Where now for a devastatingly defeated Labour Party?

December 29th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

We have all given significant periods of our lives to the Labour movement, most recently as MPs and candidates in the general election. We have been horrified by the damage that Tory government austerity has wreaked in our communities, crippling our NHS, starving our struggling schools and transport networks, normalising street sleeping and failing to keep our streets safe. Yet sadly, when it came to polling day, Labour was led to its biggest defeat since 1935. We lost seats in every region and nation with a swing against us in every social class – with the biggest swing against us from the poorest people.

The scale of this defeat means that we have to look unflinchingly at what went wrong, way beyond a simple review, welcome as that might be. We need to be honest about why our outgoing leadership’s reflexive anti-western worldview was so unpopular and address the reasons.

We were rejected on doorsteps not just because of our woolly, changing position on Brexit, or in Scotland because of our weak commitment to the union, but because the very people we were supposed to be fighting for did not think the policies in our manifesto related to their lives. The focus on nationalisation and uncontrolled spending commitments meant people simply didn’t believe us. Sadly, this was particularly true with those most affected by the poverty and injustice that 10 years of Tory government has created.

Lastly, cronyism at the top of our party and repeated unwillingness to stand up to the stain of antisemitism were constantly relayed back to us on the doorstep, shaming the traditional values of our once great anti-racist party.

We are devastated that, across the country, we can no longer help our residents to whom we have devoted ourselves, still struggling under a Tory government. It is our duty to speak up now, so that our leadership candidates keep these people at the heart of their campaigns to lead our party.

The challenge for the eventual winner is immense. We need to win 150 seats in every corner of the country, gaining votes from a coalition of communities. Labour needs to be in government – and for that, fundamental change at the top of our party is required. Only this will help us recover from the catastrophic loss of 12 December.

Mary Creagh, former MP for Wakefield, Emma Reynolds, former MP for Wolverhampton North East, Anna Turley, former MP for Redcar, Dr Paul Williams, former MP for Stockton South, Gerard Killen, former MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, Martin Whitfield, former MP for East Lothian, Mary Wimbury, Labour candidate for Wrexham, Sheila Gilmore, Labour candidate for Edinburgh East, Ashley Dalton, Labour candidate for Rochford and Southend East, Kate Watson, Labour candidate for Glasgow East, Phil Wilson, former MP for Sedgefield

This letter was published in today’s Observer” newspaper.

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A review of the novel “Prague Spring” by Simon Mawer

December 22nd, 2019 by Roger Darlington

In some ways, Mawer is an unlikely fiction writer. He took a degree in Zoology at Oxford University and has worked as a biology teacher in Rome for most of his life and he only published his first novel at the comparatively late age of 41. I discovered him through his eighth novel, the wonderful “The Glass Room” which is largely set in what was then Czechoslovakia before and during the Second World War. I subsequently read his next two novels which feature the same leading character in the Second World War and early Cold War respectively: “The Girl Who Fell From The Sky” and “Tightrope”.

So “Prague Spring” is his tenth novel and I have learned to really enjoy his style. Like “The Glass Room”, his latest work is set in Czechsolvakia but in a different and very narrow period: the few weeks running up to the Warsaw Pact invasion of August 1968 and the occupation itself. Like “The Girl Who Fell From The Sky”, it has an abrupt and incomplete ending and so I hope that, as with “Tightrope”, we will have a sequel.

The narrative involves two couples with their stories only converging two-thirds of the way through the novel. James and Ellie are Oxford University students who decide to use the summer to hitchhike in Europe and, almost by accident, find themselves in the Czechoslovak capital at the fateful time, along the way developing a kind of relationship. Sam is a diplomat at the British Embassy in Prague and Lenka is a Czech student protestor and they quickly make an unlikely, but passionate, couple. Very soon after the four meet, all of their lives are shaken by the sudden occupation of the country. 

Mawer was a student at Oxford at the time of the Warsaw Pact invasion and it will have made an impact on him as it did on me at the time (we are the same age). As he revealed in “The Glass Room” and as is again evident in “Prague Spring”, he has a deep knowledge of Czech history, country and language (I know a bit too having visited 28 times and studied the language) and I appreciated the manner in which he weaves so much knowledge and insight into a novel which is about relationships as well as history, politics and culture.

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How was your week? Did you have four scans, two samples, an ECG, a health questionnaire and a cognitive test all on the same day?

December 20th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

One day this week, I had no less than four scans. These were:

Brain MRI scan. This provides information about the structure and function of the brain; for example which parts of the brain are important for carrying out certain tasks and how different parts of the brain are connected.

Heart and body MRI scan. This provides information on the size of the heart chambers and blood vessels, and changes in the size of the heart as it beats. It also provides detailed information on the amount and distribution of fat in the body.

Neck artery ultrasound scan. This uses ultrasound (high-frequency sound waves) to produce images of the blood vessels on either side of the neck. These images help scientists study any narrowing of these major blood vessels.

Dual-Energy x-ray Absorptiometry (DXA) scan. This uses low-energy X-rays to measure bone density throughout the body. Detailed pictures of the spine, hips and knees help scientists to study diseases like osteoporosis (thinning of the bones) and arthritis.

As well as these four scans, I had physical measures, physical tests, and an electrocardiogram (ECG), gave blood and urine, samples, completed a long questionnaire on health and lifestyle, and took a series of cognitive tests. The whole process took almost five hours.

What’s going on, I hear your say. Its all part of a huge, longitudinal health study called Biobank. I joined this study – which has around 500,000 participants – about 10 years ago and, for time to to time, I complete online questionnaires and take part in trials and tests. The imaging assessment study in which I participated this week will eventually encompass some 100,000 people.

It’s all voluntary, but UK Biobank is helping scientists from all the around the world to improve the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of diseases. The main sub study in which I am a participant is looking at the health risks associated with dementia.

I’m grateful for the health I have and pleased to be able to make a small contribution to giving others better life prospects.

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How many countries have a name beginning with ‘The’?

December 17th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

Wikipedia tells us:

According to the CIA World Factbook, the United States Department of State, the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World and the Permanent Committee on Geographical Names for British Official Use, The Gambia is one of only two countries whose self-standing short name for official use should begin with the word “The”, the other being The Bahamas.

Habitually, the definite article is sometimes still used when addressing many other countries, including

NetherlandsPhilippinesCongoSudanYemenComorosCentral African RepublicSeychellesMaldivesSolomon IslandsDominican RepublicCzech RepublicMarshall IslandsUnited KingdomUnited States of America and Lebanon,

with varying degrees of accuracy.

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Revisiting the 1978 classic movie “The Deer Hunter”

December 15th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

There have been many American films about the Vietnam war and “The Deer Hunter” was one of the first and finest, being nominated for nine Academy Awards and winning five including Best Picture and Best Director (for Michael Cimino who originated the story). I saw it on its original release and revisited it on the big screen 40 years later. I had forgotten how long it is (just over three hours) but it remains a moving and shocking work.

The first hour or so is set in a Pennsylvannia steel town (although it was shot in eight different locations in Ohio) with a traditional Russian Orthodox wedding and rubustious reception, before jumping to the horrors of Vietnam (filming was in Thailand). We meet three steelworkers who have just been drafted: Mikey (Robert De Niro), the hunter of the title, Steven (John Savage), the husband of the marriage, and Nick (Christopher Walken) who has just proposed to Linda (Meryl Streep).

The film was immediately criticised for its repeated use of disturbing sequences of Russian roulette on the grounds that there is no evidence that such events actually occurred. However, like the deer hunt, the Russian roulette is a metaphor: the first of an experience of simplicity and nobility, the second an illustation of chance and brutality, both deployed twice in ways which contrast with each other and each use.

The cinematography by Oscar-nominated Vilmos Zsigmond is striking and the main title theme by John Williams is haunting which, with a strong storyline and fine acting across the board, makes for a truly memorable movie. Viewing it again four decades later, it is wonderful to see how Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep have carved out such long and illustrious acting careers.

Wondering what films to download for viewing over Christmas & New Year? You can read my reviews of almost 70 classic movies here.

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The British General Election: what now for our constitution?

December 14th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

Two documents are never read by the overwhelmingly majority of people.

The first is our constitution, not least because it does not exist as a single codified document, but it is nevertheless something vital to our democracy and needs reform but the right reform.

The second is election manifestos because they are essentially only available online, they are long, and they are boring. But one part of the manifesto of the victorious Conservative Party – the notorious page 48 – deserves some attention because of the constitutional reforms that it proposes, not least the threat that in future voters will only be allowed to cast a ballot if they can prove their identity and the promise to change the Human Rights Act.

For your edification and illumination, I offer you the text of the relevant part of the Tory manifesto here:

As Conservatives, we stand for democracy and the rule of law. Our independent courts and legal system are respected throughout the world.

One of the strengths of the UK’s constitution is its ability to evolve – as times have changed, so have Parliament, government and the judiciary.

Today, that need is greater than ever. The failure of Parliament to deliver Brexit – the way so many MPs have devoted themselves to thwarting the democratic decision of the British people in the 2016 referendum – has opened up a destabilising and potentially extremely damaging rift between politicians and people. If the Brexit chaos continues, with a second referendum and a second Scottish referendum too, they will lose faith even further.

It is only by getting Brexit done that we can start the necessary task of restoring public trust in government and politics:

 We will get rid of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act – it has led to paralysis at a time the country needed decisive action.

 We will ensure we have updated and equal Parliamentary boundaries, making sure that every vote counts the same – a cornerstone of democracy.

 We will continue to support the First Past the Post system of voting, as it allows voters to kick out politicians who don’t deliver, both locally and nationally.

 We will protect the integrity of our democracy, by introducing identification to vote at polling stations, stopping postal vote harvesting and measures to prevent any foreign interference in elections.

 We will make it easier for British expats to vote in Parliamentary elections, and get rid of the arbitrary 15-year limit on their voting rights.

 We will maintain the voting age at 18 – the age at which one gains full citizenship rights.

 We will ensure that no one is put off from engaging in politics or standing in an election by threats, harassment or abuse, whether in person or online.

 We will champion freedom of expression and tolerance, both in the UK and overseas.

 To support free speech, we will repeal section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2014, which seeks to coerce the press. We will not proceed with the second stage of the Leveson Inquiry.

 We will ensure redundancy payments can be clawed back when high-paid public servants move between jobs.

 We will improve the use of data, data science and evidence in the process of government.

Once we get Brexit done, Britain will take back control of its laws. As we end the supremacy of European law, we will be free to craft legislation and regulations that maintain high standards but which work best for the UK. We want a balance of rights, rules and entitlements that benefits all the people and all the parts of our United Kingdom.

After Brexit we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people. The ability of our security services to defend us against terrorism and organised crime is critical. We will update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government. We will ensure that judicial review is available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays. In our first year we will set up a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission that will examine these issues in depth, and come up with proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates.

I will be watching out for the formation and operation of this Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission. 

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The British General Election: what just happened?

December 13th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

First, some basic facts:

  • This was the first December election since 1923. In most parts of the UK, the weather was wet and windy and the nights were long and dark. But turnout was 67.3%, only slightly below the 2017 election held in June.
  • The Conservatives won 365 seats (with 43.6% of the vote) – a gain of 47 seats and the party’s best result since 1987. This gives the party an overall majority of 80.
  • Labour won 203 seats (with 32.2% of the votes) – a loss of 43 seats and the party’s worst result since 1935.
  • The Liberal Democrats won 11 seats (with 11.5% of the votes) – one seat down on 2017 and with the loss of the seat of its leader Jo Swinson.
  • The Scottish National Party won 48 seats (with 3.9% of the vote) – a gain of 13 seats out of a total contested of 59.
  • There were no ‘Portillo moments’ with Conservative ‘big beasts’ losing their seats. Instead the stand-out results of the night were major breaches in Labour’s so-called ‘Red Wall’ of Northern strongholds with the Tories taking seats such as Sedgefield (which Tony Blair used to represent), Bolsover (where Dennis Skinner was the veteran MP), and my namesake of Darlington.
  • The number of women MPs continues to rise – if far too slowly – and went up by 12 in this election to a total of 220. A majority of Labour and Lib Dem MPs are female for the first time in history.
  • The new parliament will be the most diverse in our history with 65 MPs from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. The majority of them – 41 – are Labour MPs.

Now a few observations:

At the beginning of the General Election, I was asked for a forecast and suggested an overall Conservative majority of between 15-25. Up until 10 pm on Thursday night, I was sticking to that forecast – but I substantially underestimated the scale of the Tory victory. I suspect it even came as a surprise to Boris Johnson himself.

This was a triumph for the Conservatives and specifically for Johnson. Although he avoided the toughest interviews, made a number of gaffs, and repeatedly was spare with the truth, his “Get Brexit Done” mantra clearly won through, not just to traditional Conservative voters but to many traditional Labour voters in constituencies which voted leave in the EU referendum,

Clearly, Brexit is now going to happen in the sense that the Johnson deal will be approved by Parliament before 31 January 2020. But is is not certain that he will be able to negotiate with the EU a mutually acceptable trade deal by 31 December 2020 and, even if does, it will take years to negotiate trade deals with non-EU nations. Outside of the Brexit issue, we have to see whether Johnson’s declaration that he will rule as a ‘One Nation Conservative’ is true or just a catchphrase.

This was a disaster for Labour and especially Jeremy Corbyn. Although the Corbyn faction of the party is already blaming the result on Brexit, Corbyn was responsible for the party’s opaque position on Brexit and on the doorsteps Corbyn was clearly very unpopular, even with many of those who normally vote Labour. According to a BBC analysis, in strong Leave areas, Labour lost 10.4% vote share while, in strong Remain areas, they dropped 6.4% vote share.

So Brexit was only part of Labour’s problem and presumably will not be the same issue at the next General Election – although the experience of Brexit, especially if economically damaging, could work to Labour’s advantage next time. But the leadership issue – and the overreaching of the party’s manifesto – will be fiercely debated in the days, weeks and months to come. As a Labour Party member of 50 years, I did not vote for Corbyn in either of the leadership elections and I believe that he was a major factor in our defeat.

The United Kingdom is still a very divided country with a triple split. London remains a Labour bastion and, in my constituency of Bermonsey & Old Southwark, Labour’s vote share actually rose 1% (the sitting Labour MP Neil Coyle has been pro-Remain and anti-Corbyn). Scotland is more of an SNP stronghold than ever and the Nationalists will demand a second referendum on independence. The rest of Great Britain is now very much Conservative territory.

I have excluded Northern Ireland from this triple division because it has its own political parties, but it is notable that Sinn Fein’s share of the NI vote exceeded that of the Democratic Unionist Party: 47% vs 43%.

Boris Johnson may not last five years as Prime Minister – he has a lot of skeletons in the cupboard and is notoriously gaffe-prone. But, almost certainly, the Conservatives will be in office for another decade – no Opposition has ever recovered from this scale of defeat in one election cycle. So, depending on my mortality, I may never see a Labour Government again (at least I worked for the Wilson/Callaghan Government and my son worked for the Blair/Brown one).

Meanwhile the case for a proportional representation electoral system is more powerful than ever. But I can’t see how this can happen unless it is part of some new constitutional settlement which I don’t expect.

Posted in British current affairs | Comments (10)

King William III and “the little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat”

December 10th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

Today I was passing through St James’s Square in central London and took the opportunity to check out a statute in the middle of the square’s gardens. It is an equestrian statute with some kind of lump underneath one of the horse’s hoofs.

What’s it all about? You’ll find the explanation here.

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A review of the new, award-winning film “Marriage Story”

December 8th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

This is the fifth film that I have seen written and directed by Noah Baumbach, so I know to expect something different in terms of both subject and style, and “Marriage Story” is his best work to date. In spite of the title, it is essentially a story of divorce but it cleverly interweaves the story of the marriage so that, in the end, it is a kind of love story.

The couple in question are brilliant theatre director Charlie and talented actress Nicole and Adam Driver – who has now worked with Baumbach four times – and Scarlett Johansson are simply brilliant in these leading roles. One particularly heart-breaking scene has them tearing into each other in a laceration reminiscent of “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Wolf?” 

What makes the divorce so difficult is the custody battle over their eight year old son Henry and one cannot help recalling the film “Kramer vs Kramer” of 40 years ago. What makes the divorce so bitter is the combative role of the lawyers: Alan Alda and Ray Liotta are impressive as the good cop/bad cop pair battling for Charlie, while Laura Dern is superb as counsel for Nicole with a wonderful mini-speech about the Virgin Mary.

An important feature of the storytelling is that Baumbach does not take sides as regards either the couple or their advisers but presents both perspectives in this tragedy.

I saw “Marriage Story” at London’s British Film Institute where it was followed by a question and answer with director Noah Baumbach and producer David Heyman. Baumbach underlined how his movie represents diverse genres since, at different points, it is a court procedural, a rom-com, a musical, and a screball comedy. Heyman explained that the funding of the film by Netflix had enabled such an independent work to be made with a theatrical release as well as availability through streaming.

What Baumbach did not volunteer and nobody asked him was just how autobiographical is this work. In 2013, he concluded three years of divorce proceedings with actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, the mother of his (first) son. Johansson was actually going through a divorce when she was offered the role and Dern has her own experience of divorce. 

They are not the only ones. Up to half of marriages in the developed world end in divorce. Sadly I have had experience of three divorces – that of my parents and two of my own – and I myself was the subject of a custody battle at the same age as Henry, so I found the film especially resonant. But, whether you have or have not been through a divorce yourself, you will not fail to be moved by Baumbach’s powerful and poignant storytelling. 

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The crisis in the older democracies

December 6th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

Democracy is not so much a stable political system as a work in permanent progress. It takes decades, even centuries, to embed in a society – but, even then, it is never settled and never totally secure.

Indeed the distinction between democratic countries and non-democratic countries is a blurred one and it is better to see nations on a spectrum from fully democratic to outright authoritarian. Positions on that spectrum can and do change, sometimes – for good or bad – very rapidly.

This is very obvious with nations that have only recently attempted democratic forms, such as Russia, South Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq.

What is much less well understood is that even the older democracies are facing serious challenges which, in some cases, amount to a crisis. Sadly this is the case in many of the nations of Europe and much of the remainder of the developed world including the United States.

These are the opening paragraphs of my website essay on “The crisis in the older democracies”.

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