The Bercow Ban

Bercow, who had the right to speak out, was not right to speak out.

“I would not wish to issue an invitation to President Trump … our opposition to racism and to sexism, and our support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary are hugely important considerations in the House of Commons”

These comments don’t come from a member of  Labour, the Greens, or the SNP. Instead, it comes from the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. The ramifications of his comments are graver than the now regular peal of condemnations that have been flung across the Channel. They come as a crack of thunder in the menacing storm of Britain’s relationship with the US. They threaten May’s diplomatic detente and, more importantly, his own political independence.

It is the latest in a string of blows to May’s charm offensive against the US. It lies in tatters, as it becomes clear to the new US administration that the May doesn’t have the political strength to stand behind Trump. On top of the petitions, comments from opposition MPs, and protests, May seems weaker and weaker to an administration in America that seems to value strength and loyalty. This criticism is the most obvious, that it damages British diplomacy. But it is also the most short-sighted, and least important. He is still one MP among 650, however prestigious his position. But was he within his rights to make such a statement? And was he right to do so?

As Speaker of the House of Commons, it is Bercow’s responsibility to issue invitations to speak at the House of Commons. So Bercow has the technical right to do so. By making these comments he has effectively denied Trump this prestigious opportunity during his upcoming state visit. But the strongest criticism of his conduct is that he has infringed upon  the speakers’ political neutrality.

The speaker of the House of Commons “must be politically impartial”. Bercow has most obviously transgressed in this regard. Calling Trump a “racist” and a “sexist”, whilst backed up by a copious amount of evidence, clearly places Bercow on a political battleground he was meant to stay well away from. Whilst he may have the power to veto Trump’s address, in reality, much as the Queen does, he ought to eschew making statements of such an overtly political nature.

Bercow’s statement was greeted by cheers from Opposition MPs. Most likely they were agreeing with Bercow’s damning judgement of Trump, rather than lauding the other ramifications of his comments. For the Houses of Parliament rely on a speaker to mediate debate, as all Parliaments across the world do. Without one, chaos would ensue. Yet a partisan speaker is almost as bad. It creates fears that one political view is favoured above another, that one party is a victim of another, and that the constitution being misused and undermined. These all damage the legitimacy of the position of speaker, of Parliament, and of democracy entirely. And here lies the consequence of greatest importance.

This is perhaps a tad hyperbolic, British democracy, famed for its resilience to extremism is under no such immediate threat. And Bercow has been an accomplished speaker for most of his tenure. His decorous manner, his light wit, and his commanding presence during debates has graced the chamber for eight years. Despite the protestations of some Conservatives, he has until now shunned partisanship or political intervention, and ensured healthy criticism of the government. Yet this should not permit us to overlook his lapse in judgement.

As is the depressing norm, we have only to look across the channel to see the ultimate ends of a politicised speaker. These chambers are home to many issues that clog their proper functioning, yet a partisan speaker more worryingly drains the legitimacy of the institution he speaks for. The Senate and Congress, assemblies whose activities are locked in a partisan mire, routinely bend (far stricter) constitutional rules to ensure ‘correct’ procedure. Take Elizabeth Warren’s dismissal from the floor of the Senate earlier this week over the application of an obscure and inconsistently applied rule governing criticism of senators. Last year, the Senate Democrats staged a 25 hour sit-in over Gun Control, having been shut out of debate by the speaker.

A further criticism of the Speaker is that he is purporting to represent all of 650 MPs and 805 Lords, or at least the majority of them, by objecting to Trump’s invitation. In reality, it is doubtful that the cheers heard following Bercow’s statement reflect more than a select number of opposition MPs. The government certainly does not agree. For many MPs, this is the most grievous insult, that he spoke for those that vehemently disagree with him. Pity more the Lords, who were open to Trump’s address, and whose speaker rebuked Bercow for his commentsCalls for Bercow to step down  from a select few of them are, however, exaggerating the punishment due an offence of this scale. It’s not even clear that Trump, whose oratory has never been a particular strong suit, would have wanted to address Parliament in the first place. Nor is it clear when, or indeed if, the state visit will take place. These discussions may turn out to be moot.

As always with constitutional matters, it is rarely the action itself which most damages our democratic edifice. It’s the precedent, precedent that can be invoked to push further and further from what was once considered the margins of politically acceptable behaviour. However distasteful, however vulgar, however despicable you may find Trump, it’s clear that Bercow was not the one to voice such criticisms. The Government, opposition MPs, the Lords, the media, the public – all of these, all of us, are better placed to make such a comment. Bercow, who had the right to speak out, was not right to speak out.

 

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Have the Populist Right reached their Peak?

populist-logos

It was remarked countless times that 2016 was a year like no other when it came to political results. In British minds, there is no escaping the EU Referendum or the 2016 US Presidential Election, both of which were gigantic victories for the populist right which ultimately realised the ambition of two men: Donald Trump and Nigel Farage. Of course, these events are neither the only events of the populist wave of 2016, nor are these two men the sole reasons for their respective election outcomes. However, they are indicative of the feeling that the political ascendancy and momentum is owned by those who are able to control a strong anti-outsider sentiment being felt throughout Europe and America.

This view is the prevailing one, but the possibility for the populist right to lose their momentum could come within the next two years, and by the 2020 Presidential Election Donald Trump could be the last bastion of his kind. The boom and bust cycle is quick for parties who have very little groundwork historically, and populist right-wing parties tend to have very poor infrastructure.

In the UK the United Kingdom Independence Party has abysmal ground game in elections, and beyond Nigel Farage they have struggled to maintain a leader, which the country really cares about. Paul Nuttall is currently sitting at a -22% satisfaction rating, even though only 44% of those asked had a view on him. Their electoral chances are slim, and the upcoming by-elections in Stoke Central and eventually in Leigh may prove this. Therefore they may be consigned to sit as a fringe party, occasionally getting air time when a Brexit discussion comes up. The Conservatives largely do what UKIP does, but they are organised and powerful electorally, so UKIP becomes defunct.

Headlines were made in France last year when several mayors attempted to ban the burkini because it did not fit with French values. This was said to be a symptom of France’s populist right wing attitudes, and would suggest great possible victories in 2016 for the Front National. However, whilst Le Pen commonly has the single highest support of any candidate in the French Presidential election, the French Presidential Election is based on a runoff of the top two candidates, and here she is yet to be ahead in a single poll no matter if she is compared to Emmanuel Macron or Francois Fillon. She even loses to the socialist Manuel Valls, which is incredible given he is dogged by the mightily unpopular Hollande administration.

Le Pen’s problem indicates a common issue that parties as controversial as UKIP or the Front National are. As soon as they get even slightly close to winning any sort of power, they are faced with mass tactical voting to stop them. In Le Pen’s case, Macron’s and Fillon’s voters are almost certainly destined to support each other over Le Pen, and Le Pen would have to break open a completely new section of the electorate, which is unlikely to happen in the next few months, and this does not seem likely, as Le Pen would have to upkeep further time in opposition and wait for a crisis of the same type and of an even greater magnitude than the refugee crisis.

The same can be said for Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom who are unpalatable for a coalition, and so have to get many more votes than any other party to get a foothold on power.

By 2016 the refugee crisis had sparked anti-immigration parties that finally had a serious ferocity and support with them. The Austrian Presidential Election saw Norbert Hofer’s Freedom Party of Austria win the first round in much the same way as Le Pen is projected to in France, different from Le Pen however, is that he was actually in the lead in the Presidential runoff before postal votes had been taken into account. His opponents dramatic win by just 30,863 votes by the final tally was so small that the election was annulled for fears that the number of voting irregularities was actually twice the winning margin, and the wrong person may have actually won. However, this is not the interesting part of the Austrian Presidential Election, the interesting part is that when the run-off between Van Der Bellen and Hofer was held again in December 2016, Hofer lost by 348,231 votes, and Hofer’s vote share decreased. The polling actually overestimated Hofer considerably, which meant for the first time we can see the power really slipping away from the populist right during the refugee crisis.

It is possible that this is not indicative of a trend, but simply a symptom of having an election re-done bringing less support for more radical right-wing parties. It cannot be denied that this result could be significant, and herald the start of the downfall of anti-immigration and in Europe anti-European Union parties.

Right now right wing populist support will require a new foreign affairs crisis to breathe new life and new electoral chances into them otherwise they will slowly fade out of public view and popularity towards oblivion. The next important election to judge this matter on will be the German Presidential Election where the Alternative for Germany (AfD) who will seek to make their mark in the Bundestag, the way that the party’s support changes from now to the election will be one of the most important political indicators of 2017.

To finish we must return to the single biggest character of 2016 once again: Donald Trump. Trump enters office as having the lowest job approval rating of any US president in the modern era in the immediate aftermath of his inauguration at 45%, compared to Obama’s 67% in 2009, whilst he may wish to dismiss this as ‘fake news’ he is almost certainly misguided in this label. Given that four years in office are unlikely to improve his popularity, then he is unlikely to win in 2020 when he runs for re-election, however, by then the wheels of public opinion may have turned against his ilk anyhow, with decreasing electoral support in key countries. The 2020 Presidential Election may be the vote that brings an end to a brief and ferocious political era in the western world. However the evidence either way is as of yet not conclusive.

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How should the media cover Trump?

There are many ways that Trump has disrupted the normal mode of operations, whether pioneering a successful social media campaign, global investment patterns, and American politics more generally. Yet one sector has stayed relatively unfazed by Trump: The media.

Trump has been covered, throughout his campaign, as a normal politician would be by most journalistic outlets. They report what he’s said, a bit of context on why he’s said such things, and then go onto to report what those who disagree with him have said. Most journalists don’t stray from this standard method, concocted from decades of work to balance transfer of knowledge, objectivity,  and safety from libel lawsuits.

Yet can this continue, when dealing with a man (and his associates) who flagrantly disregard all notions of truth and objectivity himself; who wants solely to steal the attention of those who read the headlines, angry or otherwise; who obfuscates whenever possible the truth behind a smokescreen of lies?

Take the reaction to Trump’s comments that his inauguration was better attended than Obama’s, with, according to him “a million and a half people”. It is objectively false: The number of trips on the Metro was significantly lower, and photographic evidence clearly shows the depreciation in turnout.

Image result for obama's inauguration vs trumps

Given that most people will not read past the headline on any given story (Here’s an interesting article on the topic), this is possibly the most important part of the article. Not only does it reel people in, it sets the tone in the reader’s mind for what they are about to read. The headline is key.

So what were the media’s headlines? The Daily express’ was “Donald Trump inauguration crowd largest EVER spokesman says in attack on ‘FALSE REPORTS'”; Vox’s was “Trump claims 1.5 million people came to his inauguration. Here’s what the evidence shows”.; The BBC’s was “Trump claims media ‘dishonest’ over crowd photos”.

Whilst these headlines range from the Daily Express’ very misleading to the BBC’s more staid style, to anyone scanning the headlines, the impression they would be left with would be very different from both the truth and from what they would find if they read the article. Yet, given that headline is the most important part of the article, this discrepancy is clearly worrying.

The issue goes to the heart of what reporting should be when information is abundant, false claims and propaganda equally so, yet we have little enough time to sift and digest it all. Should it be a faithful report of what has happened, devoid of comment? Or comment pieces with the news interwoven? Both of these have their benefits, but most of all problems. Too faithful, and you mislead those who read the articles. Too much a commentary and readers become susceptible to manipulation, polemic, and even just losing track of the news.

Instead, it’s best if media outlets can fact-check as they go, and make it clear the verdict they’ve reached. Take Trump’s false inauguration crowd claims. A couple of outlets published their headlines just this style: The Washington Post’s “With False Claims, Trump Attacks Media on Turnout and Intelligence Rift”, or Buzzfeed’s “Donald Trump Lies About The Number Of People At His Inauguration“. These convey the point Trump made, that he claims many more people attended his inauguration than actually did, whilst also making clear to people that, in fact, he is making it up. Those skimming the headlines get the most accurate information, and Trump’s attempt to manipulate the media and public is combated.

With such a history of lying, propaganda, and falsification, should the media stay ‘neutral’? Should they judge a statement or policy of Trump’s as they would a statement or policy of any other politician? Clearly not. Trump probably spends more time in a sunbed than he does telling the truth. With such a history of ignoring the truth, he’s lost any ‘benefit of the doubt’ that might be afforded to another politician. Treating his speeches with a high-powered lens, to investigate and expose him, would be advisable.

The news runs on a short time span. Imagine what was the biggest news stories last week. Difficult enough. Now last month. Very challenging. Now 6 months ago. You’d do well to get more than a couple. Yet many of Trump’s most heinous statements – that he groped women, he hasn’t released his tax returns, his bigoted comments about Mexicans, Muslims, and disabled people, his hypocrisy of not manufacturing in America himself – are quickly forgotten by most. The pomp and authority of the presidency, and perhaps a willful amnesia of Trump’s faults, to lessen the fear and dread, combine to obfuscate Trump’s past behaviour. For this reason, it’s clear that a running tally of Trump’s many issues, hypocrisies, and statements would be of great use. A compendium to draw upon when needed.

Perhaps you think I am being partisan, naive, or just plain dumb. Perhaps I am. But I’d say that democracy can’t function when there are ‘alternative facts’; when two people of different parties can no longer understand the other’s opinions; when the rivalry of parties becomes actively hostile; when a demagogue and propagandist is head of the government. We need to take action to halt Trump’s utilisation of the media as a propaganda mouthpiece. The longer we linger, the more pressing the problem. Trump has shown from his first few days in office he has no intention to rule as a “One-nation” president, as most politicians try to.

The media is one of the most effective ways to hurt Trump. His ego drives him, and he becomes enraged by those who oppose him, belittle him, or point out his flaws. The media his conduit to deliver his message. And the media has a job a responsibility to act with  the integrity that comes with the power they wield.

The next 4 years will be formative for this century. I certainly don’t hold consider the possibility that Trump will govern well. But will we, as a society, emerge stronger, energised to resist any other attempt to subvert democracy? Or more divided by the legacy of he who tried? I hold out hope that the former may come to pass.