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The Life of P

Tag: politics

General Election 2017

We are a day away from polling and this piece is written for those still undecided or who are considering not using their vote. I hope you’ll read and, if it resonates with you, feel free to share it.

This election was initially painted as a guaranteed landslide for the Conservatives to convince you that there was little need to consider your vote. Whilst polls remain as unreliable as ever, it is clear that this election is far from a foregone conclusion.

It is no secret that my politics align predominantly with the Liberal Democrats though I am generally averse to party-based politics. Whilst I continue to support the Lib Dems — and I believe they are in a position to recover a number of seats lost as a “punishment” for entering a coalition with the Conservatives — the result of this election will be a Government led by either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn.  You should take it as read that I support voting Lib Dem, certainly in any seat where they have a good chance of winning and particularly if you remain opposed to Brexit. However I think it’s important publicly to air my thoughts on the decision that most people will be making between Labour and Conservative.

Brexit

As the incumbent, we know what May is doing and what her Government is doing. The Brexit negotiations are already a shambles with the Government’s response being to complain that the European countries are banding together to bully the UK (almost as if they were some kind of union). Expect negotiation leaks to continue because 27 countries are not going to keep quiet, particularly if goes against their own self-interest. May sees this election as validating her “hard Brexit” stance so that, if the deal turns out to be terrible (which seems increasingly likely), she can abdicate responsibility by claiming she was simply enacting the will of the people. If that was the case, she ought to have held this election (one she repeatedly denied she would call) before triggering Article 50 rather than wasting valuable time afterwards.

May’s position is that you have to vote for her because the Conservative party is the only “strong and stable” option to lead the negotiations. So stable, in fact, that infighting led to the Brexit referendum. So strong that May refused to partake in debates with the other party leaders, yet expects us to trust her to hold her own in intensive two-year negotiations. All we have seen are robotic responses to interview questions that hardly inspire confidence.

Economy

Despite the default claims that Labour’s manifesto is “uncosted”, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and CLASS have both conducted detailed studies and comparisons of the manifestos that are still worth skimming at this stage. The IFS found that both parties would run a surplus by 2019/20.

The Tories are continuing along the austerity route whilst adopting an old Labour policy by pledging a cap on energy prices. Labour is pledging to roll back the cuts in public services like the NHS and policing, to scrap tuition fees and to build more affordable housing to combat the housing crisis. Corbyn’s other major pledge is to renationalise railways. Railways are the clearest example of failed privatisation. Competition has not created a better service because competition is limited by the network infrastructure. As a result commuters face continuous delays, packed trains and ticket prices soaring well above inflation. Given how much of the Capital’s business relies on the rail network bringing workers in, a reliable service would actually be a great boon to business. The only reason to oppose this policy is a purely ideological stance in favour of privatisation rather than a pragmatic one.

Labour’s ambitious polices are to be funded through increased corporation tax and taxes for the wealthiest. This, we are told, is a dangerous idea because those corporation tax cuts led to a 44% increase in tax receipts since 2011. This conveniently ignores that the UK economy was coming out of the worst recession in decades over that period which saw innumerable business collapse. Of course companies were becoming more profitable as the recession subsided, which is precisely why there were more profits to tax. Taking economic advice from anyone who ignores the difference between correlation and causation is far more dangerous.

We are also warned that increasing corporation tax would cause businesses to flood out if country. Yet, even with Labour’s proposed increase, Britain would still have the lowest corporation tax rate in Europe (and the G20) with the exception of Ireland and Switzerland, the same two countries that currently have lower rates. Why have businesses not already fled to those countries? It is almost as if there are other reasons to be based in the UK beyond just tax rates. The truth is that increased taxation is not going to cause businesses to flood to mainland Europe because there is nowhere for them to go.

Security

Security is a key issue for many voters, though I do not think anyone should be making political capital out of the recent tragic events in London and Manchester. The emergency services’ response is to be praised unreservedly. The wider domestic and foreign policy approaches of Corbyn and May are of course relevant.

Domestic security

Theresa May was Home Secretary for six years before becoming Prime Minister so we know more about her approach to this issue than anything else. She has consistently pushed for increased mass surveillance of all British citizens, preventing use of secure encryption and generally increasing regulation and censorship of the Internet. She is doing so again in the wake of the latest attacks, using them to push her anti-privacy agenda and, more concerningly, her desire to scrap the Human Rights Act. We rely on encrypted communication for banking and the security of our personal information. Compromising that encryption with back doors makes us all vulnerable to criminal intrusion, something that is increasingly clear as high profile cyber attacks continue to rise. Meanwhile, those with nefarious intent will simply switch to alternatives methods of encryption (and use of VPNs) rendering the actual intelligence value minimal.

May oversaw cuts to police budgets (opposed by Labour) in excess of 20%. It is unsurprising then that this has led to an 18% reduction in staffing, shedding 43,300 people between 2010 and 2016. It is routine policing that makes us safer. MI5 and the security services can use all the powers they like to identify tens of thousands of suspicious persons but, without local officers policing within the community and monitoring those individuals, that intelligence is useless. Former MET chief inspector Peter Kirkham has openly accused the Government of lying about the number of officers on the streets. By contrast, Corbyn has pledged to reverse those cuts.

May has now said that we are “failing” on this front. If that is true, the blame lies squarely with her, given that it is her agenda that we have been following over the past six years.

Meanwhile Corbyn is smeared by the press with the ridiculous claim that he supports terrorism. This is apparently based on the fact that he met with the IRA to further to Northern Ireland peace protest or the fact that some extremists have attended his rallies.

Foreign policy

Corbyn is a pacifist. The media predominantly portray Corbyn as therefore dangerously weak. In fact, he has acknowledged the renewal of trident and does not plan to reverse this. He has said that any use of nuclear weapons would have to be very carefully considered and ruled out launching a first strike. May, on the other hand, said she was prepared to launch a first strike. That is not a strong stance; it is a fundamentally unstable one. She is willing to escalate a conflict from conventional to nuclear in a way that would all but guarantee nuclear weapons being fired at British cities.

Meanwhile Corbyn has highlighted the link between British foreign policy and the rise of terrorism. It is abundantly clear that Blair’s wars made Britain a high profile target for terrorists. Whilst Blair may be have been Labour, the choice we now have is between an MP who voted against the war (Corbyn) and one who voted for it (May). As if to illustrate the point, May has recently returned from a trip selling arms to Saudi Arabia, generally considered the largest state-sponsor of terrorism.

Healthcare

The current Government pushes ahead with cuts to the NHS and May has left Hunt in charge despite the fact he has impressively created a situation in which junior doctors went on strike and the public supported them in doing so. The Conservatives are becoming increasingly clear about their plans to privatise increasing portions of the NHS and the next five years will be crucial. Between critical underfunding and piecemeal sale of assets and hospitals, we are reaching a critical juncture. Attempting to rebuild the NHS would be a monumental task that would make Corbyn’s plans to nationalise the railways look like child’s play. That cannot be allowed to happen. The NHS is one of this country’s crowning achievements and several studies have found it to be the most efficient in the world. Lack of funding means that, in spite of the valiant work by its staff, its effectiveness will decline.

Privatising healthcare is not some great experiment being undertaken by the Government. We know exactly what modern privatised healthcare looks like: it looks like the USA, with astronomical prices that are great for healthcare companies and terrible for everyone else. Large insurance premiums coupled with high excess fees make routine treatment unaffordable to the poorest and most vulnerable.

Conclusion

Maybe, like me, you are personally doing okay under the current Government. Maybe that is enough to secure your vote. I hope it is not.

I can fully sympathise with people not feeling well represented by either party in this election. However, this is an occasion where one cannot shrug off responsibility by saying they are both as bad as each other. That led to the populist election of Trump, because enough people convinced themselves that Hillary Clinton was probably just as bad. They were wrong. May was relying on the same apathy when she called a snap election hoping for a landslide win. It is the reason she did not think she had to bother with televised debates, which would only harm the image she has sought to portray.

Ultimately, if you remain undecided, consider a vote for the leading non-Tory candidate in your area as a vote for a hung Parliament. The lack of a clear majority will force the resulting Government to slow down and force parties to work together constructively if they are to achieve anything.

 

Creeping Authoritarianism: The Investigatory Powers Act

The most important thing about this post is that I rewrote it multiple times and considered not posting it at all, because I was concerned about how it might be perceived and whether its recommendations might have ramifications in the future. Once you read it, that thought alone should be terrifying.

With the Labour party in disarray and the population distracted by Brexit, the Investigatory Powers Act has now passed both houses. Media coverage has been inexplicably scant. The Act permits a wide range of snooping and hacking by the security services, allowing unprecedented surveillance of citizens for a democratic country. Theresa May pushed this legislation (dubbed the “Snoopers’ Charter”) as Home Secretary, so it is little surprise that she has forged ahead despite opposition from groups like Liberty and warnings from a number of commentators including Edward Snowden.

I hope that by now most people reading this will have rejected the idea that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”. It is worth revisiting Glen Greenwald’s powerful TED Talk on the subject. This is not paranoia about some perceived theoretical risk. The Snowden revelations demonstrated that the intelligence agencies will take advantage of any information gathering they can get away with, whilst both the Government and the police have demonstrated repeatedly that supposedly anti-terror laws will actually be used whenever convenient. This is why the lack of judicial oversight over access to browsing history should cause serious concern. Most importantly, even if you do trust the current Government, you still should be protecting your privacy. Once a more authoritarian regime takes power, it is too late to claw back what they already hold.

The danger is that authoritarianism occurs in a gradual shift that is easy to overlook as it takes incremental steps. Take, for example, the current Digital Economy Bill which seeks to censor videos that contain a swathe of consensual but non-conventional sex acts. It is entirely unclear why the Government should have any say in such things and it stigmatises private activities enjoyed by a minority. Those of us unaffected by this change should be fighting against it, because it suggests that in future such marginalisation of other minority groups is acceptable based on an arbitrary sense of what is “normal” or “decent”. Now couple this with a regime that also has access to your entire browsing history.

Security

A second major issue with the Investigatory Powers Act is the requirement that companies remove user encryption whenever “practicable”. Many major tech companies have responded robustly about the security implications of creating backdoors in their software, which serve to weaken security for everyone against any malicious attackers. However, the arguments over what is or is not “practicable” for companies to implement will occur in private — without public scrutiny — because the warrants demanding data will invariably contain a gagging order.

Remember also that data leaks by Government bodies are commonplace. The Information Commissioner’s Office lists 54 enforcement actions in just the past two years. Allowing the collection of data also allows the risk of it being released more widely, particularly in light of the Digital Economy Bill’s proposals for data sharing between Government bodies without proper safeguards.

You can petition the Government to repeal the Investigatory Powers Act.

You can write to your MP to prevent the Digital Economy Bill being rushed through.

How do you protect yourself in the meantime? Everyone should be using a Virtual Private Network (or VPN). Here’s a friendly beginner’s guide, but broadly a VPN involves making an encrypted connection to a server which handles all of your online requests. That way no one else, like your Internet Service Provider or others on a public wifi hotspot, can track or eavesdrop on what you are doing. You are still trusting the VPN provider, but this gives much greater control than than trusting one of a few local ISPs, all of which will be subject to requirements imposed by the Investigatory Powers Act. The best way to ensure your privacy is to use a VPN that does not log your traffic so that, even if ordered to, it cannot provide your web history to anyone else. There are a number of different companies offering VPN services relatively cheaply. I recommend NordVPN, given the privacy features outlined above coupled with easy-to-use clients for Windows, OSX, iOS and Android, so little technical knowledge is required.

If you know that you will never, ever have anything to hide from anyone else at all, then you have nothing to fear. And a level of clairvoyance that I sincerely envy.

Love Trumps Hate

Dear Liberal America,

You’ve woken up with one hell of a post-election hangover and piecing the night together is beginning to feel pretty horrific. There is a lot to process. You feel like a stranger in your own country. You feel worried about the future. You can’t work out whether you feel sad or angry or disappointed in your fellow citizens. I know this because we have just gone through the same thing following the shock result of our own Brexit referendum. As a result, several friends have asked me how on earth they deal with this, when it seems like there is no way to move forward. Here are some tips from our experience.

Love Trumps Hate

Do not go to sleep and assume it will be better in the morning. I promise it will be a little more bearable the second morning, but it is going to suck for weeks.

Surround yourself with like-minded friends right now. Alcohol helps. Drink together. Cry together. And laugh together.

Laughter is important. In the darkest of times, we humans are capable of finding humour. The alternative is despair and that leads nowhere good.

Understand why people were willing to vote this way. This may be the most important thing. The easy response is to dismiss them all as bigots or racists or misogynists. But we are talking about millions of people. It’s complex and a lot has led to this. People have felt disenfranchised and hopeless (just as you do right now) for decades. We need to address this to prevent this from happening again.

People will tell you to move on, you lost. This time they are wrong. Understand that this was not just another election where half the country feels upset. This was something much starker, which reveals far more about the depth of division within your society.

Be ready because this result will leave a minority of bigots and racists and misogynists feeling vindicated. They will spew hateful bile in the next few days that you never expected. But it will be finite. They are not going to win and we are still moving in the other direction. If you are lucky enough to be white or a man or heterosexual, do not allow this behaviour to go unchecked. Remind every minority that, whatever Trump may say, your society does not accept hatred as normal. They remain welcome. They remain one of you.

Seek unity. It will seem hard right now but, like it or not, you are all in this together for the next four years. Hillary suggested you give Trump a chance to lead and she is right. Division only makes you weaker.

Above all, remember that one man and one election does not define your country or our society. You all do. It is a struggle that goes on.

This is all I can offer. I hope it helps a little, that it ignites a spark of hope. And, if it does, share that hope with others.

With commiserations,

Your Transatlantic Cousins

The FACT Charter

According to numerous publications on both sides of the Atlantic, we live in a “post-fact” society. The creep of cognitive bias has reached such heights that the truth is no longer powerful enough to strike down a false argument. It is evident in Brexit, where politicians campaigned on the basis of outright lies about welfare tourism, healthcare funding and more. The furore over Thursday’s High Court decision on the requirement for Parliamentary approval before invoking Article 50 demonstrates that, for all the principled talk of restoring Parliamentary sovereignty, what campaigners apparently meant was unchecked Government power.

It is perhaps more evident in the support for Donald Trump, who is comfortable denying that he has said things when a cursory Google search will provide video evidence. This American Life aired a troubling show recently demonstrating just how entrenched political belief has become — it is no longer simply a viewpoint but an identity.

Can facts actually survive this onslaught or are they now irrelevant? Much of the shift came from us and particularly our use of social media. Our friendship groups mean our interactions tend to exist in an echo chamber in which we are exposed only to similar viewpoints to our own. This is part of the reason that I think the Brexit vote came as such a shock to many. This is coupled with the easy carelessness with which information is now shared, meaning that misinformation spreads just as rapidly. We complain about newspapers hiding their retractions after lazy journalism but individuals can be just as bad. All this is to say that we can change a lot by changing how we approach social media.

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I am proposing a short recommended checklist for posting articles that I am going to call The FACT Charter because I am not feeling particularly creative. However, it does sport a helpful (one might say contrived) mnemonic.

  1. Fact-check before sharing or reposting
  2. Assess critically for bias
  3. Challenge your friends
  4. Think out loud

Fact-check before sharing or reposting

This is really the crux, as it becomes ever-easier to share articles in just one or two clicks. It is equally easy to view it as someone else’s article and abdicate blame for any errors but, like it or not, by sharing that article you are essentially becoming a publisher, widening the circulation of that story. You do not have to start from scratch: see whether the source material is a reputable news outlet or some guy’s blog; check that a study’s conclusion actually says what the writer claims. If it turns out to be untrue, that’s okay: you’ve still gained another data point.

The argument that it would be too time-consuming to check the source is essentially saying that your time is worth more than that of your friends reading it. If you don’t have time, wait. At the very least, point out clearly that you’ve not checked the underlying information.

Assess critically for bias

There is no such thing as neutral journalism but bias varies dramatically. Often a strong opinion piece is warranted and worth sharing. But equally it can be lazily convenient to share a partisan article that aligns with our beliefs but does not really provide a particularly nuanced or balanced view. Look for something more neutral and — if you feel less inclined to post that version — assess why you are sharing it. A separate recommendation is regularly to read a news source with a conflicting viewpoint to your own, to ensure yours is being challenged and not simply reinforced in isolation.

Challenge your friends

Our friends keep us honest. Not every post has to turn into an argument, of course, but if friends post stories that seem suspect to you, ask them for the evidence behind it. Ignoring it is a doing them a disservice.

Think out loud

Provide your own commentary when sharing articles, highlighting what you have taken away. It forces you to engage with the content rather than just a knee-jerk share because of a headline seeking a viral audience. It may be the best way to reduce the effectiveness of click-bait headlines (which incidentally, will only go away if we make a concerted effort not to click on them whenever we spot them). If nothing else, your commentary will encourage a dialogue which is always more interesting.

Let’s make facts great again!

Exit, Pursued by a Bear Market

A close vote like this results in a swirling deluge of emotions that are difficult to isolate but my overwhelming feeling is one of disappointment, less at the result than at the people who voted for it. Yes, they were lied to repeatedly by politicians on the Leave campaign — and for much longer by the media — but these are lies they were willing to accept out of self-interest. Humans are convinced by the notion that that their capacity for rational thought makes them more than simply a selfish animal. That is often true on an individual level but, whenever it is tested on a larger scale, humans seem to be found wanting. Driven by a combination of greed and fear, politicians are able to manipulate them with remarkable ease.

When Trump ran for the Presidential nomination, vast swathes of the Republicans denounced him as not representing the party. Over time, given his overwhelming support, they had to look at their party and realise that, however distasteful his views may be, they appealed to the majority. The party was not what they had thought. A similar period of introspection is falling on the UK in a far more profound way than following any General Election, where negative reactions are shrugged off as sour grapes with a suggestion to do better in five years’ time.

With voting results skewed by the older demographic, the same people who ruined the housing market have now propelled their children down another unwanted path. The traditional threat would be to remind them that those children will be choosing their nursing home. As the leave campaign already backs away from its claims about healthcare, perhaps a more pertinent question would be whether there will be any affordable nursing homes for their children to choose.

Anger threatened to overtake disappointment when I learned of my little sister’s treatment this morning. Commuting to work she was approached on two separate occasions by people warning her she was “next” and suggesting she “go home now”. A colleague queried her history to decide whether she was a “foreigner”. In one morning she saw her home, the country into which she had been born, begin to crumble around her. I certainly hope that was an aberration, with the wrong sort of people invariably buoyed by today’s result, but I am far from certain. Here’s a tip for the students reading this post as they study for GCSE History in 2096: when asked to name two causes of World War III, Britain leaving the EU and the election of Donald Trump are probably good bets.

Of course I am being cynical. This country was already in a troubled state due to a huge and ever-growing class divide, the dangers of which were ignored even after riots erupted a few years ago. At the time I described it as feeling like “a caged beast had broken loose of its shackles and was determined to express its newfound freedom, knowing it was temporary, but roaring just to hear its own voice.” I have a similar sense today as that same divide and misplaced anger has led, in part, to today’s result. Leaving the EU will do nothing to improve this and, indeed, an unchecked Tory Government with increased financial control will undoubtedly widen the gap. As our good friends across the Channel would say, plus ça change…

20160624-brexit

"Lack of imagination is an occupational hazard for an apex predator."

(CC) BY-NC 2005-2019 Priyan Meewella

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