Why Trade Unions Need the Young Pregnants (and how they can get them)


Speaking at a Unions 21 meeting on how to best use digital information, TUC communications  chief Antonia Bance  linked shocking headlines lines on discrimination related to pregnancy at work to the young workers we need to  recruit to survive as a movement,  and who just happen to be pregnant in significant numbers

Young workers are a notoriously and persistently a hard demographic for us to recruit as a recent TUC report emphasised only too clearly.  So, argued Antonia, if we could tailor our recruitment message to be particularly appealing to young pregnant female workers – just the group who know from other research are facing bullying, harassment and discrimination at their workplace – we would be pushing at more or less an open door

Tailoring recruitment in this way is just one avenue that is being pursued under the TUC initiative. But let us suppose we have done the tailoring and are reaching out.  What message are we giving?  What service are we offering?  What is the follow up when someone clicks the button or image on their smart phone to say “yes” I am interested; “yes” I need help.

Because offering help is not the same as providing it. When someone clicks on that button, we  need to be able  to respond in a meaningful way. (Don’t, for example,  print foreign language recruitment  fliers when  there is no one at the end of the recruitment hotline who can speak that language)

Let’s take now the situation of a pregnant worker in a franchised shop, restaurant or other business unit. She sees the advertisement on her smart phone and clicks to respond.

First problem: where does that response go?  Our trade union movement is too fragmented and, in my own view, too reluctant to truly collaborate, to offer a clear-cut route to advice and support.

But let’s say we have reached a level of understanding that means a number of unions have collaborated effectively. We have a common entry portal.  We offer a nuanced service so that basic advice and information is free, but when it comes to something more meaningful or more detailed, there is a requirement to enter into a more formal commitment.

Such an arrangement can and has worked in other environments. The New Zealand Council of Trade Unions initiative was predicated on just such collaboration.  The nuanced membership regime that our own National Union of Students operates with its NUS Extra Programme shows how you can differentiate between levels of service and levels of membership.

So having seen how we can deal with the “reception” side of the equation, what happens when we turn our attention to the transmission – a pregnant worker who has made the call?

Of course it is wonderful if she is now receiving a tailored, co-ordinated, coherent service. But she is now exposed, still worried, her employment perhaps increasingly precarious as a very real fear of being victimised takes hold.

Here we need to acknowledge some of the methodology used by the Public Concern at Work charity that recognised explicitly the risk/likelihood of victimisation.  However, whistleblowers in many circumstances are protected under law whereas raising concerns about discrimination at work is not yet a protected characteristic.

There is an obvious and immediate step forward that can be achieved were legislation introduced to expand the remit of the Whistleblowers Act to include complaints about denial of a statutory right (such as payment of the National Minimum Wage) or unlawful discrimination.

That could be reinforced by giving Employment Tribunals the power to compel reinstatement, or award more significant compensation (although awards for discrimination are currently uncapped, precedent constrains the amounts actually cited).

There could even be a dismantling of the procedural and cost barriers that act as a disincentive for employees to pursue Employment Tribunal claims – if there was the political will.

Quite apart from the absence of a progressive political climate  which  might  make such  reforms to employment protection legislation  possible,  is it not also the case that prevention  is so much better than cure?

Whatever sanction is imposed on the perpetrator; the pregnant worker who has been bullied and harassed has already suffered. Much better   to create an environment in which the likelihood of harm is greatly reduced.

“Hear, hear” readers exclaim – but how is this to be done?

This is where the political climate is surely benign. Most if not all reputable employers would agree that discrimination is wrong and that includes acts against pregnant workers.  It is not just an ethical or legal question, but a financial and operational  one too.

So a declaration of best practice for pregnant workers should attract widespread support.   And the combination of a desire to do right with fear of being caught out doing wrong is a huge fillip  to compliance.

And to emphasise the importance of this as an issue, employers   can achieve  a “kite mark”  as a recognition of their good practice.  And why would any woman, especially of child bearing age,  want to work for an outfit  that  is not accredited under this scheme.

So we design-in good practice. And we spread from large employers   through trade confederations and  other routes to  smaller ones and eventually to all employers. So that even the pregnant worker in the franchised, small workplace, has confidence that her employer, her manager and her colleagues understand, intuitively, what is required.

It is a real indictment that so much of this remains to be achieved. It is wasteful economically and destructive in human terms.  It is also unnecessary and avoidable. And it can change if we want it to.


Safe Spaces and the “Right” to be Offended


The “safe space” debate has been given new life at the start of this fresh academic year.  Theresa May condemned them as a restriction on free speech. But NUS vice-president Richard Brooks defended the policy – “some people have more equal rights than others.” This is one issue that is not going to die down any time soon

Following this path,  this morning NUS President Malia Bouattia defended the position  on  BBC’s Today  programme   by correctly  pointing  out  the contradiction  –  I might say hypocrisy –  of those who have so much power and influence, and use it  to create a climate of fear, balking at attempts  by those without such advantages  to assert the right to  a safe space

In my experience, it is not just what is being said, it is how language is used too. The most violent language does not need to contain graphical images or a torrent of swearing.  Similarly, foul words can be and are used for comedic effect.  An angry tone can turn the most innocuous expression into something destructive.

By the same token, just because a racist, homophobic or sexist argument may be presented with intellect, charm, and self-deprecating humour, it is no less offensive.

I championed safe spaces as a students’ union officer many years ago, and I use them now to encourage under-represented groups to become active in my union.

We said “No” to racists and racism, to sexist homophobic rants. We called it “No platform” not “safe spaces” (The mood of the time is captured here)  And in my time, it generally worked, possibly  because it was a clear and narrow  definition.  Debate was lively but kept within reasonable bounds.  And now,   in a  male dominated  organisation,  we  run  networks for young women members and the feedback  we  universally  get  is  positive – these safe spaces give  under-represented groups space  to  breathe,  freedom  to  talk,  the  real ability  to  organise.

So, especially in a general atmosphere of intemperance a cacophony of intolerance, the need and value for safe spaces is real.

But as an active member of Liberty and former press regulator,   I know the value and limits of free speech.

And in adopting   a cast-iron mantra  of democratic self-determination, are  we not uncomfortably close to the point at which  those within a self-declared safe space become as xenophobic, and as angry and as intolerant as those they are seeking  refuge from?

Have we perhaps lost the plot somewhat? There is a world of difference between feeling threatened and being offended.   And surely in a democracy, we have the right to be offended?

Well yes and no. Where is the dividing line between being offended and feeling threatened?  And that’s the crux of the debate.  The media is full of stories of  alleged misjudgements on this,  with people, plays, gigs and debates banned first  on grounds that  they  would contravene the safe space policy  but  then, more worryingly,  because of fears by  university administrators of  reputational, financial and legal  consequences.

And that’s the often  unappreciated  worm eating  away  at the  good intentions and  principled debate around this issue – who  truly  benefits  from a messy  debate on safe space?

Progressive ideas and the very notion of diversity itself end up getting  trashed and undermined –  sometimes  by  over enthusiastic  or uncritical  supporters – and the little power  we have asserted for ourselves seeps back  to the already  rich  and  powerful.

And that is the key issue for me: What is the balance of power in society? Anti-discrimination, anti-hate legislation is good and important, but even if it was perfectly framed and universally implemented, it would not be enough to create a sense of safety, tolerance and respect. You need determined government action  for that.

I think you can’t and shouldn’t vaccinate or insulate yourself against being offended. But in these highly insecure times, you can’t be surprised if people try. Safe spaces are surely a symptom more than anything else.

  This piece also appears in the Huffington Post


Is the National Trust at War with its Tenants?


 At a crossroads? The NT is at loggerheads with its tenants’ organization.

Photo credit: Emma Durnford, Getty Images


Trouble is brewing at one of Britain’s best loved institutions. Papers released last week show that the stage is set for a showdown between the Board of the 4 million-strong National Trust and the only organization exclusively representing the Trust’s tenants, at the former’s AGM next month.

In 2014 the Board decided to end 14 years of funding of the Tenants’ Association of the National Trust (TANT), saying that it was no longer appropriate to treat it differently to other tenants’ groups, and pointing towards fee-paying subscribers as the way forward.

Surely fair and reasonable? Not everyone thinks so and you can see why. TANT’s case is based on value-add. It’s great but challenging being a NT tenant they argue. Beautiful buildings but also frequently run-down and high maintenance. Also many properties are “working buildings”, being key parts of the Trust’s operational – and income generating – estate. TANT says they make sure concerns are raised and acted upon before they brew up into costly legal, regulatory or reputational problems. All for £15k a year (or around  0.0003% of the 2015 NT’s rental income.)

Oh this is crazy, you may be thinking. Even if this is imperfect, why try and fix something that is clearly not broken.

But there are other arguments. The Board’s position is that they are not providers of social housing, that there are other stakeholders, that TANT would speak with more authority if they did so on behalf of a paying membership.

Whilst you can see from the maths that each tenant would need to fork out only £3 a year to match the central soon-to-be-withdrawn funding, that is not the issue. Becoming a member-based organisation dependant on subscription income may be desirable in pure democracy terms but it is not cost or challenge free. Crucially, the overheads inevitably increase and the focus of the organisation as a service provider (delivering value for tenants and the Trust) is diluted by the distraction of having to organise to recruit and retain members.

The Trust have been quite cute here, offering assistance on an “in-kind” basis that could easily add up to more than the current annual grant. But the net result is the likelihood that the ability of tenants to raise issues and seek a non-fuss resolution will be reduced.

TANT claims a degree of bad faith here in being blocked out of the all-member Trust magazine, not being given any advice on independent fund-raising, and denying access to the addresses of tenanted properties. The Trust has issued a lengthy statement in support of their position

This fear is perhaps confirmed by the Board’s decision on who to support in the annual elections to the NT Council, which in turn appoints the governing body – setting aside the unfortunate all male, all white recommendations (hardly reflective or encouraging of diversity in the organisation!). One of those not supported for re-election is a senior officer of TANT (who happens to be a woman).

The Trust seems to me to be in a difficult position, vulnerable to the suggestion it seeks to be less accountable, inclusive and representative rather than more. This would be a shame because modern Britain needs the National Trust and the many things it does uniquely well more than ever.

So I’m going to do something I’ve never done before in my 15 or so years as a Trust member: Vote at the AGM. After all there’s no point complaining that democracy doesn’t work or that change is impossible unless you use it to try to make a difference.

Details of the National Trust AGM are at https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/documents/agm-2016-booklet-.pdf

For Freshers and Their Parents Everywhere


York Minster from the City Walls (Credit: John Lawson, Getty Images)

My mother cried when I went to university at York. My father looked a bit pinched. It wasn‘t the place, it was the going.

I’m sure they could not have known for sure how convoluted regular contact would become. Queuing with a pile of coins cupped in both hands by the three payphones either after six or at weekends. Cheap rate as opposed to peak rate, you see. No mobiles. No skype. No answering machines even. No, they couldn’t have foreseen that level of detail.

I think it was possibly some anxiety about the unknown. Dad didn’t go to university. Mum studied in the city where she lived, and she was looking to escape unhappy school days and stifling home life. But their first-born, going to the other end of the country (although as we all know York is an island of the south marooned in North Yorkshire), leaving behind (they thought) an idyllic set up at home? How could he? Would he be ok? Worry, worry and tears.

I just couldn’t understand this at the time. This was a biggish deal, sure, but it was something that had been planned, talked about, I was ready and raring to go. Hell, it was their idea in the first place..

But maybe, maybe it was a self-centred fear.

Perhaps they knew that it wouldn’t just be the lengthening distance that made for tenuous conversations, a strained relationship. Perhaps they had a fear of being left behind or a fear of being left out?, Perhaps, based-in-their own ignorance, fear for me.

Chances are they may well have been right: I didn’t give the tears much more than a passing thought. I didn’t look back.  I didn’t come home. Too youthfully arrogant. Even  the predictable things that went wrong came as a surprise.

With our young daughters, we  made a weekend return  to  York,  wandered the walls and snickleways, did the Jorvik  and embedded in their young minds  that  going to  university  was a natural, unavoidable  stage in life. Then along came the hike in both student numbers and fees that made old thinking largely redundant.

But that was before Heslington East. Langwith and Goodricke  were still where – in my mind – they always will be. When there  were  still only  six colleges,  when  York  was just  our place, and not – as Wiki now says – a global powerhouse  amongst academic establishments.

And delightful as it is, York isn’t York any more either. No cascades of cyclists tumbling over Skeldergate Bridge  when Pilkington’s knocked off –  or pouring out of hte BR  engineering works.  Coal dust in the air as you walked from campus down Hes Road into town in winter.  No whiff of cocoa and burnt sugar when the wind blew inwards from Terry’s and Rowntrees. Flood marks and an inescapable smell of damp in the old Odeon cinema

Years later and I find myself leaving our eldest in Edinburgh on a bleak late September afternoon. She kisses and hugs me goodbye on Waverley Steps. I am caught by surprise and have to hold back at the tears. Watching the city disappear from the train, I feel that unique bittersweetness and finally begin to understand a bit more about both parenting and life.

A version of this article first appeared in yu magazine

Shocking – Syria and the Dehumanisation of Misery?


Aleppo, November 2014, Credit: Getty Images, Baraa Al Halabi

Did the picture of Omran Daqneesh shock you? Upset you?  The images and story of “The boy in the ambulance” surely pushed buttons in most of us, highlighting graphically the desperate siege of Aleppo and its residents, screaming “look at this, you must look at this”  in an anaesthetised or uncaring world.

But here’s a thing: Would all the people (including me) who are upset by this photo give a thought about his life/welfare/education/family/prospects if he hadn’t just been pulled out of a pile of rubble?

That’s the view from some of those who know much more about all this have been critical. “Self-serving weepy obsession,” to paraphrase one comment from a close friend who has spent the summer volunteering in a refugee camp. Tough words, but quite apart from editors and readers not really caring, can a child really give consent for their photo to be used like this?  Is it right to use photos of traumatised bodies for shock value? Isn’t it just dehumanising? Children,  like Phan Thi Kim Phuc,  photographed in similar situations have said they have never been able to escape the legacy of the published images

But there is a larger point here too, ironically illustrated by  the juxtaposition  of two  editorials  in Friday’s Guardian – one on  Omran  Daqneesh  as  a  wake-up  call  on Aleppo,  and the other  on race equality in the UK.

I share the view – put forward by my friend (who happens to be white) – that victimisation and dehumanisation is a problem area for our media. It’s not just that there are rarely stories of middle eastern children who aren’t living in a refugee camp or covered in blood – it is more that such a lop-sided view is dehumanising and arguably teaches us to see black and middle eastern people only as either victims or perpetrators, never as full human beings – as bodies first and people second.

This is close, in my view, to some views on black deaths in police custody. It is not difficult to see why the Black Lives Matter campaign has such a strong resonance in the UK and why race quality is rightly rising up the political agenda.

My Calais correspondent argues that the photos of Omran Daqneesh show how as a middle-eastern person, he has less of a right to privacy and to consent than a white child would.  That he’s presented as a symbol, not a human being. That using traumatised and injured people for shock value is dehumanising and creates the troubling narrative described above.

I understand but think there’s another view: newspapers should be slow to sanitise the horrors of war. There is a duty to hold a mirror up to the world for their readers. And the strangulation of Aleppo and its people still hasn’t attracted the attention it should or needs. Public interest trumps consent on this one I think. It is not good that it takes bloodied kids being pulled out of rubble to get enough focus, but sadly not surprising.

I agree about the (sometimes unintended) presumption of victimhood and the consequences of that – but how else, in reality, to report Aleppo right now? Not at all would probably be the dominant view. I also disagree that there is an absolute right to consent.

Sometimes, the circumstances make consent impossible. Sometimes there is no realistic right to privacy – including when there is an overwhelming public interest.

Shock tactics have always played a role for in political debate. Facts and policy arguments may engage your mind and change what you think.  But images are more likely to change how you feel.  And for better or worse, how you feel is more likely than what you think to make you act.

This article also appears in The Huffington Post. An appeal to aid Aleppo is here. You can support humanitarian work at the Calais Refugee Camp here


Points of View: Me and St George


(Lyme Regis 2016, credit: Richard Bridges)

 This photo caught my eye. “So crowded” was my first thought. I looked again. Felt uneasy. Felt guilty. Felt confused.

It’s not hard to work out why. This is reality not an air-brushed brochure. The beach isn’t pristine, the clothes are not haut-couture and the bodies aren’t air-brushed.

But the chaotically packed sand, the brawny sleeveless t-shirted chap in the foreground (“big bloke in wife-beater shirt” said one commentator), the fluttering cross of St George. Martin Parr, welcome to Britain 2016.

But let’s not jump to conclusions too quickly. You can try to play “Where’s Wally” by looking for a can of Stella somewhere, but I think your time would be better spent.

Take the man in the foreground – and I am sorry Sir, but I do not know you or who you are. But actually, he is helping his small son – almost out of shot, dressed in an Arsenal kit (not a fashion crime, as far as I am aware. Unless you’re a Spurs fan).

And try as you might, I couldn’t find a can of Stella, or a knotted hankie. But I do see people reading books and newspapers and actually not doing any harm to anyone.

I know some people get very uncomfortable about these sorts of images – just as many did about Parr’s seminal work “The Last Resort”. There is nervous well-to-do middle class laughter about peole we presume are less well off, less cultured, less confident or adventurous than us. And then some guilt because we might be responsible. But I think it is wrong – indeed patronising – to generalise in this way.

No, my unease about this photo comes from two places. First, I can see no non-white faces. Ok, this may be indicative of my urban multiculturalism, but the lack of diversity is really striking. Discombobulating almost.

And then there is that flag. Oh how things have changed in the last month with that flag. When I was a kid, the Cross of St George meant trouble.  It had been colonised, taken over paraded by the far right of the day. Then came less worried times. The people as a whole made a determined effort to repossess the flag for everyone.  We collectively rejected a national symbol being the private property of an abusive small minority – or maybe in times of prosperity, such things become less important.

But now? Now I am not sure.  Post –Brexit  don’t we feel ill-at-ease?  My foreign-born friends are (mostly) palpably worried, anxious, and careful. Racists and xenophobes seem emboldened even though I am sure most people who voted “out” would absolutely reject such intolerance. How do we react to icons that have become tarnished in this way? How can we live with them as we did before? How do we stop ourselves possibly over-reacting and placing our own fears and presumptions at the doors of innocent others?

Questions, questions. I do think  Martin Parr would have been happy  to  have taken that photo, and  to feel  a link with  the Thatcherite  backdrop of  “The last resort”. There is no doubt we live in challenging times. But rather like that Guardian “Points of View” advertisement, we need to be sure we see all angles before jumping to conclusions.

This piece also appears in the Huffington Post

Clutching at Straws?

Photocredit: Getty images
Close your eyes and it could well have been Ed Miliband talking on the steps of 10 Downing Street this Wednesday. Apart from the voice, of course. Prime Minister May’s message was decidedly centrist. Given her consistently  right-wing voting record,  was this  just a gimmick, designed to deceive?

I think I’m entitled to be sceptical. But perhaps, just perhaps, we should wait and see. And no – I haven’t gone soft. Here’s why:

Theresa May has possibly read the runes and realises that many centrist votes are simply there for the taking. There seems to be a trend across the last two General Elections  of Labour failing to win back votes lost to the Tories.  Perhaps May is positioning the party to permanently colonise this section of the electorate.

After all, it is not unreasonable to surmise that whatever the outcome of the current internal Labour debates,  there is a realistic prospect of centrist voters looking for a new home.

And May would not be the first politician to embrace Machiavelli’s maxim that what you need to do to get power is different to what you need to do to keep it.

Machiavellian is one apt description for her boldness in cabinet appointments. Who didn’t have an instinctively good reaction  to the fates  of Osborne, Whittingdale, Morgan and Gove? The debate is still, of course, out on our new Foreign Secretary.  Perhaps having created a huge mess, it is only right he is given an opportunity to clear it up.

Policy-wise, Brexit must inevitably dominate the post-referendum period, but there are surely worse people  to have in charge than the pro-human rights  David Davis. I worry at the loss of focus on climate change,  but see potential positives with the emphasis on industrial strategy.

Let us be clear, though, that when Theresa May says “We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives” that can mean massive deregulation and privatization as easily as a supportive and empowering state.

Unfortunately we on the left have to face some uncomfortable  truths – the first  comprehensively educated Education Secretary  is a Conservative. Indeed more of the cabinet went to state schools than any government since  1945.  Both female prime ministers have been Conservative. Why have these achievements not been ours?

So maybe there is the basis for just some, little, super-ultra-cautious optimism. But at the heart of Mrs May’s approach is a contradiction.

You can’t be a One-Nation Prime Minister with Two-Nation economic policies. You can’t be  progressive on social policy  without  the  economic policies to  turn  pledges into  reality. Chris Dillow’s article expands well on this point, and highlights the space this leaves for those on the left (and right).

This week has shown once again that   the Conservative Party is the master above all of keeping power. That has to be admired, and not just because of the travails of the opposition. Another Tory maxim is governing for the few and not the many. If Mrs May is serious about breaking that one, she will have to show more substance than seduction.

Did Legal Loop-hole Win it for Leave?

The “Vote Leave” battle-bus, Photo credit PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images

The Brexit pledge of more money for the NHS was a key argument in the EU referendum. Indeed, it could well have been the deciding factor in a narrow win following a bruising campaign.

The £350m per week in question was blasted on the side of the Leave battlebus, and cited by Brexiters-in-chief remorselessly. Highly controversial but seemingly widely believed, it has now been thoroughly disowned and all traces purged from the campaign website.

Spin – arguably bending truth up to but not beyond breaking point – has always been part of the process.  And “over-spinning” can often be justified on the basis that it is just someone’s opinion, rather than a clear statement of fact (a crucial distinction, as every newspaper journalist knows well). But how could something so unsupported have been allowed to surface in the first place?

You see, large parts of the Representation of the People Act (RPA) were incorporated into the regulations governing the Euro-referendum, as a clear set of rules to ensure everyone behaved themselves.

Large parts but not, apparently, the bit that says you can’t bend the truth beyond breaking point: Section 106  in particular makes it an offence to publish a statement about a rival candidate that you know to be false.

It was this clause – or rather the failure to abide by it – that ended the parliamentary career of the MP for Oldham, and former minister for immigration,  Phil Woolas.  In the 2010 General election,  he narrowly defeated his Lib-Dem  rival  Elwyn Watkins. In doing so  had made some specific statements about him  that were subsequently shown to be in breach of the Act.  The election was declared invalid, Woolas was barred from being a candidate for three years, and Debbie Abrahams won the rerun contest for Labour with a comfortable majority.

So despite the cross-referencing of these two pieces of legislation, why did unedifying untruths still unfold?

To my lay-person’s eye, there seems to me to be one obvious reason – Section 106 refers to candidates, not campaigns.  And I  can hear the argument that  a campaign,  especially  such  a broad  one  as  Leave (or Remain),  cannot realistically be expected to adhere to the same standards  as one individual candidate.

But such arguments surely misunderstand the issue.  The whole point is that elections must be fair and seen to be fair.  That fairness is vital because if the result of a poll is not credible,   the consequences of that in terms of social unrest, economic uncertainly, and political instability can be very great indeed.  As we are seeing in this extra-ordinary post-referendum period.

Therefore, from the perspective of practicality as well as ethics,   the same standards must apply to referenda as to all other elections covered by the RPA.

“But hang on,” my hypothetical critics retort -” who speaks for a campaign?”  Why  should leading figures  be trapped  by  what some low-level  barrack-room  loudmouth  may sound off about?  Campaigns are just too big to be held to the same standards.

This seems a thin argument:  Parliamentary candidates also have significant teams of support staff working on their campaigns. This is recognised by the Act.  And in any event Leave and Remain were officially endorsed groups.  There is a clear chain of command.  So I see no reason why a Section 106 (or equivalent) proviso should not apply in these circumstances, albeit with an additional built-in opportunity  for repudiation. A suitable  acknowledgement that  there has  been a problem,  a  disavowal  of the offending statements and an undertaking  to fix whatever has gone wrong would seem to be an appropriate and effective  sanction  in the  context  of a referendum.

It is time to take a further step to remove lies from our political process.  The mess they create smears those who voted Leave with honourable intentions – and does damage to us all.

This article also appears in the Huffington Post

Reasons to be Cheerful



There are none. This is the omnishambles of all omnishambles, as Malcolm Tucker would say. The Brexit result  had my teenage daughter  wailing “They’ve F*cked my Future” over her breakfast,  and  my son  is scurrying  around trying to  establish  whether my wife’s Irish forebears entitle him to  a passport.

It’s dismal alright. And it’s unknown. And it seems no good can come of it.  The demographics are striking – a grand coalition of the old, less well educated, less well off has delivered a momentous result.  Whoever thought it was a good idea not to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote (Clue:  it was the man who has just announced his resignation).

But in all the fog, upset and bitterness we have to have hope. We are entitled to search for some solace. Here’s where I think it can be found;

First, this is going to be a long process, with multiple chances to intervene and mollify the eventual outcome. Patrick Wintour’s summary of what now happens in practice is an excellent overview.

Second, the Conservatives are split – irreparably in my view. Even their hard-wired instinct for power will not be enough to paper over the cracks. Given part of the divide is over style and attitude; there are opportunities for some new alliances and to push the case for an alternative government.

Third, this seismic political shock should act as a catharsis over some issues the left has grappled with for years. The practical as well as ethical argument for votes at 16  is surely made.  Our current campaign tools seem to have proved ineffective – again. So we need to examine how we communicate.

And we need to recognise that the UK is fractured even more than the Conservative Party, and have a response to that.

In my view this response  needs to  be  a federal UK –  well actually more a federal England given  I expect  Scotland  be  independent in 5 years and back in the EU  in 10,  and  Wales and Northern Ireland already have devolved assemblies. My blueprint for a post referendum settlement is here.

Fourth, we have to re-orientate our political thinking to a more UK-centric view. We can see what will come in terms of a “Brexit” recession and budget.  We need to build and sustain the narrative now on an alternative, inclusive tax and investment policy as opposed to the default of more cuts signalled by George Osborne days before the vote.  We need to turn attention to the realities of trade with the rest of Europe from outside the EU.

Fifth and probably most importantly, irrespective of the misplaced anger a majority of voters seemed to direct against the EU, we must remember the words and deeds of Jo Cox.  “We have more in common than that which divides us”.  There is much we cannot change, but   we do have control over our thoughts and actions.  This is a time for emphasising our common humanity.

I am sure that many voted Leave with honourable intentions. But the campaign   was hijacked by the nasty brigade who played the oldest trick in the political book – “you’ve got problems and they are all the fault of people who are not like you.”

So we pick ourselves up, we dust ourselves down. We make sense of the new reality as best we can.  And we stick to our values and redouble our efforts. There has never been a more important time for decency, determination and hope, and these are all things we can deliver, irrespective of the Brexit vote. “You got to have hope” is a good maxim.

A New Settlement for Post-Referendum Britain


Whatever the outcome of the EU referendum, the future of UK politics looks more uncertain than at any time in living memory.

The Conservative Party is irreparably split. The bitterness of the campaign has been astonishing.  The fault lines in personal relationships across the party are deep and, I suspect, unbridgeable.

It is hard to see the Prime Minister staying in office for long. But although  we  have become used to  the notion  of  a Johnson/Osborne/May  fight  to be the next  occupant of No 10,  could any of this troika  reunite the Party?  I think not.  Eurosceptic Conservatives have much in common with   UKIP, and could command a healthy vote in any election – possibly around 25%.

But we have seen a resurgence  of  what  we used to call “One Nation” Toryism, – those such as  Sarah Woolaston and Baroness Warsi  who  have  publicly rejected  the  acerbic  traits  of  colleges.  The impressive performance of Ruth Davidson – both in the Scottish elections and the EU campaign could be the catalyst for a move back to the centre, which would itself have a strong electoral pull.

So we have the real prospect of  a  staunchly  right  wing  Conservative/UKIP  block,  and  a  reasserted  One Nation grouping.  But as we look to the left of the political spectrum we see challenges there too.

Jeremy Corbyn is firmly in control of the Party machinery. Labour’s share in recent elections is generally improving.  But the party’s message is struggling to be heard and its core vote is vulnerable, outside of the South East particularly, to UKIP.   The party’s collapse in Scotland and  redrawn  Westminster constituency  boundaries  make  it  much  harder  for the Party  to  win a majority.

In this scenario, for both a fractured Conservative party and a constrained Labour one, constitutional reform makes increasing sense. Would not a “leave”   result would create an unstoppable momentum for Scottish independence and may even loosen English-Welsh ties?  London will surely vote Remain, and is becoming ever more distinctive to other parts of the UK.  But the devolution  of  powers  away  from  central  government (the so-called “Devo Manc”  model)  has been enthusiastically  embraced –  not least by  Labour  who  see it as   an opportunity  to  address the  imbalance of political  forces  at  Westminster.

The level and spread of regional autonomy in the UK could soon cross the Rubicon. So the question  must be  how to  ensure that  the exercise of  devolved power  is  by directly  elected representatives who  reflect  the political views of the  population.  A new constitutional  settlement,  especially one  in which  old political  power blocs  have changed,  could make  proportional representation not only  desirable  but necessary.

The future is of course unwritten. The post-referendum landscape will inevitably be different, and we can’t leave it to others to shape it. The opportunity to shape a new constitutional settlement – that takes the heat from the referendum campaign and produces something effective, enduring and empowering – is one we must take.

This piece also appears in The Huffington Post