What next in the Israel/Palestine Conflict?

On 7th October 2023 a complex, sophisticated, and multi-modal assault was launched on southern Israel by Hammas, a so-called Palestinian ‘militant’ organisation, from within Gaza. There have been minor exchanges of fire with Hezbollah in Lebanon, another so-called ‘militant’ organisation, in the north of Israel. It has, so far, resulted in thousands of deaths and injuries, in both Israel and Gaza, the kidnapping of Israeli men women and children as hostages, and the retaliatory arrest and incarceration without trial of thousands of Palestinians within Israel itself and the Israeli-occupied territories. It has led me to wonder what (and who) might be behind it?

Some of the Israeli civilian casualties, including women and children, were slaughtered, wholesale, in a bestial outpouring of hatred and anger, and rightly condemned around the world. As I write this, the Israeli military is pounding Gaza into rubble, also indiscriminately killing civilians, and in an extended act of revenge and reprisal Gaza has been effectively cut off from water, electricity, food and medical supplies. Though the United Nations Organisation, and other diplomatic channels, describe this as a war crime and a breach of international law, in general the world response to Israeli actions has, so far, been notably muted. I will return to this later.

There has been surprise that the Israeli intelligence services, acknowledged to be amongst the most effective in the world, appear to have been caught napping: they didn’t see it coming. Or did they? Reports have emerged that Egyptian sources warned of an imminent attack three days before it started. Other reports, from Israeli reservists, warned of unusual military activity along the border for weeks before, reports that appear to have been ignored. An Israeli military spokesman referred to the shock as being like that in the US caused by 9/11 and Pearl Harbour, so it is ironic that similar reports sufaced of ‘ignored’ warnings after Pearl Harbour. Pearl Harbour brought the US into WW2, from sitting on the sidelines, and ultimately led to victory for the Allies. Some might think the price paid at Pearl Harbour was worth the sacrifice made, by ignoring warnings that were believed to have been received then. I don’t doubt there are many in Israel who would dearly love any excuse to destroy the Palestinians as much as there are some Palestinians would like to destroy the state of Israel. There can be no doubt that the Hamas attack on 7 October gave Israel a cast iron excuse to do just that. Did the hard-line, right wing, nationalist Israeli government secretly think that allowing the deaths of 1200 citizens and abduction of 250 was a price worth paying? Hamas, and fellow travellers , could not possibly have expected to destroy Israel by their actions on 7 October, but may have thought, strategically, the consequences of the inevitable Israeli reaction might ignite a regional reaction that would achive that for them.

It is a truism that nothing overcomes internal divisons quicker than an external threat and, until this latest conflict happened, Israel was deeply divided with unease, even in the military, of the direction of travel of the right wing coalition government. The Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is under attack for pressing through reforms to the judiciary which are intended to limit the freedom the courts. These reforms are so divisive within Israel, so anti-democratic, that army reservists had threatened to not turn up if they are called. Mr Netanyahu is also under indictment for bribery, corruption and fraud, so this is a welcome distraction for him, but there are many, including at all levels of Israeli society, who are worried about the seemingly inexorable progress towards a theocracitic state: the conflation of Judaic law and civil law. An inevitable consequence of conflating the two is that criticism of the state of Israel, or the actions of its governments, is labelled as “anti-Semitic”. Whatever one thinks about the former leader of the UK Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, his inability to counter a label of anti-semitic because of his overt support for the cause of Palestine, and his criticism of the state of Israel, cost him his job, cost Labour the next General Election and precipitated a change in Labour Party policy. All Jews and people of Jewish heritage know that anti-semitism, in thought and action, is real and ever-present, but today’s conflict seems to have precipitated an eruption of both in the UK. However, in the second world war, and ever since in the re-telling of its history, the same conflation of Germans and Germany with Nazis and Nazism took place – and continues to this day. We have seen what happens when the secular and democratic life of a nation is overtaken and suppressed by an ideology or theocracy: Afghanistan and Iran are two examples of the latter, with Saudi Arabia not far behind, and the active inclusion of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russian politics is yet another example.

Not all Israelis are Jews. Not all Israeli Jews are Zionists, not all Arabs are Muslims, not all Arab Muslims are fanatically anti-semitic or anti-Zionist. It is not beyond the bounds of possibilty that the forces from Gaza that inflicted such grievous and bestial harm are not even from Hammas’s own cadres but from Isis/Islamic Jihad acting as proxies. It is very muddy, too muddy for broad brushes. The term “Palestinians” is used as if they were a homogenous people from an identifiable land/country. They are not. They are a disparate multi-ethnic population, 75% of whom are regarded as refugees, and many of them are living in refugee “camps”. Not all so-called Palestinians support Hammas or Hezbollah, or indeed any of the many political or neo-political groups that seek to represent them such as The Palestine Liberation Organisation, Fatah, The Palestinian Authority and so on, but it suits some agendas, including those of a lazy and compliant world press, to lump everyone under one umbrella and paint them as “Good or Evil”. There is no room on the front pages of the tabloid press for nuanced reporting. The BBC, to its credit, published an early piece by veteran reporter John Simpson explaining why the BBC steadfastly refuses to label Hammas as “Terrorists” (and it’s worth a read), but even long-term Middle East reporter Jeremy Bowen seems to have been choosing his words very carefully. It has taken the BBC a week to start more in-depth objective and contextual analysis of the wider and historic causes of Middle East conflict. At first I only found a BBC Radio 4 production in the series “Briefing Room”, broadcast on 12th October – also worth listening to. Now there is a daily podcast, but the daily output on mainsteam TV (especially) has been, in my opinion, ‘soft edged’.

Taking a step back, to allow a wider perspective, one wonders who, ultimately, will be the beneficiaries of this new war? For example, in the global context, it undoubtedly suits Vladimir Putin to have the west’s attention taken away from Ukraine, it also suits him to have munitions earmarked for Ukraine, and only a few days before reported to be scarce, to be diverted to support Israel. I would venture to speculate that this war also suits other Middle-East nations. Syria, for example, is a bedfellow of Russia and Putin and out of the rubble of their own civil war would like again to be a key player in the Middle East. Iran, for example, a theocratic state implacably opposed to the ‘West’ and the West’s client states like Israel, also has regional ambitions. As I write this there are indications of what may be attempts by either “side” to provoke an extension of the conflict into Lebanon. Hezbollah, based there, is a massively well armed and well trained organisation: a wholly different order of opponent of Israel from Hammas. Hezbollah has fired a few rockets into northern Israel, allegedly in support of Hammas. Israel has fired artillery and mounted air strikes into Lebanon in response. Israel has claimed their forces have intercepted (i.e. shot down) drones flying their territory. There is also a largely unreported conflict on the so-called West Bank, where heavily armed illegal Israeli settlers, with the tacit (or actual) encouragement of the Israeli government, are intensifying ongoing raids into Palestinian/Arab lands and forcibly evicting the legal residents. It all feels, to me, like a deliberate series of provocations intended to justify a wider war – and to whose agenda?

So, I would argue, it is not completely ridiculous to wonder whether the backers of both main actors in this war, Israel and “the Palestinians”, are being manipulated by others to create a situation that results in changes to the intractable conflict, for their own regional ambitions, and this is why the international response has been muted. While people on all sides are dying, apart from some appeals for restraint, the major governments are waiting to see how this plays to their overall strategy for the region. When considering such an apparently ludicrous and machiavelian idea it is helpful to review how, and why, it got this way.

The creation of the state of Israel, a homeland for Jews, in the guilt-ridden aftermath of the second world war was (I contend) at best badly mishandled, at worst a mistake. The 1917 Balfour Declaration led to the creation of a national homeland for Jews, and this Wikipedia article bears some study. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balfour_Declaration. Critically it did not propose that a state of Israel would be established in all of the territory then known as Palestine, and it specifically said that the rights of the Palestinians, who then represented the vast majority of the population there, should be protected. Understandable in the recognition of the Nazi Holocaust (whose ghost has been raised by the present Israeli government), and the historic and historical oppression of Jews everywhere, the way in which it then happened by the forced appropriation of lands belonging to Palestinian Arabs planted the seeds of the present atrocities. Britain’s mandated control of Palestine was wrested from it by armed struggle with who we would now call Israelis but, at the time, we called terrorists: Irgun and, often known pejoratively as the Stern Gang, “Lehi”. Lehi was a Zionist paramilitary militant organization. Large swathes of what we now call the Middle East was colonised, mainly by Great Britain, France, Germany and Turkey, the major protagonists in the First World War, and the ‘redistribution’ of colonial ‘spoils’ after that war set the stage for what we now see. See this link for some more information: https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/conflict-Palestine

There are elements within the Israeli establishment, and having influence over the establishment, that would like to ethnically “cleanse”, and militarily sanitise Gaza, of Arabs: to replace the population with Israelis. Not many will say so openly, but for some Israelis the ideal solution would be to push the Gazan Palestinians into the sea, or over the border into Egypt. I would go further and say Gaza bears ironic and ugly comparison with the Jewish ghettos of eastern europe, and the inevitable consequences of that in the holocaust. Gaza has become a kind of concentration camp, and the suggested forced ‘evacuation’ of the populace for their own safety, is just another kind of Pogrom which should resonate with some Israeli Jews. The modern political and military rationale is that Gaza is an open sore threatening Israel. The political and economic rationale is that Israeli occupation and control of Gaza gives Israel uninterupted access to the Mediterranean from the border with Egypt in the south to Lebanon in the north.

And if Israel did achieve a completely unified border, a contiguous land mass, what then? Would its historical, almost genetic, insecurity be assuaged? What, for example, of it’s borders with Jordan and Syria, already ‘adjusted’ by occupation of the Jordanian ‘West Bank’ and the Golan Heights? With both sides seemingly held hostage by extremists, and with a Russian backed Assad in charge of Syria, what new flash points might there be? What of the land annexed by armed Israeli settlements, what of Jerusalem? Are these not just future Gazas which, in time, would be ‘dealt with’ in the name of security?

Are we all ‘ists’ practicing ‘isms’?

There has been worldwide reaction to the illegal killing of an African/American (George Floyd) by police in Minneapolis. In ordering my own thoughts about this issue, and the current unrest in and on behalf of the BAME communities about it, I have come to the troubling conclusion that I am an ‘ist’, or at least guilty of ‘ist’ behaviours – or ‘isms’. This realisation has helped me to understand, I hope to some extent, the institutional and inherent racism in my own country.

The manner of George Floyd’s killing, by a police officer kneeling on his neck for almost 9 minutes, could not have been more calculated to evoke the history of black slavery in the Americas. However, not all of the understandable reaction has been well intentioned. While it has given people from ethnic minorities a focus around which to express their anger over past and present injustices, it has also provided opportunities for “racists” to promote their views during demonstrations against them. It has also provided opportunities for those who benefit from creating and maintaining division, in society more generally, to exploit the situation by provocation.

The event sparked the creation of a movement (fuelled and fanned by social media) that self-identified as “#BlackLivesMatter”. Curiously in the UK (so far) #BlackLivesMatter has not appeared to focus much on similar events in the UK. In other words it does not appear to be using the George Floyd incident to draw attention to occurrences of UK people, often young male people of ‘colour’, dying while in British police custody.

In the immediate upwelling of protest, some individuals defaced or destroyed statues, and other memorials, of historical people with links to slavery, the British Empire’s colonial past, or believed to be associated with support for historically contentious figures like Mussolini and Hitler. In passing it made me wonder whether, across the former British Empire, in fact all of the former Empires of European nations, similar things are happening? Are statues being torn down in the former African colonies of Belgium or Germany, the French colonies of north Africa and South-east Asia, the Far East colonies of the Netherlands, the Portuguese and Spanish colonies of South and Central America?

In the fairly recent past of other nations, effigies of world-influencing people have disappeared from view. In the former Soviet Union, once replete with images and statues of Stalin Marx, Lenin, Engels etc., such are hard to find except in museums, while those of pre-Soviet personalities are reappearing and revered. Iraq and Libya have seen statues of former dictators torn down after regime change; the same happened in Cambodia, Romania and many more.

For what my opinion is worth I think we’ll have to reconsider how, and where, we ‘memorialise’ people in future, but I’m happy to think of existing statues being moved to a “walk through history” sculpture park – not a theme park, but somewhere that allowed space for interpretation, information, and context. Where exisitng statues of contentious individuals cannot be moved, why not add some interpretative panels nearby or even erect another statue adjacent which depicts another part of their story? I believe we have to face up to our past, and through education learn from it, not try to expunge or edit it. To do so is to deny their context: a context that seeks to explain, not excuse. Otherwise we are no different than those who seek to deny the reality of the WW2 Holocaust, and murder of 6 million Jews by the Fascist Nazis.

Naturally as a person with some Jewish heritage and DNA, I have a reaction to this last point in particular, and it’s visceral. A novella by John Buchan, “The Thirty Nine Steps”, is a favourite story of mine but there are profoundly, and explicitly, antisemitic passages in it which I really struggle with. I have to skip past them in order to read the rest of the book, but I couldn’t burn it. Antisemitism is not part of my direct experience: I’ve never been abused, called a ‘Yid’ or a ‘Jew boy’ (not to my face) so my response is taught, learned and passed on, inherited. I am a white, middleclass, well educated and, I like to think, ‘liberal’ person and yet I have a direct instinctive response to an indirect stimulus: I am preconditioned by my environment (upbringing) to not have a rascist bone in my body and yet, and yet, I find myself admitting to prejudice about people I have never met.

In considering the undoubted rascism experienced by our BAME citizens, and trying to imagine how people of those communities must feel, really feel, I tried to put myself in their shoes. Of course that’s impossible, but in my head I tried to go through some benign scenarios, such as how would I react to people of different appearance, dress, skin colour, race, ‘presentation’, turning up unannounced at my door, say to conduct a survey. I had to admit I might be, probably would be, instinctively more wary of a young black man in a ‘hoodie’, and talking in ‘urban patois’, than I would a white middle-aged man in a suit. That is prejudice. That is racism. And there is nothing in my direct experience that leads me to this, quite the opposite, so it must be environmental. I must have been insidiously exposed to imagery and attitudes in various ways, some so subtle that they have been un-noticed, that I have formed some underlying attitudes to stereotypes. I suspect most of us have, and so it is entirely understandable that for some people, without the priviledges of a good education, sound upbringing, decent housing and work opportuities, these prejudices are nearer the surface than in others.

I recently undertook a DNA-based exploration of my family history. There were few surprises: I expected my genetic makeup to be mostly Celtic and European (Ashkenazy) Jewish, and it is. However, I also had a few ‘outlier’ strands, some from north and west Africa. I wonder if some of the Nazi-saluting fascist thugs who counter-demonstrate #BlackLivesMatter gatherings might be similarly surprised to find how cross-cultural their DNA is? Those who parade proudly under the cross of St. George or Union Flag, and proclaim themselves thoroughly English or British, might be surprised just how polyglot they are.

When I lived in Scotland, from where my Celtic DNA derives, my wife experienced occasional low level anti-English bigotry. She is not identifiable as being from a particular racial group, or origin, until she speaks. At that point, some deep seated stereotyped response was triggered in some people she met. Not based on who she was, or on appearance, skin colour, attitude or behaviour, she was made to feel unwelcome. That was 30 years ago, and yet it coloured her feelings about the Scots ever afterwards. She knew that it was irrational, but her slight experience created an emotional ‘trigger’ in her. How do we expect people of BAME origin in the UK feel, when they are individually and collectively subjected to much more overt, systemic, and frankly nastier, abuse?

The unpalatable truth, as I see it, is that humankind is tribal. It is complex and multi-layered, but we have a herding, animal, need to belong. Whether that be defined by race, religion, politics, profession, class, sporting affiliation, age, gender, neighbourhood (and sometimes several of these) we seem to need the safety of our ‘clan’. In times of societal stress, whether that be caused by a pandemic, a financial crash, or even a war, we fall back on the instinct of what makes us fit in with our group to feel safe. We are frightened, especially just now, and frightened people are often irrational.

And so I would ask that we self-examine our motivations, and feelings about #BlackLivesMatter, both for and against, and whether over this or other things, we are also ‘ists’ and practice ‘ism’s. I know I do, and it’s not a very comfortable place to be.

Violent Protest in UK – George Floyd

Violent behaviour in demonstrations is unacceptable, but mass public protest has always been ‘hi-jacked’ by violent elements. I’m old enough to remember what happened during the height of the Vietnam War protests, and the CND movement, and the Miner’s Strike where sometimes extreme violence was perpetrated by, and against, protesters.

However, our society at large is tolerant, even encouraging, of violence legitimised by context. You just have to look at mainstream Film, TV, video ‘gaming’ to see how we glorify violence.

It is also the case that political protest has always been exploited by ‘agents provocateur’ – for example police dressed as miners during the miner’s strike – and unscrupulous media looking for a ‘good’ story. I’m not saying these incidents in London and Bristol are like that, but you have to be mindful that those small number of violent protesters may have an ‘agenda’.

Finally, I would ask those who are uncomprehending of protests triggered by an event thousands of miles away, to consider these 2 points:

1) The sort of casual and institutional violence exhibited by those police officers in Minneapolis sometimes happens here in the UK. Simeon Francis, a 35 year old black man, died in police custody in Torquay Devon on 20th May this year. Whatever the cause proves to be, you can be sure that racism is in the UK too.

2) Put the boot on the other foot. How would you feel if your society was largely of a different ethnicity from yours, where justice and law enfocement was delivered by a judiciary and police force largely of that different ethnic group, and where members of your ethnic group were routinely abused, even killed, by them without sanction? When you come to the point where, even in a pandemic, you think “Enough is enough”, would you be calm and measured? Would you maybe lose the plot, or be susceptible to the encouragement of others to do so?

Generation after generation, the words of Martin Niemoller are there to remind us that if we turn our eyes away, and stay silent in the face of such events, we are complicit. However ‘liberal’ and fair-minded we believe ourselves to be, if we do not protest we are no different from those who allowed the stain of fascism and Nazism to spread across Europe in the 20th Century.

Quo vadis, Labour Party, Quo vadis?

I am so angry about the Labour Party’s monumental failure in the 2019 General Election: their worst performance since the 1930s.  And, as a life-long leftist, I’m angry about the many millions who will now bear the brunt of what follows, with an un-restrained Conservative Party in power.  Many commentators have said “we didn’t see that coming”?  Really?  That just shows what a ‘bubble’ they inhabit.  And so I am incandescent that the defeat, if not the scale of it, was actually completely predictable, and that it was therefore avoidable.

I predicted the 2016 Brexit Referendum result; I predicted the 2016 election of Donald Trump; I predicted the 2017 Election result, and the ‘demise’ of Theresa May before the Brexit negotiations concluded, and the likelihood of another election soon afterwards.  Now I’ve predicted the 2019 General Election result.  To be honest my predictions haven’t been 100% accurate in their detail, particularly in the scale of the result this time, but in the broad outline they were right.

I joined the Labour Party to enable Jeremy Corbyn to get elected as leader.  I thought then the Labour Party needed to shift its policies to the left, partly because I had seen how the New Labour project had lost ground, especially in Scotland to a more socially radical SNP.  Then I attended a couple of local branch meetings, and it became clear that dissent and debate was not encouraged there: a distinct “you’re either with us or against us, Corbyn right or wrong” atmosphere prevailed.  I left the party, but not before sending an unanswered message to party HQ explaining why.

For more than 2 years I have been saying that Jeremy Corbyn was unelectable, not for his policies but because of his personality and presentation.  I’ve been saying that the Labour Party had 18 months to get themselves into order to fight another election.  When he won the leadership Jeremy Corbyn promised a different approach to Parliamentary business: calmer, kinder, less confrontational.  These were worthy ambitions, but Corbyn repeatedly showed an inability to go for the jugular, to score in an open goal, to show anything approaching street fighting skill.  He was not fleet of foot, and seemed incapable of seeing that a long, detached, closely argued reply to a question left him looking evasive and untrustworthy.  I found myself shouting at him on the TV as often as at some Conservative politician.  He appeared more comfortable in public meetings, but it’s easier to be inspirational with an adoring public.

During the election Jeremy Corbyn said he wasn’t going to join the Conservatives “in the gutter”, but that’s where the fight was won.  When the narrative was about Labour Antisemitism, where was the counter attack on Conservative Islamophobia?  Nowhere.  Of course the Conservative party machine, and its almost exclusively supportive media, was always going to smear him in any way they could.  That’s the real-politik territory: look at what happened to Harold Wilson, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Tony Benn (though Benn never even got to be leader).  If you are going to rock the establishment that’s what they do.  It’s too simplistic to lay all this at the door of Jeremy Corbyn but he gave them a big fat target which they couldn’t miss, and his detractors inside the Labour Party were happy to allow it to happen.  While Conservative messages about him (and John Macdonald his close ally) filled the media space there was no room for an alternative (or supporting) perspective, there was not enough time or column inches. People apparently need information presented in simplistic form (i.e. so many swimming pools for volume, so many football pitches for area) so it was a mistake to deploy long-winded argument.  The Conservative strategy was to repeatedly use short, punchy, alliteration: “Deadlock, Dither, Delay” while Labour spoke about degraded workers rights and chlorinated chicken. It is no use wishing politics, and the electorate, was different. It just isn’t, and Labour failed to recognise that most people form political opinions from what they see in the tabloids, not the multiple pages of essays in the broadsheets. I’ve said this over and over again: politics is visceral not cerebral. For the majority of the voting public, who don’t study history or politics, and who receive their political information in bullet points and slogans, the Labour campaign required you to think and analyse.  Labour even seemed to abandon their 2017 election slogan “For the many not the few” which had traction then. 

The Labour election manifesto was a disaster partly because it was more than a hundred pages long.  Held aloft in public, and unintentionally redolent of Mao’s little red book, it was easily derided and undermined as an unaffordable wish-list.  It was never presented, in the manifesto, as a framework for a 20 year shift in economic planning with a clear and costed plan for the first 5 year term.  It was, in effect, a manifesto for a movement, not for a parliamentary term.  It seemed the ageing part of the electorate which had, by and large, accepted the rationale of “austerity” and getting the public finances under control, sensed it was unaffordable.  The odd thing about this is that, at the same time as parts of the electorate appeared nervous about public financial thrift, other parts were building record levels of personal debt. Some voters were not able to see the sense in government borrowing (and debt) while they were prepared to fund their private lives that way. Older voters are most likely to fund their ‘lifestyle’ from borrowing against their property – through equity release schemes – but don’t see that form of credit as ‘debt’ either.

In an election where the background was of eviscerated public services, a collapsing NHS, underfunded schools, disintegrating social care, increasing crime and failure to detect, increasing homelessness, increasing use of food banks, and economic stagnation Labour should have been a ‘shoo-in’ and yet, in great swathes of the country, in their hundreds of thousands life-long Labour supporters voted Conservative.  People who would never have given a thought where their cross would go didn’t just stay at home, that’s clear from the turnout figures, they didn’t spoil their papers, they actually voted Conservative.  What does that say about the disconnect between the Labour movement (as in activists and leadership) and the voters? Our house received one small leaflet from Labour, shoved unannounced through the letterbox: we heard and saw nothing else from the campaign locally.

Brexit was a factor, yes, but the Labour party failed to see that sitting on the fence would not do:  it simply persuaded neither side of the argument that the party, if elected, would deliver what they wanted. 

  Now the blame game has started, with Labour supporters and MPs (or ex-MPs) sniping at each other.  As soon as the election was called,  ‘soft left’ Labour MPs jumped ship completely to other parties, some decided to leave politics entirely, but it was noticeable that other more centrist Labour figures, like Keir Starmer, Steven Kinnock, and others who decided to stay, were absent from the national campaign but are now magically reappearing in the media as possible new leaders!  I’m not convinced by any of them.

Boris Johnson, the Conservative leader and now secure Prime Minister, has already acknowledged that these Labour voters may have only lent their votes, because of Brexit.  In the vacuum of a leaderless opposition he is already touring the country to make sure the loan is a long term one, and he may succeed.  At my age, I may now never live to see another Labour Government.  “It’s a shame” doesn’t come close.  I feel betrayed; my collective ancestors must be spinning in their graves.  Shame on you Labour, shame on you.  SHAME ON YOU!!

And, finally, for those who don’t know the opening Latin quotation it translates as “Where are you marching to”.

Why I’ll be Voting Labour on December 12th

I’ve just finished re-watching a DVD about, and by, Tony Benn: “Will and Testament”.  I recommend it highly, even if you think you have no interest in politics. It reminded me of my own history, and of my parents’ and their parents’ histories. It also reminded me of why I’m voting Labour, even though I think a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn will not win.

You might ask “Why are you voting for him if you think he can’t win?” My response is a) I’m not voting for a leader of a political party.  I’m voting for my constituency candidate,  b) I’m a socialist and I believe in what the Labour Party is trying to do with their manifesto.  Leaders come and go, and more than one serving Prime Minister has been replaced by their party while in office anyway, but why would anyone decide their voting intentions on the basis  of wanting to be on the winning side, rather than on principles and policy? That seems to me almost worse than not voting at all.  Not voting is a betrayal of those thousands who have died to win us the right to vote, and those all over the world who still don’t have a vote. I’m not encouraged by the fact that 30% of the electorate couldn’t even be bothered to vote in the Brexit Referendum but, PLEASE, you have to vote.  If you aren’t registered you only have until 23:59 on 26th November to do it. 

Now, back to my DVD.  Jeremy Corbyn is no Tony Benn but he’s been subjected to the same vicious character assassination that Tony Benn (and Michael Foot) was. The same vested interests, the same powerful forces, (and even some in his own party, just as Tony Benn was), have tried to make sure he fails.  It doesn’t matter that the words coming out of his mouth are much the same as those of other socialists in the past, he’s seen as a threat to the establishment.  Well, take no notice.  What is a threat to the establishment is you and me.  Our votes, for our constituency candidate, are a threat.  When I put my bit of paper in the ballot box I’m saying, “I don’t care what you think, I don’t care about the polls and the media, this is what I think”.  It wouldn’t even matter if Jeremy Corbyn lost his own seat, after all he is only one MP, as long as a Labour government was returned.  The choice isn’t Corbyn or Johnson it’s Labour or Conservative.  Left or Right.  The choice is between a party and government with a history of making the poor and defenceless pay for repairing damage caused by the excesses and failures of their policies, and one that doesn’t.  Even the right-of-centre New Labour project didn’t do that.  The choice is not between two people but between two parties whose gut instincts are diametrically opposed.  One imposed “austerity”, cuts in education, police, social care, health, pensions, defence etc., and will do more given the chance.  The other one would roll back austerity, making the people and corporations that caused the mess in the first place pay for cleaning it up.  The choice is between a party that believes having any kind of job (even one with no contract or zero hours) is aspirational, and one that believes secure work, and being paid a living wage for what you do, is inspirational.  The choice is between a party that believes the social and industrial infrastructure of the country should be in private hands, and one that doesn’t.   The choice is between a party that thinks homelessness and food banks are a Dickensian obscenity and one that couldn’t really “give a toss” (Mr Raab please note).  I know what I want.  10 years of Conservatism is more than enough.  Never mind what the Conservatives say they would do, look at what they have done.  Warts and all, I’m voting Labour.

UK Election 2019 – A Prediction of Sorts

I like to think I’m politically ‘savvy’: I’ve always been interested, even active, in politics – whether international, national or local. I have never failed to vote in any election for which I was qualified, whether that be for board members of an organisation, a union executive or a national or international political election. I have ‘blogged’ here many times on political issues and, particularly intensively, during elections. In these blog posts I have often tried to predict the outcome of elections and, to date, have a high success rate. In only three weeks the UK goes to the polls again and this time I’m struggling to make a confident prediction.

Against a background of gross social inequality, and on the back of 10 years of relentless swingeing cuts to publicly funded services, you would imagine that the electorate would be champing at the bit to vote for anyone other than the incumbent, Conservative, governing party. Apparently not: if the polls are to be believed (and that’s always a big ‘if’) the UK may be heading for yet another hung parliament or a Conservative government with a slender overall majority. Why?

Well, for one thing, Brexit. The country was narrowly in favour of leaving the EU, but based on an incomplete turnout and, shall we say, incomplete truth about the consequences and the timing. Parliament was also split on the issue, and not along party lines, but for the UK General Election the offering from the main parties is clear (except for Labour). The Conservatives want to “Get Brexit Done”, the Liberal Democrats want to “Stop Brexit” altogether, and Labour want to renegotiate and put the whole thing “back to the people” – in other words another referendum. So if you want to stay in the EU you vote LibDem don’t you? Well, yes and no. Because we have an outdated “first past the post”, “winner takes all”, system and you want to stop the Conservatives from getting a majority you vote, tactically, for the party most likely to unseat them in your constituency.

There are shades of grey in the other parties that may be standing on your patch: The Brexit Party want a hard-line “clean break” Brexit, as do the UK Independence Party (UKIP); neither have a hope of forming a government and have no real policies beyond Brexit. The Green Party want to stay in the EU, as do the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Welsh Nationalists (Plaid Cymru). In England there are few seats where a huge majority, one way or another, is going to be overturned. The outcome is going to be down to who wins the ‘marginal’ seats – particularly where the marginal consituency is (or rather was ) evenly split on the issue of Brexit.

Of course this election should be about far more than Brexit. As I wrote earlier in this piece, on the face of it, after 10 years of stagnation and dismantling of social services that disproportionately affect the ordinary man and woman, it ought to be no contest. But, as I write this on 23 November, even I am no clearer. The leaders of all the parties have issued their manifestos, and have now faced the TV cameras as never before, most recently in a BBC hosted public Q&A session. It was depressing and I felt, if this is the best we can offer to the electorate, and the wider world, God help us.

Boris Johnson, current PM and Leader of the Conservatives, is energetic but a bumbling fool. His grasp of complex political matters or the reality of the lives of ordinary people is woeful. He doesn’t ‘do’ detail and was shooting from the hip, as always, offering nothing more than generalities and exposing himself as a man who, despite knowing Latin, is ignorant. Time and again, whatever the thrust of a question, he tried to bring the focus of the event to Brexit – and to attacking Jeremy Corbyn (Labour). Jeremy Corbyn came across as detached, patrician and listless. After years in the job he is still not comfortable in front of a camera or speaking from notes; he is a presentational liability. He’s allowed himself to be portrayed as an evasive fence-sitter on contentious issues like another referendum. He consistently fails to understand that the electorate, by and large, doesn’t ‘do’ detail either. They need ‘bullet point’ answers to straightforward questions: the ordinary electorate don’t want to hear a carefully constructed, dispationate, and complicated argument – they switch off. Labour should be the only show in town. They have an exciting programme that points to a different vision of our society BUT, without explicitly setting it in the context of a 15 year plan, Labour has left the door open to it being condemned as unrealistic, utopian, and unaffordable. That’s inexcusable. It can’t all be done at once, and it isn’t meant to be all done at once, but it appears as if it is meant to be because nowhere in the 100+ page document does it say so: the only date refers to Carbon Reduction. Not only that, but the apparently eqivocal position on Brexit is a bear trap that Labour has needlessly fallen into. Another Brexit referendum will be between Leave and Remain, with the two camapaigns, as before, drawing support from all parties. It makes sense then that, as PM, Jeremy Corbyn should remain impartial but why didn’t he just say that Labour MPs will be able to vote, as before, as their conscience dictates. His personal vote will be, as before, between him and the ballot box. This is an entirely defensible position, but instead he’s allowed himself to be portrayed as indecisive or, worse, duplicitous.

I blogged here about this in 2017: see http://www.harrygoldjazz.com/2017/05/09/go-compare-politics-and-labours-train-wreck-tv/

Jo Swinson (LibDem) looked like a school governor standing in for someone else – inexperienced and out of her depth – but her main plank is “Stop Brexit” at all costs. She reminded me of the phrase my dear Mum used to say, “If you scratch a Liberal, you’ll find a Tory underneath”. I can’t imagine any of them going toe-to-toe with Putin, Trump, Kim Jong Un, or any heavyweight world leader. Oddly, Nicola Sturgeon, SNP leader, came across as most assured, but then she’s peripheral (except as a collaborator with Labour or the LibDems in the event of a hung parliament).

All the main parties will maintain, and renew, the UK nuclear deterrent which I personally find disgusting – only the SNP wants it scrapped.

And so to my prediction. With the caveat that there may be a higher than usual number of swing voters and ‘don’t knows’ out there, and a massive number of newly registered (mostly ‘younger’) voters, I believe the LibDems will pick up a few seats in England and Wales, as will the Greens. The SNP will, again, wipe out the Conservatives in Scotland and come close to doing the same to Labour – in Scotland. So, unless Labour can get its act together in the next 3 weeks, or something happens to discredit Johnson personally, he and the Conservatives will win a slender but workable majority.

However if the election does end up in another stalemate, as I increasingly fear it might, then the vacuum left at the heart of our national politics may be filled by another charismatic politician with the power to stoke the burning resentment of the disenfranchised and frustrated. 1933 anyone?

Our National Politics is Broken

The UK is having another General Election, the third in 4 years. Why? You might be forgiven for thinking it’s because of “Brexit”, but that’s not really true. The reason we are, yet again, trooping off to the polls is because our political system is broken and, as a result, incapable of acting decisively in the National Interest.

For generations the UK political system has been ossified by the competition between 2 main ‘blocks’ of self-interest. The Conservatives (a.k.a. the Tories) and Labour. The former is generally perceived to represent the interests of individual, rather than state, wealth whereas the latter promotes collectivism. Our system of elections has (until recently in Scotland) been based on “winner takes all” and “first past the post” voting that, with a few notable exceptions, ends up disenfranchising most of the electorate in a constituency by electing MPs who have garnered fewer votes than the rest of the candidates in that constituency combined.

Instead of winner takes all we could have single transferrable votes, and proportional representation (PR), and many in the wider electorate might then feel their individual votes count for something. It’s no accident that the smaller parties, and independents, are all for PR while the main parties, the great historical ‘blocks’ of power, are completely against it because it would break their control, perhaps for ever.

Voter disinterest is one result of disenfranchisement, with historically low turnout at elections of any kind, and however important. The 2016 EU Referendum, arguably the most significant decision we have been asked to make in 40 years, saw almost 30% of the qualified electorate fail to vote at all. Vox Pop interviews often elicit comments such as “They’re all as bad as each other” and “It doesn’t matter what I vote, they’ll do what they want anyway”. A political vacuum like this is dangerous as it is fertile ground for those who bring a simple message, skillfully presented, a popular promise to “break the mould”, to a group of electors who feel left out politically, socially or economically.

And so, in the UK General Election of 2019, we have the spectre of a populist Brexit Party standing candidates in most constituencies, on the single issue of achieving a “clean break” Brexit. One thing we can say about the existing, party based, political system is that most of the candidates are known quantities. Many will be either the incumbent MP, or a former challenger in that or another constituency; they have been “vetted” and sponsored by their party. They have “form” and they will, more or less, stand by a policy platform agreed by their party conferences. Nobody, so far, has asked questions about the Brexit Party candidates. Who are they, what is their “form”, what do they believe in, and how would they vote on anything other than Brexit? Apart from Proportional Representation, what is the Brexit Party’s policy on The Environment, Education, Health, Security, Defence, Social Services, Housing, Education, Justice, International Development and Aid and Immigration – oh, and the Economy?

Having seen how, for the last 2 years, a handful of Northern Irish MPs of an unrepresentative minority in their own country have controlled events in our ‘hung’ Parliament, how will it be if the Brexit Party does the same in 2020 and beyond? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

How dare they?

It seems that, every day, our Boris led government (if you can call it that) is achieving new standards for selective memory. I can’t work out if the ministers and spokespersons who are put front-and-centre to explain away the latest change in policy really believe the utter crap they spout.  Do they really think our memory, and attention span, is so short that we can’t remember who has been in charge for the last 9 years?  It takes a special kind of liar to keep an earnestly  straight face while talking up some patently bankrupt bit of logic.  In fact often there is no logic. However, there is no escaping the conclusion: either they are lying or they simply lack the mental capacity to understand.

The present Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has now got to sound bullish about a policy of more police, zero tolerance of crime, bigger prisons and longer sentences, defending a broken system that her government has been in charge of for 9 years.  Her predecessor, Sajid Javid (now Chancellor of the Exchequer), when Home Secretary, had the brass neck to stand in front of cameras saying that the government will think about and consider all requests from police for additional funding in the face of the crisis of knife crime in our country.  At the same time his predecessor as Chancellor, Philip Hammond, said there was no shortage of funds for the police – they just had to be ‘smarter’ about how they spent what they had!  The then Prime Minister, Theresa May, denied that reduced police manpower has anything to do with the rise in crime. In case you have forgotten she was previously the longest serving Home Secretary, so this was happening on her watch then too.  It would seem, then, that Boris is ‘cracking down’ and spending billions (from where?) to fix a problem that apparently has only just appeared.  Where were you Theresa, Boris, Sajid, Priti when the cabinet were deciding these policies? Down the pub?

It’s true the rise in crime (and criminality as a mindset) has many, many causes.  But do they really think we will forget that they, the Conservatives, have been responsible for policy in every area that bears on these causal factors?

They don’t seem to understand that knife crime (the use of knives in violence) is a symptom of something wider: the police clamping down on that (one type of) crime will only ever be a short term gain unless the underlying causes are dealt with – and that’s not a purely policing issue.  I contend that the underlying causes are almost all rooted in austerity: the deliberate policy of the Conservative party (and governments since 2010) to eviscerate public services, and privatise them, under the guise of restoring the public finances. Where they could they shifted the burden, and responsibility, into the voluntary sector under the grandiose title of “The Big Society”. They want us to forget, too, that the financial crash which preceded austerity was itself the direct result of greedy capitalism.

When young, disadvantaged, people have reduced educational opportunities (because education for many has been stripped of all but the core subjects), when their only sense of belonging is that of a gang member, when rites of passage into their peer group involve crimes from mugging right up to murder, what can we expect? When there are too few police to respond to any but the most urgent and high value crimes, when there aren’t enough doctors and nurses, teachers, youth workers, social workers, meaningful jobs with long term prospects, and access to support and state benefits ever harder to achieve, what do we expect? When we have rising levels of homelessness, what do we expect? When we have the ever increasing use of food banks, what do we expect?

When aggression and violence (verbal or physical) is promoted as an acceptable way to behave, whether in film, music, computer games, sport, employment, personal relationships, why should we be surprised when people reach for violence as the way to express and empower themselves?

How dare they, HOW DARE THEY, say they are listening NOW, as if all these crises are new? Why weren’t they listening last year, the year before, in fact every year since the slash-and-burn Conservatives came to power? They were told. We told them. Common sense told them. How dare they act as if “We didn’t see that coming, but we’re listening now”? In what looks increasingly like a run-up to a snap election they, the government, may not want us to join the dots. I think we’re better than that, at least I hope so.

Trump’s Motivation: ‘Self’ first and last.

Donald Trump makes so many pronouncements, initiates and then stops policies, that it’s hard to know where he’s coming from. But when he interferes in the politics and trade of other nations, while railing against those who would do the same to the US, you have to wonder about his motivation.

It is plain as a pikestaff (to me) that his primary, possibly only, motivation is ‘self’: what’s good for Donald Trump. The economic and political theory of Capitalism is founded on this attitude: what’s good for the individual is also good for society. Margaret Thatcher thought the same – she even said, in effect, there’s no such thing as society’. But I have no doubt that where the mutual interests of individual and society diverge, in the mind of Donald Trump what’s good for Donald Trump will win out.

So, one has to ask why does Donald Trump want the UK to exit from the EU? Is it out of concern for the UK, or because it’s good for the US, and Trump in particular? Would a fractured and fractious EU be good for Donald Trump, and the US economy (and it’s influence)? On the basis of evidence from negotiating deals with China, Canada, Iran, Mexico, etc., it is reasonable to ask how well would the UK fare in a post-Brexit trade negotiation with Donald Trump when a ‘fair’ Free Deal means whatever Donald wants or else? Why would the President of the United States, on the eve of a formal visit to the UK, apparently support two individuals who want to see the UK’s departure from the EU on any terms or none? Why do both Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, merit his support? Is it because they are a) narcisists and b) have a mutual interest in far-right politics? Certainly Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage have had regular contact with Steve Bannon, the American far-right creater of ‘Breitbart’, and proponent of denying everything and “It’s all fake news” political campaigning.

Yes, but what about Ireland?

Brexit: Take a step back, breathe, and think

Regular readers of Near Horizon will know where I stand on Brexit, but this post is neither pro nor anti Brexit. Wherever you stand, whatever your political allegiances, if what I’m going to say resonates with you, by all means share it with friends.

The resignation of Theresa May, as leader of the Conservative Party (and Prime Minister), changed very little. It was entirely predictable, ever since her attempt to increase her parliamentary majority in 2017 so spectacularly backfired. We need to ‘wind the clock back’ to find the cause of her downfall: In 2016 David Cameron, then Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister, enabled a referendum with no threshold for a result: a simple majority of 1 would have been enough to win either way. Changing a Treaty relationship with the EU (or anyone), built up over 40 years, ought to have had, in my view, a 60% threshold in favour of changing the status quo, but we are where we are.

As a result, a relatively narrow majority to leave the EU (52/48%) when 27% of the electorate failed to vote at all, exposed a faultline in the UK which was not on traditional party lines. Then Cameron resigned and Theresa May took over: a Prime MInister no-one had voted for except her own party. Then she made her first, massive, error of judgement. She invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which set the 2 year clock running to our exit from the EU with no plan in place as to how this would be achieved. The Foreign Office, and other Government civil service departments, had been eviscerated in pursuit of “austerity” after the 2008 financial crash. There were fewer experienced people to support the complex negotiations, once it was known what was being negotiated on.

The following two years showed just how difficult it was going to be, in spite of some Brexit supporting Conservatives saying it would all be easy, “a walk in the park”. It was especially so with a slender (but workable) majority in the House of Commons, but then Theresa May made her second major miscalculation: she called a General election. Only 13 months after taking office, she nearly lost. She did lose her overall majority and had to ally herself with the Northern Irish Unionists, a political disaster, and a disaster for Brexit. An open land border between the EU, in the shape of The Republic of Ireland, and the UK had been a pillar of the “Good Friday Agreement” which brought an end to 30 years of sectarian violence in the island of Ireland. Part of the Good Friday Agreement was devolution of power to a Northern Ireland Assembly, so-called “Power Sharing”, and commitment to keeping the North/South border open. The Northern Ireland Assembly has been moribund for over 2 years due to differences between the main players: Sinn Fein (Nationalists allied to the Republic) and The Unionists (committed to staying in the UK).

Then Theresa May made her next blunder. Instead of reaching out across party lines, to negotiate a Brexit “Deal” which could command support of the whole house, she went her own way. She repeatedly lost votes in Parliament, because large numbers of her own party’s MPs didn’t like some aspect of the “deal” – and especially the status of the so-called “backstop” which sought to square the circle over the EU / UK border – between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland . Despite surviving a vote of no confidence she was finally forced to quit by pressure from her own party “Grandees” – not in the national interest but in party interest.

Then we had the EU Parliament elections, elections which the UK wouldn’t have needed to participate in except the Brexit deadline had been postponed – twice. The results demonstrated yet again how polarised the UK electorate is. The race to replace Theresa May was eventually won by Boris Johnson, voted for by an electorate of 100,000 party members but, almost without exception, those candidates who he faced were from the same cohort of failed (or inexperienced) politicians who supported Theresa May until the ship was irretrievably sinking. A prime choice of PM material in a time of crisis?

A third Brexit deadline, 31 October 2019, was set. Boris Johnson decided that we leave “do or die” but then we had the failed , and illegal, attempt to shut down parliament and force a no-deal Brexit on that date. What is more, parliament forced the passage of a law which is meant to prevent Boris Johnson from taking the UK out of the EU without a deal, and it would appear his tactic is, and has been all along, to push the EU into being “the bad guys” and breaking off negotiations or refusing a further extension to Article 50.

While all this has been going on, the Conservatives have also been trying to goad and bully the opposition parties into calling an early general election. This they don’t want to do because it would create a black hole into which a no-deal Brexit would fall. Boris and his “new” team set about electioneering anyway, promising hundreds of billions of pounds for things which were not Conservative party policy, and had not been agreed by their membership or their conference. However there is no guarantee that an election now, or any time soon, would produce a different mix of opinion in Parliament, unless the Brexit Party won a lot of seats. Whichever way you look at this, we (the UK) are in a mess. Those jubilant Brexit supporters who, in the wake of the Brexit Party’s showing in the EU elections, were chanting that “out means out” and “a clean break ‘no deal’ is fine” cannot answer the simple question: yes, but what about Ireland?

It would appear this is a question that nobody has been able to answer since 2017 as it remains the spike on which the whole Brexit negotiation has been impaled from day 1. Boris Johnson finally tabled proposals to the EU which, he claimed, were reasonable steps towards compromise on the backstop, but which handed the DUP minority a veto over its future operation. It was never going to fly, and the suspicion is that it was never intended to.