This blog post was planned earlier this year in response to a very important question placed on social media, by the account known as Experimental Philosophy (@xphilosopher ), which was as follows:
At this moment in time, this issue seems more vivid than ever, and it is one I myself have considered at length during my university career, both when my own politics were more aligned with the radical left and in terms of the social democratic position which I espouse nowadays.
Teaching is not preaching. In the UK, the 1996 Education Act forbids the ‘promotion of partisan political views’ at primary and secondary level. This is sensible when teaching at that level; a corresponding prohibition at tertiary level would inevitably entail a significant loss of autonomy and academic freedom which would be undesirable. Furthermore, students are generally legally adults, and as such it is reasonable to think that they are in more of a position to be able to recognise and critique such views for themselves.
But what about the duty of academics to make all students feel welcome, and able to express their own views without fear or intimidation? Here there is much reason for concern, not least with respect to political bias amongst academics themselves. There is clear evidence that academics identifying with conservative or right-of-centre positions are in a quite small minority. There have been various attempts to refute this, some involving obfuscation, other balanced appraisals (such as this study), suggesting that the situation varies between countries and disciplines, but without denying this is the case in the humanities in particular. As one working in the humanities, and identifying as left-of-centre, this concerns me very much.
I was distressed and angry by the Brexit vote, and continue to believe that this will soon be seen as one of the worst own goals in this country for a very long time. Nonetheless, I am quite sure that not everyone who supported or continues to support Brexit is simply stupid or ignorant (I think they are wrong, but that is not the same). Furthermore, as 52% of the population voted for Brexit, this is sure to include at least some who were students at the time, or their families. For a lecturer in class to brand them stupid and ignorant (the views they express outside of the classroom are their own business) would be grounds for legitimate complaint. I dislike a lot about the form of unbridled capitalism in the United States, as well as the meagreness of welfare provision in that country, the gun culture, the fact that this is the only Western country still to execute its own citizens, or the draconian sentencing policies implemented in many of its regions. I do not believe this amounts to a slur on American citizens in general (anymore than drastic opposition to Putin and the actions of the Russian government and military amounts to a slur on all Russians), whilst recognising that to some extent in a democracy the actions of governmental authorities cannot be divorced from the will of its citizens. But I would never think that teaching is a place to try and preach this to students, some of whom may be from the United States.
Some of the responses to the Twitter post above were encouraging (I won’t link to all the tweets, but one can go and view the thread oneself): some suggested that one should avoid making partisan statements in class, avoid making one’s own political opinion clear (I do not necessarily agree with this, but certainly think it needs to be tempered – see below), or interestingly suggested the teacher can present themselves as the advocate for an argument in a paper, perhaps thus inviting the students to find holes in it. But others epitomised what the post was trying to address – one said that conservative students are ‘threatened by rational thought, scientific evidence, and collective determination of invariant truth’ (which I argued is equally true of many on the left), another branded anyone right-of-centre as ‘racist or intolerant’. One suggested that one should become friendly with conservative colleagues, with which I wholeheartedly agree. Others reasonably asked whether this was not equally an issue for conservative academics teaching left-of-centre students, and this certainly needs to be considered too; I would say (including in my own field) there are more than a few who present themselves as politically ‘progressive’, and assume themselves to be left-of-centre, but their neglect of the economic lead them to become quite aggressive advocates of market forces and consumer culture (see my earlier post here and the end of the post here).
This is a blog post rather than a scholarly article, and does not allow for the type of thoroughgoing research required to ascertain the extent to which political activism and intimidation of students with different political views are major factors within higher education. So here I draw upon personal experience, and knowledge imparted by a wide range of other academics and some students or former students. I am not sure I have always been successful with avoiding some of these factors in my teaching, but over the last decade-and-a-bit have thought and worked harder on this.
- Always ensure that your lecture materials, set readings, and so on, draw attention to plural political and other perspectives on the issues at stake.
- As an extension of 1, make sure you set readings which are not just those with which you personally agree.
- If you wish to inform the students of your own position on certain matters, always emphasise that this is your own, should not be given priority over the views of other scholars, and above all stress that students will never be penalised in their assignments for disagreeing with your position, nor win any special favour for agreeing with it.
- When there is a clear majority of students adhering to a particular view in class discussions, make sure you interject alternative views into this, and present these at their most convincing. Otherwise, students whose views are in the minority may feel afraid of not ‘going with the flow’.
- Avoid asking leading questions (this is a wider academic point) on all occasions. This includes assignments – anything along the lines of ‘Show how various forms of culture or knowledge served to sustain the power of particular groups in society’ should be right out. This should be reframed as a question of whether the forms of culture or knowledge in question served such an end. Also, avoid any type of passive-aggressive language which indicates a ‘right’ position to take or could be viewed as denigrating those who might disagree.
- Never present the work of highly politicised and contested figures – whether Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman, or Michel Foucault, Stuart Hall and Edward Said – as if their work represents some type of objective truth. Always draw attention to the critiques which exist of their work.
- As an issue directed towards those of a more right-of-centre persuasion: be aware of how politically loaded some concepts might be (I would include ‘cultural industries’ and ‘creative industries’ in this category, just as much as the Adornian negative conception of the ‘culture industry’). While students will often be working in a capitalist and market-driven world after graduation, that in no way means that education should exclude more critical positions on the marketplace and commercialism. Remember that you are teaching students to be intelligent, mature and independent critical thinkers, not just to adhere to a dominant ideology which you think might serve them well at a later stage.
- Do not appropriate rhetoric about white supremacy simply for the purposes of closing down discussion. This term should not be used lightly, especially not with students. This is no better than using racial epithets against students. Similarly, avoid as far as possible any comparisons with the Nazis unless talking about obvious genuine fascists. Also, be proactive if you see students trying to use similar rhetoric for the same aims.
- Much of the rhetoric about ‘decolonising’ education is toxic; loaded with all sorts of unchallenged assumptions, frequently ahistorical, again used as a means to close down debate and force through a particular political programme, and exploited by particular academic factions in order to bolster their own positions. I have published on the subject here in the context of music here and here; I would also recommend this piece by Patrick Porter, this by James Olsen and this interview with Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò for alternative perspectives to the dominant positions within the academic industry on this subject; the article upon leaving academic from Paul Harper-Scott gives a prime example of how this rhetoric is exploited. This does not mean by any means that the subject of possible intersections between culture, knowledge, institutions and colonialism are not a legitimate area for study; far from it. But whether particular intersections exist, and if so their nature, are critical questions, not opportunities for imposing dogma via questionable claims of EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity – see this article by Alice Sullivan and Judith Suissa on how bodies dealing with this are often hijacked by activists and political extremists). To be able to engage with such questions, teach students about the history of colonialism (including that from non-European powers) and slavery (likewise), introduce them to culture, thought, from non-Western culture, but allow them to arrive at their own conclusions. To put some non-Western cultural work, social practice or variety of knowledge on a pedestal, as if beyond criticism, is as demeaning and dehumanising to the heterogeneous people and social groups in any such region as anything from a far-right racist.
- Equally pernicious is the argument that ‘everything is political’, used to suggest that one person’s teaching cannot be more ‘politicised’ than another’s. This is aggressive and belligerent rhetoric which could equally be exploited by those on the far right.
- There are not that many subjects which lie outside of the boundaries of legitimate debate – those which involve dehumanisation and denigration of people on the grounds simply of what they were born, or those which involve cynical denial of genocidal events, are amongst the few. Even some for which academics may feel most passionately – about the extent to which a government should allow admission to those seeking to immigrate or claiming asylum, or whether the termination of a pregnancy is purely a matter of a woman’s own body, or whether the unborn child has rights and deserves protection too – elicit multiple views which exist within the boundaries of democratic debate. In some cases this may prove extremely difficult – how to respect, for example, the religious sensibilities of those who have firm views on the place of women, or on homosexuals, which would be beyond the realms of acceptable discourse for many others. Here I do not have a solution other than to argue that tertiary education should be conducted from a secular perspective, and no religion deserves special treatment.
More broadly, the use of teaching as a vehicle for propaganda and political activism should be entirely unacceptable, and students should receive independent advice to become aware of this and be provided with appropriate channels to register their unhappiness about it.
I have found many in academia may pay lip service to ‘critical thinking’, but this is tempered in one of two ways. For many, such critical thinking does not apply to many of the assumptions underlying their own field of work. Numerous ethnomusicologists, in my experience, can be especially wedded to axiomatic assumptions about the relationship between music and its social/cultural context (not to mention frequently treating the works of their own set of canonical thinkers practically as sacred texts). They are of course perfectly entitled to their own views and to express them, but students should not be made to adhere to and avoid critique to such thinking under fear of ostracisation or penalisation of their work. For others, their concept of ‘critical’ means absolute adherence towards a particular political view which they deem ‘critical’. Critiques of the NHS, of trade unions, of factions within the left, of antisemitic ideologies in the same place, can be just as ‘critical’ as those of capitalist institutions, the military, the monarchy or the church (and I say this as a dedicated trade unionist, with huge pride in the NHS, also very sceptical of the monarchy, many churches, and certainly of unregulated power given to the forces of capital).
There are of course limits – it would be foolish to think that a position advocating slavery, or expressing support for Nazism or Stalinism, should be treated just like any other political position. But even in these cases there is much more to education than simply telling students how bad these things are. There are many questions relating to the workings of the Western slave trade, the extent of complicity or active involvement of many in various fields of life, the extent to which assent towards this was dominant within political discourse or the extent to which it engendered significant opposition, and the sensitive issue of active complicity of some members of the societies from which slaves were taken (just as Holocaust scholar Raoul Hillberg encountered great controversy when investigating the involvement of some Jewish organisations in facilitating the machinery of genocide, now a perspective accepted by a wide range of historians). Nazism, wider fascism and the Third Reich form parts of my own research areas; I see how important it is in education to consider historical conceptions of fascism (far from the crude way the term is often bandied about nowadays), but also consider not just the extent to which it formed/forms a continuity with the pre- and post-fascist histories of the societies in question, to what extent there was popular approval for the movement (equally a question for Stalinism), including during the times of the worst atrocities, and how and why this might have been true, if there was indeed considerable support (the extent continues to divide historians, especially in the wake of the work of Daniel Goldhagen). I have taught a module entitled Music, Fascism, Communism for over a decade. In this, I frequently show students a section from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens (1935), focused around a Nuremberg Rally, presenting the Führer almost like an angel sent from on high, and with mesmerising choreographed scenes of sacralised, ritualistic displays of militaristic power. It would be easy just to tell students why this is so terrible; but actually I would like them to consider what it was about these types of spectacles (if indeed they did resemble Riefenstahl’s portrayals, which is a big ‘if’) might have proved so compelling, and by extension consider how cultural forms (I often juxtapose the Riefenstahl with some choreographed scenes from Busby Berkeley – others have commented on the similarities, and Riefenstahl herself acknowledged the influence of Berkeley) can operate upon the spectator (and listener) in such an atavistic manner, appealing in a purely sensuous and emotive manner, not to rational and critical faculties, and how this strategy has proved as effective in steering consumer habits as in bolstering emotional identification with fascism – though of course also registering dissenting views towards this interpretation. This is about attempting to encourage wider critical analysis of the phenomena in question and related ones, not simply to bolster support for a viewpoint with which no reasonable person would disagree (that Nazism was a disastrous and genocidal movement). Knowledge of Stalinism or more widely of documented atrocities under actually-existing communism seems to become thinner with every year that passes since the end of the Cold War; it is vital that students are aware of what has been documented beyond reasonable doubt, but there remain many different interpretations to explore, concerning such issues as whether Stalinism and its counterparts elsewhere were an inevitable consequence of any type of social upheaval following the principles laid down by Marx and Engels, or whether it was a distortion of these and this historical trajectory could have been avoided, the role of personalities such as Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Tito, Mao, Ho Chi Minh and many others, and in a cultural context whether there was any necessary connection between this type of politics and radical artistic movements (see my latest piece in The Spectator for some thoughts on this).
At one institution where I once did some teaching, I found that one student with whom I was working was a supporter of the British National Party. However, so long as this did not lead to the expression of overtly racist views in front of others, I did not see any reason for this to affect things. In another somewhat less loaded case, when teaching about performing some music explicitly linked to a specific left-wing political programme, with associated texts alluding to global events, I realise that some students there who had grown up in Eastern European countries under communism were uncomfortable with any suggestion that one should share the view of the composer in question, so I tried to adapt teaching from then onwards to make clear this needn’t be the case. I have also (briefly) taught a student who went on to become a Brexit Party MP; I have no idea what they think about my teaching, but hope at least that it didn’t make them feel politically excluded.
But let me end with an inspiring example from the past: the case of Ralph Miliband, father of David and Ed. Miliband was born to a Jewish refugee parents from Poland, who had settled in Belgium, and in turn had to flee the country to escape persecution at the hands of the Nazis and their Belgian allies. Miliband was a major political theorist who taught at the London School of Economics, the University of Leeds, and various US institutions. His positions were associated with particular factions of the Marxist left (and he had little time for the idea that change could be achieved through the Labour Party), unlike both of his sons, though this fact was used to discredit Ed Miliband in particular by association in pernicious journalism in the Daily Mail, calling the elder Miliband ‘The man who hated Britain’. But one who defended Miliband most strongly was Lord Moore, formerly John Moore, known in the 1980s as a right-wing member of Thatcher’s cabinet (associated in particular with major cuts to social security). Beyond defending Miliband against the charge that he hated Britain, he recalled studying under Miliband at the London School of Economics, where Moore was a student in the late 1950s:
Ralph Miliband taught me and I can say he was one of the most inspiring and objective teachers I had. Of course, we had different political opinions but he never treated me with anything less than complete courtesy and I had profound respect for his integrity.
I cannot imagine any stronger tribute to the fairness of one’s teaching than to have such a testimony from someone at the other end of the political spectrum, nor more worthy aim for academics than to be as fair and balanced to one’s own students as Miliband was to his.
Rightly or wrongly, today it seems quite widely assumed that a defence of high culture (and its public funding) is a conservative position, at odds with ‘progressive’ arguments which reject that it has any intrinsic value over and above popular/commercial alternatives, and as such deserves no special treatment (also that Western high culture is deeply entwined with colonialism, an argument I have attempted to address in a musical context in this article recently published in The Critic magazine).
At the height of the Thatcher-Reagan era, in 1989 (when both politicians were near the end of their careers, but their policies had become firmly entrenched), two books in the field of cultural studies appeared which argued this perspectively on high/low culture most fervently: John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989) and Andrew Ross, No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture (New York: Routledge, 1989). Fiske interprets various approaches to consumption (which he describes as ‘a tactical raid upon the system’), such as sporting of particular garments, make-up or hairstyles, as guerrilla actions which subvert dominant values, writing that ‘At the point of sale the commodity exhausts its role in the distribution economy, but begins its work in the cultural. Detached from the strategies of capitalism, its work for the bosses completed, it becomes a resource for the culture of everyday life’. Ross is utterly scathing about any type of defence of high culture, seeing in this an affront to the values of democracy, and a hegemonic attempt by a dominant class to protect their privilege.
Yet in the House of Commons, a very different political alignment was made clear the following year. It came about in a speech during a debate on arts funding by hard right-wing Conservative MP Terry Dicks (1937-2020), then MP for Hayes and Harlington:
Terry Dicks: My hon. Friend said that the arts contribute to the quality of life. Perhaps he could explain to me one day how the arts’ contribution to the quality of life affects my pensioners and ordinary people who want to buy a pint and have a game of bingo– [Interruption.] Their quality of life is not enhanced by seeing some man prance about in a box or by listening to the different range of an opera singer.
Other questions that I should like to ask–which nobody answers, certainly not any of the great and the good on the Opposition Benches–is, what is art? What is culture? Who defines it? The answers to those questions are personal, but I know who the hell pays for it. The ordinary chap down the street pays for most of it, while the great and the good take advantage.
We have heard about the royal opera house. I shall show the way in which it thinks about money. I gather that it is about £3 million in debt. It spent £200,000 recently on a production. It has agreed to a 15 per cent. increase for ballet dancers who prance around, pretending they are toys, at an annual cost of £600,000. I find it strange that the arts world is up in arms about the lack of money yet ballet dancers can get a 15 per cent. increase, which is twice the rate of inflation. Nobody mentions that–certainly no Opposition Member has mentioned it. When extra money is called for, all the whingers appear on both sides of the Chamber [Interruption.] Every man, well and good, appears. Nobody should need to question the situation : everyone should understand what needs to be done. Why should we subsidise old pros dressed in doublets and hose? I do not understand.
In common with my right hon. Friend the Minister, I could say that it is all “Much Ado About Nothing”, but I am not an expert on Shakespeare. The Royal Shakespeare Company has made its bed and it must lie on it. I see no justification for a grant increase, nor can I see any justification for any grant. No one in the working class, or the people I represent, could give a toss about the Royal Shakespeare Company staying open or closing down. There is nothing special about it.
One can compare and contrast the RSC with the commercial theatre, which must survive by putting on a programme that people are prepared to pay an economic cost to see. The same argument applies to professional football. In common, I am sure, with many colleagues I received a copy of a letter from Ken Bates, who is the chairman of Chelsea football club. He says :
“The Arts Council grant to the Opera House this year is more than £13.3 million, or £75,000 a week I’d be interested to know what percentage that is of the Opera House’s total income.”
So would I.
“Far from offering us any subsidy or assistance, it”–the Government–“takes £300 million a year in betting tax out of the game, which is equal to £3 million per Football League club”
Is it not strange that the working-class pastime gets hammered by the taxman while the upper-class pastime–I notice that a member of the middle class is sitting next to the upper-class man on the Opposition Front Bench- -is subsidised all the time by the rest of us. The poor chap down the road must pay the full whack to see Brentford or Chelsea, apart from the cost that he must meet in the future towards increased safety in those football grounds. He must pay for that ticket from his own pocket, but the great and the good, in their bow ties and long frocks, get them paid for by someone else. It is strange that we adopt such an approach to the upper class in this House and we forget the ordinary people who put us here. [ Hon. Members– : “Hear, hear.”] I am glad that the audience is so good, and that most of the audience have had a good dinner.
Child benefit has not been uprated for a couple of years and the ambulance men are being offered only 6.5 per cent. for this year–
After a few other interventions, and more from Dicks, the then-Labour MP for Newham North-West, Tony Banks (1942-2006) (associated with the relatively hard left, an ally of Ken Livingstone, Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn), responded as follows:
Tony Banks: My right hon. and hon. Friends know that an economically efficient and socially just society will not only address the problems of homelessness, poverty and unemployment that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) mentioned. Such a society will support also a thriving and burgeoning arts expenditure. It is a mark of a confident and strong society that it encourages and nurtures the arts. The Victorians did it in the past in this country, and the French, Germans and Italians do it today.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington is not in his place, because listening to him opining on the arts is rather like listening to Vlad the Impaler presenting “Blue Peter”. The hon. Gentleman is undoubtedly living proof that a pig’s bladder on a stick can be elected as a Member of Parliament.
Several Hon. Members rose —
Mr. Speaker : Order. I know–but although the hon. Gentleman’s comments may not be very pleasant, they are not unparliamentary.
This amusing exchange shows how the political alignment I outlined at the beginning of this piece has by no means always been accepted. Some of us on the left still believe passionately in the value of high culture, and of subsidy to try and make it available to a wider section of the population. For all that I would never defend Soviet communism, the success of such a venture on a large scale is made clear in Pauline Fairclough’s book Classics for the Masses: Shaping Soviet Musical Identity under Lenin and Stalin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), and recently in a fantastic keynote on ‘The Soviet model of teaching music at universities and conservatories, and its implementation in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe’ at my conference on ‘Music and the University: History, Models, Prospects’ (of which more in a blog post to follow), Serbian musicologist Ivana Medić gave plentiful detail about how this approach was disseminated through Eastern Europe (including in countries which had broken with Moscow such as Yugoslavia), and still informs musical education today. There remains plenty to learn from this.
Like many others, I was deeply disappointed to read Jeremy Corbyn’s interview with Der Spiegel published two days ago (Jörg Schindler, ‘Interview with Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn: “We Can’t Stop Brexit”‘, Spiegel Online, 9 November 2018). This was published right after the news of transport minister Jo Johnson’s resignation and calls for a second referendum on Brexit, since which he has said it would be a ‘democratic travesty’ not to have another Brexit vote. Corbyn’s statement seemed to make this impossible, as a new referendum bill or amendment to that effect of an existing bill could not happen without Labour support.
The 2017 General Election produced 317 Tory MPs, 262 Labour, 35 SNP, 12 Liberal Democrats, 10 DUP, 7 Sinn Fein, 4 Plaid Cymru, 1 Green, 1 Independent and the Speaker. There is no likelihood at all of the Sinn Fein MPs ever taking up their seats, whilst the Speaker remains nominally neutral. Neither he (John Bercow (Conservative)) nor his three deputies (Lindsay Hoyle (Labour), Eleanor Laing (Conservative) and Rosie Winterton (Labour)) vote, by convention. The meaningful total is therefore 639 rather than 650, and so the government needs 30 seats for a majority. Following the Confidence and Supply agreement with the DUP, the government can count on their support in motions of confidence and various aspects of their legislative agenda, thus producing effectively 326 (316 Tories, without their Deputy Speaker, plus 10 DUP) MPs, as against 311 in the Opposition. Since the General Election, 2 Tories and 5 Labour MPs have either been suspended from their party or have resigned the whip, so there are a total 8 Independent MPs, whose loyalties in confidence or crucial Brexit motions may be unknown.
But assuming the suspended/resigned MPs continue to vote according to type, the government has a working majority of 13 votes. This means that if seven Tory or DUP MPs vote against them, they could lose a vote if there is also 100% opposition from the other parties.
It is now looking possible, even perhaps likely, that Theresa May will fail to get any deal through Parliament, with a range of Brexiteer Tories and the DUP warning they will vote against, while the deal is also opposed by some Remainer supporters of a second referendum such as Justine Greening. Representatives of the government have been allegedly attempting to woo some Labour MPs to support them on a deal. The Mirror suggested as many as 30 may be prepared to do this, but this may be too few, though the consequences of last-minute pressure from whips in both parties should not be underestimated.
But if the government fails to get a deal through Parliament, it is highly unlikely that they themselves would introduce a second referendum bill, having repeatedly ruled it out (though, as has been noted, Theresa May as repeatedly ruled out an early general election, then called one). However, there are various means by which such a thing could be triggered, either through primary legislation or amendments to existing bills; a UCL paper details five possible scenarios (Jess Sargeant, Alan Renwick and Meg Russell, ‘The Mechanics of a Further Referendum on Brexit’ (London: The Constitutional Unit, UCL, 2018), pp. 23-28).
The major question is whether a parliamentary majority could be found for this option. As the DUP are firm supporters of Brexit, there is little chance of their supporting any second referendum motion. At present, The Sun counts eight Tory MPs supporting a second referendum: Johnson, Philip Lee, Justine Greening, Anna Soubry, Guto Bebb, Amber Rudd, Heidi Allen, Sarah Wollaston. They do not list Dominic Grieve oddly, but he has made clear his support for this for some time. There are plenty of suggestions that a variety of other Tory MPs would support this if it came to it, despite not having yet said so publicly. The Liberal Democrats and SNP are likely to vote solidly for such a measure. As for Labour, in June The Independent counted 42 MPs backing a second referendum, to which there are probably a few other names to be added. But almost none of the Corbynistas, nor many of the Brownites/(Ed) Milibandites are on this list. Then there are the pro-Brexit Labour MPs, including Grahame Stringer, John Mann, Kate Hoey, Dennis Skinner and (formerly holding the Labour whip) Frank Field, while others such as Caroline Flint and Stephen Kinnock appear opposed to a second referendum. The 2018 Labour Conference saw a motion passed keeping a second referendum option open if MPs are deadlocked, but this does not firmly commit to anything. That said, Corbyn’s statement to Der Spiegel would appear to be in direct contravention of conference policy.
A second referendum will only get through with relatively solid Labour support, and a significant number of Tory MPs voting for it. My guess is that between 10 and 20 Labour MPs will definitely oppose even if the party institutes a three-line whip, so this requires 20 to 30 Tory MPs to vote for it and against their own government, a tall order. However, if the country looks to be heading for no deal (and Theresa May has set a date of this week, as Parliament returns from recess, for the government will begin to set into motion many emergency measures to deal with this), all sorts of new options are possible.
So, in light of Corbyn’s statement, a second referendum may seem impossible. Or is it? Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry was interviewed on The Andrew Marr Show this morning (42’27”-56’22”). After Marr brought up Corbyn’s statement, apparently ruling out a second referendum, Thornberry began by saying that ‘the results of the referendum need to ought to be abided by’, but then immediately afterwards said ‘We do need an injection of democracy in between the results of the referendum and us going any further’. She then said that Labour wanted a ‘meaningful vote’, which was not what Theresa May was giving them in offering the choice between her deal or no deal, ‘the devil and the deep blue sea’. Thornberry said that instead, there should be a general election, but if that did not happen, then ‘yes, of course, all the options remain on the table and we would, you know, campaign for there to be a People’s Vote, but there are several stages before we get there’. Pushed further on Corbyn’s statement, Thornberry attempted to diffuse this by claiming context, need to be democrats, etc., and went onto discuss staying in the Customs Union, trying to produce ‘a Brexit which is good for the country’ (with no details of what this might be) and so on. When brought back to what is Labour’s procedure, Thornberry said ‘First stage is we demand a general election and that is what the proper thing should be. If we don’t get a general election then what we have said is all options remain on the table, and we will…’ then Marr interrupted to point out that Parliament has passed statute and so there are no options for overturning that. Thornberry then said ‘The difficulty is, our system is such that we are in opposition. You know, there are many ways in which we would want to have proceeded over this period of time, and we have a government…’, when Marr interrupted again to point out that they had a general election last year. Thornberry continued to say ‘But we have been doing our best to try to keep this government honest, try to keep this government focused on what’s good for the country, and we have been entirely consistent about that. She knows what it is that…. and like everyone else, vacillating backwards and forwards. We have said: six tests, we will vote for it, bring back a deal we will agree to. If she’s sensible, what she’ll do, is she’ll negotiate properly and bring back a deal which means that we’re in a Customs Union, and that we’re in a free market agreement with the European Union, based on free market rules, and if she brings back something like that, then it may well be that she’ll get sufficient support, but she won’t [attempt from Marr to interrupt again], hang on hang on, let me just, because this is really important, she won’t do that, because she’s more interested in saving her own skin and the Tory Party, because what she will rely on is Labour votes and some Tory votes, and she doesn’t dare do that. She ought to, because she’s the leader of the country. That is not leadership.’ Marr then noted that Kier Starmer had said that the six tests would be in the next Labour election manifesto and asked Thornberry to confirm this, to which she asked when the election would be, pointing out that an election manifesto in the next few weeks would be very different to one in a year’s time. She then said ‘In the next few months, what we would have in our manifesto is we would say: we have a vision for this country, we have a vision for Brexit. We know that the best way to proceed on this is to try to get a deal which is, as I’ve said several times, the model that I’ve put forward [Marr: ‘Six tests’] and with the six tests, and which is the six tests, and that’s what we would be working towards. And we would go in as pragmatists, and we would say to the European Union: the grown-ups have arrived and we’re no longer shouting at you, we’re going to sit down pragmatically and sort out something which is good for our economy and your economy.’ Marr pushed Thornberry further on one of the six tests , that which requires the ‘exact same benefits’ as membership of the Customs Union and Single Market, asking if there was a shred of evidence that the EU would contemplate that. Thornberry avoided this question, just saying that they had had meetings with the EU, who knew their position, but couldn’t negotiate with them as they were not the government. Marr pushed further, quoting Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Junker on how third countries can never have the same rights and benefits as full members. Thornberry again had no real answer other than to say that these were negotiating positions, and that May had put down unrealisable red lines and ‘ridiculous tests’, unlike Labour. She continued to reiterate the same stuff, then Marr claimed Labour had a ‘fantasy prospectus’ and there was no way of getting anything like what they wanted. After more vacillation from Thornberry, the interview turned to Trump and some domestic issues.
But I think this interview may be significant in many ways, notwithstanding the waffle and false claims about being able to obtain a deal (in reality, Labour would end up in a very similar situation to Theresa May, save for accepting the Custom’s Union). Thornberry is probably the sharpest politician on the Labour front bench, and clearly knows exactly what the brief is and what needs to be said. The fact that she mentioned a People’s Vote early in the interview is vital, even though she was careful not to return to the issue. The official Labour line is to want a general election. The chances of this are very slim (though not impossible if the government truly alienate the DUP over a border in the Irish Sea, to the point where the DUP would no longer support them in a confidence motion). But Labour have to stick to this line, which would be easily dismissed if they were vocal about supporting a second referendum. But Thornberry said that failing to get an election, they would campaign for a People’s Vote.
So I believe that Labour are talking down a second referendum in order to maintain their line, but do have plans to support it when it becomes inevitable. This could be soon – if a confidence motion is put and the government wins it, thus precluding an election. Of course it is also possible that Thornberry, Starmer and Corbyn are all putting out different lines publicly. I just hope this may have been co-ordinated.
There are many practical complications in bringing about a second referendum, which are explained in the UCL paper, but as this makes clear, it is possible, regardless of what Corbyn says. Labour could be acting more shrewdly than some imagine.
A lot has been made of the fact that Labour under Corbyn gained many votes in the June 2017 election, enough that some think the party has full victory (in the sense of an overall majority) in its grasp. I wanted to look at some comparative figures, so compiled the following chart of votes (not seats) and percentages in each UK election since 1979:
Year Conservatives Labour Lib Dems SNP UKIP
1979 13.7m/43.9% 11.5m/36.9% 4.3m/13.8% 0.5m/1.6% (Liberals)
1983 13.0m/42.4% 8.5m/27.6% 7.8m/25.4% 0.3m/1.1% (SDP/Lib Alliance)
1987 13.7m/42.2% 10.0m/30.8% 7.3m/22.6% 0.4m/1.3% (SDP/Lib Alliance)
1992 14.1m/41.9% 11.6m/34.4% 6.0m/17.8% 0.6m/1.9%
1997 9.6m/30.7% 13.5m/43.2% 5.2m/16.8% 0.6m/2.0% 0.1m/0.3%
2001 8.4m/31.7% 10.7m/40.7% 4.8m/18.3% 0.5m/1.8% 0.4m/1.5%
2005 8.8m/32.4% 9.5m/35.2% 6.0m/22.0% 0.4m/1.5% 0.6m/2.2%
2010 10.7m/36.1% 8.6m/29.0% 6.8m/23.0% 0.5m/1.7% 0.9m/3.1%
2015 11.3m/36.8% 9.3m/30.4% 2.4m/7.9% 1.5m/4.7% 3.8m/12.6%
2017 13.6m/42.3% 12.9m/40.0% 2.3m/7.4% 1.0m/3.0% 0.6m/1.8%
So Labour under Corbyn did well, gaining 3.6m votes, but the Tories under May did even better. Two factors are of primary importance: (a) the collapse of the Lib Dem vote in 2015, following the Tory/Lib Dem coalition (see my earlier blog putting this in context); (b) the collapse of the UKIP vote in 2017, following the EU referendum, after having done exceptionally well in 2015, quadrupling their vote from that in 2010.
Labour certainly did manage to benefit from getting more young people to vote, but they also gained from the UKIP losses, which were threatening them in various traditional constituencies. But the Tories gained more, though the first-past-the-post electoral system threw up the bizarre result by which May gained 2.3m more votes than Cameron did in 2015, but won 13 less seats than the latter. The Conservative vote has not fallen, far from it (May won more votes than any Tory leader since John Major in 1992, and more than Thatcher in 1983), it is really just a question of how it is distributed.
The widespread tactical voting generally believed to have occurred from 1997 onwards, which helped the Lib Dems more than double their seats in 1997 (from 20 to 46) and go onto peak in 2005 (with 62), must be assumed to have disappeared, unsurprisingly as Labour voters are disinclined to vote for a party which spent five years in coalition with the Tories, even where they are the primary alternative in some constituencies to the latter. But the current voting system still works against Labour, and it should not be forgotten that they only won 262 seats in 2017; to win an overall majority by one seat they need another 65, whereas for a workable majority (not too vulnerable to backbench rebellions over contentious legislation) they need at least 85.
I cannot see this happening, certainly not with Corbyn as leader. The electoral landscape has changed fundamentally since the pattern between 1997 and 2010. The Lib Dems and UKIP have collapsed, the Tories have swung to the right (though could move further right still) while Labour has swung to the left. Brexit has changed a lot; the good result for Labour and Corbyn this year came about in part through triangulation on this issue, managing to convince both Leavers and Remainers that they supported them. I cannot see this holding up further, and without a major and clear shift of policy, I believe Remainers will move away – though many, like me, feel politically homeless at the moment (a reason why a new centre party would be no bad thing).
On Tuesday Parliament will reconvene, and will start to debate the EU Repeal Bill. There has been talk of the government being defeated on this, which I would hope for greatly, but am not too hopeful, again for reason of numbers. There are four Tory MPs identified by John Rentoul as possible rebels – Anna Soubry, Nicky Morgan, Kenneth Clarke and Dominic Grieve – and possibly a few more, but nine Labour MPs who supported Leave in the referendum – Ronnie Campbell, John Cryer, Frank Field, Roger Godsiff, Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins, John Mann, Dennis Skinner and Graham Stringer – while Caroline Flint indicated this morning that she is not prepared to help obstruct the bill. The Tories and DUP together have 327 MPs, whereas the opposition (not including the seven Sinn Féin MPs who will not take up their seats, nor the Speaker) have just 315. Even if all the four Tories listed above voted against the government, and the DUP abstained, they would still have 313 votes and could comfortably beat the opposition if just the nine Labour MPs vote with them. If things got tighter, May could take the same course of action as John Major did twice when facing defeat, and turn a vote on legislation into a vote of confidence. With no parliamentary majority, it is hard to imagine many Tories (most of who, when in the last parliament, voted for Article 50, including Soubry) voting against the government then.
Labour have proved themselves utterly incapable of proper opposition on Brexit. The Michel Barnier/David Davis press conference on Thursday was quite farcical, and it is clear the talks have hardly progressed, yet there was hardly a squeak from Corbyn and Keir Starmer until Starmer’s ineffectual interview this morning, which only served to muddy the party’s Brexit policy further. Never has there been a time during which proper scrutiny of the government and their approach to negotiations was more important; never has Labour proved so inept at providing this.
Where I have some hope, paradoxically, is in the possibility of a large-scale grassroots Tory revolt following acknowledgement that the government is preparing to pay a large Brexit divorce bill (with some leaks in the press today suggesting a figure of €50 billion). A recent Guardian/ICM poll suggested that two-thirds of voters would find a figure of €10 billion or more unacceptable, and the government has done nothing to try and explain the reason (not even clamping down on Boris Johnson over his ‘Go whistle’ remark). While the legal obligation to pay such a bill has been questioned, Barnier has made it clear that without the government coming clean on their position on this issue, they cannot proceed with trade talks. With time ticking down until Article 50 expires in March 2019, the UK government cannot really afford to keep delaying this, when the chances of even coming up with a workable transition arrangement – which all the other EU nations will accept – are slim in the time available.
So I think we will hear the sum confirmed soon, despite the denials. May will try to wait until after her party conference in Manchester, 1-4 October, but this may be difficult. The Tory membership have already indicated their wish for May to stand down; if she is conceding a major Brexit bill, then the pressure may become unbearable. May appears to be trying to keep Davis and Johnson close, so that they cannot dissociate themselves from what results, and so would go down with her; in that situation, I still do not think it impossible that the membership might make a crazy choice like electing a figure like Jacob Rees-Mogg or Andrea Leadsom, beloved of Conservative Home and the like.
Then, if a new leader was feeling optimistic or simply deluded, they just might call another election. I do think (or hope?) that a lot of decent Tory voters could not vote for a party led by someone so right-wing. But in order for a different government, Labour will have to make a proper case for an alternative in terms of Brexit, and make more overtures to the Lib Dems and others. I cannot imagine the Lib Dems or SNP supporting a Labour government which is going ahead with Brexit. At present I still cannot support Labour because of Brexit, and am sure they are a very long way from being an electorally viable party.
This afternoon (Wednesday October 21st, 2015), the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) will be taking evidence relating to allegations and investigations into the abuse of children committed by VIPs (and in at least one case, alleged rape of an adult woman) from five important people: Detective Chief Inspector Paul Settle, formerly of Operation Fernbridge, Assistant Commissioner Patricia Gallan and Deputy Assistant Commissioner Steve Rodhouse of the Metropolitan Police, Tom Watson MP, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and a prominent campaigner on child abuse, and Alison Saunders, Director of Public Prosecutions. A report this morning makes clear that the committee have decided not to interview Zac Goldsmith, MP for Richmond Park and Conservative candidate for London Mayor.
Over the last two weeks, ever since the broadcast on October 5th of the BBC Panorama programme on the alleged VIP Paedophile Ring, there has been a concerted media campaign targeting Tom Watson above all, who has been labelled a ‘witchfinder general’, as responsible for supposedly unfounded claims of high level abuse. I do know Tom personally, vouched for the importance of his work on abuse as part of his deputy leadership campaign materials, and so obviously am far from impartial, but can see in absolute honesty that I do not recognise the figure portrayed by much of the press, and also have very strong reason to believe Tom has acted with integrity and in good faith. I suspect that his conciliatory position as deputy to new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, despised by the right-wing media and many Blairite elements in the party, is fuelling this campaign. Furthermore, there are complicated reasons which may become apparent this afternoon why some conflicts have arisen between various parties all devoted to uncovering and preventing child abuse by prominent persons. Last week I posted a detailed timeline of events relating to Leon Brittan, which I believe show clearly that the decision to pursue further the rape investigation into him, after it had been dropped, came from the Met, not from Tom.
The following are issues I implore all members of HASC to consider before questioning this afternoon.
Allegations of a statement taken by an ex-customs officer about the late Lord Brittan
The distinguished journalist Tim Tate has written what to my mind is the most important piece on the allegations surrounding Leon Brittan (later Lord Brittan). Tate does not accept the claims, printed in Exaro and elsewhere, that a video seized in 1982 from Russell Tricker featured the Home Secretary themselves, but crucially claims that a statement was taken from the customs official in question, Maganlal Solanki, attesting to having seized video tapes from Brittan upon entering the country at some point in the 1980s. If a written statement exists attesting to this, it is of crucial importance in establishing whether there might be any truth in the allegations against Brittan. HASC should ask Settle to explain whether this exists or not. Furthermore, at the time of the 1982 siege of Elm Guest House, a then-eight-year-old boy was found and questioned, later (now an adult living in the US) questioned by detectives from Operation Fernbridge. On at least one occasion, this boy identified an ‘Uncle Leon’ from the ‘big house’ as being involved. It is equally vital that Settle is questioned about this. Furthermore, Solanki should also be summoned to speak to HASC.
Tate sent the following questions to the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse (to the best of my knowledge he has not yet received an answer) – I suggest these are equally relevant for HASC:
1. Has the Inquiry yet established direct contact with Operation Fernbridge ?
2. Will the Inquiry be examining documentary evidence held by Operation Fernbridge concerning its investigations into the late Baron Brittan ?
3. Specifically, will the Inquiry secure from Operation Fernbridge copies of all such documents including, but not limited to, formal statements made under caution, officers’ notebooks, internal memoranda and historical documents acquired during its investigation into the late Baron Brittan ?
4. Does the Inquiry plan to require public testimony from the current head of Operation Fernbridge, AND its former senior investigating officer, [NAME REDACTED HERE] concerning the late Baron Brittan?
5. Does the Inquiry plan to require public testimony from the former Customs and Excise officer Maganlal Solanki who gave evidence to Operation Fernbridge concerning the alleged seizure of child pornography from the late Baron Brittan ?
6. Does the Inquiry plan to take evidence from the US Marshall formerly attached to Operation Fernbridge in connection with a visit he made at the request of Operation Fernbridge to a suspected victim of Baron Brittan ?
7. Does the Inquiry plan to publish the documents acquired and/or generated by Operation Fernbridge during the course of its investigation into Baron Brittan ?
Involvement of other MPs
By far the majority of the focus has been on Tom Watson, but other MPs have been equally involved with campaigning on abuse, and some have made more extravagant claims or threats. Specifically:
1. The Labour MP John Mann has handed police a list of 22 politicians alleged to have been involved with the abuse of children. Furthermore, in July last year, Mann indicated the possibility of using Parliamentary privilege to name abusers.
2. The Labour MP Simon Danczuk also threatened to use Parliamentary privilege to name a politician alleged to have visited Elm Guest House; whilst Danczuk did not ultimately do so, it is widely believed to have been Brittan.
3. On October 28th, 2014, the Labour MP Jim Hood did indeed name Brittan in Parliament. The following day, Danczuk backed Hood for having done so.
4. On November 27th, 2014, Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith said the following:
We need only consider the Elm guest house in Barnes, which was run by Haroon and Carole Kasir. It was raided more than 30 years ago, back in 1982. The couple were fined and given suspended sentences for running a disorderly house, but at the time there were already questions and allegations around the abuse of young children at the house. Allegedly—we are reliably told this—12 boys gave evidence in 1982 that they had been abused, yet all these allegations simply evaporated at the time, some 30 years ago. They are only resurfacing now.
When Mrs Kasir died a few years after the house was raided, in very odd circumstances, a child protection campaigner from the National Association Of Young People In Care called for a criminal investigation into events at Elm guest house. He said he had been told by Mrs Kasir that boys had been brought in from a local children’s home—Grafton Close, also in Richmond—for sex, and that she had photographs of establishment figures at her hotel. One of them apparently showed a former Cabinet Minister in a sauna with a naked boy. She had logbooks, names, times, dates, pictures of her customers and so on. All that evidence simply disappeared after the raids and no longer exists. That is astonishing.
The Met has since confirmed that Cyril Smith visited the place—the hon. Member for Rochdale has made this point—and at least three other men named in documents as visitors to the Elm guest house were later convicted of multiple sexual offences against children. It is impossible to believe there was not a cover up. This is not sloppiness; there has to be more to it than that.
I was quite surprised when I watched the broadcast of this debate in November to hear these claims, which are thought to be tenuous by many campaigners, presented in Parliament. Questions have been rightly asked about Goldsmith’s source for the claims – the Mail journalist Guy Adams suggests it was like to be either Chris Fay or Mike Broad (Fay has e-mailed me to indicate that he has never met nor had any contact with Goldsmith). Furthermore, Goldsmith participated in an Australian documentary Spies, Lords and Predators, broadcast in July this year and heavily influenced by the reporting of Exaro, which has come under severe criticism.
5. The Conservative MP and HASC member Tim Loughton, who has in the last few days started charging Watson with setting himself up as ‘judge, jury, and executioner’ over individual cases, himself threatened in July 2014 to use what he called the ‘nuclear option’ to name suspected paedophiles in Parliament. He also called for action from the inquiry in November 2014 following allegations from Exaro about MPs throwing sex parties involving the abuse of children, murder, and more.
Many of these are stronger claims or threats than anything by Tom Watson, who in a November 2014 interview with Guardian journalist Decca Aitkenhead said just that at least one politician had abused children.
HASC needs to speak to Mann, Danczuk, Hood, Goldsmith, and Loughton.
Allegations of a Westminster paedophile ring
It is often claimed that Tom Watson has alleged the existence of a Westminster paedophile ring. This would be truer of Danczuk (I am not absolutely sure if he has specifically used the term, but will check); Watson’s question to the Prime Minister on October 24th, 2012 contained the following words:
The evidence file used to convict paedophile Peter Righton, if it still exists, contains clear intelligence of a widespread paedophile ring. One of its members boasts of his links to a senior aide of a former Prime Minister, who says he could smuggle indecent images of children from abroad. The leads were not followed up, but if the file still exists I want to ensure that the Metropolitan police secure the evidence, re-examine it and investigate clear intelligence suggesting a powerful paedophile network linked to Parliament and No. 10.
A network which is linked to Parliament and No. 10 is not the same thing as a Westminster paedophile ring. There is no doubt that a network existed around Righton, at the very least featuring other committee members of the Paedophile Information Exchange, such as Charles Napier, convicted and sentenced last December to 13 years for hundreds of sexual assaults upon young boys, or Righton’s partner Richard Alston, jailed in September for 21 months for child abuse charges, in a trial at which claims emerged of sessions involving Alston, Righton and Napier together.
The link to Parliament and No. 10 rests upon claims made in a document about which I am not at liberty to write now. Tom Watson’s source for his original PMQ was retired child protection worker Peter McKelvie, who last week resigned from the Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel to the inquiry.
Scapegoats are being made of McKelvie and Watson in a bid to stop further investigation of a wide range of claims about politicians of which both are aware. It is vital that HASC also summon McKelvie and ask him about this specific claim mentioned by Watson in 2012.
If HASC will deal seriously with these claims, they will be carrying out their proper role, and not serving simply as a front for political point-scoring. The issue of high-level child abuse is far too serious for this, and it would be a tragedy if the cross-party consensus which was previously built on this were now to be abandoned.
Call for All Political Leaders and Leadership Candidates to Pledge Full Co-operation with Abuse InquiryPosted: July 9, 2015
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is now underway. Despite two previous chairs rightly standing down due to some of their connections, and unpleasant politics between some other panel members and other individuals, resulting in the loss of several very good people, nonetheless what is now in place is strong, focused, and has real powers. I am very pleased at the access to intelligence files and also the pledge that no-one who comes forward will face prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. And personally, I am especially pleased that the Terms of Reference make clear that music tuition will be an area of investigation, for which I have campaigned qnd lobbied for several years. The website is at:
Some survivors and campaigners have unfortunately expressed grave reservations about the inquiry. I would implore them to at least try engaging with it, difficult though this might be, in full recognition of the fact that they have more reason than anyone to be distrustful of any such venture. But I believe the chair and panel do wish to get to the bottom of this terrible factor afflicting our society for so long, and help to build a better society in its place.
In an interview I gave earlier today for Sky News:
I called for the leaders of all the major political parties to pledge full co-operation with this inquiry (and make all relevant documentation available) and want to repeat this now, and hope others will help with urging publicly not only current leaders, but also leadership and deputy leadership candidates, to do so. Much evidence has come to light suggesting that abuse by senior politicians in many parties was either ignored or actively covered up, and that other politicians had connections to paedophile organisations. It is paramount that this is fully investigated in order to understand better how high-level abuse could go on for so long with apparent impunity.
So I ask people, journalists, campaigners, bloggers, tweeters and others to help keep the pressure on the following politicians in England and Wales to give such a pledge, and if not, explain not.
Leader: David Cameron
Future Leadership Candidates: Boris Johnson, George Osborne, Theresa May
Leader: Nick Clegg
Leadership Candidates: Tim Farron, Norman Lamb
Leader: Harriet Harman
Leadership Candidates: Liz Kendall, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Jeremy Corbyn
Deputy Leadership Candidates: Tom Watson, Stella Creasey, Ben Bradshaw, Angela Eagle, Caroline Flint
Leader: Nigel Farage
Leader: Natalie Bennett
Leader: Leanne Wood
Greville Janner and Margaret Moran – trial of facts more likely for expenses fiddling than child abuse?Posted: June 27, 2015
In 2012, the former Labour MP for Luton South Margaret Moran faced 21 charges of false accounting and forgery of parliamentary expenses involving sums of over £60 000. However, following a psychiatrist’s report, Moran was found to be suffering from a depressive illness, with extreme anxiety and agitation, and as such was unfit to stand trial. Nonetheless, a trial went ahead in her absence (a so-called ‘trial of the facts’) and it was found that she did indeed falsely claim more than £53 000. Moran received a two-year order placing her under the supervision of a council mental health social worker, as well as being treated for the improvement of her medical condition. At the time, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and Head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was Keir Starmer, now the Labour MP for Holborn and St Pancras after being elected in May 2015.
Fast-forward to two-and-a-half years after the trial of the facts for Moran, and as is now well-known, the new DPP, Alison Saunders made the decision not to charge Labour peer Lord Janner, formerly Greville Janner, MP for Leicester West from 1970 to 1997, with 22 offences involving the sexual abuse of children, between 1969 and 1988, on the grounds of his suffering from dementia. Even the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, argued that Janner should face a ‘trial of the facts’, but Saunders dismissed this on the grounds that Janner was no longer an ongoing risk to the public (not something which Janner himself would have viewed as an obstacle to prosecuting Nazi war criminals with dementia, as witnessed by his statements here and here). Starmer defended his successor Saunders’ decision, saying that ‘we should inhibit our comments on the case’.
There have been major questions asked about the reliability of the diagnosis of dementia against Janner, in light of clear evidence of much significant activity at the House of Lords and elsewhere following the initial diagnosis (see for example this report – as Gojam has pointed out on The Needle Blog, there is a great irony in Janner being deemed too ill to face justice but well enough to legislate). But even if one accepts that Janner is not fit to appear in court, do the seriousness of the charges (not to mention the suggestion that Janner may have been part of a wider network, together with the former Speaker of the House of Commons George Thomas aka Lord Tonypandy) not make the case for a trial of the facts imperative? Janner may not be an ongoing risk to the public, but neither was Moran, who was no longer an MP at the time she faced charges.
I do not want to make light of the issue of MPs fiddling parliamentary expenses, though do think that as financial scandals go, this was quite small in terms of the sums involved, especially relative to government spending. Furthermore, I do not share public cynicism about the very profession of being a Member of Parliament, and think our MPs should be paid more, commensurate with the salaries they might receive in the private sector, and hopefully then few would want to fiddle expenses.
The spectacle of a clearly distraught and destroyed (and visibly aged) Moran, following the court ruling, was something I found upsetting at the time. This has nothing to do with her gender; the vilification and imprisonment of Denis McShane was no less pretty, nor was the SNP-driven hate campaign against the vulnerable Charles Kennedy, likely playing a part in his early death.
But I believe there are current and former MPs against whom far more serious charges exist. The fact that parliamentary expenses has been viewed as a more serious matter than the abuse of vulnerable children says a good deal about the distorted moral compass that exists in the circles of power.
Reports today in the Guardian, Independent, Times and Mail all suggest that Saunders decision could be overturned, as she herself intimated in an interview earlier this week. This is following a review by an independent QC, though @ExaroNews have tweeted today ‘Crisis at CPS: tonight CPS denies story in Daily Mail that DPP decision on Janner is to be reversed. Mail prob right then.’
The case for a trial of the facts against Janner is unanswerable. Anything less will smack of a high-level establishment cover-up. It is vital that in this case the truth is established whilst the alleged perpetrator is still alive. This is far more serious than any expenses scandals.
The loss of all but one Labour seat in Scotland to the SNP appears to have sent shockwaves down the political establishment, as if Scotland were a much larger part of the United Kingdom – in terms of population and seats – than it actually is. It’s time for some perspective in terms of figures:
There are currently 650 seats in the whole of the United Kingdom. 18 of these are in Northern Ireland and are generally uncontested by the major parties in the mainland. This leaves 632 for England, Scotland and Wales. Of these, 533 are in England, 59 are in Scotland, 40-in Wales. England has nine times the number of seats of the next largest region.
In 2015, the breakdown of seats in the three constituent parts of the mainland were as follows:
Total: Conservatives 330, Labour 232, SNP 56, Lib Dems 8, UKIP 1, Green 1, Speaker 1
England: Conservatives 318, Labour 206, Lib Dems 6, UKIP 1, Green 1, Speaker 1
Scotland: SNP 56, Labour 1, Conservatives 1, Lib Dems 1
Wales: Labour 25, Conservatives 11, Plaid Cymru 3, Lib Dems 1
Labour continue to have a clear commanding lead in Wales; there is not at present any sign of Plaid Cymru making major advances comparable to the SNP, though of course this situation may change. The Conservatives, however, have an overall majority in England of 107 seats. Were Labour to recapture 20 seats in Scotland (which would now be a significant gain), say, they would still be a long way from denting the Conservatives majority in England.
But Labour have achieved this before. Consider these results in England alone:
1945: Labour 331, Conservatives 159, Liberals 5, Labour Independent 1, Independent Conservative 1, Common Wealth 1, Communist 1, Independent 3
1950: Labour 251, Conservatives 242, Liberals 2, National Liberals and Conservatives 4, Conservatives and Liberals 2, Conservatives and Natural Liberals 2, Liberals and Conservatives 1, National Liberals 1,
1951: Conservatives 259, Labour 233, Liberals 2, Conservatives and Liberals 2, Conservatives and National Liberals 2, Liberals and Conservatives 3, National Liberals and Conservatives 5
1955: Conservatives 279, Labour 216, Liberals 2, Conservatives and Liberals 2, Conservatives and National Liberals, Liberals and Conservatives 3, National Liberals and Conservatives 5
1959: Conservatives 302, Labour 193, Liberals 3, Conservatives and Liberals 2, Conservatives and National Liberals 6, Liberals and Conservatives 2, National Liberals and Conservatives 3
1964: Conservatives 255, Labour 245, Liberals 3, Conservatives and National Liberals 4, National Liberals and Conservatives 2, Speaker 1
1966: Labour 285, Conservatives 216, Liberals 6, Conservatives and National Liberals 2, National Liberals and Conservatives 1, Speaker 1
1970: Conservatives 292, Labour 216, Liberals 2, Speaker 1
February 1974: Conservatives 267, Labour 237, Liberals 9, Independent Labour 1, Social Democrat 1, Speaker 1
October 1974: Labour 255, Conservatives 252, Liberals 8, Speaker 1
1979: Conservatives 306, Labour 203, Liberals 7
1983: Conservatives 362, Labour 148, Liberals 10, SDP 3
1987: Conservatives 357, Labour 155, Liberals 7, SDP 3, Speaker 1
1992: Conservatives 319, Labour 195, Lib Dems 10
1997: Labour 329, Conservatives 165, Lib Dems 34, Independent 1
2001: Labour 323, Conservatives 165, Lib Dems 40, Independent 1
2005: Labour 286, Conservatives 194, Lib Dems 47, Respect 1, Independent 1
2010: Conservatives 297, Labour 191, Lib Dems 43, Green 1, Speaker 1
2015: Conservatives 318, Labour 206, Lib Dems 6, UKIP 1, Green 1, Speaker 1
In five of the eight elections since 1945 in which Labour won a majority nationwide, they also won an overall majority in England. The exceptions are 1950, when the Conservatives together with associated conservative parties had a total of 252 to Labour’s 251 in England, and Labour’s overall majority in the country was just 6 seats; 1964, when Labour had a nationwide majority of only 5, excluding the Speaker; and October 1974, when Labour had a nationwide majority of only 4. Attlee in 1945 and Blair in 1997 and 2001 won commanding three figure overall majorities in England alone; Wilson in 1966 had a respectable majority of 59, and Blair in 2005 also had a perfectly serviceable majority of 45.
Furthermore, in 1945, 1997 and 2001 Labour had an overall majority in the whole of the country on the basis of its English seats alone; in 1966 it would have scraped one from its seats in England and Wales (317 out of 630). 2005 was different, however; then the total of seats in England and Wales was 315, which would still have made it the largest party by a comfortable margin, but not able to command an overall majority in the UK if the SNP had performed like they did in 2015.
Labour can win, and win decisively in England; being able to do so is key to their winning a comfortable overall majority in the country again.
I am addressing this blog post to those on the left based in London, maybe working in journalism or the media, or in academia, or in a creative or cultural field. I want to know how many people you know who think two or more of the below?
(a) Labour’s heart is in the right place, but they can’t be trusted with the economy – especially after Gordon Brown sold off our gold last time.
(b) Immigration is not necessarily bad, but has to be carefully controlled to protect British people’s jobs.
(c) The system is too soft on criminals, and tougher sentencing is needed.
(d) Terrorists and child killers deserve the death penalty.
(e) Muslims in the UK need to demonstrate their allegiance to this country.
(f) The current benefits system rewards those who are work-shy and penalises hard-working people.
(g) We should be allowed to be proud of being British again.
(h) Too many decisions are being taken for us in Europe.
(i) Multiculturalism was an experiment which failed.
(j) I work hard for my salary, as do many others, and it is wrong for the government to take it away from us.
(k) Parents and schools cannot maintain discipline with one hand tied behind their back.
(l) There are too many Scots dominating politics and the media.
Because of the nature of my work as a musician and academic, a large number of the people I see quite regularly do belong to the categories mentioned at the top of the post; my wife’s circles are a little broader. Amongst my own family and their circles I would encounter many if not all of the above often; amongst hers much less frequently.
But if you have never or extremely rarely encountered anyone who thinks two or more of the above, I would suggest you have moved in narrow circles. Enlightened ones, perhaps, but narrow nonetheless.
It is easy, all too easy, for metropolitan liberal left figures to spend so much time in the company of fellow believers so as to imagine anyone who thinks otherwise is some type of a freak. Amongst academics working in the arts, humanities and social sciences (other than economics) I could probably count on at most two hands the numbers I know of (not just have met) who would agree with several of the above. In so many of those circles, whiteness is associated almost solely with racism and the need for post-colonial guilt, maleness is about little more than macho violence and at best sublimated urges towards gang rape. The white working classes in particular are imagined to epitomise both of these things, and are one step away from storm troopers; previously they were associated with the BNP (any sign of an England flag, even during World Cup time, would be read as an unequivocal signifier of such a thing; one reason that Emily Thornberry’s notorious tweet caused such controversy), nowadays a UKIP vote is assumed to betoken the same.
I am not disingenuous and would hate to minimise the severe nature of racism or sexual violence. But I am less convinced that a serious attempt to combat these things is the real motivator for many in metropolitan liberal circles; rather, they are a means for demonstrating their own sense of superiority, in a manner which is as elitist as any, combined with a dehumanising fear of any group who they can safely see as a dangerous ‘other’ without transgressing certain liberal articles of faith.
I do not believe in any of the views above, and have sometimes despaired of those who do, especially those relating to crime and capital punishment. But I do recognise that many do hold them, and that Labour needs to win some of these people over. In some ways they have done this – in the part of the country from which I hail, the North East, a previously solid Labour area though in which UKIP have made serious inroads, one will certainly encounter views on crime and immigration which would horrify many metropolitan Labourites. But a future Labour party needs to accept that at present their ideologies do not necessarily command widespread approval, and work constructively with people who might be persuaded towards their arguments. Trade Unions have not always supported campaigns for equal pay, and were sometimes actively hostile; this was not a reason for the left to abandon trade unionism, but to work constructively to try and persuade these organisations and their members to change their view, an aim which was ultimately in large measure successful.
A great many liberal intellectuals, however, preach a doctrine of identity politics which postulates absolute differences and total irreconcilabilities between groups on the basis of ethnicity, gender, and various else (drawing upon a Marxist model of the antagonistic relationship between classes – but that was about economic position, not identity). An ideology, using hideous academic buzzwords such as ‘intersectionality’, which treats with suspicion all except those who tick every box of oppression, is no basis upon which to formulate a mass movement.
The modern Labour Party is not as bad as this, but there are some similarities. There are plenty within the party who want simply to stigmatise and shame large numbers of people for their views, and would view opinions on race and immigration of many of the population as requiring little less than ‘re-education’, with all the Stalinist implications of such a term. Under the last Labour government, measures were recommended involving the keeping registers of young children who had committed any sexist, racist or homophobic transgression, even when as young as 4; this is Labour politics at its most authoritarian, eager to stigmatise anyone who steps out of line. Certainly serious prejudice, hate or bullying in schools need to be addressed, and education is needed where they are found, but all these types of measures will achieve is to alienate and breed resentment in large numbers of children and their parents.
I am deeply disappointed with last weeks’ election results, and still passionately hope for a future Labour government. My own ideological preferences would be for policies very much associated with the left of the party, or in some ways to the left of anything represented within Labour, but I am realistic enough to realise this is a small minority view unlikely to gain serious traction in the foreseeable future. I have as much as anyone decried Blairites, and Tory voters, but now see the futility and counter-productivity of this; I think they are wrong, but demonising such people is hardly the way to convince them. I was very angry in 2010 about many in my own circles who went weak at the knees about the figure of Nick Clegg during the campaign, genuinely believing him to offer an alternative to the left of Labour, but with hindsight the foolishness of such a belief has been more than demonstrated, and the party has paid a terrible price for it. These people may not have been typical Liberal Democrat voters, though, more than a few of whom might have been as inclined towards the Conservatives as towards Labour.
For now, I do not believe it is impossible to have a Labour government who will commit and deliver on progressive approaches to taxation and public spending, proper funding of health and education, strong child-care provision, a fair benefits system which provides a safety net for those at the bottom and does not consign others to poverty and misery if they need to draw on benefits, decent affordable housing, positive and productive measures to reduce sexual inequality and build mutual racial tolerance, protect civil liberties and human rights, tackle crime whilst realising its social roots, make the UK play a positive role within the EU, and work to reduce extremes of inequality. Not all of these things might be able to be achieved in one or two parliaments, but if some progress can be made towards some of them, that is much better than leaving it to the Conservatives to decimate the welfare state, the public sector and much else, as I believe they will, as well as taking Britain back to a mean-spirited, aggressive xenophobic Little Englanderism which I had forlornly hoped New Labour had consigned to history.
Labour needs to move away from a certain dominance of a metropolitan faction which achieved some prominence around the leadership of Ed Miliband, and start both talking and listening with a wider section of the population, without feeling the need to hector and preach towards them, or make amply clear that they feel the need to hold their noses. Left-wing politicians, commentators, academics and other metropolitan fellow travellers have as much to learn as to teach, though many of them cannot imagine this. The party should reject for leader representatives of their authoritarian control-freak wing, a tradition begun by Jack Straw and David Blunkett and continued by the likes of Keith Vaz and Yvette Cooper, and could do worse than give prominent positions to Tom Watson and Simon Danczuk, most immensely respectable MPs who have done invaluable campaigning work on the issue of VIP abuse of children (an issue about which I am absolutely sure that the wider public would share a level of revulsion that would drown out the denials from senior figures in all political parties).
There is no reason, I believe, why Labour could not win round many to at least some of the arguments above. But this will never happen until those who are not yet won round, and who think some of the views above, are treated with some respect rather than contempt.