Morning After Thoughts

•9 June, 2017 • 1 Comment

Seeing as my body has decided that sleep is for the weak tonight, you may as well have my two pennyworth.

There are 4 seats left to call, and the Conservatives don’t have enough seats for a majority. The Liberal Democrats flatly rejected any consideration of a coalition deal in the middle of the night before they even had a seat declare for them, and I doubt they will renege on that – their core voters already have trust issues. Thus the news outlets are suggesting a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland.

If I’m honest, I pay so little attention to Irish politics that I know nothing of the DUP’s agenda. George Osborne, for what it’s worth, was saying on ITV a little earlier that the lack of a mandate for the Conservatives this time has scuttled ideas of a hard Brexit. If that’s true, then the return of Scottish Conservatives to Westminster could mean that the exit negotiations will now lean more towards a closer post-Brexit relationship with Europe than was being envisaged. Personally, I hope so, but we don’t even know who the Prime Minister is yet…

As things stand, Theresa May has met with the Conservative hierarchy then apparently sneaked into Downing Street by the back door. (Well, she’s supposed to be in Downing Street but hasn’t gone in the front door, so it’s either that or a secret meeting elsewhere.) We’ve been told that an announcement is due at 10 a.m., but it could happen sooner.

Bear in mind that, untenable as May’s position seems right now, it’s also untenable for her to resign. Negotiations with Europe are supposed to begin in 11 days. This will not be time for the Conservatives to vote for a new leader. This is probably being considered in a meeting even as I type. Nothing about this election has been predictable, so expect the unexpected both in terms of premiership and the make-up of the ruling bloc.

Speaking of surprises, I’d just like to note some things that made me wide-eyed after I put the news back on.

Firstly: Scottish Conservatives?! Apparently this is the year for finding extinct species. I knew that the Scottish Conservatives had gained some ground in Holyrood in recent years, but I never expected this. I sincerely hope that they are a force for good in Westminster.

Secondly: Some really tight races. I’m surprised that Richmond chose Zac Goldsmith by 45 votes, especially ousting a sitting Liberal Democrat at a time when they have otherwise seen a resurgence. The loss of Nick Clegg hasn’t surprised me, though, what with Sheffield Hallam standing on a student vote that the Lib Dems don’t really have any more.

Thirdly: The turnout. Something around 69%. The figures aren’t in yet, but the news media are speculating that there’s been a big youth turnout. I’d say that the sudden Labour swing in central Sheffield (which has never had a Labour MP before, despite the rest of the city being staunchly red) bears this speculation out.

So what does it all mean? Well opinion polls have been suggesting that the main parties moving to their extremes hasn’t been popular. The mood of the country is centrist. (Actually, I’d say that the Labour manifesto was less far from the centre than the Conservative one, but they have the more extreme leader.) This may explain the extra five Lib Dem seats in the face of other losses.

Jeremy Corbyn has been vindicated, and his MPs are starting to get behind him despite their disagreements. This could bode well for the party in five years, so long as they can still galvanise the young voters out of their natural apathy.

The Conservative narrative has now changed on Brexit, but I hope it occurs to some of the movers and shakers that austerity may have also been a motivator of the strong Labour vote. The vote clearly went the way it did because Labour campaigned holistically.

Do I want to make a prediction? Frankly, no. The Conservatives can’t afford for May to go, but she is to weak to keep governing. It really is 50/50. As for a coalition agreement, while the pundits are predicting a working deal with the DUP rather than a full coalition, there are too many variables for me to want to put money on that. There could yet be a surprise if someone genuinely believes they have enough to gain.

Voting for Real Change

•8 June, 2017 • Leave a Comment

In my last few election posts I haven’t really made any firm commitments. So I suppose if I’m going to write over four thousand words of agitation, I really ought to reach a conclusion.

Simply put, I believe in the system we’ve got. We return individual candidates to represent us, and it is a collective foolishness that this country focusses on the leaders above the candidates that they are actually voting for. It means that “safe seats” exist, and that cronies with business backing remain in power. This is the case among Labour as well as the Conservatives. If we backed local candidates who actually worked as public servants, the political landscape would constantly shift. For reasons I’ve written about elsewhere, I don’t believe that changing the system to reflect voter ignorance (i.e. moving to a form of proportional representation) is the way forward. What we need to do, now that the drive for the Alternative Vote has system failed, is learn to focus on our local candidates, because that is the only way we’ll see a change in the behaviour of parliamentarians.

Nevertheless, sometimes a party’s policies or attitude are so abhorrent that you can’t necessarily vote for a good candidate because you’re not sure that they’ll oppose bad policy. I live in a Conservative safe seat. My MP serves the community’s best interests well. But given that I live in an affluent area, his constituents’ interests are often traditional Conservative interests. Thus he will be unlikely to vote against unnecessary and draconian security measures, or the selling of NHS assets, or austerity budgets.

This means that I will have to look closely at the other candidates and make a choice for my local area.

And you should, too. Ballot-spoiling is the choice of people too lazy to research. They’re not happy with current politics, but don’t understand the system well enough to make a useful vote. Ballot-spoiling changes nothing, and if the non-voters and ballot-spoilers just took fifteen minutes out to just see who their candidates are, many could swing their constituencies to a party that otherwise didn’t stand a chance.

The only way to change the system is to vote for SOMEBODY. The right somebody. And you will achieve more by backing an honourable loser than by throwing away your vote.

(Practising what I preached, I had another look at my local candidates after I first scheduled this post, and am now galvanised to vote for a someone I had previously written off. So there you go.)

Britain on Friday Morning

•7 June, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Yesterday I mentioned that I think the success of Labour’s campaign may turn out to be a bad thing, and I said I’d discuss that today. One of the many things I hate about the Labour Party has turned into a successful strategy for them this time around, and that aspect of them is this: they perpetuate a two-party system. Their political narrative is that there are only two parties – The Tories and Labour. Members and voters for any other party are disaffected Labour supporters in their eyes. You cannot be allowed to be a member of the Labour Party if you have ever supported their stated aims by doing anything other than direct campaigning for Labour, or if you have ever breathed a word of support for another party. But all left-leaning parties are naturally Labour allies and should fall by the wayside to let Labour defeat the Evil Tories.

I detest this attitude from both the party hierarchy and their grass roots. I detest it even more from those that deserted the Liberal Democrats across this decade for “getting into bed with the Tories”. I detest this attitude from Caroline Lucas, who is supposed to be co-leading her own, separate party. It means that nobody ever considers policy, or their representative in Parliament. They either vote for or against the Tories, and “against the Tories” means a vote for Labour. Because if coalitions are to be built, they must be built to get the Tories out of power. Not to find common ground, you understand – simply to get or keep the Tories out. And Labour must naturally be the leading party in such a coalition because that is the divinely ordained Natural Order of Things.

This produces an arrogance that makes the Labour Party quite bad at forming coalitions. It meant that when the Liberal Democrats became king-makers in 2010, Labour were offering “miserable little compromises” as Nick Clegg put it, while the Conservatives were negotiating properly for government.

Normally, I have a natural affinity for the Greens. But Natalie Bennett’s leadership showed that Caroline Lucas is sitting in Parliament as the party’s only competent member. And even her naïvety is starting to show. The Greens have stepped down or not selected candidates in places where Labour might oust a Conservative MP. Lucas and the party’s social media have been full of a “Tories Out” message that works directly with Labour’s two party, “us and them” narrative. Unfortunately, this means that the Greens have forfeited their identity. Lucas, or any other Green MP if one ever exists, will not get a seat at the top table. Labour are too arrogant to make a deal with the larger parties, and Green willingness to make a deal for the sake of a rainbow anti-tory coalition where Labour calls all the shots positions Lucas as a Labour shill.

The reason that Labour not being shaken up is a bad thing right now, even in the face of the Conservatives making themselves truly appalling, is their record in opposition under Corbyn so far. The Conservatives have a weak majority, meaning that legislation can be defeated by a back-bench rebellion. But Labour, rather than standing firm in opposition with the Scottish National Party and arguing well in Parliament to try to gain some moral Conservative support, have abstained or actively supported the Conservative position in the party’s best interests rather than the interests of their policy. On two occasions, the tensions between Corbyn’s position and the parliamentary party’s position has resulted in meetings before debates where the whip has vanished or made a last-minute U-turn after strenuous negotiation. As I pointed out in my last article, this will continue even if Labour make significant gains.

And all this makes the fact that the left-leaning public have bought the Labour two-party narrative all the more galling. Scotland voted to remain in the EU, on the whole. And the UK picture put 48% in support of remaining. Right now, with a Eurosceptic Labour leader of a fractious party, Labour will not create firm opposition to a hard Brexit. If Remainers voted Liberal Democrat en masse, we may have stood a chance of an opposition fighting against unnecessary hard breaks as we leave through Lib-Dem and SNP joint opposition. Instead, we’re likely to get an enlarged, but still useless, Labour opposition.

The only hope I have otherwise hangs on two factors. Firstly, Labour supporters have historically been bad at coming out and actually voting. Secondly, the big upsurge in youth vote registrations and Corbyn rally attendances does not mean that said youths will be bothered to actually get their arses to the polling stations. I say this because social media Labour supporters think they’ve won the argument already and their bubbles will confirm that – this may create complacency.

Certainly, I don’t think the Scots are ready to vote Labour again, so the current swing in the polls is unlikely to return a Labour majority. But I can see one of three things happening.

It All Stays the Same

The Conservatives still keep their small majority, give or take. This is the worst thing that could possibly happen, as the Bastards are willing to hold the party as a whole to ransom in Parliament. May and the Cabinet would have to, as they do already, constantly give them sops. This will be very bad during Brexit negotiations, and will make for other hard-line ideological policies that will pass because of the whip.

Significantly Increased Conservative Majority

The polls say this is unlikely, but polls haven’t been good predictors over the past three years. It’s May’s ideal scenario as a flood of younger, more centrist Conservative MPs will give her a free hand. Unfortunately, what she would do with that free hand is looking more and more horrifying in the light of the poor solutions she has suggested to recent security problems.

A Hung Parliament

Labour are unlikely to make successful coalition negotiations with the SNP. I say this because the ScotsNats are unlikely to stand for Labour’s usual “It’s us or the Tories” arrogance. And given how against their own leader they are and will continue to be, I don’t see how Labour could survive a coalition with the SNP (or anyone) for very long. If Labour fail to form a government, a Conservative minority government might limp on. But I can see any hung Parliament triggering a coup within the Conservatives even if May doesn’t resign. The SNP might be able to do a coalition deal with a more left-leaning Conservative leader, but it would take Labour making a true pig’s ear of negotiations before this could happen. And whilst the negotiations drag on and we’re technically lacking a government while trying to negotiate our exit from Europe, the Pound will tank.

You would be right to conclude that I don’t like the look of any of this. And if you’re really hanging on with bated breath for my advice before casting your vote, I promise you a conclusion at 6 tomorrow morning.

(Spoiler alert: I already told it to a commentator on my last post, and I made the case for it in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum last year.)

Nota bene: I will be modding the comments on wordpress and facebook heavily. The rules are here. I will delete comments ruthlessly.

Manifesto Sunshine’s Got the Blues

•7 June, 2017 • 2 Comments

As much as I like to apply neutral analysis when I get political on this blog, there is one fact of my politics that I cannot escape: I hate the Labour Party. I don’t wish to dwell on this for too long in this post because I have other things to talk about, but you may as well view this as a disclaimer.

The reasons I hate the Labour Party are manifold, but the thing about them that really sticks in my craw is how they play utterly self-serving politics, all the while justifying their behaviour by scapegoating the Conservatives. Basically, the end always justifies the means because they’re counteracting the Evil of the Tories. The long and short of it is that in the most recent years, Milliband’s Labour threw electoral reform that they supported in reality under a bus to try to force a snap election (this really was why they turned against their own policy and backed the “No” vote on the AV referendum in 2011 – they were hoping that the resulting bad blood between the coalition parties would cause a collapse in the government), and they are continuing to show their colours now by breaking ranks over the attempt to drop Jeremy Hunt out of Parliament*. This second point alone is all the proof you need that Corbyn’s leadership hasn’t signalled a change in the behaviour of the party as a whole, and that any claim they have to be pro-NHS is a lie.

Rant over. On to the proper analysis.

Frankly, a big part of the problem Labour has is the snap election. I’ve said before that Labour need a drubbing in the polls so they can sort out their identity crisis. I stand by that. The problem with a snap election is that the short time scale between the announcement and the poll left them with a choice between reforming the parliamentary wing of the party and running a proper campaign. They chose to campaign, and that campaign has been fairly successful. I’ll talk about why this might be a bad thing in my next post. Last fortnight’s Private Eye, however, phrased best how this has left them in a position where even a landslide Labour victory will not cement Corbyn’s ability to function as leader:

“When May called the surprise election, Corbyn wanted to give his supporters the power to ditch Blairite MPs with “trigger ballots” on whether they could stand again. But he has not secured control of Labour’s national exceutive committee (NEC), which said it would be mad to start civil wars in constituency parties just before an election and ruled that every sitting Labour MP should face the electorate… All local Labour parties had put off selection meetings until they knew where they stood [regarding threatened changes to constituency boundaries], so not one had a candidate in place when the election was sprung. Panels consisting of two members of each constituency’s regional board and one member of the NEC therefore imposed candidates on seats that Labour does not hold. As the Labour right dominates the regional offices, Corbynistas got short shrift.” [Private Eye 1444, 19th May – 1st June 2017]

What this means is that, either in opposition or in government, the Labour Party Parliamentary Shit Show will continue. Corbyn is still short of willing manpower for the Shadow Cabinet, meaning that seats are filled from a smaller talent pool even than the remaining party in Westminster. With Blairite candidates in the constituencies this election, any swelling in the Labour party only increases the queue of Bruti in waiting for Corbyn’s Caesar. (So you’ll excuse me if I find today’s Labour rally outside the old Curzon Street ticket office laughable.)

Despite all of this, Labour making the choice to campaign rather than reform in the time available has shown them to be efficient. And the Conservatives to be an even bigger basket case than Labour are at the moment (a comment I wouldn’t have thought I’d be making a month ago).

Momentum have shown themselves to be as efficient as Progress in being the slimy shadow forces of the party, and they have certainly managed to contain Corbyn’s weaknesses, and the perceived failings of the Labour Party as a whole. When you consider that 1970s Labour managed to basically bankrupt the country (IMF involvement, personae non gratae for credit…) and that the 2000s good times were bankrolled by book-fiddling and fire sales (PFI, raiding of the national pension pot, flogging off of the gold reserves…), if Labour want to end austerity, they have to prove that expensive social policies can be properly bankrolled. So somebody has faced the unenviable task of writing a book full of policies that both fit with the Corbyn message and are properly costed. Heck, the Labour policy wonks have even managed to factor in the inevitable exodus of a number of rich people who will try to hold us to economic ransom over tax hikes. Well done, Labour wonks.

They’ve certainly done better than the Conservatives, who have already been forced into a U-turn over care funding (apparently means-testing is monstrous when they do it, but fair when Labour does. Hands up who’s surprised…). It doubtlessly doesn’t help that May has appointed a competent chancellor only to disagree with him at every turn (and refuse to confirm that said chancellor will still be in a job if she’s returned to power) and that there have been serious disagreements between the policy makers behind the manifesto (as reported in a recent edition of the Sunday Times. I’d link the article, but it’s behind a paywall…).

For that matter, the Conservative campaign has been a joke. May has a talent for getting a good sound bite, then repeating it so often it loses all meaning. Labour cleverly outmanoeuvred the Conservatives by putting Corbyn into the TV debate last minute (meaning that May looked weak for sending an underling, but would still have looked like she was capitulating if she attended herself), and a manifesto centred around continued austerity has only put the top hat on it all. Let’s face it: the point of George Osborne front-loading his cuts seven years ago was that we should be seeing a recovery by now. The economy is recovering, but businesses are underpaying us. If 2017 isn’t the time for us to loosen our belts, the Conservatives’ economics have failed. And Labour have a manifesto that looks startlingly like we can loosen our belts again…

However, there are questions that won’t be answered until it’s too late. Will the Parliamentary Labour Party ultimately back their own manifesto? They’re very quick to defy their whips these days, and have caused some very embarrassing climb-downs for the leadership. Does the leadership even have any idea what the nitty-gritty of the legislation concerned should look like? Manifesto promises always have an element of pie in the sky. And, crucially, will a Labour government really be able to squeeze the juice out of corporations (and individuals) who are using artificial tax structures? The Conservatives have failed miserably, and our regulatory bodies often don’t have the talent, will, or resources to successfully rebut every structure in the courts. Getting the money could be harder and costlier than the party are willing to admit.

* I hate self-referencing in blogs, because it mostly serves to make news blogs look well-sourced when they’re not. But the word-count of this is big enough already with me repeating in detail things I’ve said before.

Nota bene: I will be modding the comments on wordpress and facebook heavily. The rules are here. I will delete comments ruthlessly.

We Need to Talk About Jeremy

•15 May, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Needless to say, I mean Jeremy Corbyn. Although I am going to have something to say about Mr. Hunt later, too. The thing with the leader of the Labour Party is that he has become something of a divisive figure, and this is hardly surprising. There are two schools of thought among Labour Party members and supporters right now. One that the country has turned to the Tories because Labour isn’t Left enough, and the other that Centrism is now the political consensus in the UK and that Labour should, just like under Blair, be offering a kinder centrist vision to the one the Tories are promoting.

Obviously, Ed Milliband’s pipping the leadership on the union vote was an expression of the lurch Left by Labour members, and Corbyn’s landslide victories demonstrate that Labours own Left are galvanised in his support. But does socialist enthusiasm within the party itself really mean Corbyn has public support?

The polls say “no”. But the approval gap between Corbyn and May is being clawed back now that the BBC is obliged to give him air time. And this has been part of the problem. Corbyn has ranted at at least one journalist that the mainstream media hasn’t been reporting his message. But what he fails to grasp is that this is not how a commercial press works. Corbyn has a bad track record of dodging impromptu questions from journalists, and actively avoids being relevant over big issues. Take the referendum campaigns last year. The man who would share a platform with fucking Hezbollah would not share a platform with David Cameron to get his message across concerning Europe. That was childish and stupid, and he’s suffered the consequences.

According to Labour supporters, however, none of this is important. The Tories are doing Bad Things – running the NHS into the ground, battering the poor, killing the disabled, and now apparently bringing back fox hunting. And only the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn (or perhaps regardless of the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn) can possibly provide an alternative to Tory Evil.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The Conservatives really are doing bad things right now. But the argument being made right now that a useless leader is better than an evil one is wrong. Gordon Brown had no plan or vision for his leadership, and his gift for crisis management failed him as the economy tanked in the wake of the credit crunch. Cameron was also a useless leader. He let himself be bullied by his own party’s also-rans, losing a referendum that was intended to shut the Bastards up once and for all. He deferred decisions. He let his ministers run their departments without any sense of co-ordination. And he did not have control over his chancellor. Dave was well-meaning, but we got an economic battering and a dismantled welfare state because of George Osborne’s vision. And the 2010 manifesto promise that there would be no top-down reorganisation of the NHS was reneged on because Andrew Lansley had other ideas. This is what weak leadership looks like.

It doesn’t matter how good Jeremy Corbyn’s intentions are. It doesn’t matter how good the Labour manifesto is. Dithering by a leader who would leave a meeting at a crucial stage and thus not get his position asserted in the final stages just so that he could attend a supporters’ rally (yes, really, this was reported in Private Eye a few months ago) could be far more destructive to the country than any act of Tory callousness. Furthermore, Corbyn has demonstrated that he’s a stickler for working hours. Great for those of us under the heel of exploitative capitalist giants; worrying from the prospective leader of a country.

Bear in mind that, whatever claims the Labour Party makes, they are never about the good of the people, the workers, or the country. They are about the good of the Labour Party. Look at corrupt local wings like Lutfur Rahman’s Tower Hamlets that have never been taken in hand or expelled. Look at what’s going on in South West Surrey.

That deserves some explanation. South West Surrey is Jeremy Hunt’s constituency. It’s a Conservative safe seat and Hunt got 59% of the vote in 2015. The seat was contested by a GP and health campaigner, Dr. Louise Irvine, at the last election, and she is standing again in this one. Hunt is the single most dangerous thing happening to the NHS right now, and rumour has it that May wanted to replace Hunt, but her preferred minister wouldn’t take the job. Now, a candidate with an absolute vote majority is hard to oust, but many Conservative voters are pro NHS. Any party that really was about the NHS would withdraw their candidate in favour of Dr. Irvine. Labour, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats initially declined to stand candidates, but Labour not only broke ranks on this but also expelled three local party members for supporting Dr. Irvine. (The Lib Dems have now selected a candidate, too.)

I read an article by one Harry Paterson in the aftermath of the 2010 general election. There is no date on it, but it is still relevant to the way the Labour Party, as a mainstream party, thinks of itself. The key quotation is this:

…the choice between Labour and the Tories is the choice between a bullet between the eyes or slow death by suffocation while the murderer weeps over the pillow he’s holding down on your face, all the while weeping that he’s sorry but, just like Thatcher, there is no alternative.

Labour policy, lurching Left, now looks cuddlier. And maybe that policy is truly better. But the bald fact is that whatever social damage is done by bad policy, bad leadership can and will be more destructive. And while Labour supporters cling to the idea that only Labour can oppose the Tories, no matter how much of a shit-show they become, they will hinder anyone else from doing the job.

Nota bene: I will be modding the comments on wordpress and facebook heavily. The rules are here. I will delete comments ruthlessly.

U-Turns

•12 May, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Just as I was planning a short series of longer blogs on political topics, the shit hit the fan and left me with a lot more to write about. No rest for the wicked, eh? Politics move quickly, but this last twelve months or so has really been a year of rapid change. The biggest thing to ruin my original essay structures has been the announcement of a snap election. Of course, there’s a lot to say about this, and it would be most useful if I said it all before polling day (8th June, if you didn’t know), so I’d better get cracking.

The big issue at the start is the very reasonable question of, “Why is this happening?” Teresa May said repeatedly that she would not call a snap election. It’s not how our constitution works any more for a start. Now that we have fixed-term parliaments, it requires a 2/3 majority of all members of Parliament (not just those present at the debate) to dissolve for an election. Snap elections motivated by political opportunism are supposed to be a thing of the past. Of course, the obvious result of this is the situation we had after the EU referendum, where a leader of a governing party is ousted in favour of a new leader who doesn’t necessarily believe in the manifesto the party was elected on. Add to this that majorities will inevitably be eroded by by-elections over the course of a parliament, and it’s inevitable that a weak government can end up as a minority government. So why has May asked for a snap election (that Labour have agreed to despite it not really being in their best political interests)?

Needless to say, everyone’s got their tinfoil hat on. Every commentator in real or social media has chosen their one reason that is May’s chief motivation – usually the one that they believe is most damning to the Tories. Really, though, it’s a combination of factors. And those factors hardly make for damning reading.

A big one, of course, is the fact that around 30 Conservative MPs were under investigation for election spending irregularities. It’s true that this was probably a big motivator – if your majority in Parliament is only 12, then 29 seats potentially going to by-election is a concern even if you expect to win in most cases. Bear in mind that, although a criminal investigation was under way, in the grand scheme of things this wasn’t some great malicious election fraud. A national campaign bus with its touring activists was listed against national spending rather than local spending, meaning that there may have been a technical breach of election spending caps in those regions. And the rules on election spending are a bit arcane, so it could easily have been a mistake. I wouldn’t have expected actual criminal charges to be brought (and it was announced a few weeks ago that they wouldn’t be), but by-elections would have been reasonable in all 29 constituencies involved. With 29 constituencies up for grabs, why not go the whole hog?

Number two on the list of reasons to go to the polls is, of course, the exit negotiations with the EU. Knowing what the timing was going to be (two years of talks following our notice of exit being given in Spring this year), the fixed-term parliaments we have would mean that negotiations would reach their official limit in Spring 2019 only for us to elect a new government (potentially) in May 2020. It’s quite likely that the negotiations will still be ongoing. Or even stalled without agreement because of the potential of a new government. And even if the negotiations did conclude one way or another, an incoming government would have a big fat disruption handed to them and no way of predicting what happens next. The double uncertainty would doubtlessly wipe yet another 20% off the value of the pound.

And then there are the internal machinations of the Conservative Party itself. Any political party is a coalition, and all our major parties have conflicting interests within them. Internal divisions of ideology are ripping the parliamentary Labour Party apart at the moment. And opposing feelings about Europe made John Major’s Conservatives untenable by 1996, made David Cameron put us to the polls in an ill-conceived referendum just to shut up the back-benchers, and are continuing to hamstring Teresa May’s Conservatives now. The problem that the centrists in the Conservative Party have is that they find themselves in leadership positions because they are the ones with electable policies. But there are dinosaurs (John Major called them “bastards”, so maybe we should use that as an official term…) on the back benches that still live in the 1950s, but are in the safest of Conservative safe seats. And, boy, do they like to throw their weight around. The people who want a hard break with the EU think that everyone who voted to leave wanted a hard break. Actually, this is not true. But the hard-liners on the Conservative back benches think like Nigel Farage and have been emboldened by the referendum result. And the party has deposed a sitting Prime Minister before. The upshot of that is that, with a Conservative majority of only 12, May has to negotiate with the Bastards to get things done. If the Conservatives were generally more numerous in Parliament, May couldn’t be held so easily to ransom.

Sure. It’s a U-turn. May said she wouldn’t call a snap election and now she has. But there are three good reasons for calling this election, and only a fool wouldn’t do so with these three factors crowding in. Are U-turns admissions of weakness? I don’t believe so. But in this case, it might be. It will, however, allow Mrs. May to build a much-needed position of strength.

Nota bene: I will be modding the comments on wordpress and facebook heavily. The rules are here. I will delete comments ruthlessly.

Arguing on the Internet

•29 March, 2017 • Leave a Comment

It’s been about four months since I last blogged. I suppose that, as much as anything else, that’s a sign that my life has been a bit of a wreck since January – I often drop the things I actually like doing in favour of procrastination when things are on top of me. It’s one of the reasons I’m trying to wean myself off facebook – it’s a particularly wasteful procrastination tool. The second key reason that I’ve reduced my facebook presence is that the way it’s programmed no longer suits my purposes as a communication tool. But really, I want to talk today about reason number three. Normally I keep myself to a 500 word limit on here, but I want to talk in full about a few issues right now, so my next few posts are likely to be a bit on the long side.

One of the big motivators for me getting off facebook has been simply the way people argue on the internet. For a guy like me, these arguments are starting to become exhausting. I like to learn, and I feel as though I can learn from other people’s point of view. At the very least, even if they’re wrong in their information or at least their interpretation of it, I can learn why they believe what they believe. I am also very opinionated (as my long-time readers are doubtlessly aware). It makes putting forth my own thoughts a hard temptation to resist.

The down side is this: most people who argue on the internet have no desire to learn. They only want to win. Nothing you can say will convince them to change their mind and any attempt at reason or rationality will only result in more bad behaviour from them.

Academic ways of arguing

I have a postgraduate qualification in a text-analysis and interpretation subject from a very good faculty in a very good university. I have been taught by some of the most intimidating and respected people in their field. And I have surrounded myself with similarly educated nerds. We disagree vehemently about some things, but we tend to argue in one of two ways.

Way one is the way we have learned to argue professionally. When asked to by our professors, we produce anything between 2,000 and 20,000 words with each fact or borrowed argument sourced and referenced. Take it from captain last-minute who used to pull all-nighters to produce essays: even if you know what you’re talking about in detail, gathering source material will take several hours, and the writing process with proper referencing will take approximately 6 hours per two thousand words. There is a reason that as academics we do this strictly for course credits or, if employed in academia, to further our research agenda and argue with people whose opinions actually matter. People who will put down an equally well-researched counter argument that we will learn something from ourselves.

Way two is how we argue casually. How we debated on LiveJournal back when we were all on it and how we have debated at pubs and parties when academic types got together. It comes from the tacit acknowledgement that both parties understand what we’re talking about and are capable of understanding what the other is talking about.

One will state an opinion. The other will state a counter-opinion, usually with their reasons. The first will either start to probe the reasons for logical/interpretative flaws or give the conflicting information that they had. Through discussion of the sources, each party will work out who has the better information. Arguments and interpretations will then be dissected and several things will be found: areas of agreement, areas that will have to be left until someone decides it’s important enough to research more thoroughly, areas where the parties will have to agree to disagree, and areas where one of the parties has changed their mind due to new knowledge. Nobody gets called names or has their morality, parenthood, or sanity questioned during this process. I’m stubborn as all fuck, but I do climb down on points in these kinds of discussions with my peers.

Needless to say, argument style One is impractical on the internet. You would have to give a day’s work to each stage of the argument, and the debate would take at least a fortnight (assuming each side only has one day in the week they can give to a political debate on facebook) as each party presented their essays on the subject. It might be worth it if, like in an academic setting, you could be sure that someone who disagrees with you will change their mind if your argument really is that good.

Social media argument styles

It has been noted in the last few years that most people create a bubble for themselves on social media – a bubble of opinion similar to their own. It’s inadvertent: facebook and even google searches track what you respond to in order to tailor content to the things you interact with. But as most people don’t really engage with the implications of that (if they even realise it’s happening in the first place), they fall into the trap of believing that everyone thinks like them because all they ever see in the content-rich environment of their internet experience is confirmations of their opinions. This means that when they encounter a counter-opinion, to their mind the person expressing it must be thinking aberrantly. As an opposing reality threatens the reader’s construct of the world, what matters when they engage with that counter-opinion is not the exchange of facts and interpretations (or even the deconstruction of each other’s information) but rather the assertion of one’s world view. And this is accompanied by the textual equivalent of the shouting and table-banging you would expect from the obnoxious mouthy bloke people get fed up of hearing in the pub.

In the last three months, I managed to get myself embroiled in three rather pointless exchanges on facebook, and they were all eye-openers. Much as I’m tempted to screen-shot them and deconstruct them comment by comment, this post is going to be long enough as it is, so I’m going to reduce to description and paraphrase for the sake of brevity.

Demanding rigour to silence the opposition

The first was kind of amusing. It was a US Army grunt who is known to one of my cousins. The guy called me an idiot because I forgot to specifically fact-check that a single occupation in the US had a gender pay gap. Apparently there are one or two professions where the discrimination legislation is holding up well enough to eliminate the problem. What this guy was doing was arguing pedantic points to avoid the actual point of my original comment – that the original post was a straw man argument.

I decided to keep my interaction with this guy to a minimum because he had already ended up in a set-to with three other parties in the hours between my posting my first comment and my next checking facebook. His attitude was that he was the smartest guy on the planet because he googled things. When I explained that my point was concerning straw man arguments, he even helpfully googled me the definition of a straw man argument, thus demonstrating that he didn’t actually understand what he had read in the original post or my original comment. Or how the definition of a straw man argument fitted with the discussion so far. You can lead a grunt to google but you can’t make him think.

The issue I took with him, and the reason I only commented further in order to tell him that he wasn’t worth any more of my time, was that he was in the course of his conversation with others demanding that they don’t use angry and provocative language, and demanding academic rigour from them that he was failing to adhere to himself. This is reason #1 that most social media debators are not worth my time – demanding rigour as a silencing tactic. They are not trying to raise the tone of the debate; they are making demands on you so that arguing with them takes up more of your time and effort. This increases the chance that they’ll feel like they’ve won because you either decide not to write that fully referenced academic essay and keep arguing point by point, or give up entirely.

(The reason I found Grunt Boy so amusing, by the way, is that he shared his SAT and ACT scores with me, evidently thinking I’d be impressed with his intelligence. Isn’t he adorable?)

The most recent of my three interesting exchanges was in the same vein. I’d written a critique of an article concerning problems that Britain leaving the EU is going to create for the European Parliament. Point by point, I went through the 13 (I think) points the article made and, given that the context of the sharing was among a vocal Remainer’s friends, I critiqued them from the point of view of whether they’re really anything the UK should be concerned about. I’m a Remainer, but I appreciate that the European Parliament’s problems aren’t necessarily our problems.

The truly daft thing here was that another Remainer, who had even commented, “Try having a sensible discussion about this with a Leaver,” proceeded to insult me then demand more rigour from my critique while failing to provide any sort of counter-thought himself. This despite another commenter telling him he was in the wrong for behaving this way. The irony of this guy’s position was clearly lost on him.

What even is evidence? Or argument, for that matter?

The second of the three exchanges told me a lot about the nature of evidence in internet debates. The other two at least had some sense of what academic rigour looks like, even if they’re just trying to use it as a silencing tactic. This other guy, a retired dude who has relatives working in a local hospital, was arguing nonsense about immigration in the UK and the strain it puts on the NHS.

Over the course of the exchange, he demanded evidence from me. I gave it to him. He had said that he voted to leave the EU because of immigration, then denied that he had said that when it was written in black and white. When I said that what he was doing was lying about what he said rather than giving me counter-evidence, he said I was accusing his family member (whose anecdote he had used earlier) of lying. He then even said that he has an anecdote whereas I just have paper.

So this is evidence to this kind of guy. Hearsay is more important than academic studies and fact-finding reports. Worse still, the guy could lie about what he had written mere hours and a few viewable centimetres ago. And then twist my words unsubtly to try and goad me onto the back foot. He also suggested I was a drunk, but that’s by the by.

And so…

This is why I’ve given up arguing on social media. Many who get into these arguments either don’t have the tools for the debate, or they think they have the tools but are using them to beat you about the head with rather than to construct an argument. And all the while they insult you whilst tone policing you if you allow yourself to stoop to their level.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be talking about three emotive current issues: Brexit, Trump and Jeremy Corbyn. I expect that people will have something to say, and I welcome people sharing their opinions and debating. However, this is my blog. I set the rules, and they apply equally to the comments thread under the automated facebook shares on my profile.

The rules are as follows:

1. Be respectful at all times.

2. I am the only tone police. If someone is being insulting, don’t call them on it, just feel free to ignore their comment. It will get deleted tomorrow anyway. Furthermore, you do not get to decide if someone else’s comment sounds “angry”.

3. Do not twist people’s words.

4. Do not use demands for rigour as a silencing tactic.

5. Do not lie about things that you have clearly written in previous comments. (See the main body of this blog post as to why this even needs saying.)

6. Anybody disobeying the rules above will have their comment deleted as soon as I’ve read it.

7. Any comment that looks like the commenter has not thoroughly read or understood the original post or the comment they are replying to will be deleted.