Author Archives: Mark Argent

Avoiding Boris Johnson’s “People v Politicians” trap

News of Dominic Cummings describing the present Brexit chaos as “a walk in the park” nails the idea that what’s been going on recently is an inept Prime Minister making a mess. 

Boris Johnson has been talking of a “People v Politicians” election soon. He could do well, especially if he gets to dictate the timetable.

Horror at his conduct is causing a surge of support for the Liberal Democrats, and there is the temptation to support an election because it will almost certainly produce many more Liberal Democrat MPs, but the real risk is that they will be opposing a deeply dangerous Johnson-majority government.

On the other side, what’s going on now can be spun as pro-Remain MPs and pro-Remain civil servants conspiring with pro-Remain judges to subvert “the will of the people”.

Comments I’ve seen on twitter include: “I am hoping that Boris, Cummings and JRM are just using prorogation as distraction for the main event” and “I agree with everything Boris said” (in his Commons statement] after Parliament resumed sitting). 

The polls show support for Johnson and for the Conservative party at a level that is a million miles from what I’d expect of a Prime Minister who’s just lost a major Supreme Court case — but isn’t crazy in the light of Tory facebook adverts attacking “opposition leaders for wanting ‘to ignore our Brexit vote’”The Sun, The Express and The Daily Mail attacking the Supreme Court judges and the Daily Mail  saying “More than half of British voters want an election NOW as they blast ‘Establishment plot’ to block Brexit”. 

 

As it stands, if Johnson ignores (or finds a way round) the Benn Act to crash us our of the EU on 31 October, the top news stories will be that Brexit has happened, outrage from most MPs, and (doubtless) the start of another court case. Those can all be spun as anger from “the establishment”. That’s an effective way to bury the stories about queues of lorries at Dover and problems on the Irish border.  Those who were alarmed earlier in the year by the stories of the military being ready in case of rioting if Brexit happens will not have been re-assured by Johnson tweeting a photo of himself surrounded by senior military on 19 September.

Expelling 21 respected MPs gave Johnson a way to be seen to make a stand against the “remainer Establishment”. If he ends up in the courts again, he can, again, be painted as making a “heroic stand”. His supporters like this.

The Leave campaign did a brilliant job of preying on people’s fears. They never presented a coherent image of how we would leave the EU. They dangled impossible hopes that are still there because they have not yet collided with reality.

David Cameron wasn’t the only person to assume a Leave victory was unthinkable. An “unthinkable” Johnson victory only needs the pedalling of more impossible hopes — especially if “they” or “the establishment” can be blamed when they are shown to be impossible.

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Remembering the liberty message among the Brexit madness

The Liberal Democrat result in the European Elections has shown that the #BollocksToBrexit message has finally got through.  But my twitter feed in the last couple of days makes me think that our position on civil liberties is also very relevant to the chaos around Brexit and all that this stirs up for people.

Recently there was an article in the Telegraph  about secret talks between some Tory donors and Nigel Farage with a view to a pact to avoid Tory Brexiteer and Brexit Party candidates standing against each other. 

My twitter feed had a string of comments from people alarmed at this. The sharpest I saw was from @bulshdetector  on 16 June: 

 

This is a different time and the parallels between now and then shouldn’t be drawn too closely, but the anxiety is real and should be engaged with.

Christina Wieland’s majesterial book The fascist state of mind and the manufacturing of masculinity gives a perceptive account of how people’s real anxieties left them prey to strong-sounding leaders in Germany and Italy in the 1930s. Earlier this year, the Hansard Society’s 2019 Audit of Political Engagement showed 54% of Britons in favour of a “strong leader who would break the rules”. It’s tempting to read the show of machismo in the Tory leadership contest as a competition to take up that role — in eliminating Rory Stewart they removed the voice calling this out.

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Building on the European Election results

The Liberal Democrat campaign for the European elections made an emotional connection with voters that the Remain referendum campaign missed. It spoke with clarity and trustworthiness. That’s in stark contrast to many people’s response to they dysfunction both tin the government and the Labour party. We need to connect with people in this space to help the country find a saner alternative.

After the European Parliament elections

The actual results were exciting, with pro-Remain parties getting more votes than pro-Brexit ones and many people voting Liberal Democrat who would not have done so a year ago. 

Polling from Lord Ashcroft  since then suggests that many of these voters would follow this up by voting Liberal Democrat in a UK General Election.

The campaigner in me instinctively thinks this is the time to be out and visible, particularly in places where people don’t hear from us very often. It’s one thing for people to vote Liberal Democrat in exceptional circumstances and quite another if it’s followed up by enough contact to mean this is not a flash in the pan. On top of the usual task helping newly-elected councillors to dig in, this is a golden opportunity to recruit members and deliverers. 

But things are not so simple. 

Anxiety on the doorstep

To get a sense of the general temperature, I did some canvassing in Hertford and Stortford constituency shortly before the European elections by knocking on every door in certain areas (rather than just going to those likely to support Liberal Democrats or Remain). What I encountered was a seemingly-small (though often strident) number of people who were going to vote for the Brexit Party, others happy to say they were voting Liberal Democrat, and a smaller number, loyal to Conservatives or Labour, following their loyalty with some unease. But a strikingly-large number of conversations were with people who said they were worried and didn’t know how to vote.

At first I wasn’t sure whether these were supporters of Remain or Leave. On autopilot I took the conversation to Remain United’s advice to vote Liberal Democrat if people wanted to remain in the EU, thinking that I would get pushback if the person supported Brexit. But instead of pushback, these conversations were often ending in the promise of a Liberal Democrat vote.

This experience doesn’t put the Brexit Party in first place and contradicts the voting figures for the district: the Brexit party first on 14,374 followed by Liberal Democrats on 11,090. But the overall turnout was 36.9%. This leaves me wondering how many of those “worried and not sure how to vote” didn’t actually vote.

Connecting emotionally with the “worried and not sure how to vote”

The “Bollocks to Brexit” slogan at last brought some emotion to the foreground on the Remain side and brought a major swing to the Liberal Democrats. 

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Our European Election campaign priorities

It seems inevitable that the elections to the European Parliament will be read as a vote on Brexit. That risks the election campaign being a rehash of the referendum,  alienating an electorate frustrated by #BrexitShambles, and putting the emphasis on whether we should be there rather than on what our we are electing people to do.

Instead of this, campaigning on the core of the programme of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe gives us a chance to shift the debate, adding something new and inviting supporters of Brexit to see things differently.

ALDE’s programme begins with a summary the British electorate would do well to hear:

In more than 60 years of European integration, the European Union has served us well in achieving peace, stability and prosperity. The EU has promoted and extended to half a billion people the four freedoms: the free movement of people, services, capital and goods across borders. We want the Union to play a key leadership role in tackling today’s and tomorrow’s global challenges.

As such, the ALDE Party believes in a Europe based on the fundamental Liberal principles of liberty, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, tolerance and solidarity. We believe in a fair, free and open society which harnesses the abilities of each and every one of its citizens to participate fully in society, presenting them with the opportunities to fulfil their potential, free from poverty, ignorance, and discrimination.

The full ALDE manifesto is something to be proud of. The core statements in the political programme strike a powerful chord: a prosperous Europe, sustainable development and peace in the world, renew the EU and building a transparent, democratic and accountable Europe. Nuancing the descriptions a little for a British audience:

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Is it time for Theresa May to admit that Brexit is impossible and retract the Article 50 notice?

If Brexit goes ahead in any form, it would need exceptionally-good government to address all the resulting challenges. The parliamentary chaos of recent weeks has shown a government a long way from this. Is it time to admit that Brexit can’t be delivered?

Theresa May has given it her best shot. It is hard to see anything else she could have done to make Brexit work. The game-changer of the last few weeks has been the sheer level of parliamentary dysfunction. It’s now clear that Brexit can’t happen on 29 March because of the sheer volume of legislation to be …

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Out of Brexit Chaos part 2: Government of National Unity

In the preceding article, on the People’s Vote , I argued that the process should be given significantly more time.

However, we also have a real problem: both of the big parties are too fractured either to govern or to face a General Election. The unedifying results create the opposite of the sense of stability needed for such the People’s Vote.

This is the time for a Government of National Unity bringing people together from across Parliament, not as a formal coalition between parties, but as an interim arrangement, which would need a more collaborative way of working. The obvious person to lead this is Kenneth Clark. This is partly because of his considerable depth and experience. Age means he is also likely to stand down at the next General Election, so it would be clear that the Government of National Unity is there to provide stability in an exceptional time without being subsequently returned to power. He is also sufficiently unpopular with the right wing of his party to mean that MPs from across the Commons could support him.

The clear message from forming a Government of National Unity is that we are in exceptional times. Something exceptional needs to happen to enable the People’s Vote to happen fairly. Frustration with politics will have produced a different way of doing politics.

How can a Government of National Unity form?

Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, an election happens if the Commons passes a motion that it has no confidence in the government and doesn’t then pass a motion that it does have confidence within a fortnight. With sufficient agreement among MPs in advance, it would be possible for Tory MPs to vote with the Opposition “no confidence” in Theresa May’s government, and then “confidence” in the Government of National Unity.

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Out of Brexit Chaos part 1: People’s Vote

Introduction

The Brexit process began as an internal Tory party squabble, but its resolution has to move from there to mature thinking about the future.

This means asking the rest of the EU for a significant extension to the Article 50 period. This is not for significant further negotiation — if Brexit has to happen, May’s deal is pretty good — but to enable things to be done with considered thinking about the future.

I suggest that the process needs a People’s Vote, but on a longer timetable than people are proposing to allow adequate preparation. It requires a Government of National Unity to provide stability for this to happen, and for enough time afterward for political parties to draw up manifestos in the light of the result, on which to have a General Election.

I’ll pick up the idea of a Government of National Unity a the second article (published tomorrow).

People’s Vote

Downing St recently drew criticism for suggesting that it could take a year to organise a People’s Vote. In the present state of anxiety, it is tempting to accelerate the process, but my plea is for it to be given more time because it is more than just enabling people to put crosses on ballot papers. Several things lie behind this:

Preserving democracy

Referenda risk undermining representative democracy. Unless the question is very specific, they carry a sense that those elected can’t be trusted. Proceeding too quickly now risks compounding this it can be spun as “MPs couldn’t fix this, so the people had to”, and inviting an “anti-politics vote”.

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Looking beyond Brexit

The sense of things going horribly wrong is likely to get much worse as 2019 gets under way and #BrexitShambles becomes #BrexitFarce.

In the probable chaos of the coming months the country needs us to articulate our hope for the future.

Putting some flesh on those bones, in no particular order:

  • Improve Benefits. Universal Credit could have been a good idea, but under-funding has hit it hard and people are suffering. Improving the funding is a good place to start. We also need to go further. It is a scandal to have people needing to use food banks or losing the roof over their head because of the way the system works. I’ve spoken with people struggling to live on benefits, who voted Leave in the desperate hope that things would improve.
  • Wealth inequality. Back in the autumn, Vince Cable put forward a raft of tax reforms to make the system fairer, especially around inheritance and investment income and pensions. Univeral Basic Income has been on the edge of discussions for a long time. It is time to take it seriously — it can’t be done overnight, but it is time to start the conversation as a way to pick up where we are, and fears around the way in which technology is reshaping the world.
  • Brexit has pushed climate change from the top of the agenda. People have every reason to be worried. That means is that it is high time to turn that worry into action — around renewable energy, carbon capture and storage, nuclear power, zero carbon housing, improved public transport, and more.
  • The Blair government had some good ideas on devolution, with elected regional assemblies and pulling government offices and development to the same boundaries. The imbalances around devolution to Wales, Northern Ireland and particularly to Scotland would look very different if there was meaningful devolution in England.
  • It’s time to talk openly about federalism. Too often it’s a dirty word in British (or at least, English) politics. It’s time to dispatch the myth that it is about centralising power and put the case for doing centrally only what needs to be done there and pushing decisions as close as possible to the people they affect. That applies as much to devolving power from Westminster as it does devolving it from Brussels.
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The People’s vote is not in the bag, alas

A People’s Vote is looking increasingly likely, but it’s outcome is not in the bag, especially if there are three options. 

There’s a warning in a comment from Gina Miller: “We discovered that a vast swathe of people who would vote for no deal across the country would do so because their perception is that no deal means remaining”

https://twitter.com/EPinUK/status/1068471165918826496]

As a strong supporter of full EU membership, the danger is that I seize on every opinion poll that suggests Remain would win in a People’s Vote. But the polls are still uncomfortably close: Remain is ahead almost everywhere, but not by nearly enough. The tracking at whatukthinks.org

This  shows Remain on 36%, Leave on 33% and “don’t know” at 31%. That’s too close. Over at BrexitCentral number are being quoted that show Leave in a strong position. My twitter feed showed a BMG poll putting Remain at 52% and Leave at 40%, with the gap widening, but BMG also have a more fine-grained poll  

BMG / Independent Poll: Latest EU voting intention figures show Remain ahead of Leave

showing 51% against a second referendum, and “Canada Plus” as the preferred option for all age groups except those under 34. 

Back in the summer, Andrew Duff was counselling caution on a referendum, with a view to a new political party putting the case for re-joining the EU in a future General Election.  He has a point: the huge danger is that we lose a referendum and people discover what has been lost only after actually leaving.

Things have moved on a lot since then, but on 12 December Carole Cadwalladr drew attention to a piece in Private Eye saying that two of Cambridge Analytica’s key data scientists, Tadas Jucikas and Brent Clickard, are now in business with UKIP’s ex-MP Douglas Carswell and Vote Leave’s former Chief Tech Officer Thomas Borwick. It’s hard not to read that also as preparation for a referendum.

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0-67% in Watton. Can we do it elsewhere?

The by-election in Watton-at-Stone in August saw Liberal Democrats take 67% of the vote in a ward we’d not contested in three decades. This is in East Herts District, where we lost our last councillors in 2015 and all the sitting councillors were elected as Tories. Can we do this elsewhere?

The local party benefited considerably from the help and expertise of Paul Zukowskij from HC3, and through him from other people in Hertfordshire, and also from Cambridgeshire (particularly from Mary Regnier Wilson who ran the committee room on polling day).

The stark contrast in my mind is with another recent by-election, in Petersfield ward in Cambridge, where what felt like an army of campaigners worked our socks off, but didn’t win. Significantly more effort went into Petersfield than Watton, but…

In the back of my mind is the memory of door-knocking in South Cambridgeshire in the 2017 County campaign and having people say “I would vote Liberal Democrat, but there’s no point around here because the Tories always win”. That’s the South Cambridgeshire where we took control of the District Council in May this year…

Also in the back of my mind is the memory of the 2017 General Election and knocking on doors in elsewhere in East Herts where people were glad to see a canvasser: comments included “the political parties don’t care about us” and “I’ve lived in this house for 20 years and you’re the first canvasser to knock on my door”. The only Tory leaflet I saw in that campaign in Hertford and Stortford constituency was their freepost.

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Abandon Tory #BrexitShambles…

Harold Wilson once said “a week is a long time in politics”… The last few days make that sound like an understatement.

Last Sunday I offered something to Liberal Democrat Voice suggesting that it’s time to switch the language on Brexit into an explicit attack on “Tory Brexit”. The resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson take that a great deal further. I’m writing this now wondering whether there will be another resignation before it is read on Liberal Democrat Voice, and whether we will be in another Tory leadership contest, or hurtling into a General Election.

There’s been forceful …

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Abandon Tory #BrexitShambles…

Harold Wilson once said “a week is a long time in politics”… The last few days make that sound like an understatement.

On Sunday I offered something to Liberal Democrat Voice suggesting that it’s time to switch the language on Brexit into an explicit attack on “Tory Brexit”. The resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson take that a great deal further. I’m writing this now wondering whether there will be another resignation before it is read on Liberal Democrat Voice, and whether we will be in another Tory leadership contest, or hurtling into a General Election.

There’s been forceful posturing about “getting a good deal” and “how these negotiations work” and “abandonment of Brexit”. On the other side of the Commons, Jeremy Corbyn quipped that May’s Brexit deal took “two years to form and two days to unravel”.

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Are we getting the messaging wrong on Brexit?

Recently, an active and experienced Liberal Democrat campaigner challenged me over the party’s messaging on Brexit. He suggested that this was coming across as confused. My first instinct was to defend what we have been doing, but on reflection, I think he has a point. The aim of this article is to ask the question a little more widely.

From the inside

My impression is that there our parliamentarians and media office have been doing an outstanding job in trying to hold the government to account in the mess over Brexit, and of making people aware of this. I was in …

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Brexit on the streets in Bishop’s Stortford

On 31 March, as part of the Liberal Democrats’ national Europe Day of Action, Hertford and Stortford Liberal Democrats were out in the market place in Bishop’s Stortford.

This was mainly about talking with people about Brexit and hearing their concerns – though we also collected 136 signatures on a petition for a referendum on the final deal.

At a principled level, it’s essential to talk with people who voted Leave if there is to be a realistic prospect both of reversing Brexit and healing the divisions this saga has exposed.

Although many of the comments echoed previous stalls, this time felt different. My ear was caught particularly by people expressing deep worry over Brexit. I’m used to people being pleased to see us at a stall and keen to sign a petition, but what was new was the sense of people wanting to talk about why they are worried. The sense seemed to be “now it is getting serious”. The big difference here seems to be the emerging story of the involvement of Aggregate IQ and/or Cambridge Analytica in the referendum, and whistleblowing from people involved in the Leave campaign about possible rule-breaking.  The realities of those will doubtless come into focus in due course, but it seems to have rattled people. It’s one thing to accept a vote that’s not gone the way you would like. It’s even possible to do that when you fear that some of those voting didn’t really understand the issues. But the fear emerging is that this has gone much further in the direction of undermining the democratic process itself That is unsettling people. If Brexit is to be understood to be legitimate, it is essential that these charges are investigated. A referendum on the deal won’t help people unless they can be sure that its result can be trusted.

Whatever its cause, the sense of worry is serious. Good government relies on those in power acting in a way that contains the anxieties of the population.  Right now Brexit means the Tories are failing to do this, and Labour are not doing a good job of showing they would be better at it.

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Was Corbyn right to sack Owen Smith, after he advocated a referendum on the final terms of a Brexit deal?

One answer is horror: there’s a compelling case for asking the British public whether the Brexit that is negotiated is what they actually want — not least because the dishonest and contradictory messages from the Leave campaign mean that many who voted Leave will find a large gap between the deal that is offered and what they thought they had voted for.

But an Exit From Brexit means healing the deep divisions that it has exposed, not just a narrow vote the other way in a referendum. That means bringing across many of those who voted Leave, and engaging …

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Responding to Labour Remain

Recently a friend and Liberal Democrat activist showed me an email from Labour Remain — formed in the last few weeks and claiming significant support. This comes on the back of a survey showing that 78% of Labour members disagree with Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to a referendum on the terms of Brexit. How should we respond?

Brexit is a profound threat to British values, the economy and the very integrity of the United Kingdom. In that sense it needs us all to pull together.

The country is in a crisis. We have been so intertwined with the rest of Europe, for so long, that the referendum result has had a deeply destructive effect on public life. Parliament seems paralised. Andrew Adonis has written of a Brexit-induced “nervous breakdown” in Whitehall. The Conservatives and Labour seem massively dysfunctional. There are stories of moderate councillors in both parties being de-selected. Most of the pro-Remain majority in the Commons is silent or vanquished. My excitement over the formation of Labour Remain is more than a little tempered by the lurch to the Left in their recent National Executive Committee elections and stories of MPs being threatened with de-selection. Faced with Brexit, this has all the wisdom of re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We need to think differently.

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In the world of the Corbyn bounce

The unexpected is happening. In the wake of the late surge in support for Labour that wiped out Theresa May’s majority (and hit the Liberal Democrat vote), a new poll on 11 June shows Labour six points ahead of the Tories. Labour are reporting 15,000 new members in the first three days after the election.

On the doorsteps on polling day, and with friends since, the sense is that Labour under Corbyn have caught people’s imaginations. What does this mean for us?

My sense is that this is a problem because people’s imaginations have been caught by something unrealistic. If we now had a majority Labour government, disappointment would be around the corner, but for now, hopes are roused. There’s a parallel with Brexit being seen as a bright new future.

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New members, En Marche and non-target seats

Our huge number of new members are making me think differently about the familiar problem of balancing resources between target and non-target seats, and the possibility of attracting support in a way that parallels En Marche in France.

For a long time targetting has been a difficult decision. The electoral system means that, if we lean too far one way, we spread ourselves too thinly and are even more badly under-represented in parliament. If we lean too far the other way, we create Liberal Democrat “holes” where there is more-or-less little for people to join, which makes it really hard for that situation to change.

But one of the many unusual things about this General Election campaign is that it is taking place in a period of rapid growth while our membership is growing rapidly. At the moment I am parliamentary candidate in a constituency where membership is up 400% since the General Election and 250% since the EU referendum.

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Brexit on the doorstep

One of the salutary experiences of the last few months has been door-knocking in several areas which Liberal Democrats have not worked for a while and where there is significant support for Brexit. Responses have been varying. Alongside those promising to vote Lib Dem there have been angry responses — people who see the Lib Dem clipboard and slam the door and even someone who rushed out of their house to shout at me for putting a Lib Dem leaflet through their letterbox.

This leaves me wondering about the antipathy.

A slammed door says that someone is angry, but not why. Where …

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The other side of Brexit: What about the Leavers?

I’m increasingly conscious that one really important group has become invisible in the storm around Brexit: the people who actually voted for it.

Canvassing recently my ear was firmly bent by someone who voted Leave and is worried about the NHS. The promise of £350 million per week might have evaporated on the morning after the referendum, but her concerns have not. She’s not angry at the lie: for her this is just one more in the chain of politicians’ lies. The worry is real.

One of the memorable moments in  Laura  Kuenssberg’s documentary on the referendum had  Leave voters  in Sunderland saying “now people in London have got to listen to us”.

Instead we have a prime minister saying “Brexit means Brexit” and talking of the “will of the people”, but who reacted to being reigned in by the courts by bring a bill before parliament to give her huge powers in the Brexit process. This sounds like a land grab from No.10 rather than an attempt at listening.

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A time for wise leadership

At the start of 2017, things feel much less stable than a year ago. Prince Charles broke with convention in his Christmas message by expressing concern at the “deeply-disturbing echoes of the 1930s”. He is thinking in global terms, but the UK is part of this story. He is right to be concerned.

I finished a recent blog post by saying that what we need now is wise leadership. Those words are haunting me. Doubtless there are some who want a leader to push Brexit through as fast as possible, and others who want a …

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Lessons (and warning) from Trump

The day after the US electoral college chose Donald Trump to be their new president, Huffington Post ran an article on his use of digital campaigning, where Brad Parscale, the digital director of the campaign explains:

We never fought for the popular vote. There was no economic reason, and there was no reason based off the system of our constitution to do so. We needed to win 270 , and to do so we needed to win in certain states, and we needed to target registered voters that had a low propensity to vote and a propensity to vote for Donald Trump if they come.

This was done by highly-targeted and personalised messages to key voters in key states.

Questionable behaviour by the FBI over Hilary Clinton’s emails, and whatever it is the Russians actually did may have contributed, but Parscale’s point is that very effective targeting gets results.

Part of me is wincing. The targeting is entirely legal, but also strains the definition of democracy — not least because Hilary Clinton had 2.8 million more votes than Trump (and roughly the same number of votes as Barack Obama had in 2012): the problem is that she had the votes in the wrong places. Most worryingly, this means that the voters-who-matter end up being a small number in a few places: marginalising the vast majority.

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Opinion: the shock from across the Atlantic – the bigger picture

A few days ago Trump was describing the prospect of being “like Brexit but more”. That catches my sense of shock today — though I wouldn’t want to take the parallel as far as he does. I’ve just been exchanging emails and Facebook messages with shocked friends in the US.

Perhaps the system will right itself. Perhaps he won’t be as bad as I fear. Perhaps he will be as bad as I fear, and be forced from office (he faces a civil case arising from alleged child rape on 16 December).

People are right to say that the American political system …

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Witney could be a turning point for the Lib Dems

The result in the Witney by-election was a substantial swing to the LibDems, jumping from fourth place on 6.8% to second place on 30.2%. Liz Leffman and her team did an outstanding job, and the party was clearly ready to rally to the cause.

Over the next few days there were speculations about what that would mean if replicated at a General Election, with estimates of the number of seats likely to switch from Tory to LibDem put between 26 and 51. The statistician in me is wary of those extrapolations: there are lots of unknowns at by-elections, and British politics is especially turbulent at the moment.

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Migrants: Welcome and fear

Recently I was out with some Bishop’s Stortford Liberal Democrats, gathering signatures on a petition for citizens of other EU nations currently in the UK to be allowed to remain in the UK. In a few hours we gathered just over 250 signatures on a not-that-busy street. Some were delighted to sign. Some were relieved that we were not taking the opposite position. Some said their businesses would struggle without people from other parts of the EU.

More worrying was the small minority who disagreed, loudly wanting foreigners to “go home”. A prize for confusion goes to the person who said that, and then added that she wanted to retire to France.

Then came an apparently-xenophobic attack on two Poles in Harlow and Theresa May’s assertion that curbing immigration will take priority over access to the single market in Brexit talks. She must know this is unrealistic: freedom of movement is one of the pillars of the single market and Switzerland’s access to EU programmes was curtailed after they sought to restrict migration.

The sense of farce is heightened by a survey from British Future saying that only a third of people think the government will meet its immigration targets over the next five years and a claim from Boris Johnson that people didn’t vote Leave because of immigration.

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An election or not?

Right now it feels a little like an electoral phoney war. Rumours of a possible snap general election prompted the party, rightly, to do urgent selections of prospective parliamentary candidates over the summer. Will the election happen? Could a possible false alarm be helpful?

One answer is to wait and see: a general election in October would point to a different strategy from one early in 2017, and we don’t have resources to invest a lot in an election that doesn’t happen.

But the appointment of a slate of Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs) and putting things in place for an election campaign is an opportunity to put forward strong party values and to engage with people who have joined recently in shock at the referendum result. If we get it right, what we do now helps to shape the national debate and strengthens our hand for whatever elections are on the horizon. Internally, this is also a chance to run meetings where PPCs (and others) speak, helping draw people together in a way that is more positive than just lamenting the referendum result.

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Taking the time to grieve?

referendum result

A note about the photo – it shows two Lib Dem activists, Naomi Smith and Paul Pettinger, on the right, after the Brexit result was announced. This photo has been published in media around the world; an iconic image of the shock experienced by Remain campaigners.

 

Grieving is a natural process for dealing with loss. It can be painful. People often also deny reality, which lets us deal with it gradually. Ultimately grief is a healing process which enables people to process losses and move forward in a healthy way.

We’ve had a lot to grieve. Between 2006 and 2015 each local election seemed to bring losses. Some of the compromises of the coalition were painful. The European elections, the General Election and the EU referendum were excruciating.

We shouldn’t let the language of ‘LibDem fightback’ disguise the fact that we have taken a pounding, even as we welcome new members.

Activity is a great way to keep the lid on things, but that isn’t always healthy. I’ve heard suggestions that displacement activity as we tried to escape the losses we had already suffered might have undermined our 2015 election performance. Other areas where we might be harming ourselves include:

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 33 Comments

Chosen trauma and memories of the war

One of the doorstep comments staying with me from the referendum campaign is: “I’m voting Out: we haven’t beaten the Germans in two world wars to give in now”.

The psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan talks of “chosen traumas” and “chosen glories”, as stories from the past get retold and shape collective identity.

The trouble is that how the events are remembered changes. The stories seem to be about the past, but also have a present-day purpose. At the celebrations of the bicentenary of the French Revolution, Margaret Thatcher pointed out that we had had a revolution a century earlier: she was quoting history, …

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Engaging with disgruntled Leave voters

Beside the ongoing drama around Westminster, there’s an urgent task to be done among those who voted to leave the EU and are beginning to regret it. This is crucial for the country, and wise for us as well.

I’m thinking of those taken in by false “promises” — there isn’t an extra £350 million a week for the NHS, or an end to free movement of people, Brexit doesn’t mean an end to fishing quotas, and “taking back control” now sounds like a joke. They were already alienated and this is not helping.

We’re hearing stories of Brexit hitting places that voted for it: Lush moving from Poole, Forterra mothballing plants in Accrington and Claughton. Vacancies and job prospects are down. We need a more constructive response than a brutal “You voted for it”.

If Labour were acting as a proper opposition rather than embroiled in in civil war, they would be highlighting further betrayals from the Tories: most startling is the abandoning of plans to move to a budget surplus. If it were to be so quickly abandoned now, why was it clung to for so long despite fuelling misery for millions? How many voted Leave because of that pain?

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Beware the 1930s

My mind keeps going to parallels between the worlds of Brexit and Trump and what happened in Germany in the 1930s.

At the time of the referendum I was at the annual conference of the International Society for Psychoanalytic Study of Organisations. A gathering of people from across the world who are used to exploring unconscious processes was a rich context in which to explore what was going on under the surface.

By coincidence, on polling day one conference session was intended to focus on ethical dilemmas. We were shown short films on two famous psychological experiments, the Milgram experiment and the Stanford experiment which are controversial both because people were harmed, and because they shed light on how civilised people can come to behave badly. They have been used to understand what happened in the concentration camps, but are much more widely applicable than that.

The ensuing discussion seemed a little dry, as if there was something important which was being avoided. I took the microphone and made a link with some of the violence of the referendum: the murder of Jo Cox, an incident in a supermarket where someone I had seen earlier in a Vote Leave stall was shouting at a cashier planning to vote Remain, and some very aggressive comments from Leave supporters in door-knocking in the campaign. This is not to accuse Vote Leave of orchestrating violence, but it suggests something was being mobilised (which has become more obvious since then). I commented on the dark streak in Europe: along with our capacity to be civilised, there is a capacity to behave in very destructive ways. I expressed my fear that this was close to the surface in the referendum and struggled with tears as I commented on the way the EU has been set up to contain that destructive streak in the European psyche, and the fears evoked by some in the UK wanting to pull away from that. I was met with a round of applause.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged , and | 33 Comments
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