UKIP’s move from pressure group to full blown political party presents challenges for both its leadership and membership.

By Oliver Ford

A sense of vindication and excitement seemed to characterise UKIP’s public meeting in Telford, Shropshire last week, with the attendees’ growing realisation that the party’s founding policy standpoints (opposition to both the E.U. and large scale immigration) are becoming the emerging central themes of the upcoming election cycle. A cycle which promises major success for UKIP.

The event, the first in a series of public meetings planned in the run up to the European elections, featured a series of short speeches by the party’s leadership, including Nigel Farage and Deputy Leader Paul Nuttall, followed by a question and answer session. The aim of the meeting seemed to be an attempt to both rally existing supporters, and simultaneously bring new members on board – goals in which the event generally succeeded, with attendees impressed with what the leadership had to say, particularly, of course, when it came immigration and Europe.

Despite this, the gathering also gave evidence to the widening gap between UKIP’s leadership and its rank and file membership, as the grouping attempts to demonstrate its maturity and credibility in the face of persistent accusations of racism.

This was felt particularly at the event when Farage stated that he wanted Britian to remain an ‘open… trading’  nation – a comment aimed at assuring newcomers to the UKIP fold that it was not a party of ‘Little Englanders’; but which seemed to hang over the audience in awkward silence. Similarly, a question tabled by an audience member asking the leadership to clarify UKIP’s stance towards abortion was met with squirms – the panel unwilling to give the hard line stance that was presumably sought by the audience member.

Many of UKIP’s older standing problems were also on display throughout the night. The audience was almost exclusively 50+ and white – doing little to dispel the view that UKIP is a party only for white middle aged folk. If the party hopes to move on, it will have to attract a wider demographic. Signs of UKIP’s usual internal bickering and disorganisation were also evident, with a counsellor from Tamworth cheerfully stating that there would be ‘fireworks’ at the behind closed doors policy meeting that was to follow the public gathering.

However, all this cannot be used to be used to deny what is apparent – that UKIP is a party in the ascendency. At times during the evening, the excitement at this fact was palpable, particularly when Farage was greeted onto the stage with enthusiastic applause. This enthusiasm was matched by Farage’s impressive ambitions for the party, comparing UKIP’s opposition to wind farms to Peel’s opposition to the Corn Laws, and bluntly stating that his aim for the 2015 General Election was for UKIP to win a Westminster seat. If Farage can confront the party’s traditional problems, and simultaneously keep the party members on side, then such an aim does not seem overly ambitious.

Eggs, Ed, and the Decline of the Political Party

By Oliver Ford

Ed Miliband’s rare entrance into the headlines last week may have been viewed as an achievement by the Labour leader (in what otherwise has seemed to have been a self-imposed media blackout over the summer) were it not for the fact that this feat was achieved as a result of being pelted with an egg by a disgruntled member of the public. The pictures of the incident, which inspired intermingling feelings of amusement, pity, and scorn, were only minutes after the event to be found on Twitter, posted and viewed by the politically detached and cynical British Generation Y. As well as providing amusement, however, Ed’s ‘egging’ also seems to be the perfect example of the huge and increasing divide between the major political parties and the public that has characterised British politics of the 21st century so far, a divide which threatens a terminal decline of the traditional party model in the UK.

On one level, the assault demonstrates the sheer contempt that much of the public now holds for the perceived ‘elitist’ and remote political class that dominates the leadership of both major political parties. This is particularly true of Ed Miliband, (being pelted whilst on a visit to a ‘typical’ London market, seemingly on a desperate mission to exhibit his affinity with the ‘average’ person) who, being born into an academic and political family, was sped through Oxbridge and into a job as a ‘researcher’ before rising to the top of the party that perversely claims to have the interests of the average working man at its heart. Of course, the same is also true of both David Cameron and Nick Clegg (as well as a multitude of other Cabinet members), both of whom have followed an unsurprisingly similar career path to that of Ed Miliband. This wholesale detachment of political parties and their leaders from the very public they claim to represent has resulted in a de-humanization of Britain’s political life – from Miliband’s elitist and careerist view, voters become ‘target demographics’ and people’s worries and fears become ‘issue trends’, Miliband himself never having experienced a life comparable to that of most of the electorate. This dehumanization then serves to alienate the political class more, with politicians retreating into their own worlds of spin doctors and polls – fuelling the public’s hostility to mainstream politics even further. The effects of this elitism and resultant disillusionment are easy to see, particularly with the electoral decline of the two major parties – the Labour and the Conservatives Party’s combined vote falling from 86% in 1945 to 65% in 2011. UKIP’s recent rise in this context can also be explained – with leader Nigel Farage’s personable and grounded persona, as well as more ordinary background (never having attended university) being a key factor in the party’s rise. The divide between an increasingly irate and detached public (demonstrated by Ed Miliband’s egging) and an increasingly isolated political class is therefore both a symptom and a cause of the decline of political parties in Britain; with the ‘distance’ between politicians and the public turning so many away from mainstream politics, a ‘distance’ which only increases as fewer and fewer ‘normal’ people have an input in the running of the major parties.

The perpetrator of the egging himself offers reasons for the decline of the political party. In stating that Labour ‘does nothing’ for the poor, Dean Porter is expressing an opinion that many in the country of different political views now hold – that the major parties have become too ideologically similar, and in many aspects are the same. In Dean Porter’s case, this probably means Miliband has not done enough reverse Labour’s right-ward lurch towards the political centre under Blair (Miliband’s early characterisation as a dangerous radical – ‘Red Ed’ – now seems cruelly ironic); similarly, the Conservative’s base of support has been left feeling alienated by many of Cameron’s liberal centrist policies such as the legalisation of gay marriage and maintenance of the international aid budget amidst widespread cuts. This convergence of policy and ideology at the centre of the political spectrum is a consequence of the elitism and detachment described before, with the secession of the country’s political leadership from the rest of society meaning that parties have drifted from their traditional bases of support, attempting to find a near mythical vote winning ‘centre ground’. This search for a neutral centre ground, seems, however to be self defeating, because in looking for this centre ground, parties become more and more alike, antagonising the public even more, losing votes, and so contributing to their own decline.

However, the merging of Britain’s political parties into an indistinguishable centrist mass (demonstrated well by Miliband’s directionless leadership of the Labour Party) is more than another symptom of elitism – it is in itself an example of and reason for the decline of the political party, for if the major parties are no longer to take clear and consistent positions on a range of economic and social issues, what is the point in them at all? The recent successes of groups that take a more definite position on the political spectrum display the dangers that major parties face in failing to define and clarify their ideological standpoints – with George Galloway’s left wing Respect Party winning the 2012 Bradford West by election and the decidedly right wing UKIP now regularly polling over 10%. In fighting over the same narrow stretch of centre ground, and in doing so acknowledging that winning elections is now more important that maintaining ideological integrity, the UK’s main political parties seem to be committing collective suicide.

Of course, the death knell of the traditional political party has not been sounded just yet – traditional ‘bread and butter’ economic issues that have arisen with the financial crisis and ensuing squeeze on living standards may yet invigorate Labour and the Conservatives. The party structure has also not yet fully been discredited; with parties such as UKIP thriving with burgeoning memberships, the current malaise may only be affecting the tired and lethargic Conservative and Labour parties. There will also be those who will rejoice at the decline of traditional parties, viewing them as cumbersome anachronisms unable to serve Britain’s fluid modern society. On many occasions, traditional party politics on both sides of the political spectrum have failed the country – one only need only look to the dysfunctional 1970s to see the dangers of dogmatic machine politics.

However, despite this, ever since the work of political philosopher Edmund Burke in the 18th century, it has been accepted that in order to hold the executive to account and form functional governments, well organised and disciplined political parties are required; if this need can be combined with a more open, receptive and flexible but simultaneously principled and meaningful party system, perhaps Ed Miliband and the rest won’t remain such inviting targets for egg throwers.

Five misconceptions about intervention in Syria

By Alex Bryan

Since reports of a chemical weapons attack launched in Syria by the Assad regime began circulating a week or so ago, debate has intensified over how the West should respond to such a barbarous act which typifies the opportunism and disregard for human rights at the heart of the Syrian state. Some have called for restraint; more have called for action in some form or another, be it humanitarian action, targeted missile strikes or more direct methods of intervention. The sheer scale of the global conversation about how to solve the crisis in Syria by its very nature means that facts are distorted, straw men are constructed and taken apart and the very topic of conversation at times becomes lost amidst the clutter. Here then is a handy guide to a few important misconceptions, mistakes or misplaced concerns the commentariat have expressed about the potential options the West has in facing down Assad.

Misconception 1 – The West is not currently intervening in Syria

As we are talking about foreign policy misconceptions, there seem few places more fitting to start than Tony Blair’s piece in the Times yesterday. Blair notes that other powers are intervening right now, and that they are not terrified by the prospect of intervention. Blair is right; Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others are intervening in the conflict as we speak. However, he is wrong to imply that the West is not. Intervention, as Blair knows, is a broad term which can cover a whole host of options, military or non-military. It is clear that the UK is engaging with the conflict, as is the U.S.; the fact we have not bombed Syria does not mean we are ‘wringing our hands’ on the sidelines.

Misconception 2 – That the West is chiefly concerned with morals in Syria

Commentators have tended to be fundamentally divided on how they suggest we view Syria. Some, such as Blair, view the need for intervention as one which is essentially based on Western interests and the need for long term stability in the Middle-East. Others view it as a moral necessity now that chemical weapons are involved, saying that chemical weapons provide an imperative, that using them breaches a fundamental principle of human dignity and that we must act to ensure this does not happen again. In a sense both are right. However, the second view is clearly normative rather than descriptive; one can argue that we should intervene on moral grounds, but it is a different thing to say that is why we will intervene. The moral argument is far more complicated than is generally accepted, and involves swallowing a whole host of difficult implications. For example, if chemical weapons represent a moral line, where does this leave the thousands killed using guns or sticks or knives or bombs in Syria? Is this morally defensible? Are their deaths any less worthy of our moral concern? Our concern with chemical weapons is not entirely moral; it also involves a national security element. Preventing the flow of chemical weapons into the hands of non-state actors – including the Syrian rebels – is a priority for the West in defending itself against possible future terrorist attacks. There is a legitimate concern against the use of chemical weapons, but it is not entirely moral. If it were, intervention would be much less likely.

Misconception 3 – That international military intervention without a UN mandate is still legitimate on humanitarian grounds

On Conservative Home Robert Halfon MP argues that the UN’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine essentially grants a mandate to any country. This is a misunderstanding of the doctrine, which could be very dangerous. More fundamentally however, Halfon misunderstands what R2P is. It is not a set of guidelines or rules, but an emerging norm. The reason it is emerging is because it is still highly controversial and far from perfect, as the previous attempts to implement the doctrine have shown. So, although we can appeal to R2P in making a case to the UN to intervene (or allow an intervention), it does not guarantee the legal certainty that Halfon appears to claim it does. Halfon also seems to misunderstand what R2P allows the international community to do. When the UN talks about the ‘international community’ with regards to R2P, what it means it ‘the international community represented by the Security Council’. So R2P gets us no closer to a legitimate response; it would still be blocked in the Security Council by Russia and China, both pro-Assad and anti-R2P.

Misconception 4- We should not aid the rebels because of the Muslim Brotherhood

This idea is fairly prevalent among those keen not to get involved, such as Sir Andrew Green. Conversely, fear of the Muslim Brotherhood is also the reason Tony Blair gives for supporting the military against the democratically elected government in Egypt. While Green and Blair both cite the Brotherhood to support differing opinions, they both demonstrate similarly strange approaches to foreign policy. Green might be right that if the Assad regime topples, the Muslim Brotherhood will gain power, attempt to implement Sharia and an Islamic state and rule Syria for a number of years. Of course he acknowledges the complexity of the issue, but also implies, rather strikingly, that the collapse of the regime would launch the Syrian Brotherhood into mainstream politics. However, the Syrian Brotherhood is very different to the central, more powerful Egyptian Brotherhood. Alison Pargeter notes the differences in her excellent book The Muslim Brotherhood: From Opposition To Power, and even if the relative liberalism of the Syrian Brotherhood is no more, it should still be clear that judging the Syrian Brotherhood on the actions of its Egyptian counterparts is a mistake. Perhaps more pertinently, we cannot claim with any certainty what might happen if Assad were to fall. The only certainty we have is that for as long as he stays in power, Syria will be drenched in blood.

Misconception 5 – The actions of the West will decide the future of the conflict and the long-term future of Syria

The general discussion in the West in the last week has – perhaps naturally – focussed on the options at our disposal in changing the course of the conflict. In discussing the options, many have rested on an assumption which, if once true, is no longer valid. We cannot assume, with the political revitalisation of Russia under Putin, China’s inevitable rise and the increasing assertiveness of the Arab world, that Western actions will have a huge effect in the long term. The age of U.S. unipolarity is dying if not dead, and we in the West must face up to this fact. We are no longer omnipotent. Intervention in Syria might have a short term effect, but the long term future of Syria will be more determined by the geopolitical forces of the Middle-East than the wishes of the United States. Our ambitions must, then, be limited to what is possible. Our approach to Syria must mirror this uncertainty; however the West ends up intervening, it will not mark the end of this damned tale.

In defence of liberal democracy

By Matt Beebee

Whether it is right or wrong to do so, political thinkers from Machiavelli to the present have often put forward an idea of the ‘proficient elite’ and the ‘inept many’. For what might seem like obvious reasons, anyone who holds such views would be seen as an enemy of democracy. This is not strictly true. Liberal democracy has asserted itself as the dominant strain of democratic theory and governmental practice around the world but, by its very nature, only a small number of people will actually play a role in governing a society under such a system – the so called ‘political class’.

Despite only an elite minority gaining a role in government it matters how this elite secures and retains office from the many, for the many. Liberal democratic elites do so through the employment of pollsters and advertising campaigns and while politicians do their best to confuse the electorate, they intended to gain votes and secure political office through persuasion and open debate, as opposed to the coercive use of secret police, corrupted courts or politicized armies favoured by totalitarian elites. Democratic elites allow themselves to be thrown out by the electorate at regular elections, they are held to account by the electorate and do not intend to hold power for life as a totalitarian dictatorship does.

More importantly, liberal democracy encompasses competition between candidates, usually from a party that represents a particular ideological tradition. This competition produces better government than non-competitive elite rule or the noble encompassing intentions of direct democracy. Liberal democracy means that we are inevitably ruled by a group of elites but the competitive aspect of liberal democratic voting ensures that incompetent elites are replaced by more competent elites. Although, as in the US and to a degree in the UK, voters may only choose between two competitors, the open competition within a framework of free elections does produce efficient government – the incumbent elites wish to perform well to boost their competitiveness in relation to their opponents.

However, just who can become a member of the political class is a contentious and controversial issue. Despite western liberal democracies – most specifically in mainland Europe – having fiercely competitive elections, the system of recruitment to the political class is often seen as restrictive. Take the UK for example: a large proportion of the UK cabinet is made up of privately schooled, university educated, middle-class men. All three of the main party leaders were educated at Oxbridge; both David Cameron and Ed Miliband read PPE at Oxford – the so called ‘Prime Minister maker’ of degrees. For liberal democracy this raises the question ‘just how representative is the political class?’ Despite its competitive electoral process, this process is often seen by the electorate as competition between likeminded individuals vying for power who are often pejoratively viewed as ‘professional politicians’ doing nothing but go straight into the battlefield of party politics.

Yet we should not be so quick to judge ‘professional politicians’ with cynicism for a numbers of reasons. First, there are many worse political systems than liberal democracy. Second, doctors, just like politicians, are often not very like the majority of people they care for in terms of lifestyle and education yet we still value them as integral members of society. Thirdly, if politicians do a poor job of promoting the interests of the people they represent on a local and national level they can be voted out at regular intervals. Fourthly, political failure is often more than sheer incompetence; politicians face conflicting pressures and are presented with tasks that are often difficult to perform without something going wrong along the lines. Without meaning to sound patronising, could the role of a professional politician be improved if ordinary citizens were given more political activity in some Athenian-style democratic system?

Liberal democracy brings with it one fundamental advantage and that is its ‘liberal’ aspect of private freedom; liberal democracy crucially sees a difference between the state and society meaning that individuals can prosper unimpeded and pursue one’s own economic, occupational, educational, social and religious choices without hindrance. Indeed, most of us see these liberties as far more important than our political liberty to the right to vote as these are liberties that affect us on a day-to-day basis. This is one of the reasons why half of us do not exercise the right to vote in important national elections; we know whatever the outcome of the election we will retain our private freedom. While this may be true to a degree, it is a rather sad situation that the most redeeming feature of liberal democracy, its protection of private liberties, is all too often taken for granted while the political system that supports these liberties is neglected. More to the point, this is only half the reason why we no longer vote.

The other half is apathy and our perceived lack of political accountability that stems from the previously noted problem of representation. Most of the apathetic attitude towards politics is due to the feeling that voting in elections is our only role within the democratic system; however, every citizen also upholds the democratic right to follow and question government action. This can easily be done by remaining active; contacting or meeting the local politician, being on the floor of a political TV show or even joining a political party. We fail to keep an effective check on our politicians, often cynically dismissing liberal democracy as impossible to hold accountable and therefore there is no point in even voting to begin with. This is a view that should be avoided at all cost. Both the electorate themselves and the political class must do more to increase the experience and the competence of matters of political engagement and politics more generally.

As imperfect as liberal democracy is, it is, ultimately, indispensable with the rule of law within a civil society. However rule of law is not the means to creating a civil society, quite the contrary. Rule of law is the by-product of a society based on liberal principles: absent of snobbery, social integration for women and immigrants and the diminishing of economic and social inequalities at large. Without these facets, the rule of law is a meaningless concept and so is liberal democracy. It is these liberal principles that give liberal democracy its democratic nature as previously accepted grounds for claiming political power have been removed by-and-large (as well as power in the private sphere). It is not foolish to argue that the core values that underpin liberal democracy are its social, not its political, aspects. For this, we should be thankful; as problematic as it is, there are much worse and challenging political systems than liberal democracy and the decent government it encompasses.

After Obama’s red line of chemical weapons has been crossed, what now for the U.S. in Syria?

By Jack Thompson

The reports coming in yesterday morning of a chemical attack outside Damascus remind us that the Syrian Civil War is entering a dangerous phase, one not likely to be resolved internally. But what routes can international actors, most notably the United States, take to resolve the crisis?

Now might be a good time to look at President Obama’s options, and what is holding his administration back.

For a long time now, Obama has explained that chemical weapon use in Syria would be a ‘game changer’, yet since the first reports of their use, the US has remained on the sidelines, offering humanitarian aid, but unwilling to step up and engage against the Assad regime. Various ideas are floated around, with those favouring a drawn back approach advocating logistical support and supplying weapons to the rebels, whereas defence hawks, like John McCain (R-Arizona) pushing for a full intervention.

One of the proposed plans involves arming the rebels. There are fears that supporting the opposition could be problematic in the long term. Past ‘freedom fighters’ that have been supported by the US include Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Gaddafi. It would be unwise to strengthen groups that will eventually turn on the West. And it’s not a case of just promising to arm the official leaders, because the major rebel groups are in fact umbrella organisations consisting of various organisations and militias. The varied nature of these groups makes controlling the proliferation of weapons extremely difficult, especially when rebel leaders openly offer to share weaponry and resources with extremist groups.

When it comes to a full intervention however, there are a number of reasons we can attribute to the lack of action. First off, we cannot doubt the Obama administration’s willingness to use force, as seen through its liberal use of drones across countries like Qatar. However, Obama has been very reluctant to use any real intervention policy ever since he won the presidency. US involvement in the Libyan Civil War was drawn back, and part of a wider international coalition. Rhetorical support was offered during the Arab Spring, but by and large the US kept a wide berth. Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, the administration has done its best to avoid definitive statements that would land them with a military intervention. Why?

Iraq.

The spectre of Iraq looms over the Obama administration, much like Vietnam did with Jimmy Carter. It’s not hard to see why: a trillion dollars and thousands of American lives later there is destabilised region and vast anti-American sentiment, both in the Middle East, and amongst the US’s allies.

Obama wants to avoid his Iraq, for a number of reasons. Firstly, he ran his first election as the ‘anti-Bush’; putting an end to illegal wars that damaged US prospects abroad. He spent the majority of his first term blaming Bush for the state of the country’s finances, for the diplomatic fallout of his policies, for the costly and failed war. To then turn around and intervene in a Middle East country that would likely bog down American troops for years to come would seem like a u-turn for the President. Of course, Syria is not Iraq, but comparisons can be made.

There are also financial arguments to be made. They may not be the most ethical ones to make alongside the daily deaths of Syrian civilians, but on the back of a recession, policymakers have a duty to manage the books. As Republican’s fight to balance the books, it seems unlikely that Obama will commit to another billion dollar conflict, as the money would likely come out of spending cuts at home, and potentially even derail his flagship policy, the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), which he is battling a hostile congress to get funded. Extensive military action could not come at a worse time for the US economy.

There’s also the legal argument. Iraq was a coalition of a few nations that used questionable evidence to circumvent international law and invade another country. Returning to the idea that Obama is trying to fix the damage done by Bush, it is most likely he would prefer a course of action that is approved by the UN and the rest of the international community, and one that includes a vast amount of participants, where the US is not simply the major player with a few states assisting. However, with Russian and Chinese opposition on the Security Council to any major involvement by the UN, this issue is likely to be moot for the foreseeable future.

Obama is limited by the past, the present and the future. The Iraq syndrome that affects his administration is crippling any productive action in the Middle East, while the financial state of the US means any intervention would potentially mean crippling cuts to government programmes he has been championing. And arming the rebels could have dangerous consequences for the United States in the future, and further military action could enrage other regional actors and destabilise the Middle East.

The longer the US waits, the longer it risks losing key regional allies. Yet are the financial and legal costs too high for America to continue playing the world’s policeman? Have we reached a new time of national autonomy, where international anarchy reigns freely? Are we truly alone?

Controversial Free Trade Agreement bring EU ethics into the Spotlight

By Joshua Butt

On 1st August a new EU free trade agreement with Peru and Colombia to liberalise trade in agricultural, industrial and fisheries products came into force. It is the first of a wave of anticipated deals, many of which will include more Latin American states.

Free trade has always had a central role in the neo-liberal approach of the EU, and the increased ability for the European Parliament to negotiate and ratify trade agreements as a block is testament to the EU’s commitment to improving trade between Europe and the rest of the world.

The deal, thought to be worth around €250million in savings over the next decade, has not been met though with universal approval. Concerns have been raised by the Parliament and by workers unions over whether doing business with Columbia and Peru does not endanger another of the EU’s core dictums, a commitment to Human Rights.

Much of the controversy surrounds the issues of workers rights and conditions, which in Peru and Colombia, as in much of South America, fall far short of European expectations. Not only are conditions poor but trade unionists have been targeted with regular brutality, particularly in Colombia where right-wing groups have been responsible for the murder of many activists. According to the International Trade Unions Confederation 89 trade unionists were murdered between 2007 and 2009.

In response to the agreement Human Rights groups have reacted with anger, citing the agreement as an example of the EU’s prioritisation of economic aims over human rights.

The EU will feel that this free-trade agreement however does have a positive role to play in their mission to spread human rights and have made moves to incorporate these principle into the deal: human rights implications were thoroughly debated in the Parliament leading to the establishment of a supervisory group to oversee the implementation of labour rights that have been included within the treaty. Columbia and Peru do already have legislation in place with respect to human rights and as Ever Causado, Secretary General of Sintramienergetica union representing some 6,000 miners in the coal, gold and gas industries has said, “In our experience the state does not comply with the rules.”

However it may not be through the setting of new laws that the EU can have its greatest effect. As well as reiterating the basic principles of Human Rights, this treaty may give employers both means and motivation to incorporate labour rights into their mode of operation. The early indications are that the free-trade agreement is promoting a trade in luxury goods, where high margins may encourage manufacturers to show some concern for their workers conditions. It is certainly a different set of circumstances to previous trade agreements in the past that have been largely focused on the delivery of cheap commodities to the developed economies at super low prices.

And it’s not just the different economic outlook that indicates that there is reason to be hopeful. While free trade may not bring the levels of investment required to address all the social woes of countries such as Peru or Columbia, and will benefit primarily the wealthiest in these countries and those who control the nation’s industries, it will however mean more than ever that Peru and Columbia will do greater amounts of business with Europe compared with their South American neighbours. As a result labour conditions will have to feature much higher on the political agenda as the EU looks to avoid the embarrassment of being seen to profit from human rights abuses.

The need to impress international onlookers and European consumers may prove to provide exactly the incentive to improve conditions that national policy makers have not managed to encourage. As Ever Causado has said, using the law as a ‘stick’ has not worked as an approach, so maybe the EU’s ‘carrot’ of potential trade benefits will instead be a more effective platform for change.

Critics may still argue that trading with states where human rights is wrong, but isolation of states such as Columbia is surely not the answer.

By increasing the level of scrutiny of Peru and Columbia’s practices and debating them, as well as providing them with both means and motivation to change poor practice is precisely the way in which the EU can spread its human rights message. Time will tell whether the EU will resist the temptation of making easy money from trading with those who do not respect human rights, but with such intense focus on the issue of human rights abuses the signs are at least positive. This ‘soft’ approach, just like the money saved in trade deals, will not be the only answer to what is undoubtedly a complicated problem, but opening the conversation can only prove to be a positive development for the unionists and workers of Peru and Columbia.

What does the Conservative Party have to do to win the next election?

By Matt Beebee

The 2010 General Election should have been a clear Conservative victory. It wasn’t. 64% of those that voted backed other parties. This was a perplexing outcome given the Tories were facing a tired and battered Labour Party, trudging through a global financial crisis with rising public debt. Under the leadership of the young David Cameron, who had shifted the party towards the centre ground, victory looked all but certain. Yet failure to win outright forced the Conservatives’ hand into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats; a relationship that has been tetchy to say the least.

The relatively poor show was always going to give the Conservatives, who were polling 20 points ahead of Labour before the 2010 election, an uphill struggle in the 2015 general election given the tough decisions they would have to make in government – on the economy in particular. Former Cabinet minister Michael Portillo has blunted declared “the Conservatives appear to be doomed” at the next general election. He could be right; no party has ever increased its share of votes at a subsequent general election since 1955.

With such pessimistic inevitability, should the Tories concede themselves to losing the election? No. Much could change during the remaining two years of government, but the Tories have three big obstacles they must – and more importantly can – overcome to win the next election.

First, there is the matter of the Labour Party. Despite Labour consistently polling around 10 points better than the Tories, they come out worse in two important polls: preferred leader and economic competence. Although it iz grossly unfair to dismiss Ed Miliband as a leader based on his physical appearance, the electorate do seem to lean favourably towards David Cameron’s style and aptitude as an orator. Labour’s continual dithering over turning ideas into policy, if left too late, could play into the Tories hands. To their credit, they have a plan and are sticking to it. Likewise, Ed Balls, Labour’s shadow chancellor, is considered a prime target to personify Labour’s ineptitude with his rowdy, firebrand style of politics. The Conservatives will seek to push this idea; Labour has no strategy for taking tough decisions in government and opposes with little in the way of alternative policy.

Then there is Europe; the Conservative Party’s ‘elephant in the room’. Cameron has already committed himself to an in/out referendum in 2017 if he is Prime Minister. The paradox is that Cameron does not wish to leave the EU; he wishes to reform it politically while retaining the economically vital single market. He has felt the urge to accommodate the Eurosceptic crowd given the surge of UKIP and the perceived natural Euroscepticism because of Britain’s island culture. This pandering should be avoided. A YouGov poll from January stated 34% would vote to leave the EU while 40% would vote to remain. Cameron should instead be pushing for a reformed EU treaty – something he is confident of doing – that reclaims parliamentary sovereignty and supports economic liberalism, demonstrating that he does worry about European encroachment while emphasising that leaving the EU single market is to the detriment of the UK’s private sector. This should win back the Eurosceptic defectors and render a dangerous referendum unnecessary. Despite its many troubles, voters must remember the EU is still the world’s largest market and the UK’s major trading partner.

However, it is the economy that wins elections. Although ComRes, a polling consultancy, found the electorate are more likely to trust ‘Team Cameron & Osborne’ over ‘Team Miliband & Balls’ on the economy, this should not cause complacency. The deficit may have fallen year-on-year since 2010, but only minimally; public spending is continually higher than it should be, largely due to automatic stabiliser payments and continual ringfencing of certain government departments – international aid is a particular bitter pill for a domestic electorate facing squeezes. Removing ringfencing will allow for efficiency within departments, further reduce departmental spending on waste, while also freeing up money for capital spending projects, generating multiplier effects on job creation and consumer demand.

Unemployment continues to creep above 2.5million, too. More should be done to cut unnecessary red tape that hampers job creation. Pressing ahead with radical reform to the welfare system, although painful, seems to strike a chord with the electorate. If people can be pushed back into work through welfare and regulatory reform, job creation and growth will soon pick up. If growth, rising employment and greater deficit reduction can be achieved the Tories can at last claim to have moved the economy out of the doldrums, significantly boosting their electoral hopes.

Securing an outright majority in 2015 will be a tough ask for the Conservatives given the precarious position they defend and the fragility of the economy is by no means bound to change, despite recent upturns. With a clear focus on the right policy choices over the next two year,, so to outmanoeuvre their main rivals, the Conservatives stand a better chance of re-entering government in 2015.

The Bundesbank vs. The ECB: what’s at stake in Euro court case?

By Joshua Butt

Even before Mario Draghi finally introduced a market pleasing policy to match his political rhetoric to save the Euro at all costs, concerns were raised over the direction his “non-standard measures” were taking the European Central Bank (ECB).

Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT’s) were introduced with a promise to buy unlimited amounts of government bonds, with the aim to stabilise floundering Eurozone bond markets, particularly Spain and Italy, where borrowing has reached what economists labelled unsustainable levels.

The Deutsche Bundesbank (DB) has however refuted the legality of OMT’s.

Jens Weidmann, President of the DB, protested at the time of their introduction that OMT’s were no more than an attempt to allow states to print off the money needed to cover national debts, a policy falling well outside ECB’s mandate. Appearing in the German Constitutional Court recently, he reiterated that the ECB’s credibility was on the line if it failed to adhere to the strict mandate set out in the Maastricht Treaty.

The question must be however, why is it that the DB is so strongly opposed to OMT’s? After all, despite the policy being introduced last year, it has not been employed once and Spanish and Italian bond yields have remained relatively low compared to pre-OMT forecasts, leading Mr. Draghi to conclude in March that “It’s really very hard not to state that the OMT has been probably the most successful monetary policy measure undertaken in recent time.”

What is more, the OMT’s are not guaranteed without conditions attached: All bond-buying will be measured by the DB’s favoured response to the crisis, a healthy does of spending cuts and austerity. It certainly appears that the policy is working and is underpinned by a German endorsed solution to the crisis, so why introduce this court case?

For many residing within the ECB the message that this legal challenge sends to the European public and markets is that the Euro does not have Germany’s undying support, a message that will fundamentally unsettle any attempt to revive the economic health of the Eurozone.

The skeptics – and some holders of European government debt will certainly be hearing alarm bells loud and clear – jump to the conclusion that Germany will only back the Euro as long as it does not expose Germans to the cost. There may be an element of truth to this narrative and it is certainly one sure to resonate with the impoverished southern Europeans who have watched a decades worth of big-spending progress dismantled by ‘Troika’ (EU, ECB and IMF) enforced austerity, but for the DB this is in fact a matter of principle and it must stay firm in its challenge to the ECB.

The DB for many years has been the model of central banking, encouraging stability and fighting inflation as its primary goals. Its success convinced the founders of the ECB that this was the model that ought to be followed: A sober, steady, long-sighted bank, politically insolated, that could face the challenges of a unique experiment in monetary union. It is the banking system that balances the changing priorities of volatile politics. OMT’s reflect none of these profoundly sensible insights learned from German central banking. They are short-term, they are political and they are inflationary. OMT’s and similar schemes are not the realm of central banking, but it seems fall squarely into fiscal policy and is the responsibility of the political establishment.

The punch-line is of course that no such European body exists that can take such decisions, and certainly the political fall-out of national governments, asking taxpayers to guarantee the debt of another nation is unthinkable. The legal challenge of the DB on the ECB only serves to highlight the incompleteness of the European project. And that is what is at stake; while the court ruling (which is not anticipated for some months yet) will probably not recommend the end of German association with Europe, it will potentially define along what lines integration the Euro-project can continue. OMT’s may yet prove to be at least part of the answer that solves the economic woes of the Eurozone, however the direction the ECB is taking does not bode well for the political future of the EU, and it lies with the DB and the German Courts to halt their progress. Unfortunately by jumping into monetary union too soon it seems less and less likely that the project will ever be completed.

 

The Sochi boycott won’t happen, but we still need to reunite politics and sport

By Alex Bryan

Stephen Fry’s heartfelt and powerful open letter to David Cameron arguing that Britain should boycott the 2014 Sochi winter Olympics in light of Russia’s restrictive and prejudiced new anti-LGBT laws has provoked a debate about the relative merits of a boycott. David Cameron and Sebastian Coe were unequivocal in their response; both stated that they did not support boycotts, and that dialogue rather than isolation was the road to social change. Supporters of Fry point to increased violence against gay people in Russia, and argue that to participate is essential to collaborate with Putin’s government.

Though the suggestion to boycott Sochi is relatively new, sporting boycotts themselves are not, and the merits of boycotts as a method of achieving anything are at the heart of this debate. Coe claimed that he is ‘against boycotts’ as they do not ‘achieve what they set out to do’. This seems quite an extreme position; surely the success of a boycott in some way depends on the numerous variables at hand, such as the aim of the boycott, how extensive it is, how it is implemented etc. Some boycotts do seem to work, such as the sporting boycott of apartheid South Africa, so to take an absolute anti-boycott position seems extreme.

Regardless of whether it would be successful, given the position of Coe and Cameron and the necessity of mollifying the strategically important and volatile Russia, a boycott seems highly unlikely. In any case, a boycott of Russia would expose activists to accusations of hypocrisy; why boycott Olympics in Russia but attend in China? However, that does not mean we should ignore the suggestion, as the statements made by those opposing a boycott betray an underlying falsehood which is important to refute; that sport and politics should not mix. This supposed divorce between the two is fallacious, doing nothing to protect sport and everything to protect the oppressive regimes and the international sporting authorities who aid them from proper scrutiny.

A preliminary point to make, regardless of what one thinks of the suggestion of a boycott, is that governing sporting bodies, such as the IOC and FIFA, are responsible for choosing where their events are to take place. It is clear, from the IOC’s decision to stage the Olympics in China and Russia in two of the last three events, and FIFA’s decision to host in Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022 that oppressive laws are of little concern to these organisations, with potential economic rewards taking precedence. This is both sad and necessary; international sport cannot be a contest between liberal western democracies. The major emerging global powers (India, China, Nigeria and Brazil) all have sketchy human rights records, but will no doubt host global sporting events in the coming decades.

But maintaining the global nature of sporting events and incorporating countries with disgraceful human rights records is a different thing to separating sport from politics. The ancient Greeks realised this; the Olympic Truce may have suspended wars for the duration of the Games, but it was acknowledge that politics cannot be suspended, and the Games were often used for political purposes. By acknowledging that sport is not immune from political influence, that it is political, we take nothing away from the sporting event. Instead, we accept that it is a part of, rather than an exception to, regular human activity.

Rather than focussing our efforts on boycotting Sochi then, we should adopt a tactic which would be both more realistic and have more of a long-term effect, and focus on ensuring that politics and sport are no longer seen as distinct arenas. Politics is a part of sport; attempts to deny this are usually insidious, driven either by naked economic greed or ideological zeal. By ensuring the two are seen as united, or at least linked, we would in the process be ensuring that the rights of oppressed groups around the world are not ignored when commissioning events such as the Olympics. We would also be doing a service to the thousands of athletes who compete in countries where they would usually be given no chance for success on the basis of their gender, race or sexuality.

The state of British electoral politics

By Alex Bryan

In the Observer today the ever-excellent Andrew Rawnsley has written an article exploring the north-south divide in Britain. He demonstrates that the divide transcends class, that it is entrenched in British politics and, most importantly, that the party which manages to bridge the divide (or at least best identifies ways in which to diminish it) will reap the rewards of doing so. Though Rawnsley is on the whole correct in identifying the nature of the problem, I think there are a few aspects to it which he does not mention but which are important to bear in mind.

Firstly, Rawnsley notes that ‘The divide has become self-fuelling. A Tory in Bradford who fancies being an MP has a choice: find another ambition or leave Bradford. That is why Eric Pickles represents a seat in Essex.’ This only tells half the story, and leaves out a key component; the party machine. Candidate selection for both Labour and the Conservatives revolves around maintaining the seats of existing MPs (especially cabinet or shadow cabinet members) and planting those in the ascendency in safe seats to ensure a swift route into Parliament. The seemingly interminable procession of Downing Street advisors moving into Parliament demonstrates this. David Miliband, for example, had little connection to South Shields before being parachuted into the constituency.

This relates to the north-south divide at a basic level, in that the desire to ensure the best candidates being fielded by the party in an election get elected means the party apparatus places the best candidates (or at least those most likely to go on to high profile posts) in safe seats. This leaves the swathes of seats where the party had little chance of winning anyway contested by first-time candidates, former councillors and those ultimately seeking to do well enough to be allowed to run in a more winnable constituency next time. This clearly reflects the reality of the north-south divide, but it also exacerbates it.

Rawnsley, as I mentioned earlier, also noted that whichever party makes the nation ‘whole again’ awaits a great prize, presumably a streak of electoral success. However, it seems to me far more likely that this effect be achieved through the fragmentation of the nation rather than a process of political reunification, whatever that might involve. The referendum on Scottish independence will be more significant for long term British electoral politics than any other election in the next 20 years. If Alex Salmond gets his way, the departure of Scotland from the United Kingdom will be the ultimate gift for the Conservative Party. The Conservatives only hold one seat in Scotland, whereas England is a sea of blue dotted with island nations of red or yellow. For Labour, Scottish cessation would be a disaster, and could feasibly mark the beginning of the end for the party as a genuine force in British politics. The north-south divide will linger, but the north will be considerably smaller. Elections, hence, would no longer be fought in the midlands, but in the south.

Scottish independence would essentially relegate the north-south divide from being a genuine division across the middle of the nation into a regional anomaly, a patch of red over an overwhelmingly blue backdrop. It is difficult to imagine how Labour could end up with a similar sort of advantage, though Conservatives have a point when they say the current  constituency map already favours Labour.

Rather than such structural chance, it seems the most likely way in which the divide might be bridged, at least temporarily, is through individual politicians who can appeal to the Other Half of the divide. As Blair reached out to southerners and Thatcher embodied the social mobility and no-nonsense attitude of the north, individual politicians are in general more capable of uniting the north and south into a workable electoral coalition than parties as a whole. Parties reflect their demographic base, whereas individuals can disguise theirs. From this, it seems unfortunately clear that, barring Scottish independence, the north-south divide is here to stay. 

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