unanswered letter to Keir Starmer MP, Labour Brexit spokesman, July 26 2019
As you can see, I do not have the good fortune to live in your constituency, but I hope you might answer this letter as Shadow Brexit spokesman and as a potential replacement for Jeremy Corbyn.
I am a veteran Labour supporter. I worked in the past for two Labour giants, Gerald Kaufman and Denis Healey. In company with well over three million Labour supporters I voted Leave in the referendum. It now seems more and more likely that we will be unable to vote for a Labour government at the next General Election without voting to Remain in the EU or to rejoin it, formally or de facto. In some constituencies we may even be unable to vote for a Labour candidate, if the party stands down in an electoral pact with other Remain parties.
I have seen very little effort within the party to understand the motives of Labour Leave voters, still less discuss them with us.
Too many Remain advocates dismiss us as unreconstructed Bennites (like Jeremy Corbyn) or assume that we are against immigration or that we simply voted Leave in a fit of rage against a despised political élite, as so many American working-class people voted for Donald Trump.
These explanations ignore the strong “progressive” reasons to object to the EU.
We see an organization dominated by special interests – including its own bureaucracy – which are almost impervious to democracy, generate copious unnecessary policy and regulation, and spend huge sums of money wastefully or even corruptly.
We see its flagship policy – the euro – as an engine of misery and unemployment for the weaker economies under its thrall.
We see its agricultural policy, although improved, as wasteful, harmful to consumers and the environment, and still biased towards giant agri-businesses rather than small family farms.
We see the EU’s protectionism as a major contributor to poverty in Third World countries.
Above all, we see the EU’s governance as neither efficient nor democratic – and on a permanent and continued journey away from democratic control. Our views were confirmed by the recent choices of EU Commission President and head of the ECB – and the manner in which they were chosen. If we cling to the idea of a nation-state, it is not from narrow nationalism it is because the nation-state is still responsive to democratic control, and the EU never will be.
We do not believe that any European people actually want to cede more power to European institutions at the expense of their own country’s. I have never met any European politicians who preferred a career in Europe to one in the politics of their own country. That is true even of passionate Remainers in our own country. The best-known British EU Commissioners – Jenkins, Kinnock, Mandelson – took their positions only after failing to realize their ambitions in British politics. Mandelson leapt at the chance to get back into British politics – he even took a big pay cut.
We do not believe that the EU can ever develop into a democratic polity to match the United States. The United States began its life as a federal democracy (at least for white men) and took immense care to work out a system of checks and balances on local, federal and judicial power. As it expanded by conquest, that system was embedded in its new territories. It met and suppressed its lone national challenge in the Civil War. The United States was peopled by immigrants or freed slaves who were almost universally eager to be assimilated as Americans. Through the Federal budget the United States transfers huge sums between states to share the pain and gain of being one nation, with a common currency and interest rate. None of these conditions apply to the EU – and after over two centuries of success the United States is now showing signs of stress as a federal democracy.
Even so, Americans are willing to sacrifice personal and local interests to the United States – even to die for it. We do not believe that anyone will ever make similar sacrifices for the sake of the EU. Those of us who have been to any sort of EU negotiation know that all the participants try to advance their own interests and do down all the others. Back home, they invariably present the result as a triumph for their own country.
Of course these views are debatable, but I do not think that they are irrational – or unusual.
Now the Labour party tells us to swallow them without debate. We can have a Labour government only by voting Remain (or return). If we abandon our right to Leave we will become helpless passengers in the EU – sitting on the “naughty step” to show penitence. We will sign up for everything in the EU’s agenda – EU army, common fiscal policy, more support for the euro even if we are allowed to remain out of it, more EU direction of everything, new spending on EU projects to extract sunbeams from cucumbers (I made that one up). To resist any of these, we will have to make extravagant concessions in other areas to other EU countries.
And if we don’t want any of that, we are told to vote for the Boris Johnson-Nigel Farage coalition.
Enough already. I hope that this letter has at least helped you understand a real dilemma for many Labour supporters, and would be glad to have any response.
Published in www.politics.co.uk August 14 2019
It is part of the price of Britain’s political life, especially if you become a minister. At some point you must give a speech for the sake of your party or government which is so cringingly horrible that it keeps you awake at night, repeating brokenly “Did I really say that?”
For the sake of our Middle East minister, Andrew Murrison, I hope he never has to repeat the experience of his recent speech in reply to a backbench debate on Saudi Arabia. He rattled off bromides like machine-gun fire as he explained Britain’s current “nuanced and complex” policy towards the place. It makes one proud to think that we are selling them nuanced weapons to kill civilians in Yemen (we are still a world leader in such weapons). It is indeed a complex task to ask the Saudis to buy more of them while asking them gently not to detain quite so many people without trial or torture them and execute them. He managed to praise “the scale and scope of reform driven by Crown Prince Mohammad” without linking him to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
One sentence was especially revealing. He spoke of Britain’s “frustration” when the Saudis detain people on “outrageous and ridiculous charges” (including teenage bloggers). “But that is because we are judging by our own standards and mores.”
Indeed. That is a crucial test for Boris Johnson’s new would-be Churchillian government (which has just reappointed Dr Murrison to his post). Will it do more to express British standards and mores in its foreign policy?
One must be fair to Dr Murrison and his new government. All of its predecessors, including Churchill’s, have pandered to Saudi Arabia, ever since it came into being. We virtually created it – the only country in the world named after its ruling dynasty, whose founder, Ibn Saud, was advised by Kim Philby’s father. We have pretended for generations that each new ruler from the corrupt and brutal dynasty is a great reformer and moderate and friend and admirer of our country.
But our servility will become even worse after Brexit. I write as one who urged the Leave cause in the referendum. I did so in the hope that an independent Britain would forge a political consensus to make the sacrifices needed to tackle big problems at home and abroad and pursue a creative, independent foreign policy.
More fool me.
Our post-Brexit foreign policy looks starkly clear under the Johnson government.
After Brexit we will have deserted not only our major trading partners but those most committed to our international values. We will make ourselves more dependent on people and powers who do not care about them at all. We will be begging them for trade and investment.
Already our “tough” new Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is truckling to Donald Trump. We will not get anything in an election year from him, least of all a trade deal, unless we help him get re-elected. That is how American politics works. If Boris Johnson does not know this he is an even bigger fool than he pretends to be.
Post-Brexit we would become more dependent on China. Expect us to tone down to pianissimo any criticism of Xi-Jinping’s totalitarian dictatorship, the biggest violator of human rights in the world, and the biggest contributor to climate change. Do not expect us to defend democracy in Hong Kong. Hold your nose as we ask the Chinese for a jackal’s share for British business in their empire overseas.
Post-Brexit we will desperate to sell more not just to the Saudis but to every other despotic and corrupt regime in the world. We will want to sell more to Putin’s ramshackle economy, even if he murders more people in our country. We will be still more eager to launder dirty money from Putin’s cronies or anyone else.
Those who thought British foreign policy was already too deferential will find things even worse after Brexit. Our diplomats will have to find more weasel words to placate our new paymasters. Boris Johnson’s FCO will have to rename itself the Fawning and Grovelwell Office.
Richard Heller was chief of staff to Denis Healey, then Deputy Leader of the Labour party and Shadow Foreign Secretary, and Gerald Kaufman.
shorter version published in www.politics.co.uk July 22, 2019
The advent of Boris Johnson to 10 Downing Street sends a terrible message to younger politicians of all parties. Why bother to be truthful, competent, diligent, or set an upstanding example in public or private life? None of these things are now part of the job specification for our highest political office.
No modern British politician has ever paraded an élite education so assiduously as Boris Johnson, or shown how little he learnt from it other than the ability to create intellectual graffiti with a spray gun of Latin and Greek. In this he reminds me of Mussolini, who liked to impress visitors with scraps of erudition (in case they missed them, he would say “Forgive my learned references”).
After Boris Johnson’s success, why think deeply about any subject when it is so much easier to skim the surface and strike poses? Why bother to learn facts and figures when it is so much easier to invent them? Long before Donald Trump Boris Johnson was a master of fake news. Long before Donald Trump Boris Johnson learnt to pander to racism and bigotry. Recently he had the nerve to dismiss a long history of offensive language as satirical. Wrong. Satirists mock their targets by laying them bare through their own language and image. That is not what Boris Johnson was doing when he talked about bumboys or piccaninnies or Muslim women in bin bags. He made the people who use that sort of language feel good about themselves, and that’s what he meant to do.
Why bother to take responsibility for your words and actions? Boris Johnson never did.
The British traditionally do not like clever, ambitious politicians, so Boris Johnson has successfully manufactured an image of being a lovable bumbler. It has been maintained meticulously: I suspect that his dishevelled suits are hand-rumpled by a Savile Row tailor. He presents himself as an exile from a P G Wodehouse novel. For years he has impersonated Bertie Wooster but in reality he is Sir Roderick Spode, although his immediate programme has the inebriated optimism of Gussie Fink-Nottle’s speech to Market Snodsbury Grammar School.
I will no doubt be accused of being a resentful Remoaner. Not so. I wrote in favour of Leave and voted for it. I do not believe that Boris Johnson deserves the trust of Leave voters, least of all the four million or so who normally vote Labour or for other left-of-centre parties. I have no belief that he will deliver a successful or even bearable Brexit.
Boris Johnson is extraordinarily lucky to have reached the Premiership with so little to offer to it.
He is lucky to be faced by Jeremy Corbyn, who offers the British people even less and has made his party a dismal haven for racism, rancour and extremism. The Conservatives might have been less willing to take a chance on him if they were faced by a plausible alternative Prime Minister.
But he is even luckier to be seeking ultimate power from the British people after thirty years which have given them very low expectations of their politicians and their wider ruling class.
They went through the Major government crashing out of the ERM and then beset by division and scandal (although poor Mr Major is starting to look good compared to what followed.) They went through the Iraq war and the banking collapses and bailouts. They saw dozens of MPs and peers cheat and chisel them over their expenses. Lately, of course, they have seen their politicians unwilling or unable to execute their referendum instruction to Leave the European Union.
In general, they have seen a wider and wider gap between official propaganda and the realities of what they themselves must do to earn a living or get decent housing, education, health and social care, transport and other essential services for themselves and their families.
In one government after another, they have had to endure too many ministers whose titles took longer to read than their achievements, whose names were unknown to them until the day they disappeared from office. They have seen too many ministers, senior officials and advisers treat their public service as a waiting room for the gravy train, selling the know-how and contacts they have gained at the taxpayers’ expense, often to the special interests they were meant to be regulating. In the private sector, they have seen too many senior executives award themselves Premiership money for League 2 performance.
The British people are losing their respect for previously cherished institutions. They have seen their armed forces diminished and weakened amid wild over-spending on defence contracts. They have seen service men and women sacrificed in futile missions by leaders too weak to stand up to politicians’ fantasies. Our underfunded and mismanaged court system has allowed Russian oligarchs to buy British justice while victims of crime have to wait for it long and often in vain.
They have seen major faith groups, including the Established Church, fail scandalously to tackle sexual abuse.
Above all, in both the public sector and the private sector, they have seen too many leaders who never take responsibility for error and failure, who protect and sustain each other, and glide regardless of performance into highly-paid positions and honours. They have seen too many institutions resist restitution or even an apology for victims of their failings, and punish whistleblowers for exposing them.
Against this background it is not surprising that Boris Johnson can gain a public following. “They’re all the same, they all look after themselves. Say what you like about him, he’s a character…”
There will be some macabre fascination in watching the Boris Johnson administration unfold.
First we will see how many timeserving Tory MPs will be rewarded with jobs for swallowing their principles and (much harder) their personal antipathy to him.
Sooner rather than later, we will see how far he and whatever stooge becomes his ambassador to Washington are prepared to stoop to Donald Trump and help his re-election campaign.
Sooner rather than later we will hear his first sub-Churchillian appeal for sacrifice from the British people. They might fail to empathise with a man who earned over £5000 an hour last year for knocking off speeches and articles, according to his entry on the Register of Members’ Interests (in which many entries were late). Some people might even laugh. Many more will be angry that he never warned them of the need for sacrifice before he became Prime Minister.
In Number 10 he will discover that he cannot ask Jeeves to get him out of the soup. Like all other Prime Ministers, he will have to get on top of really difficult problems himself, and take the blame for everything that goes wrong even when it is not his fault. In those circumstances, he will discover that the media and the British public are an implacable and terrifying Aunt Agatha.
Boris Johnson in Number 10 may make the Tory party and voters generally feel marvellous for a little while, but so do binge drinking and most recreational drugs. Sooner rather than later any Boris bounce will be followed by a massive Boris hangover and associated repentance.
It would be ironic indeed if Boris Johnson, chosen to deliver Brexit at any cost, induced the British people to beg for re-admission to the EU on any terms.
Richard Heller was formerly chief of staff to Denis Healey and Gerald Kaufman. He attended the same Oxford college (Balliol) as Boris Johnson, but not at the same time.
Letter published in Daily Mail July 18 2019
The Mail’s Investigations Unit did a public service by showcasing the lax rules on leave of absence from the House of Lords.
Formally, peers are summoned to the House by the Queen. In beautiful 16th-century prose she calls on them to advise her on “certain arduous and urgent” affairs of state and to drop any other business.
But present-day peers are allowed to desert the Queen to make money for themselves from anyone they like, even foreign governments. Then, when they have made enough money or been sacked by their paymasters, they can come back to the Lords with no questions asked.
For too long the rules of the House have been made by peers for peers. If we are to continue with unelected legislators, most chosen by patronage, then we, the people, should set their terms and conditions.
Summer journeys down to Brighton
And to other places simply
Heighten our cares:
We’ll save our fares.
In a London maisonette
We two could find a raison d’etre,
So let’s settle down
Right here in town.
We’ll build in Mayfair
And just to play fair,
Park Lane too
A place where we can be
We’ll buy up Harrods,
Aspreys and Garrads,
Just for show.
With precious bibelots
And jewels we’ll overflow –
Quite de trop!
Our other shopping
We’ll do in Wapping
In a boat
Then watch the seagulls swoop
This great big city’s a Hamley’s toy
Just made for a girl and boy
And we’ll turn London
We’ll both go silly
We’ll stroll up Burlington
And if our luck fails
We’ll go for cocktails
At the Ritz,
Amid the glam and glitz
We’ll sip white wine and spritz
And test our wits.
We’ll look at Eros
And hope he’ll steer us
And then in Berkeley Square
The city’s magic can soon employ
The hearts of a girl and boy
And we’ll turn London
The grim old Tower
In the spring.
In football stadiums
If we feel wealthy
We’ll vithit Chelthea
On a thpree:
We’ll thpend our L-S-D
On fashions wild and free
Thee and me.
Then down in Soho
We’’ll find a Boho
In Ronnie Scott’s we’ll hear
The city’s simply a wondrous pearl
For one boy to give one girl,
So let’s give London
A mad abundant
We’ll check the night clubs,
Find all the right pubs,
Drink real ale:
Then sleep it off on Network Rail.
In Oxford Circus
We’ll watch the lurkers
At Lord’s we’ll throw a bat.
At Lock’s we’ll buy a hat
Just like that.
We won’t look shabby
Inside the Abbey.
At St Paul’s
Upstairs we’ll whisper sweet
The city’s charms cannot ever cloy
For this footloose girl and boy
And we’ll make London
My tribute to Rex Stout, creator of Nero Wolfe, in current edition of Wooster Sauce, journal of the PG Wodehouse Society
“His narrative and dialogue could not be improved, and he passes the supreme test of being re-readable. I don’t know how many times I have read the stories, but plenty. I know exactly what is coming and how it is all going to end, but it doesn’t matter. That’s writing.”
That could come from any number of readers of P G Wodehouse. But it was actually written by Wodehouse himself, about his friend and favourite detective story writer, Rex Stout. It is part of his introduction to Stout’s official biography, and echoes the compliments the two paid each other in a long mutually-admiring correspondence. Rex Stout is one of the few real writers, living or dead, to get a favourable mention in Wodehouse’s fiction. Bertie and Aunt Dahlia actually struggle over a copy of the latest Stout in The Code Of The Woosters.
It is easy to understand why Wodehouse relished Stout. His full name, Rex Todhunter Stout, is one Wodehouse might have given to a struggling author posing as an expert on pigs – or even to a detective.
Rex Stout had a varied life, with some echoes of Wodehouse’s. He was born in Indiana in 1886, one of nine children of Quaker parents who encouraged him to read omnivorously. As a young child he read the Bible twice over and would have edged Bertie Wooster in a prize contest for Scripture Knowledge. At 13 he became the Kansas state spelling champion. After a variety of short-term jobs, including warrant officer on Teddy Roosevelt’s Presidential yacht, he became a published writer at the age of 24 and served a long apprenticeship, like Wodehouse, in magazines. Unlike Wodehouse, he gave himself a financial cushion against failure as a writer, by patenting a successful school banking system. Ironically, he lost most of his money from this in the Great Depression and was forced to become a full-time author.
He wrote some serious psychological novels and a political thriller The President Vanishes. Astutely, he published this anonymously and encouraged speculation that it had been written by a major politician. Then in 1934 he turned exclusively to detective fiction, with the publication of his first Nero Wolfe story, Fer-de-Lance. Another 72 would follow, the last, Death Times Three, posthumously after his death in 1975.
In most photographs, he is wearing a beard which even Gally Threepwood would regard as too extravagant for use as a disguise.
Like Wodehouse, Stout became famous for wartime broadcasts, although for the right reasons, combatting Axis propaganda in America as presenter of a long-running radio series called “Speaking Of Liberty”. Unlike Wodehouse, Stout was politically active. He was a co-founder of the left-wing Vanguard Press and a strong campaigner for civil liberties and authors’ rights. He was badgered by the FBI and took his revenge on them in a late Wolfe novel The Doorbell Rang. But he also detested Communism, and unleashed Wolfe against it in The Second Confession.
Stout created a few other detectives, including a pioneering woman PI, Dol Bonner. But his greatest creations were Nero Wolfe and his live-in assistant Archie Goodwin.
Wolfe must be the bulkiest detective, real or fictional, in history. Archie, his narrator, regularly puts his weight at one-seventh of a ton (American not Imperial) which makes him nearly 290 pounds. He solves all his cases by deep thought in the chair specially built for him, in the intervals between reading, cultivating orchids, drinking beer and consuming gourmet meals cooked by his resident chef Fritz (a loyal and much calmer version of Anatole.) Wolfe almost never leaves his house, a brownstone mansion on West 35th Street, Manhattan. Clients and witnesses are delivered to him (usually with a curt instruction to Archie to “Bring them”) and Wolfe exposes the murderer in his crowded office in the presence of his ally and occasional adversary Inspector Cramer of Manhattan Homicide.
For all Wolfe’s genius the murderer usually strikes two or three times before the exposure (as with his fictional rivals Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple). Despite Wodehouse’s tribute, plots were never the strongest element in a Wolfe mystery. All too often, Wolfe’s solution depends on the discovery of a surprising fact by Archie or Wolfe’s brilliant sub-contracted private detective, Saul Panzer. The addictive properties in the series are the dialogue, the characters and the setting.
A Nero Wolfe mystery is a journey into a magic private world, in many ways similar to that of Jeeves and Bertie.
In both worlds, intricate problems are solved by a cerebral figure for a baffled narrator. Archie Goodwin is considerably smarter than Bertie (although his narration is much less “literary” than Bertie’s). He is far more active as a participant in the stories than Bertie, doing all of Wolfe’s leg work, supervising the sub-contracted operatives, and often needing to use his fists or his Marley automatic gun. He regularly has to needle Wolfe into accepting a job. But he shares Bertie’s unabashed admiration for the problem-solving genius of a superior mind.
Like Jeeves, Wolfe likes to spend time with an improving book. Like Jeeves, Wolfe is nervous in the presence of women (although there are hints of a romantic past and he supports a distant grown-up daughter). Wolfe relies heavily on Archie’s ability to charm women (these passages have not kept pace with modern times: Archie’s chat-up routines would now earn a slap or even a jail sentence), but like Jeeves with Bertie, Wolfe frets when any woman gets too close to Archie.
The two pairs cannot live without each other. There are intermittent rifts between Wolfe and Archie to match Bertie’s and Jeeves’ battles over clothes and the banjolele, and Archie periodically threatens to leave the brownstone and work independently. But the crisis is always resolved. Eventually, Archie achieves a long-term extra-mural relationship with the wealthy Lily Rowan, which allows him to remain with Wolfe.
Both Jeeves and Wolfe have distinctive dialogue, but Wolfe’s is so stately and ornate as to make Jeeves seem almost vernacular. He dismisses nonsense as “flummery”, and his highest word of praise is “satisfactory.” He reserves his best phrases to describe himself. In the first Wolfe mystery Fer-de-Lance he announces that “I understand the technique of eccentricity; it would be futile for a man to labor at establishing a reputation for oddity if he were ready at the slightest provocation to revert to normal action.” He puts this point a little more concisely in Murder By The Book when he refuses to abandon his set hours with his orchids: “No. A schedule broken at will becomes a mere procession of vagaries.” However, he also proclaims in Too Many Cooks that “a guest is a jewel on the cushion of hospitality.” Stout gives Archie a brash, hard-boiled, wisecracking style of narration which perfectly sets off Wolfe’s rolling periods.
Above all, the world of Wolfe and Archie is timeless in its essentials, like that of Jeeves and Bertie. The reader is more aware in Wolfe stories of outside events, such as the war, civil rights and women’s liberation, Communism, Red-baiting and the FBI, and ultimately Watergate. But the characters do not age and their behaviours are delightfully consistent. Among the regular supporting characters, Inspector Cramer can be relied upon to bluster, to threaten Wolfe with imprisonment for obstruction of justice, and to chomp a cigar between his lips without lighting it before throwing it away in disgust. But he will re-join Wolfe’s admirers in the end while arresting the villain. In spite of the numerous murderers he nails with Wolfe’s help he is never promoted beyond Inspector. In a similar way, the supporting operatives stay in character: Fred Durkin ponderous but reliable, Orrie Cather self-satisfied and ambitious, Saul Panzer anonymously brilliant.
When forced by exceptional circumstances to leave the brownstone, Wolfe will invariably exhibit extreme anxiety in any moving vehicle, even the sturdy Heron Sedan he buys for Archie to drive. In the later novels, Wolfe acquires a television only to glare briefly at programs before returning to his latest book. In Please Pass The Guilt he announces: “I turn on the television rarely, only to confirm my opinion of it.”
Wolfe would have glared at most of the attempts to render him on television, largely because the adapters generally lacked the confidence in the original material which was shown by the best adapters of Jeeves and Bertie. He deserves a first acquaintance in his beloved medium of books. My own personal favourite – read and re-read many times, is And Be A Villain which the British publishers incomprehensibly re-titled More Deaths Than One.
The plot is, as Wolfe would say, satisfactory, particularly in the introduction of Wolfe’s Moriarty, the arch-villain Arnold Zeck. It allows Wolfe to rail agreeably at radio advertising. And his vocabulary includes the words “temerarious”, “chambrer,” and “dysgenic.”
Oh! could I mount on the Maeonian wing,
Your arms, your actions, your repose to sing!
What seas you traversed, and what fields you fought!
Your country’s peace, how oft, how dearly bought!
How barb’rous rage subsided at your word,
And nations wondered while they dropped the sword!
How, when you nodded, o’er the land and deep,
Peace stole her wing, and wrapped the world in sleep;
Till earth’s extremes your mediation own,
And Asia’s tyrants tremble at your throne.
From Alexander Pope Epistle to Augustus 1737
I am certain that as an experienced politician you are aware of the widespread collapse of faith in our political system and our governing class in general. If you achieve your ambition to become Prime Minister you will need to reverse this urgently. Whatever this country’s future relationship with the EU, it faces a host of pressing problems at home and abroad. To overcome them, you will need to ask the British people to accept major changes to their present way of life. This will not happen when so many have so little trust in any of their rulers.
One of the biggest contributors to this mood is the perception that people in authority never accept responsibility for error and failure, even when these cause suffering and loss. This sentiment has been expressed regularly in relation to the banking collapse and the Iraq war. I am certain that as a Member of Parliament you have had to fight mightily for thousands of constituents simply to secure an apology from someone in authority for wrongs they have suffered. You must also have encountered constituents’ indignation when dimwits in office glide effortlessly and without penalty along a pathway of honours and other well-paid jobs.
I am therefore writing to all the candidates for leadership of your Party to ask whether you have any proposals to restore and enforce a sense of responsibility in government and public life in general. I invite you to make a personal contribution to this by sharing the episode in your political career of which you are now most ashamed, and your reasons why. This could be anything you have said or done, or anything you failed to say or do when given the opportunity. Your response – or non-response – will tell voters a great deal about you and give a strong guide to your personal and moral qualifications to run our country.
After your Party’s leadership is settled I shall be putting a similar question to the leaders of other political parties.
published in PUNCH 23 January 2002
Politicians right across the political spectrum are fretting themselves silly over the latest drug menace. It is far more dangerous than Ecstasy, although its effects are totally different.
Where Ecstasy gives artificial exhilaration and energy at any party, Apathy induces complete passivity and indifference to any party. It has become widespread among all age groups and social classes: in the June 2001 election there were over 18 million registered Apathetics known to the authorities and countless more too apathetic even to register.
The initial effects of Apathy are pleasurable: by blanking out politics Apathy leaves the user more relaxed and less irritated and with a heightened consciousness of other more enjoyable experiences. Habitual users have no sense of shame and stop pretending to be normal voters; instead they take pride in their Apathy and urge others to join them. Hardened cases lose all contact with political reality: some Apathetics are actually unaware of the existence of Stephen Byers or Michael Howard.
Apathy can be fatal – to politicians. That is why they want to ban it.
Gareth R Thomas, backbench Labour MP for Harrow West, has introduced a righteous little bill to make voting compulsory. As in Australia and Belgium, people would be fined for not voting. Personally I would pay a heavy fine to avoid voting for any current Australian or Belgian politician, but over there the fines have stamped on apathy. Both countries have election turnouts of over 90 per cent.
In fairness to goodie-goodie Mr Thomas, his bill would allow voters to abstain in person by ticking a special box in the ballot paper. It is a good move, but it does not meet the central challenge of Apathy.
As with all drugs in wide use, Apathy should be legalized and Apathetics should be encouraged to play a full part in society. For this, we need a political system to Make Apathy Count.
Besides personal abstention, voters should be given a chance to vote negatively and cast their vote AGAINST one candidate of their choice.
At the polling station electors would ask for the FOR ballot paper, or the ABSTENTION form or the AGAINST ballot paper. Postal voters would be offered the same choice by the returning officer. To help counting, the papers would be coloured differently. Electors would put a mark against one candidate, to count as a plus or a minus vote, while the abstention would count as zero. (In another democratic reform each ballot paper would have space for comments of up to six words, such as “Hooray for endogenous neo-classical growth” or “Anyone but that smarmy, lying toerag”: instead of declaring them spoilt the returning officer would publish them.)
On election night each candidate’s votes would be sorted into two piles, FOR and AGAINST, and the abstentions counted separately. The returning officer would declare the winner on “goal difference”: FOR minus AGAINST.
Some people will object that this system could lead to joke candidates being elected. Indeed it might, but perhaps the electors would prefer to have Raving Loonies in the House of Commons instead of the present crop of Raving Toadies. But if joke candidates were really considered a problem, the system could provide a safeguard: no one gets elected without a minimum number of votes FOR. This would also be a defence against candidates from organized cults or nice-but-dim candidates who inspire no negative feelings.
Quite possibly no candidate at all might get a positive goal difference (or the required quota of votes FOR). In that case there would be a by-election, where the parties could offer better candidates and a better campaign.
If the by-election failed to produce a candidate with a positive majority (or the necessary quota) the seat would be declared vacant for the remainder of that Parliament. The salary and expenses which would have gone to an MP would be put to alternative use in the constituency, such as a new cycle track or saving an interesting tree.
Even after a stack of by-elections it is conceivable that no MPs would get elected at all, or that there would not be enough to occupy a majority of the available seats.
In those circumstances no party would have the right to form a government, either on its own or in combination with others. Instead, a caretaker administration of civil servants would run the country for the next four years. Those MPs who were elected could take up grievances, ask questions, scrutinize the administration and volunteer ideas and advice. So too could the House of Lords (one with real “people’s peers”, chosen by lottery from volunteers, not a quango full of cronies and placepersons).
Under the caretaker government, there would be no new laws or regulations, no new taxes or handouts, no new treaties, no new alliances, no new wars, no new “initiatives”, or “task forces”, no new Departments or quangos, no spin doctors.
If the British people enjoyed those four years of non-government they could use negative voting to get them repeated. If they pined for politicians and parties they could vote positively to restore them.
Critics of negative voting will argue that it gives too much power to apathetics and cynics. Quite the contrary. A negative franchise would improve the entire character of British politics. It would end the squalid phenomenon of tactical voting, where people vote for a party they do not believe in to keep out one which they despise. Since no one would get elected without a “positive majority” it would force all parties and all candidates to think of good reasons for voting for them instead of demonising their opponents. Indeed, it would force them to show the electors that it was worth having a Parliament and an active government for the next four or five years.
Unlike Mr Thomas’s Bill, negative voting would allow disenchanted voters to do more than simply abdicate from the political system. It would let them send a powerful message that they want something better than what is on offer at election time. Negative voting could turn Apathy into Ecstasy.
published in the Yorkshire Post (slightly edited) November 7, 2018
In the world Donald Trump has created for himself, all events are an endless parade with himself taking the salute. Predictably he greeted his reverses in the midterm elections by Tweeting a gushing tribute from a political cheerleader: “Mr Trump has magic about him. This guy has magic coming out of his ears. The Republicans are unbelievably lucky to have him.”
But the magic has gone. Even he knows that he has just been beaten badly in elections which were largely a referendum on himself. Exit polls suggested that passing judgement on his performance was the biggest factor for two thirds of voters. That is not unusual: most mid-term elections are a referendum on the incumbent administration (like British by-elections). But Trump’s defeat in the elections for the House of Representatives is in many ways unique.
Congressional districts are frequently gerrymandered (the term was invented in the early United States) and recently Republicans have had more opportunity to achieve this than Democrats. The new Democratic majority therefore understates the party’s success in the popular vote. At the time of writing, some counts are incomplete but it appears that they won this, nationwide, by over 8 per cent.
The conventional wisdom is that American electors are swayed by the economy. Trump’s Presidency has seen the longest economic expansion in American – but he has derived no political benefit. Two years into his Presidency he is less popular with American unemployment at 3.7 per cent than Obama at the same point in 2010 when unemployment was 9.8 per cent.
Trump has failed completely to realign American politics, in the way that F D Roosevelt achieved when he built the Democratic party into a mighty coalition of interests, and Richard Nixon achieved (before Watergate) when he recruited his “silent majority” of white working-class voters and also took over the Southern states. Quite the opposite: Trump has united key groups of voters against him.
In 2016 Trump held a slight lead among white women voters (despite the exposure of his offensive sexist remarks). Recent election polls suggest that his party now trails among all women voters by a thumping 19 per cent: such a shift could happen only with a massive defection of white women voters. They also suggest that the Republicans are clinging to a thin lead in voters over 50 – but trail among younger voters, and the younger voters are the worse they perform. Demographically, Trump is taking his party to oblivion.
Worse still for Trump and his party, their opponents got involved in the political process on an unprecedented scale.
Voter turnout will be a modern record for a midterm Congressional elections: it could reach 50 per cent, compared to 37 per cent in 2014. Young anti-Trump voters were especially eager to take part: their turnout increased in at least 12 states and doubled in Texas, New Jersey and Georgia, all key battlegrounds for 2020.
The Democrats also benefited from a massive rise in individual donations to their Congressional candidates – from $227 million in 2014 to $496 million. By contrast, the Republican tally was barely changed, from $255 million to $260 million. (In total, Congressional candidates raised over $1.2 billion, a measure of the uncontrolled cost of American politics. By contrast, our political parties spent £39 million fighting last year’s General Election – around $50 million at the then exchange rate.)
Women took part as candidates on an unprecedented scale: 234 of the final 898 contenders for Congress were women – 182 of them Democrats. It now appears that 96 were elected – a record – and the new House will have its first female Speaker, Nancy Pelosi. The elections also produced gains for African-Americans, Latinos and Latinas, LGBT people – and, for all Trump’s vicious rhetoric, American Muslims.
There are a few consolations for Trump. He has hailed his Party’s gains in the Senate, but these were always likely. The Senate races this year were generally in unpromising Democratic states, where the party was defending results gained in the tide of Obama’s second election victory in 2012. Better news for Trump was that his party clung to the governorships of Florida, Georgia and Ohio, and with it control of voter registration.
Importantly, the elections produced no Democrat winner who looks like a serious Presidential contender. But the charismatic populist Beto O’Rourke, who almost seized Texas from the powerful Republican Ted Cruz, could find it easier to build a national profile outside the Senate than as a minority freshman inside it.
The new House Democrats were elected to thwart Trump, and they have no reason to take a bipartisan approach even if Trump, most improbably, tries to conciliate them. They will probably investigate him on a raft of sensitive matters, including his hidden tax returns, Russian links, and (less familiar to British readers) the award of contracts for disaster relief. Trump’s White House may have to respond to new charges day after day. The House just might find grounds to impeach him. Although the Senate would reprieve him, it would paralyse his Presidency and virtually eliminate him as a candidate for 2020.
The new House can of course stymie any intended legislation by Trump which looks remotely popular. That would make him turn to the areas where he can act without it: packing the Federal judges’ bench, more belligerent gestures in defence, foreign policy and trade. There is some potential good news for Theresa May: Trump may be more eager for a post-Brexit trade deal. The bad news is that it would have to be a total victory for Trump.
Impeachment apart, it would be wrong to rule out Trump’s re-election in 2020. He may, like several predecessors, notably Harry Truman, be able to mobilize public opinion against an obstructive, “do-nothing” Congress.
But the midterm results suggest strongly that he cannot win by his usual formula of trying to make voters act on hatred. The American people have asked for a new and better President.