Category Archives: Op-eds

Tom Arms’ World Review

Middle East

A quick round-up on Gaza, Israel, Iran, Yemen, Lebanon, America and everywhere else that is affected by the ongoing crisis in the Middle East.

President Biden’s “outrage” following the killings of World Central Kitchen aid workers resulted in an apology and two new aid routes: The Erez Crossing and the port of Ashdod in southern Israel. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that as a result 400 aid trucks went through to Gaza immediately after the presidential fury. UN officials said the figure was actually 223.

Disenchanted State Department officials – of which there are a growing number – say that …

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Observations of an Expat: Tyranny of the Majority

“Democracy,” Winston Churchill famously said, “is the worst form of government – except for all those other forms that have been tried.”

Then there is democracy unchained, or without the restraints of the rule of law and free speech.  Also known as “the tyranny of the majority” or the “will of the people” or, perhaps, “democracy flawed.”

These are elected governments with political leaders who have harnessed to their own pursuit of power a perceived threat to the majority, or a growing, vociferous and politically motivated minority.

There are far too many examples to choose from but let’s focus on Hungary, Russia, Israel, India and the US for starters.  In each of these countries, the leaders (or wannabe leader) have won the support of the majority of the population either through lies or by allying themselves with a social movement which promotes one section of society at the expense of another.

Technically speaking, Israel is a democracy with carefully monitored and oft-held elections. Its American supporters are keen to point out that it is the only democracy in the Middle East and this makes the Israelis their only rock-solid ally in the region.

Twenty percent of Israel’s voters are Arabs. As the occupying power, Israel is also responsible for two million Palestinians in Gaza and another two million on the West Bank – none of whom have a vote.  Their rights and concerns are totally ignored by Benjamin Netanyahu because his political base is conservative Orthodox Jews. The Israeli Supreme Court has attempted to protect Arab rights. As a result, Netanyahu is beavering away at dismantling the court and its powers.

Vladimir Putin was recently re-elected President of Russia with 87.5 percent of the vote. Such a large figure is of course suspect, but most observers accept that Putin would have won regardless. He has successfully portrayed himself as the only possible leader of a nation under attack from wicked, grasping Western enemies. His answer is that the best defense is a good offense which means the pursuit of Russian imperial ambitions.

Viktor Orban has cast himself in the role of anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic saviour of ethnic Hungarians and European Judeo-Christian values. “We must state,” said Hungary’s right-wing prime minister, “that Hungarians do not want to be diverse and do not want to be mixed; we do not want our own colour, traditions and national culture to be mixed with that of others.”

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It can only get nastier until the election

It’s not surprising that polls suggest that many young people in the UK now despair about democratic politics. The partisan Westminster debate has become more and more negative. Prime Minister’s Questions have been getting worse week by week, throwing insults across the floor.  The Conservative Party has run out of positive themes to appeal to the public, and is falling back on attempts to discredit all of its opponents.  The right-wing media are in full hysterical mode, while conspiracy theories, culture wars and ideas about ‘Christian nationalism’ flow from across the Atlantic along with American finance to support Tory factions and think tanks.  And the Labour leadership is sufficiently intimidated by the right-wing media that it is responding cautiously and nervously – as are we.

I am as frustrated as other party members by the apparent timidity of both Labour and our own party leadership in the face of this right-wing onslaught.  But I’m also painfully aware of the ruthlessness and effectiveness of media monstering, and the closeness of the alliance between Conservative HQ and the right-wing media.  As soon as the Post Office scandal hit the headlines, CCHQ set out to pin the responsibility on others.  The Mail responded by going for Ed Davey, supported (of course) by the Telegraph and GB News – with the Standard giving him a frontpage monstering a few days later.  If he’d apologised immediately that would have fed the attacks and maintained the front-page coverage.  There’s nothing fair about tabloid press campaigns.

Conservative researchers have combed through cases Keir Starmer had any involvement with as Director of Public Prosecutions, hoping to find some dirt to throw – so far without much success.  So their press attack dogs are doing their best with Angela Rayner’s council house sale.   The Mail has given this front-page treatment several times in the past fortnight.  It’s an indication of what the Conservatives get away with that the allegations on Rayner taking advantage of Margaret Thatcher’s ‘right-to-buy’ on her council house came from Lord Ashcroft, who has avoided paying infinitely larger sums in tax through offshore havens like Belize.

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A Tale of Two Polls

There have been two much-publicised polls in recent days which have produced headlines in the press for their common message that the Conservative government is in deep trouble. A Survation Poll suggested that there would be just 98 Conservative MPs after the next election. The other, a YouGov Poll, suggested that the Conservatives would win 155 MPs. Quite a large difference, but in either case adding up to huge Conservative losses, and that is what the media have concentrated on. If they’ve mentioned any other party, it has been the Reform Party and its effect as a ‘spoiler’ of the Conservative vote.

What was much less commented upon was the fact that these two polls, both published at the beginning of April, and both based upon interviews conducted during mid-March, were widely divergent in their estimates of how the third and fourth parties (in terms of seats in the House of Commons) would fare. The YouGov poll suggested that the SNP would win 19 seats, a substantial loss compared to 2019, while the Lib Dems would win 49, restoring them to third-party status. The Survation Poll, on the other hand, had the SNP maintaining third-party status, losing only 7 seats (from 48 to 41), while the Lib Dems, despite doubling their seats to 22, remained very much in fourth position.

It might be thought that the massive discrepancy over the projected seats for Lib Dems and the SNP in these two polls would arouse some interest in the media. Yet it hasn’t. The only thing that hit the headlines was the coming Labour landslide (of which the politics guru John Curtice appears to be 99% certain now) and the huge Tory losses. No one pretends that these aren’t the main finding of the two polls, but the question of who comes third and fourth matters too.

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The culture war of the “gender-critical” has broken the NHS

The Cass Report, billed as an independent review into NHS provision of transgender provision for adolescents was published today. I’ve read the summary and recommendations (the whole report runs to over 300 pages), and running throughout it are the scars of the so-called “culture war”—a social movement where transphobes who hold so-called “gender critical” beliefs have been campaigning to marginalise trans people and roll-back hard won protection in equality law.

The report itself acknowledges the toxicity of debate around transgender healthcare. I’m going to try and be fair to the report here and deal with it as neutrally as I can. Transphobia does not seem to be seeping out of its pores in the same way that a recent Department for Education consultation did, which explicitly framed the discussion through the lens of the “gender critical” philosophy.

It is undeniable the harm that the culture war fuelled by transphobia has caused, and this comes through in the report.

Anti-trans campaigners are litigious and well-funded (allegedly by far-right American fundamentalists), and using these legal weapons has been effective in securing their campaign goals in places with a management culture focussed on risk management and minimisation.

The result of this atmosphere of fear created by the anti-trans movement is one the review describes as a situation where other services in healthcare are scared to do anything when gender dysphoria is present. Instead, everyone is referred to the specialist gender services for unrelated or co-existing conditions, which they might not be able to deal with. This is well-known in the trans community as “trans broken arm syndrome“. This is true in both children and adults.

There is no doubt that in part this is due to the fear within the healthcare community of being dragged into the frontline of the culture wars, which has had the chilling effect of marginalising trans people so that only the gender clinics can help.

The Cass Review strongly advocates moving away from single specialist centres to a regional model of trans healthcare, closer to primary care. This is also something many trans people and advocates (including myself) believe would be a better system of healthcare delivery, but it describes the current situation as far from that. Other recommendations in the report are fair assessments of the current situation. In the void left by the failure of NHS healthcare, private providers like GenderGP have emerged, but their standards of care fall short of best practice (trans streamer F1nn5ter recently did a video about this). The Cass Report is right to be critical of this, and this is one of the biggest indicators of how current NHS provision fails.

Much is made in the report of the lack of quality research covering transgender health. Transgender health has often been seen as at best niche, and at worst, something to be actively destroyed. During Nazi rule, the world’s first and leading research centre was ransacked and the research burnt, as well as trans people being among the identities targeted in the holocaust. Other research has overly focussed on transgender women and bears an undercurrent of the fetishisation that we’re often targets of, yet remained influential in the field for decades.

One example of this is that there has never been a longitudinal study of the impact of progesterone alongside estrogen in feminising hormones, which are routinely denied due to evidence showing no effect on breast growth, but anecdotally has an effect on mental health, which has never been evaluated. The assumption of medical researchers that trans women are only interested in breast development, and not in the mental health benefits of the hormone which is available to cis women, is one example of research being rooted in trans misogyny.

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Ukraine: are we absolutely sure we want a wider war? Part II

Embed from Getty Images

It has become quite mainstream now to portray Russia as an evil regime, about to invade Western Europe, that needs to be defeated at any cost (i.e. nuclear war … even though some such advocates don’t understand that implication). Until recently this was seen as a fringe conspiracy theory.

Sure, Russia has a pretty appalling power structure with a lawless mafia-ised system clustered around the Presidency, with it’s tentacles around Europe, Mid East and Africa. It is also technologically advanced, especially in military and space spheres, and has vast natural resources, managed centrally. Russia is not Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya. It is formidable, and limiting its ‘ethnic Russians’ propagandised mischief-making, (eg Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Donbass and the Baltic States), without getting to a counterproductive World War, requires a sophisticated carrot-and-stick approach.

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Ukraine; are we absolutely sure we want a wider war?

In war it is good to remember two bits of age-old wisdom, if unnecessary deaths are to be avoided; ‘know your enemy’ and ‘don’t believe your own propaganda’.

Ignoring these two adages led to the West’s humiliating defeat in Afghanistan, and Western-led conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Saharan Africa and Yemen, which have all been catastrophic for Western interests.

We now have a parallel in Ukraine.

As I wrote in LDV on 11th Feb 2023:

In April Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said ‘We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine’ and ‘Ukraine clearly believes that it can win, and so does everyone here’. At the end of the previous month the US President called for the removal of President Putin from power.

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Sometimes sorry just isn’t enough

Wednesday was a day filled with sorrow and reflection as I learned about a tragic event unfolding in Gaza. A missile strike by the Israeli Defence Force claimed the lives of seven individuals associated with the World Central KitchenAid organization. Among them were three British citizens: John Chapman, James Anderson, and James Kirby. My heart goes out to the families of those who lost their lives in this catastrophe, particularly those working tirelessly to alleviate the severe food shortages plaguing the people of Gaza.

The mission of World Central Kitchen, to feed the most vulnerable under dire conditions, where some have had to resort to animal feed for sustenance, is nothing short of heroic. This calamity, however, casts a shadow on their noble work, revealing the precarious nature of providing aid in conflict zones.

The admission by IDF Chief Herzi Halevi, attributing the strike to misidentification, does little to assuage the gravity of the situation. The meticulous targeting of vehicles marked with the World Central Kitchen emblem seems to point to a breakdown not just in the fog of war but in accountability and oversight by one of the world’s most technologically advanced militaries.

In a separate, equally disturbing event, a suspected Israeli strike demolished the Iranian consulate in Damascus, Syria. This act, resulting in the death of seven members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), escalates tensions further and breaches the sanctity of diplomatic missions, a cornerstone of international relations.

These events have reignited the discourse on the Israel-Palestine conflict, underscoring the urgent need for peace and the problematic nature of ongoing arms sales to Israel. Calls for a ceasefire from former Supreme Court Justices and reconsideration of support for UNWRA highlight the potential complicity in serious violations of international law.

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Observations of an ex pat: Suspend arms shipments to Israel

Selling weapons to Israel is a breach of international law.

This is not my opinion. It is the judgement of 600 British legal eagles, including three former members of the UK Supreme Court. They have been joined by 130 parliamentarians and the three main Opposition parties have demanded a debate on the issue.

It is also the verdict of the governments of Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Japan and Spain. They have all suspended arms shipments to Israel.

All the above agree that Israel is breaking a number of international laws with its attacks on civilians in Gaza. Furthermore, that countries that supply the Israeli government with weapons are complicit in breaking those laws.

So what laws is Israel breaching? To start with there is Article 7 of the UN Arms Trade Treaty which “prohibits the export of arms where is an overriding risk that the weapons can be used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law.”

It is an international law which has been enforced by Britain in the past. In 2019 the British Court of Appeals used it to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia based on the Saudis indiscriminate bombing of Yemen.

There is also the 1948 Geneva Convention Against Genocide, which, ironically, was enacted as a response to the killing of 6 million Jews in the Nazi Holocaust. This convention prohibits “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group.” It goes on to describe the prohibited acts: “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group and deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the destruction of the group as a whole.”

The Israeli government and their supporters say that claims that they are breaching international law are “nonsense.” But, so far the Israeli Defence Force has caused the death of more than 33,000 Palestinians in Gaza and seriously injured 52,000 more. Eighty-five percent – 1.9 million people have had their homes destroyed by Israeli bombs. Gaza’s hospitals are medical rubble. Israel’s refusal to allow food and water into Gaza have created famine conditions. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that Gazans are “the highest number of people facing catastrophic hunger ever recorded.”

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Rob Blackie on the impact of crime on Black Londoners

Ademola Adeyeba, Rob Blackie & Chris French

Rob Blackie, our candidate for London Mayor, has highlighted an aspect of policing and the Black community that is sometimes forgotten.  For far too long the right wing media have drawn attention to Black criminals but ignored Black victims of crime.

Rob cites the statistics that show that Black people are six times more likely to be murdered in London, twice as likely to be raped, 66% more likely to suffer domestic abuse, and over 2.5 times more likely to be a victim of a hate crime. That disparity is really shocking. He says:

This is completely unacceptable, and the current Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has not made any significant progress. Since he has been in charge of the Met the proportion of Black police officers has only increased from 3% in 2016 to 3.6% in 2023. At this rate it will take 40 years to have a police service that reflects the makeup of London.

Rob met with Ademola Adeyeba, founder of the mentoring organisation 1000 Black Boys, and Chris French, Lib Dem Greater London Assembly candidate for Lambeth and Southwark and a former special constable, to talk through his proposals for a Race Equality Plan for Policing:

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Behind the lurid headlines: What the Scottish hate crime legislation actually says

An author got herself a tonne of publicity earlier this week by posting some very unpleasant, disrespectful and insulting comments on social media. She basically dared the Police to arrest her under Scotland’s new hate crime legislation.

There was never a chance of that happening. The threshold of what actually counts as a hate crime is pretty high and Police Scotland confirmed that no action would be taken against this person.

Perhaps an unintended consequence of this fuss is that it drives a coach and horses through the claims of many on the right that this new law is going to end up with anyone who says anything that isn’t “woke” being put on a list and carted off to jail. This is, to be clear, complete and utter bollocks.

Someone I know had been scared by her GB News addict dad that she could lose her job if she blurted out some of the stuff she comes out with after a few glasses of wine.  To be fair to her, it’s sometimes a bit gross but none of it constitutes either hate or a crime. She was worried nonetheless.

Thankfully, the Equality Network has published a very helpful guide to the new legislation which reassured her. Essentially, to face consequences, you have to commit a crime that is motivated by prejudice:

It is important though to know that many forms of prejudiced or offensive behaviour are NOT hate crimes. It is not a crime to be prejudiced, and the right to freedom of expression means that people may express their prejudice in offensive, shocking or disturbing ways, without crossing the line into criminal behaviour.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Baltimore

The Baltimore Bridge disaster was more than a fatal human tragedy. It was a commercial and trading disaster which starts in Baltimore and ripples well beyond American shores.

But let’s start with Baltimore and its immediate environs. When the Singapore-flagged container ship Dali crashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge it closed a major land and sea route in and out of a city which is one of America’s most important as well as one of its most socially-deprived.

The 1.6 mile long bridge crossed the Patapsco River which is the major sea channel in an out of the Port of Baltimore which in turn is a major exit and entry point for America’s vital car trade. That sea channel is now blocked. In 2023 the port handled 52.3 million tons worth $80 billion. It directly employed 15,000 people and indirectly supported another 139,000 jobs. This is in a city known as the heroin drug capital of America and where residents have a one and 20 chance of falling victim to violent crime. Powder keg Baltimore does not need thousands to be suddenly laid off work.

The bridge carried a major highway – Interstate 695 – as well as well as spanning the entrance to the port. I-295 is a major arterial road connecting New York, Washington DC, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Last year it carried nearly 12 million vehicles. As the Easter weekend descends on one of the most congested areas of America, hundreds of thousands of cars and trucks will be forced to travel hundreds of additional miles on roads ill-suited to carry the extra traffic.

The impact of the bridge disaster will be felt well beyond Baltimore. Eighty percent of the world’s trade moves by ship. It is called the “global supply chain” and when a link in that chain is broken it affects shipping movements across the world. And a major factor in the price of goods is the cost of transporting them.

In recent years the biggest impact on the global supply chain was caused by the covid pandemic. But other factors have been a drought which this month disrupted the Panama Canal; the six-day blockage in 2021 of the Suez Canal by the giant container ship Ever Given; naval battles in the Black Sea as a result of the Ukraine War and attacks by pro-Palestinian Houthis in the Red Sea.

The collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge is one of a growing number of breaks in the increasingly fragile global supply chain which pushes up prices for us all.

Russia

Tajiks have lots of reason to hate Putin’s Russia. Tajiks attached to Islamic State-Khorashan even more so. They don’t need the Ukrainians, the CIA or MI6 to egg them on.

That is why there is universal scepticism towards Vladimir Putin’s allegation that the four Tajik terrorists who gunned down 130 people in Moscow’s Crocus City Hall theatre were acting in league with Ukrainian, British and American intelligence. The assertion is made more ludicrous by IS-K’s instant claim of responsibility.

It is unclear whether the terrorists were drawn from the estimated two million Tajiks living in Russia or if they come from Tajikistan or if they originated from Afghanistan where the Persian-speaking Tajiks make up 25 percent of the population. It is known that they are Muslims and that would be enough to turn them against Vladimir Putin.

Putin climbed to power on the back of genocidal war against the Muslims of Chechnya. It made him popular with ethnic Russians but a hate figure for the Central Asian Muslims who were once part of the Soviet empire and the Tsarist Russian Empire before that.

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Observations of an Expat: Ukraine: Bad or Worse

Too often the political choice is not between good and bad or moral or immoral. It is between bad and worse.

Ukraine’s President Vlodomyr Zelensky is facing just such a choice. And he must decide soon or sooner.

Eastern Europe’s bitter winter is coming to a close. The spring thaw and rains are turning the wheat fields into mudflats. But summer is coming and the ground will be hard, flat and ready for tanks.

It is strategic decision time. Does Zelensky abandon the counter-offensive hopes of last summer, withdraw to defensible positions and start digging trenches, laying minefields and constructing tank traps? If he does he will be building a man-made hard border that separates the Donetsk Region from the rest of Ukraine with physical obstacles and increases the possibility of the permanent loss of Eastern Ukraine to Russia.

If the Ukrainian leader does concentrate on strengthening his defences by summer, then he runs the risk of the Russian steamroller breaking through all the way to Kyiv.

His decision-making window is small and closing. By May the ground should be suitable for a tank attack. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu is reported to have 350-500,000 fresh troops ready to move into the front line. And Putin is expected to use his recent electoral victory to justify another mobilisation.

Zelensky made the decision to make a stand at the factory town of Avdiika. He lost. It cost the Russians an estimated 17,000 lives, but they have eliminated a Ukrainian foothold in the Donetsk Region and improved their position for a spring offensive. Ukraine’s battle for Avdiika was at the expense of building defensive fortifications elsewhere along the 600-mile front line.

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The regulation of the funeral industry

Normally that headline would have produced a big yawn and a switch to another post.  But, after the heart-breaking stories emerging from the criminal investigation in Hull, we hope to hold your attention for a little longer.

The very first speech I gave at Conference, back in 1998, was on precisely that subject.

Incidentally I always advise people to plan their first speech at Conference on a niche topic. Some debates scheduled in the “graveyard slot” attract few speakers so the chances of being called are very high. It can be really dispiriting to sit through a long debate on a hot subject waiting to be called – and the call never comes.

As it happens I did know a little bit about the industry, because members of my family have conducted many funeral services between them.

At the time of my speech the concern was that large American companies were buying up small family run funeral businesses, and injecting a stronger profit-making ethos. I had heard of bereaved people, at a highly vulnerable time in their lives, being harassed to buy more expensive coffins and memorial plaques. In contrast, a community based funeral director would know many of the families and provide appropriate and valuable support – indeed their reputation depended on it.

The industry is still not regulated by Government, and, shockingly, that means that anyone can set up themselves up as a funeral director. However, there are two trade bodies:  the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) and the National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors (SAIF), and they do provide a level of protection for the public.  Each has a code of practice. The NAFD Funeral Director Code is a comprehensive, professional code of practice, including a disciplinary procedure, but they recognise that it has no statutory status. SAIF has a similar Code of Practice for members.

You can check out whether a funeral director is a member of either body – here for NAFD and here for SAIF.

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Book Review: Bad Data by Georgina Sturge

Politicians’ memoirs are ten-a-penny while books by statisticians in the House of Commons Library can be counted on one thumb. This is that book and its rarity makes it all the more valuable. We are familiar with the flood of Government statistics; what is less apparent to the reader is how the data behind the statistics was collected. This book exposes how unreliable such data can be and how it can mislead even well-intentioned politicians.

Sturge provides a number of examples. We remember Gordon Brown meeting Gillian Duffy in Rochdale during the 2010 General Election, but what Brown and other politicians did not appreciate at the time was the level of immigration to the UK from the A8 countries. This was because for decades immigration had been estimated using the Air Passenger Transport Survey which sampled travellers passing through Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester airports, and this sampling had led to  estimates close enough to the decadal censuses that there was no good reason to change the sampling process.

What happened in the 2000s was that a Hungarian businessman Jóseph Váradi co-founded a low-cost airline, Wizz Air, which like other low-cost airlines, flew to small regional airports. The UK Government in anticipation of the A8 countries joining the EU had asked the statisticians for an estimate of the number of migrants from these countries coming to the UK and received a response of 5 to 13 thousand per year.

That had been based on an assumption that between 20 and 73 thousand per year would emigrate to Germany, but just before the enlargement the German Government had paused immigration from the A8 countries for two years. Not surprisingly many Eastern Europeans, particularly Poles, chose to come to Britain instead.

Unlike Germany, where any migrant has to register at their local Citizens Office within 14 days to live and work legally, there is no single action that a migrant needs to do in the UK and no link between National Insurance numbers and NHS numbers, nor are these linked to council records. As a result there is no easy way to make an estimate of immigration between censuses.

Another example Sturge uses from the Blair years is the change in agricultural subsidies from production to farmed area. Although land is registered on change of ownership, there were large areas of unregistered UK land: think of the land owned by the Crown, the Church, and Oxbridge Colleges. One consequence of the change is that it created an incentive to register land, even if it wasn’t actively farmed. In 2005 there were 100,000 applications to register land up from 9,000 previously.

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The Media Bill: a thing of shreds and patches

The Media Bill, currently en route between Houses and Committees, is (ostensibly) the first attempt in twenty years to ‘modernize and future proof the UK media regulatory environment’ – a grand claim, and an overstated and misdirected challenge distorted, I believe, by the blanket of Conservative competitive credo that has stifled progress since the Thatcher/Reagan years.

After years of avoidance, visiting legislators seem taken aback by the shock realisation that the media landscape has changed. In contrast to conventional regulatory assumptions, this spotlight has been welcomed by various parts of the ‘recognised’ media sector and assorted culture warriors – a glorious performance space and (of course) an opportunity to sharpen axes.

The expanded stage is now not merely dressed for larger productions but is enriched/threatened by the creative capacities of Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Realities, and armies of semi-professional producers with a diverse range of attitudes towards monetization whilst rejoicing in the relatively unmoderated freedoms of platforms like YouTube or Amazon or umpteen Podcasting channels, all competing for your eyes and ears – but not necessarily for your money.

Do the authors of this Media Bill fully grasp the enormity of these technological typhoons? The tools of the trade, previously the preserve of major production houses, are now widely available to anyone with a creative bent, and many will be seeking wider audiences. Fewer and fewer citizens looking to be ‘informed, educated, or entertained’, will turn first to check, ‘what’s on the telly?’ The scope for ill-informed conspiracy hawkers is open-ended

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Five things to read

Here’s a quintet of things I’ve read this week to entertain you and make you think this weekend:

Gender Budgeting in active travel

Engender’s Feminist Five pointed me in the direction of this article by Tiffany Lam, the Strategy Lead for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at Sustrans, the custodians of the National Cycle Network.

She writes about the need for gender budgeting to consider the needs of women if we are going to increase the numbers of women cycling.  Currently, twice as many men as women cycle. Is that because men are less likely to be doing the weekly shop and looking after children? What other factors are at play and how can we make cycling more accessible for women?  She explains how gender budgeting has helped them make 9 recommendations to improve women’s participation. Are they asking the right questions?

Do we just need fewer landlords to solve the housing crisis?

Last year, Lib Dem Conference defied the leadership to call for a national housing target to build the houses we need. This included 150,000 homes for social rent annually which was already in the motion and is supported by the party.

Over on Liberal England, Jonathan Calder suggests that the problem may be the proliferation of private landlords pushing up housing costs for Generation Rent, citing this article in the Guardian by Nick Bano.  While I definitely think that we need more houses for social rent and that leaving housing to the market to sort out is a disaster for many tenants,  there are not enough suitable houses for everyone who needs them and we need much more sensible planning to provide, for example, more lower cost housing for older people and younger families.  Anyway, some of the commenters want to see that argument played out here. What do you think?

A musical about the miners’ strike

It’s hard to believe that it is 40 years since the Miners’ strike. I remember the daily scenes of angry confrontation and worse on the picket lines. As a 16 year old, my instinctive reaction is that there had to be a better way of resolving these conflicts. Scargill’s NUM and the Government just seemed to have an agenda of destroying each other with no regard for the people and communities caught up in it. .

My husband worked in the coal industry at the time. He was a safety engineer at Polkemmet Colliery not far away from where we live now and he has stories to tell about that period. When we first met he told me about how there was a funeral of an old man in the area which nobody attended because he had worked in the General Strike of 1926.

I enjoyed this review in the Guardian of a musical comedy about that time and I would love to see the show:

Churchgoing Olive (Victoria Brazier) and livewire Mary (Stacey Sampson) are both miners’ wives; 18-year-old Isabel (Claire O’Connor) is dating a police cadet. Their stories are an amalgamation of fiction and of people’s memories, shared with Red Ladder theatre company. Early on in the strike, Olive sits alone beside a brazier (represented by an upturned lampshade, repurposed from the opening scene, a deft, agitprop metaphor). “What are you doing?” asks Mary. “Minding the picket line,” replies Olive. “Where are the men?” “Off holding a meeting to discuss whether to allow women on the picket!”

First nation development in Vancouver sparks controversy

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Sunday Show features assisted dying ahead of Liam McArthur’s Bill being published

Lib Dem MSP Liam McArthur will this week publish his bill to introduce assisted dying for people with a terminal illness in Scotland.

The Sunday Show devoted its entire programme to the issue today. First, Susie McAllister, who nursed her husband Colin who died of stomach cancer last year, spoke of how grim the last two weeks of his life was and how he wanted to end his suffering.

There have been a number of attempts to change the law in Scotland on this over the lifetime of the Parliament.  Liam said that he could now feel that the political mood was changing. The public, he said, had supported such a change for a couple of decades but now many MSP colleagues were now willing to consider his heavily safeguarded measure.

He says that he is convinced that his Bill could pass although he is not going to take anything for granted. He detects from the conversations he has had that there is now  a willingness to look at reasons to support the bill.

The ban on assisted dying at the moment is leading to too many people facing horrible, traumatic deaths that impact not just them but those that they leave behind and that is despite the very best efforts of those providing palliative care that we need to invest in and provide access to.

He explained that his Bill mirrors measures introduced elsewhere. The diagnosis, by two independent clinicians, would determine that the illness was terminal  and that the patient had capacity and were making an informed choice, having considered all the issues.

He said that this should be part of the end of life choices available for everyone.

He added that doctors would be able to conscientiously object to being involved in the process. However, he did say that the measure had improved relationships and dialogue between clinicians and patients in countries where it had been introduced.

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Lib Dem Councillor Aude Boubaker-Calder highlights toxic culture in public life

Lib Dem Councillor Aude Boubaker-Calder took a motion to Fife Council this week calling for an end to bullying, misogyny and discrimination against women in public life.

Aude described some of the dreadful  behaviours she has experienced, including being mocked because of her Belgian accent.

She told the meeting:

Today, I rise here not just as an elected councillor, but as a woman. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, I think it’s essential to reflect not only on the progress we’ve made but also on the challenges that persist in our society and particularly in politics.

Incidents we have witnessed in Fife the last couple of years, are not isolated occurrences. They are symptomatic of a deeper, widespread issue — a culture of bullying, discrimination, and misogyny that has infected for far too long the political sphere. Today, I say enough is enough and I want to call out these behaviours and urge put an end to them once and for all.

Some may argue that such behaviour are nothing new, that it’s always been a part of politics. While I know that the political “banter” is part of the job, I want to be clear: poor behaviours, personal attacks are never acceptable, they were not in the days of the District Councils, not during the time of Cllr Lavinia Malcom or Cllr Edith Mary Sutton, the first female councillors in Scotland and England, and they are certainly not acceptable now. This are not acceptable in our society, our communities, and in a “regular” workplace why should it be acceptable for women and other protected and underrepresented communities to be bullied and discriminated against in and outside this chamber just because we are elected members?

As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez aptly stated in 2020, this issue goes beyond individual incidents: it’s cultural. It’s a culture of lack of impunity, of accepting violence and violent language against women, and underrepresented communities. It’s an outdated structure of power that perpetuates this behaviour.

I am considering myself as a survivor of those behaviours. I was spoken disrespectfully by some individuals not only here but also outside. I have been mocked for my speeches either on my delivery or my accent in this chamber. I’ve been criticised for delivering my newsletter with my daughter while my husband has been commended for it. I have been verbally abused, almost ran over by a supporter’s car, questioned about my motherhood, my age, my capacities and my origin. I have been told to go back home to make the dinner and finish my chores. All because I’m a woman born in another country and a young women in politics.

America Ferrera once said that women “have to answer for men’s bad behaviours, which is insane, but if you point that out, you are accused of complaining”. So let me complain then!

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Tom Arms’ World Review

United States

The Ukraine aid bill is starting to inch its way through the American House of Representatives. Up until this week the $60 billion much-needed package has been blocked by Speaker Mike Johnson’s refusal to allow Congress a vote on the issue.

He also tied the aid bill (which also includes money for Israel and Taiwan) to tougher laws on immigration.

This has clearly been done in collusion with Donald Trump who opposes aid to Ukraine and wants to delay any agreement on immigration so that he can make it his key election issue.

Senate Republicans have already passed the Ukraine aid bill and have been piling the pressure on Speaker Johnson to allow a vote. This week he agreed. But with several huge caveats. For a start, aid to Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan will be voted on separately. Next, he wants to change the wording of the legislation from “aid” to “loan” or possibly “lend-lease.”

Johnson also wants to explore the possibility of applying the profits from $300 billion of frozen Russian assets to the aid that Ukraine needs. This would involve something called the REPO Act or, The Rebuilding Economic Prosperity and Opportunity for Ukraine Act which authorizes the President to seize Russian assets.

The problem with the REPO Act is that it specifies that the seized assets should be used for reconstruction. Ukraine needs money to fight. Reconstruction comes after the fighting.

There are other problems with Johnson’s apparent change of heart. To start with, separating out the different clauses and turning aid into a loan will seriously delay the bill. Next, because it is substantially changed the bill will have to go back to the Senate and, finally, both houses of Congress are about to start their 22-day Easter recess.

Mike Johnson’s change of heart may actually be a change of delaying tactics.

European Union

Meanwhile the Europeans are trying to fill the gap and smooth over their differences over Ukraine. The last few weeks have seen French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olof Scholz sniping at each other over who is more generous to the brave Ukrainians.

Macron talked about the possibility of sending troops to Ukraine and urged Scholz to provide Volodomyr Zelensky with long-range Taurus missiles. The more cautious Scholz delivered a firm “nein” to sending troops and ruled out the despatch of Taurus because German soldiers would be needed to operate the system. Scholz also pointed out that Germany was providing a lot more money than France and that if the French leader wanted to help Ukraine he should put his money where his mouth is.

Enter Donald Tusk, former European Commission president and current prime minister of Poland. He called a meeting of the leaders of the EU’s two biggest countries to smooth out difficulties that were threatening to derail EU support for Ukraine.

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Observations of an Expat: US Support for Israel Cracks

One of the rock solid, unwavering givens in the world’s diplomatic playbook has cracked – the 76-year-old bipartisan US support for Israel.

There will be repercussions for Israel, the United States, the Palestinians, Europe and the Middle East.

Since before 1948, support or opposition to Israel has been one of the world’s key political fault lines. Which side a government chose played a major role in determining their position on a host of other issues.

At the fulcrum of this fault line was support for successive Israeli governments from Republican and Democratic American administrations. More than $4 billion a year in military aid flows from Washington to Israel, and that is only the money that is known. Whenever Israel faced UN condemnation it could count on the American veto. And if it was attacked, America, supplied the latest weaponry. Israel was America’s only certain and democratic ally in the Middle East and Israel could not exist without America.

The public appearance of the crack was the Senate speech last week by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. He called on Israelis to vote Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu out of office. And he implicitly warned that if the voters did not remove “Bibi” then American aid and political support was in jeopardy.

President Biden gave the Schumer speech the presidential seal of approval. It was, he said, “a good speech.” Republicans disagreed and the battle lines were drawn. Senate Minority leader accused Schumer of interfering in the democratic processes of a close ally. Donald Trump said that Jews who voted Democrat “hated Israel” and “hated their own religion.” Speaker of the House Mike Johnson said he would be inviting Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress. This event is unlikely to happen because it requires the support of Chuck Schumer.

In a post-speech interview with the New York Times, Senator Schumer, said his disillusionment did not start with the war on Gaza. The impetus for him was the bromance between Trump and Bibi and the Trump-organised Abraham Accords which established diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab countries without any consideration for the Palestinians. Netanyahu, said Schumer, made the crack inevitable when he decided that his interests lay with Trump and the Republican Party at the expense of the Democrats.

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Russia’s frozen state assets must be used to rebuild Ukraine

On Thursday, at their summit in Brussels, EU leaders agreed in principle to commandeer most of the profits being generated from frozen Russian state assets to use in support of Ukraine.

This news follows last weekend’s Lib Dem Spring conference’s endorsement of an amendment to the “Liberal Values in A Dangerous World” motion, calling for legal ways to be found to access the estimated US$ 300 billion of the Russian state’s frozen sovereign assets – about half the total being held in the world – as reparations for Ukraine. The World Bank estimates that US$ 480 billion’s worth of damage has been done to Ukraine so far in Russia’s war of aggression.

EU leaders’ initial steps involve leaving the principal untouched for now and concentrating on accessing the profits being generated by the frozen state assets. The aim is to generate €3 billion this year, with the first tranche of €1 billion released to Ukraine by July. European Commission President von der Leyen wants to use it primarily to assist Ukraine’s defence of its country.

This perhaps rather hesitant start to the use of Russian state assets is part of ongoing efforts to find ways to access the funds in legal ways which also do not run high risks to the stability of the euro and have impact on the financial system. Most of the money is held in Belgium by Euroclear, the central securities depository, which will clearly need to be protected from Russian retaliation.

As European governments are struggling to support Ukraine financially, there is no realistic possibility of rebuilding Ukraine without using frozen Russian assets. The principle is clear to everyone: the aggressor must pay.

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Liberal responses to the government’s farcical (and dangerous) asylum policies

As the government rushes through the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) bill before Parliament, it was encouraging to see its unanimous rejection at York conference, which adopted ‘Beyond Rwanda: a fairer way Forward on Asylum’.

In my speech I highlighted the farce in three stages that is the government’s ‘Rwanda plan’:

First, the government passed the Nationality and Borders Act, creating a two-tier system of refugees (which it never activated), proceeding to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with Rwanda.

Second, the Supreme Court finds the plan to be unlawful.

Third, the government signs a treaty, which the cross-party Lords International Agreements Committee recommends not to ratify until Parliament is satisfied that the protections it provides have been fully implemented. Why? because Parliament is essentially asked to determine that Rwanda is safe even though the Supreme Court has clearly determined it is not.

Lest we forget, in 2023, several asylum seekers received protection in the UK because of their fear of persecution in Rwanda.

The ‘Safety of Rwanda’ Bill is outrageous on multiple levels:

First, the UK, a ‘global north’ country, is paying a ‘global south’ country to both determine asylum applications and to host those of them found to be eligible for asylum – this is a manifest act of counter-responsibility-sharing

Second, unlike EU law, where Article 38 of the Asylum Procedures Directive requires that an asylum seeker sent to a country outside the EU must have a relevant connection to that country, those removed to Rwanda have no such connection

Third, those removed to Rwanda, even if found to be refugees under the Rwandan asylum system, can never come back to the UK: they face a lifetime ban for daring to seek asylum here.

Fourth, the government admits on the face of the bill, as it must under section 19 of the Human Rights Act, that it is unable to state that the bill is compatible with the ECHR; it proceeds to authorise ministers to ignore an interim order by the Strasbourg court to prevent removals; and it expects civil servants to go ahead with such prohibited removals

Finally and to top it all, the government tells our courts they cannot make a determination that Rwanda is unsafe even if the facts so require

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Caron’s Conference Part 1: A glimpse to the future

I’m now back from York, having stayed on for a bit of a tourist break. I’ve spent so much time in the city over the years, but have rarely deviated from the Golden Triangle of the Barbican, Novotel and Mason’s Arms.  I did not know until Monday that I had walked past the grave of Dick Turpin many times.

Thursday and Friday

I am writing this in York on Friday morning in an exceptionally comfortable and cosy room, propped up in bed with lots of plump and luscious pillows. A cup of Earl Grey at my side. It is always strange when I am away to have a whole bed to myself and not to have find a space clinging to the edge of the bed while my husband clings to the other edge and two spaniels take up all the space they can.

I arrived in York yesterday lunchtime and spent an enjoyable afternoon in the pub (me drinking tea I’ll have you know) with my friends.

In the evening we went to Toto’s, the Italian near the Barbican. The food was brilliant and the company stunningly good. I had prawns with avocado and Marie Rose sauce – a very generous portion – and then tagliatelle with a creamy salmon sauces. The Tiramisu was chocolaty and creamy though I would have added more amaretto.

Afterwards back to the Mason’s Arms, traditionally Awkward Squad HQ and where 6 of us are staying. The landlord had kindly bought in supplies of Whitley Neill Black Cherry gin. Jennie Rigg and I had drunk them out of that by the Friday night last year.

It was great to catch up with Our Hero of Rochdale Iain Donaldson and hear all the intel about the by-election and the aftermath. All you need to know is that George Galloway is far from being universally loved on that patch.

My path to the bar was blocked by beautiful border terrier Betty who very much needed a belly rub and that was the most important thing ever.

I got to bed at a civilised hour.

Friday started in very relaxed fashion.

It was Long Covid Awareness Day, I am acutely aware of how much smaller Conference has become for me. I can no longer cope with the whirlwind from day to night. If I don’t rest in the afternoon I pretty much collapse in a heap and that can set me back for days.

So a slow start was essential laziness.

The first thing I had to do was the Social Liberal Forum lunch at 12. I need to plan and pace everything within an inch of its life which does not really come easy to as free and impetuous a spirit as me.

The Social Liberal Forum gave, I very much hope, a glimpse into the future. The three speakers are PPCs in highly winnable seats: Victoria Collins our hope for Harpenden and Berkhamsted, Josh Babarinde for Eastbourne and Bobby Dean for Carshalton and Wallington. The links to their website are included in the hope that you get on to them, donate all the money you can afford to their campaigns and do what you can to help them. They all have so much to bring to the parliamentary party and we need them to get elected.

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China and the Far East in more than one minute

At Spring Conference, I was pleased to be called to speak for just one minute in the debate “Liberal Values in a Dangerous World”. The topic of China and the threat it represents was naturally only one part of Policy Paper 157, and so with the excellent speech by David Chalmers there was not going to be room for an additional three minutes from someone such as myself. I hastily submitted my card halfway through the debate, hoping to make a brief point about Section 2.4 “China and the Far East” of the paper.

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Why we need to hold the biggest autumn conference ever

When the members consultation for the big question over Autumn Conference came out and I then heard from those already asked to make decisions on behalf of Federal Board on the matter, I was confused that one of the core arguments from HQ was around the effect that holding Conference could have on the party’s election expenses if it is too close to a General Election.

A very quick google search led me to what the law has to say on the subject, which is that in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 Schedule 8 (Campaign expenditure: qualifying expenses) 1. (8) states “For the purposes of section 72(2) the expenses falling within this Part of this Schedule are expenses incurred in respect of any of the matters set out in the following list…. (8) Rallies and other events, including public meetings (but not annual or other party conferences) organised so as to obtain publicity in connection with an election campaign or for other purposes connected with an election campaign.”

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Why we need good Cancer care

I’m grateful to see the motion on Cancer care passed at Conference  but  I am sorry to my core that it had to be written in the first place.

I’m coming from a slightly different place than you might expect, partly because that place is Scotland and I know what is called for wouldn’t apply, but I wanted to tell a story which whilst does not have a happy ending, it had a happy-ish journey.

My mum died of cancer just over 18 months ago. She was diagnosed in December, and left us in the following July.

There wasn’t much time for the system not to work for her.

I would be lying if I said there were things in terms of her care I wouldn’t change, but I don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good, and I’m lucky enough to be able to speak to the positives of our experience.

She spent a lot of her time in a specialist palliative care unit. Somewhere which was welcoming and spacious, with the most beautiful garden to look out on and spend time in.

If you were to look up kindness or heart or positivity in the dictionary there you would see all of the doctors and nurses we encountered.

They were always there. We never had to worry about that. We laughed and we shared fruit the children of one of the nurses had picked earlier that day. They genuinely brought us a lot of joy.

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Tom Arms’ World Review

Trump and Orban

It was the Trump-Orban love fest in Mar-a-lago last weekend. The Hungarian Prime Minister praised the ex-president as “the president of peace.” Trump went several steps further:  “There is nobody that’s better, smarter or a better leader than Viktor Orban,” he enthused.

President Joe Biden failed to agree with Trump’s assessment. He referred to Orban as a wannabe dictator, and attacked Trump for meeting him, let alone praising him.

Biden’s man in Hungary, Ambassador David Pressman, was even more undiplomatic in his language, which could herald a looming clash between the Biden Administration and Europe’s darling of the right-wing populists.

In a speech on Thursday to mark the 25th anniversary of Hungary’s joining NATO, Ambassador Pressman  warned the  Hungarian prime minister  that the US has lost patience with his embrace of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, attacks on the Biden Administration, his undermining of support for Ukraine, and his open advocacy of Trump’s return to the White House.

He said: “We cannot ignore it when the Speaker of Hungary’s National Assembly asserts that Putin’s war in Ukraine is actually led by the United States. We cannot ignore a sitting minister referring to the United States as a corpse whose nails continue to grow. We can neither understand nor accept the Prime Minister identifying the United States as a ‘top adversary’ …or his assertion that the United States government is trying to overthrow the Hungarian government—literally, to ‘defeat’ him.”

The ambassador called out Orbán’s “systematic takeover of independent media,” the use of government power to “provide favourable treatment for companies owned by party leaders or their families, in-laws, or old friends,” and laws defending “a single party’s effort to monopolize public discourse.”

Pressman added: “Hungary’s allies are warning Hungary of the dangers of its close and expanding relationship with Russia. If this is Hungary’s policy choice—and it has become increasingly clear that it is with the Foreign Minister’s sixth trip to Russia since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and with his next trip to Russia scheduled in two weeks, following his engagement with Russia’s Foreign Minister earlier this month, and the Prime Minister’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in China—we will have to decide how best to protect our security interests, which, as Allies, should be our collective security interests.”

Russia

It is presidential election weekend in Russia. The bookies favourite – surprise, surprise – is Vladimir Putin.

It is also just over two years since Russia invaded Ukraine, so the two combined events provide an excellent opportunity to assess how events and political thought processes have changed over the past two years.

The Putin regime has rebuilt every element of itself to adapt to a permanent state of war: in propaganda and everyday life, in the political model of unifying the behaviour of the elites and ordinary people, in the education and justice systems, and—crucially—in the economy.

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But what happens next?

A political collapse along the lines of that suffered by the Canadian Conservatives in 1993 – when they fell from a Parliamentary majority to just 2 seats – has long been the stuff of fantasy in British politics.  Such implosions hardly ever happen in Western democracies and yet the chances a near repeat by the British Conservatives later this year have climbed from “impossible” to merely “highly improbably”.

Conservatives whips are struggling, I am told, to identify more than fifty colleagues confident of victory in the Autumn, while the steady trickle of senior Conservative MPs standing down – Theresa May last week, Brandon Lewis this – reinforces the impression of sinking ships and guinea pig-like rodents.

Lee Anderson’s defection to Reform UK is likely to be more an effect than a cause of decline but party leaders fear that things could quickly snowball, were others to follow suit.  And that’s without Farage showing his hand, which many suspect could tip the Conservative party over the edge.

In a ‘normal’ election, the roughly 35-40% of the right-wing vote consolidates over the course of the campaign around the Conservatives, driven by fear of the alternative, but what if Labour is insufficiently fear-inspiring to drive voters home and the right wing vote splits down the middle?

It is perfectly conceivable that the Conservatives and Reform UK might each finish on between 15% and 20% with the Lib Dems just behind on 10%-12%.  Under the perversities of first past the post, Labour might then reasonably expect 400+ seats in return for its 40-42% vote share, with the Conservatives might indeed plunge below 100 with the Lib Dems either side of fifty.  Meanwhile, a disgruntled Reform UK, despite potentially even coming second in terms of the popular vote, might be lucky to return more than the handful of seats the Liberal party achieved with its 19% of the vote in February 1974.

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Observations of an Expat: The Schumer Speech

Senator Chuck Schumer is America’s senior American politician. He is also the Senate Majority Leader. So when attacks the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and calls for fresh elections to oust him, people sit up and take notice.

The left-wing of the Democratic Party love it, and it is doubtful that Schumer would have spoken without first clearing the speech with his close friend and political ally President Biden.

The Israeli government is furious. “Israel is not a banana republic,” it fumed. “Senator Schumer is expected to respect Israel’s elected government and not undermine it. This is always true and even more so in time of war.”

The Israelis words were echoed by ranking Senate Republican Mitch McConnell. As soon as Schumer sat down, McConnell jumped to his feet to rebut: “Israel is not a colony of America…. Only Israelis should have a say in who forms their government. Either we respect their decision or we disrespect their democracy.”

And therein lies the rub. With all its faults – and it has many – Israel is a vibrant democracy. Its oft-held general elections regularly achieve turnouts of between 60 to 70 percent. There is a lively free press and the public are free to take to the streets and demonstrate whenever—and they do, often. They also keep re-electing Netanyahu.

The latest opinion polls, are not, however, good news for the prime minister and his Likud Party. They show that Likud would drop thirteen Knesset seats from 33 to 20 if an election was held today. The big winner would be Benny Gantz’s National Unity Party who are expected to jump from 20 to 32 seats.

Gantz has called for a “two entity” solution to the Arab-Israeli problem. He has not, however, defined “entity” and so far has supported Netanyahu’s attacks on Gazans and refusal to accept a ceasefire. Israeli can no longer live alongside Hamas, he said, “this reality has to change.”

A Gantz government is unlikely to bring peace. This is because most Israelis are not in favour of the conditions that would create it.

For a start, to form a government, Gantz would need 61 out of the 120 Knesset seats. The problem is that – other than roughly 10 seats held by Israeli-Arab politicians—only one political party, Meretz, is wholly committed to the two-state solution. They currently have no Knesset seats and are projected to win only five if an election was held now. The centre-right Yesh Atid led by former TV anchor Yair Lapid, endorses talking with the Palestinians and an end to West Bank settlements. But it stops short of the two-state solution.

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