Category: Politics and economics

A second referendum is not the way out of this mess

If there is a second referendum, there is no good reason to suppose that it will deliver the result that remainers hope for.  I’m basing that view not on opinion polls, but on some old-fashioned political science.  There is no such thing as ‘the will of the people’.  What there is, instead, is a mish-mash of different opinions.  Some people voted ‘leave’ because they were unhappy with the EU; some because they were opposed to immigration; some because they were against capitalism; some because they wanted to return to the 1950s; some because they wanted to give the government a kicking.  Some people voted remain because they like the EU; some because of self-interest; some to avoid disruption; some because of their judgment about the economy; and so on.  Lies or fear may have played a part, on either side, but that’s not decisive; nor is the fact that some people will feel empowered to vote leave, or that other people will strain themselves to get a different result this time.  The more complex an issue is, the more likely it becomes that people with different motivations and preferences will cancel each other out, and the closer the result moves to what you’d expect from a random distribution – a 50-50 split.

Once we start from that position, the result is statistically likely to be decided by a relatively small group of people with a strong, settled opinion, if there is no equivalent group on the other side to oppose them.  The source of this argument is L Penrose, The elementary statistics of majority voting, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 1946.    Bartholomew and Bassett wrote, in Let’s look at the figures, that  “2,000 resolute voters in a population of just over one million can almost always get their way.”   (p 125)  And that’s what happened in 2016.   (There might well have been an equivalent group on the other side – Britons in Europe – but they were largely barred from taking part.)     It’s not the polls that count; it’s the mechanism by which the issue is to be decided.  And without very strong reasons to the contrary, we should expect the same mechanisms and the same process to produce the same result.

Thoughts for 2019

Richard Murphy has posted a rather gloomy blog entry, outlining many of the things going wrong in Europe and America.  He points, among other things, to Brexit, populism, growing inequality and economic and political instability. 2019, he thinks, ‘is going to be horrid’.  While I can’t gainsay any of the grim predictions he offers, I think there are other grounds for optimism, mainly from the developing world.

  • There have been marked improvements in the incomes of poor populations in many of the world’s poorest countries – among them China, Bangladesh, South East Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.  See the World Bank’s Atlas of Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Around the world, infant mortality is falling.  So is family size – one follows from the other.
  • Maternal mortality is falling.
  • Girls are much more likely to be engaged in primary education.
  • Social protection is being extended.  See The state of social protection 2018.  There is a still a long way to go, with less than 30% of the world’s population experiencing comprehensive social security provision, but safety nets have been spreading across the global South.

2019 might well be horrid, but it may not be quite as horrid for everyone as it threatens to be in the UK.  Happy New Year.

 

 

How May’s government messed things up

While it still seems likely to me that the withdrawal agreement will be ratified, in the absence of anything clearer, the current government bears a heavy responsibility for a botched negotiation.  Regardless of whether one supports the principle of leaving or staying, the government has made a series of unforced errors.  They include:

  • giving notice with no prior negotiation and no plan – they were warned against this by Ivan Rogers, the lead diplomat at the time;
  • agreeing to a timetable, in breach of the EU’s treaty obligations, which precluded adequate discussion of the future relationship;
  • going into the negotiation without any prepared documents, position papers or proposed legal texts;
  • refusing to discuss the issues with other parties or outside contributors – a process fundamental to building consensus;
  • the ‘red lines’, and the withdrawal from other agreements such as Euratom, which were not part of the brief from the referendum;
  • the abandonment of considerations of citizenship, which were treaty obligations on the EU rather than for the UK;
  • failure to engage the devolved governments in questions relating to devolution (the obvious way to avoid differentiating Northern Ireland from other assemblies within the United Kingdom); and
  • repeated attempts to prevent Parliament from debating the issues, to the point of being declared in contempt of parliament.

To make one such error is unfortunate; to make eight stretches some way beyond carelessness. This is, in sum, the least competent administration of my lifetime.

 

The Bank of England wants us to make sure the ship has lifeboats in case of need. It hasn’t asked us to man them.

The Bank of England has offered us a range of scenarios, anticipating potential outcomes from different types of Brexit, based on a long series of assumptions.  These, for example, are possible eventualities relating to unemployment:

Jacob Rees Mogg has been complaining about the ‘wild inaccuracies’ of previous Treasury forecasts.  That’s quite irrelevant.  A projection is a conditional statement, saying what will happen subject to certain assumptions; a scenario is an alternative possible future; a prediction is a statement about what will happen.  Projections and scenarios are not predictions.  Putting lifeboats on passenger ships is not based on a prediction about what is going to happen; it’s a preparation for a particular scenario.  It doesn’t mean the ship is sinking.  Mind, in this case it might be.

The Brexit agreement is not great, but it’s all we’re going to get.

The Brexit agreement is  largely a pragmatic document which tries to steady the ship, rather than a major breakthrough in any direction.  Fisheries, for example, are not resolved – they’re simply put into abeyance before the next round.  The whole document looks like a draft, with loads of white space around sections – when a Labour spokesman talked yesterday about it being 600 pages and ‘tightly spaced’, it was clear he’d not even looked at it, because he couldn’t have said that if he had.

Some elements in it are disappointing, but to my mind the sections which most prompt concern almost certainly reflect the negotiating position of the British Government.  I’d point in particular to

  • Article 15(1), which gives people a right of residence only after they’ve been in athe host country for five years.  That is an abdication of responsibility both by the EU (which guaranteed movement as a fundamental right) and the UK (which made the same guarantee to its own citizens).
  • Article 92(5) and Protocol IV.7, which bind the UK not to offer state aid to business; and
  • Protocols V.17 and 18, which void elements of contracts which have non-commercial justification, a principle used to negate local minimum wages and agreements with labour unions.

It’s also important to note what’s not there: protection for the rights of citizens who might reasonably expect to live and work abroad but have the misfortune to be domiciled in their home country  at the moment, cross-border families in the same situations, or derogations from EU law relating to internal management of the British economy.

These are not, I know, the issues that most excite our politicians.  I’m sure someone will notice that the protocol with Northern Ireland stresses the importance of  access to the UK for goods from the province (pp 304 and 313), but not vice-versa.  It’s possible that the whole agreement will founder on that.

The agreement could have been better.  It would have been better if the government had thought through its position at the start; if it had consulted with interest groups, rather than keeping negotiations secret; and if it had used EU law to hold the EU to its treaty obligations.  It probably would not, however, look a lot different from the document we have now.  Ultimately I expect Parliament to fold, but even if we were to go through another election, any commitment to implement the referendum decision as it stands will end up looking something like this.

Brexit should be stopped, but I’m not convinced that the way to do it is by a second referendum.

Brexit should be stopped.  We can debate what the duties of a government are, but I’m fairly sure that it doesn’t include a direction to drive the bus over the edge of a cliff.

However, I’m not convinced that the way to do this is by another referendum.  That would imply that if the referendum was to confirm the original decision, we should abide by the majority’s decision, and I do not accept that we should.

There were three obvious problems with the referendum in 2016, and all of those problems are still there.  The first problem was that several million people were directly and immediately barred from voting.   Those people included British citizens living in Europe, and European citizens living in Britain. There is no possible revision to the electorate which will not lead to one side or another crying ‘foul’.

The second problem was, as we now know, the combination of illegality and downright lies that characterised the campaign to Leave.  There is no reason to suppose that the next campaign would be any cleaner.

The third problem would be true of any referendum.  It is democratic to encourage people to express their views, and we have a convention that decisions are decided by majority rule.  However, it is not democratic for any majority, ever, to deny rights to minorities.  We should not tolerate a situation where half the population votes to extinguish the rights of the other half – and that, in effect, is what has happened.

When the government accepted the brief to negotiate exit from the European Union, their first responsibility – and the first responsibility of EU authorities on the other side – was to defend the fundamental rights of citizens.  Both sides have a clear, unequivocal, treaty-based legal obligation to safeguard individual rights.  Both sides have failed to do so.

Labour: time to rethink benefits policy

The Labour party – or, to be more accurate, John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor – has now come slowly to the conclusion that Universal Credit doesn’t work: it is not sustainable and it “will have to go”.   An article last month in the New Statesman blamed  the state of Labour’s policy on social security on the lack of vigour shown by their previous social security representative, which left them with no spending plans to pay for changes in policy.  The problems run much deeper.

A large part of UC is a legacy of ‘welfare reform’ in the last Labour government: the belief in ‘personalisation’, the dependence on means-testing in Tax Credits,  the policies on overpayments, and most of all the muddle between the role of benefits and the task of preparing some people for work.   The last Labour manifesto, in 2017, didn’t challenge any of that. They included a clutch of measures to switch the system back to what it was a short time ago – sanctions, the bedroom tax,  Housing Benefit cuts and the like.  Then there were tweaks to make disability benefits and UC work a bit better.  And there were a few aspirations, such as improving the culture or removing barriers for people with disabilities, which weren’t tied to specific policies at all.  The shift in relation to UC is a welcome move in the right direction, but Labour needs to think rather more thoroughly and deeply about what social security is for and how it might be changed.

A Citizens’ Initiative on European citizenship

I’ve raised the question of European citizenship several times on this blog, and have previously both raised a petition and supported a crowdfunded legal case to argue against British citizens being stripped of fundamental rights.  There is a new citizens’ initiative with the same objective and I’d urge those who wish to maintain European citizenship to support it.

 

The Brexit White Paper is out

The Brexit White Paper is strong on aspirations but weak on the detail of how to achieve them.  The paper refers repeatedly to “cooperation” (226 times) and to “new” arrangements (153).  There’s a long shopping list of fields of activity which will require specific negotiation.   The main proposal for mechanisms is to create an institutional framework, a governing body, a joint committee, and then sub-branches dealing with the specifics such as fishing, security, data protection and so forth.

While it’s fine to propose cooperation, every one of the areas considered is going to need negotiation and agreement of terms.  In most cases, the document does not say what those terms should be, only that the issue has to be discussed.   For example,

 the Government’s vision is for an economic partnership that includes:

  • … a new Facilitated Customs Arrangement
  • … new arrangements on services and digital
  • …  new economic and regulatory arrangements for financial services
  • … a new framework that respects the UK’s control of its borders …

The White Paper is blunt, however, on at least two points.  One concerns mobility, and the civil rights of EU citizens.  The UK is happy enough for Brits to live abroad but EU citizens will be restricted, with the main exception of easy-going tourist visas.  The other is fisheries, where the document states baldly that access to UK waters will have to be licensed and negotiated annually.

There is of course hardly anything the issues that matter most to ordinary people, such as residence or family law, where the most that is said is that something will have to be agreed.

What the UK government wants, and what the EU will agree to

There is very little practical difference between the position recently agreed by the UK Cabinet and the position adopted by the EU.  Putting the positions side by side, we find this.  (Everything in the table is a quotation from a public statement.)

UK Government position EU negotiating position
A common rulebook for all goods including agri-food, with the UK making an upfront choice to commit by treaty to ongoing harmonisation with EU rules on goods A framework for voluntary regulatory cooperation to encourage convergence of rules
Different arrangements for services, where it is in our interests to have regulatory flexibility, recognising the UK and the EU will not have current levels of access to each other’s markets. An open market for services, where companies from the other party have the right of establishment and market access to provide services under host state rules
A common rulebook on state aid, and establish cooperative arrangements between regulators on competition. Common ground on competition and state aid.
A joint institutional framework to provide for the consistent interpretation and application of UK-EU agreements by both parties. This would be done in the UK by UK courts, and in the EU by EU courts Adequate enforcement and dispute settlement mechanisms.
The phased introduction of a new Facilitated Customs Arrangement that would remove the need for customs checks and controls between the UK and the EU as if a combined customs territory Customs cooperation to facilitate goods crossing the border

 

The main area of disagreement in that list concerns access for services, where it is almost certain that the UK government will give way – they cannot get UK access for financial services otherwise.

The high level of agreement does not, however, imply an easy resolution of the issues, because – yet again – the UK has largely failed to engage with the issues. The recent statement from the EU’s negotiating team identifies a host of priority issues where the UK has still not identified a position. They include:

  • access to public procurement markets
  • investments
  • intellectual property rights
  • coordination of social security
  • recognition of professional qualifications
  • guarantees against tax dumping
  • an air transport agreement, combined with aviation safety and security agreements.
  • participation in EU programmes, for instance in the field of research and innovation
  • rules on data protection and
  • social and environmental standards.

One might hope that the forthcoming White Paper will have something to say about these issues; but frankly, it should all have been laid out two years ago.