The Rest of The EU Referendum Campaign

jo-cox-8

When the awful murder of Jo Cox MP was announced yesterday, I decided to stop campaigning for a while out of respect for her husband and young family. After 24 hours silence, I have decided to rejoin the fray because notwithstanding these terrible events, the country is still faced with an historic referendum that will determine the future strategic direction of the country for many years to come. It is therefore right that the democratic process continues although both sides may have to make changes to the tone of their campaigns and to recognise the public shock and anger that this attack has stirred.

Disappointingly, it seems there are some that are seeking to make political capital from this attack and in particular from conflicting reports that the assailant shouted ‘Britain first’ during his attack. I have two points about this. First, speculation about the details of the attack are unhelpful and could prejudice future legal proceedings. Trials can collapse if they are seen to be prejudiced by prior media reporting and therefore journalists and commentators should tread warily and avoid speculation. In my experience, witnesses to traumatic events can often give different and conflicting accounts of what they saw or heard despite trying to provide an honest recollection or perception of events. Often, it is only after a full investigation that an accurate picture can be established, and it is therefore important to let the police do their work without any media interference, speculation or comment based on rumours or only a partial view of the facts.

My second point is that whether or not the attack was politically motivated is largely irrelevant to the referendum question before the country. The question is not about political violence. It is solely about our membership of a European political institution. None of the subsidiary issues connected with the question should be affected as a result of a young mother with altruistic views losing her life on the street whilst honestly serving her country. Even if Jo Cox supported the Remain side of the campaign, it is right to say that her death does not automatically make the Remain argument correct even though we all feel complete compassion for Jo’s friends and family. It would be a terrible blow to our freedom of speech to allow her murder to stifle or constrain the debate on a national matter of such importance. Moreover, if we allow fear and violence to affect the discussion we play into the very hands of those that would seek to use violent or undemocratic means to undermine our parliamentary process.

Having said that, egged on by an ever-hungry media, the mood in the country does seem to have changed in the last 24 hours, and the Leave Campaign needs to modify its approach not only to respect the new mood but also to ensure that its message is not lost in a chorus that will likely try to convince voters that to vote leave is somehow to condone the events in Birstall. It is a matter of tone rather than substance. Most Leave supporters won’t change their minds but a soft centre ground could easily switch sides unless matters are handled sensitively. Here are 4 ideas in no particular order:

This week, the Leave Campaign seemed to gain real momentum in the polls and was starting to set the agenda. Any delay in campaigning is to the advantage of David Cameron and his Remain campaign. It will allow them time to regroup and to lead the discussion when it recommences, probably with an attempt to gain the moral high ground. The campaigns should start again as soon as is decently possible to limit this effect.

The immigration debate needs to be couched in terms of parliamentary accountability. Fear mongering about migrants should be avoided throughout social media. The main argument is that immigration is a matter that should be decided in our own national parliament rather than in Brussels. In many respects, this tragedy has put into sharp focus the good that MPs can achieve if empowered, and the Brexit debate should concentrate on why it is better to have that power residing in Westminster rather than elsewhere. I have always held this view about immigration and parliamentary accountability but it is not universally shared within the Leave Campaigns.

Attacks on the establishment will need to be handled very carefully. Individual MPs acting for constituencies are not in my view ‘the establishment’ and it is wrong to question their motives or honesty. It is when they act collectively within the Party system and as governments that much political honesty is lost especially when they act beyond their authority within unelected institutions that wield far too much power. That said, blatant examples of individual political dishonesty, double standards or duplicity are still fair game but the way that they are challenged needs to be thought out carefully.

Arguments about whether the Remain side are trying to weaponise the death of Jo Cox are counter-productive and waste valuable campaigning time. It is better to concentrate on getting out your own campaign message rather than to play on the home territory of the opposition. It is always better to turn the opposition’s negative campaigning into a positive argument for your own side of the argument. Support for our parliamentary process is a good example of how you can do this. Now more than ever, the Leave Campaign needs a positive message delivered confidently in measured terms and with a smile. There should be no anger: leave that behind.

It is therefore a matter of emphasis and tone, and I would urge all Leave campaigners to think carefully before they press the ‘send’ or ‘tweet’ button. Undecided voters and soft Leavers need to be very carefully handled between now and the vote next Thursday. It would be a shame to lose this argument through ill considered behaviour or arguments.

When Two Tribes Lose the War

tribal-politics

With only 17 days left until the general election, the polls suggest that the two main parties seem to be roughly tied on 35% with the remainder of voters’ intentions spread across a number of different smaller parties. Historically, Labour and the Conservatives would command a much greater proportion of the vote than this, and both sides must now look back at the past with a degree of nostalgia and wishful thinking. But how is that two party politics has fallen away to such an extent? It is my belief that they only have themselves to blame.

In the past, electoral campaigns were couched in terms of competing political philosophies. Specific policies could be traced back to the main intellectual bedrock, and when voters made their mark they were making a choice as much about the philosophical arguments as they were about specific spending plans or tax cuts. It was classic left versus right, with key questions argued over endlessly about such matters as the role of the state, property ownership, wealth creation and wealth redistribution.

Today this intellectual foundation is missing from the most of the campaigns. Instead we have piecemeal and standalone policies aimed at specific sections of the electorate, and supported by no obvious underlying philosophy. So for example, we have Labour targeting commuters by promising to renationalise the trains, and the Conservatives trying to lure tenants by promising to allow them to buy housing association homes. Neither side couches these policies in terms of the role of the state or the benefits of property ownership. They are purely for the benefit, of a particular section of the electorate, and without the ideological discussion of why these policies benefit the wider country, they are of little interest to the rest of the electorate.

This situation has arisen because Party strategists, started by New Labour in 1997, decided that there was electoral advantage to be gained by directed polices and by avoiding the ideological contest. It confused and smeared the political spectrum, uniting different and opposing wings of the party and was an effort to broaden the appeal to a wider cross section of the public. It is not just Labour, however, and the same principles have been embraced by the Conservative Party. There are a number of unintended effects, however.

First, campaigning has become characterised by media management, spin and, in the eyes of the electorate, intellectual dishonesty. This has resulted in voter apathy and a complete lack of respect for our democratic processes and Parliament. That is worrying enough, but in adopting ideologically barren campaigns, the two main parties have sown the seeds of their own demise. Voters have become confused. Previously, they may have felt energised by the old ideological battles and were willing to to take a stand on principles rather than specifics. Now, they have been encouraged to vote on the individual and narrow policies that personally affect them. However, the problem for the main parties is that these policies may now be on offer from the smaller parties too. In fact, voters may find attractive policies within the manifestos of a number of different parties and find an obvious choice hard to find. Combined with the electoral cynicism I mentioned earlier, this has encouraged the electorate to vote on the basis of how they are personally affected rather than on the basis of what they feel would be best for the country. The smaller parties have profited massively from this situation, and as the old allegiances have fallen away they have been able to campaign on quite narrow issues such as immigration in the case of UKIP, for example.

This creates a huge amount of uncertainty for the main parties as they flail around trying to find the policy equivalent of a golden goose. Without a change in voting system, it is hard to see the situation changing unless there is a resurgence of political awareness and a return to an ideological based system of campaigning. Instead we are doomed to suffer the uncertainty and watered down politics of coalition government. More warm and fuzzy and less confrontational maybe, but in my view less effective. But perhaps that’s what they want in the sheep shed.

Twitter Wars: The Tribal Politics of Unmentionable Racial Issues

iwEa9

Yesterday I reviewed a Sunday Times article by the journalist Trevor Phillips (also here in the Mail but scroll past the DM political hype to get to his piece), and I praised his candour for highlighting the woeful lack of debate about some of the practical problems posed by multiculturalism. After I published my blog I issued a tweet advertising it and then had an interesting exchange with one individual that I believe illustrates the real problems presented by tribal politics in our quest for meaningful debate.

I have left out the name of my sparring partner but an examination of my twitter account will reveal his identity if you’re curious. I have also offered him a full right to reply by blog on this site if he so wishes. Here is the exchange that took place:

Me: Brave, brave Trevor Phillips tackling unmentionable issues like race. His article reviewed here…link to the ruminating sheep blog.

F: dog/whistle rubbish for the Tory Press. Sadly Trevor’s realised there is a lot of cash to be made as a right- wing black guy.

Me: What’s right or left got to do with it? We’re talking about multiculturalism and ability to debate issues free of censure.

F: claiming all Jews are rich, and all blacks are criminals, is little to do with multiculturalism.

Me: Read the article. His point was the inability to discuss the subject and the dangers therein. You’re twisting it (poorly)

F: I’ve read the article. It’s very racist.

and

F: We’re not allowed to say ‘most black people are criminals’ for a reason – it’s judging a human being purely on their race.

Me: He’s not saying most black people are criminals. I will blog about our exchange tomorrow and give you full right to reply.

Now there is a delicious irony to this exchange which I will come to in a moment, but before then I feel it is right to address the implication that Trevor Phillips has written a racist article. First of all, a quick read of Phillips’ bio reveals that this is a man who has consistently promoted equality, diversity and social opportunity over a long career as a broadcaster and more latterly as a public servant. Second, there is nothing within his article that I could construe as racist. The context ( and I urge you to read the whole thing) – is about the barriers to a meaningful discussion on racial and multicultural matters. The focus of F’s objections seems to be this:

“If African Caribbeans are statistically more likely to commit some kinds of crime than other people, as indeed they are — we are especially proficient at murdering other African Caribbeans, for example — it might make some sense to understand why, so we can stop it happening. Not all Jewish people are wealthy; in fact, some are extremely deprived. But if — as is true — Jewish households in Britain are on average twice as wealthy as the rest, might it not pay to work out what makes these families more likely to do well? Is there something that the rest can learn from their traditions and behaviour? We all know why these things cannot be said. The long shadow of slavery and the Holocaust rightly makes us anxious about the kind of slack thinking that led to the dehumanising of entire populations.
Yet should history prevent us from understanding the differences between us — especially if those insights might improve life for everyone?”

I just don’t see that as racist especially in the context of the main thrust of his article. He is merely stating facts and explaining why they are relevant to his thesis. Note also that Philipps is of Afro-Caribbean descent himself.

Now to the irony. In previous posts, Avoiding the Debate and Toxic policies I explained some of the factors preventing proper analytical political debate and how this was causing electoral apathy and cynicism.  Some of these factors include media hyperbole, tribal politics, political dogma and the party whip system. Importantly, it also includes certain nefarious activities like evasive politicians attempting to be all things to all people and pressure groups and organisations suppressing debate by calling into question the integrity and motives of anyone attempting to discuss certain matters.

The whole point of Trevor’s article was about the suppression of the multiculturalism debate. By accusing him of having financial motives and of making racist remarks, his detractors would seem to be using ad-hominem accusations to avoid discussing the substantive issue. This precisely and extremely elegantly proves the exact point made by Philipps in his article. Quad erat demonstrandum.

I have no idea of the motivations of ‘F’ in his twitter remarks but tribal politics and his instinctive defence of multiculturalism as a political rather than social phenomena seems to have played a major part during our exchange on twitter. That is tribal politics at work and neatly illustrates how it raises barriers to proper debate. I have offered ‘F’ the right of friendly reply with a post of his own here in the sheep shed, and I would be interested to hear his perspective. Let’s hope he will eat hay with us and ruminate in the spirit of constructive debate.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Postnote: ‘F’ has posted his reply in comments which you can find below or by following the link here. I still feel that he is viewing the issue through a political lens which in my view is unhelpful but probably realistic in today’s climate. I would nonetheless like to thank him for his constructive contribution to the board. Perhaps others have a view?

Unmentionable Racial Issues

NIP000157139636-75_1135793k

In a previous post, I talked about how some subjects are never discussed because they are, or have been made, politically toxic. As a result, important issues lie unmentioned and simmering with politicians preferring to ignore them rather than raise their heads above the parapet. With this in mind, it was extremely refreshing to read an article in The Sunday Times by journalist and former chairman of the Racial Equality Commission, Trevor Phillips, on the deep racial problems lying within our multi-cultural society and our inability to discuss them.

In his brave article (unfortunately behind a paywall), called Ten Things About Race that are True but we Can’t Say, Trevor highlights how New Labour’s attempts to tackle discrimination failed to addressed the problems of multi-culturalism in practice. He says that local authority funds promoting multi-ethnic diversity have been misused by community leaders who benefit from preserving isolation. He highlights that many young people are “trapped behind walls of tradition and deference to elders”, and identifies that the Charlie Hebdo shootings in France were partly of a consequence of segregation within Muslim ghettos. He believes that similar issues lie behind our own 7th July bombings.

The article would be incendiary if it wasn’t written by a well-known and respected black journalist, and perhaps this is the point. Trevor is absolutely correct that in our desperation to avoid causing offence we are ignoring critical issues and he cites as an example the institutional reluctance to tackle the grooming of young girls by some young Pakistani men in our cities. He also points out that the recent fury over Benedict Cumberbatch’s use of the term ‘coloured’ meant that his important point about the need for more black actors to be employed got completely lost. His key point is that it is “more and more difficult to address problems in our society because we are too afraid to describe them”

Bingo! This is exactly the point I tried to make in my previous post on toxic policies, and Trevor is also correct to highlight that unless we are brave enough to overcome this reluctance, then the far right, already ascendant in some European countries, will continue to make electoral progress for merely ‘speaking the truth’

Trevor Phillips will develop his theme in a Channel 4 documentary on Thursday at 9pm, and I for one will be interested to see it. Well done Trevor.