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Local Elections: A Divided Nation

Local Elections: A Divided Nation

In just under a month, the nation will cast their vote in the last election before Britain leaves the European Union. In recent polls, the nation has not looked as geographically divided as it could do at the ballot box come May 3rd.

All seats in the 32 London borough councils will be up for election, which is likely to only reinforce Labour’s dominance in the capital, recent polls suggest the Conservatives might be lucky to retain the 7 councils they currently control.

Populated by a largely pro-remain demographic, swathes of London are likely to turn red, only reinforcing the overbearing dichotomy between the ‘metropolitan elite’ and the rest of the country.

Much of the interest has been placed, on one side, at the door of Barnet which is seen by many as a ‘winnable’ Labour council. However, with a large Jewish population they are likely to be hampered by recent, consistent and concerning allegations of anti-Semitism against the upper-echelons of the party. Similarly, Labour are closing in on the Conservatives in areas such as Wandsworth, of which the Grenfell Tower tragedy is likely to play a leading role and look to strengthen their hold on councils such as Hammersmith and Fulham.

Over 4,000 seats are to be fought over at these ‘mid-term’ local elections, and it is worth noting that the majority will be contested outside of the capital, but coverage and analysis of these councils have been sparse. That leads to the question, are the media and political parties guilty of neglecting the concerns of the rest of the country?

Launching their local election campaign in the Conservative-led Trafford district of Manchester, the Labour Party have attempted to solidify their stronghold in the North-West and in turn taken their campaign wider than the capital.  Endeavouring to consolidate what is anticipated to be a landslide, the Labour Party could be criticised as not reaching as far as they perhaps should do and engaging with areas of the country such as Peterborough that voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union, protesting against the metropolitan elite.

With pollsters predicting that the Tories could lose as many as 100 seats in London, it isn’t surprising however that much of the attention is focused in the capital. What does a Conservative kicking in the capital mean for the party though? The New Statesman’s Stephen Bush has highlighted that “Voters tend to use local elections partly to send a message to the incumbent at Westminster” and for the most part, this is true. Nonetheless, the optics of losing every council in London, could have a detrimental impact for the Conservative Party when the next general election comes around.

Tasked with navigating the testing waters of Brexit and up against a Labour Party thoroughly energised by having 232 MPs returned in 2017, the Prime Minister and her Conservative Party would be right to feel anxious in the coming weeks. We do know there will be Labour gains across the capital, but we wait to see whether the enthusiasm will spread further afield and do significant damage to Theresa May’s premiership.

One year until Brexit.

It has been a year since Prime Minister, Theresa May triggered Article 50, marking the beginning of the formal process of Britain leaving the European Union. This constitutional landmark was meant to mark the inception of a two-year process culminating in the UK’s official withdrawal from the European Union. However, leaving the EU is proving trickier than some may have led you to believe, and recent developments from Brussels have stipulated there will be a transition period that will see the UK’s official withdrawal postponed until December 2020.

One year into the Brexit negotiations, what do we know, and what are the big issues that still need to be discussed?

After a slow opening to the Brexit discussions, in recent months the government has been more willing to make its objectives public, and negotiations have progressed. Last week’s announcement on the ‘orderly withdrawal’ of the UK from the Union was the most important to date and was described by Brexit Secretary David Davis as a ‘decisive step’ in the long road to Brexit.

The implementation period will see Britain retain its membership of the Single Market and Customs Union. However, now it must face the harsh reality of relinquishing its seat at the table and losing its entitlement to a voice on the decisions and policies of the EU moving forward.

The news received a mixed reception. EU fishermen will still have access to British fishing waters during the implementation period, leading to the consternation of hard-line Brexiteers and coastal fishing towns alike.

Nigel Farage even led a cohort of fishermen tipping kilos of dead haddock into the Thames outside Westminster. Many ‘remainers’ found reasons to be unhappy too; Will Straw, head of the Britain Stronger in Europe Campaign, facetiously tweeted “we ‘took back control’ today by agreeing to become a rule taker for 21 months and handing over the cash Brexiteers said was for the NHS to the EU”.

The government however, in its characteristically stoic fashion, are celebrating the deal. Brexit Secretary David Davis proclaimed “In December, we set out a shared ambition to reach agreement on the implementation period as soon as possible.

Today we have achieved that ambition, thanks to the hard work and late nights of both our dedicated teams.” The EU’s concession that the UK will be permitted to begin negotiating external trade deals was met with similar warmth from many in the government.

Of course, the implementation period still does not give us a concrete idea of what Britain’s final relationship with the EU will look like. For that, we must peer back to last month, to Theresa May’s Mansion House Speech, where she claimed both sides will have to face up to some ‘hard facts’. She said Britain would leave the Customs Union and seek a ‘bespoke deal’ which decides on an industry by industry basis.

In addition, she claimed the UK would like a mechanism for trade disputes with the EU to ensure Britain is not accountable to the ECJ, any deal would need to ensure Parliament reserves the right to pass its own regulations in all areas, including medicine, aviation and chemistry, where it hopes to remain a member of the EU agencies. Britain would also regain control of its fishing waters and would naturally exit from the Common Agricultural Policy.

The sticking point throughout the negotiations, and an issue yet to be resolved, remains the Irish border. An area that was rarely discussed in most parts of the UK during the referendum is now proving a 310-mile long barrier to any final deal.

This week, Britain reiterated its commitment that there would be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, but there are fears that in practice, that may mean a hard border across the Irish sea with Northern Ireland remaining in the single market whilst the rest of the UK leaves. An LBC poll yesterday found that more people in Britain care about leaving the EU than Northern Ireland remaining as a member of the United Kingdom, which will be little comfort to anybody in Northern Ireland.

The UK’s departure from the EU remains every bit as complex as experts said it would be, both sides have made concessions and the EU is proving a stubborn negotiating partner, as it has to many others during the past. Britain may still be unclear what its relationship with the EU will look like after it leaves the EU, but we do know we will have to wait a little longer to find out.

If you’re interested in learning more about public affairs and what the PHA Group could do for you, get in touch with us today.

Hate speech is allowed under the guise of democratic debate

Earlier this week, the Home Office published its report into Hate Crime in England and Wales for 2016/17. The report shows that hate crimes in the UK are increasing; in 2016/17 there were 80,393 hate crimes recorded by police, a 29% increase from 2015/16.

Although some commentators have argued that increased public awareness and improvements in recording hate crime negate the need for any real analysis or concern over the results, the spike in crimes around the EU Referendum needs further exploration.

This report has seen the largest increase in hate crimes since the series began in 2011/12, with spikes around the EU Referendum and the Westminster Bridge attack. Arguably, the anti-immigration sentiment evoked during the EU Referendum made people feel as though they too could express anti-immigrant feeling, potentially in the form of a racially motivated hate crime.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration released a report this August declaring the government’s rhetoric on immigration to be fuelling toxic anti-immigration sentiment. They warned against the “poisonous” EU referendum campaigns, which they argued formed a barrier to creating a socially integrated nation.

There has been an increase in this polarising language, imbued with undertones of racism, for example, Theresa May’s now discredited targets of cutting migrant numbers. There was an increase in police recorded hate crime following the Westminster bridge, Manchester Arena, London Bridge and Borough Market attacks this year.

The “genuine rise in hate crime around the time of the referendum” seems to have been eased by the government’s own actions. Racist, anti-immigration sentiment has been propagated top-down by the government disguised as democratic debate of the EU Referendum. Throughout history, politicians have appealed to a constructed sense of national identity to further their own political causes.

In the case of Brexit, Nigel Farage exploited people’s fear that high levels of immigration would infringe on English identity. This fear was harnessed into a powerful, and largely underestimated, political force. As reprehensible as it is, it is not surprising that hate crime increased around the time of the EU referendum when politicians were playing on people’s fear of the erasure of their own English identity. English identity was crucial to the Leave campaign and of the 30 areas with the most people identifying as English, all 30 voted to leave.

Just as the nation is put under the microscope at a time of political turmoil, such as the EU Referendum, so is people’s own sense of national identity. Farage perhaps had some of the groundwork laid for him by the infamous Enoch Powell whose 1968 Rivers of Blood speech, which defended a sense of national identity from the perceived threat of immigration.

Powell was speaking up on behalf of a proportion of the population who held a sense of resentment, a sense of being overlooked when it came to what they wanted regarding immigration. His rhetorical prowess enabled him to move the immigration debate away from the fringes of conversation and into the mainstream. Today, mainstream political parties are afraid of dealing with immigration, leaving groups of people feeling underrepresented and looking to more extreme parties.

Just as Enoch Powell back in the 1960s gave racism a more acceptable mainstream face, we are seeing much of the same with the popularity of UKIP and other nationalist parties across Europe. The APPG Integration not Demonisation warned that the government’s language and attitude led some people to feel “they could act on racist attitudes which had previously gone unexpressed”.

This has been seen in Europe as well, the FPO has found widespread appeal for their openly Islamophobic and xenophobic views as has Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache played on Austrian’s’ fear of a diminishing of their culture, claiming that Austria was being Islamified and calling for a ban on Muslim symbols.

Enoch Powell championed a form of national identity that was based on racial othering, an “us” and “them” mentality which argued for a reduction in immigration in order to prevent any encroachment on English identity. His legacy permanently entangled race and immigration.

During the EU referendum, the Leave campaign in particular exploited people’s fears about immigration and it is therefore unsurprising we are left with such a toxic legacy, a climate in which racist fears are legitimised and manifest themselves in hate crimes.

 

A politician holds true to his religious beliefs – so what?

It’s a strange paradox of the world we now live in. We spend all of our lives hearing about how we need more politicians who stay true to their principles and refuse to simply sway with public opinion. Then, when one pops their head above the parapet to defend their beliefs, a full-blown media witch hunt ensues.

Do I agree with Jacob Rees-Mogg that all abortion is wrong? No. Do I agree with Jacob Rees-Mogg that same sex marriage should be at the discretion of the church, not the state? No. Do I agree with the Catholic Church that gay sex is a sin? No.

So what?

I must have missed the memo whereby personal morality became a matter of state, and something that everyone is invested in. The Orwell comparison about the society we live in is an awfully tired one, but I can’t help feeling that Rees-Mogg is just the latest public figure to fall victim to the ‘Wrongthink’ that is used to tear anyone down who is contrarian in their outlook.

I didn’t see Mogg trumpeting the abolition of same sex marriage on Good Morning Britain, I also didn’t see him demanding a change to the abortion laws. He said that people are protected by UK law and indicated no interest in changing that.

So seriously, what’s the story? He isn’t pushing his opinions or morality on anybody else, so who are we to tell him what to think?

If you want to pull his voting record to shreds then go for it, it’s not hard to find plenty on welfare and benefits and on landlords, but why should someone’s personal morality be on trial if they are not trying to enforce it on others?

All this is before we even get into the fact that Catholicism has an estimated 1.2 billion followers around the world. Why shouldn’t it have a place in politics? He’s not speaking for a neo-Nazi minority. Should we ban the bible because Twitter disagrees with what it says? Great idea. And then what? The Koran opposes homosexuality so will we be removing Sadiq Khan as London Mayor for good measure?

We seem to be descending into a manic state whereby anybody who strays from approved mainstream ideology is destined to be torn to shreds.

This whole episode stinks of Tim Farron. Another man who held private beliefs that were at odds with some his party policies, and were used as a stick to beat him with.

Spare me the outrage and the sanctimony. All of the identity politics that is shoved into our faces day in day out has become utterly tedious. But it shows no sign of abating. So roll up, roll up, come and see who will be next on the crucifix of ‘public opinion’.

Are We a Nation of Constitutional Illiterates?

By George Livesey, Public Affairs Intern

As a people, politicos included, we seem to be (not so) blissfully unaware of the procedures that govern our institutions. In light of recent events this, apparent, mass misunderstanding has come to the fore; it was not only the impact on the constitution that the outcome of the Brexit referendum would cause that was not often discussed, but also, the actual act of holding a referendum itself. Unlike the faux constitutional ‘crisis’ that ensued after the result of June’s snap general election, the fallout and furore following the Brexit vote was predicted by some, many of whom suffered much constitutional consternation in fear of either result of the vote.

More of us should consider the advantageous and disadvantageous consequences, brought about by holding referendums, to the way we are governed. More of us should have seen through the media’s sensationalising of the outcome of the general election to notice that Mrs May was at the mercy of a well-oiled constitutional machine. Unlike our transatlantic cousins we leave our constitution almost completely untaught, resulting in it, more often than not, being a thing of derision not of reverence. Perhaps it is just political aficionados that notice it or care for it, yet many seem to have lost sight of our organic constitution whilst caught up in the recent turbulence of British politics.

Public Affairs Brexit EU

Image Courtesy of Rich Girard, flickr.com

Brexit is obviously the biggest constitutional challenge of recent times, yet, the constitutional conundrums thrown-up by holding referendums were not, and are not, discussed. It can be credibly argued that this type of direct democracy does not fit within our representative-trustee model, and can be viewed as ‘fundamentally unconstitutional’, as some scholars have dubbed it. Moreover, Kenneth Clarke MP, the Father of the House and arch-Europhile, was another one of the few that was asking such questions, coming to the conclusion that we should regard the referendum as a ‘glorified opinion poll’.

Ken Clarke

Image courtesy of the House of Commons

Whatever your opinion happens to be, should we not even be slightly worried that we do not seem to have paused and assessed whether this is the direction in which we want to travel? We have stumbled into an ancient debate, one which shaped our constitution, but we have not been delving into it, an exercise which would greatly assist us in deciding how we want to decide things in the future.

The constitution was always going to be strained whatever the outcome was on June 23rd 2016. In addition to the issues caused by leave’s victory, if it had been a win for remain then the issue would have been shunned as a done deal, even though it would have been far from it, continuing to bubble under the surface of public opinion. This catch 22 situation led even died in wool eurosceptics, such as Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens, to take no part in the referendum itself.

The outcome has caused the Government’s powers over foreign affairs to be modified after a Supreme Court challenge, created friction between Westminster and the devolved assemblies/parliaments, altered the Westminster model and left a mammoth task of reversing decades of ‘Europeanisation’. Also, a matter of acute constitutional importance, but almost entirely uncommented on, is the fact that we now have a Government where we know beyond doubt that the majority of people in it disagree with their own biggest policy; that of removing the UK from the EU. This also applies to a Parliament that voted to trigger Article 50 even though it had an overwhelmingly remain make-up, although this doesn’t have such a grave impact on collective ministerial responsibility as applies to the Government.

We are in constitutionally choppy waters, yet, many don’t seem to care and see these issues as merely practical problems that can be overcome by any means necessary. We live in a country where we have a continued misunderstanding regarding our rulers’ rules and customs, exemplified by the hysteria following the general election where the constitutional process seemed to be inexplicable and elusive, yet, it was in fact working at its best. We must all accord our constitution with more care and attention, constantly with one eye on the future, particularly at a time when it is at risk of people losing faith in it entirely.

Developments on Brexit – or lack of them

By Polly Lindsay, Strat Comms and Public Affairs Intern

 

This week marked the beginning of a series of position papers by the UK government detailing their plans for the relationship with the EU following the planned exit of the UK in April 2019. The government released plans for the continuing customs relationship between the UK and the EU, which would supposedly take the form of an interim period comprising many of the agreements currently in place, to be eventually replaced by a new ‘special’ form of customs arrangement or partnership. They also released a position paper on the future of Ireland and the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic

Criticism and contradiction

The government’s plans on customs met with a frosty reception in Brussels and Westminster. There were objections to the prematurity of the publication, as the first round of talks involving the logistics of withdrawing from the EU are still ongoing. Critics, including Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s lead coordinator on Brexit, called the plan a ‘fantasy’. They noted that the UK government should focus on successfully completing the withdrawal agreement before moving on to phase two of the talks involving trade and the customs union. There are murmurs that this second phase may be delayed until December, embarrassing for the UK government who initially wanted to conduct both phases at the same time.

The intention of the UK government is to go through an interim period, in their words ‘a model of close association with the EU Customs Union’. Brexit Secretary David Davis referred to such an interim period as a ‘critical building block for our independent trade policy’, and allowing a ‘smooth and orderly transition’ for businesses. It contradicts Trade Secretary Liam Fox and Chancellor Philip Hammond in an article in the Sunday Telegraph three days earlier, where they maintained that the UK would leave both the single market and the customs union in April 2019. Such incoherence is unhelpful for UK businesses looking out for certainty.

There were also direct contradictions of the UK government’s plans from Brussels. The paper outlined ‘frictionless trade’ in the interim period, which the chief Brexit Negotiator, Michel Barnier, has on multiple occasions clarified is not possible outside of the single market and the customs union. Another contentious topic was the intention of the UK government to pursue trade agreements with other countries during the interim period. It’s clear that this will not be a popular position in Brussels. Peter Mandelson commented ‘the UK wants to be out of the customs union but in the customs union’. These mixed messages are unhelpful and confusing. The UK should be more specific in its position, and not make promises it cannot keep, particularly regarding topics so far in the future.

Brexit means Brexit

The main issue with the UK governments plans for Brexit is the level of ambiguity, both in their papers and general position. The language of ‘special’ arrangements, ‘deep’ partnerships, and ‘new, innovative facilitations’ is getting old. We’ve been told that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – hardly the most detailed of explanations of the future to come. The government needs to provide a more specific idea of what Brexit will look like. With the referendum over a year ago, it’s worrying that we still don’t know to what extent it will be hard or soft. David Davis called the paper ‘constructive ambiguity’, but it’s hard to see how in a matter so complex as the UK-EU divorce, ambiguity can in any way be constructive. The level of complexity of the divorce proceedings calls for a clear vision of what any arrangement might look like in practical terms, not a description of how ‘special’ it may or may not be. Unfortunately, given the nature of Theresa May’s divided party and hung parliament, she is ill-equipped to offer the level of clarity needed to ensure the least disruptive and most beneficial Brexit possible.

Hard Brexit, but soft border ?

Ireland continues to present the most complex problem to this initial phase of talks. The government released a position paper on Wednesday, detailing plans for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. It promised little change and disruption to the current status quo, no return to a hard border, and a continuation of the Common Travel Area. All this sounds ideal but it is unclear how practically this is to be achieved if the UK leaves the customs union. There are fears of a ‘back door’ through Ireland in and out of the EU through which people and goods may be smuggled. The UK proposes that for small companies there would be no customs checks at all, presenting a potential loophole, whilst larger companies would declare their goods retrospectively before crossing the border. This could turn into a quagmire of bureaucracy over what constitutes a small company, and the process of declaring goods by those companies that don’t qualify. It seems counter-intuitive that the UK is both promising a new era of politics and economics, and at the same time maintaining that there will be no change to the way things are.

The risks of a failure in creating a sustainable solution to the Ireland problem are high. The Common Travel Area is seen to be key to upholding the Good Friday agreements. Tensions between the nationalist and unionists are still high, and are exacerbated by the Tory support of the DUP, the most extreme unionist party, and the current impasse in the National Assembly, which doesn’t look close to resolution. The talks cannot move on to phase two of the negotiations until there has been sufficient progress phase one, which includes Ireland. Given the delicacy required, practicality is the order of the day, not unachievable pipe dreams.

The UK government needs to move away from ‘fantasy’ and start delivering clear and achievable goals if they are to make a success of Brexit. Any less could prove extremely damaging to the UK economy and Irish stability.

Could Jacob Rees-Mogg really be the saviour of the Conservative Party?

Two years ago, the idea that a man famed for taking his nanny canvassing, using the word ‘floccinaucinihilipilification’ in the House of Commons, and who is regularly referred to as ‘the honourable member for the early twentieth century, could become the next Conservative Party Leader would have been met with derision. But that was before the surprising ascendency of Trump, Macron and Corbyn. Tellingly, the bookies now have Jacob Rees-Mogg as more likely to become the next Conservative Party leader than Boris Johnson and Ruth Davidson, and there has been a flurry of ‘Moggmentum’ articles both for and against his candidacy show just how seriously many are taking the idea.

Critics of Rees-Mogg ironically highlight many of the traits that many Conservative Party activists actually find appealing: he uncompromisingly supports Brexit and the free market (he recently called for the abolition of stamp duty, something many of his detractors jumped on as proof that he is ‘for the rich’), he isn’t afraid to voice unpopular opinions, and doesn’t attempt to hide his privileged roots. In fact, it’s this authenticity which, like Corbyn, is the key to his popularity. As James Delingpole writes in The Spectator “He’s quick on his feet, comfortable in his skin, knows his own mind and is beholden to no man. Having made his fortune as a value investor in emerging markets before becoming an MP, he is in the unusual position of being able to say what exactly he thinks — and from a position of knowledge and experience”.

We shall have to take our business elsewhere.

A post shared by Jacob Rees-Mogg (@jacob_rees_mogg) on

So could Rees-Mogg be the Conservatives’ antidote to Corbyn?  He certainly has significant grassroots support. In a survey for ConservativeHome, Jacob-Rees Mogg was the second most popular option after David Davis to take over as leader – despite voters having to submit his name, rather than it appearing on the dropdown list. Over 23,000 have signed the ‘readyformogg.org’ petition. He has legions of online fans (pages such as ‘Middle-Class Memes For Rees-Moggian Teens’ have nearly 50,000 likes), and this is only set to increase, given that he has recently joined both Instagram and Twitter. And given how many people seem to warm to him even when they disagree with his politics (e.g. Jess Phillips MP describes him as “charming and funny, kind, mad and totally himself” and Mhairi Black MP refers to him as “my boyfriend – he’s my favourite”), it seems possible that he could reach out and win over a large proportion of the public.

Despite this, could Rees-Mogg ever realistically become party leader? In short, probably not. The way that the Conservative Party elects their leadership differs significantly from other political parties. For example, Jeremy Corbyn was first able to stand as leader of the Labour Party after securing the nomination of just 35 of his fellow MPs before the Labour membership were able to vote for him. In contrast, Conservative MPs are given the task of voting on candidates until they have whittled them down to a final two. Only then are party members able to vote on them. Conservative MPs are unlikely to put forward such a wildcard who has never held a ministerial role before. Moreover, Heidi Allen MP has already threatened to resign from the party if he ever did become leader, demonstrating the uphill battle that he would face in any leadership campaign.

Sadly, for his supporters, we may never get the chance to find out if Rees-Mogg could be successful in a leadership bid. Even he has ruled it out (for now) stating that “I neither am a candidate, nor wish to be one… Nor is this some clever plan to seek other office; if it were, it would have been scotched some weeks ago when it was suggested to the PM, who giggled in response rather more than my mother considered tactful”.

But this hasn’t ended speculation. There is clearly an appetite amongst the grassroots for something a little bit different from the usual names circulated as Theresa May successors (David Davis, Philip Hammond etc), and for many, Rees-Mogg is a viable alternative. Whatever happens, it is clear that the next leader of the Conservative Party is far from a foregone conclusion.

It is time to distance free speech from the online abuse of MPs

By Hamish Campbell-Shore, Public Affairs Intern

Since the murder of Jo Cox in June 2015, Members of Parliament have had to become acutely aware of the genuine threat of online abuse.

Analysis by the ‘BCS-The Chartered Institute’ for IT and thinktank ‘Demos’ revealed that during the three-month period between 9th May and 18th August 2015, MPs received almost 190,000 abusive tweets. The report suggested that 1 out of every 20 tweets sent to MPs were categorised as abusive, with the most harassed politicians seeing around 10% of tweets they received containing abusive material.

This report has since been supplemented by research conducted by the University of Sheffield and BuzzFeed News. The study covered 840,000 tweets during the 2017 General Election campaign and highlighted the most likely victims of ‘trolling’. Statistics revealed that, overwhelmingly, Jeremy Corbyn was the most abused MP on Twitter, with the majority of insulting messages targeted at a small number of high-profile politicians. However, being in receipt of almost 6% of abuse, male Tory candidates were the most abused group of politicians in the survey.

Whilst the frequency of online abuse was targeted at prominent politicians and male Conservative candidates, the nature of the abuse varied greatly.  Professor Bontcheva, who conducted the survey, noted the prominence of gendered abuse: “The study showed there is a clear difference in the insulting words directed at male and female politicians. While some terms are common to both, female politicians received more gendered insults.”

The online abuse of MPs has, and will continue to tarnish, the political battleground until something changes. Most notably, however, what will certainly not change this abuse is the argument that furious hatred can be taken as free speech. Abuse is significant, ubiquitous and to misappropriate the tool of free speech does nothing but entrench the divisions that characterise modern politics.

It should never be part and parcel of the job and inevitability does not justify the shameful abuse that MPs receive daily at the hands of internet trolls. Free speech is, and should continue to be, an integral part of our democracy in the UK. However, the notion that politically motivated abuse can be construed as free speech, is nothing more than an empty platitude, utilised to attempt to validate ignorance.

Johnny Mercer MP, epitomised the way in which these concepts are intertwined. In response to Diane Abbott’s moving account of the abuse she has received online, he tweeted: “I’m at odds w/almost everything DA thinks politically. But I’ll fight endlessly to defend her right to do so, free of this appalling abuse.”

There is much to be said for allowing people the freedom to air their views online, as I have mentioned, the right to challenge and debate is key to holding decision-makers to account. Nevertheless, to not acknowledge abuse and freedom of speech as mutually exclusive, does nothing but foster the hatred that plagues modern day ‘social media politics’.

The redefinition of free speech into abuse is obviously not undisputed, and it would be dangerous to suggest that biting and barbing commentary should be completely prevented.  To condemn any form of disagreement with politicians as abuse will cement the seemingly growing disparity between the elites and ‘the rabble’. However, when the crude tongue of Average Joe turns into death threats, racism and misogyny, there is cause for distancing abuse from free speech, in fear of undermining this basic democratic right.

Where separation may be key when considering both free speech and unashamed abuse, it is certainly not when isolating the source of it. Paula Sherriff, Labour Member of Parliament for Dewsbury, has used her own experience to speak of the dangers of politicizing online abuse. Sheriff herself has been the victim of abuse from both the hard-left and hard right, and the Labour moderate believes that it should be viewed as a non-partisan issue. “There is a really serious issue, and suggesting only one cohort of people is doing it completely undermines the argument,” said Sheriff. “I know there are people in my party who do it, and it makes me very ashamed; I unequivocally condemn it.

Using the existence of online abuse as a stick to beat your political opponents with, does nothing to address the underlying cause of division. Puerile sentiments resigning nasty tweets to different corners of Westminster is nothing short of a catalyst for further abuse. What really needs to be considered, are the motives behind the abuse that is almost becoming commonplace.

Murderous, racist and misogynistic rhetoric is not borne out of political disagreement, but rather the desire to suppress someone you don’t agree with. The essence of free speech is that it exists universally, and when fear and subordination are introduced to the discourse, a line is crossed.

The Hearing of the Century

Today, four members from the Nevada board of parole commissioners will meet in offices in Carson City to discuss the possibility of OJ Simpson, one of the most famous men behind bars, being released on parole. Simpson has served just 9 years of his original 33 year sentence for armed robbery, although this is not the case he is best known for. He was famously acquitted for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman, despite there being considerable evidence against him.

OJ was once arguably the most popular sporting hero in America, loved by the masses. Oh how the mighty have fallen. Simpson now resides in Lovelock correctional centre with a broken reputation, his acquittal causing ripples of outrage across the world, especially after he was found guilty less than two years later in a civil trial, when new evidence came to light. Should OJ be released this year, he would supposedly return to a ‘normal’ civilian life. How normal could his life really be though? Once loved, now loathed by many, his entrance to the real world will most likely be anything but easy. Although Fred and Kim Goldman, understandably, feel that Simpson will never feel the full wrath of justice, it is entirely possible that he will never fully feel ‘free’ in this life, the reputation of a brutal murderer always hanging over his head, causing those once close to him to disengage and distance themselves from such a controversial character.

Christopher Darden, one of the key prosecutors in the murder trial of 1995, is calling for the board members to outright ask Simpson if he did commit these heinous murders, all those years ago. Although not relevant to this particular trial, Darden (and I’m sure many others) feel the families of the victims and indeed the public, deserve the answer to the most asked question of the 90’s. I am curious to know whether people would be more likely to accept OJ back into our society, after a public admittance and apology, or if the confusion towards his guilt will give him even a small amount of protection. Is honesty always the best policy? Of course, I must say here that it is not confirmed whether him admitting to committing these murders would technically be ‘honesty’, as of course he was never officially found guilty in court. However, it probes at larger questions in our society about honesty and forgiveness. I think there are a lot of people around the world who would say they could never forgive OJ for what they believe him to have done. But they may have the smallest amount of respect for him finally ‘admitting’ his crimes, giving some (stressing the word some), peace of mind to the families of the victims.

In my opinion, honesty is always the best policy, regardless of the consequences for oneself. However, OJ and his reputation may just be beyond help and bringing up the past will only hurt the people close to this case again, when I’m sure they’ve tried so hard for the last 21 years to put the horror of the trial behind them.

Georgie Lee, Sales and Marketing Intern

The Queen’s Speech: What to Expect

By Emily Granger – Public Affairs Intern

The Queen’s Speech – which lays out the laws that ministers want to pass in the coming year – is a major moment in the parliamentary diary. It is seen as a critical test for the government and failure to win the backing of a majority of MPs is seen as a vote of no confidence. Typically, the first Queen’s Speech after a general election is made up of the winning party’s election manifesto, but if May can form a minority government using a deal with the DUP it is likely this programme will be watered down in order to avoid defeat by opposition parties, a fact confirmed by Brexit secretary David Davis on Monday morning.

The Queen’s speech this year will almost certainly include the Great Repeal Bill, which will convert existing EU law into UK legislation. Ministers will then decide which parts to keep, and have promised that all existing workplace protections will be maintained. We expect to see new laws on immigration announced, whilst counter-terrorism proposals in the wake of four terror attacks this year are also expected. However, Tory MPs believe that most of the domestic reforms outlined in their manifesto just weeks ago will be dropped because they will not get through the hung parliament.

Theresa May’s plans for a new generation of grammar schools are likely to be reduced to a “rather modest pilot” after she failed to secure a significant majority. She is also likely to have to abandon “poisonous” commitments such as the so-called “dementia tax”, scrapping the triple lock on the state pension and means-testing winter fuel payments. The DUP leader, Arlene Foster, said it should be expected that the DUP want a reference to the devolution of Corporation Tax in the deal as the Stormont Executive has long aspired to reduce its Corporation Tax rate. On the whole, the content of the speech is expected to be a moderated version of Mrs May’s manifesto after her authority was weakened by the surprise election result.

The queens Speech

Image Courtesy of Jerste, flickr.com

The Queen’s Speech on Wednesday will include three Bills designed to funnel investment into major transport infrastructure designed to help Britain boom after leaving the European Union. The legislation, according to the Department for Transport, will allow the launch of satellites from the UK for the first time, horizontal flights to the edge of space for scientific experiments and the establishment of spaceports in regions across Britain.  It will also include measures to improve conditions for the 100,000 drivers of plug-in vehicles by removing barriers that are preventing more drivers switching to electric.

In a highly unusual move, the government has decided to ditch next year’s Queen’s speech to ease the way in parliament for new Brexit laws. As a result, the parliamentary session is being doubled to two years. The leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom MP, said this would give MPs and Peers the maximum time possible to scrutinize legislation taking the UK out of the European Union, meaning that the government will not put forward a new legislative programme next year.

By cancelling the 2018 Queen’s Speech, Mrs May removes a vote that had the potential to bring her Government from the diary. The step is an unusual one – breaking historical precedence and was last taken in the early days of the Coalition as it scrambled to create a stable government in 2010. Labour at the time accused the coalition of an “abuse of power” and said it was aimed solely at easing the passage of controversial legislation.

Whilst government sources have insisted the move was planned before the election and would give time for laws needed for Brexit to be fully debated, opposition figures have claimed the move was an attempt to shore up Mrs May’s position after failing to win a majority. Some may say that Brexit legislation should not be an excuse for overriding parliamentary democracy. Some also point out that May’s planned informal coalition with the DUP likely undermines the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Many are of the view that the Conservatives seem to be engineering the Brexit process to remove parliamentary accountability to desperately cling to power. However, Andrea Leadsom has insisted that the move was not motivated by fears that it could create a vote that could have brought down the government. She explained that the issue is that the government have an enormous job to do to make a success of Brexit.

Whether a tactical move to avoid resignation or a genuine effort to stress the importance of prioritizing Brexit, Mrs May’s decision to cancel the Queen’s speech in 2018 has proven to be very controversial.