John Lewis, Brexit… and Goldilocks!

The ‘row’ (such as it is) about John Lewis’ decision to remove the ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ labels from clothes has been in some ways quite revealing. There’s a lot of anger, a lot of downright rage being shown – at levels that have certainly surprised me. The strange thing is that it has come from many of those people who are equally vehemently fighting to ‘ban the burkha’.

On the one hand, they hate the idea of removing the distinction between genders, on the other hand they hate the idea of excessive distinctions between genders. It’s a bit of Goldilocks thinking: the burkha porridge is too cold, the ‘ungendered’ clothing too hot. Only having the precise level of control that they approve of is just right. Girls need to be put in their place, but not too much in their place.

It has echoes of the way that many Brexiters are also vehemently against Scottish independence. The EU is too big. Scotland is too small. Only the United Kingdom is just right. And again, it seems to be a lot of the same people who make this argument. They want to control everything, because only they know what is right. Everyone else is either too big or too small, too weak or too strong, too liberal or too ‘fundamentalist’.

For me, it’s strange to be so certain – and even stranger to want to impose that certainty on everyone else. Mind you, I always thought Goldilocks was the real villain in the story. I was rooting for the bears.

A disturbing plan for control…

The Conservative Manifesto, unlike the Labour Manifesto, has some quite detailed proposals for digital policy – and in particular for the internet. Sadly, however, though there are a few bright spots, the major proposals are deeply disturbing and will send shivers down the spine of anyone interested in internet freedom.

Their idea of a ‘digital charter’ is safe, bland, motherhood and apple-pie stuff about safely and security online, with all the appropriate buzzwords of prosperity and growth. It seems a surprise, indeed, that they haven’t talked about having a ‘strong and stable internet’. They want Britain to be the best place to start and run a digital business, and to make Britain the safest place in the world to be online. Don’t we all?

When the detail comes in, some of it sounds very familiar to people who know what the law already says – and in particular what EU law already says – the eIDAS, the E-Commerce Directive, the Directive on Consumer Rights already say much of what the Tory Manifesto says. Then, moving onto data protection, it gets even more familiar:

“We will give people new rights to ensure they are in control of their own data, including the ability to require major social media platforms to delete information held about them at the age of 18, the ability to access and export personal data, and an expectation that personal data held should be stored in a secure way.”

This is all from the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), passed in 2016, and due to come into force in 2018. Effectively, the Tories are trying to take credit for a piece of EU law – or they’re committing (as they’ve almost done before) to keeping compliant with that law after we’ve left the EU. That will be problematic, given that our surveillance law may make compliance impossible, but that’s for another time…

“…we will institute an expert Data Use and Ethics Commission to advise regulators and parliament on the nature of data use and how best to prevent its abuse.”

This is quite interesting – though notable that the word ‘privacy’ is conspicuous by its absence. It is, perhaps, the only genuinely positive thing in the Tory manifesto as it relates to the internet.

“We will make sure that our public services, businesses, charities and individual users are protected from cyber risks.”

Of course you will. The Investigatory Powers Act, however, does the opposite, as does the continued rhetoric against encryption. The NHS cyber attack, it must be remembered, was performed using a tool developed by GCHQ’s partners in the NSA. If the Tories really want to protect public services, businesses, charities and individuals, they need to change tack on this completely, and start promoting and supporting good practice and good, secure technology. Instead, they again double-down in the fight against encryption (and thus against security):

“….we do not believe that there should be a safe space for terrorists to communicate online and will work to prevent them from having this capability.”

…but as anyone with any understanding of technology knows, if you stop terrorists communicating safely, you stop all of us from communicating safely.

Next:

“…we also need to take steps to protect the reliability and objectivity of information that is essential to our democracy and a free and independent press.”

This presumably means some kind of measures against ‘fake news’. Most proposed measures elsewhere in the world are likely to amount to censorship – and given what else is in the manifesto (see below) I think that is the only reasonable conclusion here.

“We will ensure content creators are appropriately rewarded for the content they make available online.”

This looks as though it almost certainly means harsher and more intense copyright enforcement. That, again, is only to be expected.

Then, on internet safety, they say:

“…we must take steps to protect the vulnerable… …online rules should reflect those that govern our lives offline…”

Yes, We already do.

“We will put a responsibility on industry not to direct users – even unintentionally – to hate speech, pornography, or other sources of harm”

Note that this says ‘pornography’, not ‘illegal pornography’, and the ‘unintentionally’ part begins the more disturbing part of the manifesto. Intermediaries seem likely to be stripped of much of their ‘mere conduit’ protection – and be required to monitor much more closely what happens through their systems. This, in general, has two effects: to encourage surveillance, and to encourage caution about content (effectively to chill speech). This needs to be watched very carefully indeed.

“…we will establish a regulatory framework in law to underpin our digital charter and to ensure that digital companies, social media platforms and content providers abide by these principles. We will introduce a sanctions regime to ensure compliance, giving regulators the ability to fine or prosecute those companies that fail in their legal duties, and to order the removal of content where it clearly breaches UK law.”

This is the most worrying part of the whole piece. Essentially it looks like a clampdown on the social media – and, to all intents and purposes, the establishment of a full-scale internet censorship system (see the ‘fake news’ point above). Where the Tories are refusing to implement statutory regulation for the press (the abandonment of part 2 of Leveson is mentioned specifically in the manifesto, along with the repeal of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which was one of the few bits of Leveson part 1 that was implemented) they look very much as though they want to impose it upon the online media. The Daily Mail will have more freedom than blogging platforms, Facebook and Twitter – and you can draw your own conclusions from that.

When this is all combined with the Investigatory Powers Act, it looks very much like a solid clampdown on internet freedom. Surveillance has been enabled – this will strengthen the second part of the authoritarian pincer movement, the censorship side. Privacy has been wounded, now it’s the turn of freedom of expression to be attacked. I can see how this will be attractive to some – and will go down very well indeed with both the proprietors and the readers of the Daily Mail – but anyone interested in internet freedom should be very much disturbed.

 

Blinded… a short poem for World Poetry Day

We let ourselves be blinded

By ignorance and hate

That keeps us narrow-minded

And leaves others to their fate

We let the hatred-mongers

Weave fairy tales of fear

“There are those amongst us

Who just don’t belong here”

They mix half-truth with anger

And take real people’s pain

And twist it with their stories

For their own hateful gain

And by the time we see it

It’s sadly far too late

They’ve taken back control

And we’re left to our fate.

 

 

Closed borders and closing minds?

I returned from a brief trip to Romania with distinctly mixed emotions. There was the pleasure of a great trip, seeing old friends, being treated with immense hospitality – and at the same time, as this was my first trip to Romania since the Brexit vote, a sense of profound sadness and what we, as a nation, have decided, and perhaps even more importantly why. I know the reasons for the referendum result are complex, and I know that my views will not be popular with some, but as I see it a very significant part of what lies behind the result is old-fashioned xenophobia. I mean that precisely: a fear or distrust of strangers or foreigners.

Romania is special…

I have a long connection with Romania. My wife is Romanian, and I’ve been visiting regularly for well over a decade. There are all kinds of things I love about the country. The food is generous and fascinating – things like the way they serve pickled chillies and their own special sour cream with their soups to the great cheeses and cakes. Their folk tales, with scary dragon-like ‘zmeu’ and their scarier mothers, and even worse, the wonderfully named witch-like ‘zgripțuroaică’, are excellent. They have great cats too. This is Miți (‘Mitzi’).

Version 2

As for Romanian people, they’re great too – or rather, they’re just people. That’s really the point. There’s nothing to be especially scared of about Romanians – and they certainly don’t deserve the demonisation that they’ve been subjected to over the last few years, particularly by Nigel Farage, who amongst other things suggested that people should be scared if Romanians moved into their street, and memorably told James O’Brien that ‘you know the difference’ between Romanians and Farage’s own German wife and children.  The suggestion that Romanians are essentially cheats and criminals, people to fear, people to worry about, people that we shouldn’t let into our country, is no more credible than the idea that Romanians are all vampires – and yes, I spent half my time on this trip in Transylvania.

Romania isn’t special..

I know Romania – which is why I know the good things about it. I’ve eaten the food, listened to the folk tales, stroked the cats, walked in the forests and mountains, and spent time with the people. This, however, is not a post about how wonderful Romania is. I’m sure the same is true of every country. When you spend time with people anywhere, when you open yourself to what they have to say, when you want to learn about them, you soon find that – if you don’t start from a position of distrust or fear.

That’s what saddens me so much about what seems to have happened in the UK. We seem to be going backwards, looking inwards, and doing so out of fear. Neville Chamberlain was referring to Czechoslovakia when he talked of ‘a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing’ – but that was back in 1938, and one of the great things that I thought had happened in the intervening years was that we had begun to learn a bit more about people from around the world – and from Eastern Europe in particular. Instead, it seems we don’t just know nothing about people from some of those countries – we know less than nothing, as what we ‘know’ is based on lies, exaggerations, small pieces of ‘information’ taken out of context and twisted into something that may be even worse than lies.

Closing borders and closing minds…

The thing is, by having more people from more places in the UK, we can start to learn more, to open more, and to benefit much more – it’s not a coincidence that there is more tolerance in places where there has been more immigration, and support for UKIP and Brexit is greatest in places with the least immigration. The converse, sadly, is also likely to be true. If we have less immigration, if indeed many of those who have come here decide to leave, then we all lose. We lose opportunities to learn, to broaden our horizons, to find something new.

‘But it’s not about xenophobia, we have legitimate concerns’ will be the response of many Brexiters, and in their own minds I’m sure that’s true – and there are huge concerns in the UK at the moment, from the huge levels of inequality and poverty, the creaking NHS, the strained and dysfunctional housing market, low wages and so forth. Blaming immigration – which easily mutates into blaming immigrants themselves – for these problems, however, is very revealing. The evidence, at least the academic evidence (I won’t use the unfashionable term ‘experts’) is generally against making such an association. Of course I am biased – but I am aware of my bias, at least of its existence. Academics refer to something called ‘confirmation bias’ – broadly speaking, that there is a tendency to seek out and to believe evidence that confirms your own theories, your beliefs (and indeed your prejudices), whilst downplaying or disparaging evidence that opposes it.

As someone in favour of immigration (for all the reasons mentioned above) I am naturally predisposed to evidence that makes immigration seem a positive. I do at least acknowledge that. Why, then, would somebody take the converse position: downplaying, denying or disparaging the evidence that suggests (for example) that ‘health tourism’ is minimal, that immigration does not impact upon employment rates, that has an infinitesimal effect on wages and so forth? That is where my biggest sadness comes. The main reason to choose to believe stories that blame immigration rather than those that point out the positives is that those stories confirm existing prejudices. Confirmation bias in practice… in this case confirming the xenophobia.

That’s where my sadness comes in. We’ll survive Brexit – if nothing else, spending time with Romanians provides a strong and healthy reminder that people can get through awful times, outlast awful governments, and find a way to make the best of it. Right now, Romanian people are protesting against a government that literally wants to stop corruption being a crime – but they’ve lived through dictatorship and come out the other side. We’ll do the same – ‘muddling through’ in British style perhaps. That we have to is sad – and that we’ve chosen to close our minds as well as our borders is even sadder.

Brexit and consequences…

Yesterday morning I tweeted about Brexit (as I’ve done a fair number of times), and it went just a little bit viral. Here’s the tweet:

screen-shot-2016-10-08-at-09-48-14

It was an off-the-cuff Tweet, and I had no idea that people would RT it so much, nor that it would provoke quite as many reactions as it has. I’ve replied to a few, but, frankly, it’s not possible to reply to all. The responses, however, have been quite revealing in many ways. As usual, people read Tweets in different ways, and of course this particular Tweet is far from unambiguous. I was asked many times what is the ‘this’ that I’m saying is the fault of the ‘Brexit people’. And who I meant by ‘Brexit people’. I was told I was wrong to lump all Brexit people together. And that we should be looking for unity, not stoking the fires of division.

Some thought I was specifically talking about the dramatic fall of the pound. I wasn’t, but I might have been. Others thought I was blaming Brexit voters for ‘anything and everything’. I wasn’t. Actually, what I was doing was getting angry with those people who voted for Brexit but are now saying ‘we didn’t vote for this’ when they see Theresa May’s increasing nasty and xenophobic government do things like threaten to use EU citizens in the UK as ‘bargaining chips’, sending foreign doctors home as soon as we’ve trained enough ‘home grown’ doctors, and ‘naming and shaming’ companies that employ foreigners.

The thing is, if you voted Brexit you may not have wanted that to happen, but that’s the effect of your vote. And you were warned, many times, that by voting for Brexit you were helping the far right. By voting for Brexit you were ‘sending a message’ that immigrants weren’t welcome. By voting for Brexit you were likely to give more power to the worst kind of Tory. This is what I said on my blog in February, when the campaign was just beginning:

“What’s far more likely with Brexit is that an even more right-wing Tory government will come in, and with even fewer restrictions on their actions will destroy even more of what is left of our welfare state, our NHS, all those things about Britain that those on the left like. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling are amongst the most enthusiastic Brexiters. Win the vote and you’re giving them what they want.”

That’s what happened – and I was far from alone in predicting it, and warning people that if they voted for Brexit they’d get more nastiness and a more right-wing government. Now we’ve got it, and if you voted for Brexit, that’s the result.

I’m not, as I’ve also been accused, ‘lumping all Brexit voters together’, suggesting that they’re all racists and xenophobes. Of course they’re not. They have all, however, helped the racists and xenophobes. That’s what the vote did. That’s cause and effect. Some people I know and respect have strong and detailed analytical economic reasons behind their vote – and some expounded them in response to my tweet – but, frankly, that’s by-the-by. Even if their economic arguments  are sound (and I remain unconvinced), they still unleashed the xenophobia.

Others try to suggest that what’s happened is all for the good. We should be making lists of foreigners, we should be replacing foreign doctors with Brits and so forth. That’s also all well and good – but in that case, why be angry with my Tweet? You should be proud of the consequences, if you like them.

I am, of course, one of the out-of-touch metropolitan elite, and I know it. I don’t expect to be listened to. I don’t expect to have any result – but I still have the right to be angry. And I am. I only wish I’d been angrier earlier.

More on Corbyn’s Digital Manifesto…

Yesterday a piece I wrote about Corbyn’s Digital Manifesto was published on The Conversation – you can find it here:

https://theconversation.com/corbyns-digital-meh-nifesto-is-too-rooted-in-the-past-to-offer-much-for-the-future-65003

The natural constraints of a short piece, and the requirements of The Conversation meant that I didn’t cover all the areas, and my own tendency to, well, be a bit strident in my opinions at times means that it may not have been quite as clear as it could have been. I would like to add a few things to what I said, clarify a few more, and open up the opportunity for anyone to comment on it.

The first thing to make absolutely clear is that though I was distinctly underwhelmed by the Digital Democracy Manifesto, it is far better than anything produced by Labour to date, and vastly better than anything I have seen by the Tories. My criticism of it was not in any way supporting what the Tories are currently doing, nor what they are likely to do. I used the word ‘meh’ in my piece because I wanted (and still want) Labour to be bolder, clearer, and more forward-looking precisely so that they can provide a better opposition to the Tories – and to the generally lamentable status quo on internet policy. As I tried (but perhaps failed) to make clear, I am delighted that Corbyn has taken this initiative, and hope it sparks more discussion. There are many of us who would be delighted to contribute to the discussion and indeed to the development of policy.

The second thing to make clear is that my piece was not an exhaustive analysis of the manifesto – indeed, it largely missed some really good parts. The support of Open Source, for example – which was criticised aggressively in the Sun – is to be thoroughly applauded. You can, as usual, trust The Sun to get things completely wrong.

I would of course like to say much more about privacy – sadly the manifesto (in some ways subconsciously) repeats the all-too-common idea that privacy is a purely personal, individual right, when it actually underpins the functioning of communities. I’ve written about this many times before – one piece is here, for example – but that is for another time. Labour, for me, should change its tack on privacy completely – but I know that I am somewhat unusual in that belief. I’ll continue to plug away on that particular issue, but not here and not now.

What I would hope is that the manifesto starts an open discussion – and starts to move us to a better understanding of these issues. If we don’t understand them better, we’ll continue to be driven down very unhelpful paths. Whether you’re one of Corbyn’s supporters or his bitterest opponents, that’s something to be avoided.

Dear Labour Plotters

Dear Labour Plotters

I’m not quite sure how I should address you – in a way I’m sorry to have chosen the word ‘plotters’, but after a little thought it seemed the best word, because what you seem to be trying to do does look very like a plot. Other words have been used – ‘coup’ is perhaps the most common – but ‘plot’ seems the best. Or at least I hope it’s the best, because ‘plot’ suggests there might actually be a plan behind your actions, a plan more than just ‘let’s get rid of our leader, and everything will be better’ along the lines of the Leave campaign’s ‘let’s win the referendum vote, and everything will be better’ plan which seems to be unravelling with remarkable speed since the hideous and momentous events of Thursday and Friday.

Of course I understand why you have not yet revealed the details of your plan – revealing those details might defeat the plan itself – but I do hope it’s a good plan, because you really need one. In making that plan, I’m sure you’ve taken full account of the need to persuade the Labour membership (including me) that your plan is a good one for Labour, and indeed for the country. I’m also sure that you must have learned all the right lessons from both last year’s Labour leadership contest and last week’s referendum. I do hope so, because from the outside it is a little hard to see that you have – but that may well be because all your plans are, quite justifiably, kept nice and secret from the rest of us.

Last year’s Labour Leadership contest

The thing is, last year’s Labour leadership contest was quite something, and I do wonder if some of you aren’t still smarting from it so much that you can’t see what actually happened. Jeremy Corbyn didn’t just win that contest, he absolutely thrashed all his opponents. It wasn’t just a victory, it was a crushing victory. That victory was produced by a great number of things and has been subjected to a good deal of analysis – but one key part of it was how abject the campaigns of his opponents were. They weren’t just bad, they were useless. So the first lesson that I’m sure you must have learned from the contest is not to campaign on the same basis as last time. And, to admit to the failure of last time’s campaigns.

Most of all, what I’m sure you’ve realised is that you can’t just turn back to the members and say ‘look, hasn’t Corbyn been useless, we were right all along, and you made an awful mistake in electing him’ and then expect them to smile and say ‘yes, you were right, and we were terribly stupid last year’.  People don’t like being told they’re stupid – regardless of whether they have been stupid or not. If your approach to replacing Corbyn is based entirely around convincing Labour members that they got it wrong last year, then your plots and plans are doomed to the same kind of abject failure as the last time.

I’m sure you realise this. I hope you do. I really hope you do, because if you don’t, all you’re doing with this plot is causing even more damage to the Labour Party at a time when the Labour Party is needed more than ever. To have driven the results of the EU referendum off the front pages just a few days after its momentous result is quite something – a depressing something.

The next Labour leader

I am sure your plans include plans for Corbyn’s replacement – and I understand in a way why it is not at all clear who that leader might be. I can understand why no-one would want to show themselves right now – but it is a little strange to stage a coup without any idea of what the regime after that coup would look like. The ‘leave’ campaign may have had no plan of any kind after winning the referendum, but at least we knew that it would probably result in Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister – after all, that was the only reason he chose ‘leave’ over ‘remain’. With your plot, no-one seems to know who you’re planning to put in Corbyn’s place – but given the amount of time you’ve had to work out your plan, I’m sure you have an idea. Whoever it is, I assume it’s not someone that Corbyn defeated so easily last time around, or someone whose main claim to fame is having made a speech that had the Tory benches roaring in applause in favour of military action. With the Chilcot report due very soon, that might not be a very good look.

I hope that whoever you have in mind for the next leader is able to engage with both the Labour membership and the electorate – because both are needed. It’s no good being ‘electable’ if you can’t convince your own party to support them – and as some of you point out on a regular basis, it’s no good getting the support of the Labour membership whilst not being ‘electable’. It’s hard to be both – but whoever you have waiting in the wings to unveil as the next Labour leader and future Prime Minister needs to be able to do both.  I look forward to seeing who they might be – and how they can meet both of these requirements, whilst providing something new and different.

The EU referendum

…because new and different will be needed. Last week’s referendum can be interpreted in many different ways, but one thing it wasn’t was an endorsement of old politics. The idea that there was a consensus around the current Tory approach – elite austerity – has been shattered, so an approach based on the assumption that we need to accept that would be self-destructive at best.  Many voters last week believed they were voting for more funding for the NHS, for example – there was a reason that particular lie was on the side of that bus. This gives Labour a real chance – a chance that would be lost if we simply went back to what was offered last time around by all the candidates except Corbyn. Labour needs to offer hope and a way forward – but a way forward not based on lies, on hate, on fear. I’m sure you all realise this, and will share your vision of this way forward at some point soon.

Whilst the EU referendum offers an opportunity in this way, it also offers a huge trap – the trap of how to address people’s concern over immigration. Labour should be under no illusions that immigration was the critical issue in the referendum. It wasn’t a coincidence that the polls shifted towards ‘leave’ when Farage put immigration on centre stage – people are genuinely concerned about it. Many really believe, despite all the evidence, that immigration is what has caused the problems with the NHS, with housing, with education, with crime and so forth. The trap here is to accept their beliefs rather than addressing those beliefs. Silence is not an option – that much should be clear to everyone – but neither should sinking into the kind of populist xenophobia that UKIP uses and that the ‘leave’ campaign harnessed. It is equally useless – indeed counterproductive – to just tell people they’re wrong (just as you will find if you try that approach on Labour members who voted for Corbyn last year). If Labour had been strong enough and brave enough to take this issue on a decade or more ago, we might be in a very different situation – but it didn’t seem to matter so much back then, so it was all swept under the carpet. It can’t be any more.

There isn’t a magic bullet here – on immigration, or on replacing Corbyn. Both require intelligence, imagination, and a proper plan. Something new and something better has to be offered. On immigration, something real has to be offered to deal with the real problems that are being blamed on immigrants – and not just vague promises. On replacing Corbyn, you’ll need to convince us that you have something better to offer – a new leader that can inspire us, as well as fulfil the ‘electable’ requirements.  Given the coordinated nature of your apparent plot, I’m sure you’ve got someone waiting in the wings.

I look forward to their inspiring appearance.

Kind regards

A Labour Member.