politics

Yesterday, I wrote about how having more information can make things less stressful, specifically, how I find modern buses much easier to deal with, simply because you always know where you are and what the next stop is.

But unfortunately, the opposite is also true. We have access to more information now than we ever have before, and it can make us needlessly stressed, not least because a lot of it is either not true, or not representative. At the moment, for example, politics is moving worryingly towards the right. Brexit and Trump are just two examples – the far right is gaining traction across much of Europe and countries like Turkey seem to be slipping backwards into an alarming authoritarianism.

There’s no doubt that the American and British governments, amongst many others, are doing some really terrible things, particularly to the most vulnerable people in our societies. Nationalism, populism and isolationism are the order of the day, and anyone with progressive values is shaking their head and wondering what the everliving fuck to do. It’s worst in the UK, with a general election coming up and no credible opposition to Brexit, indeed, no credible opposition full stop.

But for all the awfulness ahead of us, the information we are consuming on a daily basis is a little misleading. Yes, Brexit and Trump are awful, and yes, terrible things are happening to the poor, elderly, sick and those in minority groups. When we look at worldwide attitudes, the trends are actually heartening, as Ipsos Mori finds in their latest global trends report. They have found that, globally:

  • We are increasingly liberal in our attitudes towards gay rights (globally 74%, up from 70%)
  • We increasingly believe that “things would be better if more women held positions of responsibility in government and companies” (57%, up from 53%)
  • We want to be “personally autonomous and depend less and less on any kind of external authority” (76%)
  • And over half of us believe that “we have a greater opportunity to be free and true to ourselves than our parents did” (52%)

Of course, there are still areas for concern:

Modern liberalism embodies new ideas, a tolerance for individual choice, and an acceptance of a diverse society. The data suggests that this vision hasn’t entirely extended to our own backyards. Seventy-two percent of us want to live in a community among people who share the same views and values as us.

And there’s still an alarming number of people who support the death penalty, believe the world is more dangerous (it’s not, it’s safer than it’s ever been), and that there are too many immigrants (there aren’t, people grossly overestimate how many immigrants there are in their country).

But generally speaking, the world is becoming more liberal, and peoples’ concerns about safety and immigration are largely ill-founded and whipped up by a media and political system that thrives on outrage and fear. Putting the current awfulness in perspective is important. We are constantly bombarded by information that seems to show that the world is going to the dogs, but we’re in better shape than we think we are.

I honestly believe that the current swing to the right is a blip, a last gasp from a generation that fears losing power and sees everyone and everything as a threat. But the underlying liberalisation of attitudes cannot and will not be halted by a bad president, a terrible prime minister and some appallingly ignorant governmental decisions. No matter how long it takes, our increasingly liberal attitudes will prevail. Our job, right now, is to encourage such liberal attitudes in those around us, especially younger people who need to see that, actually, we do care about them and their future, even if the government doesn’t.

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I started trying to read The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked by Carole Cadwalladr on the plane yesterday, but had to give up because it was too depressing. Political campaigns, says Cadwalladr, are paying vast sums of money to a company called Cambridge Analytica to do psychological profiling of voters in the UK and US with the hope of using that information to influence the EU referendum and presidential election.

Privacy International is ever so slightly less depressing on the same topic. Well, I say ‘less depressing’, but not really:

Using profiling to micro-target, manipulate, and persuade individuals is still dangerous and a threat to democracy. The entire point of building intimate profiles of individuals, including their interests, personalities, and emotions, is to change the way that people behave. This is the definition of marketing—political or commercial. When companies know that you are depressed or feeling lonely to sell you products you otherwise wouldn’t want, political campaigns and lobbyists around the world can do the same: target the vulnerable, and manipulate the masses.

I don’t know, and I suspect that it’s impossible to know, just how much Cambridge Analytica really did influence people’s votes. It’s not as if there weren’t other puppetmasters trying to pull the strings, after all.

The reason I find this stuff so soul-destroying is that it implies that we, as individuals, have no agency, that we are not able to protect ourselves from being manipulated by cynical, self-interested and possibly even evil forces. How do we even begin to fight back against a company like Cambridge Analytica, with its terrifying combination of incredibly deep pockets and a total lack of morals?

I don’t think it’s true that we have no agency, just that we’ve been happy to allow ourselves to be persuaded that that is so. We can fight back, we can do what humans are naturally very good at: talk to people, create relationships, and create trust. Forging relationships between progressive politicians and their constituents – ALL of them, not just the mouthy ones or the really engaged ones – is the only way for us to combat this sort of stuff. Because personal relationships can’t be easily destroyed by propaganda of the sort that Trump and Leave pumped out.

We’ve had Obama’s playbook for nearly a decade, and yet the only other politician to have done much with it has been Emmanuel Macron (my bold):

His first major undertaking was the Grande Marche (Big March), when he mobilised his growing ranks of energised but inexperienced En Marche activists.

“The campaign used algorithms from a political firm they worked with – who by the way had volunteered for the Obama campaign in 2008 – to identify districts and neighbourhoods that were most representative of France as a whole,” Ms Schultheis says.

“They sent out people to knock on 300,000 doors.”

The volunteers didn’t just hand out flyers – they carried out 25,000 in-depth interviews of about 15 minutes with voters across the country. That information was entered into a large database which helped inform campaign priorities and policies.

“It was a massive focus group for Macron in gauging the temperature of the country but also made sure that people had contact with his movement early on, making sure that volunteers knew how to go door to door. It was a training exercise that really laid the groundwork for what he did this year,” Ms Schultheis explains.

The key thing here is that taking 15 minutes to listen to voters is the very basics of the idea of consultative democracy that I was talking about the other day. Actually spending the time to listen to people not only gets you information, it gives them the sense that someone is taking them seriously, someone cares about them and their experiences and opinions.

That is what the left needs to do, in the UK and the US. Listen to people, forge relationship with them, give them the sense that someone cares about them, and that we can and will help them solve the problems they face. And then, y’know, actually solve those problems as best we can. That’s the only surefire way to combat the likes of Cambridge Analytica.

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So, yes, I slightly forgot to blog yesterday, but I did talk about writing this blog post, so I’m counting that as, well, “pre-blogging”. 

There are, I think, several commonalities between the election of Trump last November and the vote to Brexit the European Union nearly a year ago. But the one commonality that I have been thinking about the most recently is the sense that there are a lot of people across the USA and the UK who feel that no one is listening to them. And, let’s be honest here, no one is listening to them. There are a few academics, maybe, who are talking to these forgotten people and who are creating a narrow set of narratives in an attempt to explain what happened.

Some of those narratives are being seized upon as if they are the gospel truth, as if all we need to do to “fix” politics is read a few long-form pieces on Quartz or The Atlantic and bingo, problem solved. It’s an attractive proposition – let other people do the hard part, the actual listening, and then we skim the cream off the top of their reports and decide what needs to be done from that. Tempting. But very, very wrong.

The problem comes in two parts:

  1. By not listening to commonly ignored people, we fail to learn about what truly concerns them, what challenges they face, and how policy could be shaped to help them.
  2. By not giving these ignored people the opportunity to talk about their experiences and problems, we effectively tell them that they are of no importance to us, that we do not care about them and do not create policy with their needs in mind.

That’s political poison, and we’ve seen the consequences across the UK and US. When people feel ignored and belittled, they search for an outgroup to blame, whether that’s a group of politicians they don’t like, people whose political views they don’t like, people who look or sound different to them, or any other marginalised group. They get angry, and look for ways to punish any or all of the outgroups that they’ve decided are to blame for their woes.

Academic studies, as valuable as they can be, are not the whole of the answer. What we need to do is to actually get out there and listen to what people have to say, listen deeply and seriously, and make people feel listened to. This doesn’t mean referendums or other forms of mob rule, and nor does it mean taking people’s concerns at face value. It means listening intelligently and carefully, and analysing what we hear.

For example, people might say that they are concerned about the level of immigration in the UK, and this might be a concern that comes up again and again and again, but that doesn’t actually mean that immigration levels are too high. That would be an overly simplistic interpretation. Instead, we need to dig a bit and find out why people feel that immigration is too high, especially given that these sentiments tend to be found in towns where immigration is actually very low. Is it fear of the unknown? Is it the absorption of propaganda from the tabloids? Is it economic insecurity? Is it something even less obvious, something we can’t even guess off the top of our heads?

If we don’t fully understand what drives these sentiments, we can’t derive policies to address the underlying issues. Instead, we would produce ineffectual policies that people might like the sound of, but which achieve nothing for them. Populist policies which scratch people’s emotional itches, such as the desire to scapegoat immigrants, but which do nothing to actually improve people’s lives.

The Tories and Republicans have been very good at creating these sort of shallow, populist policies that make people feel good, but which don’t actually fix the causes of any problems and often make them worse. Unfortunately, Labour and the Democrats have not understood that the Right’s failure is their opportunity. Especially in the UK, they have instead taken what one might call a ‘populist-lite’ stance which accepts the incorrect narrative about, in this example, immigrants and merely tries to make regressive policies sound progressive.

That’s not good enough, not by a long shot. And, as if this left-wing populism wasn’t bad enough, it completely misses the second part of the problem – that people know that they are being ignored and that they, rightly, resent it. We don’t just need to listen to people to learn about their problems, we need to listen to them and for them to feel listened to in order to help them believe that someone cares about them.

In this highly partisan atmosphere, such listening needs to be done very, very carefully. We cannot listen to someone saying that the problem with the NHS and education is all those damn foreigners and then give them the sense that our solution is to get rid of all the immigrants. We need to take them on a journey with us, through the kneejerk blaming of immigrants to the point at which they and we uncover the real reason for their stress and unhappiness, and where they understand that that reason is what’s really the core of their problems.

We need to do a kind of ethnographic and anthropologic listening, bringing the skills of these disciplines to politics. We need to find a scalable, repeatable, sustainable way to consult with underserved, ignored and marginalised groups. And we need to think very, very carefully about who those groups are. They are not just the traditionally marginalised groups that spring to mind, but also those who are often seen to having privilege and power yet who are, increasingly, shut out of the conversation because of the culture that they inhabit and that has grown up around them.

There is a parallel here with the attitudes towards university attendance amongst white working class boys and young men. Whilst they are seen as being in a privileged community due to their whiteness, a toxic culture has arisen wherein going away to university is seen as a betrayal of family and community. This traps these young men in a socioeconomic strata that is under constant pressure, trapping their families too.

We cannot turn a blind eye to these people’s problems because we assume that their troubles are lesser than other groups. We need to listen to them, and truly understand what pressures they are under, what challenges they face, and what policies would help them without harming others. As much as I campaign to support women, I also recognise that other groups that are traditionally seen as privileged have lost a lot of opportunity over the last 15-20 years, and that we must address that. If we don’t, we breed resentment and we make life harder, not easier, for traditionally marginalised groups.

We need to create a new model of consultative democracy, one that reaches out to the people it serves, listens to them deeply and carefully, and which not only turns those lessons into policy but makes sure that people understand exactly how their participation has helped. We have to give the agency to talk and learn and participate back to groups who have lost it, and defuse the resentment and hatred that causes so much pain and harm to our communities.

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Dear Regretful Leave Voter,

I want to open this letter firstly by apologising to you for the way that the UK has let you down. You were openly and repeatedly lied to by the Leave campaign and by the right-wing media, and no one seemed to have the will or the authority to do anything about it.

If an advertiser lies, the Advertising Standards Agency can penalise them and stop them from doing it again. But the ASA does not cover political campaigning, so they were unable to stop the Leave campaign from lying to you.

When the media lies, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which took over from the Press Complaints Commission, can force a news organisation to publish a retraction or correction, but by the time they do the damage has been done. The press can pretty much lie as much as they like without having to worry about it.

Many of the Leave politicians lied to you too, and they are now walking back their claims about giving £350m per week to the NHS or stopping immigration. There are more lies, but we’ll stop with just those two because they are big ones, the pants-on-fire-sized lies.

No one had the political will to stop the lies. People did try to counter them, but that’s not the same as stopping them being made, repeatedly, even after they had been shown clearly to be lies. And I’m sorry for that. It’s a dreadful state of affairs when our national civil discourse is peppered with lies and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.

I’m also sorry that it wasn’t made clear enough to you that your vote really counted. Really, really counted. We are so used to our votes being useless, no matter which side of the aisle we inhabit. I vote in a safe  Tory seat, so I am used to being in a minority of non-Tory voters. I vote all the same, but I can understand the urge to not bother, because what’s the point?

I haven’t read every single news article or watched every single bit of Brexit TV. Who could? But I don’t think that enough of a fuss was made that this was a vote where every single person’s opinion counted, and where all that was needed was a simple majority.

You voted to Leave, even though you didn’t really want to, and maybe that was a protest vote. Again, I understand why you would do that. I mean, who wouldn’t be ticked off at the nasty financial repercussions of the 2008 financial crash, a disaster for which no one was punished and, worse, after which there were no meaningful reforms. Could it happen again? Well, we have to hope it doesn’t, but the banks are no better regulated now than they were then.

And, of course, we can’t forget the years of Tory austerity, which hit people hard. Austerity was never the right way forward, and indeed, economists and financial institutions begged the Tories not to continue with austerity, but they carried on. We could discuss why, and that would be a useful discussion, but all we need to point out here is that austerity hurt people. It hurt them badly. It made them financially insecure, it made them struggle. Maybe it made you struggle. I certainly felt the pinch, as did many of my friends.

So I can understand why you felt that you wanted to protest. And I understand why you are now mortified at what has happened. And I am sorry that you are in this situation. But…

It’s not over. You can still fight. You can still be heard, you can still have an impact. We, together, can still turn this nightmare around. If I may, I’d like to make some suggestions:

1. Sign this petition asking for a second referendum. Whether or not the horse has already scarpered from this particular stable is not the point. This petition is a symbol of how unhappy we are about what has happened. Sign it, share it with your friends, ask them to sign it. It’s already well past 2 million signatories at the time of writing, and rising rapidly.

2. Contact your MP and tell them you regret your vote, and that you now want to remain. You don’t have to go into any detail about what happened, but just be brave, be strong, and tell your MP that you were lied to and that you want their help to make sure that we stay in the EU. It’s really easy to do — just go to Write To Them and that will help you get in touch with the right person.

3. Complain to your MP as well that the lies told by the Leave campaign amount to electoral fraud. You can also complain to the Electoral Commission. Even though they have no power to deal with political advertising, it is important that they understand the depth of feeling that this referendum was held under false pretences.

4. Talk to your friends about what happened, especially other people who voted Leave, or who were so unsure that they didn’t vote at all. See if you can persuade them that they have been lied to and that it is OK for someone to change their mind when they realise that something they thought was true is actually false. See if you can get them to engage with the political process, and help us to make sure that the UK doesn’t make this huge mistake.

Why bother doing any of this? Because if we come together to give our MPs, most of whom want to remain in the EU, a new political mandate to stay, then we might just get out of this mess before it’s too late. Article 50 has not been triggered (and don’t believe the scaremongering about it being done over our heads or whatever), and we have a short window of opportunity to make sure it never is triggered. But we have to act now. We have to lobby, and persuade, and make our voices heard above the lies.

I know that people like you are scared of being abused by some folks who voted Remain and are very angry about what happened. I can only, again, apologise if you have been on the receiving end of that kind of abuse. It’s not nice, and it’s not right, and it shouldn’t be happening. I shall make no excuses for it: I fundamentally disagree with any sort of abuse, no matter who it’s directed at or why.

But if you know people who voted Remain, and who are being civil, talk to them. Try to mend some bridges, as I will try to mend bridges myself with those Leavers who are civil. This referendum has created some deep divides and we all need to work hard to try to mend what has been broken. Do not give up hope. Do not feel useless or overwhelmed. Together, we can make things better, if we act now.

Finally, if you want some context about just how many people in the UK really voted to leave, this chart might be useful.

As you can see, there isn’t really a majority in favour of Leaving, not least because a lot of people couldn’t vote, either because they were not registered, not eligible to register, or not old enough to register. We cannot go forward with such a major change to our country, which will affect not just us but all future generations, but which only a quarter of the population actively supports.

Thank you for reading this, and thank you for being open enough to consider that your Leave vote was mistaken. That takes guts, and I admire you for being willing to rethink your position.

Best regards,

Suw

PS. Comments are closed, because I know that a lot of people feel very strongly, and that some of those people are unable to remain polite.

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Journalist Simon Ricketts wrote an excellent piece about Labour in which he argues that because there’s no real way that Labour can win the next election, they need to get a hold of the narrative and own it. They need to actually move the debate to the left, to be seen to stand up for what’s right, rather than trying to find out what would make them ‘electable’. They need to find some spine and create an opposition party that’s actually in opposition to the Tories.

They should fight, they should stand up, they should campaign and they should vote against. For the people who need them.

For the people who didn’t vote for austerity – and it’s worth remembering that is the majority of the country – they need to grab their bloody rifles, wrap their paws around the triggers and FIRE.

The only way you move the Overton window is to get outside of it and PULL. You need people who aren’t concerned about how their haircut “plays” in the eyes of the electorate, or whether they should put the words “reach out” or “going forward” in their latest dribble-filled speech.

You need brave people. Unselfish people. Ready to stand outside, prepared to be mocked. Passionate, committed and determined. I don’t see that in many of our politicians.

Last night, I heard a lettuce-fuelled Labour leadership hopeful tell a TV reporter that he is re-evaluating the ‘core values’ in the eyes of the electorate, as if by merely saying those words with his mouth, then the answer will turn up in a taxi.

Let me tell you the core values, sunshine. They are to stand up to inequality, punch hard for those who cannot, and REFUSE to be bowed in the face of battle. Save yourself the money you were going to spend on shiny leaflets. You won’t need them. Just stand up, charge forward and bloody fight.

It’s well worth reading the whole post.

When I first read it, I wasn’t really sure that Labour was actually dead. Wounded certainly, but actually dead? The next election’s five years away, surely they weren’t so mortally wounded that they couldn’t recover?

And then I read about the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, a bill that Labour should have been in vocal opposition to. But instead, they put up a pathetic amendment, and then put their MPs under a whip to abstain instead of vote against. If they had voted against, the amendment would have failed, and about 48 Labour MPs voted with their conscience and did in fact vote against.

The Welfare Reform and Work Bill, in case you haven’t read about it, “slashes tax credits, cuts the benefit cap by £6,000 and takes up to £30 a week from sick and disabled jobseekers”. It is a regressive bit of legislation, punishing the poor and the disabled even more than they currently are under Tory policy.

Why on earth would Labour want to abstain? Why does Harriet Harman support this sort of legislation? It’s just baffling. Utterly baffling. How is this supposed to appeal to people on the left, who believe in the welfare state, in the NHS, in social mobility, in equality?

(UPDATE: Some folks on Twitter have pointed out that it’s all a bit more complicated than that, and fair enough it probably is, but the thing is that people believe Labour should have voted against, not abstained, and so the harm is done regardless. If there was a good reason to abstain, Labour didn’t communicate it well enough.)

But is one bad vote, by itself, enough to ensure that Labour are dead? Probably not. But things get worse for Labour.

Before the election, I think a lot of people on the left assumed that UKIP would split the Tory vote in England, giving an advantage to Labour. But that’s not what happened. Instead, UKIP stole Labour voters in England, way more than Labour anticipated:

Analysis of the results by The Independent shows that Ukip won more votes than the size of the Conservative majority in nine seats the Tories gained from Labour. They included Morley and Outwood, where the former shadow Chancellor Ed Balls suffered a shock defeat by 442 votes after the third-placed Ukip candidate won 7,951 votes. Although not all of these Ukip voters would have switched from Labour, defections from Labour could have tipped the balance in the Tories’ favour.

The pattern was repeated as the Tories gained Labour-held Bolton West, Corby, Derby North, Gower, Plymouth Moor View, Southampton Itchen, Telford and Vale of Clwyd. In 48 seats retained by the Tories, their majority over Labour was lower than the number of votes won by Ukip.

That’s bad. Who would have thought that UKIP’s ridiculous, racist, xenophobic, misogynistic platform would have appealed to Labour voters? You can answer that question yourself.

But that’s not even the worst of it. A study out this week shows that the reason that the polls were so different to the final result was not the fabled ‘shy Tory’, too ashamed of their Conservative ethos to tell a pollster. Oh no. The Tories voted the way the Tories said they would vote. The huge difference was down to Labour supporters who said they would vote Labour, but didn’t bother to vote at all.

The pre-election polls for the 2015 UK General Election missed the final result by a considerable margin: underestimating the Conservative Party and overestimating Labour. We analyse evidence for five theories of why the polls missed using data from the British Election Study. We find no evidence for Shy Tories, late swing or systematically different preferences among “don’t knows”. We find strong evidence that respondents overstated their likelihood of voting and their actual turnout after the election and that these respondents systematically lean towards Labour. This differential turnout can be predicted above and beyond respondents’ self-reported likelihood of voting using demographic variables and past behaviour. We also find evidence that samples are likely to underrepresent some groups in the population and that current weighting schemes may not be adequately correcting for this. In particular, we find that the oldest respondents in our sample are greatly underrepresented.

The media, rather cruelly, called them “lazy”, but I suspect what we’re talking about is a swath of disillusioned voters who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Tory Lite, and I can quite understand their position. Calling them lazy is a cheap get-out-of-jail-free card for Labour, though, because it means Labour can tell themselves that they don’t have to bother with these terrible, indolent lefties, and thus will never ask why those people felt unwilling to vote for them. Tip: It’s not laziness.

So what have we got here? Well, the three shots to Labour’s foot that have resulted in fatal blood loss:

  1. The Labour party elite have lost the plot and are no longer representing the progressive electorate (and haven’t for some considerable time now)
  2. Labour voters defecting to UKIP
  3. Labour voters feeling unable to actually vote Labour

I don’t see how Labour can come back from this at all, so what’s the point in considering “electability” when choosing the new Labour leader? Why toss Corbyn out because you think he doesn’t play well on TV? Which of the other leaders sound even remotely committed to a progressive agenda?

Simon Ricketts has Labour bang to rights. They are dead already, and they’re dead three times. So don’t bother wringing your hands over the next election. Instead, we need to remake the left in the UK, to get back to proper progressive politics and, sadly, that means Labour needs to just fuck off and die, and let the real left take over.

Note: I joined the Labour party after the defeat, and now I’m wondering why I bothered.

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When you think of the abolition of Parliament, you think of various moves made by various Bad People in England's dim and distant past. Kings who arbitrarily suspended democracy. People who decided blowing up the Palace of Westminster was a nice idea. That sort of thing.
Well, our lovely Labour government (and yes, I voted them in, and no, I won't be voting for them again – I had no idea they'd turn out to be such appalling control freaks) is attempting to abolish Parliament under the guise of legislative reform. From the Save Parliament site:

The boringly-named Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill is in fact a very dangerous piece of legislation. It grants any minister the ability to amend, replace, or repeal existing legislation. The frightening thing is this: they would be able to make major changes to the law without Parliament being able to examine it properly, taking away the ability of Parliament to meaningfully represent the citizens of this country.

That really should alarm you. Democracy is not a perfect system, but this bill will destroy any pretence at democracy we have here in the UK and will instead institute a sort of collaborative dictatorship, with power to summarily change the law shared between ministers who, ultimately, will be steered by Blair.
What more can I say, other than take action. Your parliament needs you!

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