Thursday, July 19, 2018

The problem of rewriting the dictionary - Labour and antisemitism

As an outsider looking in, Labour's repeated problems with antisemitism seem almost surreal. How is it that the party has got itself into this mess? Why is it so reluctant to accept the standard definition of antisemitism? Why is there so much resistance to allowing Jews to determine when they've been discriminated against? Why is a Jewish MP being disciplined for calling out antisemitism in the party?

At first I couldn't understand it. But then the more I thought about it, the more an answer suggested itself. A lot in the Labour Party and on the left more broadly have got themselves into a complete mess because they've gone down a route of limiting the definition of terms such as "racism" and "sexism", to the point that they've predetermined who can and can't experience them, creating problems when this definition conflicts with reality.

I first noticed this many years ago in student politics (where I encountered a number of people who are now Labour MPs - or ex ones - across all sections of the party). It was particularly noticeable that a good number of people in and around the "Liberation Campaigns" (Women's, Black, LGBT, Disabled Students) of the National Union of Students had a pretty firm notion of sexism and/or racism that rejected the idea some people could experience them - "men don't suffer sexism" or "white people don't experience racism". (The use of the terms "homophobia" and "ableism" instead of "sexualityism" and "abilityism" somewhat diminished the issue there.) Instead everything was viewed through the prism of liberation theory, regarding these terms as meaning societal structural oppression and a clear hierarchy of oppressor and oppressed (with detailed tiers for those who experience multiple repression). Aligned to this is the view that only those experiencing repression could say that that is what it is.

But this approach has the effect of a siege mentality with some pretty rigid views on who is contained within the siege. And it also leads to confusion, argument and alienation as genuine concerns about discrimination in the reverse to standard form get brushed aside and potential allies alienated. It also isn't very good at coping with the idea a group of people can be both oppressors and oppressed depending on the context.

To cut to the chase, the Israel/Palestine situation is a complex matter of the kind that doesn't lend itself to easy solutions by shouting slogans. So naturally it attracts those for whom protesting and shouting is the solution to a problem. And whilst Jewish people may be the majority in Israel, they are a minority elsewhere, thus in both positions. Plus a lot of antisemitic rhetoric accuses Jews of having too much power - attacks on bankers, "Jewish world conspiracy" and so on.

Consequently a significant part of the left has wound up defining "racism", and thus "antisemitism" in such a way that just cannot understand a lot of the antisemitic rhetoric flying around. Its whole outlook does not allow Jews to define antisemitism, especially in regards to rhetoric around Israel, because that completely undermines a world view in which everyone is either an oppressor or an oppressed and they've already allocated the former category.

If the left is to overcome its problems here, it has to move beyond such rigid liberation theory and accept a more broader definition of discrimination, racism, sexism and so forth. Otherwise it will continue to cause pain and hurt whilst not actually solving things.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Which US Presidents were denied renomination?

It's looking like Donald Trump will be challenged for the Republican nomination in 2020. (Washington Post: Curtain rises in New Hampshire with president's appearance) Invariably some want to know how many previous presidents have failed to be renominated by their party.

As with many historical questions about US presidential selections this is not simple to answer. Not only has the nomination process changed over the years but also there was historically a lot of smoke and mirrors. In the 19th century there was a widespread belief that one shouldn't seek the presidency but rather be drafted to it. This wasn't quite how some of the candidates approached things behind the scenes but it meant that they didn't always leave the biggest public clues. Sitting presidents were often most subject to this, presenting an image of standing again by popular demand, often only formally declaring their intentions just before a convention vote or even not until an acceptance message.

There was also a belief that presidents shouldn't serve more than two terms, but this doesn't seem to have been adhered to by that many. Between 1837 and 1952 just about every president who completed two terms seems to have considered another, either consecutively or a subsequent comeback. But how far these bids went isn't always clear.

How parties pick their candidates has also evolved. Initially candidates were selected by the Congressional (parliamentary) parties. This system broke down around the 1820s and by the 1840s all the significant parties had adopted the model of a national convention voting on prospective candidates. Delegate selection was initially by state party leaders though in the early 20th century a populist revolt introduced various forms of direct voter involvement through primaries and caucuses in some states. However political leaders managed to nullify some of the effects by limiting the number of delegates selected and/or by running local figures as "favourite sons" in the primaries, with the prospective candidates often not formally announcing until later and treating the primaries as a means of testing the water rather than a formal contest. This system broke down in 1968 with the mess of the Democrat nomination that year, leading to an opening up of the primaries and it is now extremely rare for the convention itself to have any role in selecting the nominee beyond stamping the primary winner.

With all these caveats, here are the various presidents that one way or another wanted renomination but did not obtain it:

John Tyler. Elected Vice President on the Whig ticket in 1840, Tyler was the first to succeed in office. He rapidly proved a disappointment to Whig leaders, vetoing much of their plans. Effectively expelled from the party in late 1841, he governed pretty much as an independent and thus was never under consideration for the Whig nomination in 1844. He instead formed a briefly lived "Democratic-Republican Party" (reusing the name of Thomas Jefferson's old party) which nominated him for the presidency though his efforts were more focused on getting the Democrats to adopt a policy of annexing Texas rather than on re-election. When the Democrats nominated Polk and delivered the assurances Tyler dropped out of the race.

Millard Fillmore. Elected Vice President on the Whig ticket in 1848, Fillmore succeeded in office in 1850 and used the influence of the White House to secure the Compromise of 1850 to settle issues between the free and slave states. However this left the Whigs bitterly divided. At the 1852 convention Fillmore was proposed but lost in the succession of ballots to Winfield Scott. Later in 1856 Fillmore would run as the nominee of both the Know Nothing Party and what remained of the Whigs.

Franklin Pierce. Elected President in 1852, Pierce is the clearest case on this list. Proposed for the nomination at the 1856 Democrat convention he lost in the balloting.

Andrew Johnson. Elected Vice President on the "National Union" ticket in 1864, which combined Republicans with War Democrats, Johnson succeeded as President the following year. A Democrat by background, Johnson fell out with the Republican leaders in Congress and the National Union umbrella dropped away. In 1868 Johnson was proposed for the Democrat nomination but did not have enough support in the ballots at a lengthy convention.

Ulysses S. Grant. Elected President in 1868 and 1872, Grant contemplated a third term but in 1875 the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a resolution in favour of the two-term limit. Facing such political opposition he dropped his hopes for 1876, but later in 1880 he sought another term but did not succeed at the longest ever Republican convention.

Chester Arthur. Elected Vice President in 1880, he succeeded in office the following year. He contemplated running for a full term in his own right in 1884, but suffering from illness and with the Republican factions lining up behind other candidates he ultimately declined to make a serious effort but did not formally drop out of the running as he felt it would raise too many questions about his administration and health.

Grover Cleveland. Now this is the one that is probably the most unclear. Elected President in 1884 and defeated in 1888, in 1892 he became the only former President to return to the office. In the run-up to the 1896 election he did not make his intentions clear one way or the other and so was a possible contender going into the Democrat convention. However the policy debate at the start of the convention repudiated Cleveland's administration on the central economic question of the day (gold s silver) and so any attempt to secure the nomination for Cleveland would have been a waste of time. He was not proposed at the convention, with his home state delegation of New York abstaining on the initial ballot along with New Jersey. A group of "Gold Democrats" did make try to make a third party nomination of Cleveland but he refused it. Later in 1904 the pro gold Democrats recaptured control of the party but Cleveland turned down requests to stand again.

Woodrow Wilson. Elected President in 1912 and 1916, he suffered a stroke in late 1919 that limited his attempts to get the US to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and join the League of Nations. Despite this he held out hopes of being renominated in 1920 but this seems to have been the delusions of an isolated man surrounded by people who wouldn't point out the realities to him. He had further hopes of a comeback in 1924 but died at the start of the year.

Harry Truman. Elected Vice President in 1944, he succeeded in office the following year and won a full term in 1948, he was given an exemption from the formalisation of the two term limit in the Twenty-Second Amendment. By the time of the New Hampshire primary he had not yet found an anointed successor or announced if he would restand, but assented to his name being put on the ballot paper. Defeat in the primary led to his announcing he would not be seeking a further term.

Lyndon Johnson. Elected Vice President in 1960, he succeeded in office in 1963 and won a full term the following year. Under the terms of the Twenty-Second Amendment he was eligible to be elected again in 1968. Like Truman he assented to his name going forward to early primaries but announced he would not seek the nomination after adverse results.

As can be seen from this list, other than Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce it's not easy to say for sure which sitting presidents actively sought renomination but were denied it. Several abandoned plans before formal votes, others treated the primaries as testing the water rather a formal campaign, some had delusions of their essentialness more than anything else, others had already broken with their party, one was making only a token effort. Exactly what does and doesn't count (and even Fillmore's inclusion is arguable given that he was a Vice President who succeeded) makes this list one to debate endlessly over.

The debacle of the Democrats' 1968 nomination has led to the process being opened up with a much more public process and so it's no longer possible for someone to be as ambiguous as Truman or Johnson were about whether they were seeking nomination (in 1964 Johnson only formally decided close to the convention, after the handful of primaries were won either by him or by loyal "favourite sons" collecting delegates). Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and the elder George Bush all faced serious challenges in the primaries. All defeated them but went on to lose their re-election bids and these are the only sitting presidents defeated in the general election in nearly ninety years.

However before anyone rushes to plan a party for Trump's defeat, bear in mind that he has already broken a lot political wisdom so a serious challenge in the primaries may not spell doom for his hopes.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Can an established party truly vanish?

Today Ukip are holding an extraordinary general meeting to decide whether or not to remove their leader Henry Bolton from office. It comes at a time when Ukip is struggling on all fronts, with defections, election set backs, funders deserting, infighting and more, leading to many to wonder whether the party will soon disappear.

But just how easy is it for a party to truly vanish? Many parties have a brief period in the spotlight and manage to linger on for years afterwards, despite major losses. For example many would think Veritas was just a flash in the pan vehicle of Robert Kilroy-Silk for his actions back in 2005. In fact Veritas existed for another decade before merging into the English Democrats (and no, I don't know what happened to Veritas in the rest of the UK, if there was anything by then). It shows how for as long as there are still people around maintaining the registration, a party can just keep on going.

But what of the more significant parties that have actually won seats in elections? Well since 1997 the following parties have won seats at at least one out of Westminster, Stormont, Cardiff Bay, Holyrood or Brussels but since dissolved:
Spot a common theme? With one exception, each of these parties was largely built around a single figure, in four cases a past or present parliamentarian/assembly member. Blaenau Gwent People's Voice did outlive Peter Law for several years but ultimately these were personalist vehicles that hinged on a single figure. When that figure either died or was defeated or sought to join a bigger party, their vehicle soon gave up.

The exception in the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, although even then the party was heavily identified with co-founder Monica McWilliams. However it did manage to develop beyond the one member personalist vehicle that others usually began as, but ultimately folded.

Now Ukip may have been heavily dominated by Nigel Farage, but it was created before him, has had many other representatives over the years and has a clear brand. In normal circumstances there is absolutely reason why it wouldn't continue to exist and contest elections with just a handful of people still going. Around the world this isn't unusual - for instance in the United States the Prohibition Party is still going (and still receiving money from a trust fund established during its heyday) long after its banner issue has ceased to be of any relevance. So expecting a party to disappear altogether may be premature and Ukip do still have some significant broadcast entitlements (helped by the media using a formula that's based on two election cycles) that will keep the group in the public eye.

However there is a major threat to its existence and it has little to do with Henry Bolton (although how the leader handles it may be a factor in how members decide today). The party has been found liable for some of the costs in a libel case (see BBC News: Jane Collins defamation case: UKIP delayed case for more details) and may prove financially unviable. If the party cannot pay then it could be forcibly liquidated. The case could shed light on exactly what and who constitute a political party and are thus liable for its debts. The party's intellectual property and registration might well become assets seized and auctioned off. Could someone buy up "Ukip" to carry on or will the case destroy the party for good?

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Ghostwatch - 25 years on

Tonight is the twenty-fifth anniversary of one of the most notorious of all BBC broadcasts - Ghostwatch. To a casual viewer it looked like a live investigation of alleged paranormal activities, completely with a Crimewatch style studio of presenters and a live phone in. It was fronted by known presenters Michael Parkinson, Mike Smith, Sarah Greene and Craig Charles, along with an academic expert. It even questioned whether the events were a hoax. But over the course of the night things got odder and odder, culminating in the realisation a mass seance had unleashed a poltergeist across the whole country. It ended with the outside broadcast going chaotic, Sarah Greene seemingly dying, the studio collapsing into darkness and Michael Parkinson possessed.

Ghostwatch was in fact a fiction. But it presented itself in the style of reality television, complete with faces known mostly for presenting rather than acting (with the possible exception of Craig Charles), and seemed real. And the giveaways that it wasn't were easy to miss. The BBC subsequently protested that there was a cast list in the Radio Times but this was a year after the deregulation of TV listings that made the magazine less widespread (and in any case it had never had a 100% circulation). There was a caption at the start of the show but many missed this or tuned in after the start. The slot it was broadcast in normally contained drama - but few viewers either followed the schedule in such detail or would have made the connection given the special nature of the night. Not everybody called the telephone number given (which was the standard BBC number - 081 811 8181 - used on real shows like Going Live and Crimewatch). And there were no EPGs then to automatically display information when turning on or over, whilst many television sets, especially bedroom ones, did not have Ceefax.

Did I think it was real? To be honest - sort of yes. At first it seemed as though the family at the house were fooling the BBC and the nation and this double-bluff did convince many. But towards the end things went off the rails and I think it was my sister who realised this was all a fantasy. It's easy to see why so many believed this was a genuine thing and caused such an upcry.

So a lot of people were taken in and there was uproar on a scale not seen perhaps since Orson Welles's adaptation of The War of the Worlds (which was also broadcast at Halloween). For many years the tape of Ghostwatch was confined to a restricted part of the BBC archive, to never be seen again, though they've since relaxed and it's now available on DVD. But it remains unrepeated on British television.

For a whole generation it remains one of the strangest things they've ever seen broadcast. And some rewatch it on cue - tonight look out for #Ghostwatch on Twitter as many replay it at the exact anniversary.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Ukip splinter parties

It's happened yet again. Another new party is to be created by a prominent figure leaving Ukip. How many times has this happened now?

Here's my best attempt at a list, limiting it solely to those created by MEPs, Assembly Members and leadership contenders:
  • Veritas - founded by Robert Kilroy-Silk MEP in 2005
  • One London - co-founded by Peter Hulme-Cross, London Assembly Member, in 2005 *
  • We Demand a Referendum Now - founded by Nikki Sinclaire MEP in 2012
  • An Independence from Europe (and various other names) - founded by Mike Nattrass MEP in 2012
  • New Deal - founded by Alan Sked, Ukip's founder and first leader, in 2013
  • Affinity - currently being founded by John Rees-Evans, leadership contender in 2017
  • "For Britain" - currently being founded by Anne Marie Waters, leadership contender in 2017

(* Lest anyone argue this is actually a splint from Veritas, this one's convoluted because Hulme-Cross's party was confused for a while. When fellow Ukip AM Damian Hockney defected to Veritas there was concern that with one member each neither party would be recognised as a grouping on the London Assembly with access to resources. A "Veritas-Ukip" group was formed to overcome this obstacle but Ukip weren't happy and kicked Hulme-Cross out. Subsequently Hockney left Veritas and the two founded this party together, hence it appears on this list.)

No less than seven.

And that's without including the numerous MEPs who've left to become either independents or join other parties over the years. Or the various other parties formed by local candidates that haven't gained as much prominence.

Have I forgotten any? I'll update this post where necessary.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Who looked for "the 75%"?

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Welsh devolution referendum. Today Welsh devolution seems fully entrenched, with calls for abolition limited to the margins - Ukip were the last significant party to oppose devolution and they ditched that several years back. Last year a group called Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party/Plaid Diddymu Cynulliad Cymru took less than 5% of the vote. Whatever the debate over the detail of powers, devolution looks set to stay.

But devolution wasn't always so popular.

Back in 1997 the referendum passed by just 6721 votes. On a turnout of 50.22%, 50.3% of voters voted for the assembly. This is, I think, the narrowest margin of victory in a referendum ever in the history of the UK.

There are many parallels to the more recent Brexit referendum. A narrow margin of victory. Disagreement about the franchise used for the referendum (it used the local government franchise rather than the Westminster). Dissatisfaction about the timing of the vote (particularly holding it a week after the Scottish vote in the seeming hope of harnessing momentum to encourage a yes vote). A belief the campaigning was one sided with the government of the day promoting their view. Fear that the outcome would inadvertently lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom. And so on.

But at the time very little of this meaningfully manifested after the vote. Some of the controversies had arisen during the passage of the legislation to hold the referendums, but the government of the day was highly dismissive and frequently just pointed to its recent election victory as meaning critics should just shut up. The main controversy about the resource imbalance of the campaigns came over a year later when Lord Neill of Bladen's report into political funding said that "a fairer campaign might well have resulted in a different outcome". (12.32 - a PDF of the full report: The Funding of Political Parties in the United Kingdom.)

Notably there was no great attempt after the vote to set it aside. Nobody talked of "the 50%" or "the 75%" or even "the 81%" who hadn't voted for it. The media did not search for regretful voters to hold up as "proof" the mandate had lapsed. There were no noticeable cries of "advisory" or appeals for Parliament to disregard the outcome. When the Neill report came out a year later there was only a minor flurry about its findings and no overturning of the Government of Wales Act, which was already on the statute book.

The odd voice was raised in objection but was invariably dismissed with reference to the democratic outcome. Demands to rethink or review were dismissed. In this regard, it should be unsurprising that more recent referendums have seen much the same attitude after the event.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Why we keep remembering Diana

With the twentieth anniversary of her death there's been an inevitable round of revisiting the life of Diana, Princess of Wales and once more revisiting her death. And naturally many wonder why we do this - surely this isn't the British way? Shouldn't we all have moved on?

But this misses much of the point of that strange week twenty years ago. In many ways it was the closest the UK has come to a revolution in my time. People were sad but also angry. And in particular they were angry at being told what was the "proper" way to do things.

At the time it manifested itself in the uproar about the lack of a flag at half-mast at Buckingham Palace. This was down to "protocol". But much of the public neither knew this protocol nor cared for it. Diana had broken the mould in many ways in life and a large section of the public would not accept old moulds in death. I was one of many in the crowds outside Westminster Abbey and remember the surge of emotion when Earl Spencer delivered his eulogy. The massive applause was the crowd agreeing that the old ways would not return.

That act of rebelling against protocol and tradition has continued. And by its nature people who still commemorate Diana's life and death are not going to meekly stop when someone tells them how things are supposed to be done.

Diana's death was also perhaps the last time the country seemed to be as one. This was probably the last big news story before the internet really took off and gave a platform for alternate and dissident voices. Instead the broadcast and print media still gave most of us the news and there were few ways to say "Not all of us!" Thus for perhaps the final time a single mass mentality could truly drive events. And it rejected traditional steering.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Explaining "Hexit" in maps

For those who haven't seen it, a motion has been tabled in Havering council for the borough to renegotiate its relationship with London. (More details in the Evening Standard: "'Hexit' vote to be held in bid to solve London borough's 'identity crisis'".) Dubbed "Hexit", this proposal, submitted by a Ukip councillor, has generated some interesting posts.

One that caught my eye is Jonn Elledge's piece in CityMetric "The threat of Hexit: could the London Borough of Havering really be about to secede from the capital?". In it he suggests this is because Havering's demographics are far removed from the rest of London. However there are some more obvious reasons why many in that borough in particular haven't always felt part of London.

Havering, for those wondering, is the eastern most London borough. It's named after a royal manor (recorded in the Domesday Book as "Haueringas") which in turn gave its name to a palace and then the village of Havering-atte-Bower ("atte-Bower" means "at the royal residence"). As with a number of other London boroughs, "Havering" is a compromise name, in this case using the name of a small settlement rather than dealing with the rivalries between Hornchurch, Rainham, Romford and Upminster. (Merton and Haringey are similar examples.)

(To save time in the rest of this post, I'll use "Havering" to refer to the area of the current borough, including before its formation.)

Greater London has been around since 1965 but a glance at various maps (all from Wikipeda) will show how both before and afterwards various definitions of "London" have missed out Havering. Let's start with the Metropolitan Police District, which before 1965 was often used as a formal definition of "Greater London" when urbanisation took the natural metropolis beyond the London County Council boundaries.

(The Wikipedia file for this map is confused as to whether it's for 1933 or 1946, but for this post's purpose the relevant part of the boundary is the same.)

Note that in the years leading up to 1965 the Metropolitan Police District incorporated nearly all of what came under the Greater London Council (and some parts that didn't), but there is one conspicuous exception on the map. In the original proposals, it wasn't the only one, but Esher was one of a number of authorities around the edge of the proposed Greater London that were initially to be included but which successfully secured exclusion. Romford, however, tried and failed.

But in day to day life the most significant indicators of where someone lives have tended to be in communications. Landline uptake and usage is now in steady decline, but the London telephone numbers have been a significant indicator. There's been no significant external change to their area since 1959 (the less said about the internal split and re-merger of the 1990s, the better). And so here is a map of the London phone numbers (in red) overlaid on a map of the London borough boundaries:

Note that almost he whole of Havering is outside the London phone code. Sure it's not the only area but it's the only omission that almost completely aligns to a single borough.

A smaller area is the London postal district. Postal addresses are often confusing because they haven't always been adjusted with local government changes, and London is one of the worst areas for this, not having been revised in the 1960s, partially due to funding, partially due to potential confusion between the LONDON postal town and a Greater London postal county. (MANCHESTER and Greater Manchester suffer similar problems.) As a result, the LONDON postal address covers a smaller area than the whole of Greater London:

Havering is one of three boroughs that have no "LONDON" addresses in them at all. (The other two are Hillingdon and Sutton. Some of the other boroughs have only very slight coverage - as little as one road in the case of Harrow.) A related issue is the continued use of "Essex" in addresses. Until 1996 it was a requirement in much of the UK for postal addresses to include the county of the postal town used, even when the postal counties no longer aligned to administrative boundaries. (The Wikipedia article Postal counties of the United Kingdom has the basics.) One curiosity is that "Essex" was never actually needed for address in the ROMFORD postal town. It was one of the 110 towns that did not require a county due to their size (or giving their name to the county).

The requirement for a county was formally dropped in 1996, largely due to a change to optical character recognition technology that did not need it. (But also, another round of local government reorganisation can't have enthused Royal Mail, especially given the confusing situation of some counties like Berkshire continuing to exist without a county council but others like Humberside being almost completely abolished. Just to make matters worse, the changes came in stages.)

One other minor point stands out from some of these maps. The M25 motorway is often wrongly assumed to be the division between London and the rest of the country, to the especial annoyance of many who live or have lived between London and the motorway. Havering is right up against the motorway and even has the biggest chunk of London that's outside it.

Now these maps are obviously not the be-all and end-all of the situation and there are many other ways in which Havering gets the London experience (Freedom Passes for a start). But they do show some of the problems in forging the London identity when not every institution and service uses the same boundaries and thus for many residents "London" is not an ever present part of their own home lives, instead often being something elsewhere. And whereas in much of Greater London the 1965 expansion was clearly a case of administration catching up with the expansion of the metropolis, in the case of Havering London-wide bodies all suddenly arrived at once. It's surprising how long it's taken the 1965 changes, both to the London boundary and the individual boroughs, to settle in. Even today you can find boroughs still pursuing policies to integrate their separate components, such as "one borough" mottos or locating new council buildings directly on the old internal boundaries.

If the postal addresses and telephone codes had been adjusted back in the 1960s then it's probable this issue wouldn't have come up. That, rather than the demographics, seems the more likely explanation for the underlying issues behind this, even though the Hexit vote itself feels more like posturing by a political party in severe decline.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Arrival of the Cybermen

For those who enjoyed this evening's Doctor Who, here's a special blast from the past - the first full introduction of the Cybermen from The Tenth Planet back in 1966:



Note that you can see the actors' eyes under those masks. With any other monster fans would cry out. But with the Cybermen it's very appropriate...

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