James Frayne: Polls suggest the Government will not face a backlash for the principal of withdrawal in Afghanistan

31 Aug

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

How will the disorganised exit from Afghanistan affect the reputation of the British Government?

Coverage in the media has rightly focused primarily on President Biden’s role – given the US is by far the biggest foreign player in Afghanistan – but the British Government – and Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, particularly – have faced harsh scrutiny. What should we expect to follow politically?

Three interesting polls suggest the most fundamental answers. The first comes from YouGov in 2017, which asked the British public whether they thought it was right or wrong for Britain to have become involved in various wars and global conflicts since the Second World War.

While large majorities supported Britain declaring war on Germany in 1939 and engaging Argentina in 1982, significantly more opposed than supported British engagement in Afghanistan (43-25 opposed, with the rest saying “don’t know”). In addition, more people opposed than supported engagement in Libya (44-19), Iraq in 2003 (55-18) and Iraq in 1991 (35-30).

The second also comes from YouGov, a few weeks ago, which asked people about whether Britain should accept asylum seekers from Afghanistan – and also, crucially, whether Britain had a “moral duty” to accept those asylum seekers.

While the first question showed a majority support accepting Afghan refugees (52-29), perhaps surprisingly a majority could not be found to support the contention that Britain had a moral duty to accept refugees (48-36 agreed).

Third, another YouGov poll, from 2014 when Britain began scaling back operations in Helmand, which showed how the public had grown utterly weary of our engagement in Afghanistan several years ago.

They supported the withdrawal of troops from Helmand by a massive 83-5; they thought our whole engagement had not been worthwhile by 56-25; they doubted the Afghan security forces could maintain security by 67-13; and they thought the Taliban would return to power by 65-15.

These polls suggest a number of big things. First, and most importantly, that the Government will not face a backlash for the principal of withdrawal because people didn’t want troops to be there (or in the Middle East) in the first place. In fact, the public are generally sceptical about foreign intervention against states generally (as opposed to terrorist groups, which they tend to support).

Second, they show there’s a limit to the “mess” they think Britain specifically is responsible for (if people simultaneously think we should accept asylum seekers but don’t particularly consider it to be our moral duty).

Third, they show the public have long considered Afghanistan to have been a failure and that they long expected a return to the status quo ante.

While political and foreign policy commentators dwell on whether British and American withdrawal will make people think Afghanistan was a tragic waste of lives, or that it will make people question whether politicians can make the case for foreign intervention again, the truth is the public have already made up their mind on these – and did so long ago.

The deep sympathy the public feel for British troops and the sacrifices they made, the anger they feel on their behalf, as well as their general disappointment with how Afghanistan turned out, made themselves felt in the polls several years ago when other Prime Ministers were in power.

While the public are looking on at the Taliban’s advance with horror and sadness – with sympathy for Afghan civilians – they expected it and they doubt there is much that we can do, beyond extending a home for a small number of Afghans (along with other countries around the world).

This Government is therefore unlikely to be affected by those big, existential questions being played out in politics and the media. For this Government, its greatest vulnerabilities are around important but relatively narrow questions over whether it handled the logistics of withdrawal in the right way.

Did it act swiftly, competently and with good judgement as it helped British civilians, diplomats and Armed Forces out of the country – as well as those Afghans directly associated with the British and American operations in the country since 2001? (The questions in whether the Government is providing the right level of asylum support will emerge later).

In short, these are mostly questions of judgement and competence – although, certainly regarding the treatment of Afghans who directly helped Britain, there are also questions of fairness and decency.

It seems very likely that there will be enough horror stories of slow and poor decision-making from various Government Departments and agencies that the Government will take some blame. These stories will come out over the course of the next few weeks.

While unnamed Government sources are seeking to apportion blame to particular politicians (Raab, most obviously), the public don’t and won’t think along these lines; within reason, they think of the Government as an entity, rather than as being devolved in any meaningful way.

This means there’s a limit to what “damage control” the Government can do by throwing particular politicians and officials under a bus. It will all land at the door of the PM where public opinion is concerned.

Will there be enough stories, cumulatively, to provoke a general backlash against this Government at last? Time will tell (I have no idea what’s coming out) but I doubt it. Hard as it is for many commentators to understand or believe, for most of its supporters, this Government has a lot of credit in the bank on questions of judgement and competence.

In a world where politicians are seen endlessly to over-promise and under-deliver, this Government has delivered on two massive promises: to “get Brexit done” and to introduce new controls over immigration.

It has also delivered a world-class vaccination programme. These aren’t small things. Most of this Government’s supporters will not therefore be saying – as opponents will – “there they go again”. This again puts a limit on the negative effects the Government will see.

But competence is a strange question. Beyond extreme incidents that directly affect the lives of ordinary people – like the final days of our time in the ERM, when interest rates were raised, crippling many – most errors, even big ones, just gently chip away at a Government’s reputation.

This is not to suggest that competence isn’t a big deal – on the contrary, it’s vital, and I suspect it’ll be ultimately competence that does it in the end for this Government – but rather that it can take a surprising amount to lose it. We’re not there yet; Afghanistan won’t do it.

Robert Halfon: We need more groups like Us for Them, one of the few campaigners for pupils’ rights during lockdown

14 Jul

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

If there were an Oscar for campaigning I would, without hesitation, give it to the pressure group Us for Them. Set up in the height of the pandemic, by a group of families worried about school closures and the damage to children, these parents – with minimal funding – have fought night and day on behalf of pupils.

Maligned in some left-wing quarters as “right-wing extremists”, “anti-vaxxers” and “Covid deniers” (all untrue), Us for Them has worked tirelessly to get children back into school. Especially when it was unfashionable to do so. Its representatives have taken on the might of the education unions, the sleepy establishment and sections of the Labour Party. They have presented their case cogently and coherently in newspapers and on television. All whilst keeping up a relentless social media presence.

Sadly, as parents, they know first hand of the horrific impact that the “schooldown” has had upon pupils. Falling educational attainment, a mental health epidemic, safeguarding hazards and future loss of lifetime earnings. Us for Them speaks with passion and real emotion because some representatives’ own children have been affected, especially in terms of their mental health. Us for Them puts significant pressure on the Government to get our children back into school and learning again.

You do not have to agree with everything members say, but their fundamentals should be cast in stone: the last year has been a national disaster for our young people. Never again should we shut our schools – except in extreme circumstances. Moreover, everything possible should be done to repair the damage over the coming years and months.

Parents and children have been lucky to have a trade union like Us for Them working hard in their interests. Unlike some of the education unions, Us for Them’s campaign was not about opportunistic politics and challenging the Government, it was just focused on the children. If you listen to one podcast this week, turn on the latest Telegraph Planet Normal.  In this episode, Us for Them parents set out why they formed, what they have done and all that they have achieved. I am glad to have met some of these remarkable individuals.

Groups, such as Us for Them, that champion the rights of parents and children are needed more than ever. Last Friday, in my constituency surgery, I met a parent who told me that her child of five, having heard the “wash your hands” mantra, now has a new compulsive obsessive disorder in that she keeps cleaning her hands. So much so that they are sore and bleeding.

My constituent’s other child has also developed significant anxieties. Both had been perfectly healthy and happy children before school closures. I regularly visit schools, and every time I speak to pupils many of them tell me that their mental health suffered significantly during the lockdowns.

Even before Coronavirus, there was a significant rise in the number of young people experiencing mental health difficulties. Social media likely played a large part in causing this increase. Unless remedial action is taken, this has the potential to become a national emergency post-Covid. It is good that the Government has ploughed more funds into mental health and guaranteed an extra £17 million for schools.

However, more needs to be done, including a nationwide assessment of children, not just in terms of their lost academic attainment but also the impact on their mental health. That way, the Department for Education would know the true extent of the problem and have the ability to develop policies accordingly. Although there are now more mental health professionals in schools, they need to be placed in every educational establishment to help pupils, parents, teachers and support staff. We cannot afford to sweep these problems under the carpet any longer.

The fallout from school closures has created other problems too. Research from the respected Centre for Social Justice, shows that 93,500 children have not returned to school (or are in school less than 50 per cent of the time) since full reopening in March. I call these pupils “the ghost children” because they are lost to education.

The welcome £3 billion catch-up programme will not help these children. They are not in school to benefit from the investment. The Government needs to look at parental engagement programmes, like that of the Feltham Reach Academy, to try and get these pupils back into school. The Government should also see whether the Troubled Families Programme could expand its reach to cover absent school children.

Meanwhile, in schools, we have Argentinian levels of hyperinflation in terms of lost learning. Last week, 640,000 children were sent home because of Covid-19 rules. This figure sat at 385,000 the week before. Pupils in Year 10 have been missing one in four face-to-face teaching days. If proper examinations are going to take place next year, what is the solution to ensure a level playing field for the hundreds of thousands of students who have missed lessons? Perhaps that is a question for another day. No doubt Us for Them will have some ready answers.

Nathen Allen: Starmer’s efforts to make Labour seem patriotic aren’t fooling anyone

15 Apr

Nathen Allen is a Young Voices UK contributor and the chairman of the London Universities Conservatives.

It’s odd, somehow, to hear a Labour leader talking up Britain and its institutions so far from a general election. Paying tribute to the late Duke of Edinburgh, Keir Starmer described the monarchy as “the one institution for which the faith of the British people has never faltered.” He may have stopped short of an explicit endorsement of the monarchy, but Starmer is engaged in a concerted effort to make his party seem inviting to British patriots once again.

Before Starmer, every five years or so, Labour would rediscover that actually liking the country you want to lead is electorally useful. It’s as if Newton had only ever remembered the concept of gravity every time he accidentally dropped a Golden Delicious. But, apparently, the obvious and repetitive nature of it all isn’t going to stop Starmer from trying his damndest to establish Labour as a patriotic alternative to the Conservative party. Of course, it’s far too late for him—and Labour itself— to realise this.

Starmer’s predecessor Jeremy Corbyn was constantly accused of hating Britain. He refused to sing the national anthem. He allegedly sympathised with terrorists. There were even fears he would hand over the Falklands to Argentina. So it‘s not surprising that Starmer is looking to rebrand Labour—but his efforts to make his party seem more patriotic are doomed to fail.

Take his recent campaign to make Labour comfortable displaying the Union Jack, for example—a small first step. It was a disaster. The Welsh Labour Health Minister decried the idea of “Tory flag-waving” and a Labour staffer even suggested it would lead to a similar event to the storming of the US Capitol Building in Britain. This belief that waving the flag is to be a Tory is one the Conservative party will surely be happy to monopolise in the mind of the electorate.

The problem Labour continues to misunderstand is that voters aren’t stupid. We know that if you have to force yourself to feel comfortable displaying the flag of your country, then you can’t reasonably be expected to uphold the other more complex cultural institutions in Britain. And those are institutions Brits make clear—time and again—that they care about.

Furthermore, Starmer shows no action on the Union – he’s consistently passive on the issue. Contrast that with the positive and public effort the Conservatives are making with recent announcements in the defence review to procure technology and equipment from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (as well as new plans by the Government to boost transport connections across the UK). Even during the period when Starmer has had ample opportunity to fight against what many have viewed as Conservative threats to the union, he has failed.

During the controversy over the Northern Ireland Protocol, he simply fell flat. He has completely failed to position himself as a viable unionist alternative to the Tories in Scotland, an area once famous as a Labour heartland and one where current polling has suggested a growing unionist majority in an independence referendum. Of course, that’s where the Tories, not Labour, will take the lead.

Even in London, Sadiq Khan is attempting to create a commission to target “controversial” historical statues. Despite the wide opposition to this move throughout the country, with 79 per cent of people believing we shouldn’t attempt to rewrite history and 69 per cent saying they are proud of UK history overall, Labour cannot pretend that actions of those like Khan are separate from Starmer’s leadership.

As mayor of the nation’s capital, Khan’s actions threaten monuments and symbolism in a national consciousness in ways other regional politicians simply can’t. They will and they have affected the image of the Labour party throughout the country, tainting it with a further image of hating the nation and its history. Starmer could, as party leader, attempt to reel in Khan, but as a man famous for indecision, it seems obvious he won’t. And even then, the damage Khan has wrought is already burnt into the public mind.

Here’s the problem undergirding it all: Many Labour politicians, rather than accept what the people of Britain believe, would rather engage in a student-style debate over social theory.

As Baroness Chakrabarti recently put it, Labour should be trying to “change the narrative” on patriotism. It’s a condescending statement, implying the average voter loves their country for the wrong reasons. But it’s indicative of a deeper truth about the Labour party: It simply cannot accept it has to be representative of what voters want, because the majority of its beliefs are fundamentally in opposition to how the average Briton outside London sees the world.

To paraphrase Orwell’s famous line, the Labour Party might be the only place where politicians hate their own nationality. They’re constantly trying to create new, unwanted ideas of patriotism, just to make it easier on themselves to pretend to be “patriotic.” But it’s clearly a farce.

The numbers make it clear. The Labour Party has been behind in the polls by around 13 points— and that deficit expands to 25 points when it comes to working-class voters. Here’s why. According to YouGov, 88 per cent of Conservative voters describe themselves as patriotic. This number was 61 per cent of the general population, a large voting base Starmer aims to regain from the Tories. It’s exactly why he’ll fail.

The Labour strategist Philip Gould once said after Labour’s defeat during the 1992 election that “Labour lost because it was still the party of the winter of discontent”. For the lost Labour seats of the Red Wall, Labour is simply still the party of Britain-bashing and university Marxists—Starmer can’t change that, no matter how hard he tries.

Mattie Heaven: Iran’s government is a terrorist regime. British Ministers must face this truth – and act on it.

15 Feb

Mattie Heaven is a policy and advocacy advisor to the International Organisation to Preserve Human Rights. She was Parliamentary Candidate for Coventry South in the 2019 general election.

Having lived in the UK most of my life, I’ve been faced with the challenge of explaining why human rights violations in Iran should greatly concern our government and my fellow citizens. The short answer is that the extremism of the Iranian regime is not limited to Iran itself – but is exported across the globe.

Aside from the brutal violation of human rights inside of the country, the Islamic Republic of Iran has openly funded terrorist organisations across the Middle East, using proxy wars to gain further control of the region, and uses diplomatic channels to carry out terrorist operations against both Iranians living abroad and the international community, as a means of eliminating any opposing viewpoint that they may consider a threat.

For example, consider the recent case of the senior Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi. According to reports released by German police and an indictment in a Belgian court, Assadi, the third secretary of the Iranian Embassy in Austria, attempted to organise an atrocity on European soil.

He smuggled half-a-kilo of explosives onto the continent, with the intention of bombing a rally in France organised by the exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran.  Had it gone off, the victims could have included four Conservative MPs – David Amess, Bob Blackman, Matthew Offord and Theresa Villiers, plus a Labour one, Roger Godsiff.

Clearly, the plan was not that of an individual carrying out an unauthorised act of terror, but a plot approved by the heads of the Iranian regime and organised through diplomatic channels.

If you want another recent example, mull the example of Mohammad Naserzadeh, a staff member of the Iranian Consulate in Istanbul, who was recently arrested by the Turkish authorities for his alleged involvement in the murder of Masoud Molavi Vardanjani, a vocal critic of the Iranian regime.

The extremist actions of the Iranian diplomats can be understood better when we ponder the ideology of the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, the most powerful official in the Islamic Republic, who has compared Israel to a “cancerous tumour, that must be wiped off the map”.

This is the state-sponsored radical and extremist ideology which led to the Buenos Aires bombing in July 1994 in Argentina. This terrorist attack orchestrated by the Islamic Republic of Iran resulted in the death of 85 innocent people, and injured hundreds.

It is clear that the Iranian regime, over the last 40 years, has consistently shown an unwillingness to reform, or even attempt to improve the quality of life of its citizens, its troubling human rights record and its relationship with the western world. So maintaining the current diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran would be a devastating mistake – potentially with fatal consequences.

The regime has resisted reform, since it is fundamentally an undemocratic, and has frequently persecuted and arrested not only its critics, but also those such as the diverse religious and ethnic groups throughout Iran who choose to live a life other than the one officially prescribed its fundamentalist ideology,

Moreover, the issue of women and children’s rights in the country are of serious concern.  Women, half of Iran’s population, are under consistent oppression, with the underage marriage of girls being encouraged by the Mullahs. Not to mention the sobering fact that more child offenders are executed in Iran than in any other country in the world.

Unfortunately, during recent decades, the EU has mostly ignored the suffering of the Iranian people in the interest of economic gain, and has thus largely turned a blind eye to the inhumane actions of the Iranian authorities. This short-sighted view has not only led to the abandonment of human rights principles that the EU is based on, but also has worked against Europe’s own longer-term potential gains, by fuelling and empowering Iran’s ruling regime, and the global threat that it poses.

A Global Britain, as outlined by Dominic Raab, must means establishing our own standards here in the UK, and reinforcing sanctions to hold those who commit serious abuses of human rights to account, as part of UK’s commitment to democracy, freedom, and the rules-based international system,

Systems based on dictatorship will not last forever, and the people of those countries will always remember governments that stood by their side. A free Iran with a truly democratic system will no doubt provide the UK with much more profitable and long-term investment opportunities than the current regime can offer – unleashing the true potential of its citizens, and becoming a productive member of the international community.

Furthermore, since Iran is among the world’s largest sponsors of terrorism, its resources – some 84 million people, with vast resources of gold, oil and gas – are currently being employed in order to facilitate the regime’s terrorist ideology. Which in turn can lead to the mobilisation of hundreds of millions of potentially dangerous people around the world, with an extremist agenda to destroy western civilisation, or take it hostage.

Finally, a note on the freedom of press – following Iran’s recent execution of the prominent journalist, Rouhollah Zam, during December last year, and the ongoing threats against Iranian journalists outside of Iran. A free press in a democratic system is considered the ‘fourth pillar’ that can prevent collusion amongst the other pillars of State.

So if the regime in Iran is pressured to enforce human rights standards, we can be sure that any dangerous action in Iran that could jeopardize world peace and security would then be thwarted by the free flow of information within Iran itself.  There then would be reasonable hope for meaningful dialogue towards stable economic and diplomatic relations.

Were Iran’s human rights to be put at the forefront of the Government’s foreign policy, those who control the Iranian regime would soon come to realise that its inhumane actions and spread of terror across the world has severe consequences for it – thus providing the only incentive that can bring about legitimate change within the country.

Crispin Blunt and Sue Pascoe: It’s time to correct the stoking of alarm and spreading of misinformation about trans people

16 Jul

Crispin Blunt is Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global LGBT and Rights, and is MP for Reigate. Sue Pascoe is Acting Area Chairman of the Conservative Women’s Organisation in North and East Yorkshire.

As the UK strives for a new global place in the world, it’s important that we place equal weight on our personal freedoms, the prosperity of our communities, and equality and equity of opportunity for our people as we level up our country.

We must not leave any section of our society behind because of misunderstandings, prejudice or fear.  It is the first duty of government to foster an environment where this exists for everyone. We hope as a Party, a Government and members of society that we can each hold out a helping hand to all those who still struggle, who still face the difficulties of daily life, who still cannot be their authentic selves.

Our freedom and our basic humanity are two of the key components of what defines us as individuals. When we cannot be our authentic selves, our freedom and our humanity is taken away from us.

During recent months, we had begun to despair with some sections of the media and its relentless stoking of alarm and spreading of misinformation about trans people. There appear to have been orchestrated campaigns to try and roll back the hard-won rights of not only trans adults but of vulnerable trans young people as well.

We would like to bust some myths.

  • Women and trans people have the same need to live in safety from abuse, sexualharassment and physical violence. Trans women and trans young people are not aninherent threat to women. Sadly, there are a small number of abusive people in thisworld of all genders and measures and efforts should focus on stopping their actions.
  • We are out of step with other countries around the world in adopting rights fortransgender people – from such countries as Pakistan, Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia to many of the states in the US to countries closer to home like Portugal, Belgium and Ireland. United Nations Free and Equal recommends that a range of measures are introduced by states to support transgender people, from legally recognising the gender identity of trans people in official documents through a simple administrative process in line with their lived identity to gender-affirming healthcare services free from stigma and discrimination.
  • The World Health Organisation made clear in 2019 that being transgender is not amental illness, and should not be treated as such.
  • Considerable scientific evidence has emerged demonstrating a durable biological element underlying gender identity.
  • Language respecting the sex in which trans women and trans men live has beencommon decency in Britain since the 1970s, and has been clearly upheld in UK law since 2004.It is never necessary to humiliate or degrade trans people in order to discuss sex and gender or to address health needs or social inequalities.
  • The Equality Act brought in the concept that gender reassignment was a ‘personal process’ rather than a ‘medical one’. Trans people have been accessing single-sex service and facilities in line with their lived identity for many decades,  and with proportionate protection from discrimination since 2010. Misinformation is driving current fear to try and change this. It will remain permitted under the Equality Act to exclude trans women from single sex facilities, such as a woman’s refuge, on a case by case basis, but it would be anathema to British values to attempt to blanket-ban trans people from toilets and shop changing cubicles.
  • Trans people already access services matching their gender under the law, except inrestricted individual circumstances, with all the protections that have been campaigned for to balance rights. This is why we say so much of the campaigning ismisinformed.
  • All that’s been asked for now for GRA reform is a minor change in administrative arrangements for birth certificates that only impacts the holder of the certificate onmarriage, death, getting a job or a mortgage. Can you remember when you last used your birth certificate or even where it is? GRA reform has never had anything to do with toilets or changing room cubicles.
  • Currently, less than 0.03 per cent of under 18s in the UK are referred to gender identity development services, of which only a tiny number may eventually go on to receive puberty-delaying medication for two or three years while under 16.
  • Changes to curtail trans young people’s healthcare could have serious unintended detrimental consequences on wider children’s health services. We have clinical safeguards such as the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) to ensure best evidence-based protocols. ​We must be guided by evidence and clinical experts and not lobby groups to make policy decisions.
  • Only 5,000 trans people currently have a GRC, fewer than 100,000 have changed their driving licence or passport. The numbers remain small and any proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act would only apply to people living permanently in theirgender with all their other ID such as passports or driving licences already changed.

We really wonder if the good people of our great nation realise they are being manipulated through fear and false information to roll-back the basic dignity, privacy and safety of trans people who are just trying to live ordinary lives.

Yes, the bodies and life experiences of trans people will never be identical to those of people who are not trans. But that is not good reason to segregate and demonise them. It is also the same with trans young people. Parents of young people who are struggling with their gender simply want their children to have unconditional love and support – to explore their identity and time to enjoy their childhood with assistance from trusted multi-disciplinary professionals in the field free from political interference. That is the right and humane way forward.

In recent weeks, voices have spoken up from global businesses in the City, global media and entertainment businesses, members from across the Commons and the upper chamber; voices from across all sections of society, from within the LGBT community and its close allies, from faith leaders and parents of trans children but, most of all, from trans people with a simple message.

With one voice, asking for trans inclusion and equality, trans people say: we are just like you, human beings who just wish to go about our lives free from hate and persecution. Be kind, let us love and be loved. Let us be our authentic selves. We are not an ideology to be fought over by others.

The bottom line is most people in the UK do not want to reduce trans people’s inclusion in services or undermine their identities. Polling consistently shows the majority of women support trans women’s inclusion in services and reform of the GRA (see the British Social Attitudes Survey and recent YouGov polling).

Ipsos MORI reported this month that 70 per cent of Britons believe that transgender people face discrimination, with a quarter (26 per cent) saying they face a great deal. We have ended up entangling ourselves in unnecessary scaremongering against trans people at a time when most people want us focused on tackling Covid-19, rebuilding our economy and bringing our society together.

Equality and inclusivity for all is an essential bedrock of our free society. We wish to work towards a society where we treat each other with respect, dignity, compassion, tolerance and understanding. We wish to see policy measures which bring social cohesion, and focus on our common welfare, as we work together to emerge from these troubling times.