Matt Hancock: Putin’s war is reminding us of a lasting truth – that our system and values are better than his

25 May

Matt Hancock is a former Secretary of State for Health, and is MP for West Suffolk.

The battles we see across Eastern Ukraine, for Mariupol, Donetsk, Severodonetsk and countless towns and villages, is not just a fight to protect European security against brutal, criminal, aggression. Of course, it is that – and, alone, that need to bring justice for the horrific crimes committed is enough to justify the war.

It is not even just a fight for the immutability of international borders, and the protection of all nations from strong offensive neighbours, vital as that is. It is not even just about protecting the food supplies to the poorest countries on earth, although that alone is an ethical imperative.

The battle for Ukraine is a fight for enlightenment values, of the liberty of people and the freedom of self-determination of nation states.

The brave soldiers fighting these battles for Ukraine are winning a fight for us all. In doing so, it is critical we support Ukraine in a fight to win. It is, as the inspirational Volodymyr Zelensky has said, for Ukraine and Ukraine alone to determine her future. That is what self-determination is all about.

The recent drive, apparently coordinated between Paris and Berlin, to push Ukraine for a compromise settlement must be resisted, as it would incentivise aggression, on the grounds that at least you might win some ground. Would you offer a wolf the sacrifice of just one limb?

On the contrary, Russia’s attack has so spectacularly failed in its bid to split NATO and undermine the West, and we must ensure that Ukraine alone decides her future. Giving up any ground now may appear to help in the short term, but it will undoubtedly cause far-reaching problems down the line.

If we fail to support Ukraine to win back her land, what’s stopping China, or any other dictatorship for that matter, doing exactly what Russia has done to Ukraine? Any such action would inevitably act as a green light – offering little to no deterrent.

While the war in Ukraine still rages on, we have seen some progress this week. Amid the bitter fighting, one border post was recaptured, painted in the now familiar yellow and blue that we see on flagpoles everywhere. In a highly symbolic manoeuvre, the Ukrainian army has pushed back the invaders to their border. Who are we to tell the Ukrainian people that some of them would have to live under the Russian yolk, with the dictatorial tyranny this brings?

For this war is bigger than being about security, or justice. It’s about our way of life.

Here, I see a glimmer of hope. For we can now see, with the clarity that comes from a shocking sight, that the drift to dictatorship in Russia and China has awful consequences.  Throughout my political life, support for democracy has waned, and those who see the cacophony of debate as a weakness have espoused their “strong man” theory of government.

I have long worried about the increasing numbers of people who have seemingly admired one party systems, and seen the long term horizons and lack of debate as a good thing, or at least, a price worth paying for prosperity and strength. In the wake of the economic crash, the expenses scandal, and growing social media noise over the past decade or so, it’s been harder to make the argument for the principles embedded in the enlightenment of the promotion of individual liberty and democratic institutions as the cornerstone of a good society.

If, like me, you think that everyone has a contribution to make, and that the role of society is to help everyone reach that potential, then the counterexample that the rights of the individual should be subordinate to the needs of the state seemed to be gaining ground. Open, liberal democracies support innovation and protect people from the overweening state.

Instead, over the past decade, the Russian invasion of Crimea, and President Xi’s removal of term limits should have told us clearly where this move away from supporting democracy would lead. But the case for democracy, especially among younger voters, has increasingly fell on deaf ears.

But democracy isn’t only morally superior but practically superior too. Dictatorship is not only bad but rubbish. Dictators and dictatorships suffocate innovation. By their very nature, they restrict freedom and don’t allow people to get on with whatever they choose to do without getting consent from any given dictatorial regime.

In a dictatorship, people tell you what they think you want to hear. I know from experience that, in liberal democracies like ours, plenty of people tell you what you don’t want to hear. It is essential we in the West don’t take this for granted and win again the case for democracy.

Now those of us who cherish democracy, with all of its noise and flaws, have two stark and real examples. China’s continued attempt at a Zero Covid policy is bringing misery.  Its refusal to use vaccines that work, like the Oxford vaccine, because they aren’t Chinese, is plunging their economy into freewill and driving up prices and harming prosperity everywhere. And just look at the shocking treatment by the Chinese dictatorship revealed by the Uyghur Police Files story this week.

China’s abuses of minorities and Russia’s horrific war are showing dictatorship up for what it is. Talking to the wonderful Ukrainian family I’m hosting in my home in West Suffolk makes me feel this particularly acutely.

No longer can democracy be seen as a soft alternative to bold and decisive regimes.  So yes, we must help Ukraine win its war, for the justice for people in Ukraine, and we must support them to win without concession to bolster security everywhere.

But even more than that, we must win once again the case for freedom, for the moral force of the democratic way of life, and win over another generation that this, in the words of Churchill, is the worst system, except all the others that have been tried. That, once more, is proving itself a timeless truth. That is what our brothers and sisters in Ukraine are fighting for – and we must be with them to the end.

Bob Posner: Let’s be clear. “Family voting” is not allowed. The secret ballot is protected by law.

29 Mar

Bob Posner is the Chief Executive of the Electoral Commission

As we approach the polls taking place across the UK on May 5th, people will have a number of personal choices to make, for instance, whether to vote, to do so by post, or in person at a polling station, and who to vote for.

But some aspects of voting are not subject to individual preference: they are determined by the law.

The secrecy of the ballot is one of those. This means that every voter has the legal right to vote in private. This law is in place to ensure that no one is pressured into casting a vote in a particular way, or to have their ballot interfered with. Enshrined now in the Representation of the People Act 1983, it is an important element of our democracy.

Concerns have been raised on this site, by Cllr Peter Golds of Tower Hamlets Council, about family members entering into the same polling booth, sometimes termed “family voting”. Some reports have suggested there is a lack of clarity about this issue. In fact, it could not be clearer: your vote is yours alone.

Voters have the clear right to cast their ballot in private. Attempting to influence how another person votes, or stealing someone else’s vote, is breaking the law.

The Electoral Commission provides guidance to electoral administrators and polling station staff, which makes it clear that voters should be supported to vote in secret and free from influence.

People voting in polling stations are not permitted to be accompanied by another person, other than in cases of specific need, such as for voters with a disability or sight loss. Children are also allowed into the booth with their parents, but should not be allowed to mark the ballot paper.

Anyone with any concern about voter interference or fraud at a polling station should raise it with staff immediately.

While the UK has very low levels of proven electoral fraud, public opinion research confirms it is an issue that concerns voters. Voter fraud risks undermining the strong tradition of free and fair elections in this country.

In the run-up to this year’s elections, the Commission is running a public awareness campaign in partnership with Crimestoppers, which highlights what constitutes electoral fraud and aims to empower people to protect their vote and encourages people to report concerns.

Whilst it is for the police to investigate allegations of electoral fraud, the Commission works closely in support of the police, prosecuting authorities and local authorities to prevent, detect, and take action.

Many readers will be aware that Tower Hamlets is an area that has heightened interest and concern around fraud in recent years. We are in regular contact with the local authority electoral services team, and polling stations staff are being briefed on the need for vigilance, in line with our guidance. Extra signage and staffing measures will also be in place at the polls to make clear that voters must enter polling booths alone. These are just some of the practical and tangible steps being taken to safeguard the integrity of the May elections.

Thanks to the enshrined legal rights of voters, and the efforts of the wider electoral community to preserve the security of polls, the UK has a long tradition of maintaining a trustworthy electoral system, where abuses are the exception.

So, on 5 May voters should feel confident in the integrity of the system and remember that their vote is theirs alone.

To vote in the elections on 5 May 2022, eligible voters in England, Northern Ireland and Wales must be registered by midnight on 14 April, and by midnight on 18 April in Scotland. Register to vote here.

Peter Franklin: The war – and the end of the McWorld of consumer peace

14 Mar

Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.

McDonald’s is not loving it. In response to the invasion of Ukraine, the fast food chain is closing in Russia.

Though supposedly temporary, these closures may prove permanent. The Kremlin has already threatened to confiscate the assets of western companies that leave the country. This ends a 32 year story of expansion. The first Russian McDonald’s opened in Moscow on the 31st January 1990. The business not only survived the USSR’s collapse, but thrived, opening hundreds of further branches.

It’s hard to think of more iconic examples of globalisation. For some commentators, swept up in the optimism of the 1990s, the Golden Arches didn’t just stand for capitalism’s triumph but for a new age of peace.

In 1996, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman observed that “no two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other.” He expanded this into what he semi-seriously called the “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention” — which has been interpreted as a prediction that the McNations of the world would never engage one another in armed conflicts.

That’s not what Friedman actually predicted, but the Golden Arches Theory remains an attractive idea. What if globalisation really does make war too expensive? Yes, we might see a handful of corporations conquering the world. But brands are surely better than bombs.

Unfortunately, there have been several examples of wars between McNations. For instance, the 1999 Kargil war between India and Pakistan; or the 2006 conflict between Israel and Lebanon.

And now Russia’s and Ukraine. The Kremlin may insist on calling it a “special operation”, but this is a war of conquest. Though Russia has (or had) 847 branches of McDonald’s and Ukraine 108, one McNation is attempting to extinguish another’s sovereignty, slaughtering thousands to do so. In the worst possible way, Vladimir Putin has refuted the Golden Arches Theory.

In his 2005 book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, Friedman unveiled a more advanced version of his big idea. In place of McDonald’s he substituted the IT company, Dell. The “Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention” focuses on the globalisation of complex supply chains – like the links involved in the manufacture, marketing and distribution of a computer.

He was right to switch his focus. Supply chains are more essential to the globalised economy than the expansion of consumer brands. Thanks to a global division of labour, each nation can specialise in what it does best, while relying on other countries for what they do best. Even the downside — loss of self-reliance — can be spun positively: a reason to regard other nations as indispensable partners, not potential enemies.

Except one can’t help but notice that Europe is at war again. And that’s not for lack of supply chains linking Russia, Ukraine and the West. Over the last two decades, the EU — led by Germany — has deliberately increased its reliance on Russian energy supplies. Meanwhile, Russia has become dependent on western finance and technology in a way the USSR never was. The Soviet elites had dachas on the Black Sea coast. Their successors have mansions in Holland Park.

Pedants will point out that the actual war has been between Russia and Ukraine, with no direct conflict between Russia and the West. Arguably, the current situation even vindicates the Dell Theory.

But it is not economics that is keeping the nuclear-armed powers apart, but the fear of military escalation. Concerns over shared commercial interests have hardly been decisive. They didn’t stop Putin from ordering the invasion, nor the West from responding with a devastating barrage of sanctions. Though we continue to pay for Russian oil and gas, we’re using other trade weapons to deliberately cripple the Russian economy. A process of traumatic de-globalisation — in which western investments are treated as collateral damage — is now underway.

Indeed, commercial relationships are being severed not despite but because of their importance. To retain any validity, the Dell Theory must be restated in much darker terms: “in place of military conflict, two countries that share a global supply chain may use it to wage economic war, degrading and destroying the supply chain in the process.”

So if globalisation can’t guarantee good relations, is there anything — apart from potential nuclear annihilation — that can?

Well, there’s always democracy. In its most simplistic form, democratic peace theory states that democracies don’t go to war against one another. But democracy is hard to define. If it merely means the holding of elections or multi-party politics, then there are examples of war between democratic nations.

However, there’s more to democracy than voting. Other qualifications include the rule of law, respect for human rights and a flourishing civil society. Stability is an overarching requirement — democracy is not something that one can fit in between military coups.

So, do mature democracies go to war against one another? Since the Second World War, the answer is ‘very rarely’ — and, even then, all the examples are on the margins of any reasonable definition of maturity. Certainly, there hasn’t been a single case anywhere in Europe, North America or the Far East.

So while we can’t rely on globalisation to keep the peace, we can rely on freedom. Or (putting it another way) free trade between democracies is a good idea, but we need to treat authoritarian regimes with extreme caution. Too often we have purchased short-term economic efficiency at the expense of long-term security.

That must change, and not just with respect to Russia. As well as the World Trade Organisation, we need a Free World Trade Organisation: a democratic alliance to achieve energy independence and to re-establish control over strategically-important supply chains.

I’m not suggesting a programme of total democratic isolationism. In an imperfect world, it is sometimes necessary to shake the dictator’s hand. But that’s all the more reason get his boot off our throats.

Shanker Singham: A four-point plan for (re)building the global network of liberty

14 Mar

Shanker Singham is CEO of Competere. He is a former adviser to Liam Fox when he was Secretary of State for International Trade, and to the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

It is understandable that policymakers are responding to the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in tactical ways. However, the forces that gave rise to these events have been brewing for some time, and we urgently need a strategy to correct the mistakes we have made in ignoring these forces in the past.

That strategy should, first of all, recognise what we have missed. The fascistic cronyism that prevails in authoritarian states like Russia, China, and Iran has not been arrived at random.

Cronyism is the method by which dictators like Vladimir Putin ensure that they have the resources to act in nationalist ways that defy economic rationality. It is built on government control of the means of production and distortion of markets, so that the inefficiency which is inevitable from such state-owned and state-influenced enterprises is not subject to the discipline of ordinary market forces.

The ill-gotten gains that arise from such distortions can then be deployed by the likes of Putin in ways that damage the fabric of liberal democracies themselves.

It is a mistake to think that this current situation arises merely from the malign proclivities of the Russian president. Forces, economic and cultural, are applied to countries, and these countries react in various ways, from time to time producing leaders that express the collision of these forces.

In order to achieve the goal of more of the world’s people living under a liberal democratic system, we need to take the following immediate steps:

All institutions of government starting with the Cabinet should be put on a war footing

We must recognise this salvo (Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) as one of a series of economic (as well as hot) wars between countries in the ‘network of liberty’ (NOL) and the new autocrats on the other side of an emerging global divide, and that we must take immediate steps in order to secure a strategic response which we will have to have the patience to deliver.

This will require a robust economy at home and stronger ties with NOL countries. The regulatory reform agenda in the UK needs to be accelerated. Only a robust economy at home will enable the UK to play the global role that is required of it at this time.

We also need stronger economic ties to NOL countries through a concentric set of circles starting with stronger economic and security partnerships with the most trusted core (AUKUS, potentially including Japan), then moving beyond that through CPTPP and the Atlantic Charter with the US. This should then extend to the UK-EU FTA which should be upgraded from a relatively modest agreement to a fully comprehensive agreement across services, as well as goods, that is truly best-in-class.

There is also a group of countries presently outside of this grouping, such as the GCC, Korea, India, and Brazil, where we need to reinforce pro-market policies and encourage a reduction of distortions. Some EU members fall into this category also.

In the WTO, and even in regional and bilateral trade agreements, we have been unserious about disciplines on market distorting activities, including the impact of SOEs and state-controlled enterprises on the global economy, as well as those private firms that benefit from distortion. This needs to change immediately.

Full disciplines mean a mechanism to tarifficate proven anti-competitive market distortions. Market distortions have led to ill-gotten gains, which have fed the dictators and autocrats and can be used to pursue hot wars as well as cyber-attacks, finance terrorism, and other illicit activities. Many of these nefarious activities are linked and the money to support them is fungible.

We need to starve SOEs and regimes that engage in market distortions from obtaining Western sources of funding in London, NY, Tokyo and other centres. Where distortions are proven, we must limit access to finance for the firms that benefit from them. Right now, those same firms use those distortions as proof that investors should invest in them. We are currently allowing investors to underwrite the fix.

Finally, our sanctions regime must in egregious cases enable network of liberty countries operating in tandem to ban the exports of products wherever produced using our technology.

Integrate our aid and development more firmly into our trade and international economic policy above

We need to fast-track the prosperity agenda in the FCDO recognising the lifting the world’s poor out of poverty will protect all of us from dangerous ideologies.

Our aid should not be agnostic about whether countries cleave to liberal democratic principles and therefore should be conditional on achievement of key objectives which should be benchmarked, in a similar way that the Millennium Challenge Account is in the US – a Platinum Challenge Account.

Ministers should prioritise the Commonwealth for this development funding to bind them more tightly into the Commonwealth network, and enable them to leverage its network effects.

We should drive British Investment International at pace, including through the development of Special Economic Zones in Africa, Latin America, and Asia working with partners to secure objectives in 1 above, as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road.

Step up a massive campaign domestically and globally explaining classical liberal democratic principles

We need to be clear, at home and overseas, why our system us better for people than living in autocratic, cronyist and heavily distorted societies. Domestically because this fight is never over – the UK almost elected an avowed hard core Marxist to be its Prime Minister in 2019.

Globally because many people in poorer countries equate liberal democracies with inequality and injustice, and cleave to autocratic leaders and their false promises.

Step up our energy production domestically and in other classical liberal democracies

We will need to pursue the full range of energy production options as we transition to more climate-friendly fuels, but the urgency is on weaning ourselves off fuel produced in autocratically controlled countries. There is no point in limiting the access to finance for those foreign firms that benefit from distortion if we simply pay them vast amounts for their energy.

Both the US and UK must ramp up energy production and eliminate the barriers to technologically-neutral energy production. This is critical to ensure that LNG and other sources of energy can be exported to the EU to make it less energy dependent on Russia.

In addition, the US and UK should work with the US and Japan on key nuclear technology. All technologies should be promoted in a technologically neutral fashion; and on AI, space, and quantum computing, including driving the global standard setting debate.

The new global divide is not a rigid “iron curtain”. But that countries on the other side can be pressurized to change, provided we apply both carrots and sticks.

Reforms in those countries should be encouraged by ensuring we have very focussed, narrowly -auged tools to deal with elements of cronyism and distortion. These should be centred on making them pay for a market distortion in their own market that gives them a market advantage at home or abroad, and move away from penalties that cannot be directly correlated to the scale of their distortions.

We must be reasonable, and they should believe that their firms can succeed on the competitive merits and not on distortion. This is the way in which we will be able to give oxygen to the reform-minded people in those countries who presently exist as a tiny, and silent, minority.

Robin Millar: History teaches us that appeasing aggression only fuels more aggression. It’s a lesson we must apply to Ukraine.

26 Jan

Robin Millar is the MP for Aberconwy.

Earlier this month Russian troops were deployed to suppress a civilian uprising and to protect Russian nationals, economic and military assets. Russian supplied weapons were used by the Russian-trained security services who were ordered to “shoot to kill” protesters who had revolted against the Russian-backed dictator of their country.

This situation played out in Kazhakstan, a former Soviet republic – but it serves as a reminder that Russia is determined to maintain its influence throughout the former Soviet Union. It also serves as a stark warning of the seriousness of the situation on Ukraine’s border and the small but real prospect of Russian invasion.

There are clear incentives for western involvement to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

First, the West has a moral obligation to take an interest and to act. Ukraine is a Western-looking country with aspirations to join NATO, a defensive alliance. Russia’s response to such aspirations held by other former Soviet republics has been to try and install a puppet regime – historically with a scant regard for democracy or human rights. Further afield, Russia’s actions in Syria under Assad and Belarus under Lukashenko must raise concerns for the fate that awaits the people of Ukraine, should their country fall.

Second, practically, a Russian invasion would drive up our cost of living, energy prices, inflation and threaten our post pandemic economic recovery. While the UK imports minimal quantities of Russian gas – depending instead on imports of LPG imports from the Middle East and of gas through pipelines from Norway – we are as exposed as any other economy to wholesale gas price increases. Should Russia restrict, by which I really mean weaponise, gas supplies in the event of conflict, prices would be pushed even higher than present record levels.

Third, unchecked, an invasion would have huge geopolitical implications for Europe and the West. Plenty of other states around the world will be watching to see if Western words are followed by action. China – and Taiwan – will have noted the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, led by an increasingly introvert US.

History teaches us that appeasing aggression only fuels more aggression. Even after 30 years, Russia has never fully accepted the independence of these former Soviet republics and has yearned to bring them back within its sphere of influence. Should Ukraine fall, Russia’s focus will shift to the Baltic States – each with their own significant Russian minorities.

However, the UK, along with our NATO allies, has been deterring them by overtly defending NATO member states.

Military deployments have included RAF Typhoon fighter jets to Lithuania in support of Baltic Air Policing in June 2021 – resulting in multiple interceptions of Russian military aircraft. In May last year an RAF-led military Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) was sent to the Baltic region as a component of Operation Cabrit – the British operational deployment to Estonia where UK troops are leading a multinational battlegroup.

This battle group forms part of the NATO-enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) mission, designed to improve Euro-Atlantic security, reassure NATO allies and deter NATO adversaries. Additional NATO reinforcements to the Baltic Sea include Denmark deploying a frigate and F-16 fighter jets, and the US reportedly deploying additional warships and aircraft to the region, along with thousands of additional troops.

As NATO members, the Baltic States fall under the umbrella of NATO’s collective defence – the unique and enduring principle that binds all NATO members together: an attack, be it armed, cyber or CBRN, against one member is an attack against them all. Russian aggression against the Baltic States is therefore a scenario that must be deterred. NATO can provide this deterrence.

However, NATO must stand united – which is easier said than done.

Last week the US President cast doubt on that unity, mutual commitment and determination. He undermined weeks of diplomacy and careful positioning when he stated: “what you’re going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades and it depends on what it does… It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion, and then we end up having to fight about what to do and not do etc”. He continued to say, “there are differences in NATO as to what countries are willing to do, depending on what happens.”

Closer to home, Germany, a key alliance member, is one of the world’s major arms manufactures and exporters and supplies weapons to nations such as Egypt, Israel and Pakistan. However, it is actively blocking the transfer to Ukraine from other alliance members urgently needed weapons including long range artillery shells and their delivery systems.

And this is exactly why the role of the UK is vital.

Shortly after being elected as the Member of Parliament for Aberconwy in 2019 I was privileged to be selected to participate in the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be briefed on our military preparedness in Eastern Europe and on the threat that Russia represents on several fronts. I am also grateful to have observed, first-hand, the professionalism and dedication of our Armed Forces personnel, along with the high standard of training that they receive.

The UK is showing leadership in supporting Ukraine and in deterring Russian aggression. In August last year Jeremy Quin, the Defence Minister, told Parliament that “since 2015, the UK has trained over 21,000 Ukrainian military personnel in medical skills, logistics, counter improvised explosive devices, leadership and infantry tactics as part of Operation Orbital.”

More recently, recognising that a Russian invasion would be led by armoured columns crossing the border, the UK has provided targeted support to the Ukrainian military by airlifting 2,000 Next Generation Light Anti-Tank (NLAW) missiles. Given the scale of Russian armour this contribution is hugely significant in deterring Russian aggression, although it will not have gone unnoticed that public flight data shows the transport flights of this vital cargo are deviating around German airspace.

The price of this support is indeed high, but the cost of failure will be undoubtedly worse.

Our military support of Ukraine’s freedom is a symbol of the UK as a force for good in the world – every bit as much as our leadership in support for COVAX, the programme to provide Covid-19 vaccines to developing nations. As I write, “God Save the Queen” is trending on social media in Ukraine.

Every effort must be made to secure a diplomatic solution. But we must not repeat the mistake of Chamberlain, to confuse peace with an absence of conflict, until it is too late. Russia must know that any invasion of Ukraine will be resisted, militarily if necessary, by a united and determined NATO.

Fabiano Farias: I’m a long-term UK resident. So why shouldn’t I have a vote?

22 Sep

Fabiano Farias is a Brazilian national, and has worked in cleaning, delivery, and private transport.

In April this year, a Brazilian friend living in Scotland told me they had just registered to vote for the upcoming elections. Excited, I rushed online to register for the London Mayoral elections only to discover I didn’t have the right.

During the 14 years I have lived in the UK, I have worked in a variety of jobs: cleaner, waiter, Uber driver, Amazon delivery, and Deliveroo, Uber Eats, and Stuart rider. I have always followed politics closely: hours driving gives you plenty of time to pay attention to the news. I also believe that as a resident, it’s my responsibility to know what the key issues are, new policies I should follow, and what I can do to support my community. This is key for me to be a full part of the place I choose to call home.

I have no intention of returning to Brazil. My life, my family members, my partner, and my closest friends are in the UK. At every opportunity, I like to travel within the UK, visiting museums, castles, and learning about the history.

There is, however, one thing I have not been able to do yet, and that is vote in elections. I do look forward to saving and applying to become a naturalised British citizen in the future. This, however, is a complex, long, and expensive process. There are more local elections happening next year, and I would like to have a say now.

As a courier, I have been affected by the implementation of the Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs). Delivery and taxi drivers working to tight deadlines were not consulted about these, and yet are the ones most affected. Similarly, the congestion charge increase to £15 is another blow to those like us who are out on the streets day in day out. If that wasn’t enough, the extended Ultra Low Emission Zone affects those who have no option but to gain their livelihoods in private transport. Before the day starts, many of us are already £27 in debt.

Housing is another issue Londoners face. Prices keep going up unmatched by housebuilding.

I was excited by Shaun Bailey’s manifesto before the London Mayoral elections, and equally upset that I do not have the vote. As someone who works hard, I believe in the Conservative Party and its goal to reward those who put the time and effort into what they do.

I believe, as a long term resident who cares about London and the community where I live, I should have the right to vote in local elections where the impact of policies can often be so directly and visibly felt. I was happy to see that residents were given the right to vote in the Senedd and Holyrood elections and thought the rest of the UK would soon follow, especially now that the UK is out of the European Union.

Many other countries across the world also offer residents, and not just citizens, the right to vote in local elections. New Zealand goes as far as giving all residents the right to vote in national elections. I believe residence-based voting rights, at least in local elections, is an inevitable development considering places like London and the whole of the UK are so globalised.

As a Brazilian migrant in the UK, I often felt it was unfair that EU citizens had so many privileges over other migrants, including having the right to vote in local elections. With the Government’s promises of a future Global Britain, all residents, no matter where they were born, should be given a chance to have their say in their communities and how the public services they pay for through council tax are run. This is not necessarily about giving migrants the vote. It’s about giving residents, neighbours, workers, and service users, equal rights, as well as responsibilities.

I know the administration of elections in the UK is being reviewed with the Elections Bill and there are calls for all residents to have the right to vote in local elections. I hope these are adopted by the Government so people like me have the right to vote in local elections. It would certainly increase my sense of belonging in the UK. Integration is rightly encouraged by politicians. The right to vote would help develop that sense of active participation.

Often, it is assumed that migrants will not vote Conservative. It’s unwise to assume. Migrants are a diverse community with different realities and experiences. It’s only fair we are given the chance to make our different voices heard.

Richard Holden: Presence matters

3 Aug

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Quebec Tea Rooms, Quebec, Co. Durham

Every MP’s office has them – numbering from a few dozen to a couple of hundred: they are ‘the regulars.’ Mrs B is one of them. In the 20 months or so since I’ve been elected, she’s been in contact more than 20 times. However, despite her regular emails about a diverse range of issues, both local and national, we’ve never actually met – until now.

She is one of four local people who pop down to the Quebec Tearooms for a chat. The “QT” as the locals call it is a lovely café and gift shop in the middle of a terrace in one of the hamlets that dot the Wear Valley, the central rural band of villages that separate the town of Consett in the north of my constituency, from the smaller towns of Crook and Willington in the south. Today, the QT is the 23rd stop out of 60 or so on my two-week summer surgery constituency tour.

Interacting by email, letter, or even telephone and zoom feels impersonal and remote. Sitting with someone in the flesh is different. It takes the edge off, and those small elements that remind both constituent and MP that the other person is human. The last few days have re-enforced to me just how important those chats and conversations in person are.

Last week also saw Kwasi Kwarteng visit The Grey Horse pub and the Consett Ale Works brewery attached to it in Consett. For constituencies ‘out of the way’ like mine – a four and a half drive from Westminster on a clear run – these visits by Ministers really cut through. If you feel that for decades you’ve been ‘ignored’, and then having someone visit, talk to you, and listen, it really makes a difference. They also show that your MP can get a hearing at the top table in Westminster.

For 2019 intake MPs, being in Parliament itself has been a bizarre experience. Those chats with ministers in corridors, the Commons tearoom, or the voting lobby have been far fewer. The place has been a shadow of the parliaments that those elected in previous years have known. Without a doubt that has not helped the collegiate interaction which makes you feel part of a team with a common goal.

Much less commented on has been the fact that the coronavirus restrictions have also reduced the presence of staff in Parliament. I didn’t meet my office manager in person for four months after their appointment, and not being in the same place as your team means things take longer, and you don’t develop that almost sixth sense of understanding and interaction that oils the wheels of any office.

Moreover, the relationships built up between staff from different MPs offices – where they share tips, information, and knowledge – have also been curtailed. The ebb and flow of conversation does not happen via a relatively formalised setting on zoom as it does in the lunch que or while sharing a coffee or a pint.

The return of Parliament in September will remove much of this sub-optimal working. I hope that other workplaces follow suit too, because one thing is clear from Covid: presence matters. While experienced staff can usually work quite well from distance – fulfilling tasks that have been performed before and managing clear objectives and workloads – that’s often not the same for people starting out. Learning and development for young staff best takes place when they’re cheek-by-jowl with more senior members of the team.

With so many people likely to be changing jobs too – given that the pandemic has turbo-charged long-standing economic trends away from certain sectors – being in the ‘new job’, with all the pressures and differences that entails, presence will matter too. Parliament has finally given a clear signal of its direction of travel. Government and the civil service should do the same and expect business to follow.

If not, we’ll all be poorer, but the impact will be felt most by those who’ve already been impacted most by the Covid-19 restrictions – those just starting out. Rather than retreat to the comfort and convenience of video calls from spare bedrooms in nice houses, the senior managers from our civil services to our businesses need to give get back to the workplace. The next generation need to be able to learn as much as possible from the experience of others and that’s done best when they’re in the same room.

The Electoral Commission has a new chairman – but do we really need it?

28 Jun

Over the weekend, the nation was introduced to John Pullinger, the new chairman of the Electoral Commission (EC), in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph.

Two interesting things came out of the piece. First, Pullinger admitted that the EC had been wrong to pursue Darren Grimes over alleged offences in the Brexit referendum. Second, that the EC plans to have an “independent discussion” with the Scottish Parliament about another independence referendum. Pullinger framed this discussion as being something that “helps” Scotland with its “democracy”.

While Pullinger’s apology to Grimes was a start in improving the electoral watchdog, as was his promise the EC must “do better”, it still hasn’t quelled concerns over its future direction. For one, Grimes himself pointed out himself that no one from the watchdog had said sorry personally – and that “all of those unable to understand the law they’re there to protect are still employed by the taxpayer”.

Pullinger’s words on Scotland, too, will merely convince the Government that the EC will continue to meddle in areas outside its remit. The Prime Minister has said he would reject a request for an “irresponsible and reckless” second referendum – yet the EC’s “independent discussion” idea seems to challenge that.

The Government’s cynicism over the EC is already well known. Amanda Milling, co-chair of the Conservative Party, said last year that if the EC fails to change and “do the job it was set up to do then the only option would be to abolish it.” And a week ago, it was revealed that Boris Johnson plans to remove its power to prosecute lawbreaking, in what is surely a small step towards greater action against the EC.

Opponents of Johnson have suggested his dislike of the EC is to do with its investigation into how refurbishments of his Downing Street flat were paid for. In general, any time the Government talks about electoral reform – relating to the EC or otherwise – it is accused of having ulterior motives. The Labour Party, ever desperate for its next insult to hurl at the Conservatives, has said “It is not for any government to dictate the priorities of an independent watchdog”.

Yet, as I wrote in April this year, the EC has rarely given a good impression of its “independence” – and thus deserves the scrutiny it now receives. One paper found in 2018 that almost half of the EC board had “made public statements criticising the pro-Brexit campaign or backing calls for the result to be overturned”, and its needless pursuit of Grimes – Pullinger now admits “what happened to him should not have happened” – and other cases have been completely over the top, and perceived as ideologically motivated.

Perhaps one of the ways the EC can “do better” is by tackling some of the every day issues we are seeing in elections. The news has been filled with dreadful stories about the Batley and Spen by-election, in which Kim Leadbeater, the Labour candidate, was chased and heckled; campaigners have been “followed, verbally abused and physically assaulted by a group of young men”; fake Labour leaflets have been distributed; and there have even been arrests (one for possession of an offensive weapon). Are these matters not more pressing for a body concerned with helping democracy?

As former head of the UK Statistics Authority until 2019, Pullinger will no doubt bring an interesting skill set to his role – and he has even acknowledged why people might have felt the organisation has been impartial. But for many people, it is simply too late, given the chaotic history of this Blairite entity. The test – of whether we need this body – has failed, many will think. And so, even with the best of intentions, Pullinger’s words on the Scottish referendum will only push the EC further to the brink.

Maya Forstater: One’s sex can’t change. The story of my fight to ensure this view is judged “worthy of respect”.

14 Jun

Radical is a civil-rights campaign for truth and freedom on matters of sex and gender, committed to free expression and equal respect, founded by Rebecca Lowe and Victoria Hewson. This Radical piece is written by Maya Forstater, an independent researcher, writer and adviser.

Last week, I won a landmark Employment Tribunal case where my belief that sex is real, immutable and important was found to be “worthy of respect in a democratic society”.

The case concerned freedom of speech and belief, and how far employers can constrain these rights when it comes to talking about sex and gender.

The test of being “worthy of respect in a democratic society” is meant to be a low bar, ruling out only the extremist views of literal nazis and violent revolutionaries. The first tribunal found that my belief fell into this category. The appeal judge disagreed.

The judgment states clearly that no one has the right to harass others at work and, importantly, protects everyone from discrimination based on their belief or lack of belief. This means it protects people like me who think that the words “male” and “female” relate to sperm and eggs and the bodies built to deliver them. It also protects those who believe in innate-but-fluid gendered identities, and who prioritise  “gender expression” over anatomy.

The judgment sets a precedent that should encourage Liz Truss and Boris Johnson to stop the practice of Whitehall Departments and other public bodies bending the knee to the gender lobby by pledging their allegiance to Stonewall.

My story starts in 2018. While working for an international development think tank, I had begun tweeting and writing, in my own time, about sex and gender, during the government’s consultation on reform of the Gender Recognition Act.

Some staff at the headquarters in Washington, D.C. took exception and this set off an escalating process. The organisation panicked, my tweets were compiled, diversity and inclusion consultants were drafted in to assess them, and even though I was not found to have broken any rules or policies, the senior leadership conceded to the will of the offended that I should be cast out. Ultimately, I lost my job.

My belief that sex is real should be utterly unremarkable. This is what the law says, after all.

But it has taken me over two years and £120,000 in crowd-funded legal fees to get this far. I still need to return to the Employment Tribunal for it to decide whether I was discriminated against in practice.

Despite telling my employer that I would use any preferred pronouns that people wanted and would always act with usual professional politeness, I have been put through a two-year nightmare, had my career destroyed and been painted as an extremist “transphobe”  too dangerous to associate with.

Along the way, I have also been investigated by the Scout Association (where I was a Cub Scout Leader) after a bearded man I had never met reported my use of the pronoun “he” instead of “they” for that person  on Twitter. The Scout Association dragged me through a complaint process over 18 months. I was told to apologise to the man who had called me “transphobic”, a “TERF” and “scum”, and who had said that I would leave young people dead and was unfit to be a Scout leader.

Indeed, the Scout Association partially agreed. The fact that I had taken my employer to tribunal, and judgment of the first judge, were taken as evidence that I might not be fit to be a Scout Leader.

Another set of doors that were slammed in my face were legal. My employment tribunal case was turned away by two law firms (one that dropped it just a few days before I was due to launch the crowdfunding campaign). The Solicitors Regulation Authority responded to my complaint by saying that it did not breach its code “if a firm declined to act because the client’s views conflicted with its own principles and values, as long as these were not discriminatory”.

I have been turned down for jobs at other think tanks and universities, and all but erased from history in the sector where I worked. This has happened even as my inbox fills up with messages from former colleagues, professional networks and eminent professors saying that they agree with me but cannot say so publicly for fear for their own careers.

It is not that I have said anything extreme to warrant this, or that I have been a uniquely unlucky target.  The new organisation I have co-founded, Sex Matters, has heard from dozens of people, in a wide variety of sectors, who have been investigated and subject to workplace discipline for such crimes as liking tweets, defending J.K. Rowling or questioning workplace policies. Meanwhile, thousands  more people are afraid to speak up.

The Kafkaesque nightmare we find ourselves in reflects the capture of the levers of policy- and decision-making by a small but influential group of LGBT+ lobbying organisations.

This is institutionalised through the Stonewall Diversity Champions Scheme. It covers 25 per cent of the UK workforce  and includes  organisations ranging from the Government Legal Department, the Ministry of Justice and the Solicitors Regulation Authority to the BBC and Ofcom, as well as almost all universities, major private sector employers and voluntary organisations from Citizen’s Advice to Save the Children. Stonewall’s prescriptions are delivered by a churning cast of “account managers”: young men and women fresh out of university in shiny suits and directional haircuts assess the policies of major organisations, and tell them what to do and say when employees dissent.

Every day we receive emails from people within Stonewalled organisations who say they fear for their jobs.  They talk of the  “Stonewall Stasi”: internal “LGBTQI+ Allies” groups who are empowered to thought-police their colleagues. As part of the Stonewall scheme the groups undertake “reverse mentoring”, where a young cadre-member will re-educate senior management. They write policies on micro-aggressions and pronouns (which of course it would be a micro-aggression to question) and set up ever more intricate tripwires of language with which to set off new rounds of complaints.

Straight “allies” often outnumber homosexuals and transsexuals in these groups. Many of those who write to us and say they are afraid are gays and lesbians who have found themselves on the wrong side of Stonewall’s new sexless world.

My win is a step towards stopping this madness. It clarifies that there is legal  protection against discrimination and harassment for people who do not subscribe to the dogma that “trans women are women; trans men are men”, that “demisexual” is a sexual orientation, or that men can be lesbians. It protects those who refuse to call themselves “cis”, do not feel the need to put pronouns in their email signature or wear a rainbow lanyard.

It also provides protection for those who aren’t involved in political debates on sex and gender at all, but who know that sometimes sex matters. This includes elderly women on hospital wards, religious women asking for a female health-care professional and children in school who don’t want a gender-confused teenager of the opposite sex in their showers.

None of this justifies or requires hostility or harassment of people with a transgender identity. But we do not have to remake all of reality for them, and nor should complaints processes be used to harass, bully and victimise others.

No one else should have to go through the nightmare I and my family have been put through. The government should withdraw all government departments from the Stonewall Scheme, and produce simple, straightforward guidance on single-sex services, and on freedom of belief as provided for by law.