Tag Archives: Michael Gove

corona marginalia: track-and-trace

Boris Johnson tells Britain that our test-and-tracing system will be “world-beating”. Here’s what I’ve witnessed from the inside.

Writes an anonymous whistleblower [I am calling “Ann”] in a piece published in today’s Guardian. This is what happened shortly after she applied to an online ad for a temporary “customer service adviser”, which read:

You must have your own computer and high-speed internet to download our software and communicate with our customers … Don’t let lockdown stop you getting your dream job.

“The training was very basic”, Ann says, going on to describe in detail the extremely cursory “online training course” each of the candidates had to sit through:

We saw some slides about our role – the public health website we will use, and a script for what we had to say to people. We were told do not go off-script, and if there was anything we could not answer, we should ask our supervisor.

The training was wrapped up early, and we were asked if we felt prepared. There was a chorus of no from many people. Some said yes, but I didn’t see how anyone could be prepared for something they’d only found out about a couple of hours ago, plus we hadn’t even accessed the specific programmes. I checked my schedule and saw that I was due to start the next day at 9am. Panic set in.

The trainer told us there was a further seven and a half hours of self-led training that we had to complete before “going live”. This seemed a little unfair, if not impossible to achieve by the next morning. We were reassured that we could probably get through the training in two to three hours – but we would be paid for all seven and a half.

The trainer declared the training over and was immediately inundated with more questions from those anxious about what to do and when. The chatroom was then closed by the trainer, and were left on our own.

The self-led courses were very basic – with some generic dos and don’ts about customer data, security and so on. I completed it all in less than one and a half hours, with a score of 95%+.

The entirety of Ann’s first day of “work” was then spent waiting for entry into a chatroom. Her online colleagues were similarly left out in the cold. The second day was little different: “The day passed as we waited, re-attempted training, and wrote messages to supervisors and got no response.” This went on for the whole week and by the weekend, she tells us: “I had clocked up 40 hours of key worker pay for doing absolutely nothing.”

Ann continues:

Over the next few days I learned more about my job from watching the news than I did from those who were supposed to supervise me. I still did not feel qualified to do it. Then it was announced by [Matt] Hancock that we were going live the next day. On my chat there was a message from a supervisor asking the more experienced members of our chat to help those who needed help. The blind leading the blind! How were people who started the same day as me, and who had the same short and basic training as I had, supposed to help me do my job?

Ann concludes her account of the whole experience philosophically:

To this day I remain a “key worker”, paid £10 an hour to sit in a chatroom – alone, lost, without support or help. Despite what the government is saying, it seems the relentless problem “with the system” is another pandemic without a cure. Motivated as I am to help out during this difficult time – and after two weeks of doing “pretend” work on the track-and-trace programme – I have decided to quit and try to find a real way to help people.

Click here to read the full story entitled “Why I quit working on Boris Johnson’s ‘word-beating’ test-and tracing system”, published by the Guardian on May 30th.

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Those who have worked anywhere within the service sector are rather too familiar with these sorts of ‘online training courses’. The whole industry is basically a racket and of course every racket is driven by the profit motive. The question that immediately arises therefore is which private company was contracted by the government on this occasion. And it will come as little surprise that the trail soon leads to the outsourcing giant Serco:

Serco is overseeing the crucial track-and-trace system that has been launched today. But people it has recruited to work as contract tracers have already complained about a lack of training and guidance.

Earlier this month, Serco was condemned after it accidentally shared the contact details of 300 contact tracers. The error has led to calls for an urgent investigation into the “alarming” incident.

Rachel Reeves, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, wrote to Michael Gove, her counterpart in government, that it was “particularly troubling that a company that is being trusted with some of the most sensitive work in our national effort against the virus seems to struggle with the most basic aspects of data privacy”.

The contract-tracing data breach was not the first fiasco in Serco’s contributions to the government’s pandemic response. In April the company was in the news over concerns about delays at the drive-in COVID-19 test centres that it was managing. At one test site, key workers were left waiting for two hours in hot weather, unable to leave their vehicle or even open the windows.

From an exposé published by OpenDemocracy on May 28th entitled “Revealed: Serco under fire over fresh £90m COVID-19 contract”

Click here to read an earlier post about Serco’s subcontracting role in the fingerprinting of British schoolchildren.

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Update: on the creeping privatisation of the NHS

On May 4th, the Guardian published an article entitled “UK government ‘using pandemic to transfer NHS duties to the private sector’”

The government is using the coronavirus pandemic to transfer key public health duties from the NHS and other state bodies to the private sector without proper scrutiny, critics have warned.

Doctors, campaign groups, academics and MPs raised the concerns about a “power grab” after it emerged on Monday that Serco was in pole position to win a deal to supply 15,000 call-handlers for the government’s tracking and tracing operation.

They said the health secretary, Matt Hancock, had “accelerated” the dismantling of state healthcare and that the duty to keep the public safe was being “outsourced” to the private sector.

In recent weeks, ministers have used special powers to bypass normal tendering and award a string of contracts to private companies and management consultants without open competition.

Click here to read the full Guardian article written by Juliette Garside and Rupert Neate.

One month later, they published a follow-up piece:

[Serco] have taken the bulk of the work, recruiting 10,000 of the new 25,000 contact tracers after being awarded an initial fee of £45.8m, which could rise to £90m.

In an email forwarded to staff, which was then immediately recalled, a message from [Rupert Soames, Serco’s chief executive] said: “There are a few, a noisy few, who would like to see us fail because we are private companies delivering a public service. I very much doubt that this is going to evolve smoothly, so they will have plenty of opportunity to say I told you so.”

It continued: “If it succeeds … it will go a long way in cementing the position of the private sector companies in the public sector supply chain. Some of the naysayers recognise this, which is why they will take every opportunity to undermine us.”

[Bold emphasis added]

Click here to read the full Guardian article entitled “NHS test-and-trace system ‘not fully operational until September’” written by Sarah Marsh, published on June 4th.

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Sign the WeOwnIt Petition:

Serco is already failing to deliver:

  • The head of Serco has said that the contact tracing system won’t be operational until September and is likely to be “imperfect and clunky”
  • Serco has only tracked 1749 people so far, with many staff sitting idle.
  • Staff say they have no idea what they should be doing, are paid near minimum wage and have had minimum training – a recipe for disaster.

Serco has scammed us before:

  • They were convicted of fraud for the electronic tagging scandal, and fined £23 million
  • Their breast cancer hotline only trained staff for 1 hour before putting them on the phones to talk to distressed patients
  • They falsified NHS data 252 times when they ran a GP out of hours service

They’re not fit to run such an important system to get us out of this pandemic safely. But we’re being asked to trust them with our lives.

Click here to sign the petition.

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Filed under Britain

corona marginalia: timeline of failures

Despite previous claims by the government that it was well-prepared for the coronavirus, Britain is now expected to have one of the highest death tolls in the world. In a video released by Novara Media on April 10th, Aaron Bastani examined precisely what happened in recent months, and how public authorities – broadly unchallenged by the media – let a tragedy unfold:

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Here’s a timeline that refutes Michael Gove and the government’s attempts to shift blame on to Beijing:

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I have added a complementary timeline constructed around notable press reports, TV news and social media items that also focuses on the UK government response throughout the same period and brings the story up to date with today’s revelations in the Sunday Times.

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January 24th

On the third Friday of January a silent and stealthy killer was creeping across the world. Passing from person to person and borne on ships and planes, the coronavirus was already leaving a trail of bodies.

The virus had spread from China to six countries and was almost certainly in many others. Sensing the coming danger, the British government briefly went into wartime mode that day, holding a meeting of Cobra, its national crisis committee.

But it took just an hour that January 24 lunchtime to brush aside the coronavirus threat. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, bounced out of Whitehall after chairing the meeting and breezily told reporters the risk to the UK public was “low”.

This was despite the publication that day of an alarming study by Chinese doctors in the medical journal, The Lancet. It assessed the lethal potential of the virus, for the first time suggesting it was comparable to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed up to 50 million people.

From today’s Sunday Times article entitled “Coronavirus: 38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster” written by Jonathan Calvert, George Arbuthnott and Jonathan Leake.

The same piece continues:

Unusually, Boris Johnson had been absent from Cobra. The committee — which includes ministers, intelligence chiefs and military generals — gathers at moments of great peril such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters and other threats to the nation and is normally chaired by the prime minister. […]

That afternoon his spokesman played down the looming threat from the east and reassured the nation that we were “well prepared for any new diseases”. The confident, almost nonchalant, attitude displayed that day in January would continue for more than a month.

Johnson went on to miss four further Cobra meetings on the virus.

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February 3rd

Boris Johnson speaking in Greenwich:

We are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.

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February 25th 

Bruce Aylward – the epidemiologist who led the recent WHO mission to China – returned from Wuhan, where the crisis began, and gave a warning to the world. China, Aylward explained, had done something extraordinary. It had managed to wrest control of an exponentially expanding epidemic. “When you spend 20, 30 years in this business,” Aylward said, holding up a graph that showed the improbable slowdown in cases across China, “it’s, like, ‘Seriously, you’re going to try and change that [curve] with those tactics?’”

From an article entitled “Government documents show no planning for ventilators in the event of a pandemic” written by Harry Lambert, published in the New Statesman on March 16th.

Here’s Dr Bruce Aylward advising the world to follow China’s example:

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March 3rd

Boris Johnson: “I can tell you that I’m shaking hands continually. I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were actually a few coronavirus patients, and I shook hand with everybody you’ll be please to know, and I continue to shake hands. And I think that it’s very important that – people obviously can make up their own minds” continuing, “… but I think the scientific evidence is… well, I’ll hand over to the experts.”

[Quickly turning and directing attention to Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance who was standing to his left.]

Patrick Vallance: “Wash your hands”

BJ: “Our judgement is washing your hands is the crucial thing.”

The same footage is also available here.

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March 10th

Editor of The Lancet, Richard Horton tweeted:

The UK government – Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson – claim they are following the science. But that is not true. The evidence is clear. We need urgent implementation of social distancing and closure policies. The government is playing roulette with the public. This is a major error.

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March 11th 

[T]he day before Boris Johnson told the nation that the coronavirus sweeping the UK could no longer be contained and that testing for Covid-19 would stop except for the seriously ill in hospital, the head of No 10’s “nudge unit” gave a brief interview to the BBC.

At the time it was barely noticed – it was budget day, after all. With hindsight, it seems astonishing.

“There’s going to be a point, assuming the epidemic flows and grows as it will do, where you want to cocoon, to protect those at-risk groups so they don’t catch the disease,” said Dr David Halpern. “By the time they come out of their cocooning, herd immunity has been achieved in the rest of the population.”

From an article entitled “‘Absolutely wrong’: how UK’s coronavirus test strategy unravelled” written by Sarah Boseley, published in the Guardian on April 1st.

The same article continues:

It was a window into the thinking of the political strategists directing the UK response to Covid-19, who claimed to base what they were doing on scientific evidence. We would let the disease spread among the healthy. So no need to test.

If there was a moment when the UK turned its back on the traditional public health approach to fighting an epidemic, this was it.

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March 12th

[S]peaking after Thursday’s emergency Cobra meeting, the government’s chief scientific officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, said the true total [of cases of coronavirus] was likely to be between 5,000 and 10,000. He said 20 people were being treated for Covid-19 in intensive care units and that the UK was on a trajectory about four weeks behind that of Italy, which has had more than 1,000 deaths.

Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, said that worst-case scenario planning projected that 80% of the country would contract the virus, with a 1% mortality rate. This equates to more than 500,000 deaths.

The prime minister, Boris Johnson, said: “We have all got to be clear, this is the worst public health crisis for a generation. Some people compare it to seasonal flu. Alas, that is not right. Due to the lack of immunity this disease is more dangerous.

“It is going to spread further and I must level with you, I must level with the British public: many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”

From a report entitled “Johnson: many more people will love loved ones to coronavirus” written by Heather Stewart, Kate Proctor and Haroon Siddique, published in the Guardian.

The same article continues:

Johnson said schools would not close and neither did he join Scotland in banning gatherings of more than 500 people, though he warned that major events may be cancelled in future because of the burden they placed on public services during the outbreak.

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March 13th

The World Health Organization has stepped up its calls for intensified action to fight the coronavirus pandemic, imploring countries “not to let this fire burn”, as Spain said it would declare a 15-day state of emergency from Saturday.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director general, said Europe – where the virus is present in all 27 EU states and has infected 25,000 people – had become the centre of the epidemic, with more reported cases and deaths than the rest of the world combined apart from China. […]

Tedros stressed that countries should take a comprehensive approach. “Not testing alone,” he said. “Not contact tracing alone. Not quarantine alone. Not social distancing alone. Do it all. Find, isolate, test and treat every case, to break the chains of transmission … do not just let this fire burn.”

As reported by the Guardian in an article entitled “‘Do not let this fire burn’: WHO warns Europe over Covid-19” written by Jon Henley and Sam Jones.

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March 17th

Sam Coates [from 17:40 mins]: Some people came away from yesterday’s briefing more confused for instance about guidance for the elderly. Do you accept that the buck stops absolutely with you in this crisis? And do you take responsibility for the actions of your father? [after Boris Johnson’s father Stanley had publicly vowed to ignore official government advice]

Johnson: Right, umm, I think I’ve got a bit of a… Patrick [Vallance] why don’t you go first?

Having had plenty of time to think, he then replies at 21:55 mins:

“Of course the buck stops with me and I take full responsibility for all the actions that this government is taking. Decisions we’re taking, difficult though many of them are. And all the advice we’re giving to everybody. What I’d say to people who are thinking about… [inaudible] the more we follow the advice of our scientific and medical advisors, and the more closely we do what they tell us to do, the better our chances collectively of slowing the disease, of protecting the NHS, and of saving life. And also, of course, the better we can protect our NHS, umm, the less economic damage there will ultimately be. And of course people care about pubs, and have a right to care about pubs, and restaurants, but that is why we’re announcing the package, the extraordinary package, that Rishi [Sunak] has just unveiled today. That is the way we should be working to look after our economy.”

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March 21st

Nurses forced to wear binbags at Northwick Park Hospital in London:

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March 22nd

Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s senior aide, became convinced that Britain would be better able to resist a lethal second wave of the disease next winter if Whitty’s prediction that 60% to 80% of the population became infected was right and the UK developed “herd immunity”.

At a private engagement at the end of February, Cummings outlined the government’s strategy. Those present say it was “herd immunity, protect the economy and if it means some pensioners die, too bad”.

At the Sage meeting on March 12, a moment now dubbed the “Domoscene conversion”, Cummings changed his mind. In this “penny-drop moment”, he realised he had helped to set a course for catastrophe. Until this point, the rise in British infections had been below the European average. Now they were above it and on course to emulate Italy, where the picture was bleak. A minister said: “Seeing what was happening in Italy was the galvanising force across government.” 1

Click here to read the full article published by The Sunday Times on March 22nd.

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March 22nd

Channel 4 News spoke with Prof. Helen Ward, Clinical Professor of Public Health at Imperial College, University of London. She began by talking about the latest advice coming from the government:

“Well, there’s a lot of public health specialist senior leaders who’ve been discussing this over the weekend, and I think most of them, like me, will be very disappointed. It seems to me that there are mixed messages. I know that the Prime Minister said that people should reduce their social contacts outside of the home, but has not done anything yet to enforce that.

“Going back to the science, which he says is guiding everything they do, the work that came out of Imperial College said that those social contacts outside the home have to reduce by 75 percent, if this is going to work. Now it’s clear from what’s being shown today that is not happening yet, and therefore closures – of some of the shops that are not necessary, some of the parks, etc – are going to have to be enforced. But more importantly, I think making some restrictions on travel and unnecessary travel.

“At the moment it’s all voluntary and unfortunately people are not sure that they want to do that.” [from 5:10 mins]

Asked whether she was “surprised he didn’t take a tougher stance”, Ward continued:

“I was surprised, because I think that the evidence from elsewhere in the world is that you have to take a really tough stance, and you have to take it early. The places that have actually got this under control and got numbers of cases starting to go down – of new cases – like South Korea; they have had a major investment in testing: very, very widespread testing, contact tracing, and reduction in social contacts.

“If you think you’re going to put these measures in place in four days time, if it doesn’t work now; four days is a lot of extra cases. So I think last week when we had the pubs and clubs and ‘don’t go to them’ not enforced, we lost four days, and then they enforced it. I think we are urging the Prime Minister and the government to take the bold steps that are necessary now, and not wait another four days.” [from 6:40 mins]

In response to the question why Johnson is so slow in enforcing these restrictions, she says:

Well, he actually poses it in terms of a Draconian clampdown, as opposed to people enjoying themselves, and I think that’s the wrong message to be giving to people. That it’s one or the other.

“I think you have to say ‘this is an emergency, we have to get people to comply with this, and we have to do that at a local level’. And I think local authorities are quite right to be taking these measures, and they need to have the backing of the government to enforce them. But it’s not just that.

A lot of communities, and shops, and other things, are actually doing the right thing. They are closing down and shifting towards supporting the most vulnerable. We’ve got hotels saying they’re going to be available, [providing] extra capacity, whether it’s for the NHS, or some have suggested for refuges for people suffering domestic violence as a result of the isolation. There’s many things that could be done, but the Prime Minister does seem to want to be one step behind.” [from 8:15 mins]

With regard to whether Johnson really is, as he repeats, ‘being led by the science’, or in fact driven more by political ideology and his antipathy towards ‘the nanny state’, Ward says:

“I think that the science that is informing this has been good. I do think there’s a lack of experience in public health leadership in helping the government to make those decisions. We do have the CMO and the Scientific Advisor, but there is a huge network of public health expertise around the country that I don’t think is being drawn on enough. People that were communicable disease control experts, who have been planning for epidemics and pandemics for years. I don’t hear their voices enough influencing government.” [from 9:20 mins]

Finally, asked if it is already too late to avoid the crisis now faced by Italy, she says:

“If we want to stop this, if we’re two weeks behind, then we have two weeks to stop that in a sense and we have to start today, because it’s the infections that are occurring today that are spreading in Columbia [Road] Flower Market for example. Those are the infections that in two weeks’ time will be causing deaths and intensive care use, and that’s what we have to try and stop now.

“I think there has to be clearer messaging. It is different in different parts of the world. It’s not just about limiting contact between individuals and [stopping] the spread that way: it’s also between hot spots like London and other parts of the country, and I think we need to look carefully about limiting travel between areas…

“But it takes time, so we need to start that now. Not say we’re going to think about it and maybe do it next week. Next week is another several tens of thousands of cases and more pressure on the NHS and more deaths.” [from 10:05 mins]

 

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March 24th

Johnson and the UK government finally issued stricter instructions that initially called on everyone with the single exception of “key workers” to stay at home:

However, within hours their advice substantially altered following a second tweet which lowered restrictions advising “to go to work (but work from home if possible)”:

 

In additional to this softening of restrictions which left both employers and employees at a loss to understand the new guidelines, the government then issued further instruction to workers on construction sites, who were advised to continue working but practice social distancing – the completely impractical advice that they must keep two metres apart.

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March 31st

BuzzFeed News has spoken to health experts in the UK and across Europe to find out why. The answer, they said, stemmed from Britain’s controversial initial strategy of mitigation of the virus (rather than suppression), rendering testing a secondary concern — an approach which has also contributed to a lack of preparedness and the capacity to carry out tests at scale.

The UK’s mitigation approach was devised by England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty, and chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance. According to a person who has spoken to Whitty and Vallance, they took the view that the UK should not attempt to suppress the outbreak entirely, but rather prioritise protecting the elderly and vulnerable and ensuring the NHS did not become overwhelmed, while allowing the rest of population to build up “herd immunity”.

This strategy meant that widespread testing of every coronavirus case was not a priority for the UK, the person said, since the government’s scientists were assuming that between 60% and 80% of the population would become infected.

Accordingly, no preparations were made to increase manufacturing or imports of testing kits, nor to expand the UK’s laboratory capacity. Imports of testing kits are now extremely difficult as other nations seek more than ever to keep them for their own use. […]

The government has publicly insisted that herd immunity is not the UK’s policy. But the person familiar with Whitty and Vallance’s thinking said they believed it privately remains a long-term objective.

They said they thought the government would continue to prioritise increasing intensive care unit capacity to prevent the NHS from becoming overwhelmed, rather than widespread testing of the population, because they had accepted that a large percentage of the country will become infected in the next 12 to 18 months, before a vaccine is found. 2

Click here to read the full report by Buzzfeed entitled “Even The US Is Doing More Coronavirus Tests Than The UK. Here Are The Reasons Why.”

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April 1st

The failure to obtain large amounts of testing equipment was another big error of judgment, according to the Downing Street source. It would later be one of the big scandals of the coronavirus crisis that the considerable capacity of Britain’s private laboratories to mass produce tests was not harnessed during those crucial weeks of February.

“We should have communicated with every commercial testing laboratory that might volunteer to become part of the government’s testing regime but that didn’t happen,” said the source.

The lack of action was confirmed by Doris-Ann Williams, chief executive of the British In Vitro Diagnostics Association, which represents 110 companies that make up most of the UK’s testing sector. Amazingly, she says her organisation did not receive a meaningful approach from the government asking for help until April 1 — the night before Hancock bowed to pressure and announced a belated and ambitious target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of this month.

The same delay happened with the procurement of PPE.

The NHS could have contacted UK-based suppliers. The British Healthcare Trades Association (BHTA) was ready to help supply PPE in February — and throughout March — but it was only on April 1 that its offer of help was accepted. Dr Simon Festing, the organisation’s chief executive, said: “Orders undoubtedly went overseas instead of to the NHS because of the missed opportunities in the procurement process.”

Also from today’s Sunday Times article: “Coronavirus: 38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster

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April 6th

The government has been accused of missing an opportunity after it failed to deploy 5,000 contact tracing experts employed by councils to help limit the spread of coronavirus.

Environmental health workers in local government have wide experience in contact tracing, a process used to prevent infections spreading and routinely carried out in outbreaks such as of norovirus, salmonella or legionnaires’ disease. But a spokesperson for Public Health England (PHE), which leads on significant outbreaks, said the organisation did not call upon environmental health workers to carry out contact tracing for coronavirus, instead using its own local health protection teams.

According to an article entitled “UK missed coronavirus contact tracing opportunity, experts say” written by Rachel Shabi, published in the Guardian.

The same piece continues:

The institute’s Northern Ireland director, Gary McFarlane, said government health bodies “absolutely should be drawing on the skills set of EHOs [environmental health officers] and if they aren’t, it’s a missed opportunity”. He said: “There is significant capacity that is sitting there for this kind of work to be done.”

PHE’s contact tracing response team was boosted to just under 300 staff, deemed adequate for the containment phase of handling the Covid-19 virus up to mid-March. In that time the team, working around the clock, traced 3,500 people and supported the 3% of contacts found to be infected to self-isolate. Tracing was scaled back when the UK moved to the delay phase of tackling coronavirus in mid-March. It is now carried out in limited form, mainly for vulnerable communities.

Rachel Shabi adds:

The government decision to all but abandon contact tracing is not consistent with WHO guidelines, which urge a test-and-trace approach. At a WHO media briefing on Covid-19 in March, director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “Tracing every contact must be the backbone of the response in every country.”

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April 19th

Speaking on Sky News’ Sophy Ridge, Michael Gove initially insisted a Sunday Times article detailing failures during this period had numerous inaccuracies and would be corrected. But in a subsequent interview on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show, Gove conceded that Boris Johnson missed five consecutive emergency COBR meetings in the buildup to the coronavirus crisis, saying this was normal for a PM:

For the record: The composition of a ministerial-level meeting in COBR depends on the nature of the incident but it is usually chaired by the Prime Minister or another senior minister, with other key ministers as appropriate, city mayors and representatives of relevant external organisations such as the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the Local Government Association.

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1 From an article entitled “Coronavirus: ten days that shook Britain – and changed the nation forever” written by Tim Shipman and Caroline Wheeler, published in The Sunday Times on March 22, 2020. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/coronavirus-ten-days-that-shook-britain-and-changed-the-nation-for-ever-spz6sc9vb

2 From an article entitled “Even The US Is Doing More Coronavirus Tests Than The UK. Here Are The Reasons Why”, written by Alex Wickham, Alberto Nardelli, Katie J. M. Baker & Richard Holmes, published in Buzzfeed News on March 31, 2020. https://www.buzzfeed.com/alexwickham/uk-coronavirus-testing-explainer

Extract from Wikipedia entry as of April 19th. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cabinet_Office_Briefing_Rooms

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thought(s) for the day: eleventh hour musings on Election 2015

A few hours ago I picked up a somewhat blunt pencil at a polling station in the constituency of Sheffield Central and cast my vote. Around the country an estimated 30 million other people will have done likewise by the time the polling stations close at 10 pm. Following which, we must wait, expectantly.

It is too late for persuasion and so this article is purely for the record – I meant to post sooner but simply couldn’t finish it (not satisfactorily — and though it needs further polishing I’m out of time, sorry). Yet the message I have been wishing to convey is a comparatively simple one. That whatever else happens, the Tories and their Lib Dem lackeys must be defeated.

This atrocious Con-Dem Coalition government has failed our nation in every conceivable way, and even if we choose to judge only by economic performance (I have included something on this as an addendum). Indeed, were it not for Rupert Murdoch and his central role in a far dirtier campaign than any since the 70/80s, both government parties would surely have been routed in this election. Shockingly, the Tories may yet hold on to power:

It’s forty years since anybody has won power in a UK general election without the backing of Rupert Murdoch. He’s not happy about the prospect. That’s the explanation for the surreal juxtaposition of the Sun covers from England and Scotland: 1

Image and text taken from one of a sequence of excellent articles written by John Lanchester and published by the London Review of Books.

Under other circumstances, I would have voted for a genuine anti-austerity alternative, either TUSC or Left Unity, however, given the nature of our “first past the post” (FPTP) electoral system, I have opted instead for Labour. The rest is (just) details…

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Five years ago, as the last dregs of the constituency results trickled in at about 4 o’clock, it became clear that there would be no overall victory in the General Election. Instead we had drifted to a stalemate: a hung parliament. And given how our peculiar (and extremely unfair) FPTP system habitually returns majority governments, this state of post-electoral limbo was difficult to grasp, especially as we crawled off late to bed. Next day there was an almost palpable sense that something important had been left undone. Electorus interuptus.

Many of us felt relieved nonetheless, that the Tories had not prevailed with an outright majority, given how the polls had been consistently forecasting a Tory win. At least they had until about a fortnight prior to polling day, when this happened:

Get used to it. The whole 2010 general election changed on the night of Thursday 15 April. It may now stay changed until polling day. Our ICM poll today maps the key elements of this new emerging electoral landscape. The Conservatives, until recently the likely winners on 6 May, now only have 33% support, ensuring a struggle to win enough votes or seats for victory. Labour, previously battling to get on terms with the Tories, have now slumped to 28%, third in votes for the first time since 1983, though strong in seats, courtesy of the first-past-the-post system. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats, given and seizing their chance at last, have surged 10 points into second place. It is possible that what Lord Tebbit yesterday dubbed “the Clegg bubble” may burst between now and 6 May, of course. But don’t rely on that. It is just as possible that another strong performance in this week’s debate will give the Lib Dem wagon another hearty push, send their rivals into tailspins and have Whitehall mandarins scrabbling for Lib Dem telephone numbers. Either way, politics has changed. There is a new electoral reality. And about time too. And doesn’t it actually feel rather good? 2

So began an effusive Guardian editorial, and not since David Steele instructed his party members to “go back to your constituencies and prepare for government”, had centrist hyperbole touched such feverish levels. That in-your-face mantra “get used to it” repeated maniacally at the beginning of every paragraph, and all under a banner that read like a flaccid, if truculent, Lib Dem cry for electoral justice: “Labour would come third by popular vote yet still have the most seats – such a result would plunge British democracy into crisis”. As it transpired, of course, the Tories ultimately prevailed instead, limping into office on the arm of Nick Clegg’s hasty acquiescence, and in spite of the fact that the Lib Dems had actually polled rather disappointingly – as usual.

You may recall too that five years ago the party still had their unique selling point – that long-held and dependable commitment to overhaul our unfair FPTP system and replace it with PR (much more to their own liking). But this didn’t happen. Even as the Lib Dems hitched their own ride into office on the back of the Tory’s miserable failure (a decade in opposition, yet unable to defeat one of the least popular governments in modern history), the Lib Dem leadership still didn’t manage to negotiate a referendum on PR… let alone actually get PR!

Nothing monumental occurred in Election 2010. Labour didn’t come third whether by number of seats or in proportion of outright votes. Quite contrary to the Guardian’s excitable speculation, our democracy was no more “in crisis” post-election than before.

*

Election 2015 is different. This time around a hung parliament is anticipated and there has been almost non-stop speculation on the eventual makeup of our next coalition. In fact, since the campaign proper started, the media have been collectively hung up on hung parliament. So can we trace the roots of this monomania?

We have the polls, of course. And the polls have been quite consistently indicating two outcomes for this election, certainly since the turn of the year. Firstly, north of the border, the forecast has been that Labour will be mauled by the Scottish Nationalists (SNP) – and the size of that mauling seemingly gets bigger every time they run the latest poll (a daily occurrence for some reason) – and secondly, south of the border, the polls suggest Labour are unable to take the lead over the Tories. But then why should we trust the opinion polls? History testifies to their unreliability – as when the Lib Dem share was blown up out of all proportion in 2010:

In the run-up to the UK general election few people would have predicted a Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition goverment – and fewer still that the Lib Dems would actually lose seats despite their popularity in the polls. […]

A record total of nine polls based wholly or mostly on interviewing conducted in the final few days of the campaign were published during its final hours. Their success at anticipating the eventual outcome can only be regarded as ‘mixed’. […]

The exit poll caused such surprise because its projection for the Liberal Democrats was at variance with the predictions of the final polls, which had suggested that the much-vaunted surge in favour of Nick Clegg’s party had carried through to polling day. It was on this point that the polls were wrong, significantly overestimating Liberal Democrat support for the first time in recent polling history. 3

The reliability of polls obviously depends upon people telling complete strangers how they intend to behave at a moment in the future. But then, the only thing at stake when you are cornered by a pollster is your street cred. As a consequence, it turns out, that those polled are inclined to say they will vote for the more exotic alternatives, but then, when it comes to making any real commitment, people tend to revert to habit. Their final X put beside the devil they already knew:

Twenty-seven per cent. That’s the number of people who told ICM/Guardian this January that they intend to vote for what we used to call ‘another’ party. It’s probably not news to anyone that UKIP, the SNP and the Greens are all making the kind of in-roads into traditional voting patterns that many commentators think could result in a complete overhaul of the political map. […]

Will all these people who tell pollsters that their cross will go against an emerging party actually turn out and vote for them? Here are a few examples of when the answer was ‘no’. Most will remember Cleggmania in 2010. Some final polls had the Liberal Democrats on 29% and the average was more than 27%, but the Lib Dems ended up with roughly the same 23% they achieved five years earlier. […]

I’ll leave you with a couple of stats. ICM re-interviewed UKIP and Green intenders after the 2010 election to understand what they ended up doing: only 60% of UKIP intenders voted for them, only 42% of Green intenders voted for their own pre-election choice. 4

Trust in polls also depends upon having trust in the independence of the polling agencies themselves, so what are we to make of fact that this time around many of the polls are sponsored by former Conservative Party Deputy-Chairman, Lord Ashcroft – a man with such a unenviable record for dodgy dealing that he is better known to many as “Lord Sleaze from Belize” (Belize being the tax haven he calls home):

[But] by and large, Lord Aschcroft’s increasing influence over British politics has passed unchallenged. And that’s strange, for a number of reasons.

Firstly it’s strange because there are legitimate questions to be asked about the accuracy and reliability of what have euphemistically become termed “The Ashcroft Polls”. As I say, there was a lot of comment over the weekend about the new Sheffield Hallam poll. But it wasn’t new. It was first published back in November, and at that time showed Nick Clegg 3 points ahead. That week, Antony Wells of Yougov identified errors in the published data, leading Lord Ashcroft to revise Clegg’s lead down to three points behind. Lord Ashcroft then reviewed two other polls, one for Thanet South and another for Doncaster North. A published lead of 5 points for the Conservatives in Thanet should in fact have been 1 point. A published 29 point lead for Labour in Doncaster should in fact have been 30 points.

Nor was this the first time mistakes like this had been indentified [sic]. The Doncaster poll was also first published back in November. It generated a lot of excitement at the time, because it showed Ed Miliband only a relatively slender 12 points ahead of UKIP in his seat. But again, Anthony Wells identified an error in the data. And once it had been corrected, it showed Ed Miliband 29 points ahead, not 12. [that’s quite a discrepancy!]

So writes Dan Hodges in an article published in The Telegraph (traditionally the most rightwing broadsheet of our Tory-centric press). Hodges wonders if Ashcroft, a Conservative peer, might have an agenda of any kind…

What does Lord Ashcroft want? Not a quiet life, certainly. Last week saw him again setting the political agenda, with a raft of constituency polling in Scotland showing Labour heading for electoral annihilation and the SNP poised to emerge as kingmakers after the poll.

And what possible interest could a former Conservative Party Deputy-Chairman and a Tory peer have for providing evidence that “Labour is heading for electoral annihilation”? None at all that I can think of… although as Hodges points out:

Yet just because he has no clear agenda, it doesn’t mean he has no agenda. While donating to the Tory party, he tried to focus his efforts on specific candidates and constituencies. As he said back in 2005: “I much prefer to be involved, to make sure that my investment is wisely placed.”

Lord Ashcroft wants something. It may be an improvement in the nature of our national political discourse. It may be a more informed electorate. It may just be a ring-side seat for the greatest political show in town. 5

Or maybe this “something” Ashcroft wants is connected to his longstanding association with the Conservative Party… who knows, hey?

*

Let us cast our minds back again, to recall how a majority of voices in the media had been quite insistent that the country was heading for ‘another’ Tory victory – I put ‘another’ in inverted commas because although it was routinely presented as something of a repeat performance, little mention was made of the rather awkward fact that the Tories don’t in fact enjoy a majority, having failed to hold one since the heady days of John Major’s government.

Nevertheless, twelve months ago the mainstream was chock-full with opinion that the Tories were all-but home and dry in the forthcoming General Election, until that is, out of a less than clear blue sky, there were UKIP successes first in the council elections and then more spectacularly in the Euro-elections. This dent to Tory morale was swiftly followed up with the Tory to UKIP defections of Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, and consequently, an already precarious Tory minority was suddenly a lot more wobbly.

Like an oil tanker changing course, the media apparatus corrected its position, a little. Given that a Tory majority was no longer such a nailed-on certainty, they concluded in unison, we could, in all likelihood, expect a hung parliament. It is this prospect of another hung parliament that the media has latched on to ever since, as if majority governments per se have become an endangered species.

Indeed, “rainbow coalition” has since become the media’s main infatuation, endlessly touted, not merely as inevitable, but as vital to ensuring some renewed vigour in our clapped-out political system. Politics, the media commentators have been routinely informing us, is so completely transformed from five years ago, that (to steal from the Guardian editorial again) we’d better get used to it. To a political landscape that is more “diffuse”, more dynamic, and just more damned interesting (apparently)! We have seldom witnessed such certainty about uncertainty.

Since the election officially kicked off (what feels like a lifetime ago) all of our TV channels have thus been emblazoned with multicoloured logos. Of course, the media enjoys offering its audience the perception of a broader variety of choices. Variety generates interest, which in turn sells election coverage.

In our deeply consumerist society, in which political alternatives are sold to us as party brands, any perception of broader variety actually suits politicians too. As in other branches of sales, greater choice translates into increased customer demand, which means our faltering interest in party politics gets a shot in the arm. The rainbow graphics serve this end: portraying a more multifaceted election. It’s a win-win for both politicians and the media alike, helping each to flog more of the other…

But could the news media be subliminally urging us to vote for a coalition government? I’ve put a question mark there, but only because there is no recognised punctuation mark to more perfectly convey a raised eyebrow. Certainly there are agendas lurking extremely close to the surface. (In fact, long before I finished writing this, one in particular had erupted through that surface altogether!)

*

Tory strategy has been to hurt Labour on two interconnected fronts. Firstly, they aim to weaken them in England scaring voters with the spectre of a Nationalist threat having influence at Westminster. Secondly, they talk up the SNP in Scotland to further undermine Labour. Both increase the prospect of Cameron remaining in Downing Street after the election. This is smart short-term electoral tactics, but one far removed from the pro-union message in the indyref. 6

So writes Gerry Hassan, Research Fellow in cultural policy at the University of the West of Scotland – but I’ll come back his article later.

Now, when I came across this many weeks ago, I thought it sounded far-fetched enough to need supporting. So I had intended to frame it in such a way as to gently convince the skeptical reader. For instance, I had decided to refer back to BBC’s weekly political panel show, Question Time, when on April 2nd, journalist Peter Hitchens raised the issue of what he saw as “an unholy alliance” forming between Conservatives and SNP. Hitchens was the first political commentator to draw mainstream attention to the strategy.

And why, I then wondered, was Chief Tory Whip, Michael Gove (on the same outing of QT) also gushing with enthusiasm and praise for SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s performance during that same night’s “seven leaders debate” (on ITV immediately prior to QT). What had brought the Tory bigwig Gove to be waxing altogether lyrical about the remarkable talents of (presuming we accept the hype) such a progressive radical as Sturgeon?

Furthermore, it wasn’t just Gove who had been wooed over by SNP leader Sturgeon. A fortnight later, on the QT broadcast immediately following the five leaders debate on BBC1 (a debate which both Cameron and Clegg declined invitations to join, preferring to keep their heads down), it was Conservative Party Chairman, Grant Shapps, who was overeager in his praise Sturgeon’s follow-up performance, saying he thought “frankly she ran rings around Ed Miliband”.

So in short, I had noted this canoodling long ago (about the time I first began drafting the post), but then, all of a sudden, what was merely alternative speculation had breached its allotted confinement and the mainstream were pumping for all it was worth, while every man and his dog jumped in to offer their two pennies (Tory old guard being particular keen to chip in). Soon we had John Major, Michael Forsyth, Malcolm Rifkind and even Norman Tebbit all at it. For instance, Tebbit, who is highly critical of this no longer covert Tory strategy said on April 21st:

“What I find puzzling now is the prime minister’s position that the SNP is far worse than Labour because, if so, as there are not many seats in Scotland where the Conservative Party has a chance to win, the logic would seem to be that Conservatives should vote tactically for Labour as the lesser of two evils.

“I think it’s a huge scare tactic against Labour and whether the particular seat in the House of Commons is occupied by a Labour member or an SNP member perhaps it’s not a great difference.

“Having bungled the Scottish referendum it seems pointless to just irritate Scots by shouting at them from Westminster – the English are irritated into voting for UKIP, by being shouted at from Westminster – and the Scots are irritated similarly.’ He said, “the risk to the union comes from the SNP, not from anyone else.” 7

*

Although we can actually trace a love-in between influential figures from the centre-right (Tory right, if you prefer) and leading lights of the SNP much further back again. The love that dare not speak its name is not the novelty it might first appear:

Murdoch and [former SNP leader] Salmond, the Scottish first minister have always had a friendly relationship. In February 2012 Murdoch tweeted: “Alex Salmond clearly most brilliant politician in UK. Gave Cameron back of his hand this week. Loved by Scots.”

In notable contrast to the aloofness which characterises how Westminster MP’s now deal with Murdoch and News UK, Salmond is still (even in this post-Leveson and phone-hacking environment) ready to admit to affection for the media magnate – who had a Scottish grandfather.

Asked by Alistair Campbell in April’s GQ if he liked Murdoch, he stated: “I do. He is a remarkable man. What is wrong with this relationship? Why shouldn’t politicians engage with people in the media?”

And, let’s remember too, that it was Murdoch’s Sunday Times which on September 7th published the famous YouGov opinion poll which put the “Yes” vote two points ahead in the independence referendum – the only poll during the referendum to put “Yes” ahead, and coming at such a critical moment in the immediate run-up to the vote itself. Not that polls can ever be rigged, of course, how dare anyone suggest such a thing…

Whilst on the evening before that rather remarkable poll, Rupert Murdoch had tweeted: “London Times will shock Britain and more with reliable new poll on Scottish independence. If right on 18th vote everything up for grabs.”

And then the next day followed up with: “Salmond’s private polls predict 54-46 Yes. Desperate last ten days ahead for both sides. Most powerful media, BBC, totally biased for No.”

But on this occasion, it was the polls that were wrong (yet again), rather than the BBC. So, aside from the fact that he’s a politician, why exactly has Alex Salmond been kissing up to Murdoch? (Or is it the other way around?) John Jewell, who is Director of Media Studies at Cardiff University, makes the following observations in a fascinating article (from which the quotes above are also drawn) entitled “How Rupert Murdoch is sticking his oar into Scotland’s independence referendum”:

We know from the Leveson Inquiry and subsequent admissions that Salmond planned to lobby the UK government on Murdoch’s behalf in News Corporation’s bid to take over BskyB completely in 2010.

We know, too, that Murdoch and Salmond met in Edinburgh 2012, in a meeting described by the first minister’s office as “very constructive”. Under discussion was: “News Corporation’s substantial economic footprint in Scotland … and the potential for further investment within the country.”

Rumour had it at the time, in speculation fuelled by former Murdoch acolytes Andrew Neil and Kelvin Mackenzie, that Murdoch was prepared to move BskyB to Scotland in the event of independence.

Jewell adds:

Tittle tattle maybe, but there is no denying that the proposal to cut corporation tax in an independent Scotland to 3p below the UK rate would prove attractive to any multinational company. 8

Click here to read the full article at The Conversation.

I do agree with Murdoch on one point here – perhaps the only point we could ever possibly agree on – which is how the BBC is “totally biased”. But then, no matter how hard ‘Aunty’ tries to pretend otherwise, she is, and always has been, a willing arm of the British establishment. Come the independence referendum, and given the first B in BBC, it would be astonishing if they had been otherwise; any break-up of the Union immediately prompting the likely break-up of the corporation itself. Turkeys and Christmas, anyone?

So doubtless the BBC were one-sided during the referendum, although I would say that their coverage since has been more than favourable to the SNP. By contrast, of course, Rupert Murdoch’s own considerable media empire operates as the very epitome of impartiality, as everyone knows…

No, sorry, I meant this one:

Strange hey. How The Scottish Sun is backing “the Nats” as the gallant underdogs, whilst simultaneously The Sun (its sister tabloid in England) talks up our wonderful Tory government and frets about how it might be “brought down by the few dozen MPs of the left-wing [a swearword in The Sun] Scottish Nationalists” who will usher into power their “puppet” Ed Miliband. Now this really is balance – isn’t it?

This pincer attack is the same Tory strategy again, of course. The singular intention to reduce the Labour share of the vote with both editorials effectively saying (in differing ways) that SNP stand on the verge of a landslide victory. North of the border this message continues: “Get used to it” (where have we heard that before?); whereas the southern edition scaremongers that “If the Tories cannot get the votes to stop them [meaning SNP] ruling the roost down here, we are in for five years of mayhem and misery”.

Yet the oddest part of this now wide open agenda is what Peter Hitchens, speaking on BBC’s weekly political panel show, Question Time, on April 2nd, described as “an unholy alliance” between Conservatives and SNP. According to Hitchens, himself a dyed-in-the-wool, old-style Tory (a firebrand reactionary and someone I try not to agree with), there is an unmistakable and curiously overt New Tory attempt to bolster SNP support with the deliberate intention of breaking the Union – the very thing the old party (formally known as the Conservative and Unionist Party) served to protect. A week earlier, writing in his Daily Mail blog, Hitchens even had this to say:

Which UK party do the Scottish Nationalists most want to do well in the coming election? Might they prefer the Tories? And might the Tories, deep down, also prefer a Scottish exit from the UK to the continuing Union they claim to support? Is this the love that dare not speak its name?

The reason, Hitchens claims, is that otherwise there will never be a future Conservative government in Britain ever again (and here’s hoping):

The Tory party’s best hope of a getting a Westminster majority again is to get rid of Scotland.  A UK shorn of Scotland would produce a Tory majority Parliament and so at least temporarily halt the slow but accelerating death of the Tory Party.  But time is short. The core Tory vote is (literally) dying in droves as it is composed almost entirely of older voters. It is not being replaced. And as the new mass migrants become UK citizens, they are unlikely to become Tory voters.  The break must happen soon if the Tory party is to regain its lost ability to govern with an absolute majority, and all the fundraising and other advantages that come with that status.

He concludes:

What if the Tories and the SNP both ended up helping each other to get what they wanted – a Tory majority government at Westminster, and Scotland gone from the UK? A phrase from my childhood – ‘accidentally on purpose’ – springs to mind. 9

*

It is curious that, for different but clearly interconnected reasons, there has been a surge in the support of not one, but two nationalist parties. Nationalists with diametrically opposing outlooks. Yes, UKIP and the SNP are exceedingly strange adversaries. So let us briefly turn from the SNP to consider their grotesque ugly sister nemesis, UKIP.

UKIP and their leader Nigel Farage are hard to separate – impossible, in fact. He dominates his motley UKIP crew more than any British political leader since the days of Margaret Thatcher – and comparison with Thatcherism does not end there. Like Mrs T, Mr F somehow manages to blame the EU for most of our society’s many ills, but then placing blame on an outside menace is a tried and tested demagogic strategy. And as it goes, the EU presents him with a perfect target. Its unelected commissioners are indeed in the pockets of multinationals, while the ECB operates as an unprincipled organ of the financial oligarchs. The people of Greece or Spain or Portugal are in the best position to judge the works of the EU Commission or the ECB – two-thirds of “The Troika” – and a majority would agree that the agencies are not only incompetent and heavy-handed, but callous, corrupt and parasitical. And in Greece, Spain, and Portugal, it is better if you don’t mention the role of the Germans…

One protester recently took her complaint directly to former Vice Chairman of Goldman Sachs and current President of the ECB, Mario Draghi. Interestingly, Forbes magazine last year nominated Draghi as 8th most powerful person in the world, but they had yet to see him cowering beneath his table when confronted by a smallish woman throwing confetti and demanding that he “end ECB dictatorship”:

A very reasonable demand.

Even Farage’s poisonous alarmism about an insidious invasion by Bulgarian migrants is rooted in a more justifiable concern. For why have consecutive British governments dropped our nation’s border controls with countries significantly more economically deprived than we are? This policy was bound to lead to increased downward pressure on pay and conditions for workers at home, whilst boosting the profits of the exploitative bosses and gangmasters. But none of this is anywhere near to the top of UKIP’s true concerns. Immigrants are the scapegoats, and this anti-Europe line is UKIP’s preferred wrapper, just as the Union Jack is its other wrapper. No amount of make-up can disguise UKIP’s frothing at the mouth.

On the one hand, Ukippers claim to be libertarians, which in Britain translates more than loosely as Thatcherite – free market and pro-austerity – whilst, on the other, they feign to be radicals when are very evidently reactionaries, and thus more Thatcherite still – a mix of Alf Garnetts and Colonel Blimps (more often Major Blimps and Captain Blimps). Little Englanders who simply can’t abide Johnny Foreigner. Which is why UKIP appeals mainly to those who would love to be able to vote for Thatcher, if only she wasn’t quite so dead… and why they offer very little in the way of true opposition to Labour. Instead, the serious threat to Labour’s vote is decidedly north of the border. UKIP, meantime, pose a genuine threat to the Tory’s share of the vote – and in splitting the traditional Tory vote, I personally wish them every success!

The big thing that connects the rise of UKIP with the rise of the SNP is that many who have traditionally voted either Labour or Conservative are likewise desperate for real change. In offering themselves up as alternatives, UKIP and SNP are trying to pool support from disaffected voters with drastically alternative outlooks. But beware: all nationalism feeds upon division.

There was a time, not so long ago, when SNP were shunned by those on the left (as nationalists customarily are) and disparaged for being “Tories in tartan”. But the great wonder of nationalism is that by tying oneself to a flag rather than being anchored to a secure political creed, one is able to flutter freely and change direction at a whim. A quick overhaul of political livery and the flag is still billowing beautifully. Thus the SNP, on seeing how the wind had turned, adroitly put on the guise of an anti-austerity party. Tartan Tories no longer, but relaunched as McSyriza.

Likewise, UKIP, once just a sad and lonely hangout for embittered True Blue Tories, have recently been trying quite hard to reposition themselves within the main current of our times. After all, given how the European Commission and the ECB are two of the worst pro-austerity bullies – this is irrefutable – then anyone who opposes them must be anti-austerity almost by exclusion, or something. But as a tactic, this has its limits, especially when the leader of your party, the son of a stockbroker, is himself an unrepentant City of London commodity trader. Never mind though, the austerity card can still be played, occasionally and with extreme caution. Meanwhile, to get around the background checks, Farage prefers to highlight how he actually held down a “real job” unlike all those Oxbridge pretenders from the other parties – which they are, every other one (approximately) holding a degree in PPE from Oxford University (a degree that puts strong emphasis on that E and with neo-liberal silently prefixed). So no wonder our choice of political alternatives has become dreary, and so narrowly defined. Such a shame our nation is no longer led by real men who drink pints and smoke fags and do “real jobs” like former City of London trader Farage…

As an illustration of this tightening political convergence, just think about TTIP for a moment. Here’s a quick reminder of what we know about TTIP:

Now, if we ask Nicola Sturgeon whether she and her party are in favour of the so-called “free trade agreement” she will reply that she is, although with reservations. She will point out the need for ‘robust’ negotiations ensuring exclusions for the NHS. Ed Miliband will say almost precisely the same thing, if similarly pressed. Alternatively, if you ask Nigel Farage this question, keeping in mind that we are talking about a clandestine EU treaty that will effectively mark the beginning of the end to the very existence of the nation state, rather than challenging it, he instead recommends the UK negotiate our own (secret) free trade deals with America, but in half the time it takes to cut through all of the red tape from Brussels.

In short, there are no mainstream parties large or small that are not captured and beholden to the corporatocracy. All five are sold out to differing degrees (to be fair, the Greens are officially opposed to TTIP but their limited record in power in Brighton is extremely poor and the “Green surge” is, in any case, a will-o-the-wisp). So voting in this election can only be a damage limitation exercise at best. Which brings me to ask simply this: which of the parties is the lesser of these evils? In England the answer is rather obvious, but in Scotland… back to Gerry Hassan:

Beneath this the differences between Labour and SNP are less than first appear, but magnified by language, tribalism and intense electoral competition.

A British Election Survey at the end of last year showed that SNP voters thought they were the most left-wing of Scotland’s mainstream parties and their party the most left-wing with Labour as significantly to their right; while Labour voters thought the same of themselves and their party, and placed the SNP to their right. 10

So, when it comes to which of the two is the more radical (a tallest dwarf contest if ever there was one) it is all in the eye of the beholder, whilst what actually encourages some Scottish voters to discriminate for and against goes back to the positions each assumed during the independence referendum: Labour penalised for its partnership with the Tories (as if it really had a choice given the circumstances) in the “Better Together” campaign.

*

A friend said to me recently, that if we don’t trust the polls, then what do we have to go on? Not much. Mostly, we have those election results in the European, council and bi-elections, all of which came as bad news for anyone hoping to see the return of a Tory government (coalition or otherwise). So the post-referendum rise of the SNP has been a tremendous boon to flagging Tory morale. But what are we to make of the media’s role in other ways?

The media has been hypercritical of Ed Miliband from the very beginning. But given that so much of the media (especially the press) is Tory supporting (much of it overtly so), this ought to come as little surprise. Nor should it have come as any surprise that the same media once gave Tony Blair the thumbs up. Murdoch’s press, in particular, praising him to the rafters. But then, Blair was not merely an establishment favourite, he also managed to ingratiate himself into the Murdoch household to such a degree that he was honoured as godfather to Rupert’s daughter, Grace:

Is any of this reminiscent of another of today’s leading political figures?

In contrast to Blair, Ed Miliband has been dismissed as a nerd who looks like Wallace and worse, he struggles to eat a bacon sandwich with the least bit of conviction (incidentally, he should have sacked his own advisors for that preposterous stunt). He’s just too weak, they tell us, to lead the country. But worse, apparently he quite literally “stabbed his own brother in the back.”

Understood properly, what the media are reminding us here is how the New Labour baton was supposed to have been passed to elder brother David, the designated and rightful heir to the kingdom of Tony Blair. However, Ed somehow got in the way… whatever happened to primogeniture? Neither the establishment, nor the media that speaks for it, have forgiven such impropriety.

Leading the charge against the usurper has been a familiar face. The boss of News Corp who recently tweeted: “Cameron’s Tories bash vulnerable Miliband for months with no effect on polls. Need new aspirational policies to have any hope of winning.”

And according to an article in The Independent, Murdoch may be out to get Ed for reasons other than mere party politics:

It is understood that Mr Murdoch reminded executives that Labour would try to break up News UK, which owns The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times. The party has suggested that no owner should be allowed to control more than 34 per cent of the UK media, a cap which would force News UK to sell one of the titles.

It has also pledged to implement recommendations in the Leveson report for an independent press regulator backed by statute, bitterly opposed by Murdoch. Mr Miliband has made “standing up” to Mr Murdoch over the phone-hacking affair a central plank in his attempts to persuade voters that he is a strong leader. A source said: “Rupert made it very clear he was unhappy with The Sun’s coverage of the election. He basically said the future of the company was at stake and they need to get their act together.” 11

Miliband is weak? Well, not if he really does stand up to Murdoch and News Corp. In any case, as Murdoch unhappily concedes, the Tory strategy of playing the man instead of the ball has largely failed.

Two and a half years ago I personally heckled Ed Miliband during a speech he made at a rally in London. I make no apologies. After all, how dare anyone climb onto the stage of an anti-austerity protest and call for cuts. So it pains me to say that we must hope Miliband is our next PM.

But Ed Miliband is not Tony Blair, and he has already shown backbone when it matters. When he held his ground and – along with the support of a number of Tory defectors (I like to give credit wherever it is due…), though no support from Lib Dems (…but not to forgive easily) – was able to defeat the government on a vote for war, something unheard of. The Nato attack against Syria was thwarted largely thanks to Miliband; winning a Commons’ vote that spared countless lives. Of course, having opposed not only Obama, but the entire Anglo-American war party, he immediately took more flak. The “special relationship” was supposedly damaged beyond repair, the media bleated in unison in the weeks that followed. Warmongering gibberish peddled by a news media drunk on decades of senseless bloodletting.

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Our public services are close to breaking point (some will say already past it), so what if anything will survive another five years of Tory cuts? And harsher, deeper cuts, as they have kept on promising us. Meanwhile, how divided will the nation be once more wealth has been transferred from the destitute to the superrich, even as the national debt continues rising because of “austerity”. New Labour are very much responsible for this trend too, but in fairness to Ed Miliband, he was hardly central to their neo-liberal programme. I believe we should at least give him a chance (I never said the same for Tony Blair).

My expectations of Labour remain low, but a change of political direction is as desperately as it is urgently required – and what begins as a small change might be accelerated as other nations such as Greece push the same demands. In the longer term, we can obviously do much better than New Labour, but just how “New” Labour is Ed Miliband? When asked why he voted against brother David, he replied that his own political outlook is radically different. I hope there is truth to this – although if Ed Miliband is elected into office, then we must be ready to hold his feet to the fire.

I try to steer clear of making predictions on this blog (for obvious reasons) but I am about to make a slight exception… I believe that Labour can win this election, and that even an outright majority should not be ruled out of hand. After all, prior to the last election our FPTP system delivered majority governments time and again. Has politics really changed so much in just five years? Of course, it could be that the Tories get a majority instead, however, there are other reasons to believe that Labour are more likely to win. Threefold reasons and ones that have next to nothing to do with Ed Miliband himself.

Firstly, the collapse in the Lib Dem share will most likely return to Labour. Secondly, UKIP have wounded the Conservatives – a right-wing split that is reminiscent of the SDP splitting the left in the 1980s. Although I seriously doubt UKIP will gain many, if any, seats (I certainly hope they don’t, but neither did the SDP), even without taking seats they may undermine the Tories who hold marginal seats. Thirdly, one victory which the Lib Dems did achieve during their miserable stint in government was to block Conservative attempts to redraw constituency boundaries. This was in tit-for-tat retaliation after the Tories reneged on their Coalition commitment to House of Lords reform. 12 However, the consequence of this is very much to Labour’s advantage:

Labour can reach a Commons majority with a smaller lead in the vote than the Conservatives can, all else being equal. The past two elections illustrate this: in 2005, Tony Blair turned less than three percentage points into a Commons majority of more than 50, while five years later David Cameron fell nearly 20 seats short of a majority despite a seven-point vote lead. This advantage to Labour has several sources – Labour constituencies tend to have fewer people, turnout is lower in Labour-held seats, and Labour has traditionally lost fewer seats to third parties. The Labour vote is also more “efficient”. The ideal in our system is “win small, lose big” – the fewer votes spent on crushing victories or narrow defeats, the better the return of seats to votes. Labour’s vote is closer to this ideal – fewer mega-majorities, and a better record of wins in tight races. 13

Thus the stage is set. UKIP poised to steal votes away from the Conservatives and hopefully to finally break the party in two. But, and this is the real sticking point, the SNP will undoubtedly grab votes from Labour. So the outcome is actually dependent upon the results of these two lesser battles: Conservative v. UKIP and Labour v. SNP.

I appreciate that many in Scotland will be encouraged to vote SNP either to punish Labour or else in the hope of landing a better deal for Scotland – and why not be self-interested. But let’s face facts, SNP are not Syriza, nothing like them – and perhaps, as I suspect, more closely akin to the Lib Dems of five years ago. As one who fell for the Lib Dem scam, I feel obliged to (rather belatedly) caution you.

Should the vote in Scotland go solidly the way of the SNP then it may pave the way for an unthinkable outcome – Conservatives failing to win a majority (as they likely will) yet winning most seats overall and somehow thereafter cobbling together a second Tory coalition. Can we even begin to imagine how ruined our nation (Scotland very much included) will be if there are five more years of rule by the Tories? I sincerely hope we are not about find out.

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Addendum:

The national debt figures are out – £1.2 trillion and rising – and although I hate to say it, the Labour Party has a valid point to make. If you don’t adjust for inflation, Osborne has borrowed more in under four years than the Labour Party borrowed over 13 years.

So wrote Fraser Nelson, editor of Conservative mouthpiece The Spectator magazine in an article published in November 2013. To back his claim, the same article featured this graph captioned “Osborne borrows more in 5 years than Labour did in 13”:

Nelson concludes:

Is this recovery real, or another debt-fuelled illusion? The annoying truth is that we just don’t know. 14

For a multitude of reasons we really do know… Indeed, many of the reasons are outlined in an article published almost a year later, as the general election campaigns were just beginning to limber up, by Telegraph (another Conservative mouthpiece obviously) finance correspondent Liam Halligan. He begins with some basic bean-counting:

When the Tories took office, total government debt was £811bn. On last week’s figures, it’s now £1,451bn – an 80pc rise in just five years, with a lot more to come. This national debt matters. It must be serviced with regular interest payments, diverting money from front-line public services. Even at rock-bottom interest rates, the Government spends as much on debt interest annually as on defence. As the national debt escalates, courtesy of £100bn-plus annual deficits, and as interest rates inevitably rise, we’ll soon be spending more on government debt service than on state education.

Halligan then gets stuck into the meat of his own worries (of which I am only providing a taster):

I remain deeply concerned about our national debt, not only because of the absurdity of vast debt service payments, the damage to coming generations and the incentive politicians have to “inflate the debt away”. I also worry that our vast liabilities could ultimately spark another systemic meltdown, not least because such a high share of UK government debt is now owned by foreign creditors. And that makes our public finances extremely vulnerable if there’s a considerable weakening of the pound.

This issue has been on my mind for a while, but recently crystallised while talking to friends at the Social Market Foundation (SMF) think-tank, where I’ve long served on the advisory board. As a result of quantitative easing, around a third of the UK’s gilt stock is owned by the Bank of England. That’s right, 32pc of our government bonds have been bought by our central bank, using virtually printed money. That’s helped to rig the market, keeping interest rates artificially low.

All of which sounds like a “debt-fuelled illusion” to me, and Halligan is justifiably concerned that “such a high share of UK government debt is now owned by foreign creditors”. He continues:

The UK recently chalked up the largest external trade shortfall in our history, with our so-called current account deficit registering well over 5pc of GDP. While our imports have long outweighed our exports, our net income on overseas government investment and assets has recently swung from a surplus of 3pc of GDP to a deficit of over 2pc.

A lot of the explanation for that is the vast interest payments the Government now makes to the raft of foreign creditors propping up our public finances. 15

The systemic failures which led to the banking crisis of 2008 have never been remedied and instead the can was kicked down the road. What Gordon Brown started, the Con-Dem coalition have simply continued, and as a consequence of complete lack of reregulation of the financial markets, we can expect that the next crisis, whenever it comes (and the can might yet be kicked a lot further) will be far bigger than the first. Meanwhile, as the debt burden mounts, there can be no significant economic recovery so long as further money is simply wasted on banker bailouts and debt repayments instead of being invested in infrastructure and services. “Austerity”, meaning cuts to all government spending aside from its debt repayments, is a form of wealth transfer from the poor to the rich.

This is why the Con-Dem government have failed by every single count including their own narrowly determined neo-liberal measures. So that not only do we have a million people who have been so impoverished over the last five years that they are now dependent upon food banks; and a workforce so blighted and demoralized by the insecurity and unreliability of zero hour contracts; and even our mediocre GDP figures bolstered on account of drug use and prostitution (two commodities set to grow as the depression deepens); but worst of all, the imposed “austerity” hasn’t diminished the deficit, let alone the debt. In fact, the only real growth this country has seen has been in the wealth gap:

The UK is the only G7 country to record rising wealth inequality in 2000-14. Wealth inequality has risen four times faster in the seven years after the crash compared with the seven years before. The rich in the UK are becoming richer faster than ever. Wealth inequality rose under Labour; it rose faster under the coalition. 16

Under the circumstances, I find it hard to comprehend how either the Tories or their lickspittle accomplices, the Lib Dems, could possibly be re-elected, even with the might of Murdoch’s media empire behind them. Certainly bribery may help and Cameron has been offering temptations like there’s no tomorrow: “right to buy” houses, free childcare and even a quick bonanza from the sale of shares in Lloyds. Fiscal responsibility? For the price of re-election, “austerity” be damned! Hopefully there really will be no tomorrow for this atrocious Tory government, but if they do somehow manage to limp across the line and survive for another term in office then here’s the genius who will be back in charge of rescuing broke(n) Britain:

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Update:

The punch in stomach surprise of a Tory majority shocked and sickened many of us, and not only those on the left. Right-wing commentator, Peter Hitchens, was also called to account over his prediction (referred to and reprinted in the piece above) that the Tories would probably never be able to achieve such a result. In an extended reply to his critics entitled “Groundhog Day Comes Round Again” [published Friday 8th – the day after the election] he wrote:

I never for a moment imagined that Big Money and Big Lies could so successfully scare, cajole and diddle the electorate of this country. I grew up in a Britain both better-educated and more honest than the one we have today. Perhaps that is why I could not see this possibility. I have not seen, in my lifetime, a campaign so dishonest, so crude, so based in fear and so redolent of third-world and banana republic political tactics.

On which, I entirely concur. Indeed, I find that Hitchens, whose political perspective differs from mine by very nearly 180 degrees, frequently offers a more perceptive and interesting take than other mainstream commentators when surveying the bigger picture. Looking beyond his old school, reactionary opinions, which leave an altogether bitter taste in the mouth, his broader analysis of the wretched state of contemporary politics too often strikes a major chord – as here:

The truth is that both major parties are now just commercial organisations, who raise money wherever they can get it to buy their way into office through unscrupulous election campaigns. They then presumably reward their donors once they are in office. The electorate are a constitutional necessity for this process, but otherwise their fears, hopes and desires are largely irrelevant. They are to be fooled and distracted with scares (‘The other lot will privatise the NHS!’ ‘The other lot will nationalise your children’s toys and then wreck the economy!’ ) or with loss-leader cut-rate offers, like supermarkets (‘Vote for us and get a cheap mortgage!!’ ‘Vote for us and have your rent frozen!’) . Even if these wild pledges are implemented, the customer will pay for them through higher taxes elsewhere, just as with supermarket loss-leaders.

By playing our part in this ludicrous pantomime, we license it to continue forever. I have thought for years that the key to ending it was simple and obvious. We could revenge ourselves on these fakes by refusing to vote for them. The arrival of new parties, UKIP on one side, the Greens on the other, made such a revolt and redemption even easier.

But I must now admit that the people of this country actually seem to prefer to live the same experience over and over again, and seem astonishingly ready to believe the crudest propaganda. I seethe with frustrated amazement at the Tory claim to have fixed the economy, so blazingly untrue that in commercial advertising it would get them into serious trouble with the authorities.

Ailing GDP figures just before the election were barely mentioned in the media, but easily-obtained statistics on productivity, trade, manufacturing and construction, are all bad and the Tories have missed their own target (whether wise or not) on deficit reduction. In any case, the Tory record on the economy is dreadful.

Likewise, Hitchens is quite correct in his assessment of the Tory’s (not so) secret romancing of the SNP:

A Tory Party really concerned about the loss of Scotland would have done as Norman Tebbit suggested, and urged its supporters to vote Labour to stop the SNP. Instead, to the dismay of elder statesmen and experts such as Michael Forsyth, it talked up the SNP, paying elaborate compliments to Nicola Sturgeon after the leaders’ debate (George Osborne and Michael Gove were observed doing this). To claim, while behaving in this fashion, that the Tory Party is a bulwark against the SNP and Labour is in their clutches is absurd. The SNP are delighted by the Tory victory, which makes it all but certain that they will get a repeat landslide in next year’s Scottish general election, with a manifesto commitment to a second referendum, which I think they will then win. Let us see how Mr Cameron now copes with the SNP’s sweeping victory, for which he must take so much of the blame.

At least the Sun newspaper was brazenly open about its ludicrous inconsistency, campaigning for a Tory (and supposedly Unionist) victory south of the border, and for the unquestionably separatist SNP north of it.

Click here to read Peter Hitchens’ full post-election article.

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1 From an article entitled “Episode 18: Panic Stations”, written by John Lanchester, published by the London Review of Books on May 5, 2015. http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2015/05/05/john-lanchester/episode-18-panic-stations/ 

2 From an editorial entitled “General election 2010: All change for new politics”, published by the Guardian on April 20, 2010. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/apr/20/general-election-2010-poll-editorial

3 From an article entitled “General Elecion 2010: Did the opinion polls flatter to deceive?” written by Martin Boon & John Curtice, published by Research magazine on July 6, 2010. http://www.research-live.com/opinion/general-election-2010-did-the-opinion-polls-flatter-to-deceive?/4003088.article

4 From an article entitled “Bursting the polling bubble” written by Martin Boon, published in Research magazine on February 12, 2015. http://www.research-live.com/blogs/election-blog-bursting-the-polling-bubble/4012895.article

5 From an article entitled “Lord Ashcroft’s polls are not what they seem” written by Dan Hodges, published by The Telegraph on February 9, 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/general-election-2015/11401622/Lord-Ashcrofts-polls-are-not-what-they-seem.html

6 From an article entitled “The tartan tsunami and how It will change Scotland and the UK for good” written by Gerry Hassan, published March 20, 2015 on the OpenDemocracy website. https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/gerry-hassan/tartan-tsunami-and-how-it-will-change-scotland-and-uk-for-good

7 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/live/election-2015-32394920

8 From an article entitled “How Rupert Murdoch is sticking his oar into Scotland’s independence referendum” written by John Jewell, published in The Conversation on September 10, 2014. http://theconversation.com/how-rupert-murdoch-is-sticking-his-oar-into-scotlands-independence-referendum-31531

9 From an article entitled “The SNP and the Tories – is This the Love that Dare not Speak its Name?” written by Peter Hitchens, published in The Mail on March 23, 2015. http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2015/03/the-snp-and-the-tories-is-this-the-love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name.html

10 From an article entitled “The tartan tsunami and how It will change Scotland and the UK for good” written by Gerry Hassan, published March 20, 2015 on the OpenDemocracy website. https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/gerry-hassan/tartan-tsunami-and-how-it-will-change-scotland-and-uk-for-good

11 From an article entitled “Rupert Murdoch berated Sun journalists for not doing enough to attack Ed Miliband and stop him winning the general election” written by Adam Sherwin and Oliver Wright, published in The Independent on April 21, 2015. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/rupert-murdoch-berated-sun-journalists-for-not-doing-enough-to-attack-ed-miliband-10191005.html

12

Plans to redraw constituency boundaries before 2015, backed by the Tories, have been defeated in the House of Commons.

MPs voted by 334 to 292 to accept changes made by peers, meaning the planned constituency shake-up will be postponed until 2018 at the earliest.

It was the first time Lib Dem ministers have voted against their Conservative coalition colleagues in the Commons.

The two parties have been in dispute since proposed elections to the House of Lords were dropped last year.

From an article entitled “Conservatives lose boundary review vote” published by BBC news on January 29, 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-21235169

13 From an article entitled “Election 2015: how Labour gains from UK electoral system in a tight race” written by Robert Ford, published in the Guardian on March 15, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/mar/15/election-2015-hung-parliament-majority-coalition-labour

14 From an article entitled “Osborne increases debt more than Labour did over 13 years” written by Fraser Nelson, published in The Spectator on November 21, 2013. http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2013/11/the-tories-have-piled-on-more-debt-than-labour/

15 From an article entitled “It’s time to come clean about our national debt”, written by Liam Halligan, published in The Telegraph on October 25, 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/economics/11187727/Its-time-to-come-clean-about-our-national-debt.html

16 From an article entitled “Growing wealth inequality in the UK is a ticking timebomb” written by Danny Dorling, published in the Guardian on October 15, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/15/wealth-inequality-uk-ticking-timebomb-credit-suisse-crash

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