Archive for June, 2016

The turkeys, the farmers and Christmas

June 27, 2016

Once upon a time, a group of farmers couldn’t decide whether to have Christmas or not. It had been a long time since the last Christmas. It was a lot of bother. Some of the farmers liked it, some did not. As they couldn’t agree amongst themselves, they decided to ask the turkeys. So they did.

Some of the farmers said that, if we had Christmas again, the white turkeys could get rid of some of the turkeys with different coloured feathers. The farmers said ‘The turkeys with the different coloured feathers aren’t like you. They have made the farm a worse place and we can’t afford them. This is called ‘getting back control’.

Some of the farmers said that, if we had Christmas again, the turkeys would have more money spent upon them. The farmers said ‘If we have Christmas, then we will spend more money on looking after you’. They put a big sign up on the wall of the farm saying how much more money they would spend.

The farmers who didn’t want Christmas told the turkeys that Christmas would be really bad for the turkeys. They got their farmer friends to say the same thing. They got their famous friends who weren’t even farmers to say the same thing too. The farmers who wanted Christmas said the farmers who didn’t want Christmas were just trying to scare the turkeys.

So the turkeys voted. Just over half the turkeys voted for Christmas, and that meant the decision applied to them all.

On the day after the vote, bad things began to happen. The farmer in charge went missing from the farm. Some of the white turkeys started being very rude to the turkeys with different coloured feathers. They said they weren’t welcome on the farm any more. The farmers who promised extra money for the turkeys said they didn’t really mean it. The sign promising extra money to the turkeys disappeared.

Then it turned out that Christmas was really expensive. So there was less money for everyone. Some of the turkeys who voted for Christmas said they didn’t expect it to happen – they were just angry with the farmers and wanted to put them to extra trouble. Some of the turkeys who voted for Christmas said that they didn’t actually expect Christmas to come – that they didn’t realise that other turkeys would vote for Christmas too.

But Christmas was coming now. Even though no-one was in charge at the farm, the knives were being sharpened, and the cranberry sauce prepared. It was only then the turkeys of all colours realised what a mistake they had made.

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The morning after the EU referendum

June 24, 2016

Today is a day in which we must choose our words carefully – something some of those prominent in the referendum campaign seem to have lost sight of. But we also need to try and work out what has happened, and what it means. Here’s a first try.

First, let’s be clear about why this referendum was called. It wasn’t because there was a big national mood for a vote on membership of the EU. It is because the Conservative Party were engaging in one of their periodic in-government feuds over EU membership (remember John Major resigning in 1995 over similar battles) and reckless promises being made about offering such a vote should the government win a majority in 2015 (which they didn’t believe they would). That’s the old history here – but we should remember why the vote happened in the first place.

The ‘remain’ campaign focused on the economic consequences of leaving, with most (but not all) senior government figures making that case. Again, this is odd, in that if the economic consequences of leaving we so catastrophic you’d have thought it was a bad idea for us to be having a referendum. At least some of this seems to coming true as both shares and the pound are falling significantly this morning.

The ‘leave’ campaign found its trump card in immigration. It is easy to dismiss those who voted leave as intolerant, or even worse, racists. Happy, satisfied people don’t blame others for their predicament though. It is very noticeable that many of the areas of the country that have received most EU money ended up voting heavily to leave. Why did that happen?

One explanation is that the major political parties have been battling over the centre ground for so long (a legacy of the 1990s) that they forget about everyone else. And many, many people – at least the two million needed to turn the EU referendum to one voting for remain – haven’t seen their living standards rise for two decades. The major employers in their areas have left, either having been bought out by overseas companies which subsequently left, or having been left behind by an increasingly service-based economy. It is not hard to see why you might, in those circumstances, blame immigrants for your situation. We know that wages have been bid down in some areas of the country because of immigration. We didn’t do enough to help people who have lost their jobs and livelihoods in the last thirty years – all the more tragic as this is likely to this leading to their lives becoming shorter and far less fulfilled. This inequality helps none of us, and is an easy source of discontent onto which must nastier claims about people from other countries can be grafted.

In Scotland discontent has been channelled more positively into nationalism. The BBC map of voting shows Scotland as a sold ‘remain’ voter. The Scottish people seem to blame immigrants less, and have hope in independence, which now has to be back on the cards again as the nation has voted so differently to England. Scotland shows that inequality can be directed into a more positive movement, something from which England needs to think about urgently in terms of devolving national governance.

This morning I feel most sorry for colleagues and friends from Europe who live in the UK and who will be wondering what their future holds. We need to find compassion for those who have lost their livelihoods and standards of living over the last twenty years, and who blame immigrants for this. But we don’t need to put even more people in that position.

As I write this I see the Prime Minister has declared he will step down in mere months. Financial markets are judging our vote result badly. What we must now do, assuming no further vote will follow, is to address the reasons why so many millions feel so disaffected. Blaming others for our problems doesn’t take us very far. We have a lot of problems that are of our own making – right across England and Wales there are millions of people who don’t see much of a future for themselves. Nigel Farage suggests the vote is one against Big Business. That is very much not the case – I fear that those governing the UK will now remove labour rights which originated in the EU, and push us into an even more extreme version of a flexible labour market, with lower pay and less rights, than even before. That won’t address the problems I’ve outlined above. I wonder who those who will lose out will find to blame next time?

The EU referendum debate – the arguments for and against

June 13, 2016

The EU referendum has been billed as the single most important vote given to the public in a generation. Two official campaigns exist – one urging us to consider ‘Britain stronger in Europe, with the other simply claiming we should ‘Vote Leave’. Videos have been compiled, letters written to newspapers, celebrity endorsements sought, speeches made.

In the month of May 2016 a range of speeches and other, longer statements and letters from both campaigns were made. Ten were collected from the ‘Britain stronger in Europe’ website and nine from that of ‘Vote Leave’. They were then  examined statistically to aggregate the key themes that each side is making using cluster analysis – which looks for words that are likely appear at the same time. This gives us a clear idea of the key ideas each side is using, and the way they are assembling their arguments. What do we find?

The Vote Leave campaign has five thematic clusters of ideas. The first is concerned with freedom and democracy – suggesting that both will be enhanced by us leaving the EU, which is often described as an unaccountable and elitist. The second argues against European Court of Justice and its ability to prevent the deportation of criminals. The third cluster of terms is less organised, arguing generally against the Prime Minister in relation to energy and gas prices, and against the security concerns the ‘Britain stronger in Europe’ campaign have raised. The fourth cluster of ideas in the Vote Leave campaign are around economics, making arguments about exports and economic growth rates, as well as unemployment, and casting  doubt on ‘Britain stronger in Europe’ predictions about a loss of growth should the country vote to leave. The fifth cluster of ideas brings together arguments about wage pressures resulting from increased immigration and the struggle for families they can lead to. The top five key terms from this cluster, along with their relative weights within it, are shown below.

Figure 1 – Vote Leave, Cluster 5, top 5 terms.

eu blog chart

‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ has data that coheres around four main clusters. The first explores how Britain should remain because to leave would harm the environment and investment in Britain more generally. The second cluster of ideas are around worker’s rights, especially for women, and around the guarantee for more equal pay that the EU ensures. The third cluster of ideas is based on agreements and the co-operation that the EU offers, and the costs of leaving for the economy. Finally, the last cluster is about how the referendum offers a clear choice for the British people with a clear decision ahead of us, based on the fact available, for us to vote to remain.

As such, the debate in May seems to be taking place on rather different footings. The Vote Leave campaign is about freedom and democracy, with Britain Stronger in Europe talking about worker rights. The Vote Leave campaign talks about the EU as being unaccountable and elitist, but with Britain Stronger how it offers us access to co-operation and trade agreements. Vote Leave is arguing against the economic case being made by Britain Stronger, which the latter maintains is compelling, whereas in a wider context Vote Leave is making a case for spending the EU contribution on the NHS instead. Vote Leave is talking about immigration, but Britain Stronger seems largely to be staying away from that issue, suggesting instead that the facts of the debate are clearly in favour of us remaining.

What this suggests is that the Vote Leave campaign is appealing to freedom, democracy and putting an anti-EU message forward, alongside suggesting immigration can be reduced and employment made more secure, if we exit. There are often strong emotions involved in these issues. The Britain Stronger campaign, on the other hand, is trying to mobilise a vote based on economic data and warnings of economic costs should be leave, while at the same time trying to appear more rational and less emotional. Whether Britain Stronger’s lack of engagement with some of the big issues of the Vote Leave campaign – freedom, democracy and immigration – will harm it in the vote itself, remain to be seen, but surely the message to remain in the EU needs to engage with bigger ideas.