Democracy is on the Ballot – watershed US midterms this week.

On Sunday 30 October, a watershed run-off election was held in Brazil where former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) narrowly defeated incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro 50.9% to 49.1%. There was a lot at stake in this election, not least the lungs of our planet, the Amazon forest. In the four years of Bosonaro’s presidency, more than 34,000 square km of the Amazon rainforest disappeared. The return of Lula to power in Brazil certainly will not fix everything, but another term of Bolsonaro would have been a devastating defeat in the fight against climate change.

On Tuesday 8 October, another critical election will take place, this time in the northern part of the Americas, the United States midterms where control of Congress and Senate will be determined, along with elections to State Legislatures and for State Governors.

Historically there are two common trends with mid-terms:

  1. Turnout is significantly lower than in presidential elections
  2. The party with control of the White House usually performs poorly

On point one, turnout has historically been lower for midterm elections. For example, in 2008 President Obama on a platform of hope won by a significant margin with a voter turnout of 57.1%. Two years later in the 2010 midterms, voter turnout was just 40.9% and the Republican Party took back control of Congress. This was at the height of the Tea Party movement pushing the Republican Party to the right. Much of Obama’s “hope” agenda was blocked by this newly energised rabid right-Republican Congress. Had everyone who came out to support Obama in 2008 once again returned to the polls 24 months later (and 22 months after his inauguration) he may well have achieved more.

But this is the second point, whichever party controls the White House, tends to do poorly in the mid-terms. The exception to this was President George W Bush in 2002, who the September 11 Terror attacks were able to keep control of both houses, a situation that continued until his second mid-terms in 2006. Most other Presidents, Regan, Bush Senior, Clinton and Trump all lost midterms to the other party.

President Biden “Make no mistake, democracy is on the ballot for all of us”

The US Constitution is designed so that the LegislativeExecutive, and Judicial branches of the United States government are kept distinct in order to prevent abuse of power. Whilst there is much wrong with the US Constitution, the theory behind the separation of powers is a good one. The problem is, in a First Past the Post two Party system choices are limited. The temptation is to give whichever Party is not in control of the White House control of the Legislature as a check and balance. But what if that other Party ignored scientific advice during a pandemic causing death and misery to millions? What if this other Party is anti-democratic and refuses to accept it lost the previous election and encourages its supporters to turn to violence? What if, rather than being the ‘Grand Old Party’ of the Conservative American right, the Republican Party of 2022 has become a Party of deranged Trumpians where truth and evidence are out and hate-fuelled rhetoric is in vogue? Is allowing a party like this to control the legislative branch of government, either by voting for them or by staying at home really preventing “abuse of power”?

The Judicial branch of government should of course be separate from the Legislative and Executive branches, but is this really the case in the US? The decision in June 2022 to overturn the 1973 Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision, which legalised abortion throughout the United States, was the result of Republican Presidents appointing socially conservative judges and Republication Legislatures doing their best to block Democrat Presidents from appointing liberal ones, as Republican Senators did in 2016. Despite the fact that a majority of Americans oppose the decision to overturn Roe V Wade, manipulation of the constitution by the Republican Party has meant the Supreme Court has a socially conservative majority which can be used to undermine abortion rights in the US.

It is easy to be dishearted by the US political system, indeed I have previously argued in relation to Gun Control the following:

The United States is further held back by a Constitution that is cumbersome and difficult to change. Trying to bring about any sort of serious change to allow Gun Control in the US, something that polls suggest a majority of Americans support, would require a change to the Second Amendment of the US Constitution. How can the US Constitution be changed? It requires 2/3 support for a proposed constitutional amendment in both the Congress and Senate (see above about how these houses are NOT representative). On gaining this, it then needs to be approved by the legislature of 34 of the 50 US states and then ratified by 38 of the 50 states (again the smaller conservative states get a much greater say than larger ones). A full explanation of this can be seen here.

The US election – why sometimes voting for the lesser evil is right

In the above article I went on to mention Trump appointing anti-abortion Supreme Court Judges and that with the “country’s highest court is so clearly partisan, again a system protected by the constitution means one can have little confidence in this country’s justice system.”

Yet, as flawed and in desperate need of reform as the US political system is, it is still paramount that all eligible voters turn out to vote. The initial response from US voters to the Supreme Court decision appeared to be a backlash. In traditionally Republican voting states of Alaska and Kansas, Democrats made surprise gains. The coming mid-term elections could be an opportunity to send this message on a national level, but polls suggest there are several senate races which are tight and there is a projected national swing to Republicans. Of course, like all elections, there are many factors at play, but turnout will be a significant factor.

As already explained, mid-term elections generally go against sitting presidents. In the case of Biden, he faces low approval ratings due to the state of the economy, which is hurting incumbent governments globally and the lingering backlash from withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Biden has a track record of being gaff-prone, often making silly comments and going off script. But in terms of delivery, in the last 22 months, the United States Government has done surprisingly well. Since January 2022, Democrats and the Biden Presidency have achieved the following

  • Rolled out the $1.9 trillion COVID relief deal, rolled out the COVID vaccine and got control of the virus unlike Biden’s inept predecessor
  • Got both Congress and Senate to approve the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package which drastically increased investment in the national network of bridges and roads, airports, public transport, national broadband internet, as well as waterways and energy systems.
  • Made serious commitments to stopping climate change and unlike his predecessor ordered all government agencies to immediately halt the financing of new international carbon-intensive fossil fuel projects, and instead work towards clean energy use.
  • Has reduced the US unemployment figure from 6.3% under Trump to 3.9% today.

The current cost of living crisis and high inflation are hurting the American people, and it is understandable that there is anger at the US Government and the political and economic system that has allowed this to happen. But allowing the Republican Party, in its current state to control the Legislative branch would be a terrible mistake.

Let’s be clear, we are not just talking about a typical centre-right political party, which let’s be honest tends to dominate in liberal democracies. Whilst the politics of serving the wealthy elites and opposing progressive reforms are distasteful enough, in 2022 the US Republican Party is an entirely different beast. Trump and his allies now control the Republican Party with many mid-term candidates now saying the 2020 election was “stolen” and dismissing the Congressional hearings into the January 6 insurrections as a “kangaroo court.”

Last week Nancy Pelosi’s husband was the victim of a violent attack, a symptom of the increasingly volatile mood in the United States. The intended target of the attack was Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, something that should be quite shocking to anyone who supports democracy. The response from the Republican Party was a mixture of silence, baseless conspiracy theories or in the case of Donald Trump Jr, mockery.

Earlier this week, Bolsonaro supporters took to the streets of Brazil refusing to accept the election result. Bolsonaro initially made no comment on the loss and has only grudgingly accepted that Lula will be the next President. This is straight out of the Trumpian playbook and is incredibly dangerous and divisive. In the US, given historical trends in US midterms and recent polling, it is likely that the Republican Party will make gains. Yet there are already signs that if results do not go their way, several Trump-aligned Republican candidates cannot commit to accepting the election result. There is no evidence that 2022 was stolen, in fact, quite the contrary it was in fact Trump who threatened the Governor of Georgia and demanded he finds him votes and made other false allegations about the 2020 election. These false claims resulted in the violence in Washington on Six January 2021, and it is appalling that Republicans have learnt nothing from this shameful episode. This alone should be reason enough to turn out and vote next Tuesday.

These are deeply troubling times and the stakes could not be much higher. Mid-term elections are a time to send a signal. In response to Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, Trump has described Putin’s actions as an “act of genius.” In light of this, what message does it send voting Trump-aligned Republicans in charge of Congress? Trump continues to deny he lost the 2020 election, or accept responsibility for his part in the violence on Capitol Hill on January 6 2021, should people who condone these actions be given a majority in the Senate? Given the recent decision to overturn Roe V Wade, should Republicans be allowed to control many state legislatures and block women’s right to choose?

At a campaign event last week President Biden said that in these mid-term elections “democracy is on the ballot”. This is absolutely true, and the outcome will be decided by those who show up to vote.

The politics of high inflation – can governments do anything?

Britons woke up to the news today that inflation in the UK has hit a 40 year high of 9%. Recent increases to power bills, fuel and groceries have in no small part driven this inflationary pressure and indications are that prices could increase further. The bank of England governor has called for wage restraint fearing that this could drive inflation even higher, though with the cost of living rising so quickly this call will likely fall on deaf ears. The recent losses in local body elections and lacklustre polling for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives is in part due to the rising cost of living. But is this all just a case of bad economic management by the Conservatives?

My usual reference point is comparing and contrasting the UK and New Zealand situations, having lived in both countries. New Zealand’s inflation rate is at a 30-year high hitting 6.9%. A friend in NZ recently asked if I could send petrol over from the UK as the cost had gone up too much over there, the joke soon fell flat when I told them how much a tank of petrol cost here in the UK. In New Zealand, the opposition has been quick to blame the Labour Government in New Zealand for this, at a time when support for the government is falling fast. Having won a record majority in 2020 for their handling of the pandemic, Jacinda’s government now faces a backlash over coronavirus restrictions and is taking the blame for current economic challenges. Commentary in the New Zealand media also tends to focus on inflation as a domestic issue, as such much of the commentary is often wide of the mark.

The above Bloomberg graph shows the global inflation rates spiking upwards in 2022

In Australia, the country goes to the polls for their first federal election since the pandemic. Whilst polling numbers are still fairly close there is a real possibility the right of centre Liberal Coalition Government led by Scott Morrison may lose, in no small part due to inflation and the rising cost of living. Whilst there are plenty of good reasons to vote out the Coalition government, not the least their inaction on climate change, like in Britain and New Zealand, is the cost of living increase in Australia really down to the federal government?

In the US, President Biden and the Democrat controlled House and Senate are facing an uphill battle in the November midterms against a Republican Party now very much aligned to Trumpian politics. For the Biden administration there appear to be few options to control inflation in the short term. I have previously blogged about the limitations of the US political system and it is no surprise that many Americans yet again feel frustrated. However, it is clear that this is not a crisis limited to any single nation-state, what we are dealing with is a global inflation problem.

At the start of the pandemic, I wrote a blog post outlining how there would be long lasting economic ramifications of this crisis. This, along with the Russian invasion of Ukraine is driving inflation and causing economic uncertainty. This is particularly challenging for much of Europe where there is a high level of reliance on Russian Oil and Gas and moves to end this reliance will see short term price hikes and energy shortages.

Previously, I have written about the importance of global governance and how our current global governance institutions are not up to the challenges we face in the 21st century. The current crisis illustrates this more than ever. At the current time, we turn to the nation-state and in democratic countries we as voters can hold our leaders to account for what happens, including economic management. In reality, how much can Jacinda Ardern, Boris Johnson, Scott Morrison, Ursula von der Leyen or Joe Biden or any other world leader do? When finance Ministers do the national budget each year, many of the key economic factors are determined by external factors, not by their government’s decisions. Likewise, we can beat up the Bank of England, the Reserve Bank in New Zealand or other central banks for not controlling inflation within the targets they have been set, but they did not cause a global pandemic, invade Ukraine or control many of the key drivers of international inflation at that time.

This is not to let governments off the hook, as they still have the power to mitigate the effect of high inflation. Governments have the power to reduce or remove sales taxes, regulate pricing or support people on low incomes through benefits or policies that help lift wages. On the global stage, finance ministers when they attend the yearly Davos meeting, or leaders who attend the G20 meetings, need to be doing more to develop a global economic strategy that can protect against these sorts of shocks. Further, they need to create global governance institutions that can ensure a stable global economy that delivers for everyone, not just now but into the future. This is what we should be demanding of our governments.

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s the big push was for globalisation, which in reality was a push for removing tariffs and international market liberalisation. The anti-globalisation movement of the time often took the position that this agenda weakened the nation-state and undermined democracy. The problem, which neither side really understood, is that in a world where we for a long time have depended on international trade but also on the movement of people, relying on national governments to resolve this will inevitably fail. Margaret Thatcher, in the introduction to her memoir The Downing Street Years, claimed the following:

An internationalism which seeks to supersede the nation-state, however, will founder quickly upon the reality that very few people are prepared to make genuine sacrifices for it

Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street years, page 11

Yes, in terms of consciousness people still hold nationalism and their own country in high regard. But where we increasingly see countries with governments of all different colours struggling to control the cost of living, at some point we must face the fact that an international response is required. People may not believe in current global governance institutions or be “prepared to make genuine sacrifices” for them. But they may do if these institutions were in fact giving people a better quality of life by controlling inflation and the cost of living. At the time of writing, this all seems somewhat academic, with there being little likelihood of an international response, other than some short term cooperation to control the immediate crisis without looking at the underlying long term problems. Yet it is clear that we will continue to face these economic challenges with tools that are ill-equipped to face the problems. Only a truly international response can create an economy that delivers for all.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine – an act of aggression

On February 24 2022 Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military to invade Ukraine, a nation that declared independence from Russia on August 24 1991. This is not the first time in Ukraine’s 30 years of independence that the Russian Federation has attacked Ukraine, having annexed the Crimea region back in 2014. Vladimir Putin has made no secret of the fact that he believes Ukraine has been ruled by forces hostile to Russia. Whilst many were surprised by the Russian government’s decision to take this hostile action toward Ukraine, there were plenty of warning signs that this may happen.

It is not my view that war is inevitable, be it in the Ukraine, Palestine, Syria or elsewhere. However, there are often only small windows of opportunity where a lasting peace can be built or negotiated. In the case of Russia and Ukraine, there have been plenty of warning signs over the last 30 years and potentially different responses to these may have produced a different result. What-if-isms are of little comfort or help to those now forced to flee Ukraine or those who are now staying to defend their homeland against Russian invasion.

Residents remove their belongings from a destroyed building in Kyiv after it was hit by artillery shelling. [Felipe Dana/AP Photo]

Russia is the aggressor in this conflict. The targeting of civilians and shelling during a so-called Cease-Fire are acts committed by the Russian forces, and the US President is correct to call President Putin a ‘war criminal’. Those who justify or use moral equivocation by citing the presence of the far-right in Ukraine or that this was in response to NATO expansion miss the point. Yes, the far-right does have a presence in Ukraine and yes they also have joined the resistance to the current invasion. But the logic that this somehow justifies the Russian invasion is incredibly warped. For one, the war gives the far right in Ukraine space to recruit and win support by being part of the resistance. Secondly, if the correct response is for Russia to invade every European country that has an active far-right then very few nations are not at risk of invasion.

On the left, many are still influenced by the analysis of Lenin during the First World War and just before the 1917 Russian Revolution that in an inter-imperialist conflict socialists should be standing up to their own ruling class. During the First World War, there were strong arguments for working people not to align with the Tsar in Russia or other imperialist leaders in that conflict. It is dangerous to simply apply this idea to the current conflict without understanding that the context is different. There is a strong argument that people should be holding their own government or ‘ruling class’ to account during any situation like this. Ultimately, the decision to invade Ukraine was Russia’s, but there is still a question of what the governments and in particular NATO members could have done to help prevent this and what they can do now. Sadly, some on the left and drawn both bizarre and quite dangerous conclusions based on the premise that their role is to stick it to their own ruling class. Bizarrely, some socialists still mistake Russia to be some sort of socialist/anti-imperialist power, thinking that there is some residue influence of the 1917 revolution.

In my late teens, a became involved with radical left politics largely influenced by opposing the invasion of Afghanistan and later Iraq. I began studying the history of US foreign policy in places like Chile in 1973 or Iran in 1953. In 2001, just before the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, Australian journalist John Pilger released a documentary called The New Rulers of the World, which clearly outlined the role played by the US in installing the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia. This in turn meant that country allowed western manufacturers to move production to that country where labour standards were very low and clothing and other items could be produced cheaply. Whilst Pilger has always been prone to being an evangelist for his cause and being a polarising figure, in the past, he has played an important role in highlighting the shortcomings of western governments. Pilger’s bizarre article written days before the Russian invasion is selective with which facts it includes and effectively paints President Putin and the Russian state as victims of Western propaganda. Pilger like many others on the left is so determined to expose their own ‘ruling class’ that they’ll downplay or ignore the countless human rights abuses committed by Russia under Putin’s leadership.

Many on the left, and some on the right or centre focussed their attention on NATO. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is a Cold War military alliance designed to stand up to the Soviet Union. After the end of the Cold War, there is a legitimate question as to whether this alliance should have continued. Many continued to be nervous about Russia, a nation that is resource-rich and historically has been very influential. It also does not have a strong history of democracy and instead has had a brutal history of state control both under Tsarism and later when it was the USSR. Certainly for the nations like Lithuania and Ukraine which were ruled by Russia for many years this nervousness is justified. Whether retaining the NATO alliance was the best way to counter this is a fair question. However, to say that the threat of Ukraine joining NATO provoked or even justified the Russian invasion is just wrong. Kier Starmer’s threat to withdraw the whip from any UK Labour MP who supported the Stop the War coalition who is calling for No NATO Expansion is an overreaction. That said, the optics of the coalition’s slogan are really bad. Whatever faults there are with NATO, it is Russia that has just invaded a sovereign country resulting in death, destruction and people being displaced. Trying to deflect from this is not a credible position at all.

The other argument put forward is moral equivalence, whereby people argue that the decision of the US and its allies to invade Iraq was just as bad so who are we to go criticising Russia. The decision to invade Iraq was wrong and few would still defend that action. That does not mean Britain or the US should not criticise Russia for what it is doing in Ukraine, if anything it places a greater responsibility on these governments to uphold human rights now. This is even more important when there is a real chance of forces more sympathetic to Russia taking power. Former US President Donald Trump continues to describe Vladimir Putin in glowing terms. Trump continues to exert considerable influence and control over the Republican Party, who currently stands a strong chance of gaining at least one house in the midterm elections later this year. In such a scenario there are no guarantees that the current pressure being applied to the Putin regime will hold up.

One of the problems has been the inconsistent approach to Russia since the end of the Soviet Union. The recent pressure for Roman Abramovich to sell Chelsea Football Club has brought to light some of the corrupt practices he and others used to make their fortune including the purchase of an oil company from the Russian government in a rigged auction in 1995. The UK allowed these characters to invest this ill-gotten gain into its economy, right up till earlier this year. When the current Russian regime attacked Chechnya in 1999, invaded Georgia in 2008, invaded Crimea and parts of Donbas in Ukraine in 2014 and engaged in a proxy war in Syria it was met with only mild responses including limited sanctions against Russia or mealy-mouthed speeches. Meanwhile, the city of London continued to be awash with ill-gotten money from Russia. That the current UK Prime Minister gave a peerage to Lord Lebedev, owner of two major UK newspapers and friend of Boris Johnson and other senior Conservatives despite security concerns being raised at the time indicates the level of influence Russian money now has in the UK.

Back when the Eastern block fell, the priority was to integrate them into global markets. This was of course at the end of the free market 80s where the naive view was that through economic liberalism democratic political reform would also occur. This maybe a generous view, for many, access to Russian markets and resources was an opportunity for profit. Whilst opportunistically making money from this new market, the political response was to leave NATO intact and treat Russia as a potential foe. Whilst trying to impose Western-style democracy into Russia rather than letting the people of that country decide on their own future would have been an error, to assume that a country with a history of little else than totalitarian regimes would be quick to embrace liberal democracy, free speech and human rights was foolish. What the best approach would have been in hindsight is still unclear, but it seems to profit from post-soviet Russia whilst at the same time treating it as a potential military and political threat has not led to a good outcome.

The invasion that began just over two months ago will have a profound impact on global politics for many years. The conflict is unlikely to end quickly and will take a toll on everyone involved. In the end, it will likely result in a military defeat for Russia and humiliation for Putin. This could mean a much more volatile situation in dealing with a state that has a permanent seat on the UN security council and has nuclear weapons. Much of Europe currently relies on Russia for oil and gas and moving away from this will cause considerable economic upheaval. And Ukraine will take years to recover from this invasion even once the conflict has ceased.

How is Boris Johnson still in Number 10?

I answer the question posed in the title by returning to what I wrote on my blog when Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson became Prime Minister in 2019:
Make no mistake, Boris Johnson has talent. He knows how to make a stirring speech and can tap into people’s hopes and fears as a politician My blog post written shortly after Johnson became UK Prime Minister
Now one might think being the Prime Ministers of the worlds fifth-largest economy requires a great deal more than this, and indeed it does. It requires a mixture of luck, animal cunning and being able to use both to maximum effect.
Above: Prime Minister Boris Johnson and former Chief Advisor Dominic Cummings
My last post in December outlined some of the issues the Conservative Government in the UK had been having in the latter half of 2021. Yet the position still seemed quite recoverable, indeed only a few months earlier, the former Red Wall constituency of Hartlepool had been won by the Conservatives. Local Elections in May 2021 also were very positive for the Tories. Things were bad by the end of 2021, very bad in fact, but it still did not seem fatal. 2022 was not the start of the year the government were hoping for. Despite repeated denials that there was party’s at 10 Downing Street during the lockdown, further evidence emerged that there were, including a photo showing the Prime Minister with staff sitting in the garden at 10 Downing Street having “a work meeting” where there was wine and cheese in May 2020, when social gatherings were illegal in the UK. This was at a time when people could not visit dying loved ones and the public were told not to socialise in this way. The investigation by Civil Servant Sue Gray found that there were “failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of Number 10 and the Cabinet Office” in allowing these events to occur, and then a number of these events are now being investigated by the Metropolitan Police. None of this was made better by the Prime Minister’s response that nobody had warned him that these parties were against the rules, rules that he had announced as Prime Minister in March 2020. Former Conservative Prime Minister John Major has said that Johnson broke the rules by holding these parties and believes he should resign. Others close to the Conservative Party including financial donors have also called on him to go. As Conservative polling takes a hit and MPs get increasingly restless, it is still a surprise to many that Johnson stays on. Indeed most other PM’s would have resigned by now. So why does Boris Johnson stay on and why do the Conservatives let him. For Johnson, he knows if he leaves office now, he’ll likely never return. Having only served in the role just over two and a half years and most of that time leading (badly) during a pandemic, he has to try and stay on. But why on earth do the Conservative Party let him? Because despite everything, including the quite serious long term damage to the reputation of the party and indeed of the United Kingdom, he is probably still their best chance of winning an election. Boris Johnson does not play by the normal political rules. Many claim Johnson uses the Trump playbook, and his election outcome in 2019 certainly benefited from Trump’s intervention which helped get the Brexit Party not to stand against the Conservatives in crucial leave voting constituencies, specifically the so-called Red-Wall. Yet Johnson plays by his own rules, which include fast and loose morals, including talk of beating up journalists. He has a level of confidence that has helped him get away with things other politicians simply would not. His clown reputation and building the brand “Boris”, the clown who got stuck on a zip wire at the 2012 London Olympics during his time as Mayor. Johnson won the London Mayoralty by seeing an opportunity, specifically that London voters were tired of Ken Livingston. Further, the clown reputation meant Johnson’s opponents underestimated him in not just one but two London Government elections. His ascent to the Conservative leadership was far from smooth, with his first attempt in 2016 being undermined by Michael Gove. His record as Foreign Secretary was also far from successful, especially regarding the Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe issue. Yet his stance on Brexit, specifically undermining Theresa May’s attempts to negotiate a withdrawal agreement, paid off. He proved ruthless in his first few weeks as the leader, withdrawing the Tory whip from 21 MP Conservative MPs who would not back his Brexit plan, including his own brother. His decision to prorogue parliament when he could not get MPs to agree to a general election ultimately worked for him. Despite losing legal challenges to this prorogation, eventually, he got MPs to agree to an early election, winning the best result for the Conservative Party since 1983. His victory in 2019 was due to two things, tapping into the hopes and fears of those frustrated by attempts to thwart Brexit and a deeply divided opposition. His performances as an orator during this campaign were far from his best work, and despite arguable receiving fairly favourable press coverage during the campaign, felt the need to hide in a fridge to avoid doing a media interview days before the election. Those who in recent weeks, having previously supported Boris Johnson, now believe he is not fit to be prime minister seem to have only just worked out what he is really like when the signs have been there from the start. One of Johnson’s strengths throughout his career has been his ability to bring people in that can carry him. Dominic Cummings, loathsome as many may find him, was a driving force behind the Brexit campaign in 2016 and the 2019 Conservative election victory. There were of course plenty of others, including some who have been with him since he was mayor of London who has recently quit. The problem with being an advisor or a ‘back roomer’, is that ultimately the candidate will not always do what you wish they would. It is immensely frustrating to feel you are the brain behind the power, yet never to get credit, and worse to have your clever strategy ignored. The other issue Johnson faces is that despite his show of strength, for better or for worse, in getting Brexit done, he is not ideologically in step with much of the traditional Tory base. This in part explains his appeal to voters who traditionally have not voted Tory, certainly, this proved the case both in London and in the 2019 election. For many Conservatives, winning a strong majority and remaining in power was worth the compromise, even if it meant accepting a level of what the late Margaret Thatcher would have decried as corporatist policy. The recent decision to increase National Insurance has certainly tested the tolerance of many Conservatives who subscribe to the Thatcherite philosophy of low taxation and small government. As I have written earlier, social care has been a blight on the political landscape and one that neither Labour nor Conservative governments have adequately addressed. With demand for social care increasing, governments have been under pressure to increase funding. Both Blair’s New Labour and Cameron’s Conservative Governments lacked the political courage to increase taxes to pay for social care. Whilst there are strong arguments against the way the government have decided to increase taxes, specifically that rather than an across the board increase to National Insurance there were other options whereby the heaviest burden would have fallen on those best placed to contribute, nonetheless, an increase in taxation to pay for social care was inevitable. Any serious analysis of relying on the private sector and savings to address this need show this is not viable. Is it a coincidence that the announcement of the National Insurance increase in September 2021 happened just before the government and in particular Boris Johnson started having problems? It would be a mistake to think that the open civil war within the Conservatives under Theresa May was only about Brexit or that the 2019 election result put these to bed. It is quite clear that the stories of lockdown parties and other scandals have been disclosed by people within the government. Plenty of Tory MPs would be quite happy to see Johnson fall or to apply maximum pressure on him so he backs down on the National Insurance increase. Boris Johnson may not be a Thatcherite ideologically, but so far it does seem he is not for turning and understands that doing so would ultimately be more harmful. For small-government laissez-faire Tories, a leadership challenge may not serve them well. Were Johnson to go, the likely successor would be Rushi Sunak who talks free market but in practice has been one of the most interventionist Chancellors in modern times during the COVID-19 crisis. It is unlikely that Sunak as PM would reverse the National Insurance increase, given he has been its main advocate thus far. The rights favoured candidate, Liz Truss, is simply not credible. Boris Johnson remains Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. He does so, for now, due to the lack of a strong viable alternative within the Conservatives. Despite everything, he is still the leader most likely to help the party regain support, despite him now being severely damaged. Some in the Conservatives may be thinking it best to leave him in place at a time when the cost of living is increasing significantly when the May Council elections will likely not be good for the Conservatives (the particular boroughs having elections this year are less favourable to the Tories, but a backlash to “party gate” will likely play a role) and the National Insurance increase. Better to find a new leader nearer to the election. But this is a risky strategy, as the Prime Minister has damaged not just his reputation, but that of the Conservatives and the government he leads. His attempts at statesmanship during the Ukraine crisis may have helped him a little, but his reputation on the global stage is also tarnished by what has happened at home. Boris Johnson, should not on balance still be Prime Minister and in the long term, the Conservatives risk being severely punished for not removing him. But despite everything, he remains in post and still, we cannot write him off.

UK COVID-19 death toll hits 100,000 and The PM offers an insincere apology.

In late March 2020, the medical director of the NHS Stephen Powis said that keeping the UK COVID-19 death toll to under 20,000 would be a good result. Ten months later, almost to the day, the UK’s official death toll from COVID-19 hit 100,000, a few days after an Oxford University Study found that the UK had the worst daily death rate per capita for coronavirus in the world.

On Tuesday Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “deeply sorry” for every life that was lost. His apology was quickly followed by this statement:

I think on this day I should just really repeat that I am deeply sorry for every life that has been lost and of course as I was prime minister, I take full responsibility for everything that the government has done. We did everything we could to minimise suffering and minimise the loss of life and will continue to do so.

Boris Johnson addressing the nation Tuesday 26 January 2021

Back in May 2020, I wrote a blog which listed the many failings of the UK Governments handling of the crisis. The Prime Minister and his colleagues ignored scientific advise and allowed the virus to take hold throughout the population in February and March 2020. The Prime Minister, in particular, took pride in the fact that he planned to keep the country open even when most other European nations were going into lockdown. It was only when NHS hospitals were near breaking point that Britain followed other nations and implemented similar restrictions.

COVID-19: Boris Johnson 'deeply sorry' as over 100,000 coronavirus-related  deaths recorded in UK - kmfm
Above: Prime Minister Boris Johnson giving his address to the nation on Tuesday.

Probably the greatest failing by the Conservative Government in the fight against COVID-19 was not its response to the crisis but the decade of underinvestment in the country’s public health system. Sir Michael Marmot from the UK Institute of Health Equity published a damning report in December 2020 which highlighted that during the last decade of Conservative Government:

  • people can expect to spend more of their lives in poor health
  • improvements to life expectancy have stalled, and declined for the poorest 10% of women
  • the health gap has grown between wealthy and deprived areas 
  • place matters – living in a deprived area of the North East is worse for your health than living in a similarly deprived area in London, to the extent that life expectancy is nearly five years less.

The report also made clear that the above trends, in particular the health gap between wealthy and deprived areas, corresponds with data during the COVID-19 pandemic which found those from poorer parts of the UK were hit harder by the virus.

In May 2020 I posted a blog about the state of UK Social Care where for decades successive governments have failed to resolve the funding crisis, or indeed to build proper links between the health and social care systems. In October 2020 Amnesty International published its report As if Expendable which outlined how many older people were kicked out of hospitals and placed back into residential care homes, without first even being tested for COVID-19. This shameful action, along with not supplying social care providers adequate supplies of PEE was responsible for many thousands of deaths. The Amnesty report highlights that the UK Governments treatment of people in the social care system during this time breached both domestic and international law:

The UK is a state party to international and regional human rights treaties which require it to protect and guarantee fundamental human rights relevant to the concerns addressed in this report, including notably, the right to life, the right to highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, the right to non-discrimination – including on the grounds of age, disability or health status – the right not to be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment.

As if Expendable, Amnesty International report 2020

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has yet to atone for what happened during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the social care sector. Whilst this was not just the fault of his government’s failure, his statement on Tuesday shows he still accepts no-fault and claims they did all they could to ‘minimise suffering’ and ‘loss of life’, a claim the Amnesty International report demonstrates is false.

On the issue of face masks, the UK Government lagged behind most many other nations, initially implying that these were not effective, only later to make them mandatory on public transport. The justification for this U-Turn is that by mid-2020 there was more scientific data, which is fine except many other nations applied this scientific advice much earlier. A Centres for Disease Control and Prevention paper published 2004 found that during the 2003 SARS outbreak that wearing a face mask frequently in public places, frequent hand washing, and disinfecting one’s living quarter were effective public health measures to reduce the risk for transmission. Nationalist Britain knows best self-confidence could well have been a factor in the UK Governments refusal to learn from international experience.

Another example of government arrogance in the UK during this crisis was the development of the track and trace system. Whilst most nations have struggled to develop an effective track and trace application, the UK managed to spend 22 billion pounds of public money on a system that did not work. In June 2020 Boris Johnson claimed in parliament that the UK was developing a “world beating” contact tracing system. After billions were given to private contractors, many with personal links to members of the government, the system was found to have failed as it relied on excel spreadsheets to record the data and resulted in 15,000 cases not being recorded in September and October 2020.

The failure to develop a functional track and trace system has led to one of the greatest policy failures that have contributed to England being in its third COVID-19 lockdown. Very few people would disagree that having schools closed and students having to learn remotely is negatively impacting on students. And most people can understand how difficult it is for any government to balance public health against long term educational outcomes. But when the Conservative-leaning paper The Telegraph runs the headline The biggest mystery in politics: why is Gavin Williamson still in a job? you know that the Education Secretary has performed poorly. The recent example where after Christmas schools reopened for one day in January before closing again due to high infection rates, despite the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) warning the UK Government on 22 December 2020 that with the new strain of COVID-19 leaving schools open was contributing to the rising infection rate. A poll conducted earlier this month found that 92% of teachers believe Gavin Williamson should resign as Education Secretary, which is hardly given surprising his abysmal performance in recent months.

Coronavirus: UK epidemic growing as R number goes above 1 - BBC News
The Above graph shows how COVID-19 infection rates rose sharply after UK schools reopened in September

Yet the blame for schools does not sit fully with the Government. Her Majesty’s loyal opposition can also take much of the blame for this fiasco. In April 2020, at the height of the first wave of coronavirus pandemic in the UK, newly elected Labour Party Opposition Leader Kier Starmer called on the Government to set out plans to end the lockdown. Starmer, former head of the Crown Prosecution Service and a QC would argue that he meant that there should be a plan which included contact tracing, social distancing guidelines and other measures to make it safe to reopen. But the optics of the call was pressuring the UK Government to lift restrictions and specifically calling on them to reopen schools. Unlike in a court of law, in politics, it is about the key message, not the detail buried on page 7 of the affidavit.

The Oppositions position on schools has been nearly as confusing and contradictory as the Governments. The Party, still recovering from its 2019 election loss (which I wrote several blogs about in early 2020), under a new leader was trying to rebrand, reposition and appeal to voters it had lost. This has not been helped by the internal factionalism (which I also blogged about in May 2020) and the party still not being clear where it sits politically and ideologically. In April 2020 shadow Education Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey’s position was that schools should reopen when safe, a position that was consistent with the education unions. Shortly after this Long-Bailey was replaced as Education Secretary by Kate Green, who has been clear that she wishes to distance Labour from the education unions in an attempt to present the party as more ‘moderate’.

Green and Starmer’s position throughout this has been motivated by a policy of triangulation and policy by focus group whereby they are appealing to middle-class parents who want their kids back at school. Like the Tories, Labour’s position has been motivated by politics, not science. That former Conservative Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt called for schools to close earlier this month before the opposition is telling. Meanwhile the leader of the opposition was being grilled by media for his confusing position. Many believe that Green was appointed due to her loyalty to Starmer just as Williamson has kept his role due to loyalty to Boris Johnson. One would be more concerned if either appointment were based on ability as this would say a great deal about the capability of the other 648 MPs in the Commons if these two are the best and brightest on offer for education.

The issue of schools reopening is a personal one for me. In my blog earlier this month, I told of how my partner who works as a secondary school teacher in London caught COVID-19 and how we both spend Christmas and New Year recovering from the illness. When Greenwich Council tried to close schools in the borough due to skyrocketing infection rates, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson threatened legal action to keep the schools open. By this time, most schools in the area had a significant percentage of students sick, or in isolation having been in contact with someone infected. In many schools, pupils were sent home due to the number of teachers off sick with COVID-19. To argue that continuing with this situation is any better for secondary school students is nonsense.

Much of the concern over school closures is the impact on students’ grades. When the Government announced GCSE and A-level exams would be cancelled once again in 2021 this added to the anxiety. One of the issues here has been this Government’s shift towards having student grades mostly assessed through examinations. This style of assessment favours certain learners over others, as exams favour those with short term recall skills. Many other countries have moved away from a full examination model of assessment to a mix of exams and course work assignments during the year. But aside from implementing a poor education assessment model for students, the pandemic has highlighted the risk of placing so much emphasis on examinations as, if for whatever reason, these cannot go ahead, it becomes difficult to determine student grades. The UK Government’s position on education and assessment is blinkered and ideological, which has meant it struggled to come up with sensible pragmatic solutions to this problem during the crisis. Worse, the Education Secretary has demonstrated he lacks the intellectual rigour and leadership to address these issues.

A coherent and strong opposition would have easily made political mileage during this time, however to date, the opposition has opted for triangulation and timidity. The opposition MP who has made the clearest and most articulate statements regarding school closures during the pandemic has been Lisa Nandy the Shadow Foreign Secretary, who came a distant third in the 2020 UK Labour leadership contest. What Nandy had to say was hardly earth-shattering, merely that the Government needed to get testing and track and trace working properly before it would be safe to reopen schools. To be fair, Starmer, Green and Long-Bailey probably also thought they were saying the same thing, but what people heard was quite different.

Prime Minister Johnson’s non apology on Tuesday was an insult to the British public. Yes, this was a difficult crisis and all governments have made some mistakes at this time. But the UK has done particularly badly and the statement on Tuesday shows he has learnt nothing. The Conservatives won the 2019 election with the sizeable majority that they did largely due to Brexit (see my blog post immediately after the 2019 UK election) and divisions within the opposition. Boris Johnson is not a strong leader and in this crisis, he has proved to be woefully inept. It is well known that Johnson likes to compare himself to former Conservative Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in which case the COVID-19 pandemic has been his Gallipoli.

At a time when the country is in its third lockdown, when over 100,000 people have died, when the economy is in recession and the number of jobless is set to rise, few now are looking to the next election which will likely be held in 2024. Yet that still motivates leaders of the UK’s two main political parties. Polling numbers in recent months have been fairly close between Labour and the Conservatives. Where polling has been much more consistent is in Scotland, where the SNP maintain a strong lead heading into the Scottish Parliament’s election on 6 May 2021. Support for Scottish independence also maintains a strong lead and as I predicted in my blog post nearly a year ago this issue continuing to feature prominently on the political agenda, despite fierce opposition from political leaders in London. Without a doubt, independence campaigners in Scotland, as well as Northern Ireland and Wales, continue to win support for their independence calls on the back of the UK Governments inept handling of this crisis.

There is however hope on the horizon. The Governments rollout of the COVID-19 vaccinations will hopefully in time slow the movement of the virus to a point where current restrictions can be lifted. It is a wonder of modern science that within a year of COVID-19 emerging that scientists, including those at Oxford University, have developed a vaccination. Despite concern by some about the speed with which this has been released, the evidence so far is that widespread vaccination will stop the spread and save thousands of lives. Credit where credit is due, the UK Government have been quick off the mark to get this vaccine available to the most vulnerable with the aim of immunising as many people as possible over the next year. And to the oppositions credit, they have supported the Government on the vaccine rollout.

There is still a long way to go until this crisis ends and the Government have a lot to answer for badly mishandling things to date. The Prime Ministers apology on Tuesday did not cut the mustard and was an insult to the families of those who have died. Lessons from the mistakes over the last year need to be learnt and with this, the Prime Minister needs to cut the bombast and bravado and instead learn humility and humbleness. The successful rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine will be essential not only for ending the crisis but also for rebuilding trust in public trust British state after it has managed this pandemic so badly.

A COVID-19 positive New Year

Two years ago I wrote a short pithy little blog about New Years and the self-reflecting navel gazing that traditionally occurs during this time. It can be viewed here.

The end of 2020 was quite different. This is the case for most of us, but for me it ends a very eventful year. It also ended with me having testing positive for COVID-19. I have spent much of the last week feeling unwell and exhausted.

2020 was not easy for anyone. A global pandemic which as of 31 December 2020 had killed 1.8 million people and infected over 83 million. It has plunged the world economy into an economic recession that could well take years to recover from. For many this year will be very memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Boris Johnson Sleeps With the Virus | Spitting Image - YouTube
Spitting Image depiction of The Coronavirus with UK PM Boris Johnson

2020 was not an entirely bad year for me though. Both in terms of my professional and personal life, 2020 was actually been positive. Just under a year ago I started working in the House of Lords with Baroness Greengross. I have had the privilege of working in the House of Lords at a time when it adapted to the pandemic by having virtual proceedings and moved to online voting. Whilst having worked remotely much of the year, I still have an office in Westminster which I will return to in 2021.

Personally, things have also gone well. I started a new relationship earlier in the year and we recently moved in together. Also, throughout 2020 I have continued to build and strengthen my friendship networks in London, especially in the South East where I live. I am very lucky to have good friends around me, especially at a time when I have come down with COVID-19.

The virus itself came from my partner who works as a teacher at a London secondary school. Infection rates have been climbing steadily in recent weeks and just before Christmas she caught the dreaded lurgy. When we both got tested on the 18 December she tested positive and I negative, but within a few days it was clear I had also contracted the it.

I could write a whole post about how well the UK government have responded to the pandemic in 2020. I may do this at a later time. Suffice to say 2020 ended with London in Tier 4 restrictions meaning much of the city was closed and people advised against going out or leaving their local area. Needless to say having to stay home for New Years Eve was no great hardship when very little was happening in the city. Earlier plans of heading to Edinburgh for Hogmanay will also have to wait until another year when Scotland is not under COVID-19 restrictions.

So, is the virus as bad as it has been made out? Well for me the symptoms were flu like, high temperature, headaches, blocked nose and sore throat. The fatigue is probably the worst feature of this virus. From Boxing Day till 29 December I was mostly bedridden and living off ibuprofen and Lemsip. Luckily I can still taste food, though it became clear my sense of smell had dulled when I could not smell Vicks Vapour rub or coffee – which anyone else would think my flat stinks of right now. The worse feature of the virus was the fatigue and reduced energy levels which I started feeling the week before Christmas and persisted long other other symptoms had passed.

As of now I feel better. My concentration is improving but still reduced. I am very aware that despite having done little over the last few days my body is still tired. I hope energy levels restore to something resembling normal fairly quickly in 2021. I am lucky in that already the symptoms of COVID-19 begin to fade which is not the case for many others who have caught this virus.

2021 will also be a very different year. We all hope the situation starts to improve in the coming weeks and months, but the reality for the UK is that restrictions on peoples lives will remain in place for some time yet. International travel will also remain limited. It is highly unlikely that I will be able to visit family and friends in New Zealand until 2022, as quarantine restrictions and flight options being very limited and expensive at this time. Zoom has been great for keeping families connected throughout 2020 and will continue to provide this important role again in 2021. It is not the same as actual face to face contact which once this pandemic is over is something many of us will relish.

Four days into the New Year and the UK Government has announced that England will be returning to a full lockdown. This will include schools doing remote learning, something that SAGE told advised should happen before Christmas. How long this lockdown will last and how soon things finally return to normal in 2021 is not clear.

One thing that is the same as New Years two years ago, I have once again changed my calendar.

All the best for 2021.

Trump loses the Presidency, but Trumpism lives on

Two weeks after one of the most tumultuous elections in US history it is now clear that Joe Biden has won. This was not clear on election night as much of the in-person vote favoured Trump in key swing states. But as the postal votes came in it became obvious that in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada and Michigan were going with the Biden/Harris ticket. Whilst traditional swing states of Florida and Ohio went to Trump this would not be enough for him to get the required 270 electoral college votes to win.

My previous post outlined the importance to America and the world of a Trump defeat in these elections. It also outlined the many limitations the US political system put in place to make much needed political, social and economic reform in that country difficult (though not impossible). It also highlighted the absurd electoral college system that twice this century has allowed a presidential candidate who received fewer votes than their opponent to win the presidency. The 2020 election could well have been the third such election based on election night results, but postal ballots make it clear that Trump is on his way out. In an election where one of the main dividing issues now is whether or not to believe science, those worried about COVID-19 were more likely to postal vote and thus these votes were more likely to go to the Democrats.

Trump is mounting a legal challenge to the election result claiming the election was rigged. In many cases, the state authorities running the ballot system were under the control of the Republican Party. Trump is unlikely to succeed in any of his legal challenges and even if he does this will unlikely result in him gaining the required 270 points to win. There is little chance of a repeat of the 2000 Presidential election where the Supreme Court ordered the recount of votes in the State of Florida to stop, a disgraceful chapter in the history of US elections and one which exposed how flawed the US system really is.

In 2016 Donald Trump received 62,984,828 votes nationally. In 2020 his national vote increased to 71,927,381. Biden’s apparent victory was down to increased voter turnout nationally and specifically increased turnout and in the swing states listed above. When looking at the results in both Congress and Senate, the Republicans have reduced the Democrats’ majority in Congress, and the Senate is now split with Republicans only losing one senate race last week and now having a runoff election in January 2021 which will decide which party has control of the upper chamber.

The projected ‘blue wave’ that many pundits predicted (and this author hoped for, but did not expect) did not eventuate. There are plenty of possible explanations for this but ultimately it comes down to the simple fact that support for Donald Trump and indeed for the Republican Party did not collapse in 2020. If anything, the Republican Party held the line with their base and even won some new support despite a woeful mishandling of the pandemic and having a President who was blatantly dishonest and self-serving. This is disappointing, but not at all surprising. Trumpism did not just come out of nowhere, and nor is it likely to disappear anytime soon.

The election for Congress saw the Republicans reduce the Democrats’ majority. This was probably the Democrats greatest failure this election, given they only gained control of Congress two years earlier in 2018 and already their grip on power here is slipping. This is reminiscent of 2006, where Nancy Pelosi led the Democrats to victory during the Mid-terms as President George W Bush’s popularity was waning. By 2010 the Democrats had lost control of the House in Obama’s first mid-term. Despite the loss, Pelosi remained the Democrat leader in Congress, and in 2018 became the speaker once again when Democrats capitalised on anti-Trump sentiment to gain control of The House. The issue for Pelosi and the team around her in Congress is that twice they have won during mid-terms when opposition to a Republican President is strong. Now a Democrat is President, Pelosi cannot just be an oppositional figure, she and her team need to put forward a policy agenda to address the issues facing the country. Just like when Obama was elected President in 2008, Biden’s win this year is happening in the middle of a serious economic crisis. Democrats in Congress need to be offering policy solutions to this crisis. Now maybe time for new Democratic leadership in Congress that can step up to this challenge.

Doctored Pelosi SOTU video leaves Dems furious at Facebook, Twitter -  Business Insider
Nancy Pelosi tearing up her copy of Donald Trump’s state of the union speech in February 2020.

The Senate currently hangs in the balance with Republicans holding onto more senators this month than expected. In early January 2021 a runoff election will be held for the two Senator seats in the state of Georgia. The race between Biden and Trump was very close in this state which has traditionally been safe Republican. The change in Georgia was down to voter registration and turnout campaigns led by Stacy Abrams who narrowly lost the Georgia Governor race in 2018. This campaign is one Democrats should be looking to replicate nationally as it has been widely praised as successful.

In early 2018 I wrote a blog post about hope in which I said the following about the Obama Presidency of 2009 to 2017:

Obama promised hope and intended to deliver that through the US political system. The problem is that system is flawed. He gave people hope in a political system which could not deliver on the promise.

Hope – A powerful but dangerous tool, April 2018

When trying to understand US politics we need to understand that it is indeed a flawed and inflexible system. This criticism could be made of most democratic systems, but the flaws in the US are stark and very hard to shift. In another 2018 blog, I wrote about the issue of Gun Control, a prime example of where the US system, despite public opinion has successfully blocked any form of gun control for decades.

In August this year, Rolling Stone Magazine published an article by Anthropologist Wade Davies called The Unraveling of America. I would recommend anyone who has not yet read this to do so. In this article Wade outlines how the COVID-19 pandemic has furthered the decline of the United States. Wade claims that one-fifth of all COVID-19 deaths were from that country. He highlights how the United States has lost its moral authority on the world stage, citing the below example:

Trump’s performance and America’s crisis deflected attention from China’s own mishandling of the initial outbreak in Wuhan, not to mention its move to crush democracy in Hong Kong. When an American official raised the issue of human rights on Twitter, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, invoking the killing of George Floyd, responded with one short phrase, “I can’t breathe.”

The Unraveling of America  
Anthropologist Wade Davis on how COVID-19 signals the end of the American era. Rolling Stone August 2020.

And indeed, the Black Lives Matter Movement has like COVID-19 shown the world that the United States Government is neither interested nor capable of looking after its own population. Given this it is little wonder many throughout the world no longer view it as a moral authority on the world stage. Wade also argues that Donald Trump is a symptom of the decline, rather than the cause of it.

On the morning of the US election results, the BBC Today Show interviewed former UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. He expressed concern that an uncertain result would be used by dictators in countries like China to discredit democracy. The reality is that the United States is a poor example of a functioning democracy in 2020. The country’s widespread voter suppression, its antiquated and undemocratic voting system, its cumbersome and difficult-to-change constitution, its poor record on climate change, its institutional and systemic racism, its increasing inequality and last but not least its shocking record on the international stage of supporting dictators like Pinochet and Suharto, discredit it as any sort of moral authority. When looking for examples of modern, functioning democracies we should look at places like Germany, Scandinavian nations like Norway or Sweden, New Zealand, Canada, Uruguay and Costa Rica. Even in the United Kingdom, though in recent years has faced considerable challenges in response to Brexit and a fairly ugly General Election in 2019, not to mention a voting system that does not deliver proportional outcomes, the political culture in the UK is still much healthier and far less divisive than in the US.

This is not to beat up on the United States or to say that it does not still have the potential to play a positive role in the world. The point is that for the United States to do this it needs significant reform. Biden, even if he gains a majority in the Senate will not be able to deliver this in one term. And the level of opposition this administration will face internally from Trump/Republican Party supporters is formidable. But this too can change. In 2020 increased voter turnout stopped Trump getting a second term and may still help the Democrats narrowly win a senate majority if Georgia goes their way. Hope can be dangerous if it gives people the false idea that a broken system is ok. But in understanding that there is a fundamental problem, there is then the opportunity for real change, something which would be cause for some cautious optimism. At the very least, the more people understand the problem, the greater the chance of things improving.

Singapore & COVID-19: how neglecting the poorest in society harmed the whole city state

Throughout 2020 there have been many fascinating twists and turns in the tale of how we as a species have tried to overcome the COVID-19 virus. Some nations like the United States or Brazil have not managed so well, whilst others like New Zealand or Vietnam at first seemed to be faring much better, though now have also seen the virus sneak back in.

In a pandemic like this there is no playbook, and governments and health officials are forced to learn and adapt as they go along. One can understand that along the way there will be various mistakes, and all but the very angry and militant few would seriously expect governments to get everything right during this time.

One important lesson early on in the crisis was back in April when Singapore, who were seen as one of the world leaders in defeating this virus suddenly faced a spike. Singapore was far better prepared than many other nations having learnt lessons from the 2003 SARS and 2009 H1N1 outbreaks. Singapore is well known for its focus on public hygiene and encouraging its citizens to wear face masks and wash their hands is nothing new. By early April it seemed Singapore were weathering the storm, but then things went wrong.

As outlined in this April CNN report, clusters of migrant workers living in poor overcrowded housing were found to have the disease. From here the virus quickly spread again meaning the city state went from very few cases in March to over 1000 in April. It took Singapore until August to reduce COVID-19 infection rates to their March 2020 levels.

The above graph shows the COVID-19 infection rates in Singapore from March to October 2020

In contrast to many other nations Singapore has still managed this pandemic very well. But by neglecting its most vulnerable and not providing safe and healthy accommodation to its migrant workers, the country undermined the public health for all people living in this city state.

There will be many lessons coming out of the 2020 pandemic. But the lesson here is clear, if you do not look after the poor and vulnerable in your community, ultimately you undermine the health and wellbeing of everyone.

Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Government: Style over substance or a guiding light for progressive politics?

Just over three years ago, a few weeks before leaving New Zealand, my friend Rob and I were in Burger Fuel on Cuba Street the hipster trendy part of Wellington. Piko was renting an office space in the old Wellington Trades Hall and we were doing painting and renovations of the space. In our crappy paint-covered work clothes we sat in Burger Fuel when Rob alerts me to who had just walked in the restaurant.

24 hours beforehand, Jacinda Ardern had replaced Andrew Little as leader of the Labour Party. We both knew Jacinda so said hello and talked about the Stand with Pike campaign we had been working on which Jacinda had pledged to support a few hours before. This slightly awkward conversation with the new leader of the opposition did not last long. None of us, I suspect even Jacinda, knew that in a few weeks’ time she would achieve one of the greatest upsets in New Zealand political history and become Prime Minister.

Sixth Labour Government of New Zealand - Wikipedia
Cabinet Minister’s photographed with the NZ Governor General after being sworn into office, October 2017.

In just over a month New Zealand is holding a General Election. A First term Labour Government under the leadership of Jacinda Ardern will be aiming to win a second term in office. Jacinda Ardern is held up globally as a modern progressive leader and is praised throughout the world for her compassion and humility. In her three years as Prime Minister, she has faced terrorist attacks, volcanic eruptions and now the COVID-19 pandemic. In all these crises, she not only got the country through but showed the world that she was an articulate and competent leader. Jacinda is a world leader at a time when the likes of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsanaro and Scott Watson are running the show. It is hardly surprising that Ardern is seen as a beacon of hope in contrast, but what has her government really achieved?

Jacinda’s response to the recent COVID-19 pandemic will likely be viewed as her crowning achievement, albeit one which was as much due to the actions of civil servants and the support of the wider NZ public as it was the Government. However, in a world plagued by COVID-19, ending community transmission of the disease in New Zealand is a significant achievement, and one the rest of the world is quite envious of.

However, I believe Jacinda’s greatest achievement was in the wake of the Christchurch Mosque shooting where over 50 people were killed. Jacinda Ardern’s immediate response to a targeted attack against the Muslim community was that this was an attack on the whole country. Her words “they are us” sent a powerful message to Muslims both in Aotearoa/New Zealand and throughout the world. A flatmate of mine in London on hearing Jacinda’s words said to me that no UK Prime Minister had ever said that he as a Muslim was part of UK society, highlighting how powerful Jacinda’s message really was. A few weeks later I had a three-week contract in Saudi Arabia and was talking to some of the local labourers over a meal break. On hearing I was from New Zealand these workers were very excited, and told me how wonderful they thought Jacinda’s words after the attack were. The other impressive thing in response to this shooting, was Jacinda’s response the following morning that semi-automatic weapons would be banned. This was a rare example of decisive political leadership in New Zealand politics, which I am sure in years to come will save many lives.

When Jacinda took over as Leader of the New Zealand Labour Party in August 2017, many thought her chances of winning the election seven weeks later were slim. Labour was polling at around 24% when Jacinda took over, whereas the right of centre National Government was consistently polling over 40%. When adding the relatively high Green Party polling numbers at the time to Labour’s there was still little likelihood that NZ would elect a centre-left government a few weeks later.

During the election campaign, Jacinda pulled off a meteoric rise in support for Labour that astounded political commentators. In part, this was due to the arrogance of a third term National Government, who a year earlier had changed to a leader who did not have the charisma and eloquence of his predecessor. By contrast Jacinda presented herself as the fresh face of politics, with a message of positivity and optimism.

On election day I had moved to London. I woke up on Saturday morning and watched the results online. Labour had increased its votes, but National was still the largest party in Parliament. Even with the Green Party Jacinda did not have enough seats to form a government. An economically centrist and socially conservative party called NZ First held the balance of power. This party had previously been in government with both National in the 1990s and Labour in the mid-2000s. In the past, it had gone with the major party who got the most votes and had been hostile to the Green Party, who would be needed in a coalition with Labour. However, the NZ Tories made a tactical error during the campaign of targeting the NZ First leader Winston Peters and releasing details of a pension overpayment. After four weeks of coalition talks, Winston Peters announced he would form a coalition government with Labour and the Green’s.

It is fair to say that this coalition has not been easy to manage. The politics of NZ First are quite different from the socially liberal progressive values of NZ Labour and the Greens. NZ First have acted as a hand brake on many policy areas, even on issues wherein opposition they had sided with Labour and the Green Party. An example of this was probationary employment periods, where having opposed them when National introduced them, recently fought to save them when Labour tried to scrap them. A coalition partner that is more interested in self-promotion and being oppositional is far from ideal.

It is easy for both Labour and the Green Party’s to say they could not achieve all they wanted in their first term in government because of a difficult coalition partner. But this can only go so far. There are certain policy areas where the current Labour-led government have simply not yet delivered. At the beginning of 2019, Jacinda Ardern announced that it would be the year of delivery. Yet in policy areas such as decreasing homelessness, or the now ill-fated Kiwibuild program to build houses to combat the NZ Housing Crisis – delivery simply has not happened. Yes, these are difficult policy areas, but they are also policy areas where Labour took a strong stance in opposition. Twenty years ago, homelessness was rare in New Zealand, yet over the last decade, the streets of Wellington and Auckland now compare with cities like San Francisco for rough sleeping. The current government’s handling of homelessness has been described as an abject failure by commentators. I have blogged about the Housing Crisis in the past and pointed out then that politicians the world over have failed to address this issue. Labour’s promise of 100,000 new homes in ten years has now been abandoned and frankly, the government’s record on this issue to-date is little better than its predecessor.

There are other policy areas where the record is much better. On election to government, NZ Labour kept its promise to make the first year of tertiary education free, as a way of trying to reduce student debt. The Government have finally modernised the country’s abortion laws so that abortion is no longer listed in the NZ Crimes Act. The minimum wage has been increased under the NZ Labour-led government from $15.75 to $18.90, bringing it closer to the NZ Living Wage rate of $22.10, that campaigners are currently pushing for. A cynic might suggest that in policy areas where there is a stronger cabinet minister, much more has been achieved.

The attack line of the opposition and much of the NZ media is that this is a government that has only a handful of competent ministers and that the Labour-Led Government are being carried by the popularity of Jacinda. The recent departure of two fairly senior cabinet ministers suggests there is some truth to the claim that certain ministers have not been performing. Further, it seems there are a few cabinet ministers who have picked up larger and larger portfolios when one of their colleagues is forced to resign, rather than new talent being brought in from the backbench. Megan Woods has been brought in both to salvage the Kiwibuild fiasco, and more recently immigration and border control to fix up the mess of an underperforming predecessor. Meanwhile, Chris Hipkins is now minister for Health, Education, State Services and Leader of the House which is in no way a sustainable workload, especially during a global pandemic. It seems a smaller and smaller clique now surround the Prime Minister when there are many other talented backbench MPs who are ready for ministerial portfolios.

The media in New Zealand have been critical of this government. For years the National Party have made a concerted effort to build a close relationship with the parliamentary press gallery, attending every social and ensuring that the right egos were stroked. With some very worthy exceptions, the quality of NZ political journalism is poor and focuses much more on personality than policy. In this context, it is impressive that Jacinda managed to win the 2017 election for Labour. However, it is generally agreed it was very much Jacinda’s popularity as a leader that won Labour the election. The media remain critical of Labour, particularly certain members of its current front bench who were there prior Jacinda becoming Party leader when Labour was consistently polling under 30%. Many on the left claim the media hold a political bias and in the case of “journalists” like Mike Hoskins, this is very true. However, critical reporting of certain ministers and performance in their portfolios is more than justified.

New Zealand changed from the British First Past the Post system to a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting system based on the German model in 1996. Had New Zealand stuck with the First Past the Post voting system, Jacinda Ardern would not have won the 2017 election. In my series on the 2019 UK election, I pointed out the foolishness of the UK Labour Party’s continued support of the First Past the Post electoral system. When you compare the 2017 elections in the UK and NZ, Labour achieved a similar result in both countries. However, in NZ proportional representation meant it could form a government, though other factors were at play in the UK. The challenge for NZ Labour though, is this is the first time since electoral reform that the party that got the most votes did not form the government. The combined Labour and Green Party vote was higher than National’s meaning the centre-left block has more MPs, but still many have questioned the legitimacy of the government due to this. Psychologically, government ministers may feel this too, possibly explaining a reluctance to be too bold in certain policy areas.

At the start of 2020 polling was neck and neck between the government and opposition in New Zealand. Despite an inept leader, National continued to poll around 40%. The COVID-19 crisis changed things dramatically. Recent polling has Labour on 53% support with National down to 26%, its worst polling numbers in 17 years. The National Party have now changed leaders twice in three months, gone through numerous internal scandals and continue to haemorrhage support. It seems unlikely their new leader Judith Collins will be able to pull things back enough for an upset victory in a months’ time. In a country where the National Party have won roughly two out of every three elections since the Second World War, and who despite losing in 2017 gained over 40% of the vote, the current collapse in support is significant.

The government’s handling of COVID-19 and Jacinda’s strong communication style throughout this crisis has clearly shifted public opinion. That NZ stopped the spread of the virus has meant Labour is polling very well, and Jacinda now holds the record for the best preferred prime minister polling numbers. Whilst it is always risky to pick election results, it now seems unlikely that NZ Labour will lose the coming election in September, despite polling numbers from earlier in the year suggesting this was more than likely.

But Jacinda and her government should not be complacent. Whilst there are undoubtedly areas where this government has performed well, there are other policy areas where there is need for improvement. In a three year term, there is only so much that can be achieved, but this is a government elected on hope, which, as an earlier blog post outlined can be dangerous if you do not live up to expectations. The added challenge now is the COVID-19 crisis and managing the global economic recession that is now hitting. Whilst eradicating the virus has helped the economy as lockdown restrictions could be eased earlier it has also meant the country’s borders have to be tightly controlled. In a country where tourism is a major part of the economic, this is not good news at all.

Critics have dismissed the Jacinda Ardern government as being one of style over substance. This is unfair given the challenges this government has faced and the policy achievements it has had. However, it is a government that has much work to do if it wins a second term. And its over-reliance on Jacinda as party leader is a huge strategic risk, especially when the governments front bench is perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be lightweight. If current polling is accurate and NZ Labour win with a commanding majority next month, they will have a real opportunity to not only address these issues but significantly shape the direction of NZ politics for many years to come.

Global Governance – why we need it, and why it currently does not work.

Shortly after moving to the UK, I attended a screening of Gaylene Preston’s documentary My Year with Helen tracing the former NZ Prime Minister’s unsuccessful bid to become the next United Nations Secretary General in 2016. What became apparent throughout this documentary, was that the United Nations is neither a democratic nor meritocratic organisation. Instead it is a body where decisions are made by those nations with veto powers, or who’s economic and military might needs appeasing. And the selection of people for leadership roles is an exercise in horse trading, not selecting competent or experienced leaders.

Helen Clark Becomes Fourth Woman to Run for U.N. Top Job | Time
Above – Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark unsuccessfully ran for the position of UN Secretary General in 2016.

Helen Clark has now been appointed Co-Chair the review of how the World Health Organisation (WHO) responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. This will be an interesting review, as clearly there were many ways in which the WHO could have responded better to the pandemic. However, much of the failing was that many nations ignored WHO guidance or acted independently rather than be part of a global response to the pandemic.

As I posted back in April one of the single most irresponsible actions during this crisis was the decision by United States President Donald Trump to de-fund the WHO. The Trump administration having ignored WHO guidance caused many thousands of preventable COVID-19 deaths within the United States. In cutting funds to the WHO during a global pandemic, they have also undermined the global effort to minimise the spread of this dangerous virus.

The United States undermining global governance structures and pursuing its own political agenda ahead of everything else is nothing new, and certainly not something limited to the Trump administration. Nor are the United States the only nation guilty of this. China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States all have the power of veto meaning they can block any resolution from the UN General Assembly, even if it has majority support. These nations are permanent members of the UN Security Council and can veto any nomination for UN Secretary General.

There are countless examples of one nation being condemned by the United Nations for breaching human rights conventions, yet another nation can do far worse and the UN will take no action when a nation with the power of veto is protecting them or is in fact the nation breaching human rights. Any hopes that in the post-Cold War era the United Nations would become a stronger more united entity have been long since dashed.

A similar situation exists with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) where hundreds of very worthy conventions protecting the rights of workers all over the world have been agreed by member nations, then subsequently ignored. My recent post on global unionism outlined the problems these organisations have getting ILO conventions to be upheld, especially in regions of the world where sweat shops and low paid manufacturing are common.

On the issues of climate change, human rights, workers’ rights and economics global governance is crucial. The nation state as we know it today is a human construct only a few hundred years old, and it already is out of date and not fit to meet the challenges of the modern world. This is not to say nations should not have governments, but that trying to solve the big problems facing the modern world through national governments will not work. And we see on issues like climate change, national governments have failed to respond appropriately as the world lurches towards a crisis.

The recent rise of nationalist politics has seen a retreat away from globalism. In part this is due to a rejection of free market economics being foisted on the world through a process called “Globalisation” prior to the 2008 economic crisis. This agenda tried to merge an economic ideology of Neo Liberalism, with the inevitable trend of Globalism whereby enhancements in technology mean travel, communication have become much easier and subsequently more common. Sadly, this coupling of the free market and globalism, has meant the inevitable rejection of the former has seen a decline in support for the latter.

Britain’s decision to leave the European Union can be seen as one example of this rejection of internationalism. Though the EU being a continental/regional rather than global governance body means the issues are more complicated, as one reason for Brexit was a desire of some in the UK for Britain to have a stronger global voice independent of the EU. Another factor though for Brexit support was the ineffectiveness of the EU, both in terms of democratic structures and results. Similar criticism can be made of global governance organisations and has resulted in a decline for their support.

There is no easy solution to the question of enhancing global governance to make it more effective. Were the five nations with Veto powers to relinquish this stranglehold, the UN may stand a fighting chance of gaining more legitimacy. However, the prospect of this happening in the short term is unlikely. This does not mean the power of Veto should not be constantly challenged and called out whenever one of the five nations uses this power.

Removing veto powers will not in itself resolve the pressing issue of establishing global governance structures that have the power to make decisions that are desperately needed right now. Trying to establish a global democratic structure, when many of the nations who belong to it are in no way democratic is a difficult contradiction to overcome. Further, the logistics of trying to engage people across the planet in a democratic global governance structure would be complicated. The risk is that yet again, those most engaged would be those from economically better off countries and their interests would continue to dominate the global political agenda.

The other difficulty will be getting nation states to relinquish certain powers to a global governance structure. It would make sense for the WHO to take control of the global response to COVID-19 and this would have most likely resulted in greater consistency and many thousands of lives being saved. But politically, few governments want to give up power and nor would their citizens likely accept being governed by an international force even if the motivations are good. Getting people to accept global governance and allowing it to have greater power would require a profound shift in public opinion throughout the world.

These are big questions, with no easy answers. The concern right now is that the future of global governance is not being discussed or debated nearly enough. Having a US President de-fund the WHO during a pandemic is shocking, but far worse is that few seemed terribly bothered or concerned when this happened. The challenges facing humanity in the 21st century require strong global governance and addressing this challenge should be a top priority for all policy makers.