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Playing chicken with Putin

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BY MATTHEW PAUL

WELL, that’s Putin told. Sounding more than ever like a primary school headmistress who has found a drawing pin on her chair, Theresa May told the House of Commons on Tuesday that the poisoning of Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia was “an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom” and announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats / spies to show how annoyed we all are.

Ten times more lethal than VX and a hundred times deadlier than Sarin, the Novichok family of nerve agents – one of which was used in the attempt on Sergei Skripal’s life – are nasty stuff. The poison smeared on the door handles of Skripal’s BMW was developed in Russia, its production is way outside the capacity of a talented amateur, and its use was tantamount to a calling card from the Russian state.

May’s ability to respond alone is limited. Passing effective economic sanctions against Russian business interests in London – after the manner of America’s Magnitsky Act – would be the embodiment of a punishment that, in the words of headmistresses past “is going to hurt me more than it is going to hurt you”. The stern tone and substantive timidity of May’s response demonstrates just how few options we have in any confrontation with Russia. In any game of chicken with a nutter, the odds are pretty good that the nutter is going to win.

However strong the evidence against Moscow, it will never be enough for some folk. In particular, the Lenin-capped loon and his horrid deputy Seamus Milne proved that their ability to surprise and disgust their own party has not been wholly erased by last summer’s election result. While not quite suggesting that it was a false flag attack by MI5 or Israel, Corbyn cast doubt on the intelligence that pointed to Russian responsibility, and said everything he could to get Putin off the hook, to audible hissing from his back benches.

His front bench have already broken ranks. Shadow Defence Secretary and Llanelli MP Nia Griffith strongly supported the Prime Minister’s response. She said it was clear Moscow was behind the attack, saying this was the view of the shadow cabinet as a whole. Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry accepted that the Kremlin was responsible and gave her support for all the measures taken by the UK Government.

The Russian government has reacted with a predictable display of confected indignation to the diplomatic sanctions. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said claims that Russia was behind the assassination attempt were “absolutely boorish” and “unacceptable”. Another spokesman called the accusations insane. Moscow made it clear we would not be waiting long for a response.

Mostly, though, Vlad is laughing it off. The Russian embassy in London, which seems to devote the greater part of its resources to trolling Her Majesty’s Government on the internet, tweeted out a picture of a thermometer at -23. “The temperature of 🇷🇺 🇬🇧relations drops to -23, but we are not afraid of cold weather!” In their last few days in London, the embassy staff May has expelled will probably be going around Kensington smearing Vaseline on car door handles for the lolz.

The Skripal assassination attempt –which in due course is likely to prove successful– is scarcely out of character for Russia. In 2006, the Duma (Russia’s parliament) specifically authorised the liquidation of terrorists and ‘enemies’ overseas. Showing this wasn’t just hot air, the Russian state murdered Alexander Litvinenko in London with a fatal dose of polonium-210. One of Litvinenko’s assassins, Andrey Lugovoy, is now himself a member of the Duma. Russia has repeatedly refused requests for his extradition on a charge of murder.

In 2010, when Skripal and other spies were released from custody in Russia and swapped for –amongst others– the delightful Anna Chapman, President Putin promised that these traitors “would choke on their 30 pieces of silver”. It looks as though he was as good as his word.

Russia is behaving with absolute disregard for international law, and does so with almost complete impunity. Little individual wet jobs like Skripal and Litvinenko, annoying though they may be for their host countries, are Russian state malevolence in miniature. On a larger stage, Russia has invaded and annexed sovereign territory of neighbouring states, indiscriminately bombed civilians in Syria to prop up Assad’s blood-soaked regime, and lent separatist thugs in Ukraine anti-aircraft BUK rockets, with which they shot down a Malaysian airliner.

Putin’s army of trolls delights in hacking elections and spreading disinformation. The Kremlin’s aim is to sow confusion amongst democracies, and to assert Russia’s position as a world power to rival the USA and China. When dealing with little countries like the UK, Putin is confident that there is no diplomatic or military game of chicken that he can’t win.

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Opinion: The Big Question Facing Kier Starmer – Jonathan Edwards

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In the midst of the Coronavirus crisis the election victory of Sir Kier Starmer as Labour Leader didn’t achieve the column inches one would normally expect.  As is customary, I would like to wish Kier well in his role.  I can not claim to know him as a person having only conversed on a few occasions, however I have respect for his debating ability, his considered tone and his eye for detail.  I consider him a serious politician.

The challenges he faces are enormous of course.   Labour have now lost four Westminster elections on the bounce.  His decision making must quickly shift from efforts to unify his party to the far more important task of presenting a credible challenge to the Conservative party at the next Westminster election.

Labour has a defining choice to make, and this decision will have far reaching consequences for all political parties operating in the British State.  On the one hand, Labour could revert to its usual tribal inward-looking tendencies.  However, essentially this would mean writing off the next election as a part of a wider rebuilding strategy aimed at the 2029 election.  A stark admission as it would mean Labour having been out of power at Westminster level for twenty years at best.

Alternatively, Kier Starmer could acknowledge that Labour on their own will not be able to challenge the Tories for power at the next Westminster election.  This path would then require Starmer reaching out to all the other opposition parties in Westminster apart from the DUP.  I am talking about more than just coordination of parliamentary activity in Westminster.  In a first past the post electoral system we are talking about the need for non-aggression pacts, and a joint programme of government.  I would go as far as to suggest that the government itself would need to be a unity administration delivering on the agreed programme.

Parliamentary boundary changes makes the task even more pressing.  Whatever one thinks of his opportunistic politics, Boris Johnson has succeeded in unifying the right of the political spectrum.   However, the centre and left have a host of parties vying for support.  In a political system based for two horse races, the end result is brutal as we saw in December.

What sort of programme could Plaid Cymru, SNP, Green, Liberals, SDLP, Alliance and Labour unite around?  There would be little difficulty in agreeing a progressive economic and social policy platform.  A proportional voting system would be a must to enable all parties to compete equally in subsequent elections.  The big challenge for me seems to be the constitutional question when it comes to Scotland and Wales.   For Plaid Cymru and the SNP there would need to be a commitment for a fully Confederal system leaving only foreign affairs, defence, and macro-economic policy reserved – the sort of settlement promised by Cameron and Brown on the eve of the Scottish independence poll.  This should be supported with House of Lords reform into an elected Senate of the Nations of the British State.   Both Wales and Scotland would also require the statutory right to hold independence referenda at time of their own choosing.  This should be uncontroversial as it is the policy of the Labour Welsh Government.

This is the very simple choice facing the new leader of the Labour party.  Does he want to be Prime Minister, or effectively a plumber performing a re-patching job on a tired and insular party.

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What’s the point of immigrants?

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by Matthew Paul

What do points make? Passports! Or at least the opportunity to get yourself a visa stamp allowing you –if you didn’t win the lottery of life by being born British– the unmissable opportunity to reside and work in the United Kingdom post-Brexit.

Some suggest that the only skills required at the end of the transition period will be an aptitude at barbecuing rats, or the strength to push around Covid-19 death carts while ringing a bell, but in the event that the UK’s economic and cultural life carries on after Brexit more or less as before, we will still face a chasmic shortage of workers in the agricultural, hospitality and care sectors.

Britain’s population is getting older, and the disinclination many Britons demonstrate towards looking after elderly relatives means that unglamorous, low-paid jobs in the care sector are always available to anyone who cares to do them. British consumers demand fresh, locally-produced food, but display little enthusiasm to pick it themselves, and react with bewildered indignation when people who are less picky about their work come over ‘ere and pick it for them.

The Government are probably right that a lot of people who voted to leave the EU in 2016 did so, at least in part, because they dislike mass immigration. Such people are also thicker on the ground in the ‘red wall’ seats that Boris turned blue –for the first time in living memory– in December. The Government has promises to keep with these voters, and stopping people they don’t like coming into the country is a good deal cheaper, at least in the short term, than building thumping great infrastructure projects or finding 50,000 new nurses. Probably from abroad.

On Wednesday, Home Secretary Priti Patel released details of a points-based system, modelled on Australia’s highly restrictive immigration rules, to clamp down on all the EU citizens who have been coming over ‘ere etc etc. Three characteristics are basic requirements to qualify for a residence and work permit: an offer of work from an approved sponsor [20 points], a job at “appropriate skill level” [20 points], and the ability to speak English (ble mae’r Gymraeg?) at a “required level” [10 points].

Once those requirements are satisfied, an applicant clears the final hurdle by earning 20 more points. A salary above £25,600 might get you that, so long as the government-approved going rate for the job isn’t higher. Working in a designated shortage occupation is also worth 20. Educational attainment is less highly regarded; a bachelor’s or master’s level degree counts for nothing. Arty-farty doctorates get you just ten points; only proper PhDs in difficult stuff like AI and rocket science get you over the line.

The Government’s statisticians reckon that around 70% of the EEA citizens who have come to Britain since 2004 would be ineligible for a visa under the new rules. Foreigners aside, not many British people in Britain would now be eligible to come to Britain. Priti Patel’s own parents –who came to the UK from Uganda and set up a successful chain of newsagents– certainly wouldn’t. Hypocrisy and Priti Patel are not exactly strangers; when she wasn’t busy this week trying to illegitimise her own residency in the UK, she was on Sky News telling a confused Kay Burley, who had heard somewhere that both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster might, at some point, have dabbled a bit in drugs, that there is no such thing as dabbling in drugs.

To prevent against labour shortages, the Government means to draw on the current pool of around 3.5 million EU citizens resident in the UK (of whom 3.2 million have applied for settled status). To top up seasonal labour markets, there will be a limited scheme of 10,000 short-term permits for agricultural work. Given that 60,000 people were engaged in seasonal work on farms in 2018, less than 1% of whom were British, this looks some way short of enough. And this assumes full uptake, which can’t be guaranteed. Seasonal labour schemes don’t afford workers anything like the certainty and ability to plan their futures –working up from seasonal labour into more permanent and fulfilling work– that free movement allowed.

The Government’s projections of the effectiveness of its points-based system also fail to take into account the chilling effect of an overall hostile environment for immigrants. EEA migration into the UK has crashed since the electorate’s decision in 2016 to repudiate EU membership. A large proportion of the workers who arrived in the mid 2000s from accession countries have already returned home.

This doesn’t mean that we are actually going to run short of nurses in our hospitals, or that bums will go unwiped lower down the food chain of the care sector. We will continue to fill jobs in the NHS and nursing homes by plundering the medically qualified workforces of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, which does neither us nor them much good. Exploiting the schools and universities of countries which can ill-afford to train doctors and nurses is a cynical and immoral way to staff the NHS. It also creates more permanent migration; unlike EU citizens who hop on Ryanair when they get fed up with the rain, it is far less likely that immigrants from the third world will ever decide to move back to their country of origin.

The ability to come and go, and to move around the continent in search of work has underpinned the UK’s dynamic jobs market for nearly twenty years. To give Brexiters what they want in seriously and permanently reducing unskilled migration into the UK, we will have to give them what they almost certainly don’t want. Low paid work in the agricultural and hospitality sectors. Whipping away benefits or tax credits if they turn down that sort of job. In the immortal words of the man who this week tweeted his outrage from a long passport queue at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport: “This isn’t the Brexit I voted for.”

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Into the wilderness

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by Matthew Paul

They sure know how to pick ‘em. On 20th December, this column advised –not entirely in earnest– that the best interests of our country would be served by electing as Labour leader a candidate with the dynamism and glittering intellect of Rebecca Long-Bailey or Richard Burgon. It even suggested –in the interest of a strong government being balanced by a strong opposition– that Conservative supporters might join the Labour Party just for the opportunity of voting for one or the other of them.

Persuaded by this analysis –and undaunted by their recent defeat at the hands of both Jonathan Edwards and a Tory candidate straight out of The Munsters– the Carmarthen East & Dinefwr Constituency Labour Party chose last week to endorse not one but both of these titans of the democratic left; Becky as leader, and Burgon as her deputy. If anything can turn around the difficult fortunes of the Labour Party, it is a leadership team of this calibre.

To be fair, in the General Election campaign Corbyn fought off the attacks of billionaire-owned media like The Pembrokeshire Herald, pro-Zionist lobbying groups and the entire UK establishment to deliver what must be regarded as an impressive result for Labour. Tories can brag about outdated, irrelevant measures of success like seats in Parliament and who gets to kiss the Queen’s hand, but Corbynites understand that to secure a meaningful victory, you first have to get shot of the factionalist Blairite splitters who held socialism back through three consecutive terms of Labour government.

As such, it is surprising that the Labour Party as a whole –not to mention the voters who were duped by Tory MSM into electing Conservative Members of Parliament– don’t seem to be demonstrating the same clear vision as their comrades in the CE&D branch.

The field in Labour’s leadership election handicap has been winnowed down to four. One clear frontrunner –Sir Kier Starmer– has been half the course ahead of the others right out of the gates, with endorsements from a hefty majority of Labour MPs and major trade unions.

Starmer has several advantages, not least his splendid quiff.

He’s certainly not stupid. Although he isn’t clever in the flashy, showmanlike way Boris Johnson is clever, Starmer is analytical, conscientious, always well prepared and on top of his brief. Starmer also has a carapace of ambition and arrogance that isn’t a million miles from Boris’s own Olympian self-assurance. These qualities could seriously discomfit Boris, to whom detail is a foreign land and preparation something other people are paid to do for him.

What Starmer entirely lacks is a sense of humour. He has an excellent chance of winning any award going for most pompous man in public life. So fundamentally unable to recognise a joke that he personally oversaw the (ultimately unsuccessful) prosecution of a man who made one on Twitter, you are about as likely to see Sir Kier engaging in self-mockery as to see an issue of Charlie Hebdo in Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s downstairs loo. Subjected to any kind of satirical attack, Starmer takes on the wounded expression of an Emperor Penguin who has slipped on ice and dropped on his arse right in front of David Attenborough and a film crew. Put this across the despatch box from Boris, who never misses an opportunity to take the piss, and all the preparation and analysis in the world may be of no effect.

Sir Kier is also a tiny bit of a phoney. Full of four-Yorkshiremen rhetoric in describing his comfortable and decent upbringing, he has publicly repudiated private and selective education but is regularly involved with the old boys’ association of his (fee paying) selective grammar school. Around the Comrades, Sir Kier says he ‘doesn’t use’ his title –and if he doesn’t use it because he disagrees with the whole business of Knights of the Realm, perhaps he shouldn’t have accepted it– but it’s usually in evidence when in the company of his fellow Benchers of the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple.

Following an important endorsement from the GMB, Lisa Nandy has also made the cut. If the Labour Party let the general public elect its leaders, she would have a fighting chance of winning. A recent Ipsos Mori poll showed her as having the highest overall public approval versus disapproval rating –on point ahead of Starmer with a thumping plus 43– of any of the four.

Which brings us back to Becky, whose performance in that poll was not quite so good, with an overall approval rating of minus 7; just ahead of the equally awful, but far smarter and more competent, Emily Thornberry. Thornberry’s support is being squeezed from both sides –those who want to stop Starmer even if it means voting for Long-Bailey and those who want to stop Long-Bailey even if it means voting for Starmer– and she will probably fall at the next fence.

Thornberry’s absence from the contest won’t hurt Labour’s prospects at the ballot box, but it’s hard to think what the party could have done –short of re-opening Chris Williamson’s coffin and pulling out the stake– to find a hard-left candidate with less public appeal than Rebecca Long-Bailey. Her flatmate and closest political conspirator, Angela Rayner, chose not to stand as leader this time round; probably a sensible choice given that the party seems to be heading further into, not emerging from, the wilderness. Like John Lennon’s quip about Ringo’s talents as a drummer, Long-Bailey isn’t even the best leadership candidate in her own flat. Corbyn without the charm, the Momentum heavy mob –who never set much store by charm anyway– have nonetheless given her their backing.

Tories know what this feels like. From around 1994 until David Cameron took over as leader, the Conservative Party was regarded as a national embarrassment. They weren’t winning elections and no-one seriously expected them to. They turned inwards and spoke to their own activists. “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” Michael Howard asked voters in 2001. “Hell no” came the answer.

Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum have led Labour into the same trap. If moderate, sensible elements in the Labour Party don’t succeed in taking back control from the Corbyn cult by electing Starmer (who would do) or Nandy (who might actually be quite good), what happened to Labour on 12th December in Carmarthen East & Dinefwr will happen to Labour everywhere.

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