A Brief Thought on Nigel Farage

Nigel Farage

Nigel Farage, by far the most extreme of the mainstream cheerleaders for Brexit and certainly the political leader most comfortable with brushing shoulders with actual racism and fascism in his utterances, has resigned from the leadership of UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party. In UKIP’s moment of triumph, pyrrhic though it may be, Farage has stepped down from the party with which he is synonymous. It’s the latest in a series of resignations and retreats which have claimed the man who called the referendum, David Cameron, the man who led the Conservatives campaigning to Leave, Boris Johnson, and now the man who led the only political party to campaign in its entirety for Leave.

Where will Farage go? With Farage having met with media baron Rupert Murdoch the day before his resignation, speculation has inevitably turned to the possibility that his incredibly high media profile over the past few years (far outstripping anything justified by UKIP’s actual political representation) will now translate into a media job. It would make sense in many ways. Farage is nothing if not intensely egotistical (he’s dramatically stepped down as UKIP leader in the past, only to return to the job within days) and it’s hard to imagine that at this, the moment of his triumph, he would disappear from public life. A media role would let him maintain his profile and do what he loves best – lobbing grenades from the sidelines as Britain’s political establishment tries to sort out the mess (whenever they stop making new messes and get around to actually sorting anything out).

Regardless of what Farage does next – and it is also possible (if a little out of character) that he’ll fade away for a little while to spend more time with his £80,000 MEP salary – he won’t be gone for long. His departure now is a calculated one. Unlike Boris Johnson, who never intended for a Leave victory and whose best-laid plans were thrown into disarray by it (and by Michael Gove stabbing him in the back), Farage likely believed that Leave could win the referendum all along. He’s got a plan, not for Brexit – nobody had a plan for Brexit – but for himself and his future career.

Farage is a rabble-rouser, and he knows that the rabble he has roused is going to stay roused. Brexit isn’t going to deliver what Leave voters want, not least because what many Leave voters actually want is impossible by any means short of a full embrace of fascist authoritarianism. Britain will muddle through somehow – economically and politically damaged, perhaps outside the EU, and perhaps with the UK no longer intact. Migrants will still be there, though. Businesses owned and staffed by non-white people will still be there. EU regulations will mostly still be there. The people who have been left behind by successive waves of neoliberal policymaking over the past 35 years will, if anything, be even worse off than before. Their vote to leave the EU won’t have changed their economic misery or removed the visible manifestations of the immigration which they blame for that misery. Their anger with politics, with governments, with elites and with all of the institutions which make up the British state will only intensify and curdle as they come around to the belief that the politicians have screwed them again. They voted to leave, and the politicians found a mealy-mouthed way to wriggle out of it. The people, the real people, the proper English people, spoke, and all those lying experts and self-serving intellectuals and greedy politicians just found a way to ignore it.

Nigel Farage will be right there to nod, to listen and to focus that outrage, fear and fury – just like he did prior to the referendum. He wants to be out of politics for now, because he doesn’t want to be seen to have anything to do with the stitch-up that’s inevitably coming. In his absence, UKIP will likely fall into a terminal decline. It’s never truly been more than the Nigel Farage Party, with other senior figures like Douglas Carswell and Neil Hamilton having none of his profile, his charisma, or his political nous. It doesn’t matter; UKIP was a vehicle and has served its purpose for now. Farage gets to play the tired, noble statesman who has achieved his purpose, slide out of politics (whether into the media or into temporary obscurity is a moot point) and ready himself to step back in down the line. He’ll be just as outraged as the Leave voters. He worked so hard for this result, to secure the UK’s independence, and those grasping, sleazy politicians in Westminster have undermined it all and ignored the voice of the real English people. He will be the perfect chalice to hold their anger, their frustration and their hate, and they will power him onwards to whatever his next political goal may be.

We’re not done with Nigel Farage. The people currently scorning him for running away from his responsibilities as the UK falls asunder aren’t the people who matter; they’ve never understood or been in thrall to the cult of Farage the Everyman, Farage the Proper Englishman, Farage Who Only Says What Everyone Is Thinking. Those who have believed in him this far won’t see his resignation now as any kind of cowardice or betrayal – hasn’t he earned a rest, after putting it to those smug Eurocrats and Westminster slimeballs for so long? – and will embrace him with open arms and ample spittle-flecked fury when he returns.

Needless to say, it’s not exactly reassuring that the politician who has most openly flirted with fascism is the only one who actually seems to have a game plan…

Labour’s Badly Planned, Graceless Coup

Corbyn Labour Coup

The attempts of Labour’s parliamentary party to defenestrate their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, rumble on – but this coup has become an aimless, witless and utterly artless thing that threatens to damage the Labour Party far more than Corbyn’s leadership ever could. What began as a calculated and focused attempt to quickly remove Corbyn ahead of a likely 2016 General Election rapidly turned out to have no Plan B and no exit strategy. The party’s MPs now find themselves in a bitter and destructive struggle against their leader which threatens a complete implosion of the UK’s official opposition at one of the most crucial junctures in the nation’s political history.

I don’t think that Jeremy Corbyn is the right leader for the Labour party at this point in time. I think that many of the MPs who voted No Confidence in him last week did so in good faith – not from disloyalty or ambition, but from concern for the party and for those it represents. What has happened since the No Confidence vote, however, represents the most bone-headed act of self-destruction I think I’ve ever seen a political party commit.

Whatever your view of Corbyn’s leadership or his policies, the general sense of the man himself is that he’s a fundamentally decent guy – stubborn perhaps, even to the point of intransigence, but a decent human being nonetheless. It was this sense of being honest, decent and unpolished that led to his election in the first place. Years of slick candidates moulded by spin doctors to match target demographic preferences, yawning ideological emptiness concealed behind dazzling white smiles, left Labour supporters fatigued, disenchanted and desperate for something different. Corbyn doesn’t look like a modern political leader; he doesn’t talk like one; he doesn’t act like one. A bit frumpy, grizzled and utterly sincere, his appearances across the despatch box from former PR man David Cameron (a PR man being elevated to Prime Minister being the most worrying real-world instance of lunatics taking over an asylum that I can imagine) have only emphasised how different he is from everything else on offer.

Since Corbyn refused to step down following the vote of No Confidence, we’ve been presented with the gruesome spectacle of Labour MPs launching attacks on him in the press which have veered towards the intensely nasty and personal. There’s been a resurrection of the smear campaign attempting to link him to anti-semitism (he is a long-standing supporter of Palestine, a firmly mainstream political position in the UK and not one that implies any link to anti-semitism). There have been accusations that he is a bully, that he has ignored or sidelined MPs, that he runs some kind of “secret police” within the Labour party. There have even been claims that he might have voted Leave in the EU referendum or that he failed to campaign effectively for Remain. The former claim is baseless; the latter seems rather unfair given that Remain was ultimately supported by a larger proportion of Labour voters than even SNP voters. Corbyn is at heart suspicious of the EU – it has, after all, demonstrated radically neoliberal tendencies and its financial institutions in particular have supported brutally damaging, economically hawkish austerity policies. His speeches in support of the Remain campaign did take account of those concerns rather than being bombastically pro-Remain – but that’s exactly the sort of thing Corbyn’s supporters expect of him. Nuance rather than soundbite; honesty rather than spin.

Aside from the outright unpleasantness of resorting to (often anonymous) press attacks on Corbyn’s character when the main gambit of the coup had failed, these claims are politically naive to the point of astounding stupidity. They don’t make Corbyn look bad; to a public who generally see Corbyn as a nice, genuine old chap (if perhaps not a potential Prime Minister), they make him look embattled and set-upon, not by concerned Labour MPs but by bitter, grasping plotters. They make the Labour Party look like a nest of vipers, and nobody votes for nests of vipers.

Whether his MPs like him or not, whether they respect his leadership or not, Jeremy Corbyn is the most popular Labour politician in a generation. With Tony Blair’s reputation permanently ruined by the perception of gross dishonesty over the Iraq War, and Tony Benn sadly no longer with us, Corbyn is the closest thing Labour has right now to a populist figure. This is the second facet to the political stupidity of those continuing to push a coup against Corbyn; any future Labour leader needs Jeremy Corbyn on board. Any future leader will need Corbyn’s blessing, because they will need Corbyn’s movement – the tens if not hundreds of thousands of people who have joined Labour because of him. These people are the party’s best hope for being able to effectively run the kind of grass-roots campaign that might raise turnout and put them back in power some day. Labour’s MPs may not realise this, but local Labour parties who actually have to engage in on-the-ground campaigning do, and have overwhelmingly backed Corbyn. Unions recognise it too, and have also backed Corbyn. The MPs seem increasingly isolated.

The original coup plan wasn’t a bad one, and I maintain that many of the MPs who went along with it signed up in good faith. A vote of No Confidence would see Corbyn recognising that he no longer had the faith of the MPs he leads, and stepping down to make way for Tom Watson as interim leader and a new leadership election – which would hopefully deliver a unity candidate who could earn the support of both the parliamentary party and of Corbyn and his faction. Job done, Labour unified. The coup itself was planned because the alternative – a leadership challenge – would just see Corbyn’s huge grassroots support returning him to the leadership again. Thus, a way had to be found to get him to leave voluntarily, or at least with a semblance of voluntary choice.

That’s not what happened. Corbyn refused to step down – he’s stubborn, remember, that’s one of the qualities people elected him for in the first place – and while I personally think that was a mistake on his part, what followed after that from the most strident of Corbyn’s foes was not just a mistake, it was disgraceful and stupid. Labour’s MPs find themselves now in open, aggressive conflict with Labour’s most popular and well-liked political figure. Whatever electoral benefit might have followed from replacing Corbyn has been thrown away; by failing to back down from their failed coup, Labour’s MPs have dumped the party into a petty, nasty civil war, played out on a public stage in front of an electorate who need a competent opposition now more than ever.

Corbyn isn’t the right person to lead Labour today, but the coup has failed, and should have been abandoned the moment this became clear; if Labour MPs want Corbyn gone, they need to show the party membership a better alternative rather than trying quick and dirty measures to force a resignation. The only hope for the party is that those MPs who signed on to the No Confidence motion in genuinely good faith will reverse course before any further damage can be done. I remain hopeful that those MPs are in the majority. To believe otherwise would be to believe that 172 Labour MPs, the vast majority of the parliamentary party, are conniving traitors and schemers. Perhaps that’s true, but to believe so is to believe that the Labour party is utterly finished. I’d rather proceed on a somewhat more hopeful basis – an alternative to Labour will take many years to build, and many years without strong opposition to Conservative rule is not something Britain’s working classes or minority communities can contend with.

(Hat tip to @RichStanton, with whom a brief Twitter exchange helped to clarify my own thoughts on the coup and Corbyn’s position.)

No Confidence – and not just in Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn

Five days after Brexit, the impact of the UK’s vote to leave the EU is becoming clearer. Nowhere is that impact being felt more keenly than at the top of the country’s major political parties. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has quit – declining to trigger the Article 50 negotiations on EU exit, stating that this would be a decision for his successor, and reportedly saying to aides in Number 10, “why should I have to do the hard shit?” For a move being hailed in some quarters as a scheming act of political calculation deserving of a sub-plot on Game of Thrones, it looks remarkably like a surly table-flip from a man who had just lost a very foolish bet. The Conservative party finds itself in disarray. People like George Osbourne and Boris Johnson, whose support for Leave was entirely designed to undermine Cameron and vacate the Prime Minister’s job for himself, have recognised the the land-mine that Cameron chucked underneath the chair as he departed and are backing rapidly away from the top job. Meanwhile, political lightweights barely deserving of the term “mediocrity”, like fatuous NHS hatchet-man Jeremy Hunt, witlessly toss their hats into the ring.

While the Tories were fractured throughout the campaign and now find themselves split more deeply than ever before, Labour backed the Remain campaign with fairly solid party unity. My former MP, serial dissenter Kate Hoey, was one of only a handful of Labour MPs to rebel and support Leave; 99.2% of Labour MPs supported Remain. Given the anger, fear and upset over the Leave vote, the disorganisation of the leaderless and rudderless Conservatives, and the potential for striking strong alliances with strongly pro-remain local parties in Scotland and Northern Ireland, you’d think that Labour would be out there making plenty of hay in the bright sunshine, wouldn’t you?

Well, you’d think that. Instead, most of Labour’s Shadow Cabinet has resigned, and a vote of no confidence in the party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has been passed by a huge margin. 172 MPs voted no confidence, to 40 who supported Corbyn (13 abstained, and 4 MPs spoiled their ballots, which I hope was a slightly pointless protest and not an indication that Labour has four elected MPs who don’t know how ballot papers work). Corbyn says he won’t resign. There’ll probably be a leadership challenge. Just as the Conservatives find themselves in crisis, Labour has found a way to sink into an even deeper crisis.

Of course they have. We’re talking about Labour, a party riven right down the middle by a deeper divide than Tory Euroskeptics could ever create; the divide between the shiny-faced, PR-groomed New Labour generation, and the frumpy, stubborn and sincere old socialists. The former group are career politicians who, though often possessed of fine qualities and beliefs, fundamentally pursue little other than re-election, and believe fervently in the pursuit of politics through opinion polling, focus groups and post-modern campaign methods. The latter are generally drawn from activist or trade union backgrounds and see their socialist beliefs as a hill worth dying on; hardened by Labour’s years in the electoral wilderness in the 80s and 90s, they regard electoral failure as a price worth paying for staying true to their principles.

Right now, one of the old socialists is in charge of the Labour party for the first time in a generation. Corbyn was voted in by a huge margin by a combination of long-term rank-and-file Labour members and a wave of newcomers shocked by the Conservatives’ 2015 election victory and enthused by Corbyn’s sincere, unpolished approach. The party loves Corbyn – polls of Labour members suggest he’s actually grown in popularity since his landslide election. Labour MPs, on the other hand, hate him. They’re mostly drawn from the ranks of New Labour and remain starry-eyed over the success of the Blair era, thus innately suspicious of the resurrected spectre of 80s and 90s Old Labour – but even among those who aren’t, their immediate concerns and motivations are simple; they want to keep their jobs. They want to be re-elected. To the MPs who make up the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), the principles and policies of the Labour leadership play second fiddle to the leadership’s ability to retain its seats in parliament.

Ever since Corbyn took the helm of the Labour party, he’s struggled to maintain control of the PLP. Some MPs are loyal to him because they genuinely believe in him and his principles. Others are loyal because they respect the position of leader and the decision of the party members. On the other side, some are intrinsically, vehemently opposed to him because they disagree with his principles and positions. In the middle rests the majority of the PLP – who fear that Corbyn can’t win an election, but were willing to hold their peace and give him a shot at the leadership, since the next election wasn’t scheduled until 2020.

It’s now extremely unlikely that the next election will be in 2020. Brexit has upended all political calculations. By far the most likely outcome is a general election before the end of this year. The new Conservative leader will not only face an impossible decision regarding the EU exit trigger, he or she will also be seen to lack a mandate to govern. That will be even more the case if, as is likely, it’s one of the party’s rather less impressive specimens at the helm, with “big beasts” like Boris Johnson, George Osbourne and Theresa May keeping their distance from the poisoned chalice.

When Jeremy Corbyn took over Labour and the centrist / right-leaning sides of the party and the media brayed with horror about his consigning the party to electoral purgatory, I argued that Corbyn’s job was not, for now, to win elections. With five years to the next election, his job was to move the Overton Window of Britain’s political conversation; to shift the range of “acceptable” policies and positions, which has drifted inexorably rightwards since the late 1970s, back towards the centre-left. He needed to make it possible to discuss economic inequality, workers’ rights, trade unions, the social compact and redistributive justice without being automatically labelled a “loony leftie” – so a leader, himself or another, championing those things in 2020 could actually stand to win an election. The only way to do that is to keep discussing those things, to be called a “loony leftie” and far worse so many times that the words lose their meaning and your views start to become not crazy, or wild-eyed, but a regular part of political discourse.

That approach takes time. Labour has run out of time. An election in 2016 could, some argue, see Labour wiped out in northern seats that voted strongly to leave the EU. Even with the Tories crisis-struck and infighting, Labour hasn’t had the time or opportunity required to shunt the national debate to the left; Labour MPs fear for their seats even in the most favourable electoral climate for them in a generation. So they want Corbyn gone; they want someone more traditionally “electable”, more slick in presentation, more willing to listen to focus groups and do what’s needed to win an election today, not to change a national conversation in five years’ time.

They’re not wrong. I believe that Britain’s political debate has been utterly poisoned by a shift to the right that has made voices of fascism and authoritarianism more valid and credible than voices calling for centre-leftist redistribution and justice. I believe that the only way Labour reclaims its heartland districts and the trust of the British working classes is by re-embracing social democracy and being willing to grit its teeth and champion unpopular things like trade unions and workers’ rights, fighting through the scorn until they’re re-established as a pillar of British society. I believe that a leader like Corbyn, for all his failings, could play a vital role in that slow, difficult and necessary process.

I also believe in political realities, though, and the political reality is that Corbyn lacks authority within his own party and has yet to make significant headway on making his arguments sound valid to the electorate. Those plotting against Corbyn are despicable opportunists in many regards, but even while finding their nakedly careerist ambitions contemptible (Hilary Benn, a profoundly unimpressive politician who owes his entire career to the fact that his father was Labour stalwart Tony Benn, is a particularly egregious example) it’s hard to deny that they have a point. Labour going into a 2016 election under Corbyn poses a profound risk not only to the Labour Party and their seats, but to the people they are meant to represent.

Consider; whatever Conservative party emerges from its current mess will almost certainly be more right-wing and illiberal than its current incarnation. It’s unlikely to win many extra seats in the election – it’s more likely to slide backwards, and Labour may even win some seats from them. However, emboldened by Brexit, the even more aggressively far-right UKIP could win several seats, granting the far-right party more MPs from traditional Labour heartlands. The Tories, losing their slim majority, would face another coalition – either with their old partners, the Liberal Democrats, whom Cameron used effectively to hold back the right-wingers in his own party during the last coalition government, or with UKIP. With the right wing in control of the Conservative party, unleashed by Brexit and Cameron’s resignation, they’re unlikely to countenance another coalition with the Lib Dems; a nightmare coalition of a right-leaning Conservative party, the borderline fascist UKIP and the Ulster Unionists seems perhaps the most likely outcome of a Labour stumble in the 2016 General Election.

That would spell catastrophe for the UK as a whole, but even more so for the British working classes whom Labour is tasked, often thanklessly, to represent. The further austerity and erosion of rights for workers, tenants and consumers that would result would be nothing short of obscene; the damage to Britain’s hard-won and fragile social cohesion between diverse ethnic groups would be absolute, and absolutely heart-breaking.

Corbyn was the right leader for Labour when the task was to drag the party, and then the British people, back to firm centre-left ground – when stubbornness and a willingness to shrug off unpopularity were the key requirements for the role. Corbyn hasn’t changed, but the job has. The job now is to mitigate the damage of Brexit and to avoid plunging Britain into an even deeper crisis at the likely impending election. Corbyn isn’t the man for that job. While the disloyalty and scheming of those who have plotted against him from the outset should never be forgotten (we can hope that several of them will be de-selected by their local parties in retribution), many of the 172 who voted against him this week have done so out of genuine fear not just for their own jobs but for the future of the UK. Corbyn is the right man, but this is the wrong time.

Sadly, the very stubbornness that made him perfect for the job of changing the Labour party is now preventing him from doing the decent thing and stepping down. Labour’s best hope is a quick challenge, a decent new leader (Angela Eagle wouldn’t be a bad choice, all things considered) and a rapid healing process allowing them to get this behind them before the Conservatives get their house sufficiently in order to consider a general election. The Corbyn “project” will have to be paused – but the alternative is so very much worse.

Brexit Stage Right: What Now?

As of a few hours ago, the United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union. The BBC reports that the final result is around 52% to 48% in favour of Leave – or, to give it its catchy/annoying portmanteau, Brexit.

I’m writing this post largely because I’ve been asked pretty often by friends from outside the UK what this actually means, why it’s happened and what the next steps will be. If you’re a UK resident, you’re probably very well informed about what’s going on, and won’t find this terribly useful.

The Brexit Referendum was called by UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who campaigned for a Remain vote. History isn’t going to judge Cameron very kindly; he promised the referendum for purely party political reasons, because he felt that the only way to keep anti-EU rebels in the Conservative party from tearing the party apart ahead of the 2015 General Election was to mollify them with the promise of in “in-out referendum”. Cameron also calculated that this would reduce the threat to his party’s seats from UKIP (the UK Independence Party), a niche right-wing party which campaigned on anti-EU sentiment and threatened to overtake the Conservatives in a handful of seats.

Cameron, and much of the political establishment, assumed that a Remain vote would prevail. Polling suggested that voters actively opposed to Britain’s membership of the European Union were a vocal minority. Every major political party, business organisation and economic expert backed a Remain vote. Moreover, history suggests that voters in the UK are cautious when it comes to major change, ultimately preferring stability to uncertainty at the polls – in recent years, the UK voted to keep its existing (rather terrible) electoral system and Scotland voted to remain in the United Kingdom, both votes which skewed towards the status quo.

That assumption, that Leave was an outside chance, may explain why what happens next is so unclear. No country has ever left the European Union, just as no state has ever seceded from the United States of America. Procedures exist – Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty outlines how a nation may leave the EU, and makes slightly grim reading for the UK, as it’s fairly clear that the terms of departure will be decided upon by the other member states in negotiations which do not involve the departing state. The EU, anxious to preserve its stability, isn’t going to be inclined to show the UK special favour in these negotiations. However, it’s not even clear whether this vote actually triggers Article 50 negotiations; the referendum was not legally binding, and the decision to leave the EU still needs to be voted upon by Parliament and formally announced to the EU authorities. Could the UK Parliament ignore the results of the referendum and stay in the EU? Legally, yes. Socially, politically; god knows. The ramifications of simply ignoring a referendum result are impossible to calculate.

Here’s what we can calculate. Firstly, David Cameron is toast. There is simply no way that a prime minister can survive losing a referendum such as this one, especially when the primary opposition he faced was from members of his own party. The Leave campaigners in his party, notably Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, may well negotiate to allow Cameron to remain for a while in order to let him soak up some of the flak that will inevitably come as a result of the chaotic days and weeks ahead. He is, however, now a lame duck and will have to leave soon. George Osborne may be gone even sooner; the Leave team will want a scalp, and while Cameron is useful to them for a little while yet, Osborne is not, and will be seen as a possible threat in a future leadership race. (Equally, both Cameron and Osborne could be defenestrated by the end of the day – it would be wise to keep Cameron on to maintain some continuity while things are figured out, but the Leave team are little if not impulsive.)

(Update: David Cameron has just announced that he will resign, but will remain in place as Prime Minister for a few months while the Conservative party selects a replacement. This does essentially allow him to absorb flak over the referendum – but he’s pushed the toughest part of the whole affair, the actual triggering of EU withdrawal, out into the long grass, saying it will have to be handled by the next Prime Minister. That leaves several months for Parliament to weigh its options and figure out if it really has the brass neck to simply ignore the referendum result and refuse to exit the EU. As for Osborne, no idea, but Cameron’s legislation probably protects him to an extent, and he’s a likely candidate for the Tory leadership from the pro-Europe side of the party.)

Secondly, the United Kingdom is toast. Of the four nations which comprise the United Kingdom – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – only two voted to leave the EU. Every single district in Scotland was firmly in the Remain camp, and the country’s political leadership has been very clear about the need for another independence referendum should the UK leave the EU. A second referendum so soon after the first may seem crazy, but the notion that Scotland would not be permitted to remain in the EU should it leave the UK was one of the major arguments of the anti-independence campaigners last time around. With the UK now departing the EU, the landscape has changed dramatically; Scotland swallowed its pride and voted for stability, which England has now abandoned.

Northern Ireland also voted to remain in the EU, but that’s a far trickier situation – one which creates a political and constitutional mess that it’s going to take very delicate work to untangle safely. Voting in Northern Ireland was to some degree along old sectarian lines; nationalists voted to remain in the EU (of which the Republic of Ireland is also a member, of course), while unionists voted to leave. As soon as the results became apparent, Sinn Fein demanded that the UK leaving the EU should trigger a referendum on the reunification of Ireland – which Sinn Fein believes should count votes on the entire island of Ireland, Republic and Northern alike. The details will need negotiation (a plebiscite simply of the people of Northern Ireland seems more reasonable at first glance), but with Scotland likely winning its independence, it will be incredibly hard to deny Northern Ireland a referendum on its future – and that would represent a change to a status quo which remains very delicately balanced. The Good Friday Agreement which largely ended terrorist violence in Northern Ireland is almost 20 years old, and that period of peace has hopefully been long enough to endure through fresh political unrest; but whatever happens next in Northern Ireland, whether it’s a referendum (likely to be won by the Nationalists) or the denial of a referendum, it’s going to seriously upset one side of what used to be a very bloody conflict. So yes, David Cameron could end up going down in history as the prime minister who accidentally withdrew the UK from the European Union, broke up the United Kingdom and destabilised Northern Ireland after nearly 20 years of peace. I suppose at least he can console himself that with all that to discuss, most history books won’t have room to address the whole “intercourse with a dead pig” issue.

Thirdly, the impact on immigration will be minimal. While much of the Leave campaign has been focused on controlling immigration or “taking back control of the UK’s borders”, the reality is that the UK’s membership of the EU makes zero difference to its ability to control migration from outside the EU; and freedom of movement within the EU is a condition of membership of the single market. Non-EU members like Norway have to accept freedom of movement (along with most EU laws and regulations) as a condition of participation in the single market, and there is absolutely no way that the EU will permit the UK to enter the single market without also continuing to honour those rules.

There’s good news and bad news here. The good news is that for EU citizens living in the UK, and UK citizens living in the EU, the impact of Brexit is likely to be minimal – at least in terms of their right to live and work. The nightmare scenario of EU citizens being deported from the UK in droves while the millions of British people who live in the EU are forced to return will not come to pass; access to the single market is simply non-negotiable for Britain’s economy, and Britain’s exit from the EU will of necessity include making whatever concessions are required to retain this. In practice, this will be humiliating for the UK; it will essentially be forced to accept whatever rules the EU passes in future, without having a place in the negotiation or the ability to veto proposals. Dressing up the EU exit as a triumph for sovereignty and nationalism will be a fig leaf for this, but the truth of the new arrangement will hit home eventually.

Fourth, this will cause a serious economic shock. Already we’ve seen an enormous loss to Sterling’s value, trading ceased on stock markets in the USA and Japan, a collapse in the value of several commodities and a rise in the value of gold as investors run for the world’s oldest safe haven. Whether this is just a short sharp shock, or the beginning of a loss of confidence that turns into another slump comparable to the one triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, nobody really knows. We’ll find out soon enough.

Either way, these things seem abstract, but they have real world consequences. People are going to lose their jobs, and they’re going to see their spending power seriously eroded. A weaker pound has some benefits – it’ll mean British exports are more competitive – but it’ll also mean that imports are much more expensive and that British consumers’ buying power is much lower. Moreover, pulling out of the EU will end EU subsidies for many regions of the UK and for many sectors including agriculture. Remaining in the single market will probably mean that not many companies actually leave the UK en masse, but many deprived regions of the UK will likely be surprised to discover just how much of their industry and infrastructure has been backed by funding from the European Union, not from the UK itself.

Fifth and finally, this isn’t just about the UK. Brexit has come about as a consequence not so much of the European Union or its policies, but as an expression of a general anger and dissatisfaction that has also reared its head across much of the developed world. It’s not unreasonable to compare the UK’s Leave campaign with Donald Trump in the USA, Le Pen in France or Wilders in Holland. Voting for Brexit was characterised by nationalist sentiment and a strong desire to “take back” Britain’s sovereignty from the ill-defined others who have appropriated it. It thrived in communities that have seen widening inequality and economic malaise even as they watched political leaders turn up on TV night after night to talk about economic recovery; communities that may have been delivered a mortal blow by the 2008 recession and the austerity policies which followed, but which had already been suffering from neglect and economic abuse for decades before that, as successive governments tore up more and more pages of the post-war social contract in favour of the shiny new religion of markets and efficiency. There was a time when those communities turned to left-wing movements for their salvation, to unions and to the Labour party; with much of the power of the unions broken and the Labour party pursuing aspirational middle class voters, opportunities have been opened for new and far less savoury political movements to take root. At their core is a deep dissatisfaction and anger not just with individual political actors but with the very institutions of democracy and representative government; a deep conviction that it is not merely that specific parties or policies that have caused people’s quality of life to decline, but that the whole system is stacked against them. Thus, anything that’s seen as part of the system – be it politicians, the media, or even academics and independent experts – is suspect. It is not an attitude that calls for political change, for a new party in power or a new prime minister; it is an attitude that calls for the tearing down of everything, and offers nothing with which to replace it. It is frightening precisely because, in its absolute conviction that the institutions of democracy themselves are a vast conspiracy against the common man, it ends up being insatiable; even if today’s Brexit leaders become Britain’s leaders, in doing so they will become part of “the system” and face the anger of the same people who now cheer them on. The cycle will continue until someone turns up with the capacity to tame the monster that has been conjured up by economic hardship, inequality and unthinking nationalism. Unfortunately, the lessons of the past tell us that such a person is unlikely to be benevolent.

None of this is unique to Britain, and none of it can be fixed by anything less than a fundamental rethink of how we have chosen to structure our society and our economies. Even as market capitalism and globalisation have done wonders at lifting the world’s poorest people out of poverty – an achievement for which capitalism does not get remotely enough credit – it has begun to run out of rope in the developed world. In nations from Japan to Western Europe to North America, inequality is growing and standards of living are slipping. Labour market reforms have turned whole generations into disposable people; I can’t blame British people for laughing off the notion that the EU has protected them in the workplace, when companies like Sports Direct have based their business model off exploiting every loophole, legal and otherwise, no matter how desperately cruel and inhumane, that might allow them to wring more money, more profitability out of their vulnerable, poorly paid staff. “If you leave the EU, you’ll lose your workers rights!” is no argument at all to someone whose zero-hours contract leaves them in desperate financial instability, or whose exploitation by an avaricious, unscrupulous employer has been rubber-stamped by the government itself in the form of a Workfare deal.

The Brexit vote wasn’t just a rejection of the EU; it was a rejection of the whole system, of the whole establishment, of the whole set of institutions and practices that make up the developed world. It was, in ways, a rejection of modernity – a demand to turn back the clock. Turning back the clock isn’t in anyone’s power to deliver. If we want to break this dangerous cycle of economic inequality, social cleavage and political extremism before it rolls out of control, though, it’s beholden upon our countries and institutions to start paying attention to inequality, to public services, to quality of life and to the huge swathe of the electorate for whom every mention of the phrase “economic recovery” in the past two decades has just been salt in the wound.

The Orlando shooting was about homophobia, not Islam.

Fifty people are dead in Orlando, Florida. More than fifty others are wounded. A man walked into the nightclub called Pulse with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and shot them all. It’s the highest death toll in a mass shooting in the history of the United States.

There’s an equation to any act of violence. There’s the actor, the killer; there are the acted-upon, the victims; there is the mechanism, the set of circumstances that allowed the violence to take place. As the world reacts to a horrifying act of violence like the Orlando mass shooting, its focus moves between the different elements of that equation, and we can learn a lot – sometimes, some very uncomfortable truths – from where that focus is permitted to rest.

Pulse is a gay nightclub. It was running a night themed around Latin music and aimed at Latino clientele. That’s part of the equation; this was an act of violence directed against minorities – queer minorities and, more specifically, queer people of colour. Then there’s the mechanism; the killer used a powerful rifle (essentially a consumer version of the US military’s famous M16 assault rifle) which he had legally purchased, despite the fact that he appears to have been on an FBI watchlist.

Then there’s the final part of the equation – the killer. His name was Omar Mateen. He was a 29 year old American. His parents came from Afghanistan. His family is Muslim.

Ahhhh. You can almost hear the sigh of relief – from the US media, from Republican politicians, from the Trump campaign, and from conservative media and politicians around the world. A Muslim. A Muslim man who, apparently, visited ISIS websites. Suddenly the story is simple; suddenly the conservative media can stop having to wrestle with things that make it uncomfortable, like homophobic violence or people on FBI watchlists being able to buy high-powered rifles, and focus on something it’s really comfortable with; spouting uninformed nonsense about ISIS and Islamic terrorism. Business as usual.

And so it goes. Look at coverage in conservative media outlets or statements from conservative politicians, and you find the identity of the victims almost entirely erased. The reality of this attack as an act of violence against queer people is swept aside; now it is an attack on “America”, a tragedy that all Americans can wring their hands about, a senseless and incomprehensible assault on ordinary Americans.

Except it’s not senseless or incomprehensible, and it’s not an assault on ordinary Americans. It’s an assault on queer people in a venue catering specifically to them. The target wasn’t chosen at random; Omar Mateen drove nearly 160 kilometres in order to specifically, deliberately attack a large gay nightclub. To attack “America”, he’d just need to have walked into his local Wal-Mart with his rifle; he didn’t do that because he wasn’t attacking America, he was attacking queer people. To claim this as an attack on “all of America” isn’t solidarity, it’s a dismissal of the real issue and an erasure of the identity of the victims every bit as mealy-mouthed and calculated as the “All Lives Matter” riposte to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Far from being senseless and incomprehensible, this kind of attack feels wearily inevitable. Why is so much of the world uncomfortable with talking about this as an assault on queer people, so desperate to spring back into the familiar embrace of the fear-fuelled ISIS narrative? Precisely because so much of the American conservative movement, like many conservative movements around the world, has spent years demonising and attacking queer minorities. Precisely because they’ve proposed, cheered on and voted for several hundred pieces of local and state legislation attacking the rights and basic human safety of queer people in the past few years. Precisely because the idea that queer rights have gone “too far”, that laws designed to protect vulnerable minorities are themselves “discrimination”, has become a mainstream view in conservative circles. Precisely because any discussion of queer Pride always seems to be met with a question about when “straight Pride month” is. Precisely because the right of trans people to use the bathroom in safety is something half of America thinks we need to have a conversation about.

Omar Mateen didn’t kill fifty queer people because he read an ISIS website, or because he was a Muslim; he wasn’t, by all accounts, even a religious or observant Muslim. He set out to kill queer people because he hated them – a hatred which far predated the very existence of ISIS, let alone his fascination with it. He hated them because he was raised in a climate in which hating queer people is normalised and even celebrated; a climate in which every social advance, like the acceptance of equal marriage, is met with an aggressive conservative backlash that hurts minorities, empowers the bullies and abusers who prey upon them, and legitimises hatred in speech and action. Omar Mateen was an Afghan-American, and certainly, his background probably made him more susceptible to ISIS’ propaganda as a vehicle for legitimising and channeling the hatred he felt – but that hatred, that choice to specifically target queer people, wasn’t down to being Afghan; it was down to being American.

Just remember, as you see the news – not only in America but all around the world – hungrily fall upon the ISIS angle of this story, upon the Muslim angle; this was a homophobic attack on queer people. A man shot over a hundred people because they were queer. The identity of the man matters, but the identity of the victims matters more, because it’s core to the motivation, to understanding the context. Presenting this act as “a Muslim man attacked Americans” is nothing short of dishonest; a lie of omission, a lie of perspective. An American man attacked, maimed and killed queer people. That’s the starting point for the conversation that ought to be happening; but it’s a conversation large segments of the USA, and the world, will do almost anything to avoid.

Japan’s LGBT Tipping Point

Yesterday, Tokyo hosted the Rainbow Pride Parade – the city’s annual celebration of LGBT people and sexual minorities in Japan, now in its fifth year. The parade is the culmination of a week of Pride-related events, political, social and artistic, and is accompanied by a two-day festival at Yoyogi Park.

The speed with which Rainbow Pride has grown in the past five years is astonishing, and it continues to accelerate. When I first attended four years ago, Pride was a huddle of small booths that barely occupied half of the Yoyogi event space; now, it’s bursting at the seams, with more and more major companies, foreign embassies and retailers vying for space and attention. The parade itself is emblematic of the change; a few years ago, it was a small affair very heavily dominated by foreign faces, and many of the Japanese participants wore sunglasses and face masks to avoid being recognised or pictured. Yesterday, five thousand people marched through Shibuya and Harajuku – the vast majority of them Japanese. Five thousand appears to have been a limit set by some agreement with the authorities, because the numbers could easily have been higher; on Sunday morning, people were being turned away from signing up to march, as the parade was full.

It took almost two hours, standing in the hot sunshine, to see the whole parade pass by on its way back into Yoyogi Park – the marchers being applauded and high-fived by the spectators lining the path as they returned. There were no masks and sunglasses. There were foreigners, of course, but hugely outnumbered by local participants. There were families with children. Large groups of staff from major companies, including family brands like Johnson & Johnson, big banks and financial firms, and tech companies like Google and Netflix, all marched wearing company T-shirts and banners proclaiming the companies’ support for Pride.

None of this would be remarkable in many cities around the world, of course, and Tokyo Rainbow Pride is still a minor affair compared to Asia’s largest Pride event, in Taipei, let alone the huge Pride events in US and European cities. What is truly remarkable, though, is the speed of the growth and the rapid, yet almost unnoticed, change from a culture of anonymity and reluctant activism to genuine, open, “pride”.

In this, Rainbow Pride is merely a useful barometer of deeper, more important changes that are occurring within the fabric of Japanese society itself. More and more universities now have thriving LGBT circles – incidentally, my own university, Waseda, has what I believe is Japan’s oldest student LGBT society, GLOW – and several of them were represented at the Pride Festival, including one from the country’s most prestigious school, Tokyo University. There has been a slow but steady stream of Japanese companies stepping forward to say that they will offer the same benefits to LGBT staff and customers that they do to straight people. Several Japanese political parties now include references to LGBT rights in their manifestoes; the ruling LDP is not among them, but the party’s policy chief, Inada Tomomi, made an official visit to Rainbow Pride on Saturday, becoming the most senior Japanese politician to do so. (While Pride is a fun party, it’s also a serious political event; the address after the end of the parade yesterday was given by US ambassador Caroline Kennedy, who was joined on stage by the British and Irish ambassadors.)

Inada’s public support for Pride is a really interesting thing to think about in the context of the future of LGBT rights in Japan. That’s partially because Inada remains a rising star in the LDP, and many consider her to be a future Prime Minister – a role for which current Prime Minister Abe Shinzo appears to be grooming her. More notable, though, is that Inada is, in general, an ultra-conservative figure. She is a hardline historical revisionist who disputes the accepted history regarding the Rape of Nanjing and WW2 comfort women; she approves of the remilitarisation of Japan, makes regular official visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine and is, like many of her senior LDP peers, a member of the hard-right Nippon Kaigi organisation. You would fully expect someone with this background to be deeply conservative on the issue of LGBT rights; the experience of Western countries has been that conservative nationalists are generally extremely anti-LGBT in their stances. Yet Inada was right there at Rainbow Pride, and directly stated her support for human rights and diversity.

This highlights the key difference between Japan and western countries on the issue of LGBT rights; Japan is not, and has never been, a Christian country. It has no religious problem with homosexuality, though it has imported some negative attitudes from the west – prior to the Meiji Restoration in the late 1800s, at least among the upper classes, homosexuality was seen as an indulgent vice, at worst; even The Tale of Genji, written over a thousand years ago, reveals the eponymous prince’s bisexuality in an entirely matter-of-fact way. Human Rights Watch noted last week that homophobic bullying is a problem in schools, and that many teachers are ignorant of, or actively contributing to, the problem; but by and large, LGBT rights is not a hill that Japanese conservatives are willing to die on. Honestly, most of them don’t really care about it, or know very little about it; unlike conservatives in Western countries, those in Japan are, for the most part, generally disinterested in this whole field, and certainly not prepared to expend significant time or energy in fighting against change or progress.

That’s important, because Japan is at a tipping point for LGBT people. Five thousand smiling, waving people, their faces uncovered, marching through Shibuya’s scramble crossing and down a packed Omotesando on a Sunday afternoon is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a line in Japan’s demographic chart; above it, most LGBT people are in the closet, living double lives and keeping their sexuality, for all intents and purposes, invisible. Below the line, you have LGBT young people who, increasingly commonly, come out to their family, their friends, their classmates and even, sometimes, their employers. Hard data on this is impossible to source, but anecdotally, the proportion of LGBT people in their 20s who live openly is an order of magnitude higher than for those in their 40s. Each year, that demographic line rises up the chart, and more and more young people choose to come out.

That tipping point will be familiar to anyone who knows the history of LGBT rights in the west. It’s the point where coming out of the closet becomes the rule rather than the exception; where coming out becomes a rite of passage for young LGBT people, rather than a rare and often forced event some of them have to endure. It’s the point where society has to confront and seriously think about its attitudes to LGBT people and their needs, because they’re no longer an abstract – strange people who do peculiar things and dress oddly and sometimes make funny jokes on TV – but a concrete living reality; your son or daughter, your brother or sister, your cousin, your best friend, your neighbour, your colleague. The single most powerful weapon in the fight for LGBT rights is actually opening ordinary people’s eyes to the LGBT people around them, among their friends and loved ones. Reaching that point is slow, but once it’s reached, change happens very quickly; “gradually, then suddenly”, as Hemingway would have it.

In the West, that sudden burst of change was opposed bitterly by entrenched conservatives; in Japan, though, there’s no interest or appetite for that fight from the conservative camp. There are plenty of old men in political positions who are utterly ignorant of LGBT issues and say stupid, bigoted things – the world won’t run out of those any time soon – but the prospects for any organised conservative resistance to progress on LGBT rights, once that progress becomes a populist position, are very slim. Once Japan advances beyond the tipping point, change will happen very quickly indeed, and with minimal friction.

Viewed in this light, even the high instance of homophobic bullying in schools can be seen as growing pains; homophobia in schools has risen precisely because it is increasingly common for LGBT students to be open about their identities. This is enormously brave, and it’s heart-rending to hear of them being bullied or taunted for it; but they are of a generation who can’t imagine hiding their sexuality, who would prefer to be bullied than to lie to the world about themselves, and as a result they’re a generation that is going to change Japan profoundly.

Opposition Coordination is no Silver Bullet

Japan held two by-elections yesterday – one in Hokkaido 5th District, which has been without an MP since the death of veteran LDP lawmaker Machimura Nobutaka last summer, and one in Kyoto 3rd District, whose scandal-hit LDP MP Miyazaki Kensuke resigned in February. The LDP held the Hokkaido seat and lost the Kyoto seat – a net gain for the opposition, but not one from which the nascent Democratic Party can take much comfort, because the nature of the results raises tough questions about the much-vaunted “opposition coordination” approach.

First, let’s look at the seat the Democratic Party won – Kyoto 3. The DP candidate, Izumi Kenta, won with over 65% of the vote, gaining over 10,000 votes compared to his performance in the 2014 election. Turnout, however, was the lowest ever in the post-war era, at around 30%, not least because the LDP didn’t actually contest the seat. Miyazaki Kensuke’s scandal (he was caught in an adulterous affair only days after making a big deal of taking paternity leave to support his wife following the birth of his first child) was headline news for days and provoked a huge backlash; the LDP wrote off the seat and chose not to run a candidate. Second place in the race, then, went to the newly minted Initiatives From Osaka, whose candidate managed less than a third of the votes of the DP candidate. Incidentally, Izumi is already a member of the House of Representatives – he lost Kyoto 3 in the last general election but was elected on the DPJ’s proportional list for the Kinki region. The new DP lawmaker joining the house, then, will be Kitagami Keiro, who takes over Izumi’s proportional list seat.

Kyoto 3 doesn’t really tell us much useful about the shape of Japanese electoral politics, then. “DP candidates win seats which the LDP has pulled out of after hugely embarrassing scandals” isn’t headline news, and the low turnout makes it impossible to measure any possible influence which the tentative detente between the DP and the Japan Communist Party has had; the JCP didn’t run a candidate in the race, but whether that contributed to Izumi’s vote total and in what degree is impossible to calculate.

Hokkaido 5, then. Turnout here was a lot healthier than in Kyoto, at 57.6% (down less than a single percentage point from the 2014 general election), and the election presented a perfect laboratory for checking on the potential of opposition coordination to tackle narrow LDP leads. In 2014, the LDP candidate faced off against a DPJ candidate and a JCP candidate, winning 50.9% of the vote to the 49% won by the opposition parties (36.8% for the DPJ, 12.2% for the JCP). In this by-election, the DP and the JCP backed a single candidate (along with the People’s Life Party, the Greens and the Social Democratic Party), going up against a non-incumbent LDP candidate (with the backing, of course, of the LDP’s coalition partners Komeito, along with a couple of fringe conservative groups).

To my mind, there are three types of seats which opposition coordination can target. The first are “marginal seats” – places where the DPJ was within a few percentage points of the LDP in 2014, and where the support of just a small fraction of JCP supporters would swing the election. There are nine of these seats, and honestly, the DP should be aiming to win them in the next election without help from other parties – if it can’t reverse a few percentage points in marginal seats when competing against a government whose core policies are all disliked by voters, then the whole purpose of its existence as a party is in question. The second type of seat is “opposition majority seats” – places where a simple mathematical combination of votes for DP and JCP candidates in 2014 would have yielded a majority. There are 70 of those seats (67 in which the DP candidate could have won with JCP support, and 3 where the JCP candidate could have won with DP support) – enough to deliver a powerful blow to the LDP’s majority and probably end Shinzo Abe’s premiership, but not enough to reverse the LDP’s lower house majority.

The third type of seat is the “combined opposition marginal” – a seat where a combination of opposition votes in 2014 would have put them within a couple of percentage points of victory over the LDP (or Komeito) candidate. Hokkaido 5 is a perfect example of this kind of seat, requiring not just good coordination between opposition parties but also a few percentage points of support swing (or a boost in turn-out, breaking strongly for the opposition candidate) to shift control of the seat. If the DP (and other opposition parties) can start to make breakthroughs in this kind of seat in the next election, it blows Japan’s political landscape wide open for the first time in many years – perhaps not giving the DP another shot at government, but at least forcing the LDP to work with other parties to pass key legislation, and putting Abe’s more ambitious goals, like constitutional amendments, out of commission entirely.

Getting there, though, is going to be an uphill struggle. In Hokkaido 5 yesterday, the LDP won by over 12,000 votes. The combined DP and JCP candidate didn’t make up the gap between opposition and LDP at all; in fact, her vote total of 123,517 was around 3000 votes short of the combined vote totals of the two parties in 2014. The LDP’s Wada Yoshiaki, meanwhile, picked up 4,500 more votes than his veteran predecessor had commanded, despite the lower turnout.

What can we conclude from this? Well, the opposition coordination idea works, in nuts and bolts terms; with the DP and JCP supporting the same candidate, that candidate was able to pick up almost all of the votes that had previously gone to the two parties separately. This undermines the narrative from the DP’s centre-right figures, who claim that working with the JCP will cost the party scores of votes from centre-right voters; a claim which has always seemed dubious to me, since I’m not sure the DP really has many centre-right voters to begin with. It also assuages concerns that JCP voters, having stuck with the party through thick and (mostly) thin, would balk at casting a vote for a DP-backed candidate. Most voters dutifully turned out to cast for the coordinated candidate, which bodes well for the 60 to 70 seats that could be turned to the opposition simply by effective coordination strategies.

That’s the positive. The negative is that if the opposition can’t win Hokkaido 5, it’s dubious whether any of the “combined opposition marginals” are within its grasp at the moment. Essentially, the opposition has not increased its popularity since 2014; if anything, it may have slid backwards. In order for the opposition to win power, or even to seriously threaten the LDP’s majority, it needs to boost turnout, convincing disaffected voters to go to the polls and vote – many of them for the first time since 2009. Hokkaido 5’s result suggests that the DP is even further from that outcome today than it was two years ago.

There are of course local factors in play, and it’s unwise to project the political fortunes of a nation from a single by-election in a peripheral constituency; but this was the first real-world test of opposition coordination, and its results suggest a low ceiling on what the DP and its allies can achieve through this strategy alone. On a good day, opposition coordination might cost the LDP enough seats to put Abe’s future in doubt; but even on a very good day indeed for the opposition, it would take far more than coordination between parties to kick the LDP out of power. For that, the opposition needs to offer what it has failed to offer since 2012; an attractive, clear, direct and credible alternative to the LDP’s policy platform.


On a related note – if coordination within Japan’s political opposition interests you, I did an interview with Michael Penn of the Shingetsu News Agency a couple of weeks ago on this topic – I’ve embedded the video from their YouTube channel below.

 

The Irrelevance of the DPJ – JIP Merger

The biggest political news in Japan this week – apart, it seems, from a comment from Prime Minister Abe to the effect that he’d like a humanoid robot to replace him in Diet questioning sessions – is the merger of the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (民主党), with another opposition group, the Japan Innovation Party (維新の党). The merger will add 21 seats to the DPJ in the House of Representatives, bringing their total to 80, along with five in the House of Councillors, bringing them to 76 seats. It comes as part of an attempt by Japan’s opposition parties to align themselves into some kind of united force against the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (自民党) ahead of elections later this year.

News of the merger hasn’t exactly set Japan’s electorate abuzz. Newspaper opinion polls suggest that a majority of voters don’t have high expectations of the merged party (which will change its name, logo and campaigning slogans in the coming week), by a factor of around two to one, and the announcement of this supposedly major new opposition force has done little to erode support for the Abe cabinet (despite polls consistently showing a lack of faith in the administration’s headline policies).

The lack of voter interest is unsurprising; Japanese voters are understandably fatigued by the endless game of musical chairs which Japan’s opposition has been playing since the DPJ was booted from power in late 2012. In the short few years since Abe took power, the opposition has fragmented and coalesced on multiple occasions. Centrist economic liberals Your Party fell apart, reappeared as the Unity Party and promptly merged into the populist right-wing Restoration Party movement, which emerged from regional politics in Osaka, became a national movement, then returned to Osaka regional politics – leaving a rump, the Japan Innovation Party, which is what is now merging with the DPJ. On the fringes, former political “big beasts” like Ozawa Ichiro and Ishihara Shintaro (now supposedly retired for good) have formed, dissolved and re-formed small political movements, all clearly calculated as potential merger vehicles that might give them access to the corridors of power at a major party once more. The DPJ itself, meanwhile, has spent far more time discussing its own future and failing to conceal signs of damaging internal strife than it has spent challenging the LDP’s policy platform.

Every developed nation, it seems, is presently harbouring a strong degree of resentment at the perceived disconnect between their political classes and the lived realities of the people they govern; look at the degree to which London’s “Westminister Bubble” or the concept of Washington’s “Beltway” have become epithets in the UK and USA respectively. Japanese voters, equally, dismiss the maneouvering, backstabbing and self-serving jockeying for power of their opposition parties as being something like a “Kasumigaseki Bubble”. Opposition mergers and rebrands may be of all-consuming interest to the political chattering classes who huddle around the moat of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, but the individual impact of such events on the electorate is minimal, while the impact of such a drawn-out series of events is merely to create an overriding sense of disorganisation and disarray that drives even Abe’s most stern critics to despair that his administration is the only real choice on offer.

Looking at the detail of the DPJ-JIP merger, supposedly the most important opposition realignment since 2012, it’s hard to argue with that position. What is the DPJ actually merging with? As mentioned above, the JIP is a rump party left over from the Osaka Ishin movement’s return to regional politics and identity. The Japan Restoration Party (日本維新の会), from which the JIP was birthed, was a pretty firmly right-wing, revisionist movement – the Abe administration flirted with the idea of working with them to propose amendments to the pacifist constitution – which is in itself enough to raise eyebrows; isn’t the DPJ supposedly a more centre-left, progressive crowd than the LDP? What are they doing merging with a party whose politics have often been to the right of the LDP?

While that’s a legitimate concern, and one that speaks to the barrenness of the idological landscape in Japanese politics (where political beliefs and ideology seem always to come a distant second to career ambition), it actually gives the JIP a little too much credit. The JIP is not a consistent, coherent party of the right; it is an ill-fitting band of political misfits, some of whom are experienced or worthy of respect in their own rights, but who as a group look little like a real political party.

The JIP contingent that will be absorbed by the DPJ in the coming weeks consists of 21 members of the House of Representatives and five members of the House of Councillors. Between them, they count membership of almost every minor political party of the past ten years or so, from the left-wing environmentalism of the Green Wind party (みどりの風) to the hard-line neoconservatism of the New Frontier Party (新進党) and the historical revisionism of the Japan Restoration Party. Quite a few (seven Representatives, and all five Councillors) are former members of the neo-liberal Your Party who left along with Eda Kenji to form the more “soft neo-liberal” Unity Party in 2013. Five are former members of the Liberal Democratic Party. By far the largest group, though, is those who will feel rather at home in the DPJ; of the 21 Representatives in the current JIP line-up, 15 are former DPJ members. Several of them departed the DPJ with its aforementioned “big beast”, Ozawa Ichiro, who has left a trail of shattered parties behind him throughout his political careeer; their colleagues in the party may be rather concerned to see Ozawa loyalists returning to the fold.

The point is that there’s really nothing to suggest that this group of 25 men and one woman (which will do little for the DPJ’s diversity targets) is going to bring fresh ideas to the DPJ’s successor. More than half of them have been in the DPJ before, and almost all of them have been political nomads throughout their careers; aside from the small group of Eda Kenji’s loyalists, they have veered wildly around the political spectrum, suggesting opportunism rather than consistency or integrity. Their addition to the DPJ’s roster just makes it even more confusing and difficult to gather what, exactly, the party is supposed to stand for, or who is supposed to vote for them. If you were a DPJ voter with centre-left, progressive preferences, which seems a not unreasonable profile of a typical DPJ voter, the absorption of right-wing hardliners and neo-liberals should be deeply concerning.

To make matters worse, it’s really not clear what this group is meant to bring the DPJ in terms of electoral benefit. Only four of its members are representatives for Single-Member Districts (that is to say, they won their districts outright and should have a reasonable chance of doing so again regardless of which party they stand for) – Eda Kenji in Kanagawa 8th District, Kakizawa Mito in Tokyo 15th District, Ide Yosei in Nagano 3rd District and Isaka Nobuhiko in Hyogo 1st District, all of whom are former Your Party / Unity Party members. The remaining 17 Representatives and 5 Councillors are all elected proportionally through the party list system, and thus do not bring a safe district seat with them. One could argue that removing the JIP from the proportional ballot and presumably taking some of its voters will favour the DPJ through reduced opposition competition; but much of the JIP’s electoral strength was derived from its leadership in the form of cantankerous former Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintaro and outspoken Osaka mayor Hashimoto Toru. Voters fond of Ishihara seem unlikely to break for the DPJ in an election; Hashimoto’s support, concentrated around the Kansai region (especially in Osaka itself), will transfer to its new regional party, the Osaka Restoration Party.

It’s hard to see the DPJ-JIP merger as being much more than yet another round of musical chairs; just another of the seemingly endless pauses in the music that have seen the opposition politicians scrambling for seats since the 2012 election. While the opportunity to rebrand the DPJ is welcome in some regards (any party that reaches the point of printing posters telling voters that it’s okay to hate them, but you should vote for them anyway to protect the consititution, is a party that desperately needs a rebrand), but the JIP merger suggests a deepening crisis in the DPJ’s identity, policy platform and ideological position, not light at the end of the tunnel.

Takaichi Waves a Dagger in the Media’s Face

The tension between Japan’s ruling LDP and the country’s broadcasters and media has taken a lurch into the public eye, with widespread reporting of comments in the Diet’s Lower House Budget Committee by Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Takaichi Sanae to the effect that broadcasting companies which fail to demonstrate impartiality could be taken off the air by the government. The notion of “impartiality” in this context is something of a dog-whistle; it’s the concept commonly used by right-wing conservatives to criticise TV anchors and journalists they percieve as being left-wing or insufficiently nationalist, a context of which Minister Takaichi, no stranger to the right wing of politics, will be keenly aware.

Takaichi’s statement is the first time that a government minister has spelled out in public what the LDP’s ultimate sanction against broadcasters which attract their ire might be, and it has attracted plenty of condemnation, including calls for restraint from within the ruling coalition itself. It’s true though that on the face of it, Takaichi is only stating the facts with regard to Japan’s law – Article 4 of the Broadcast Law demands that broadcasts be “politically fair”, “not distort the facts” and (even more vaguely) “not harm public safety or good morals”, and Article 76 of the Radio Act allows a Minister to temporarily shut down, restrict the broadcast hours or entirely revoke the license of a broadcaster who violates a provision of the Broadcast Law. These aren’t new laws, either; both bills date back to 1950, and while they have been amended more recently, the clauses Takaichi refers to have been in place for almost 66 years.

What’s the problem, then, with a minister simply reminding broadcasters of the powers that technically rest with her office? It’s not like the LDP has just pushed through legislation to restrict or censor broadcasting and is waving that around like a big stick; it’s just pointing out the existence of powers that have been available to every government in the post-war era. Minister Takaichi was even nice enough to say that she didn’t think she’d ever shut down a broadcaster personally, though of course she couldn’t say what any of her successors might do, and that she was simply helping to uphold the rule of law by restating the content of the law. Where’s the issue?

The problem, really, is that Japanese law is often – for quite deliberate and cynical reasons – a tremendous mess. Article 4 of the Broadcast Law is a legal disaster, binding the country’s entire broadcast media to rules that are so vague and ill-defined as to border on being infantile. What is the definition of “public safety”, which broadcasts may not harm? How about “good morals”; what’s the legal definition of a “good moral”? Who decides what’s “politically fair”? In contested situations, who gets to decide that is a “fact”, and what is a “distortion”? These terms, which the legislation makes no further effort to define or explain, are utterly vague and subjective – as is, I would argue, entirely inevitable for any rules designed to chase the daft pipe-dream of “objectivity” in news broadcasting.

It’s unsurprising then that Takaichi’s explanation of the rules in the Diet was equally vague and open to interpretation. The example she gave was a case where, “on a political topic where public opinion is divided, [a broadcaster] ignores one political opinion and deliberately adopts only the other political opinion, broadcasting programming which repeatedly exceeds proportional time for content supporting that view.” Just like the law itself, vast tracts of Takaichi’s explanation are open to interpretation. How much public opinion must support a point of view before it is “entitled” to broadcast time? How is proportionality decided? Should all points of view receive the same coverage – risking, to paraphrase Irish comedian Dara O’Briain, the situation where a broadcast reporting a successful satellite launch must give equal time to a prominent JAXA scientist who worked on the launch, and some bloke called Taro who claims the satellite launch must be a hoax because the sky is a carpet painted by God; how many Twitter followers must Taro have before he’s entitled to his three minutes on NHK’s evening news? Should coverage be divided up proportionally to public opinion polls – in which case, the LDP should brace for some pretty harsh coverage of its core policies, most of which are disliked by a plurality of the Japanese public? What, in fact, has public opinion – which is not mentioned anywhere in the Broadcast Law – got to do with this at all, and why should any broadcaster be forced to spend time serenely nodding along with views he or she firmly believes to be utterly wrong just because an opinion poll said some people agree with it?

Here’s the crux; the Japanese Broadcast Law, just like a large number of other Japanese laws, is quite deliberately vague and open to interpretation, because that’s just how the extremely powerful Japanese political bureaucracy and the LDP itself like it. Because the law is vague, the decision of how to implement it (and even whether to implement it at all) essentially lies at the discretion of ministry bureaucrats. Broad, sweeping concepts like “good morals” or “politically fair” give ministries enormous leeway in deciding what’s acceptable and what’s not at any given point in time. The LDP doesn’t need to pass harsh new legislation giving itself new powers to clamp down on the media, because Japanese legislation is designed to be so vague that ministries (whose bureaucrats drafted the laws in the first place) can, at some point down the line, exert quite extraordinary powers by edict, rather than having to go through the legislative process again.

This isn’t unique to the Broadcast Law. One of the (many) things that initially shocked me while conducting research into Japan’s capital punishment system a few years ago was that between the late 1950s and the 1990s, an open, transparent and humane (in as much as a capital punishment system ever can be) system had been transformed into an extraordinarily brutal, secretive and abusive system – entirely as a result of edicts from Ministry of Justice bureaucrats. Sweeping changes such as pushing all condemned inmates into perpetual solitary confinement, restricting visitor access to prisoners and not informing prisoners of their pending execution until literally minutes before it is carried out (or informing their families and legal representatives until after the execution) were implemented without so much as a single trip to the Diet floor for new legislation to authorise the changes. On a similar if slightly different note, consider the much-publicised crackdown on dancing after midnight, which saw police (especially in Osaka, but also in Tokyo and elsewhere) arresting staff and shutting down venues for the heinous crime of shuffling their feet after Cinderella’s carriage had turned back into a pumpkin; again, this sudden crackdown did not rely on any draconian new legislation, but on the dusting off and sudden implementation of excessively broad rules that had been lying around on the statutes since the late 1940s.

(Nor, it should be stated, is this particular wheeze of sneaky legislators unique to Japan; many governments around the world, including the UK and US governments, have attempted to pass legislation which included deliberately vague sections that could be reinterpreted to grant sweeping powers, only to fall back on pearl-clutching and wailing of “how could you accuse us of such underhanded intentions, we would never use these powers in such a manner” when astute legal scholars or journalists have drawn attention to their attempts to mount a legislative Chekov’s Gun on the mantelpiece of the state. Fast forward a few years and you end up with grotesque absurdities like UK local governments using counter-terrorism legislation to snoop on people and ensure compliance with rubbish collection rules. It is an important but sadly often disregarded fundamental rule of democracy that the people should never, ever grant broad powers to their government on the basis of a solemn but entirely non-binding promise that those powers will not be used, or will not be used outside a specific context; the mission always, always creeps.)

It’s in this context that we must consider the statements of Minister Takaichi – who probably has something of a personal axe to grind with the broadcasters her ministry regulates, given that they greeted her appointment to Abe’s cabinet by dredging up her enthusiastic endorsement of a book praising Adolf Hitler’s electoral politics, along with pictures of her posing alongside the Holocaust-denying head of Japan’s neo-Nazi party. The law she is citing is an old one; the interpretation she is citing, and the threat implicit, is a new one. The Broadcast Law itself is deliberately vague to the point of meaningless in order to permit this kind of interpretation and reinterpretation to suit the whims of the administration; the whim of this administration, as expressed in Takaichi’s statement, clearly leans towards control of, and heavy pressure upon, the nation’s media. Her statement is not a mere point of law – it is a threat, and the age of the law upon which that rests is inconsequential. Just because a dagger has been sitting harmlessly on the shelf for years doesn’t make it any less threatening when it’s picked up and waved in your face.

 

In Reality, All News is “Editorialised”

I turned off the news last night. This isn’t entirely uncommon; news programmes in Japan often devote an interminable amount of time to something terribly dull, so I switch off, but last night I turned off the news because my partner and I looked at each other and agreed that this just wasn’t something we wanted to watch any more.

Here’s why. The trial began yesterday of an 18 year old (now 19) and two 17 year old accomplices who, almost exactly a year ago, murdered a 13 year old boy by stabbing him and throwing him naked into a freezing river in Kawasaki. It’s a horrific and disturbing case, and while there are key details that most audiences probably want to know (what the context to the killing was, what kind of previous contact the victim had with his killers, and so on), the sentence I just wrote is probably all you need or want to know about the physical details of the actual killing.

If you watched the news last night, you got so much more. Using a 3D recreation of the courtroom, 3D models of the various parties to the trial and voice actors dubbing the recorded statements of the accused, the news chose to repeat pretty much the entire cross-examination of the accused killers regarding how, exactly, they carried out the murder. In a segment which probably lasted around ten minutes (and felt far longer, though we switched off before the end), we got multiple accounts of precisely how the attackers beat and cut their victim – how many stab wounds, in what parts of his body, and which parts they cut first; how they held the knife as they slashed his throat; how parts of the box-cutter they were using broke off in his body; how they decided to throw him in the river when they were done; all played out over shots of the desolate riverbank where the killing took place, pictures of an artist’s rendering of the murder weapon (complete with blood and gore, in case your imagination was failing you) and, in case you hadn’t been punched hard enough in the gut by all this, pictures of the 13-year-old victim smiling in the sunshine. I’ve got a strong stomach for this kind of thing – I’m fascinated by true crime stories, unfazed by horror movies, and spent the best part of two years conducting research into Japan’s death penalty system and its death row inmates – but I turned off the TV midway, because the extent to which this mid-evening news show was wallowing in detail little short of pornographic of the savage brutalising of a child was genuinely, deeply upsetting.

This was “just the facts”. Everything the TV news chose to show was “fact”; the statements of the accused are facts, what they did to the boy is a fact, what the murder weapon looks like is a fact, what the victim looked like when he was happily smiling for the camera the previous summer is a fact. Yet how those facts are presented – the choice of whether to present them, in what order, with what emphasis – is intrinsically a subjective, editorial decision. Contrast the way in which this case is presented with, for example, the reporting of teenagers stabbed in knife crimes in London; “a 13 year old was stabbed to death by a gang of older youths and his body thrown into a river” – absolutely horrific, but shorn of the lingering, stomach-churning descriptions of where he was stabbed, and how they held the knife, and what it looked like when they cut him, and so much other detail that’s purely “fact”, but that makes a huge, powerful impact on how you perceive and think about the case.

Allow me to put this in a little context. In the past few months, Japan has seen a spate of high-profile news broadcasters being removed or shuffled away from their positions. Two of the mainstays of evening news broadcasting, TV Asahi’s Hodo Station and TBS’ News 23, are losing their well-known hosts (Ichiro Furutachi and Shigetada Kishii, respectively), while NHK’s current affairs show Close-Up Gendai has declined to renew the contract of long-standing anchorwoman Hiroko Kuniya. The circumstances and factors contributing to each change differ, but it’s hard to ignore the common thread between them; each of these presenters has been critical of the Abe administration’s policies, especially around the deeply controversial Security Bill which passed late last year. There are other factors in play as well, of course – Kuniya, for example, is almost certainly as much a victim of Japanese TV’s discomfort with allowing older women to front shows, especially shows seen as being aimed at a male audience – but for three such high-profile and long-standing broadcasters, all critical of the Abe administration, to be removed in such a short space of time is quite obviously no coincidence.

To be clear, the removal of these broadcasters is extremely unlikely to have been demanded or ordered by the government. Rather, it is largely a consequence of a chilling effect on press freedom that has come about due to a perception (accurate or not) of the Abe administration being more willing to take reprisals upon its critics – a sense that broadcasters are expected to “play ball” with the administration to a greater extent than before, enforced not by overt censorious action but by expressions of displeasure, criticism and – rather often – by sudden attacks from right-wingers not associated with the government, but willing to make life hell for its media critics. The environment this creates is not quite the authoritarian one Abe’s critics in the foreign press and elsewhere would claim, but neither is it an ideal one for press freedom – it bears a strong similarity to the media environment in countries like the United Kingdom at the moment, for example.

One common defence of this effective narrowing of the media’s broadcasting remit from supporters of the Abe administration is to refer back to Japan’s Broadcast Law, which includes a demand that news broadcasts should be “politically impartial”. Anchors like Furutachi and Kishii, in expressing dislike of the Security Bill or other government policies, are argued to have violated this law by “editorialising” the news they were presenting.

This concept of “editorialising” is profoundly ignorant of how news and current affairs broadcasting actually works, for a number of reasons. Firstly, shows like News 23 and Hodo Station make a distinction between the segments in which they present the news, and the segments in which they comment upon it; if the Broadcast Law is to be interpreted as strictly as conservatives would like, it would appear to be illegal for anyone to ever present an opinion regarding current affairs on Japanese television. “Yes,” say the conservatives, “news and current affairs should be just about facts!” – which is the second reason for this being nonsense, because “facts” themselves are, by their very nature, subject to editorialisation. “Today, the Yen fell against the Dollar” is a fact, of course; but the decision of whether to broadcast that fact, how much prominence to give it and what imagery to accompany it with is intrinsically a subjective, editorial decision, and Japanese TV news, in presenting the “facts”, makes extremely powerful editorial statements without having to directly state any view. That’s exactly what happened with the Kawasaki murder case on last night’s TV; the choice of which facts to present, the level of detail in which to present them and their contextualisation with background images and video added up to a strong editorial approach with a very different impact from, say, the standard reporting of a teenage stabbing in London.

Why report on the Kawasaki case in such grotesque detail? I’d argue that it’s an editorial decision, conscious or otherwise, designed to support the status quo. Japan has an extremely low crime rate but retains a high level of support for the death penalty (one of the only developed countries to do so), a high degree of trust for its justice system despite multiple revelations of abuse and corruption, and an extremely high tolerance of aggressive, authoritarian tactics from its police force. This status quo makes perfect sense if you recognise the essential disconnection between “actual crime” and “fear of crime”; Japanese people are vanishingly unlikely to be the victim of a violent crime, yet their fear of violent crime is, in study after study, higher than the fear of people living in other, far more violent, nations. How do you maintain that? You linger almost lovingly on the gruesome, shocking details of what crime you actually have; you focus on every murder so intently that when people think about crime, it’s not the everyday safety of Japanese life that comes to mind, it’s the one-in-ten-million psychopaths whose crimes are etched onto the nation’s collective imagination.

Japan’s not the only place that happens, of course – and I’m not arguing for a second that this is some grand conspiracy to keep the population in fear, as there’s really no conspiracy needed; gruesome dramatisation of tragic crimes sells newspapers and boosts TV ratings, and supporting the status quo for the authorities is just a side benefit. What I am arguing is that “just the facts” is not a solution to the supposed problem of “editorialising”; it’s merely moving the editorial decisions to a different, more subtle and arguably more insidious level. A news anchor saying “I don’t like this legislation” is a statement you can challenge or disagree with; a news show presenting “just the facts” in a way designed to nudge your thinking in a clear direction is a much tougher thing for most viewers to challenge or even perceive. Next time someone complains about news being “editorialised”, ask them what they really mean by that; because in reality, there’s no such thing as “just the facts”, and the demands of conservatives that news broadcasters stop “editorialising” the news are actually just demands for a different kind of editorialisation – one that supports the conservative status quo.