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Friday, December 15, 2017

Is no-platforming by the Welsh Assembly turning UKIP into alt-right martyrs?

Because of the age we live in, I feel obliged to preface this post with some qualifications. As anybody who has read this blog will know I detest UKIP and all their works.

Over the years, leading members of that party have been outed as misogynist and racist, They are a party who campaign against Europe and yet milk the EU for the maximum financial benefit and I have lost count of the number of their MEPs who have been prosecuted for allegedly fiddling their expenses.

Their campaign for us to leave the EU was misleading, dishonest and racist, Their odious erstwhile leader, Nigel Farage continues to consort with dubious right-wingers on both side of the Atlantic, whilst pontificating about 'professional politicians', despite being an MEP for 18 years and having stood for Parliament seven times.

Politics and society would be better off if UKIP ceased to exist altogether, however because we are a democracy they have the right to continue to wave their prejudices in our face and to demand support for their increasingly irrelevant views. As a Liberal I will defend that right even if I have to hold my nose whilst doing so.

As these random links show, here, here and here my record on transgender rights is second to none. In stating my opinion on the decision by the Presiding Officer to no-platform a UKIP AM in Plenary for expressing his view on this issue, I do not endorse what he said. In fact I find his view as illiberal and offensive as she does. The issue is the best way to respond to him.

The Presiding Officer's role is to keep order in the Senedd. That includes ruling on unparliamentary language. However, there is a difference between throwing out an AM for a throwaway remark about the royal family and effectively censoring an argument which has offended others.

I have argued in the past that freedom of speech includes the freedom to offend. Once people are allowed to apply their own subjective values to others then we are on a slippery slope to censorship and dictatorship.

It is for this reason that I struggle with the Presiding Officer's decision to ask Gareth Bennett to apologise or withdraw his remarks about transgender rights, and then to ban him from speaking for a year because he refused. I disagree with what he said but will defend his right to say it.

Yes, he has offended a lot of people and upset the cosy consensus in the chamber on these issues, but the purpose of debate is to show up mistaken and flawed arguments for what they are and to rebut them. Surely the correct response would have been to let other AMs do exactly that and then to ignore him for the irrelevance he is.

The Assembly chamber should embrace the principle of free speech where members can stand up and say what they believe and be challenged on it. The Presiding Officer job is to preserve the free flow of ideas not to censor it.

For now, my fear, as expressed by one of my Twitter followers, is that this particular UKIP AM has unwittingly taken a leaf straight out of the Trump playbook and that by banning him the PO has played into his hands. She has not so much upheld politically-correct views as created an alt-right martyr.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

UKIP to face tribunal over EU referendum campaign

The Guardian reports that UKIP is to face a tribunal over its use of analytics during the EU referendum after refusing to cooperate with an investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

The Information Commissioner says that inquiry has been launched because she is concerned about invisible processing of data ‘behind the scenes’, including 'algorithms, analysis, data matching, profiling that involves people’s personal information'. She adds: "When the purpose for using these techniques is related to the democratic process, the case for a high standard of transparency is very strong,”

The ICO had issued four information notices, formally ordering organisations to disclose information, including one to UKIP, who have now appealed the notice to the information rights tribunal. Apparently, they don't want to face criminal sanctions if it is shown that they have broken the law. So it is the same old story as far as they are concerned: one rule for UKIP, another rule for everybody else.

In fact this inquiry is very important. In particular, there is a need for transparency after huge sums of money were diverted to a Canadian firm, AggregateIQ, which is being investigated by Canada's Information Commissioner as to whether it is compliant with privacy legislation in that jurisdiction:

The Electoral Commission is separately investigating whether Vote Leave, the lead campaign for the leave vote in the referendum, broke spending laws by coordinating spending with other campaign groups.

The investigation hinges on Vote Leave’s decision to make donations totalling £625,000 to Grimes, then a 23-year-old fashion student, in the final days of the referendum. Grimes spent the entirety of the money with AggregateIQ.

Separately to the money it donated to Grimes, Vote Leave spent £2.7m, around 40% of its total spending of £6.7m, with AggregateIQ. As the designated leave campaigning organisation, its spending was capped by law at £7m.

Grimes, as chair of a different campaign group called BeLeave, had a spending cap of £700,000 and spent £675,000 in total. The source of £625,000 of this money was Vote Leave.

It has also emerged that a millionaire hedge fund manager, Anthony Clake donated £50,000 to Darren Grimes - money that also went to AggregateIQ - having been advised to make the donation by the Brexit-backing campaign group Vote Leave.

Clake told the Guardian that he had intended to give the money to Vote Leave, as the official leave campaign, but was encouraged by the group not to do so because “they were close to their spending limits”.

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing by Clake.

If we value our democratic processes we must ensure that nobody is able to circumvent the rules so as to buy the result they wanted. The inquiries by the Electoral Commission and the ICO therefore must be allowed to go ahead unimpeded and they should have all the sanctions they need at their disposal if wrong-doing is proven.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A ray of hope from Alabama

Waking up this morning to news that Democrat, Doug Jones has won the special Senate election in Alabama, albeit very narrowly, is the best news I have had for some time. Is this the start of a backlash that will deny the Republicans a majority in the House and the Senate in Autumn 2019?

Mr. Jones was helped by the allegations of sexual impropriety levelled against his opponent, despite which Judge Roy Moore still managed to secure 63% support from those white women who cast a ballot.

However, the fact Trump publicly backed Moore in a State that he won convincingly in the Presidential race, enables us to take a wider view and class this as a snub for the President as well as a defeat for the Republicans.

My euphoria has been dampened by this article in the Guardian reporting that the US ambassador to the UK expects Donald Trump to go ahead with a working visit to the UK in the new year, despite a recent Twitter row with Theresa May over the terror threat posed by Muslims in the UK.

This is not expected to be a State visit as the Queen is likely to be preoccupied with preparations for a Commonwealth summit next year. Nevertheless, Trump appearing on these shores will not be popular. The Independent says that around half of the British public think the UK must scrap its invitation for a full state visit to Donald Trump following his support for a British far-right group.

Personally, in whatever capacity Trump sets foot on these shores, I believe that day should be declared a public holiday to maximise turnout for the inevitable protests. And the invitation to the President for a full State visit should be withdrawn.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Labour still on the fence over Brexit

As if it were not bad enough that the Tories are screwing up Brexit, not being able to even deliver a basic agreement, never mind the goodies that were misleadingly promised during the referendum, it is becoming more and more apparent that Labour don't appear to be willing to get off the fence and offer any form of opposition to this omnishambles.

As the Guardian reports, Jeremy Corbyn is determined to resist pressure to spell out in more detail what Brexit settlement Labour would support, despite a series of comments in recent days suggesting the party is edging closer to advocating continued single market membership.

They add that Labour sources said Corbyn and his closest allies were keen to avoid placating ardent remain voters at the expense of Brexit backers in core Labour seats. They know that they will eventually have to give a verdict on whatever trade deal is reached with the EU27 next year, but they fear too much detail now could be a hostage to fortune.

In the meantime various Labour spokespeople continue to sing from different hymn sheets leaving everybody confused as to what exactly their official policy is. It is little wonder that they continue to trail the Tories in the polls at a time when a bunch of muppets could do a better job of running Britain.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Arrogance and bad faith: A Brexit Tale

Nobody needs me to elaborate on the vagueness and contradictions inherent in the deal that Theresa May has struck with the EU when it is set against her government's determination to leave that institution, whilst keeping the United Kingdom intact. Needless to say at some stage a decision will have to be made and stuck to.

However, for one Government Minister, the compromise half-agreement the Prime Minister signed off on last week is a sore he cannot help but keep picking. Brexit Secretary, David Davis seems determined to wreck any hope of agreement (and of a trade deal with Europe) even before the ink is dry on the paper.

As the Guardian reports, Davis has clashed with the Irish government after claiming that the Brexit divorce agreement between Britain and the EU was a “statement of intent” rather than something legally enforceable.

They add that the Brexit secretary’s crass comments came in the light of a missive from Downing Street advisers, which told cabinet ministers who campaigned to leave the EU, that promises around full regulatory alignment were “meaningless”.

In addition, Theresa May has also appeared to suggest there was still some flexibility in the deal reached at the end of last week, writing to all Tory MPs to set out the details of the agreement but promising that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.

The Irish of course are incensed. They have issued a statement to the effect that “Both Ireland and the EU will be holding the UK to the phase one agreement.” In addition, the Irish deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney, highlighted a line in the agreement that said commitments relating to Ireland would be “upheld in all circumstances, irrespective of the nature of any future agreement between the EU and UK”.

The point is of course that if the UK cannot bring itself to hold good faith over this fairly flimsy agreement of principle then how can anybody trust them on more substantive treaties, including on trade?

The arrogance, incompetence and stupidity of hard line Brexiteers in Theresa May's cabinet are threatening the very future of the UK economy. Their actions could torpedo any deal with Europe and leave the rest of the World wondering whether it is worth even talking to us.

The need for a second referendum on whatever emerges from these talks is becoming even more urgent. And it is crucial that the public have an 'exit from Brexit' option on that ballot paper.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Is an obsessive Government ignoring bread and butter issues?

I have said it before on this blog, it has been said by professional commentators and now the public are saying it too (or at least that is what the polls say), the obsession of ministers with Brexit means that they are neglecting other challenges facing our country.

The Independent reports that the large majority of British people think the Government’s struggle for a Brexit deal has become so all-encompassing that other crucial challenges have been forgotten about.

The papers says that its exclusive survey by BMG Research showed some 60 per cent of people believe “important domestic issues” are being ignored by ministers as Brexit relentlessly diverts their attention, with problems faced by the NHS and the housing market consistently appearing in surveys of voter concerns:

The data is a stark warning for a party stung at the election by a public tired of austerity, angry about the housing crisis and worried about the state of the NHS.

In October, it emerged that the civil service will have to hire an extra 8,000 staff to deal specifically with Brexit, a sign of how its resources are being diverted towards the challenges of leaving the EU.
Nearly 3,000 new posts have already been created

to help face what will be the biggest administrative challenge they have faced for half a century. Brexit Secretary David Davis told Cabinet colleagues that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will also have to recruit between 3,000 and 5,000 new members of staff next year.

If the new recruits earn an average of £50,000 each, the wage bill would top £400m. But that’s a drop in the ocean compared to the £35bn to £39bn the UK will have to pay the EU as part of its divorce settlement – a figure many expect to rise higher.

That also does not include the cost of new technology and extra infrastructure at borders that may be needed, which Chancellor Philip Hammond has suggested could divert funds from the NHS and education.

It is not just the Tories who need to heed these findings. My party, the Liberal Democrats also have to listen. We have quite rightly branded ourselves as an anti-Brexit party but Vince Cable and his spokespeople also have to be talking just as loudly about our solutions for the crisis that is affecting education, the health service and housing as well.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Michael Gove and the art of spin

There is no point shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted but it is an activity that Michael Gove appears to be fairly fond of if this Guardian article is anything to go by.

The paper reports Gove's statement that voters will be able to force changes to an EU withdrawal deal at the next election if they do not like it:

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Gove said: “The British people will be in control. If the British people dislike the agreement that we have negotiated with the EU, the agreement will allow a future government to diverge.”

He said that after a transition period, the UK would have “full freedom to diverge from EU law on the single market and customs union”.

The next General Election is due in 2022, that is three years after the 29th March 2019 invocation of Article 50 and one year after the end of the two year transition period. By 2022 everything will be done and dusted and there will be no going back.

Of course there was a General Election this year that effectively rejected Theresa May's hard Brexit. If Gove is serious about giving people a meaningful say on the final deal then he will be advocating a referendum that allows us the choice of accepting what is negotiated or exiting from Brexit altogether.

Friday, December 08, 2017

The mis-marketing of higher education

Living in a City with two universities I am used to hearing a plethora of claims about what they can offer students. There are claims about their place on obscure ranking tables, some of which I find difficult to validate, whilst various departments compete to convince prospective entrants into HE of their excellence, both in terms of research and teaching.

The introduction of tuition fees effectively marketised higher education, colleges started to make decisions based on the demand for their courses and how much income they could generate, rather than on the provision of a broad based curriculum. For example, chemistry virtually disappeared overnight from most Welsh colleges, only for them to bring it back in some cases years later.

At the same time students started to have higher expectations. Now that they were personally paying for courses they wanted value for money, and quite rightly.

It is no surprise therefore to see this story in the Guardian, which reports on the verdict of the National Audit Office that if universities were banks they would be investigated for mis-selling.

Auditors say that the Department for Education needs to do more to help “vulnerable” students make better choices about courses. The National Audit Office has called on government to provide more aggressive oversight to ensure value for money:

Amyas Morse, the head of the National Audit Office said: “Young people are taking out substantial loans to pay for courses without much effective help and advice, and the institutions concerned are under very little competitive pressure to provide best value.

“If this was a regulated financial market, we would be raising the question of mis-selling. The [DfE] is taking action to address some of these issues, but there is a lot that remains to be done.”

The NAO found that the increased numbers of disadvantaged students now attending universities were mainly going to lower-ranked institutions – “which risks creating a two-tier system”, dividing those from rich and poor backgrounds.

If Universities are now a business competing for customers then it is quite right that they are better regulated and their claims challenged.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

The latest absurd Westminster plot story

The problem with working in a bubble like Westminister or Cardiff Bay, surrounded by ambitious people, all of whom have an agenda and a list of enemies as long as their arm, is that people lose perspective. That is especially true of journalists who, if they are not careful, can get carried away dealing with the constant stream of rumours and innuendo they are being fed.

Of course the difference between a proper journalist and somebody riffing it on social media is that the former tends to check their sources and approach the more unbelievable stories with caution. Every now and again though, somebody might decide that even if what they are being told is not credible, it suits their paper's agenda and so it is worth running with it.

As far as I can see that last scenario is the only rationale for this story in today's Sun in which they say that supporters of the Brexit Secretary, David Davis have seized on Theresa May’s latest Brexit woes to start building another plot to sack her and put him into 10 Downing Street instead.

They say that one of Davis' closest allies, former chief whip Andrew Mitchell is organising discreet drinks evenings with him and new generation Tory MPs:

Three of the newly elected high-flyers invited to one soiree last week were Tom Tugendhat and James Cleverly – both tipped as future party leaders – as well as highly respected rookie Gillian Keegan.

Under the ‘dream ticket’ plot, Mr Davis would take over as Prime Minister from beleaguered Mrs May, but only for a few years.

The 68-year-old former SAS reservist would then stand aside for one of the new generation elected in 2015 or 2017 to take over in time to prepare for the 2022 general election.

A key ally of Mr Davis told one of the younger Tory MPs: “Theresa has the smell of death around her. “She’ll be gone by Christmas. It’s time to rally around DD.”

David Davis of course is the Brexit Secretary who led Parliament to believe that there were 58 top secret reports assessing the impact of Brexit on key sectors of the economy, only to reveal that they didn't exist when the House of Commons insisted on seeing them. He makes Theresa May look like a giant on the world stage and that is saying something.

I won't comment on his performance in negotiating Brexit with Brussels, except to point out that he has effectively been relieved of the really important stuff by the Prime Minister herself. Perhaps that is what has upset his fan club.

For the rest of us, we have to reflect that if David Davis is the answer to the incompetence of the UK Government and their determination to drive us over an economic and constitutional cliff then it must be time to rephrase the question.

The idea is so absurd that the only reason I can see for publishing the story is to further destabilise the Prime Minister and her government to make way for a more realistic contender for the leadership, if such a person exists.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The search for truth around the Carl Sargeant sacking

By my estimation there are now three separate inquiries looking at the circumstances around Carl Sargeant's tragic and untimely death four weeks ago. There is the inquest, an independent QC-led investigation seeking to establish whether the First Minister followed the correct procedures in sacking the former Minister, and now we have an inquiry looking at whether news of the sacking was leaked.

At the heart of all this is a war of words between friends of Carl, including former minister, Leighton Andrews, Cardiff Bay lobbyist, Daran Hill, and the First Minister himself. At the same time an increasingly bullish Tory leader, is seeking to drive home a perceived advantage by pressing Carwyn Jones on details in the Senedd Siambr, even to the point of appropriating Leighton Andrews' twitter feed as a source for his questions.

As if to add insult to injury, Carwyn Jones has gone on the record with the BBC, claiming that he could not have done anything differently over the allegations made against Carl Sargeant. There are many who would disagree with that.

For a start it is my view that Carwyn should have followed the example set by Theresa May over Damian Green and suspended Carl whilst the allegations were investigated, rather than sack him. Secondly, he should not have added insult to injury by giving more details of the allegations to the media, the day before Carl died.

Carwyn also adopted a more traditional political stance in the interview by seeking to attack the messenger rather than address the message. He accused Leighton Andrews, a fellow Labour Party colleague of waging a "trial by Twitter" and labelled him as being perpetually grumpy when in government. Nobody who knows Leighton can deny the 'grumpy' tag, but really, how is it relevant?

The nub of the disagreement between Carwyn and Leighton centres on the latter's claim that at sometime in October and/or November 2014 he raised with the First Minister in a one-on-one meeting, allegations of bullying behaviour within Carwyn's office. This is denied.

With a by-election now scheduled on 6th February, this is not going to go away soon. Hints are being published on social media that Labour may find itself opposed by an independent candidate in the seat, whilst there are also suggestions that there are more questions to be answered than have so far been posed.

For now, the Assembly Labour Group appears to be backing the First Minister. Whether they do so once the various inquiries report is a moot question. Leighton Andrews has consistently said that he is not calling on Carwyn Jones to resign, but consequences are not always predictable and with the First Minister continually digging himself deeper into a hole of his own making, it is clear that this is now a fight for his political survival.

Update: I have been reminded of a fourth inquiry as to whether the First Minister misled the Assembly when he said no allegations of bullying had been made to him in 2014.

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