‘People’s Vote’ and ‘Revoke Article 50’ have no place in Parliament’s Indicative Vote Process

Yesterday, the British Parliament once again ‘took back control’ of the Brexit process from our hapless government. MPs held another round of indicative votes on what Brexit policy might possibly secure a majority in the House of Commons. Once again a set of motions were tabled, and once again our representatives set about voting Aye or No to those selected.

Yet again, no motion secured a majority.

Other people have commented on how a series of binary votes is probably not the best method for weighing up many competing options. It prompts people to abstain or stick to only their preferred option, in the hopes of hanging-in-there, becoming the last idea standing. A ‘single transferable vote’ option, where MPs rank the proposals in order of preference, would be better.

But I’m not here for that. Instead, I want to say this: The ‘People’s Vote’ proposal (put forward by Peter Kyle MP) and the ‘Revoke Article 50’ proposal (tabled by Joanna Cherry MP) should have had no place in the ‘indicative vote’ process.

Why? Well, for two reasons. First, MPs are still considering how we might leave. What they need to show (to the European Union, to the government, to their colleagues, and to us) is what could plausibly be written into the Political Declaration that accompanies the Withdrawal Agreement, setting out what we hope the end state relationship with the EU will be.

Neither #PeoplesVote or #Revoke are about leaving the EU.

Instead, they are about process. The People’s Vote idea is compatible with any of the proposals for leaving the EU. It could be a requirement of Theresa May’s thrice rejected deal, Ken Clarke’s Customs Union, Nick Boles’ Commons Market 2.0, or George Eustice’s EFTA/EEA (which wasn’t voted on again last night).

Meanwhile, Joanna Cherry’s proposal is nothing at all to do with the Political Declaration. It is a sensible insurance policy against No Deal Brexit, saying that if we are in danger of crashing out of the EU then we either approve No Deal, or Revoke Article 50.

So while I think a People’s Vote and the Insurance Policy are both desirable, it makes no sense to consider them as options alongside proposals about markets, customs and trade. I actually think that the prospects for both proposals have been damaged by being mis-categorised in this way.

I Told You So! When Media and Tech Companies Fail To Self-Regulate, Governments Step In

Following the revelations about the harvesting of personal data by Cambridge Analytica and the ongoing worries about abuse and threats on social media, the UK House of Lords Select Committee on Communications last week began a new inquiry entitled ‘Is It Time To Regulate The Internet?’. At the witness sessions so far, peers have opened by asking each expert to comment on whether they favour self-regulation, co-regulation, or state-regulation.

The instinct to regulate is not limited to the U.K. Late last year senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said:

You’ve created these platforms, and now they’re being misused, and you have to be the ones to do something about it… Or we will.

With the reader’s indulgence, these developments remind me of a point I made a few years ago at ORGcon2013, when I was speaking on a panel alongside Facebook VP for Public Policy EMEA, Richard Allan:

If we as the liberal free speech advocates don’t come up with alternative ways of solving things like the brutal hate speech against women, the hideous environment for comments that we see online, then other people are going to fix it for us. And they’re going to fix it in a draconian, leglislative way. So if we want to stop that happening, we need to come up with alternative ways of making people be nicer!

An audio recording of these remarks is on SoundCloud.

Its clear that neither Facebook, nor anyone in the technically minded audience at ORGCon, managed to solve the problem I raised. And lo! The legislators have arrived.

El Miracle de Miralles

I wrote this whimsy in a fugue state one evening in October after seeing this Tweet. Thank you Paul for the inspiration.

To say that the world was shocked when the Scottish Parliament building was suddenly transported 1000 miles into the centre of Barcelona, would be something of an understatement.

No similar, verifiable phenomenon had ever before occurred in human history. The field of physics was thrown into disarray, when not one scientist could offer an explanation for why a building with a footprint of some four acres should suddenly, and without warning, disappear from its site beneath the cragged, volcanic mountain of Arthur’s Seat, and reappear on the site of the Mercat Santa Caterina. Continue reading “El Miracle de Miralles”

Are Early Day Motions Pointless?

At Westminster, an Early Day Motion is a motion tabled by an MP, calling for a debate on a particular topic. The motions rarely get debated, but they draw other MPs’ attention to particular issues. EDMs are a sort of petition system, exclusive to members of the House of Commons.

I had always taken it as a given that EDMs were a useful tool in a campaigner’s kit. If one Member of Parliament is allied to your cause, they can table an Early Day Motion… which then gives supporters of the campaign a reason to write to their own MPs about the issue. By requesting that your elected representative signs the EDM, you are effectively asking “please put it on record that you support this issue”. This is useful.

During the course of the Libel Reform Campaign, we made much of the fact that 249 Members of Parliament had signed EDM 423, which was a lot. It was also significant that the motion had cross party support.

The disappointing fact that some EDMs do not attract cross party support is often a useful data point. For example, of the 36 people who have signed EDM 37, condemning the imprisonment of Raïf Badawi in Saudi Arabia, none are from the Conservative Party, who are currently in government. Since Badawi is in prison for the crime of setting up blog that discussed liberalism, it is odd that no Tory wishes to put their name to it. Perhaps they simply haven’t been asked… but perhaps the Conservative whips have asked them not to, for reasons of diplomacy. (This is infuriating to campaigners, but as I blogged previously, there may be good and honest reasons why this is so.)

It is possible, however, that if one seeks genuine change rather than posturing, EDMs are a distraction. While working on the Raïf Badawi case, I wrote to some MPs asking them to sign the EDM. I received this reply from one Member of Parliament:

I very rarely sign EDMs for the following reasons. First, they have absolutely no impact at Westminster.

Second, PR companies and the like suggest to their clients that they should pressure MPs to sign them when they know full well that they are political placebos with negligible impact but they can claim that their influence has made MPs sign EDMs. 

Third, I am told they cost the taxpayer (each) about £300 a month and there are hundreds of them. I do not like that at all in view of my first two points.

One MP I could name signs almost every one, but I think that to be dreadful because he knows full well that they achieve nothing. But it gets that MP off the hook! Not one EDM has made it through to legislation in my time.

The EDM on libel reform disproves that last point, but the others are worth considering. The £300 figure is a factual claim which I will check. But if the EDM process is not particularly respected by MPs then it might not have the parliamentary influence that campaigners assume, and those ‘PR companies’ assert.

On human rights, the UK should not be a law unto itself

The parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Controls is about to publish a report into the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia.  It appears as though British-made weapons have been used to commit human rights abuses in Yemen.

Its draft report, seen by Newsnight’s Gabriel Gatehouse, said: “The weight of evidence of violations of international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition is now so great, that it is very difficult to continue to support Saudi Arabia.”

The committee said it seemed “inevitable” that such violations had involved arms supplied by the UK which would mean it was in violation of its own legal obligations.

I’m not sure, but I think the phrase “its own legal obligations” means aspects of UK law that prohibt certain kinds of sale.

It’s stuff like this that makes me (and human rights groups) extremely distrustful of the Conservative Government’s proposed ‘Bill of Rights’.  This is a proposal to place our human rights protections entirely within the UK legal framework, with no reference to the law and jurisprudence of European Court of Human Rights.

As the Saudi arms sales story shows, this Government, in keeping with all past and future governments, cannot really be trusted to abide by its own rules and laws!  There is therefore something extremely comforting about the European Convention on Human Rights, which is a treaty and an obligation that other countries can hold us to (and of course, we can hold them to it as well).

On human rights, I’m glad that Britain is not currently a ‘law unto itself’ and fear for the time when that changes.

Jeremy Corbyn Is Not Doing His Job And Should Resign

Jeremy Corbyn, rendered in Waterlogue

Rt. Hon. Jeremy Corbyn MP has two jobs and two job titles. First, he is Leader of the Labour Party, a position to which he was elected by a majority of those eligible to vote, in every voter category (members, registered supporters, affiliates).  If that were the whole story then a leadership challenge would be completely undemocratic and wrong.

However, Mr Corbyn is also Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition.  This is not some ceremonial title you get when elevated to a particular position, like Lord of the Isles or Second Lord of the Treasury. Instead it is a post that fulfills a crucial rôle in our democracy, scrutinising Government actions and Bills on behalf of the entire country, including people who did not vote Labour.  Just as the Prime Minister (First Lord of the Treasury, by the way) is accountable and answerable to everyone, so too is the Leader of the Opposition. Continue reading “Jeremy Corbyn Is Not Doing His Job And Should Resign”

The New Snooping Bill Needs a Total Rewrite

Don't Spy On Us

Yesterday I wrote again in defence of politicians.  Many of the frustrations that give rise to ‘anti-politics’ are borne of people not understanding how politics works: there is a constant need to compromise and any hard choice will end up disappointing people.

Sometimes, however, the anti-political feeling is justified.  I have rarely been as angry with politicians as I was when the coalition government passed the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act in just two days in 2014.  This legislation made lawful a number of mass violations of privacy that the security services had been caught doing without public or parliamentary consent.  The politicians from all parties made mendacious arguments in favour of the new law, claiming an ’emergency’ when there was none.

From that low point, my faith in parliament is slowly being restored. Continue reading “The New Snooping Bill Needs a Total Rewrite”

Surveillance: It’s not all about you

The Investigatory Powers Bill will be published tomorrow.  The Home Secretary will set out her vision for what snooping powers the security services should have in their tool-box, and also what oversight parliament, the judiciary, and independent ‘watchdogs’ should have over the use of those powers.

I work for English PEN, one of the six organisations leading the Don’t Spy On Us campaign.  Be in no doubt I will be sharing our analysis of the proposed new law and recommendations for improvement.

A constant issue regarding civil liberties (and one that we have discussed before on these pages) is how to convince members of the public to care about human rights when few of us ever actually experience a violation of those rights.  In the past, I have discussed the idea of ‘everyday rights‘ and the notion that, even if we are not tortured or detained, our lives are made marginally worse when our rights are eroded, even in small ways. Continue reading “Surveillance: It’s not all about you”

A Grim Future for our Unions and our Rights

Crikey. I’m dismayed by the result of the general election.

First, I should note just how wrong my own perception of the election campaign turned out to be!  After the leaders debates I said I expected Ed Miliband to be Prime Minister in May. That is clearly not going to happen.  And earlier this week I said I perceived a decline in the influence of the mainstream media on election campaigns.  After the apparent last minute shift in voters’ intentions, that appears to be incorrect.

However, my dismay comes not from the injury to my pride which results from making poor predictions.  Rather, it’s the prospect of what comes next for our unions (yes, unions plural) and our rights as citizens.

First, the fact that David Cameron will attempt to govern alone with a minority government, or a slender majority, will mean that the more Euroskeptic elements to the the right of the Conservative party will be able to hold him to ransom—just as the SNP would have apparently held a Labour government hostage.  The Conservatives have already promised that we will have a referendum on our membership of the European Union.  We now face the prospect of leaving the EU, sundering and cauterising our cultural and economic links with the continent.  This isolation will not be good for the UK.

A ‘Brexit’ will further strengthen the already jubilant Scottish National Party.  Despite the slightly skewed results that our ‘first past the post’ system delivers I just do not see how another referendum on Scottish Independence can still be ‘off the table’. For goodness sake—all but three MPs in Scotland are from the SNP!   If the UK leaves the EU, and with the other parties’ reduced political presence, another plebiscite on Independence would probably yield a ‘Yes’ vote.  Bye bye Scotland.

Finally, the Conservatives have also promised to scrap the Human Rights Act, a pledge that lawyers think is ‘legally illiterate’.  The so-called ‘British Bill of Rights’ will water down the rights that we currently enjoy.  And since the Tories gutted legal aid provision and squeezed the judicial review process, it will be harder than ever for citizens to hold the government to account when it deploys discriminatory policies against us.  

So by the time of the next general election in 2020, there is a very good chance that those of us living in rUK will have lost the political protections of the EU, will have lost the guarantee that out human rights will be protected, and will have lost a progressive political counter-weight to the Tories that may be found in Scotland. And the right-wing media will cheer it all.

Grim, grim grim.