria has no chance of recovery as long as President Assad remains in power. But now is not the time to say so. We do not need to ignore his responsibility for the agonies that Syria is suffering (according to one estimate, 968 of the 1,205 civilians killed last month were killed by Assad's forces) to recognise that he is also part of the solution.

When Churchill confronted the Nazis in World War Two, he was prepared to deal with Stalin as an ally, even though the Soviet leader was one of the worst mass murderers of the 20th century. Similarly, the US president Richard Nixon was prepared to negotiate with the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong, even though Mao, like Stalin, was responsible for the deaths of many millions of his own people.

Assad is neither Stalin nor Mao, and IS are not Nazis. The point is simply that both diplomacy and war often involve alliances with unpleasant people.  The guiding principle is the greater good -- and for now, the priority in Syria must be to reduce the level of violence and halt the spread of IS.

It is in the interests of the people of Syria, and in the interests of all those countries struggling to cope with the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing from the war. Half the country's population of 22 million have already fled from their homes; 4 million of them have sought sanctuary in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

The truth is that they will not stop fleeing until the war is over. And all the most recent evidence -- from Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Yemen -- strongly suggests that you do not stop wars by dropping more bombs.



Friday, 4 September 2015

Europe's shame

Here is a message for the political leaders of Europe: Read what follows and be ashamed. Be very ashamed.

Last weekend, German football fans hoisted huge banners in their stadiums -- the message said: "Refugees welcome".

In Vienna last Monday, trains packed with people arriving from Hungary were welcomed by applauding crowds and a banner reading "Refugees welcome -- open borders." The Austrians also brought bottles of water, bread, biscuits, fruit and sweets.

In Germany, a website called Refugees Welcome, described as an "Airbnb for refugees" has been inundated by offers of accommodation, and has already helped people from Afghanistan, Burkino Faso, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria.

In Iceland (population: 330,000), more than 11,000 people offered accommodation to Syrian refugees after the government said it would accept only 50. 

Here, refugee charities are reporting huge increases in inquiries and donations: a 70 per cent rise in inquiries at Save the Children; £150,000 raised in 24 hours by a Mediterranean rescue charity; thousands of people joining a campaign to persuade local authorities to accept more refugees.

A petition on the parliamentary website calling for the UK to accept more asylum seekers and increase its support for refugees has been attracting support at an astonishing rate: as of Friday morning it stood at nearly 350,000 signatures: you can add yours here.

Compare and contrast: leaders from Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland (the UK -- of course -- has an opt-out) are opposing a European Commission proposal to establish a fair quota system for the acceptance of refugees across the EU. Shame on them.

And David Cameron is dragged screaming and kicking from "Taking in more refugees is not the answer" on Wednesday to an expected announcement 48 hours later that "We will take in thousands more". The UK has accepted a grand total of 5,000 refugees from Syria over the past four years -- Germany is on course to take in 800,000 asylum-seekers this year alone. Shame on Mr Cameron too.

I wish I could force every EU president and prime minister to hang on their office wall that photograph of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian child washed up on a Turkish beach after drowning in a doomed attempt to reach safety in Canada with his family. (The photograph appeared on the front pages of The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, the Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, and Metro.)

The Times columnist David Aaronovitch asked a good question this week when he recalled the massive international programme in the 1940s to resettle all those who had been displaced by the Second World War: "Do we lack something that our fathers and mothers had? Do our leaders lack the moral courage to lead and do we lack the moral courage to recognise the need to be led?"

How is it that as recently as 20 years ago the UK could take in more than 75,000 refugees and would-be refugees a year (mainly from the former Yugoslavia), without -- to use George Osborne's words in a different context -- the world falling in, yet now we slam the door and build ever-higher fences to keep out "marauding" refugees (yes, shame and double shame on you, Philip Hammond)?

This is not about the law on asylum, or the Dublin regulation, or EU opt-outs. Nor is it about bringing peace and stability to Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan or Sudan, or Eritrea or Nigeria or Mali, or any of the other countries where people live in fear.

This is about common humanity. It is about our fellow human beings. It is about a Europe of 500 million citizens, one of the richest continents on the planet, opening its doors to people who are begging for sanctuary. It is about looking at ourselves in the mirror and being able to say: "We did everything we could."

The governments of the EU -- with the honourable exceptions of Germany and Sweden, which have taken in far more refugees than anyone else, and Italy and Greece, which are making herculean efforts to cope with the thousands of men, women and children arriving on their beaches every day -- are behaving shamefully.

But they can be made to confront their shame. The death of little Aylan Kurdi, and the picture of his lifeless body on that Turkish beach, has galvanised public revulsion aginst the cowardice of our leaders. The spread of grass-roots initiatives at local level could -- should -- jolt them out of their torpor. Mr Cameron's U-turn is stunning evidence of the power of a single image.

The Labour leadership candidate Yvette Cooper is one of the very few British politicians to have recognised the scale of the tragedy that confronts us. Good for her. And shame on all her colleagues who prefer to say nothing.

I have been banging on about this crisis since October last year. I wrote then: "When people are threatened by war, genocide or famine, they try to escape.  They do not flee because they think they might like to try a life on benefits in the UK, but because they are terrified. How hard is that to understand?"

In July, I proposed setting up EU-run processing centres at the main entry points in Italy, Greece, and Hungary. Genuine refugees would 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.

And it is worth repeating: there are already more than two million registered refugees from Syria in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, and another 1.7 million in Turkey. Look at those numbers again and compare them with Europe's shameful record.

Why should we do more? Because refugees are our fellow human beings. Why do I feel so strongly? Because my parents were refugees.