Abuse, and how not to deal with it

The political abuse and harassment scandal has, it seems, claimed its first life. Welsh Assembly Member Carl Sargeant has reportedly killed himself after allegations were made about his behaviour.

I have no idea whether Sargeant is or is not innocent of the allegations. Already, social media is awash with comments blaming his accusers for his death. There is a real risk that this will deter other people from coming forward with their own stories of abuse.

To be sure, this may serve as a harsh reminder that a throwaway comment may have consequences far beyond those intended. If this does make some people think twice before making trivial or frivolous allegations, then that will be a good thing.

But it is completely wrong to dismiss all allegations of this nature as being frivolous or trivial. Just because something is relatively low level (when compared to, say, an allegation of rape) doesn’t make it not worth reporting. It’s just as illegal to steal a tenner as it is to rob a bank of millions. And low-level sexual harassment and bullying still needs to be dealt with.

If there is blood on anyone’s hands, though, it seems to me that it rests on those who told Sargeant he was under investigation. He posted this on Twitter shortly afterwards:

Now, it seems to me that this is totally inexcusable. To be told that there are allegations against you, but not to be told what they are, is both cruel and a denial of the basic right to defend yourself against your accusers.

It’s worth noting, in this context, that the police can’t arrest you without telling you why you are being arrested. Anyone accused of a crime must, by law, be given all the information that will be used in evidence against them. There can be no justification for any internal disciplinary procedures failing to follow this basic principle of justice.

It seems to me that we need some basic guidelines in place to ensure justice for both the accuser and the accused.

People should think carefully before making allegations, and be sure that what they allege is not trivial or frivolous.

However, no genuine victim should ever be deterred from speaking out, and it’s better to err on the side of reporting the things that are too small rather than not reporting the things that are large.

Any allegation, of any nature, once made, must be taken seriously and investigated appropriately, whether that be internally or by referral to an external agency.

The subject of any allegation has a right to full disclosure of the allegation made, at the time that they are informed of the allegation, and to be kept informed of any information which later comes to light.

Both complainant and subject have a right to be treated with dignity and respect throughout.

The investigation should be neither rushed nor unduly delayed. Reaching the right conclusion is more important than reaching a rapid conclusion, but justice deferred is no justice at all until it is resolved.

This story will, no doubt run and run. Let’s hope that some good can ultimately come out of what is, undoubtedly, a tragedy.

You can call the Samaritans on 116 123. More contact details are on their website.

Necessary hashtags and the art of detecting media bias

Twitter (or, at least, my particular Twitter bubble) has been busy this last 24 hours pouring scorn on the Home Secretary’s apparent admission in the Andrew Marr show on BBC1 (and later, in conversation with Sophy Ridge on Sky News) that she would consider legislating to force communication suppliers, such as WhatsApp, to break their encryption systems so as to permit governments to access messages.

I’m not going to rehash all the reasons why breaking or weakening encryption is wrong. Plenty of people more knowledgeable about it than me have already done that. I’m more interested in how she ended up making such a statement in the first place.

First, some background. The idea of forcing communication suppliers to add “backdoors” into their systems has been floating around for a long time, particularly in policing circles, as it would clearly be beneficial in some cases to be able to get at the content of every electronic message. So this is a proposal that tends to bubble up every time there is a major terrorist or criminal incident.

Such proposals have never actually come to anything, though, partly because they don’t stand up to technical scrutiny but also because they would be firmly resisted by many large and influential corporations – like banks and other financial institutions – as well as other government agencies which themselves rely on encrypted communications.

So, how did it crop up again this time, and why was the Home Secretary so willing to countenance it?

It’s important here to see the whole thing in context. If you haven’t already watched the full interview with Andrew Marr, then do so now on iPlayer before it expires. Because it’s clear that the first person to say something stupid in that exchange wasn’t Amber Rudd, but Marr. He introduced the topic of end to end encryption, made a complete hash of explaining it, and then invited Rudd to agree with him that it is “completely unacceptable” that the government can’t access terrorists’ messages on it.

This is intellectually unsustainable, but political dynamite. Rudd could not, realistically, disagree with him – imagine the tabloid headlines if she had dared to suggest that it is acceptable for criminals to be able to communicate in secret – but neither could she agree without falling straight into the trap that Marr had laid for her.

It was clear from that exchange that Rudd is not only uninformed about how encryption works, but was uncomfortable discussing it. It’s easy to mock her misguided use of terminology, but when she tried to divert the conversation into an area of safer ground, Marr dragged it back. It was, essentially, two people talking about something neither of them really understands, but both agree that it’s a bad thing.

Having fallen headlong into Marr’s elephant trap, though, Rudd couldn’t easily crawl out of it. This was more of an issue later on Sky News, on Ridge on Sunday. Unlike Marr, Sophy Ridge had done her homework, and was able to point out the glaring inconsistency between Rudd’s assertion that she fully backed strong encryption with the threat to legislate against it. But it was too late for Rudd to row back on the statements she had made to Marr, so instead she had to resort to the usual political trick of speaking firmly, keeping a straight face and refusing to acknowledge the contradiction in the hope that viewers would hear what they wanted to hear.

The real question this raises is: why was Rudd so poorly briefed in the first place? Given that it had already been publicised that Adrian Elms had used WhatsApp shortly before murdering four people, why was it not anticipated that the question of accessing it would crop up? Why couldn’t Rudd have defused Marr’s line of questioning by pointing out to him that he didn’t understand how it worked?

I can only speculate here, but it seems to me that this is an issue with the Home Office which goes back a long way – it was clearly visible during Theresa May’s time as Home Secretary, and even before before that under the last Labour administration. The hiving off of Home Office functions into the newly created Ministry of Justice was one attempt to deal with a department that former Home Secretary John Reid once described as “Not fit for purpose”. But this has seemingly resulted in not one, but two dysfunctional ministries.

The particular problem with the Home Office has been a long standing disregard of personal liberty, combined with an ill-concealed contempt for the tech sector. Apart from legislation drafted by the Home Office which combines illiberality with technical infeasibility, this has repeatedly manifested itself in a lack of desire to engage with reasonable and informed criticism. Ministers are left unbriefed, and in danger of looking stupid (as both Rudd, May and their Labour predecessors did, regularly, when talking about Internet-related issues), because there is a perception that the general public, and the tabloid media, doesn’t care about the details. Only nerds care, and nerds don’t matter.

I don’t believe that the government will legislate to force companies to break encryption. There would be too much opposition, both internally and from industry, for that to happen. But we will carry on getting these kites being flown every time there is a terrorist incident, until this anti-tech and anti-freedom factor within the Home Office is rooted out. Ministers could make a start by insisting on being properly briefed in future, and hiring a few SpAds who understand the issue and can offer unbiased advice.


While I’m on the subject (and apologies if this is turning into too much of a long read), consider for a moment why WhatsApp is in the news. As I said at the top of this article, it is known that Adrian Elms used WhatsApp only a few minutes before embarking on his murderous spree. But how do we know that?

Given that WhatsApp is end to end encrypted, and only the sender and recipients of a message can read it – or even know that it is sent – the only way to know this is to have access to either the sender or recipient’s phone.

In this case, media reports say that the police know Elms used WhatsApp because they found a message from him on a phone seized from a known acquaintance in Birmingham. But they don’t know who else he may have communicated with, because his phone is locked and they are unable to access it.

But if they can get that, though, then they have a history of the WhatsApp messages that Elms sent and received. They were not secret to him, and neither are they to anyone who successfully accesses his phone. End to end encryption protects messages from being viewed in transit by third parties; it doesn’t protect them from being viewed on either of the devices they were sent from or to.

In fact, if you read the media reports carefully, the idea that the police are being stymied by lack of access to WhatsApp isn’t coming from the police. They may be happy with that particular misbelief being spread around, because it may help minimise the prospect of accomplices deliberately deleting messages that may be relevant (although, in practice, it does now seem that Elms really was a “lone wolf” and had no accomplices). But the idea that WhatsApp is deliberately hindering the investigation is a suggestion that’s being fed by the media, supported by off the record comments from Home Office insiders (again, not explicitly, but with hints dropped in headlines that aren’t borne out in the text of the article).

The police’s problem is simply that they can’t unlock Elms’s phone. Or, at least, aren’t admitting to being able to, at least not yet. And if they do get into it, there are probably far more interesting things they can discover from it than who he was messaging.

There’s a subtext here that’s worth exploring. Google, Facebook, Twitter and other tech companies are in the firing line at the moment because of their seeming reluctance to remove extremist material. Some of these criticisms are justified, others less so – the tech companies do actually have a good record of addressing explicitly illegal material, as indeed Amber Rudd tried to point out before being interrupted by Andrew Marr; the real issue comes with the stuff that isn’t necessarily illegal but may be offensive or inappropriate. The fact that adverts from well known brands have been appearing on YouTube videos posted by Daesh and their sympathisers has been in the news a lot recently, particularly in the context that these adverts earn money for the videos’ creators.

This is a valid concern, and Google et al could certainly do more to ensure that advertisers have more control over the material that their adverts appear alongside. There are also perfectly legitimate concerns about where the line is drawn regarding offensive, rather than specifically illegal, content.

However, there’s an undercurrent to this which needs to be borne in mind. Google and Facebook, in particular, are very much in the business of attracting advertising expenditure away from the traditional media. The newspapers which complain about Google showing ads on jihadist videos are not neutral; they have skin in the game.

The traditional media also resent the way that search engines and social media have become the gatekeepers to their own content. There is a strong perception in the media that the tech industry is leeching away their traditional source of revenue, and offering nothing in return.

To some extent, that perception is true, although it’s also arguable that it’s not a problem – changes in technology and society’s behaviour always benefits some and not others. Airlines put the ocean liners out of business, steamships spelled the end for the tea clippers and the printing press rendered scribes redundant. The traditional print media can’t really complain if they are now on the downward slope of a hill they were once ascending.

What this means, though, is that there has, for some weeks, been a media campaign in progress against Google, Twitter and Facebook – a campaign driven as much by self-interest as any real public concern. This wasn’t helped by a particularly inept response by Facebook to an investigation by the BBC into sexualised images of children. The Westminster attack has simply played into this narrative, by allowing the media to say “I told you so”. It also gives impetus to their anti-Google and anti-Facebook campaign (and remember that WhatsApp is owned by Facebook).

The traditional print media and broadcast media would love nothing more than to see the tech giants taken down a peg or two. And their reporting reflects that. It is not unbiased. Andrew Marr’s carefully laid trap for the Home Secretary has to be seen in that context, too.


Edited to reflect media reports that the police know about Elms’s WhatsApp use from one of his acquaintances, rather than his own phone.

Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign pledges. Some of this will shock you.

These are the ten pledges launched today by Jeremy Corbyn as part of his campaign to retain control of the Labour Party. I thought they’re worth a few comments.

1. A decent job for all, in a decent economy

This seems remarkably lacking in ambition. I’d prefer good jobs, in a strong economy. But I suppose we can thank Jeremy for at least being honest here if he thinks he can’t achieve that.

2. A secure home for everyone

I’m not sure that “secure” is the right word here, either. Prisons are (hopefully) secure. Most people would, I think, prefer to focus on homes being affordable and readily available. I hope the choice of wording isn’t a Freudian slip.

3. Dignity and rights at work

Absolutely, we all want dignity and rights at work. Well, rights, anyway. I’m not so sure we all want dignity. I’d like the right to take a Nerf gun with me and pepper my colleagues with it when I think they’re getting a bit too far up themselves. It may not be dignified, but what the heck. It would make a great right.

4. A properly-funded NHS and social care

I’m pretty sure we’re all in favour of doing things properly, as well.

5. Education for all from cradle to grave

Now this really appeals to me. I left school more than three decades ago, but if education is available all the way to my deathbed, then well – where do I sign up for state-run classes in advanced jQuery and thrash metal guitar?

6. Clean, green energy we can afford

Again, nobody is going to complain about being offered this. But it’s nice to see Jeremy accepting that low carbon energy needs to be affordable.

7. Services run by and for the public

That’s called “free enterprise”. Entrepreneurs like you and me setting up businesses to provide goods and services which meet demand from other people like us. It’s an excellent ambition, and I wholeheartedly applaud Jeremy for endorsing it.

8. Everyone paying their fair share

“You use it, you pay for it”. Seems fair to me. Although, if I’m honest, I actually think we need a bit of unfairness in our tax system. Sometimes people’s circumstances are different, and sometimes they need more than others. As I say to my children sometimes when they complain that it’s unfair to let the younger get more leeway because she’s the younger, or the older get more privileges because she’s older, “it isn’t fair, but it is right”.

9. A society free from prejudice

Much easier said than done, of course. But I do agree that we need more independent thought, and less tribalism, in the UK. We could make a start in our political parties.

10. A just foreign policy that promotes peace

As it happens, this is something that the world as a whole does seem to have been pretty successful in since 1945. But it’s good to see that Jeremy wants to continue with the success of these policies.

Our next Prime Minister – time for Conservatives to decide

Unlike my position on the EU referendum itself, where I deliberately avoided participating in either campaign, I have decided to publicly state who – of the five candidates on offer – I want as the next leader of the Conservative party and, therefore, our next Prime Minister.

This isn’t an easy decision to make. All five candidates have both strengths and weaknesses, and it would be foolish to deny that. But this is the reasoning behind my choice. Looking at all five in turn…

To begin with, the two insurgent challengers, Stephen Crabb and Andrea Leadsom. Both of these have reasons to commend them. They both come across as being intelligent and good at making decisions.

However, they both also lack experience. It’s OK to elect as leader someone relatively inexperienced when in opposition, as they’ve got time to get used to being leader before they need to also be PM (and, if it turns out they’re not up to the job, we have time to get someone else in place before the election). But to take over mid-term while in office, you need someone with plenty of experience of a cabinet level post. Crabb and Leadsom just don’t have that. They may both be good candidates the next time around, but not this time.

I like Michael Gove. I admire his reforming zeal, and I think he’s done a good job at both Education and Justice. But I also think that when he said he wasn’t equipped to be Prime Minister, he was both honest and accurate.

I think Gove would make an excellent Home Secretary. I think he has the necessary One Nation sensibilities to make the right decisions there, and the intellect to come up with creative solutions to some of the department’s more intractable problems. But I think that should be the height of his ambitions.

Had Liam Fox been on the final ballot paper the last time around, instead of either David Davis or David Cameron, I might have supported him then. But I think he is yesterday’s man now. The only possible way he might get my vote is if he came through as the compromise candidate, the one who has both the necessary experience and the Brexit credentials (although, personally, I think the latter is almost entirely unimportant at this stage – we need the best PM, not the one who ticks any particular box).

Which leaves Theresa May. Of the five candidates we have, I think she is head and shoulders above the others in terms of both ability and experience, and there really is no plausible alternative.

Regular readers of my blog may be surprised to find me saying that, since I have been scathing enough about her – or, more precisely, the Home Office’s obsessive authoritarianism – in the past. And I still think that certain sections of the Investigatory Powers Bill – aka the “Snooper’s Charter” – are appallingly inconsistent with a Conservative approach to liberty and freedom.

But a failure to take on the vested interests of a small clique of civil servants is not, in itself, a reason not to support May for the leadership. She, alone of the five candidates, has both extensive experience at cabinet level and the qualities necessary to be Prime Minister.

It may seem to be damning her with faint praise to describe her as the “safe” choice, but safe is what we need right now. We don’t need someone who, on his own admission, is not cut out to be Prime Minister. Nor do we need someone who has no significant experience at the highest level of politics.

Theresa May also commands the support of the largest proportion of Conservative MPs. That alone is not a reason to back her – we ordinary party members have a voice, and a right to our opinion, too. But it is an important factor. The Labour Party is currently giving us a textbook example of what happens when the leader doesn’t command the support of MPs. That may not matter so much for the opposition. But in government, such conflict wouldn’t just be disastrous for the party, it would also be disastrous for the country. We need a new PM that MPs on the government benches are happy to serve under.

So, assuming that Theresa May is on the final ballot paper which goes out to Conservative members, she is who I will be voting for. I would urge my Conservative colleagues and fellow party members to do the same.

The next Prime Minister

Nominations for the Conservative Party leadership election – and, by extension, the internal election for the next Prime Minister – open today and close on Friday. Conservative MPs will whittle down the contenders to a final two, who will then be voted on by the membership as a whole. The precise timetable after that depends on the number of candidates, but we should know the winner by late August or early September.

As a party member, I will have a vote in the final ballot. I’m not going to say who I’ll be backing until I know who I have to choose between. But these are some of the principles which will guide my choice.

Firstly, it needs to be someone who can unite the party and the country.

That may sound like a meaningless platitude which will be uttered by every candidate. But it isn’t, and it matters. We’ve just had a very bruising referendum contest, and it’s important that the new leader is someone who can work with both sides. Someone who will appoint ministers on the basis of ability, not cronyism and patronage.

David Cameron has won two general elections by appealing to the centre ground of British politics. That, too, is an essential attribute of his successor. We need someone that the floating voter is comfortable floating towards. It isn’t enough to rely on Labour’s shortcomings to win an election. We need to be able to offer a positive choice to the ordinary, non-political voter. More than ever, a post-EU Britain needs a one nation government.

Secondly, we need someone who appreciates and encourages the work of grassroots Conservatives at association and branch level.

The new leader of the Conservative Party won’t just be responsible for the parliamentary party. It needs to be someone who recognises that politics doesn’t just happen in Westminster, but in county halls, town halls and civic centres across the country. Someone who makes it easy for me and my colleagues to be proud of what we stand for.

The timetable for any possible hustings will be short, but I want to see the final two candidates making a strong effort to reach out to ordinary members and telling us directly why we should vote for them. That’s another reason why I’m not backing any specific candidate yet. I want to hear what they actually have to say to us.

Finally, I want someone who I can trust with the things that matter to me.

Obviously, every party member will have their own priorities which will reflect their own experience and circumstances. But my choice will be influenced by the things that I care about: a strong commitment to civil liberty and freedom of conscience, an understanding of technology and the value to the UK’s economy of an open Internet, a bias towards evidence-based policy-making, and a preference for localism over a one-size-fits-all approach.

The decisions we will make over the next few weeks will have long-lasting ramifications.

Under normal circumstances, party leadership elections are held at on a timetable intended to give the new leader time to settle in before any really difficult decisions need to be made. That won’t be the case this time.

The incoming Prime Minister will need to get straight to work on our negotiations with the EU. An early general election is also on the cards. That makes it all the more important that we in the party think long and hard about who we want in that role. The potential difference in outcome between the right and wrong choice could not be more stark.

Two tribes go to work


Following the EU referendum, there are, broadly speaking, four groups of people in the UK:

Group A – Hardcore Remain voters, who are not only unhappy with the result but are unwilling to accept the outcome and insist on either flinging insults at Leave voters or actively trying to overturn the result (or both).

Group B – Moderate Remain voters, who are disappointed with the result but are willing to respect the outcome and now want to ensure that any negative effects on a post-EU UK are minimised.

Group C – Hardcore Leave voters, who see this as an opportunity to gloat at their opponents, who don’t care about reconciliation and want to take this opportunity to impose their will on a post-EU Britain.

Group D – Moderate Leave voters, who are pleased to have won but recognise that they only have a slim majority, that there are a lot of people who disagreed with them, and that those views should still be heard.

Whichever way you voted in the referendum, I hope it’s obvious that the B and D “moderate” groups are the ones acting in the UK’s best interests (and, for that matter, the EU’s). Sensible, intelligent people need to cooperate to make sure that the UK’s relationship with the EU is renegotiated to provide the best possible outcome for all parties.

If you’re a Remain supporter, that’s obviously going to be sub-optimal to staying in, but it’s still possible to make the most of a less than ideal situation. If you voted Leave, then compromising on some of your ideals will be worth it to ensure a smooth transition to a post-EU Britain.

It’s time for the two sensible tribes to work together. Ignore the ranters and ravers, the xenophobes and anti-democrats, and concentrate on the future rather than the past. Our future depends on it.

After the referendum

This time tomorrow morning, we will be voting in the EU referendum. By this time the day after that, we should know the result.

So, what happens next?

Obviously, that depends on what the result is. But this is what I want to see, for both options.

If we vote to Remain

Firstly, it’s essential to bear in mind that voting to stay is not voting for the status quo. Nor is it an endorsement of every aspect of the EU and everything that it does. The EU is horribly broken and dysfunctional in very many ways. If we are staying in it, we need to take the lead both in highlighting the problems and coming up with ways to address them.

Secondly, a choice to remain is not an endorsement of the Remain campaign. Some of the ad hominem attacks on Leave campaigners have been truly appalling. If the Remain campaign is victorious, more than anything it needs to follow this up by being gracious.

A vote to stay is not a rejection of the need to change. It just means change in a different way to leaving.

The long term future of the EU needs to work for everybody, not just those who wholeheartedly buy into its vision. That means taking the criticisms of the EU levelled by the Leave campaign seriously, and seeking to address those from within the structure.

If we vote to Leave

A vote to leave is a step into the unknown. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a leap in the dark. The key priorities of the government over the weeks, months and even years that follow a decision to leave will be about how best to secure the long-term interests of the UK.

There are many possible routes forward if we leave. Some of them are as different as the choice between leaving and remaining. And even if we leave, the opinions of those who voted to stay are still relevant in that debate.

A leave vote means a majority want out of the EU. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a majority want out of free trade, or free movement of people, or cross-border consumer protection.

Voting to leave isn’t the end of a process. It’s the start of one. The start of a new Europe that better serves the needs of all the countries in Europe, whether in or out of the EU.

Whatever we choose

No matter which vision for our future wins, both sides have to accept the result.

No carping, no complaining about the other side taking liberties with the campaign. No conspiracy theories. No accusations of ballot rigging. No subtle (or unsubtle) undermining of the will of the majority. No grudges.

Whatever happens, we have to move on. This has been a deeply unpleasant campaign, with very little to be proud of on either side. It’s time to put that behind us and make a commitment to making this decision work. For all of us.

Referendum musings

It’s just over a week to go to the EU referendum, so I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts.

To begin with, let me say what this post is not. I will not tell you how to vote, or try to persuade you which way to vote. And I will not tell you which way I will vote.

There are, however, a number of things which need to be said.

Lies, damned lies and the battle for your vote

The first is that, by and large, the conduct of both sides has been utterly appalling. That doesn’t apply to every individual involved in either campaign, and very many of the grassroots activists on both sides – of which I count many, again on both sides, as friends – have been doing their best to argue their cause in a reasonable manner.

But, still, many of the headline claims made by the leaders of both sides are, at best, pure speculation dressed up as fact or, at worst, outright lies.

We’re doomed, I tell you, all doomed

On the Remain side, the increasingly shrill warnings of economic disaster, rise in terrorism and imminent collapse of civilisation simply do not ring true. By all means, consider a worst case scenario. But a description of the most extreme possible outcomes has to go hand in hand with a realistic assessment of the risk.

If it rains hard enough for long enough, my house could be flooded. We are on the edge of the “thousand year” flood zone. But, realistically, that is very, very unlikely to happen, at least in my lifetime or that of anyone I eventually sell the house to.

The same applies to predictions of what might happen if we leave the EU. It could, theoretically, result in economic disaster. But just saying that it could is insufficient information. To be useful, that has to be part of an overall risk assessment with outcomes ranging from best case to worst case, and with informed and expert predictions of how likely all the various possible outcomes are.

It doesn’t add up

On the Leave side, the repeatedly bandied figure of £350m a week paid to the EU is simply false. And arguing that that’s the right figure to use, because it’s what we would pay if it wasn’t for the rebate, is meaningless. That’s like saying that if I buy a shirt from M&S at 30% off, I should still assess the cost on what I would have paid without the discount. My accountant would laugh at me if I did that.

It’s also simply wrong to say that, whatever we pay to the EU, we could instead spend it on the NHS if we left. That disregards all the money that is currently spent by the EU on things within the UK. The absolute most we could spend on the NHS if we left is the total net cost of EU membership – which is a heck of a lot less than £350m a week. But even that disregards the possibility that leaving the EU may incur other costs which also have to be met. Realistically, this is simply an impossible promise.

Little Britain and Big Brother

The Remain argument that the UK would have to adopt something like the “Swiss model” or the “Norwegian model” to get access to the benefits of the single market if we leave is equally specious.

The UK has a population of 64 million, and a GDP of $2,768 billion (measured in USD as that’s the common unit of comparison). Norway has a population of 5 million, and a GDP of $513 billion. Switzerland has a population of 8 million, and a GDP of $685 billion. In other words, the UK has a population nearly five times that of Norway and Switzerland combined, and a GDP more than double their combined total.

If we leave the EU, we will not need either a “Swiss model” or a “Norwegian model” in our relationship with the remaining EU. We will have a “British model”, negotiated to take account of our economic and population strength. We can’t say for certain what this will look like, but we can be sure it won’t look like anything which currently exists.

Our only goal will be the western shore

On the other hand, leaving the EU will not solve our immigration “problem”. Quite apart from the fact that it is far less of a problem than many people believe – there is absolutely zero evidence that immigrants are squeezing local-born people out of the employment market, for example – the reality is that EU migration is still lower than non-EU migration.

Given that many EU migrants would, if we were not part of the EU, fall into the same categories as the non-EU migrants allowed to come here and would therefore continue to be allowed to come in the future, the idea that we could make a sizeable dent in immigration by leaving is laughable. And that’s assuming we won’t negotiate an agreement with the EU which includes free movement of labour anyway. I strongly suspect we would, because overall, it would be beneficial to us to do so.

The face doesn’t fit

If we disregard the guff from both sides (and there’s an awful lot of it to disregard), though, what are we left with? Can we, as some suggest, make our decision based on the identities of those arguing for either option?

The answer to that is “no”. I’ve previously argued that, when it comes to a general election, you can’t just vote for policies – you have to take account of the perceived competence of those who will implement them as well. But a referendum is the complete opposite. No matter what we decide, we will still have the same government the day after the referendum as before, and we will still have the same options at the next general election.

Voting Remain because you dislike Nigel Farage, or Leave in order to snub David Cameron – or vice versa – is the worst possible reason for making your decision. Voting Leave will not put Ukip in power. Or Jeremy Corbyn, for that matter. Voting Remain is not an endorsement of the current government. The decision we collectively make on 23rd June 2016 will have an effect long after all of us currently active in politics have retired or died. Casting your vote now on the basis of which set of faces you like the most is one of the most mind-numbingly stupid things you could do. So don’t do it.

Making either choice is a decision based on what you, after giving the matter careful consideration, honestly believe is best for the UK in the long run. At least, I hope it is. And that means cutting through the dodgy headlines and looking beyond the faces to try and find the facts.

I’m not, in the space of this article, going to try and give you the facts, beyond those I’ve obliquely referred to already. But I am going to make a few observations.

Break point

After my comment on the behaviour of the campaigners, the second most important thing which must be said is that the EU is badly broken in a number of areas. That fact is, I think, beyond dispute. A full list would be far too long, but the economic sacrifice of Greece on the altar of the Euro and the mismanagement of the migrant crisis are two obvious examples. The question is not “Is there anything wrong with the EU?”. The question is “Can we fix it?”.

In this context, I disagree with the criticism of Jeremy Corbyn for seemingly being lukewarm over the EU, or with Boris Johnson for dithering before coming out for Leave. In both cases, these are the actions you would expect of someone who recognises that there are strong arguments for both options, but that ultimately you have to make a choice between them. I’m not telling you which of Johnson or Corbyn you should vote with, but both of them make a better role model here than those who adopted a knee-jerk position for either Remain or Leave right from the off.

Between the devil and the deep blue sea

The reality is that there are some very good arguments on both sides. Anyone who doesn’t recognise that simply hasn’t thought about the issue in any great detail. Equally, there are some very bad arguments on both sides. And the tragedy is that the campaign has seemingly focused on the bad arguments rather than the good ones.

The EU is, as I’ve said, badly broken in many respects, and if it continues down some of those broken pathways it has the potential to do a great deal of harm. But it has also been extremely beneficial in very many ways, and the UK has gained a lot from our membership. Again, I will say that anyone who does not recognise the truth of both these statements has too little understanding to make an informed choice.

Questions, questions

Ultimately, everyone’s decision has to be their own. I’m not telling anyone how to vote, or how I intend to vote. But I will pose a set of questions that will inform my own choice. Hopefully, they will be helpful to others as well. Those questions are:

  1. Are the EU’s structural flaws beyond repair, or can they be fixed?
  2. In the long term – not just the next few years, but for the next generation – which option offers the best prospects for our economic security and freedom?
  3. Is a decision to leave influenced by the “grass is always greener” fallacy?
  4. Conversely, does a decision to stay reflect the sunk costs fallacy?
  5. Which decision will I be most proud of explaining to my children, and why?

I’ll leave it to you to answer those questions for yourselves, or to pose others. I may come back after the vote and explain how I answered them.

An unpleasant encounter

I’ve been at the Conservative party conference this week. As you may have seen reported by the media, there’s been a group of protesters outside the venue most of the time, although they tend not to be there earlier in the day and have usually dispersed by early evening so I haven’t encountered them at close quarters all that much. And, despite some of the media stories, I personally hadn’t seen anything that I would say crosses the bounds of acceptability.

This evening was different. And possibly instructive.

It’s been raining most of the evening, and I managed to miss out on the canapes at the Tech Central reception, so I decided that instead of walking straight back to my hotel I’d stop at the Subway just across the road from the venue and have something to eat there.

I wasn’t alone in that. There were several other conference-goers in the cafe, plus a group of protesters as well as regular, non-political customers. Initially, there wasn’t any problem. But then something happened to change that.

I’m not entirely sure what the trigger was, because I was fiddling with my phone (tweeting about the rain!) rather than following the conversation around me. But it suddenly kicked off between a group of female protesters and a man sitting at the next table, and before I knew it there was a full-scale shouting match going on.

It turned out that he was one of the staff at the conference, and took exception to being labelled “scum” when, as he pointed out, he’d done exactly the same job at the Labour and Lib Dem conferences and would next be off to Scotland to work at the SNP conference.

The protest group were not placated by that, and instead condemned him for being a class traitor for daring to work for us Tory scum.

At this point, and possibly somewhat unwisely, another conference-goer (aka, “more Tory scum”) intervened, asking everyone to just calm down a bit and let people eat their meals in peace. As you might expect, this didn’t work. Although a man who had been part of the group of protesters muttered “Actually, I agree with them on that”, and got up and walked out, leaving just the women to continue abusing every Tory scum in earshot. Almost immediately after he left, the police arrived.

I should point out here that there was no violence or threat of violence, even implied. Somewhat bizarrely, even, we were all sitting at a group of tables in a corner of the cafe and, despite being in touching distance of each other, no hands were raised. It was all purely verbal.

However, I’m sure it wasn’t pleasant for everyone else in the cafe, and when the police arrived they asked the protesters to leave. One of them then started abusing the police, at which point she was rather more firmly instructed to step outside, and the rest soon followed.

After they’d gone, I got chatting to the man who’d been the catalyst for all that. He apologised for saying something which had triggered the incident, but, as he put it, he’d been roundly abused every day just for doing his job, and he was sick of it. And all he did was say so, which resulted in yet more abuse.

I don’t object to people protesting. Nor do I mind the street theatre aspect of it with banners and placards and drums and whistles. I even (whisper it quietly) found the TV images of Boris being pelted with plastic balls rather amusing. OK, it’s a bit childish and unnecessary, but it isn’t in the same league as eggs or stones. Taking abuse is part of a politician’s lot in life, and most of the time it’s good-humoured enough not to worry too much about.

But it hasn’t been OK all the time this week. To be sure, most of the protesters have been careful to stay within the boundaries. But the line has been crossed on too many occasions as well. It isn’t OK to spit on people as they arrive at a conference. It isn’t OK to abuse people for working at a conference. And it isn’t OK to defend the people who do those things.

We also have to ask ourselves why some elements of the left of British politics are so virulently illiberal and intolerant. If Jeremy Corbyn really wants to usher in a new, kinder politics then he has to start by cleaning out his own back yard.

Election reflections

General-Election-2015The elections seem a long time ago already, even though it’s only just over a couple of weeks. But I can still feel the sense of exhilaration when, firstly, the exit polls confounded the pre-election predictions and then the real results were even better than the exit poll had predicted. It’s been a long time since I genuinely felt so optimistic about the future of our country.

That’s better, of course, from my perspective. And that of other Conservative voters and candidates, as well as, probably, SNP supporters. Obviously, it wasn’t better for Labour, UKIP or the Lib Dems. In politics, as in sport, one side’s victory is another side’s defeat. The Blues have triumphed, the Reds have lost out, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about Parliament or the Premier League; the feelings of agony and ecstasy are broadly the same.

Why did we win, though, and why was the margin of victory bigger than expected? This is something that commentators haven’t been short of opinions on, so there may not be much that’s original in mine. These, though, are my thoughts.

In the end, Ed Miliband failed the Kinnock Test.

Times columnist Daniel Finkelstein came up with this theory back in 2008 (paywall, but you can get the gist from the opening couple of free paragraphs), and I, along with many others, successfully predicted the outcome of the 2010 election on the same principle. The electorate concluded that, even if they found his policies attractive, Ed Miliband simply wasn’t up to the job of being Prime Minister.

The Conservatives did a better job of appealing to floating voters.

This is related to my first point, and I explained it in more detail back then in 2009 when I correctly predicted defeat for Gordon Brown. But, in essence, the simple fact is that floating voters, by definition, are not party loyalists. Moreover, they are not primarily politics geeks and often care little for detailed policies. Instead, they will vote for the party that they believe offers the best prospect of a secure and prosperous future. In 2015, as in 2010, that party was the Conservatives.

People voted for hope, not fear.

A huge part of the opposition’s campaign was the prospect of all the bad things that might happen if the Tories got back in. Cuts to the NHS, cuts to welfare, giving US corporations power to sue the British government, forcing small children to work down coal mines. OK, so that last one is made up, although it still fits in with the narrative. Then there were the very different fears peddled by UKIP: the prospect of the UK being overrun by nasty foreigners. Maybe not stated in so many words, but implied in a lot of what was actually said. But, on the whole, the voting public didn’t swallow any of them. The Conservative campaign was more positive, and more people responded positively to it.

(As an aside, this also goes a long way to explaining the success of the SNP. For those north of the border, the nationalists offered a positive option, something to vote for rather than simply against.)

On the whole, the political centre of gravity in the UK is inclined to the right.

This may seem like an obvious point, given that a right of centre party won. But to listen to a lot of left-wing commentators you’d think we somehow stole the election from an otherwise left-leaning public. And that’s why it deserves a little more consideration.

An email from left-wing pressure group 38 Degrees contained the claim that “only 24% of the population voted for the winning party”. Which is true on a purely factual basis, but if the intention is to assert that only 24% of the public are happy with the result then it’s completely false.

Of those who voted, almost exactly 50% cast their ballot for a right-wing party (if we assume, not unreasonably, that the Conservatives, UKIP and the Unionist parties in Northern Ireland are, to a greater or lesser degree, right-wing). But you can also add to those the voters in Scotland who backed the SNP despite, rather than because of, its left-wing stance because they are nationalists first and right-wingers second. They may not be a particularly large number, but they certainly exist. And it’s also fair to describe the “Orange Book” wing of the Liberal Democrats as more centre-right than centre-left. Again, there may not have been all that many of them, given the Lib Dems’ disastrous election night, but they, too, certainly exist. So, overall, you can’t really to deny that a majority of the voting public are happy with, at the very least, a Conservative PM in Downing Street even if some of them might have preferred him to be accompanied by a coalition deputy.

As for those who didn’t vote at all, while it’s tempting (to left-wing commentators looking for excuses, anyway) to lump them in with everyone else who didn’t vote Tory, it’s equally true that they can be lumped in with everyone else who didn’t vote Labour – which is a much larger number. In reality, though, research suggests that the majority of non-voters would, if forced to vote, divide between the parties in much the same proportion as those who chose to vote. And, of course, there are many people who don’t vote, not because they oppose all the parties and politicians on offer, but because they would be happy with whoever won. If Ed Miliband was PM, they’d be happy with him. But, as it is, they’re equally happy with David Cameron.

What that adds up to is the simple fact that the majority of the electorate, whether they actually voted or not, are more or less happy with the outcome of a Conservative government. Some may be very happy with it, others more grudgingly so, but nonetheless they all prefer it to the alternative.

It really is the economy, stupid.

If the previous reasons are essentially symptoms, this is the one which gives rise to them. On the whole, people believe that the state of the economy, and its prospects for the future, is what really matters. Which is why people were willing to vote for the possibility of continued austerity and a tight rein on public spending. It also shows that the electorate are possibly better at taking the long-term view than many politicians give them credit for. More people voted for jam tomorrow than jam today. Which is another reason to be optimistic for the future.