Brexit: it ain't over

Wednesday 12 May 2021  

Prime minister Johnson is now so grand that he can get the Queen to deliver his lies for him although, unlike the politician whose words she was mouthing, she didn't have to raid the dressing up box in order to speak in public.

But significant omission in the Queen's Speech was any mention of Brexit. "My Government's priority", the Queen intoned, in a voice which seemed to convey a distinct lack of enthusiasm, "is to deliver a national recovery from the pandemic that makes the United Kingdom stronger, healthier and more prosperous than before".

By focusing solely on the pandemic, and the economic recovery from its botched management – so say nothing of rebuilding the NHS – Johnson might think he has "swerved" (to use Cummings favourite) the worst political effects of his equally botched Brexit settlement, but the likelihood is that the fun – if that's what you want to call it – has only just begun.

Few serious commentators will deny that the effects of the pandemic have concealed or delayed the worst effects of Brexit. And, if this is the case, it is as the government and nation move into recovery mode, the confounding layer will be gradually stripped away and the actual impact of Brexit many start to become more apparent.

Also, since the legacy media will be deprived of what has become its staple diet for nearly eighteen months, it will be less able to ignore the Brexit train wreck as it struggles to find new material to fill the gaps. In the months to come, the annals of Brexit may again become a thing.

Needless to say, there will be plenty of competition to keep the media entertained, and Johnson has thrown a few bones in its direction to keep it occupied and diverted, especially with his promise to introduce legislation "to ensure the integrity of elections" – widely interpreted as meaning a compulsory requirement for voter ID.

On the Brexit front, a small clue pointing to the shape of things to come arrives with the news that the UK government has warned that "the special Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland as they stand are unworkable".

This, of course, we all knew already, but only now is Johnson beginning to square up to the very personal mess he made of the Northern Ireland Protocol, and is thrashing around in an attempt to compensate for his own incompetence.

Thus, through his tame hatchet-man, the ennobled David Frost - after a visit to meet business leaders in Belfast – has urged the EU to take a "pragmatic approach" in ongoing talks. With a hint of menace which may yet backfire on him, he blusters that the UK would "continue to consider all our options"” in relation to the protocol, which in the past has included unilateral action to suspend it in part.

"It’s clear from my visit that the protocol is presenting significant challenges for many in Northern Ireland", Frost adds: "Businesses have gone to extraordinary efforts to make the current requirements work, but it is hard to see that the way the protocol is currently operating can be sustainable for long".

Frost's statement, we are told, suggests he believes there is more scope for movement on the Brussels side in relation to dropping some of the checks on supermarket food and plants "that unionists see as an attack on the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain".

However, what is seen from London and Belfast as possible room for manoeuvre, is apparently seen very differently in Brussels. There, sources insist the talks "are not negotiations" as the protocol "is a direct consequence of the hard Brexit Boris Johnson had opted for".

Diplomatic sources also say that the UK has ruled out the most helpful option of aligning food standards with those of the EU, a stance which has been with us in May's Lancaster House speech in January 2017.

And even then, the possible benefits of alignment have been vastly over-stated, with the fool Shanker "Snake Oil" Singham claiming that it could see a reduction of about 90 percent of documentary checks and 98 percent of physical checks conducted at the border.

This is according to his recent select committee evidence, where he is cited as one of the government's key advisers in the Brexit negotiations on the Irish border question. If that really is the case, and he is a "key adviser", then we are so totally screwed that there is no hope left for us.

So far, agreement has been limited to a pathetic handful of items including waivers for guide dogs and for pedigree livestock crossing the Irish Sea, but the next area of talks is centring on the potential for checks exclusively on food and other goods going into Northern Ireland from Great Britain which are considered "at risk" of crossing the border into the Republic.

The Guardian reports that "experts" have also suggested a food standards agreement "similar to that operating between New Zealand and Australia", which indicates that the people we're dealing with certainly aren't experts – any more than is Singham.

This is somewhat borne out by "insiders" in Brussels, who say this idea has not even been requested by the UK. In any case, they say, "it would not be 'a silver bullet' as it covers individual products rather than the broad range of food that crosses the Irish sea".

Actually, if it is the arrangement similar to that operating between Australia and New Zealand, this – as I pointed out in an earlier piece, would require agreeing a joint system for determining food standards and then adopting common food standards, in a system not that dissimilar to that operated by the EU.

Since the idea of common standards (which would mean adopting, in perpetuity, the EU acquis) has already been rejected by the Johnson administration, then it is hardly surprising that a similar arrangement is not being pursued.

That brings a dose of reality from the Irish Independent, lacking in the Guardian piece.

Under the headline, "Food exporters face yet more Brexit disruption with new rules", with the sub-heading: "UK is not willing to keep its food rules aligned with EU", it spells out the consequences of the lack of pragmatism on the part of the UK government.

Referring to the Irish government, this paper states that its agencies have warned business to prepare for new UK customs checks in October, and is "playing down the prospects of a veterinary deal".

With that, the Department of Agriculture expects a quadrupling of requests for export health certificates to allow food and drink manufacturers to export to Great Britain and to use the land bridge to get goods to the EU, as the rules are phased in from October 1, following a decision by the UK to delay the original deadline from this summer.

We are assured that the EU has repeatedly floated the idea of a veterinary agreement like the deals it has in place with New Zealand, Canada and Chile. These do slim down the number of physical checks required on animal products, although there are major differences in extent, as between the deals with the different countries.

But, as Hazel Sheridan, head of import controls for the Department of Agriculture, confirms: "The conclusion of a vet agreement with the UK depends on the UK government agreeing to keep its food safety and animal health rules permanently aligned to EU rules, something that to date the UK government has indicated it is not prepared to do".

Thus, we are effectively back where we started, with no progress possible. Eventually, this must come to a head, at which point the Johnson administration may encounter a brick wall which it cannot surmount. No amount of bluster is going to get the prime minister out of this mess.

Richard North 12/05/2021 link

Politics: the Brexit effect

Tuesday 11 May 2021  

One of the fascinating UK political events of WWII (with the war still not over) was the way a supposedly grateful nation ditched its wartime leader in the 1945 general election and voted for Labour.

This gave the party a landslide victory under Clement Attlee, with an unassailable majority of 393 seats over Winston Churchill's Conservatives, who struggled in with 197 seats in a 640-seat House. Almost unnoticed, the Liberal Party and the breakaway Liberal National Party returned 23 seats (12 and 11 respectively).

But equally fascinating – and perhaps of considerable (if unrecognised) significance to contemporary politics – were the general elections of 1950 and 51. In the first of the pair, Attlee regained power, but with a very much reduced majority of 315 seats over the Conservative's 298, in a reduced 625-seat House.

Although Attlee had a working majority, in October 1951 he called a snap election in the hope of strengthening his grip on power. However, However, despite winning the popular vote and achieving both the highest-ever total vote of the time, and highest percentage vote share, Labour won fewer seats than the Tories.

The defeat paved the way for the return of Churchill, with his Conservatives taking 321 seats as opposed to Labour's 295, marking the start of 13 years of Labour opposition.

But to understand properly the reason for the 1951 defeat, one must look not only at the two main protagonists but at the Liberals. Firstly, as an electoral force, the National Liberals had all but disappeared in the 1950 election and it is safe to say that a substantial number of votes gravitated to the Tories (in 1968 the party was to merge with the Conservative Party).

Secondly, in the 1950 election, the Liberal Party proper regained some of its seats, taking nine in all, with a total national vote of 2,621,487. But, come the 1951 election, with the National Liberals still out of it, the Liberals proper had run out of money.

Compared with the 1950 election when they had contested 475 seats, this time the Liberals were able to field only 109 candidates. As a result, their national vote collapsed to a mere 730,546 votes. Many of the "lost" votes were Hoovered up by the Tories, in two-way constituency fights with Labour.

With 13,948,883 votes against the Conservative's 13,717,850, Labour "won" the 1951 election. But, due to the vagaries of the first past the post system, the Tories were able to defeat their Labour opposition in detail at constituency level. Effectively, the election was won for the Tories by the Liberals.

What this election did, therefore, was illustrate a relationship between the Liberal (now Lib-Dem) and the Tory electoral fortunes – a relationship which seems to have endured to this day, and which is still seems to be exerting a considerable influence.

This dynamic is actually more than adequately illustrated in the Hartlepool constituency. If we go back to 1974 was it was established, we see that it was a two-way fight between Labour and the Tories, the former on 26,988 and the latter on 22,700 votes.

In the year 1974, of course, there were two general elections and, in the second contest, the Liberals intervened, gaining 6,314 votes – quite evidently at the expense of the Tories, whose vote dropped to 16,546. Labour, on a reduced turnout, held roughly steady at 24,440.

Through the period from 1974 up to 2004, we see this dynamic at play: as the Lib-Dems (as they were to become) gained votes, the Tory share dropped. This culminated in the 2004 by-election (precipitated by Mandelson's departure) when, on a substantially reduced turnout, the Lib-Dems came second with 10,719 votes.

But what we saw then was the intervention of Ukip, which polls 3,193 votes, pushing the Tories into third place with a mere 3,044. Here (at the time) it was conventional wisdom to assert that Ukip had dragged down the Tory vote but, with Labour polling a then historic low of 12,752 votes, the more nuanced perspective is that (in general terms) the Lib-Dems were dragging down the Tories and Ukip was damaging Labour.

In the general election year of 2005 – the high-water mark for the Lib-Dems – they again came second, with 10,773 votes, holding the Tories down to 4,058. But Ukip lost votes, weighing in at 1,256 votes, coming fourth, while – on an only slightly increased turnout – Labour partially recovered its strength to 18,251.

This perhaps introduced a third element – turnout. Over the period – and again generally – the Labour vote seems harder hit by reduced turnout. We could suggest that Labour supporters are more likely to stay at home than to switch votes.

By now, we've come into the period covered by the graph from UK in a Changing Europe (illustrated), whence we the impact of the 2010 general election: the Lib-Dems go down and the Tories go up. Ukip goes up and Labour goes down.

As between 1945, 1950 and 1951, the Lib-Dem/Tory dynamic is also reflected between 2005 and 2015. In 2005, Conservatives take 198 seats (with 8,784,915 votes) and the Lib-Dems capture 62 seats with 5,955,454 votes. In 2010, Cameron's Tories pick up 306 seats (beating Labour but short of a majority, with 10,703,754 votes). The Lib-Dems take 57 seats with 6,836,825 votes.

Come 2015, we then see a dramatic change, mirroring the 1951 scenario. Cameron gains 330 seats with 11,299,609 votes, while the Lib-Dems plummet to a mere eight seats, on a national vote of 2,415,916.

Ukip in this election win 3,881,099 votes, and the Ukip-effect is evident in many constituencies, but the collapse of the Lib-Dem vote gives Cameron the buffer he needs to win the election – and deliver the 2016 EU referendum. Arguably, the party which most facilitated that referendum was the Lib-Dems, while tha=e party which did the most to prevent it was Ukip.

Going back to the graph covering Hartlepool, we continue to see visualised the relationship between the Tory and Lib-Dem votes. As the yellow line dips, the dark blue sides – although, to complicate matters, there also could be a Ukip influence. However, as Ukip dips in 2017, the Labour vote rises.

Dramatically, when the Brexit Party then emerges in 2019, higher than the previous Ukip levels, the Labour vote dives. At this point, the Lib-Dems are undergoing a mild resurgence in Hartlepool and, true to form, the Tory vote dips slightly. 

 Then, in the final act of the drama – last week's by-election, we see only modest rise in the Tory vote, partially matched by a decline in the Lib-Dem showing. The big difference – and the unique change – is that although the Brexit Party vote collapses, so does the Labour vote. 

On past performance, as the anti-EU vote dipped, the Labour vote should have recovered but, this time round, the stay-at-home vote soared. As near as one can be certain, in this by-election, it was this stay-at-home vote which was decisive – a dramatic confirmation that the Conservatives didn't win it. Labour lost it. 

 Interestingly, in the Guardian , we see Angela Rayner acknowledge that "former Brexit party voters were decisive in many of Labour’s losses". No more was this than in Hartlepool. Looking at the bigger picture though, some pundits are talking of a "progressive alliance" to defeat Johnson. 

But when history suggests that the Tories fortunes are closely linked to those of the Lib-Dems, a resurgent – but entirely independent - Lib-Dem party could be an electoral asset to Labour. But, hazarding a guess as to why the Brexit Party vote didn't "return" to Labour, it is reasonable to assume that leavers simply do not trust Labour. 

Clearly, Labour leavers (some of them) are not prepared to support Johnson, which says that they are recoverable by Labour if it ever gets its act together on Brexit. Sorting out its post-Brexit policy may turn out to be impossible for Labour as it is at present constituted, but if it drifts further towards "rejoin", that more than anything might doom it to oblivion. 

 Much the same might be said of the Lib-Dems. If their targets are Tory voters (as the past record might suggest), then they too have to get their act together on Brexit – something they show no sign of doing. 

Ironically, therefore, it would seem that Brexit – the very issue which tore the Tory Party apart, now seems set to keep it in power for a decade.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 11/05/2021 link

Politics: the charade goes on

Monday 10 May 2021  

Former Coronation Street actress, Labour's Tracy Brabin (pictured), has got herself appointed "mayor" for the West Yorkshire combined authority, with an overall turnout of 38.5 percent from a total electorate of 1,575,194 (estimated), the first to hold the post for this newly created body.

Her share of first preference votes is 261,170, out of a total valid votes cast of 606,135 (43.1 percent). She thus carries the endorsement of a mere 16.6 percent of the total electorate.

Although there are five metropolitan district councils which make up West Yorkshire, her personal vote is smaller than the electorate for all but one of the districts, and less than half that of the largest, Leeds, which registers 538,012 voters.

Yet, this dismal performance does not stop Brabin gushing on Twitter, "We did it! I'm proud to be the first West Yorkshire Metro Mayor and I'm incredibly humbled and grateful for every single vote".

She goes on assure us that she "will fight for every single resident so everyone has the opportunity to succeed", presumably meaning all 2.3 million of them, to whom she conveys a heartfelt "thank you".

No doubt, she is especially thankful to the one in six of the electorate who actually voted for her, awarding her a comfortable salary of £105,000.

This is something of an improvement on Brabin's £81,932 salary as MP for Batley and Spen, a constituency she has represented since the by-election on 20 October 2016, following the murder of the incumbent, Jo Cox. She must now vacate the seat where even her kindest critics would agree that she is totally out of her depth, precipitating another by-election for Labour.

Ironically, she has been awarded the salary hike by an Independent Remuneration Panel, after it suggested that the "level of complexity" of the role of mayor was greater than that of a backbench MP. The egregious Tracy, therefore, can fail upwards in some comfort, if not style.

Interestingly, the official website does not show the figure for the electorate, which had to be drawn from the previous election of the Police and Crime Commissioner in 2016.

There, the website shows Labour's Mark Burns-Williamson elected on 49.7 percent of the vote, on an overall turnout of 34.8 percent. That had Burns-Williamson represent the residents of West Yorkshire with the endorsement of 17.3 percent of the electorate – on the face of it, a better showing that Brabin, whose role she takes over.

Meanwhile, her Party must steel itself for a by-election where the aggregated local election results put the Conservatives on 39.9 percent (up 16.2 percent on 2016) and Labour on 39.6 percent (down 2.5 percent). Although local election results are not the best indicators of parliamentary performance, this points to a nail-biting time for Starmer's Labour, presenting him with the nightmare scenario of losing two by-elections to Johnson.

At least Labour's Andy Burnham, newly elected mayor for Greater Manchester, has done slightly better than Brabin, polling 473,024 votes, representing a 67.31 percent share of the vote. Thus, despite and even more dismal overall turnout of 34.7 percent, he still manages to secure the endorsement of 23.4 percent of the 2,057,643-strong electorate.

What makes the difference here though, is that the Telegraph and others consider that to be a "landslide", when a politician gets the votes of significantly less than a quarter of the electorate, marking the man down as potential leader of the Labour Party.

This rather brings home the lack of awareness of quite how slender these electoral mandates are. Yet, this is shared by the politicians themselves. Despite a turnout of a mere 42 percent for the London mayor, with Sadiq Khan securing the endorsement of 16 percent of the electorate, Will Norman, the mayor's "walking and cycling Commissioner", thought the election results "a ringing endorsement".

Norman, with the blessing of the mayor, therefore, will continue with the enormously unpopular programme of closing down streets to traffic, in the name of making them "safer for walking and cycling". With one in six of the electorate behind him, he "can't wait to get cracking and deliver the Mayor of London's ambitious new manifesto".

This is the same city, by the way, where – according to Raphael Sheridan, a BBC London journalist, 87,214 Londoners had their mayoral votes rejected because they accidentally voted twice in the "first preference" column. That, says Sheridan, is the equivalent of a full Wembley Stadium or - to put it another way - 1 in 30 of all votes cast in the election.

Perhaps it is just as well that – as the Guardian would have it – that ministers are moving to discard the "supplementary vote" system in favour of first past the post for mayoral elections. Clearly, there is a significant volume of people who can't even deal with the complications of first and second preference votes.

However, with Labour having won 11 of the 13 posts which have been up for grabs, the Guardian is suggesting that the change will make it easier for the Tories to win future contests. One suspects that they must be feeling left out, unable to claim their share of this expanding gravy train, where the taxpayer is forced yet again to provide lucrative jobs for second-tier politicians.

One could even think that this was in some way compensation for the political classes losing out on the EU gravy train, with neither Commissioner jobs nor MEP seats any longer available.

It is ironic, therefore, that the post-war move towards regionalisation, represented by the appointment of directly-elected mayors, stems largely from EU policies, as means of furthering political integration.

Like climate change, and many other wasteful EU policies, the hope was that, once we'd seen the back of the EU, we could dispense with the political baggage, regionalisation being one of them.

With a gravy train too good to miss, though, we are saddled with the mayoral charade, as the likes of Tracy Brabin line their pockets with taxpayer's cash, to perform a role that few people want, in an authority which exists without an electoral mandate, the whole package, disguised as devolution, lacking democratic legitimacy.

Interestingly, after days of crashing tedium, after the media has indulged itself in charting the fortunes of these useless politicians, the newspapers have reverted to type largely featuring the relaxation of covid restrictions, allowing – as several papers have put it on their front pages – "the darling hugs of May".

The one thing the media seems reluctant to broach is the decay of the democratic system represented by these elections just past, and those to come. Instead, the papers will entertain themselves with the soap opera of the Labour crisis, while the worst prime minister in living memory continues to dominate the political high ground.

It is perhaps possible that we could be more poorly served by the political system, but I struggle to see how.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 10/05/2021 link

Politics: who cares wins?

Sunday 9 May 2021  

There came a time in this long-drawn-out results process when I just ceased to care. At best, local government is a mess, the councils acting largely as agents for central government, with an antiquated finance system that puts people in prison if they do not pay.

There is little point, therefore, of thinking locally or even taking much of an interest in local politics – which, as far as I am concerned, are not local anyway. As I have remarked many times, my local council – with a population of well over half a million, is bigger than many countries.

Since that applies to many local authority areas – which are getting even bigger with forced or voluntary amalgamations, none of which have been put to their populations by way of referendums – local authorities are effectively democratic in name only, i.e., not at all.

Thus, typical turnouts for local council elections hover in the region of the thirty precent or lower, as people quite rightly make their own decisions about the utility of voting. Elections, therefore, tend to be treated as an extended opinion poll and, occasionally, as a means of sending a message to an unpopular central government (or opposition).

The mayoral elections are just as bad, if not worse. Picking one contest, more-or-less at random, the mayor of Doncaster, turnout is registered at 28.05 percent, with only 63,862 electors bothering to vote, out of an electorate of 227,679.

First preference votes cast for the winner, Labour's Ros Jones, were 27,669, with 3,563 second choice votes. The total, amounting to 31,232, delivers a shade under 14 percent of those eligible to vote. On the basis of first choice alone, the percentage only just tops 12.

By any measure, this does not and cannot amount to a democratic mandate. In any honest system, the poll would be abandoned for lack of interest. This is simply not political post which has the wholehearted support of the population.

Even in the high-profile and hotly contested London mayoralty, the turnout was a mere 42 percent, with the main page of the "London Elects" official website being remarkably coy about offering any statistical detail beyond naming the winner.

Wikipedia is actually more helpful, in terms of format, although it hasn't been updated yet (at the time of writing). Therefore, we end up with the Telegraph which tells us that winner, Sadiq Khan, secured 40 percent of the first preference votes and 55 percent in the run-off.

That gives Khan, respectively, the approval of 16 and 23 percent of the electorate – again hardly a ringing endorsement. It is one which scarcely provides democratic legitimacy for decisions which have considerable impact on Londoners' daily lives.

When it comes to Police and Crime Commissioners, the results are even more tenous. Picking another result more or less at random, we have the PCC contest for Bedfordshire delivering a turnout of 24.9 percent, with 123,777 votes cast. The winner, Festus Akinbusoye, for the Conservative Party, secured 51,700 votes in the first round, thus carrying with him 10.4 percent of the electorate.

Purists will say that only those who vote can be taken onto account and, generally speaking, where there is a high turnout, that argument has merit. But, where turnouts are so dismally low, there is quite obviously a crisis of legitimacy.

Needless to say, the focus in these elections has been on the poor showing of Labour, and the attendant traumas, complete with the firing of Angela Rayner's chair. But rarely do the legacy media mention the wafer-thin turnouts on which the winners and losers rely.

Thus, while one can rightly say that the Labour Party has a serious problem, the democratic process has an even bigger problem. Politics – and especially at local level – has become largely a spectator sport.

In the past, it has been suggested that making postal votes more accessible might improve turnout, but since they have been available on demand, we have not seen a noticeable improvement.

And then, the very idea of introducing new elections, for posts such as the PCCs and mayors for an increasing number of cities and districts, was thought to be a valid way of improving the democracy of the system. But with the contests degenerating into the usual party political scraps, with the two main parties dominating the field, the posts become just another gravy-train for second tier (and very often second-rate) politicians.

Clearly, with PCC post-holders entitled to an annual salary of £70,000 or thereabout, this is a profitable gravy-train for incumbents who might otherwise struggle to earn the national average (or even minimum) wage. But the very number of people who turn out to vote tells its own story.

I think we need to recognise that increasing the number of elected posts does not, in itself, increase the "democracy" of a fundamentally undemocratic system. Similarly, a majority vote does not necessarily confer democratic legitimacy on those who acquire their posts by this means.

But, until there is some serious thinking and discussion about how to inject even a basic level of democracy into local administration, then the elections will be of little interest or relevance to ordinary people, remaining largely a spectator sport, trawled over by the media and political classes, leaving almost everybody else cold.

To the question, therefore, "who cares wins?", the answer is "perilously few". This is not a healthy situation and nor, in the longer-term, is it sustainable – more so when our ruling elites do not seem to understand that there is a problem.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 09/05/2021 link

Politics: swings and roundabouts

Saturday 8 May 2021  

One of the metrics used to chart election changes is the "swing", between one party and another, first used in the form of a "swingometer" by the BBC in Bristol during the 1955 general election and then generally in every election since, including the current rounds.

This measure works best in a two party contest, and relies on the assumption that the collective vote share of those two parties is roughly constant between successive elections. Then, the proportion of the votes from one party moving to another – representing the "swing" – to produce a winner, gives a rough indication of the shifts in voting sentiment which have brought about the change.

This "yo-yo" portrayal, though, is an extremely crude measure and barely works, if at all, in a three-corner contest (and especially where there is tactical voting), where there are significant variations in turnout, or where there are asymmetric changes in voter behaviour – such as the decision of the supporters of one party to boycott their candidate, and refrain from voting.

In a complex electoral scenario, one might experience elements of all three phenomena, in which case the "swing" calculation becomes valueless, either for predicting the outcome of an election, or for explaining results, especially in respect on one particular seat (or groups of seats).

Nevertheless, when the result of the Hartlepool by-election was announced yesterday, most of the pundits – including the BBC – trotted out the usual mantra, noting that Labour had suffered a 16 percent "swing" to the Tories which had brought about the Conservative victory.

Yet, all the application of this simplistic metric does is obscure rather than enlighten, almost completely misrepresenting the situation as it has developed in Hartlepool over the years.

To get an inkling of what has been going on, one must go back to the very start, to the 1974 general election when Hartlepool was a new seat. Then, the contest was strictly a two-horse race, where Labour's Edward Leadbitter polled 26,988 votes, against Conservative challenger Nicholas Freeman, who took 22,700 votes, with the turnout standing at 79.8 percent.

If we now fast-forward to the 2017 general election, the first in the post-referendum period – where Mrs May made the dubious tactical decision to go to the country – we see a new Labour candidate, Mike Hill, taking 21,969 votes to win the seat against the Conservative challenger, who gets 14,319 votes, beating the Ukip candidate (who polls 4,801 votes) into second place. By comparison with 1974, the turnout was substantially down, at 59.2 percent.

The 2019 general, however, is a bit of an oddity, where there is some concern about the progress of Brexit and the newly-formed Brexit Party fronts Richard Tice as its candidate in Hartlepool.

Tice makes a strong showing, with 10,603 votes, but the Conservative Stefan Houghton stays ahead of him with 11,869 votes. But the winner is Labour's Mike Hill, whose vote drops to 15,464 on a turnout which has dropped to 57.9 percent.

That brings us to the current by-election, where one very obvious change is the poor showing of Reform UK, the successor to the Brexit Party. From 10,603 votes, we see a spectacular collapse to a mere 368 votes.

Received wisdom is that the Ukip and then Brexit Party votes in the past have come mainly from the Tories. However, Farage has long argued that, in the northern seats, he was taking votes from Labour, especially in the stronger "leave" seats such as Hartlepool.

With the collapse of the Reform UK vote, therefore, one might have expected some of the votes to have "returned" to Labour. But, in 2021, this is not the case. Mike Hill, the previous incumbent, has resigned over allegations of "sexual harassment and victimisation", and is due to face an employment tribunal.

Hill's successor, Canterbury-born Paul Williams is parachuted in from nearby Stockton where he worked as a GP partner. And, although he campaigns vigorously, his reward is to suffer the lowest Labour vote in the history of the constituency, at a mere 8,589. If the Reform UK votes have been recast, then they certainly did not go "back" to Labour.

Now here's the interesting thing. If these votes didn't go to Labour, only a fraction of them can have gone to the Tory challenger, Jill Mortimer, who only polled a mere 15,529 votes to win the seat, up only just over a thousand votes on Stefan Houghton's showing in 2017 – representing only 68 percent of the vote polled by the Tories in 1974.

Thus, the real culprit here is the turnout. From 1974, when 49,688 voters passed through the polling stations, representing 76.9 percent of the electorate, this had dropped to 41,835 voters in 2017, giving a turnout of 59.2 percent (and not very much different in 2019, when the turnout was 57.9 percent). But, in the by-election just past, turnout plummeted to 29,933, calling in at 42.7 percent. Between 2017 and 2021, nearly 12 thousand voters stayed at home.

Given that the Tory vote largely held up, even if it was significantly down on historic levels, it is reasonable to postulate that most of the stay-at-home voters were former Labour supporters.

Looking at the results from this perspective, it is fair to say that the Tories have barely moved from their 2017 voting figure, and polled only 68 percent of their 1974 vote. Thus, one can conclude that the seat went to the Tories because the Labour vote had collapsed to an historic low, with the Labour candidate unable to attract Brexit Party (formerly Ukip voters) back into the fold.

In essence, the Tory showing is actually quite mediocre, on which basis, rather than suggest that there had been a swing to the Tories, it would be more appropriate to point to that collapse of the Labour vote: the Tories didn't win the seat in any real sense. Labour lost it.

This cannot be said to be any great endorsement for the Tories and, in many respects it paints a picture of party politics in decline. In round figures, just four out of ten bothered to cast a vote and, of those, only two voted for Johnson's party – a mere 22 percent of the electorate.

Yet, for all that, this result is being painted as a great victory for the Conservatives. In her analysis, the incomparably stupid Laura Kuenssberg gushes that the "rickety folding tables" [in the counting centre] "looked like they could hardly cope with the weight of votes for the Tory candidate, and now elected MP, Jill Mortimer, in Hartlepool". With only just over 15K votes to record, one wonders how the clerks would have coped in 1974.

But, in Kuenssberg's foetid, London-centric world, she sees the lacklustre Troy performance as "more evidence for the Conservatives that they are digging further and further into territory where once they were total outsiders". In her terms, "They didn't just win here, they romped home".

Despite the over-cooking, though, nothing can disguise the fact that this is a bad result for Labour. Already, the wibbling from the Left is in full flow, with talk of Hartlepool voting "by a landslide for a Conservative".

Thus, the indications are that Labour has no more idea why they lost the seat than the Tories have for winning it, and are completely unaware of the electoral dynamics which shaped the result.

More to the point, Labour is far from coming to terms with some basic truths, which means that there will be plenty more "Hartlepools" on the horizon.

With Labour in such disarray, Johnson doesn't have to win any seats as long as Starmer is so obligingly losing them. On the other hand, if Starmer reads the runes correctly (a very big if), his task is not as daunting as would appear. All he has to do is stop losing.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 08/05/2021 link

Politics: this broken system

Friday 7 May 2021  

In a particularly cynical piece of electoral manipulation, voters in West Yorkshire were confronted yesterday with a lengthy ballot slip for a politician who will be styled as the "mayor" of West Yorkshire.

This, by any other name is the reintroduction of John Prescott's failed regional government programme, which hit the rocks in 2004 when the voters of the putative North-East region heavily defeated a proposal to create a regional assembly by 78 to 22 percent.

In anticipation of a victory, further referendums for the North West England and Yorkshire and the Humber had been planned but, after such a heavy defeat in what was expected to be the strongest area, those referendums were never held.

Then, on 3 May 2012 Conservative-Lib-Dem coalition government held separate referendums in the Bradford, Leeds and Wakefield districts of West Yorkshire asking whether they should be led by directly elected mayors.

This was part of a broader initiative which covered the 12 largest English cities and, in response, the electorates of the three West Yorkshire districts voted, respectively, 55.1, 63.3 and 62.2 percent against the proposition.

One might have thought, as a result, that the whole idea of messing with local government in the region might have been abandoned, but Cameron's coalition was not minded to take a mere "no" from the electorates for an answer.

In the same year, a West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) was proposed and then negotiated between the coalition government, Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership and the five West Yorkshire local government districts of Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds and Wakefield.

Effectively, this would involve creating a brand new authority, taking over from West Yorkshire County Council which had been set up in 1974 after the passage of the Local Government Act 1972, and abolished in 1986 in favour of the unitary authority system.

Side-stepping the inconvenience of a referendum, which – on past form – might have blocked the five councils' ambitions, public participation was restricted to a carefully-managed "consultation" process. This allowed the five districts to collude with the government in setting up their combined authority, which was established on 1 April 2014 after statutory approval on 31 March.

At the heart of the new enterprise was a £1.8 billion "bribe", supposedly transferred from central control to the new authority, to cover investment on such matters as transport, skills, housing and regeneration.

But, spread over 30 years and between five metropolitan districts with a combined population of 2.3 million, that amounted to about £26 per head of population per year, or a mere £12 million a year for each district.

The overall annual sum is less than the what is need to deal with the epidemic of potholes in the region, and – doubtless to compensate for the headline largess - West Yorkshire's road maintenance funding – perilously inadequate at best - has been slashed by 22 percent for 2021/22, a reduction of £10.2 million, from £46.7 to £36.5 million.

The district councillors have been cheaply bought, by an annual sum less than twice the size of the annual road maintenance budget – which is in any event subject to the willingness of future chancellors over the next three decades to honour the funding agreement.

Thus, yesterday, voters in West Yorkshire were confronted by the still unfamiliar supplementary voting system for a politician that they hadn't asked for, leading an authority which they also hadn't asked for, in circumstances where, had they had been formally consulted by way of a referendum, they would probably have said "no".

Ironically, although this travesty of a system has been set up by the democracy-loving Tories, it is Starmer's Labour party which is set to be the immediate beneficiary – and a potential loser.

The Labour candidate is Tracy Brabin, currently MP for Batley and Spen – first elected in 2016 after the murder of Jo Cox. Selected in December as Labour's candidate for West Yorkshire "mayor", she is standing for a position which also takes on the duties of the police and crime commissioner.

But, according to the Electoral Commission, no standing MP is allowed to fulfil PCC duties, which will require Brabin to step down as MP – which she has pledged to do if she wins the election.

The downside for Labour is that Brabin's seat of Batley and Spen was a Tory target in the 2019 general, which they had hopes of winning. And while Brabin had re-taken the seat in the 2017 general with a stonking vote of 29,844 against the Conservative's 20,833, she did not repeat that performance in 2019, her vote dropping to 22,594.

However, it should be noted that the Conservative vote also dropped, to 19,069 – the two lead parties affected by the intervention of a newly formed independent party, with the unlikely name of the Heavy Woollen District Independents.

Led by Aleksandar Lukic, who was the chairman for UKIP's Dewsbury, Batley and Spen branch until 2017, it fronted Paul Halloran who managed the feat of eroding to votes of both parties and possibly saving Brabin from electoral annihilation – aided, perhaps, by the Brexit Party which polled 1,678 votes.

This puts the constituency – and any potential by-election – in the same complex league as Hartlepool, which had its 2019 vote heavily influenced by the Brexit Party, again possibly rescuing the seat for the Labour candidate.

The story is picked up by the Financial Times, which has Barry Sheerman, MP for nearby Huddersfield, saying: "A lot of people took a long time to wake up to the fact that the West Yorkshire mayor will have police powers, meaning Tracy will have to resign quite promptly".

However, he dismisses fears of losing a by-election, saying: "We are aware of that and it will be a challenging by-election, as by-elections always are", then adding: "I think the party is aware of that, but I think as long as we get the right candidate it is winnable".

The FT has one well-placed Labour party figure saying that the party was lining up Lisa Johnson, director of external relations at the GMB trade union, and Fazila Aswat, the office manager who was with Cox when she was murdered, as likely candidates for the seat.

On the other hand, Conservative campaigners think that if Halloran's votes can be taken by the Tories, along with some from the Brexit party, they might have a chance of winning.

What could make the difference, though, is that the constituency also has a higher than national average ethnic minority population (mostly Muslims of Pakistani descent), who historically favour Labour. Thus, while senior Labour figures are aware of the potential for a loss in Batley and Spen, they hope it will be more defendable than Hartlepool.

One senior Conservative MP also cautioned that Batley and Spen is "a different world" from Hartlepool and would by no means be an easy win for the party. But then, this is assuming that Brabin wins the contest for the West Yorkshire "mayor".

This, we will not know until Sunday, when it is fair to say that the result will be eagerly anticipated only by the career politicians and their hangers-on, in a sterile contest that has absolutely nothing to do with public aspirations.

There will be a frisson of excitement when the Hartlepool result is known but, and the Scottish and London Mayor results may attract some interest but, by and large, politics will then continue without any serious engagement with the people.

Locally, much will depend on how well the parties game the system, with one analyst remarking that there was a tiny Brexit party vote in Batley and Spen so the result would depend on the Labour to Conservative defections. "Labour's best policy is to play for time given the vaccine 'sugar high' for the government in polls probably falls off come the autumn", he says.

Whatever else happens, in this broken system, democracy doesn't get much of a look in.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 07/05/2021 link

Brexit: adults in the room

Thursday 6 May 2021  

Virtually all the legacy newspapers have carried the publication of Michel Barnier's book on the Brexit negotiations, covering the period between the 2016 referendum and the end of January this year. It is out today in French and available in English in October.

Entitled La Grande Illusion (Journal secret du Brexit), it gets different treatment according to which paper is reviewing it. But, for those inclined, there is a 57-page extract on the publisher's website in the original French.

As to the papers, we start with The Times, which headlines, "Boris Johnson didn't know his own Brexit policy, claims Michel Barnier", adding the subtitle: "A new book by the EU negotiator reflects on the PM's 'baroque personality' and trouble with details".

The diaries, we are told, focus on how Conservative infighting shaped Brexit, especially with the emergence of Johnson as party leader and prime minister. As charmed as he is repulsed by Johnson's "baroque personality", Barnier does not hide his astonishment and, sometimes, anger at British negotiating tactics, particularly after Theresa May left No 10.

Thus, The Times's report leapfrogs almost to the end of the negotiations, focusing on the Brussels dinner on 9 December last year, as talks hung in the balance. Johnson is said to have stunned Barnier and Ursula von der Leyen, by appearing not to know his own negotiating position.

Amid deep disagreements on fishing and EU demands for a "level playing field" in regulation, the prime minister allegedly suggested a minimal deal on areas of existing agreement combined with a new pact on defence and security to take the sting out of a no-deal Brexit.

"We could even, in the event of disagreement, show a willingness to co-operate with a treaty on foreign policy and defence", he told the Brussels pair, to "general astonishment on our side", writes Barnier, because he had "brutally" rejected such a deal in the past.

Barnier said that he replied: "But Boris, it was you who refused to open a chapter on defence, co-operation and foreign policy in the negotiations". Johnson had replied: "What do you mean, me? Who gave this instruction?", while looking at his officials.

The Telegraph, predictably, takes a different slant, bringing in more players in its headline, which reads: "'Bulldozer' Boris and 'messianic' Raab: Michel Barnier's withering verdict on Britain’s Brexit team". The sub-head tells of Barnier hitting out at "childish" UK ploys.

That is expanded upon in the text, where Johnson's negotiators are "blasted" as "childish" and "not up to the task", with Barnier regarding his European team the only "adults in the room". He paints a picture of petulant British negotiators under Johnson, who he said had not fully grasped the implications of Brexit and was full of bluster and bluff.

At one point in the talks, when he says the British had wrongly claimed that the EU had ruled out a Canada-style trade relationship, Barnier writes: "We looked at each other with incredulity. It was almost childish".

This paper also has Barnier voicing disdain for his British opposite numbers, dismissing Dominic Raab as a man with a "Messianic light in his eye" who "lacks nuance". David Davis kept a low profile and "avoided blows".

Jacob Rees-Mogg is described as "one of the most ideological Eurosceptic Conservative MPs and decidedly the most opportunistic, who cultivates a style that is more 19th century than close to the people". Olly Robbins, on the other hand, wins plaudits as "taking the measure better than others of the consequences of Brexit and seeking to limit the damage".

Jeremy Corbyn gets short shrift as an "old school Leftist" who failed to grasp the technicalities of the negotiations and bore a "heavy responsibility" for sitting on fence. But Mr Corbyn's successor, Sir Keir Starmer, receives the Barnier stamp of approval "as I get the feeling I am dealing with a future prime minister of the UK".

As for Johnson, Mr Barnier lets rip as he writes about his resignation as Foreign Secretary. "In truth, Boris Johnson committed so many errors and verbal 'outbursts' that his nomination as head of the Foreign Office seemed incongruous in numerous capitals. And I can imagine that this was also the sentiment of many British diplomats".

The Independent, in one of the longer pieces, has as its headline, "Barnier hits back at ‘childish’ and ‘pathetic’ Brexit strategies of Boris Johnson", with the sub-head: "Memoirs of negotiation show how Brussels lost trust in Downing Street team".

Again we get the jibe of the EU negotiators having to act as the "adults in the room", the context being "repeated provocations" from Johnson which at times became "pathetic" and "almost childish". Barnier then accuses Johnson and his inner circle of "political piracy" and states baldly as negotiations reach their endgame: "I simply no longer trust them".

At one point, after Mr Johnson threatened to tear up the laboriously negotiated agreement on the Irish border, Mr Barnier wrote that it appeared the UK was pursuing the “madman strategy” of pretending to be ready for a no-deal Brexit in order to force Brussels into concessions. The Downing Street team were "not up to the challenge of Brexit", and Johnson himself appeared badly briefed in talks with European Commission presidents.

Right up to the last minute, a day before signing the TCA on Christmas Eve, the Johnson team were seeking advantage, presenting the EU with a legal text which was "peppered with traps, false compromises and backwards steps".

The Independent also picks up Barnier's reference to May's Lancaster House speech on 17 January 2017, from which Barnier expressed himself "stupefied" as she ruled out most forms of future cooperation with the remaining 27-nation bloc.

In the Guardian, this is given more thorough treatment, where Barnier "marvels at, "The number of doors she shut, one after the other", recording that he was "astonished at the way she has revealed her cards … before we have even started negotiating".

He pondered whether the consequences of the decisions had been "thought through, measured or discussed. "Does she realise this rules out almost all forms of cooperation we have with our partners?", he asked.

Furthermore, May's proposed timetable – undoing a 44-year partnership via article 50 and agreeing a future relationship, all within two years – also seemed "ambitious to say the least, when it took seven years of intense work to negotiate a simple FTA with Canada".

The Guardian headline tells us: "Tory quarrels determined UK’s post-Brexit future, says Barnier", with the text emphasising that Britain's post-Brexit future was determined by "the quarrels, low blows, multiple betrayals and thwarted ambitions of a certain number of Tory MPs".

The UK's early problem, Barnier is cited as writing, was that they began by "talking to themselves. And they underestimate the legal complexity of this divorce, and many of its consequences".

As to Johnson. Barnier writes that, "Although his posturing and banter leave him open to it", it would be dangerous to underestimate him. In the talks, he was "advancing like a bulldozer, manifestly trying to muscle his way forwards,, although seemingly hobbled by the same fundamental British Brexit problem.

When one of Barnier's 60-member team explained to Johnson the need for customs and quality checks on the Irish border, Barnier writes, it was "my impression that he became aware, in that discussion, of a series of technical and legal issues that had not been so clearly explained to him by his own team".

As late as May 2020, Barnier records his surprise at the UK's continued demands for "a simple Canada-type trade deal" while still retaining single market advantages "in innumerable sectors". There remains "real incomprehension, in Britain, of the objective, sometimes mechanical consequences of its choices", he writes.

The Financial Times then follows up with a headline declaring "Boris Johnson's 'madman' strategy dumbfounded Brussels' Brexit chief", as the sub-head has Barnier describing "how EU lost trust in UK's unpredictable and unprepared prime minister".

There is, of course, much more – even in these reviews – which I've read with some trepidation, with my own (very much shorter) rendition on the negotiations already type-set in the revised copy of The Great Deception.

To my relief, I don't seem to have left anything out of significance, but I will have to wait until October to be sure. But I am heartened by Barnier coming up with a similar view on May's Lancaster House speech and much more.

I'm also amused by Barnier's views of Brexiters in general and of Nigel Farage and his Ukip followers in particular. He writes that they had simply behaved "irresponsibly, with regard to the national interests of their own country". How else, Barnier asks, "could they call on people to make such a serious choice without explaining or detailing to them its consequences?"

Of the arch-Brexiters, Digby Jones, John Mills and John Longworth, he writes: "Their discourse is, quite simply, morally scandalous".

We are fortunate to get Barnier's views on these negotiations and, even if they don't add greatly to the sum of our knowledge, the at least confirm what we knew (or suspected) anyway. Even then, the shades of ignorance displayed by our politicians and our negotiators is an indictment of the way the Brexit process was handled.

When the final accounts are in, I would be fairly confident that history won't be kind to the British effort.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 06/05/2021 link

Brexit: an awkward choice

Wednesday 5 May 2021  

Having essentially turned his back on "Europe", it is indisputably the case that Johnson is putting all his money on creating new deals with the rest of the world. And, of those, the "jewel in the crown" is a deal with covid-wracked India, with whose leader, Narendra Modi, Johnson has just held a " virtual summit" – after his direct meeting had been abandoned.

The outcome of this "summit" – according to the Financial Times - is the agreements of a "2030 road map", setting the path to strengthened bilateral ties in key areas such as trade, education and defence.

London has also announced that the two countries have agreed investment deals, said to be worth almost £1 billion, and the two government have signed an agreement to clamp down on illegal migration and enhance opportunities for people to live and work in each other's countries.

Using as many big words as they could cobble together under the circumstances, the two parties are committing to boosting economic ties through a "new and transformational comprehensive strategic partnership", aiming to open up opportunities for business within sectors such as food and drink and life sciences by reducing trade barriers.

In theory, this will be achieved by measure which could include reducing non-tariff barriers on items such as fruit, and allowing medical devices to be exported between the UK and India more easily.

Says Johnson, in words that must have been written by the FCO: "The UK and India share many fundamental values. The UK is one of the oldest democracies, and India is the world's largest. We are both committed members of the Commonwealth. And there is a living bridge uniting the people of our countries".

He added: "This connection will only grow over the next decade as we do more together to tackle the world's biggest problems and make life better for our people. The agreements we have made today mark the beginning of a new era in the UK-India relationship".

Modi personal statement, however, seems to have been a briefer, less fulsome response. It merely described the meeting as "productive" and welcomed the "ambitious" road map.

Sandeep Chakravorty, the joint secretary for Europe west for India's ministry of external affairs, described the summit as "a new milestone" in bilateral relations, but added a somewhat downbeat coda, adds: "Both our leaders had substantive discussions … and exchanged views on regional and global issues of mutual interest".

Chakravorty, though, is not the only one to sound downbeat. Independent commentator Sean O'Grady questions Liz Truss's £1 billion investment, and claims of creating 6,000 jobs, asking how much would have have materialised if Truss and her department didn't exist, and whether it would have been different had the UK not left the EU.

O'Grady, though, also suggests that the Indian adventure begs some other post-Brexit questions. In the past, he says, British trade missions to India have faltered because the British – and in particular Theresa May – proved hostile to Indian requests to make it easier for young Indians to come to Britain to study and work.

Now that the UK has its own points-based immigration policy, that can change, he says. But a rapid increase in the number of visas for Indian students and professionals hasn't been a major feature of the new regime so far; if it had, the right wing of the Conservative Party might have made its displeasure known.

Nevertheless, he sees "encouraging noises from Westminster" about a mutually advantageous exchange of the brightest and best, but little sense of the scale of such movements. Taken with the likely arrival of the trading and professional classes from Hong Kong, some in Brexiteer circles might wonder if this is the low-migration Brexit they voted for.

He observes that trade with India is intimately linked to a more free movement of people between the UK and that country, just as it was with the EU. Thus, while the British have "taken back control" over their borders from Brussels, they are about to hand it over, in the perception of some, to Delhi.

On the other hand, Modi is as nationalist a leader as any in the world, and whatever sentimental feelings he may have about cricket and tea, he will put India’s interests first. He knows that Truss and Johnson are desperate for a flagship trade deal with a "big" country, and, with the US and China out of the picture, India is the only realistic prospect, at least for now.

Modi's negotiators, therefore, can be expected to drive a harder bargain with little Britain than even Michel Barnier did. The chances of the UK landing a favourable deal are remote.

And yet, it is not a foregone conclusion that Modi will be around to guide any negotiations. As India's coronavirus cases exceed 20 million, he is facing a growing backlash over his handling of the catastrophic second wave.

#ModiMustResign is trending strongly in an Indian social media, while feeds are filled with footage and photos of crowded cemeteries, dying patients being loaded onto stretchers, overrun hospitals and bodies being burned on makeshift pyres out in the open.

Despite his government "cracking down" on criticism, there are reports that Modi's complacency and lack of preparedness is having a significant impact. This is compounded by the mishandling of the vaccine rollout.

The country is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of vaccines, yet distribution centres were running short of supplies from April. Now there aren't nearly enough jabs to go around to the country’s 1.36 billion people. Despite that, India had exported more vaccines - 60 million doses to 76 countries - by late March than it administered to its own citizens.

A local expert says it's too early to determine whether India’s second wave will tarnish Modi's reputation for good. He has time to recover, as he doesn't have to go to the polls until 2024, and he is clever and relentless.

However, while Modi has taken the credit for the country's previous success at handling the first wave means that he must take responsibility for the current failure. It will be hard for him to escape that responsibility.

Modi, however, has a habit of announce drastic policy changes to draw attention away from crises. In previous situations like this, he has responded by perpetrating "acts of mass distraction" - sudden, unexpected, headline-grabbing policy initiatives.

One wonders whether the UK even features enough in the Indian consciousness for any trade negotiations to be the focus of one of those policy changes, but the very fact that Modi might be looking for something to keep minds off his Covid failures suggests that his approach to future talks could be unpredictable.

This might be even more so if the Indian prime minister gets deposed in the 2024 elections, or so severely weakened that he is forced into directions which might not favour the UK.

Unpredictability, therefore, is a key issue for the future, especially as opposition politicians are complaining that the Modi government has made India a "laughing stock" in the eyes of the world, with its thoughtless policies in tackling the coronavirus second wave.

In order for Modi to conclude politically tenable deal with the UK, he will have to pull something special out of the hat. This points to him pushing for more access for his countrymen to work in Britain. And Johnson, the Guardian says, knows that this is what Modi will expect from a deal. A Downing Street briefing paper noted that "mobility" will be India's "big ask" and a "sensitive issue".

That paper concludes that the UK government will have a choice: it can have a big bang trade deal with India or it can have tough immigration controls that make it hard for Indians to work in Britain. On this occasion, as with others, Johnson won't be able to have his cake and eat it.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 05/05/2021 link

Brexit: an historic milestone

Tuesday 4 May 2021  

On 1 January 2000, there were world-wide celebrations for the dawn of a new Millennium. Then, on 18 March, the last significant phase of compulsory metrication was completed in the UK, when the Price Marking Order 1999 came into force, implementing Directive 98/6/EC.

The effect of this, amongst other things, was to remove pounds and ounces as lawful units of measurement for the sale of goods sold "loose from bulk". From that moment onwards, for a British market trader to sell a pound of apples or tomatoes – or even bananas - became a criminal offence.

It took only until 4 July 2000, in a Sunderland market, for council officials supported by two policemen to converge on a fruit and vegetable stall owned by Steve Thoburn (pictured), to seize his scales. His offence had been to ignore the new order and continue to sell his wares by the pound, as his customers preferred, rather than in the approved metric measurements.

This was the ?rst time the EU's new law had been put to the test, the culmination of the process of compulsory metrication which had been imposed on Britain without Parliament ever being consulted.

With Thoburn in the national headlines, and through the efforts of his fellow marketeer-turned publicist, Neil Herron, the legend of the "metric martyrs" was born. It attracted massive nationwide and international publicity for the anti-EU cause.

When a case taken by Sunderland Council against Thoburn reached the High Court, its decision in 2002 reaffirmed the supremacy of EU law. Metrication thus became cause celebre in the growing Eurosceptic community, more so when in 2004 Thoburn died prematurely at the age of 39.

His funeral and the subsequent wake at the "Stadium of Light", home of Sunderland Football Club, was attended by many devoted followers. Thus the "metric martyrs" acquired cult status. Their efforts did much to shift political sentiment in the North-East of England against the EU.

Thoburn, however, went to his grave with a conviction against his name, leaving Neil Herron determined to secure a posthumous pardon. And now, nearly 21 years later, Herron's efforts seem, finally, to be coming to fruition.

This is according to the Telegraph which, a couple of days ago ran an "exclusive" story under headline: "Scales of justice tilt in favour of pardon for 'metric martyrs'". The sub-head ran: "Convictions of traders for selling wares in pounds and ounces could be disregarded, meaning shops may again be free to use the measurements".

This, it seems, is being handled at the highest level. Ministers, we are told, are working on plans to pardon the "metric martyrs", all five of the market traders, including Thoburn, who were eventually convicted for selling their wares in pounds and ounces.

We are also told that a change of law is being contemplated, which will mean that retail shops and markets will be allowed to decide for themselves whether to sell goods in imperial measurements alone, instead of being restricted to "supplementary indications".

As well as Steve Thoburn, there were two other market traders, Colin Hunt and Julian Harman, and fishmonger John Dove, who were all convicted in 2001 for selling produce in Imperial measurements. Greengrocer Janet Devers – the fifth "martyr" – was convicted in 2008.

Although the campaign to pardon the "metric martyrs" has been ongoing, the plan is to formally re-launch on 4 July, times for the exact 21-year anniversary of the day that Thoburn's sets of imperial scales were seized.

Letters have been sent to Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, Dominic Raab, the Foreign secretary, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, and Robert Buckland, the Justice secretary, asking for them to be pardoned.

Already, though, work is under way. Officials at the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy department are looking first at how they can repeal the legislation under which the five were convicted. Once that has taken place, the martyrs or their families would have to apply to the Ministry of Justice for a "disregard" of their convictions.

Within Whitehall, there is some sympathy for this process. One of these wonderfully anonymous government sources says: "It is ridiculous that a greengrocer cannot sell pears in imperial measures".

But it is not just anonymous sources who are being helpful. Johnson himself made a pledge on the 2019 general election campaign that he would lift the EU's ban on shops selling in imperial measurements, saying: "We will bring back that ancient liberty. I see no reason why people should be prosecuted".

The last pardon – known as a Royal Prerogative of Mercy – was for computer pioneer and codebreaker Alan Turing, whose 1952 conviction for gross indecency was overturned in 2013.

Thoburn was convicted of two offences under the Weights and Measures Act 1985 for selling bananas using scales that had been "de-stamped" by a Trading Standards officer because they were only able to weigh in imperial measures.

That same year Hunt was convicted of six offences under the Price Marking Order 1999 for failing to display a unit price per kilogram. Dove and Harman were also convicted of two offences under the same order, and of two offences of using a scale that was only capable of weighing in the Imperial system.

Speaking before his death from heart failure in 2004, Thoburn said: “All I wanted to do was give my customers what they wanted. "I’m not a hero, I'm just a hardworking man. If customers wanted me to sell fruit in kilos, I'd sell fruit in kilos. In my world, what the customer wants, the customer gets".

Now, the Telegraph has interviewed Thoburn's daughter Georgia, 24, whose mother Leigh died aged 43 in 2016. She told the paper, "My Dad was just an ordinary market trader who became an extraordinary, reluctant hero".

She added, "My Mam was his rock and supported him all the way despite the initial concerns. I want to pick up the mantle and take forward the call for the pardon to finally clear my Dad's name".

Colin Hunt, 72, is now a restaurateur in east London. He is just as enthusiastic about developments. "I will be pleased if my name is eventually cleared and remember fondly of how much support we received from the great British public and the press at the time", he said.

Julian Harman, 62, is another one who has changed his occupation. He runs a removals and furniture business in Cornwall, and added: "I feel that justice needs to be finally served, especially posthumously for Steve". "It is still galling that we were treated in such a way and criminalised for such 'heinous' crimes as pricing Brussels sprouts by the pound", he said, "when we see real criminals committing real crimes being given nothing more than a slap on the wrist".

Janet Devers, now 77, who had to pay nearly £5,000 in costs and received a criminal record after a prosecution brought by Hackney council, added: "To be singled out and persecuted and have my scales seized still to this day beggars belief". She added: "A total waste of public money and peoples' time, especially when it was going on all over the country and at a time when the Government and the EU had effectively abandoned enforced metrication".

Devers says: "To think that I stood on that stall in all weathers five days a week at the age of 66 and all the council were bothered about was taking me to court for using imperial scales", adding: "I look forward to the day that we can say we have been pardoned and look back with pride on the way the British public rallied behind us".

And so, it looks very much if we are to see a small, but significant Brexit bonus. There was never any good reason to impose compulsory metrication on the nation. The two systems, Imperial and metric, can easily co-exist at their different levels.

Turning the use of Imperial measures into a criminal offence was a false move and was always going to serve the eurosceptic cause. Even the BBC entertained the thought that it had contributed to the 2016 referendum victory.

For myself, I was at the "Stadium of Light" in 2004. I have no doubts about Thoburn's influence, and the work of Neil Herron. Now, the very least Johnson can do is make the metric martyrs' convictions history.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 04/05/2021 link

Politics: battle of the broadsheets

Monday 3 May 2021  

Well, the Guardian isn't a broadsheet any more, and hasn't been for a long time, but it's close enough to be in the same general league as the Telegraph. And, although not explicitly stated, the two titles are very much at war with each other over prime minister Johnson.

The Telegraph started it, with its multiple pieces defending its boy, but the provocation has proved too much. The Guardian has retaliated with no less than seven articles taking up diverse aspects of the Johnson soap opera.

For a starter, we have an opinion piece by Stewart Lee, a stand-up comedian, writer and director, who is allowed to tell us that he had barely finished one joke about the PM's rollercoaster week when it was overtaken by events.

I've never watched Mr Lee doing his stand-up act and, in truth, until I read his column in the Observer yesterday, I'd never heard of him. But he serves his function in making up the numbers on the Johnson front.

A more substantial contribution comes from regular columnist Andrew Rawnsley, who writes under the heading: "Why sleaze investigations are becoming more menacing for Boris Johnson".

"Number 10", the sub-head tells us, "is beginning to panic now that independent interrogators are in pursuit of the truth", as Rawnsley points out that the reaction of voters has always been a factor in the impact of sleaze scandals, but to regard opinion polls as the only metric that matters is to throw away any claim to a moral compass.

Transparency about who is supplying cash or other benefits to elected representatives, he writes, is an absolutely fundamental principle. It is why there is a register of members' interests, a register from which Johnson is not exempt, although he has a history of behaving as if the rules don't apply to him, making late registrations of his financial interests on at least nine occasions.

For reasons that should be too obvious to spell out, Rawnsley adds, we need to know who our lawmakers and decision-makers are beholden to and why, especially the prime minister. We also need to know whether he has sought to conceal his indebtedness to private interests from the public. If a man can't be straight about how he paid for his sofa, what else might he lie about?

Another of the Guardian's "big guns" is Nick Cohen and he is also holding forth about Johnson, his title asking: "If public life goes unregulated, just who will hold politicians to account?"

"Boris Johnson", he writes, "has a sense of entitlement where a sense of morality should be". In what might be regarded as a flash of cynicism, he adds: "Put a man like that in charge of a well-governed country and anti-corruption investigations follow. Put him in charge of this country and, instead of detectives with warrants, we have chums looking at chums, morally compromised arbiters and intimidated watchdogs".

That cynicism continues as he remarks that it is now a cliche for political journalists to write that Conservative voters have "baked in" Johnson's sleaziness, as dopeheads bake in hash to a brownie.

But Cohen prefers to leave it to Conservative readers to say whether the insulting conviction they don't care about charlatanry and crookedness is true. And he leaves it to lawyers to say whether the defence "you cannot jail my client, your honour, the public has baked in his guilt" has ever worked in court.

What is especially interesting about his piece, though, are his observations about parliamentary commissioner for standards, Kathryn Stone, who may soon be investigating Johnson's relationship with the munificent Brownlow.

Here, he tells us that Stone can recommend that the Commons suspend Johnson, but the Conservatives can use their majority to frustrate her. Actually, that's not quite correct. Stone, if she feels that Johnson's transgression is proven and serious enough, will refer his case to the standards committee. It is this committee which can recommend suspension, but the execution requires a vote from the whole House.

But Cohen is not wrong is saying that it would be a defining moment if the Conservatives did block a suspension recommendation, It would be, he says, a statement that a party that once stood for traditional morality had baked in privilege and venality until it has reduced itself to ashes.

Next in line for a pop at Johnson is John Harris, but he also takes in Cameron to write about "Britain's overgrown Eton schoolboys", who have "turned the country into their playground", remarking that, "the reckless disdain of Boris Johnson and David Cameron is evidence of the institutional elitism blighting our politics".

I don't agree with him, though, when he asserts that Brexit "is a direct result of the latter-day dominance of politics by the privately educated". Brexit was around as a concept long before either Cameron or Johnson got near it.

Inventing a new word (or a typo), Harris then says: "Moroever (sic), because that dominance symbolises a very English mixture of nostalgia, deference and recklessness, it is part of the reason why the UK is now pulling apart". Indeed, he says, "the fact that Johnson has been so hare-brained about arrangements in Northern Ireland is a vivid case study in the perils of entrusting matters of the utmost fragility to people whose basic unseriousness is not just toxic, but extremely dangerous".

"Part of the English disease", he concludes, "is our readiness to ascribe our national disasters to questions of personal character. But the vanities of posh men and their habit of dragging us into catastrophe have much deeper roots".

Harris takes the view that they centre on an ancient system that trains a narrow caste of people to run our affairs, but also ensures they have almost none of the attributes actually required. If this country is to belatedly move into the 21st century, he says, this is what we will finally have to confront: a great tower of failings that, to use a very topical word, are truly institutional.

On a slightly lighter note, we then have William Keegan, writing that, "Brexit's Mr Pooter may not survive his dispute with Cummings".

In some finely-tuned observations, Keegan notes that Johnson used to live in London's Islington, a place shared by the fictional Mr Pooter, protagonist of the Victorian classic Diary of a Nobody. Pooter's wife was called Carrie, and his close neighbour went by the name of Cummings, of whom on one occasion Pooter writes: "Cummings and I have a little misunderstanding".

Carrie's husband and his friend Cummings manage to get over their misunderstanding but, says Keegan, if there is one thing certain about the fallout between the Brexiters of Downing Street, it is that hell hath no fury like a Cummings scorned. "It is obvious", he writes, "that this episode is going to end in tears; and, as a betting man, I would not put money on Johnson's long-term survival".

Two more pieces complete the line-up, an article by Ed Cumming on No 10's "disrespect" for John Lewis, and then an analysis headed: "Labour hopes Tory sleaze will lift its 'red wall' vote. In Dudley, they’re not so sure".

The party aims to come back strongly in the West Midlands, it reports, but - despite the best efforts of the paper – "Boris Johnson seems relatively unscathed by scandal".

And, while that completes the Sunday line-up, while all the other papers today are covering the Manchester United pitch invasion on their front pages, the Guardian uniquely runs an attack piece on Johnson, with the heading: "Senior Tory says Boris Johnson should resign if he breached ministerial rules".

This is Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, an intervention that is said to have caught No 10 by surprise, coming after Johnson was accused of successfully obtaining funds for the flat from a second donor, while a third was alleged to have been asked to pay for a nanny for his one-year-old bastard son.

With such articles, the Guardian (unsurprisingly) is making it very clear what it thinks of Johnson – as aggressive in its condemnation as the Telegraph is supportive. This lays the ground for a continuing spat, and it will be interesting to see which paper runs out of steam first.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 03/05/2021 link

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