Archive for May, 2019

Euro election result – what on earth does it mean?

May 27th, 2019

It would be tempting to interpret last night’s results in the European Election as a massive victory for “Leave”, on the basis that Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party looks set to end up with around 30% of the total votes (it’s higher than that at the moment, but Scotland and Northern Ireland will drag the figure down a bit) and is already emphatically the largest party sending representatives to Europe from the UK. Certainly, that’s what Farage and some hard-line Tory leave MPs such as Mark Francois are saying.

They are wrong. If you tot up all of the Brexit party’s votes and those of the remnants of UKIP (which is fundamentally where the Brexit party’s votes came from), they only manage around 35%. Thus, ardent Remain supporters are suggesting that the vote, over all, is a victory for Remain… after all, as they point out, Brexit and UKIP stood on a platform of “no deal” on access to the European market, and have signally failed to get an overall majority. There’s some naive truth there – given that, assuming we leave, all the MEPs we have just been electing are going to be out of a job at the most by 31st October (and possibly earlier, if a “let’s leave now and stuff deals” attitude prevailed), there was no reason for someone who actually wants a no deal Brexit to vote anything other than Brexit/UKIP. Logic would say that everyone who didn’t vote Brexit/UKIP does not want a no deal Brexit.

Logic is wrong, and so are those who consider this a 65/35 vote against a no deal Brexit. Logic is wrong primarily because people don’t vote entirely rationally. Had they done so, there would have been no Change UK votes cast anywhere (as they had no serious chance of electing a member), in most of England there would have either been no Green vote or no Liberal Democrat vote (as everyone thoroughly opposing Brexit would have voted tactically for whichever of those had the best chance of success in the area, just as I did – I was entirely ready to vote for whichever Remain party was strongest – and just as did Alastair Campbell, formerly Tony Blair’s press secretary, and he’s died in the wool Labour); in Scotland and Wales there would have been little reason to vote for anyone other than the nationalist parties. Granted, in Scotland, that seems to have been nearly the case!

Would there, however, have also been a complete absence of Conservative and Labour votes? Well, perhaps yes, had it been a straight “in or out” decision and arrived at completely rationally. After all, the only reason you would vote for an MEP of a non-clear-remain party is if you expect Brexit not to happen and that MEP to have a function, surely? However, it wasn’t a straight “in or out” vote. There’s also the possibility which has been being kicked around parliament for the last three years of a negotiated closer relationship with the EU while still leaving. Can we therefore assume that all the Labour and Conservative voters this time want a negotiated exit? (If we could, the balance would be 65/35 in favour of leaving, though not if it was no deal).

The trouble is, I don’t think we can assume that either. I’ve heard stories of long term Labour voters weeping as they cast a tactical vote for the Liberal Democrats, and I can easily believe that many felt unable to do that – but similarly, I know Conservative voters who just couldn’t bring themselves to vote for anything else. There may well be a significant number of Remain voters who still voted for those parties. But there may also be a significant number of “let’s leave with no deal” voters there, who similarly couldn’t bring themselves to vote outside lifelong party allegiances.

So it isn’t that simple. My own very strong preference would be to develop a “third way”, perhaps a Norway-style relationship, which could be implemented by Europe easily, would be very acceptable to them, would safeguard what’s left of our trade with Europe, and would remove the awful spectre of a hard border in Ireland, and then have another referendum with three options, no deal, Norway or remain. We would probably need to have a single transferrable vote system and eliminate the lowest of the three, reallocating those votes to their second preferences. Granted, that has it’s dangers for a Remainer like me – what if “Remain” was the lowest option? However, it would allow me to cast my second preference for Norway over no deal… and that would be preferable to the disaster which no deal would present.

I have no doubt that some Brexiteers will decry this as being antidemocratic – “the people have spoken and their will should be put into effect”. This is, of course, total bull. Having a public vote on something cannot be called “antidemocratic” in any way, shape or form, particularly when it does not ask the same question as was previously asked or when much more information is available, both of which are, of course, the case. Besides which, the people spoke in 1975 on Europe, I voted to be in Europe than, so what of the antidemocratic nature of having another vote in 2016?

One might as well say “the people have spoken and their will should be observed, so we should never have another General Election to the Westminster parliament”. After all, parliaments in the past have lasted around an average of 3-4 years, so we are arguably due a new vote anyhow!

There is a worrying factor, which Farage is now trying to capitalise on, and some Tory MPs are seeming to heed. That is that Brexit topped the poll in every region except London, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and if you break down the figures by local council areas, Brexit were top of the poll almost everywhere in England and Wales (see the map in the BBC’s coverage).

The fear in the Conservatives (who didn’t top the poll anywhere) is that these results might be repeated in a General Election if Brexit doesn’t happen, or even that things might get even worse for them, and General Elections are on a “first past the post” basis, so had this election been on that basis, Brexit would have had every seat except for London, Scotland and Northern Ireland. That fear affects Labour as well, though not to anything like the same extent. Some Labour MPs really fear for their seats – after all, much of the North, the Midlands and South Wales should be red on that map.

They shouldn’t be as worried as they seem to be; after all, this was effectively a single-issue election. An election to Westminster would not be single-issue. One might normally expect the gains of the Liberal Democrats and the Greens to disappear, leaving them both around the 7% mark again, and for Brexit to do only about as well as UKIP did last time (and they didn’t take any Westminster seats). However, I don’t think that would happen. Brexit would have to put forward a policy platform in order to do that – would it be as right-wing as the UKIP platform? Nobody knows. Far right, however, is not very popular in the UK.

I would expect some of the defections from the Conservatives to stay where they were, however – they are seen as being the masterminds of the chaos in parliament over the last three years, and would be punished. Labour might do slightly better, but they are seen as not forming a sensible opposition to the Conservatives, and would be punished as well. There’s also the factor that once one has voted other than one’s traditional party, it’s easier to do that again. And there is a significant swell of both absolutely ardent Leave and Remain voters who would still vote single issue (probably, if Brexit had not happened, more on the Leave than on the Remain side). What would that mean in terms of a General Election? I have no idea.

But I do know that the surest way of avoiding a parliament dominated by the Brexit party at the next election, on around 33% of the votes cast, would be to institute proportional representation of some kind, or (and it isn’t strictly proportional representation but come up with somewhat similar results) Single Transferrable Vote. I would favour STV, because almost all the other PR or PR-like systems magnify the power of political parties. The trouble is, I can’t see much chance of getting the current parliament to vote for that, even though it would tend to preserve the positions of the vast majority of Conservative and Labour MPs (and that’s easily more than three quarters of them), and it’s been LibDem policy for years…

But then, you may say, you would prefer that, because had these elections been by STV, the probability is that very few second preferences would have gone to Brexit, but many would have gone to the Liberal Democrats or the Greens, and I was a member of the Liberal Democrats, and a councillor for them, for many years. Actually, though, I rather lost confidence in the LibDems when they permitted the coalition government to follow neoliberal policies and exacerbate the trend towards an uncaring, non-compassionate society started under Thatcher, and I have been having my politics moulded more and more by the Synoptic Gospels, which push me increasingly towards the kind of politics espoused by Jeremy Corbyn. I might well vote Labour in the future – and actually did vote Labour in local elections last time (in a straight fight with Conservative, to be fair). I increasingly think that, in order to follow Jesus, one must be a socialist.

Indeed, if Labour now follow the views of the shadow Chancellor and the shadow Foreign Secretary (John McDonnell and Emily Thornberry) and come down firmly on the side of a new referendum, campaigning to remain, I may find myself supporting Labour without wincing too much, given my lifelong LibDem support. The trouble with Corbyn, in my eyes, is not that he’s “far left” as the Conservatives and most of the media (even including the Guardian) try to paint him (he would have fitted into, say, a Harold Wilson government without seeming particularly extreme), it’s that he hasn’t come down in favour of Remain. I suspect that he harbours thoughts that, in a fairly definitely neoliberal Europe, his ability to implement thoroughly socialist policies would be very limited – but against that, I would comment that outside Europe, it seems unlikely he would be commanding a strong enough economy to afford socialism.

Where does this leave us? Not, I think, including Farage and his mates in a negotiating team with the EU, as they are pushing for. There is, I think, an increased danger now of the Conservatives electing a new, hard Brexit leader to be PM, and that could far too easily lead to us crashing out with no deal on 31st October, with a PM happy to let that happen and a continuing voting deadlock in parliament. I think the chances of that have gone up significantly.

The thing is, a hard Brexit PM would find it utterly impossible to make a deal with any of the other parties, even more so than Mrs. May did. Even, I fancy, the DUP, which has been propping up the Conservatives so far in this government. I don’t see how, say, Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab could actually last more than a few weeks… unless, that is, the massive Con/Lab majority in the house are too scared for their seats and insufficiently prepared to put the interests of the country ahead of their personal position to rock the boat.

Unfortunately, nothing I have seen so far in this parliament indicates to me that the bulk of Conservative and Labour MPs are prepared to grow spines.

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A cold apocalyptic light

May 11th, 2019

I spent most of last week at Peter Rollins’ “Wake” festival in Belfast. I can strongly recommend this yearly gathering of around 80 people interested in radical theology (and associated fields) to anyone who has a liking for thinking outside the theological box.

This year, the two main international speakers were Todd McGowan (a theorist working on generally left-leaning and postmodern topics, notably influenced by Jacques Lacan, and author of “Enjoying What You Don’t Have” and “Capitalism and Desire”) and Jamieson Webster (a practising psychoanalyist and author of “Conversion Disorder”, largely Freudian but also influenced by Lacan). The evening of day 1 saw a fascinating three way conversation between the two of them and Pete, largely focusing on the motif of conversion.

Todd, it turned out, has a pessimistic anthropology. He considers that we are not born free, but everywhere in chains as Rousseau famously remarked, but are born in chains and might aspire to become free, for some value of “free”, a conversion of some description, though preferably not one which exchanged one certainty for another. There was general agreement between the three of them that mankind suffers from a fundamental lack, as one might expect of three Lacanians.

We have, it seems in Lacanian terms, a disrupted set of drives, and Jamieson quoted Freud’s “Civilisation and it’s Discontents” to the effect that “something unhinges us and disrupts our libidinal system”; put in the terms of a motif of creation, we might see this as an outpouring of God into creation, but Todd insists that “something went wrong”. Between Pete and Todd, indeed, we had what was looking like the start of an emanationist creation story very much along the lines of Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah or some strands of Gnosticism, in which the immensity of God is poured out into vessels which are incapable of containing the fullness of the Divine emanation. In Gnosticism, one of the first of these is the Demiurge, who thinks himself God as a result of this surplus of being (or power) and goes on to deceive us into neglecting the God-behind-God.

There seems to be a possibility that Meister Eckhart at the very least had elements of this thinking when he wrote “before creatures were, God was not God albeit he was Godhead which he gets not from the soul” (from Tractate XIX) and “When I go back into the ground, into the depths, into the wellspring of the Godhead, no-one will ask me whence I cam or whither I went. No-one missed me: God passes away” (from Sermon LVI). Indeed, Eckhart also wrote “The authorities teach that next to the first emanation, which is the Son coming out of the Father, the angels are most like God. And it may well be true, for the soul at its highest is formed like God, but an angel gives a closer idea of Him. That is all an angel is: an idea of God. For this reason the angel was sent to the soul, so that the soul might be re-formed by it, to be the divine idea by which it was first conceived. Knowledge comes through likeness. And so because the soul may know everything, it is never at rest until it comes to the original idea, in which all things are one. And there it comes to rest in God. “, so was definitely thinking in emanationist terms.

This is obviously fruitful ground for the mystics among us!

The overall impression I got between the three of them, though, was that we are congenitally in severe need of conversion, of a far-reaching overhaul of all of our psychology. That, I suppose, would agree well with the standard evangelical original sin -> fallen state -> need for salvation/metanoia paradigm (and I keep getting the feeling that some bits of Pete’s former protestant evangelicalism have not so much gone away as transformed into a slightly different form, a conversion which perhaps skates too close to exchanging certainties for my liking). Todd went on to reference as evidence of this collective lack of rationality the fact that we seem unable to form a sufficient consensus to act (to a large enough extent and soon enough) on climate change.

Now, I don’t know whether Todd used the words “end of the world” – my notes don’t include that, but my memory says that by the end of the discussion it had been used.

Even if we do absolutely nothing to combat climate change, of course, it will not be “the end of the world”; the planet will continue more or less unscathed. Even though we have already started a mass-extinction event, with the loss of countless species, it will also not mean the end of the natural world. What it will produce is widespread famine, the loss of huge areas of low-lying land (on which a substantial portion of the human population currently live) and mass migrations. Indeed, I’ve seen suggestions that the Syrian crisis, with its attendant refugees, can be blamed ultimately on drought and thus on climate change; so can a substantial proportion of the African refugees who regularly try to cross the Mediterranean into Europe. Canada and Russia will gain quite a bit of cultivable land from the permafrost, but most of the rest of us will lose agricultural production.

The result will assuredly be a huge reduction in the human population attended by the wiping out of a lot of national borders, and in all probability the end of our current economic systems. “The end of civilisation” is a distinct possibility – but not the end of the world, except as we know it, and probably not even the extinction of humanity in its entirety. Probably not even reduction to as low a number as the 144,000 some of my more extreme Reformed friends talk of…

Having said all that, the thought crossed my mind that against the background of the impression that humanity was a possibly irremediable species, perhaps I should not be so concerned. Perhaps we deserve to die off… and given what we now know about evolution, species will evolve to fill the gaps left by the mass extinction, as they have many times previously.

The further thought crossed my mind as a follow up to that that we tend to think in an extremely anthropomorphic way. Thinking that the world comes to an end because our species is in some peril reflects this. Our religions tend to suggest that the whole thing was created so that we could exist and thrive.

But what if God created the world in order to form a habitat for, say, cockroaches? There are many more cockroaches on the planet than humans – indeed, studies have indicated that there may be a greater weight of cockroaches than humans, which at several thousand cockroaches per human is a sobering thought. They have most certainly been fruitful and multiplied. Cockroaches are also exceptionally durable – there is little or no doubt that they will survive any climate-change extinction; they are better fitted to a multitude of environments than is humanity.

Perhaps they (or some other insects) are actually the pinnacle of creation, and humanity is somewhere between a cosmic mistake (which is in line with what the panel were saying) and a means to an end to create a beneficial environment for the cockroaches?

Then again, perhaps it’s all designed to support viruses…

It would seem that those of us who take a similarly jaundiced view of anthropology (for instance, proponents of original sin) should perhaps pause for thought before welcoming the End Times…

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More on the Brexit mess

May 9th, 2019

It seems inevitable that we will have elections to the European Parliament in a couple of weeks time. Those who bleated about Europe being undemocratic are now bleating about the waste of money electing people to help run Europe – which, I admit, is a waste of money when it elects the likes of Nigel Farage, who takes his significant MEP salary and does nothing useful. Also about the incredible burden of having to vote again (which, of course, is what democracy demands, and what many of our forebears fought to achieve…).

Quite clearly, electing MEPs is not a waste of money if (and only if) we don’t actually end up leaving Europe. That is, I admit, an outcome I would very much like to see happen, but it seems somewhat unlikely unless those pressing for a new referendum get their way (and even then might not be the case). The reason is that both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party have accepted Brexit as a part of their political platforms, and under our largely two party system, they have a massive majority between them. The saving grace so far has been that they don’t agree with each other on the form Brexit should take – which is unsurprising as members of both parties don’t agree with each other on the subject.

However, this means that about 80% of Parliament is committed by manifesto to Brexit in one form or another.

This is curious to me, as before the referendum, around 67% of MPs were declared Remainers (including all the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party and the Greens), and we haven’t had anything remotely like half of the MPs replaced by subsequent elections. MPs with backbone would have refused to stand on a Brexit manifesto if their views were that it was a disastrous idea – and they didn’t.

The breakdown of division along party lines we have seen as Parliament discusses Brexit does, unusually, mean that on this topic, MPs represent the actual views of the public as they were before the Referendum rather well – the country voted 52% to 48% for Brexit, but in talking to people who had voted for Brexit, they wanted widely different types of Brexit. However, I don’t think (given the lack of backbone I mentioned earlier) that we can actually trust Conservatives or Labour to vote their conscience rather than their party line, if such a thing could be re-established, and certainly not to be seen to vote against any Brexit at all.

In last week’s Local elections, it is notable that the LibDems and the Greens did remarkably well, both more than doubling their number of councillors. Pundits are pretty much agreed that this voting pattern reflected a degree of anti-Brexit sentiment, and was possibly largely a judgment on the handling of Brexit by the two main parties (both of whom lost a lot of seats, as, incidentally, did the arch-Brexit party, UKIP). This, of course, means that if the Pundits are right (which I think they are) people didn’t vote for the best people to represent them at local level, they voted significantly on the basis of national politics in which local councillors have absolutely no voice. (I disapprove of people doing that, and not least because I lost the council seat I’d occupied for four terms on the basis of a national trend which had nothing to do with local politics…). Encouraging to Remainers that may be, but we should note that we still have around 2/3 of councillors who belong to Labour or Conservative, and those are both pro-Brexit. The share of the popular vote was estimated (on the basis of all seats being fought) as 28% for each of Labour and Conservative and 19% for LibDem, so even on a properly proportional basis, there is still a 56% vote for pro-Brexit parties there.

Against that background, what are we going to see with the European elections? The first thing that strikes me is that people are really going to feel more free to vote along Brexit/Remain lines rather than to stick to the established parties (and I can’t criticise them too much, given that if we do leave, any MEPs will be in office for a very short time and unlikely to have much impact). It is impossible to estimate with any accuracy what proportion of people voted on Brexit lines and what proportion voted on traditional party lines (or even for the best candidate irrespective of party, which happens more at local level than in national politics). We also have the new Brexit Party and Change UK standing, respectively for Brexit and Remain, who will no doubt take votes and split the vote in both cases. OK, our voting system for those elections is on a regional list (proportional representation) basis, so splitting the vote might not matter so much as it would in our usual first-past-the-post elections.

Incidentally, the Brexit Party is fundamentally a new vehicle for Nigel Farage and his devotees (he’s currently a UKIP MEP), which I don’t want to underestimate because he’s the closest thing UK politics gets to Trump; Change UK is based on a group of Conservative and Labour MPs who have defected to form a new party (reminiscent of the SDP), and I have no idea how much traction they will actually achieve in an election. To my mind, they should have joined the LibDems (their predecessor, the SDP, did of course eventually merge with the Liberals to form the LibDems).

Against this background, there is a petition going around at the moment requesting the government to guarantee to hold a new referendum if pro-Remain candidates are in a majority after the European Election.

I haven’t signed it. The first reason is that I’ve signed every other petition to Parliament which offered the possibility of mitigating or reversing Brexit, and the government has taken virtually no notice of those at all. The second reason is that I worry that treating the European Election as basically another referendum may founder on the rocks of long term party loyalties; even though voters are going to feel more free to ignore their old loyalties in a potentially pointless election and even though party loyalties (at least for Labour and Conservative) seem to be at an all-time low, if the government did treat this election as functionally another referendum, I think there would be enough “reflex voting” along party lines that it would not actually represent the “will of the people” on Brexit at the moment, and they would be emboldened in going for some Brexit with a fresh argument that “the people have voted…”. To sign this would be giving another hostage to fortune, and I really don’t want to do anything which might conceivably increase the chances of Brexit happening.

There is another factor in play now, and that’s path-dependency. We’ve now been ostensibly leaving Europe for three years, and many companies (including Lloyds of London) have actually relocated outside the country to protect themselves against a hard Brexit. We can expect many more to be well along the route to doing likewise. Even I am somewhat swayed by the idea that we have basically done most of the damage already, and so some form of Brexit will at least lance the boil of paralysis in government. There are other issues which require urgent action, and they are being sidelined by Brexit. I’ve toyed with the idea that I might be able to swallow, say, a Norway-type solution.

But I tell myself that the contents of my last post on this topic still hold good. This will not be over even then…

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