Why Luddism Protects Democracy

Two pieces of technology allow voters to cast their ballots reliably and securely. They are both hundreds of years old and begin with the letter ‘p’

The story goes that during the space race the Americans spent millions of dollars on pens that would work in zero gravity, whilst the Russians gave their astronauts pencils. This is actually an urban legend: both of the rival superpowers started out using pencils before concluding they were a fire hazard and switching to some form of specially designed pen. But true or not the merit that tale has been on my mind because I’ve been mulling the merits of the humble pencil.

The catalyst for this is Jill Stein. Having shown precious little interest in stopping Donald Trump before the election, the Green Party presidential candidate has raised large amounts of money to petition for recounts that aim to show that he did not in fact win a number of swing states. Which if nothing else prompted one of my favourite tweets of the entire election season:

The basis for Stein’s action seems to be the claim by some tech experts and election lawyers that in a number of swing states Clinton performed worse in counties that used electronic voting than those that stuck with physical ballots.

This notion is lent credence by the fact that during the election campaign someone – probably linked to the Russian intelligence services – was carrying out hacks designed to hurt the Clinton campaign. There is no reason to rule out the possibility they would have continued once polling day itself came around.

While all of this is true, it almost certainly doesn’t indicate fraud. When two journalists at FiveThirtyEight,  and , looked at the gap between Clinton’s vote in counties with different voting methods they found that the disparity was likely the result of demographics rather than manipulation. You would expect the counties that used electronic voting to lean Trump anyway as they were whiter and populated by fewer graduates. In addition, the states in question are all in the midwest and Trump seems to have gained ground across that region and not only in states like that still use paper ballots exclusively. In short, there does not appear to be a mystery for which the manipulation of electronic voting systems might be an explanation.

Whilst it may not have happened this time, the use of electronic voting machines leaves American elections vulnerable to fraud. As this video by the tech journalist Tom Scott illustrates, it is practically impossible to secure such machines.

This is not to say that an election conducted with paper ballots can never be fraudulently swayed. Being involved in British politics gave me direct experience of that. During the first election campaign I ever played a decent sized role in, my side spent a lot of time trying to work out if our Labour opponents were casting fraudulent postal votes. We believed – and the police appeared to agree – this had happened in the previous election. But there was no repeat. In the intervening period, a new law had been introduced requiring voters to include a signature and D.O.B on both their application to vote by post and a form that was posted back along with the ballot. This simple step proved sufficient to mostly end abuse of this voting method. And even at its height postal vote fraud in the UK – to my knowledge – only affected local elections. Even under a system lax enough to draw criticism from international democracy watchdogs, getting hold of enough physical ballot papers to influence a parliamentary election without getting caught proved too difficult for potential fraudsters. Imagine, therefore, how difficult it would be to manipulate an election in American states that have a population in the millions.

Once you dispense with physical ballots and record votes only as data, these logistical impediments to fraud fall away. As Scott says:

once you have electronic voting, it can take as much effort to change a million votes as it does one.

But the problem with electronic voting is not only that it makes fraud possible. It also makes it impossible to disprove fraud. You cannot do a recount because there is nothing to recount. The kind of exercise that Bialik and Arthur conducted depends on their being counties and states that don’t use electronic voting in order to compare with the places that do. And even then, the two authors are forced to admit:

It’s possible nonetheless that the election was hacked, in the sense that anything is possible. (And the best hackers are experts in erasing their tracks.) Maybe hackers knew which control variables we’d look at and manipulated the vote in a way that it would look like it was caused by race, education and population driving different voting preferences. Maybe hackers didn’t manipulate the share of votes in individual counties, but rather the turnout, increasing the number of votes in counties likely to favor one candidate or another.

In this context, there is no justification for the use of electronic voting. It may get you results faster but that’s not worth it if the result at the end may have been tampered with. Even if it hasn’t been then the possibility that it might have been is corrosive of trust in the democratic process and a threat to the peaceful transfer of power.

So please Americans go back to paper and pencils. Not only is that more secure but also more reliable. Maintaining a system based around some of the most common items in the world is easy compared to maintaining machines. If a pencil breaks, you do not need an engineer to fix it. If you run out of them, then someone with no training on their first day at work is quite capable of going to Staples and buying some replacements. And because pencils and paper cost next to nothing they can be replaced as and when needed. By contrast, buying new machines is expensive so many electoral authorities put it off. Do this long enough and you wind up in the situation of Pennsylvania which on November 8th 2016 was still using touch screens:

….from the ’80s made by…companies that don’t exist anymore.

That led to fears that even if the machines weren’t hacked they might simply make errors that resulted in them recording votes incorrectly.

In addition, there’s no need to teach voters how to use pencil and paper, hence there is less chance of ‘a hanging chad‘ style fiasco.

A number of states have wound up with the weird compromise of having voters cast their ballots using machines that then produce a paper copy of the ballot. Which – to borrow a phrase from Scott – makes the voting machine into nothing more than “the world’s most expensive pencil”.

If they wish to speed up the counting process, election authorities could always bring in machines to count ballots. This is less problematic than using them to record results because there remains a physical ballot paper that can be recounted by hand if there’s a question about the machine’s accuracy.

That exception aside Luddism is the best option when it comes to election. The ubiquity of pencils and paper speaks to their versatility. There is no need to invent any special technology to enable people to vote: a perfectly good tool for the job has been around for at least 500 years.


You might also be interested in:

I’ve written before about why I think the dangers of voter impersonation are dramatically overstated both in the US and the UK.

The best things I’ve read recently (19/11/2016)

Men’s day comes to parliament with hilarious results, China’s selective refugee policy and some worrying rumours about Dr Who

Men of the Commons leave Men’s Day debate to the women by John Crace (the Guardian)

Conservative Paul Beresford was also keen to stand up for men, though he began by insisting he was a feminist because he had a wife and daughters. “Men tend to find themselves at the very top or the very bottom of the ladder,” he observed, a point rather contradicted by his own mediocrity. “We’re encouraging women to be scientists and company directors, so we must do more to help men be hairdressers and tea ladies,” he went on to say, before adding: “I think of the male suicide rate every time I hold the door open for a lady.” As non sequiturs go, that takes some beating.

The upper Han: who is Chinese? (the Economist)

China’s Han-centred worldview extends to refugees. In a series of conflicts since 2009 between ethnic militias and government forces in Myanmar the Chinese government has consistently done more to help the thousands escaping into China from Kokang in Myanmar, where 90% of the population is Han, than it has to aid those leaving Kachin, who are not Han. Non-Chinese seem just as beguiled by the purity of Han China as the government in Beijing. Governments and NGOs never suggest that China take refugees from trouble spots elsewhere in the world. The only large influx China has accepted since 1949 were also Han: some 300,000 Vietnamese fled across the border in 1978-79, fearing persecution for being “Chinese”. China has almost completely closed its doors to any others. Aside from the group from Vietnam, China has only 583 refugees on its books. The country has more billionaires.

Doctor Who Casting Rumors Have Us Scratching Our Heads by Kyle Anderson (Nerdist)

According to The Mirror‘s source:

“BBC management wants a return to the format from the David Tennant era, when you had a dashing male lead and young female companion.

“Merchandising has dropped off sharply in recent years and there is a strong desire to boost the show’s popularity among kids.”

Now, I have a lot of opinions about this, and most of them are to call this utter hogwash. Want some bullet points? Great!

  • The show hasn’t been on for a full calendar year. You want to wonder why merchandising has dropped? Maybe because there’s no show to get people excited about new adventures and new monsters to turn into toys.
  • I haven’t seen nearly the amount of toys and merchandise surrounding the Capaldi era as I did with the deluge surrounding Matt Smith.
  • Also, Matt Smith’s tenure culminated in the 50th Anniversary, when global interest in the show was at an all time high.
  • Pearl Mackie hasn’t even fucking been on the show yet! How can you already say they she’s not going to connect with kids if all of we’ve seen of her is a two minute teaser?
  • The idea of a “return to the format from the David Tennant-era” is incredibly short-sighted and regressive. If there’s one thing the show doesn’t need, it’s a formula that has become so passe.
  • Whether or not Capaldi (who is 58) will vacate the role following series 10, the one thing the BBC absolutely cannot do is have more of the same regarding casting choices. There badly needs to be a shakeup in terms of who plays the Doctor–i.e., not a white guy–and while the source doesn’t say “white” regarding the dashing Tennant-esque Doctor, it shows a clear desire not to think outside the box one iota. When HASN’T there been a dashing Doctor and a young female companion?

Podcast(s) of the week

There are two this week. Ezra Klein’s interview with Ron Brownstein about the psephology of Trump’s victory is fascinating and definitely worth your time. So is the World in Words on the young Arabs in Dubai who speak English better than what is supposedly their mother tongue.

Video of the week

Tweet of the week

The perils of partial pacifism: the sad story of the Stop the War Coalition



The aftermath of a bomb attack in Allepo 

Attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/81399520@N00/8049978198


What does it mean to stop a war that started years ago? That is the dilemma currently facing the Stop the War coalition.

I first came across the organisation way back in 2003. I was a tree amongst the forest of anti-Iraq war protestors in Hyde Park. In that context, ‘stop the war’ had a very clear and direct meaning. The ‘war’ was the one that would shortly commence in Iraq. Conscious decisions were being taken in Western capitals to start it, and if they were reversed then it would have been stopped. However, the further removed from that moment we become, the less evident the coalition’s purpose becomes. As this guest post by my friend Robert Knapp demonstrates, nowhere are anti-war slogans less adequate than Syria. And the resulting strain is revealing troubling things about Stop the War’s underlying ideology:

The civil war in Syria has been raging since 2011. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions more have been displaced with the impact spreading into the neighbouring states of Iraq (with the rise of IS), Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Tragically at the time of writing, the war shows no sign of abating. It has been exacerbated by many foreign actors.  At present, A US led coalition is conducting a wide ranging air campaign against the so called Islamic State; while the government of Bashar Al-Assad, backed by Iranian militias and Russian airpower, is continuing its attempts to crush the remaining rebel groups in the besieged city of Aleppo. Regional powers including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the various Gulf states are also deeply involved and implicated. With peace talks progressing nowhere and the horrors of war only seeming to increase, the need for a peaceful solution and the accompanying calls for an end to the conflict only seem more critical. In this context, we should welcome those who oppose the war; support refugee resettlement programs; contribute to aid projects and search for a peaceful solution to the conflict.

Despite this I find the behaviour of the Stop the War Coalition (SWC) regarding the Syrian Civil War unconscionably partial and inadequate.  They are almost entirely concerned with decrying Western influence, and particularly the collateral damage inflicted by Western airstrikes against the so called Islamic State. They have remained largely silent on the devastating casualties caused by Russian and Syria air strikes. This has been particularly clear in recent weeks following the devastating bombardment of the besieged city of Aleppo.

This inconsistency has been noted by many, including the foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who called on the group to protest outside the Russian Embassy. In response, the SWC’s chairman, Andrew Murray wrote that: ‘We stretch out our hands to all those in Russia, the USA, Turkey, Iran and France opposing their own governments military interference in Syria, none of which have brought anything other than more suffering and loss of life for the Syrian people.’ However, he explained that the SWC would not be organising any protests themselves other than those against the actions of the British government.*

While a British organisation focusing on the British government might seem like a reasonable stance, it not actually one the SWC adheres to. Their constitution states that the SWC’s chief aim is: ‘to stop the war(s) currently declared by the United States and its allies against ‘terrorism’. It also regularly targets Israel, France, Saudi Arabia and other Western countries. This a perfectly reasonable thing for an anti-war organisation to do but it doesn’t not fit with the SWC’s claim that their scope is limited to their own country and that consequently they must leave the protesting of Russia’s military actions to Russian peace organisation.

This is part of a broader pattern whereby anti-war movements in the West focus on Western actions to the exclusion of wars more generally. Whenever the UK, US and their allies have entered into armed conflicts since September 11th 2001, that has always led to mass protests, rallies and media campaigns organised by groups like the SWC. Russian invasions of Georgia and the Crimea during produced no such reaction. Nor has its connivance with the Syrian government and its Iranian allies to crush the moderate opposition to Assad’s regime. At best these acts of aggression were greeted with silence and at worst they have been excused.

Syria’s Civil War has emerged as the prime example of this hypocrisy. Since November last year Russia has been contributing substantial artillery, Special Forces and, above all, air power elements to support the Syrian government in their attempts to crush the main non-IS rebel movements in the country despite claiming that they are geared towards the fight against Islamic State. In recent months this highly successful intervention has returned to the top of the news bulletins because of the scale of air strikes targeting Aleppo. This has particularly focused upon the number of hospitals targeted and the devastating air strike on an aid convoy which evidence points towards being carried out by either Syrian or Russian aircraft. At the same time a separate air campaign has been being conducted by a US led coalition against the forces of Islamic State in eastern Syria and Iraq.

The SWC has been insistently protesting this latter campaign, largely on the grounds that it has inflicted large civilian casualties. They have mostly remained silent on Russian actions except when to compare them to the horrors Western air strikes. Due to this one might assume that Russian bombs were not killing Syrian civilians or at least leading to fewer civilian casualties than American ones. In fact, the opposite is true.  The Guardian has reported on the tracking of casualties by the organisation Airwars which shows that:

‘Over 3,600 civilian deaths [have been] caused by Russian bombing raids since they joined the Syrian conflict just over a year ago, a number Woods (Chris Woods, the director of Airwars) described as an “absolute minimum”.

In contrast, the coalition has caused nearly 900 civilian deaths over 26 months of bombing, 19 acknowledged by the coalition itself and another 858 recorded by monitoring groups. “That means the Russians’ death rate probably outpaces the coalition by a rate of eight to one,” Woods said. 

He added that the toll from Russian airstrikes may rise because the group’s analysts, who comb through each reported case of a civilian death to verify the attacks, were struggling to keep up with the pace of attacks.

“We are running a huge backlog of cases because the Russians are alleged to have killed so many civilians.” 

As these figures clearly show Western air strikes have been substantially less brutal and harmful to civilians than those conducted by the Russian armed forces. While every civilian death is always a tragedy, a distinction needs to be made between the horrific accidents the United States, Britain and their allies make and the Russian air force’s: deliberate targeting of hospitals; destruction of aid convoys; obfuscation and denials of any civilian casualties being inflicted at all and follow up strikes targeting rescue teams trying to help the wounded of previous strikes. To be concerned only with Western air strikes and not Russian ones is perverse and an indicator of a worldview that not only assumes the West is always the villain but does not allow anyone anti-western to be villainous.

As Jonathan Freedland has written:

‘Pity the luckless children of Aleppo. If only the bombs raining down on them, killing their parents, maiming their friends, destroying their hospitals – if only those bombs were British or, better still, American. Then the streets of London would be jammed with protestors demanding an end to their agony. Trafalgar Square would ring loud with speeches from Tariq Ali, Ken Loach and Monsignor Bruce Kent. Whitehall would be a sea of placards, insisting that war crimes were being committed and that these crimes were Not in Our Name. Grosvenor Square would be packed with noisy protestors outside the US embassy, urging that Barack Obama be put on trial in The Hague. The protestors would wear Theresa May masks and paint their hands red. And they would be doing it all because, they’d say, they could not bear to see another child killed in Aleppo.

But that is not the good fortune of the luckless children of that benighted city. Their fate is to be terrorised by the wrong kind of bombs, the ones dropped by Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. As such, they do not qualify for the activist sympathy of the movement that calls itself the Stop the War Coalition. Indeed, it’s deputy chair, Chris Nineham, told the Today programme that his organisation would not be organising or joining any protests outside the Russian embassy because that would merely fuel the “hysteria and the jingoism” currently being whipped up against Moscow. Stop the War would instead, explained Nineham in a moment of refreshing candour, be devoting its energies to its prime goal – “opposing the west”.’

Pacifism has a long and honourable tradition stretching back to the Buddha and Christ, that takes in the Conscientious Objectors to World War One and the protestors against the Vietnam War. To campaign for the end of war and conflict is commendable but that is not what the SWC does. It seems to be much more concerned with opposing the West than with the horror of conflict itself, even if many of its members do hold that highly laudable aim. It revels in castigating Western military operations while ignoring or making apologies for the actions of non-Western powers carrying out much worse actions. It is very rare for Boris Johnson and Jonathan Freedland to be in agreement but they are right to call out the Stop the War coalition for its rank hypocrisy on this issue. The world needs a just and principled peace movement but it is clear the Stop the War coalition cannot be part of it.


*Editors note: Andrew Murray is a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain who has previously defended Stalin and expressed solidarity with North Korea.

What if Theresa May had lost her seat in 2005


“Hey, I’ve arrived at Twyford” I said into the first mobile phone I ever owned. This being 2005 it was, inevitably, a Nokia 3510. “Oh OK” came the reply from Simon, the Liberal Democrat organiser for Maidenhead constituency, followed by a pause. “But I thought we’d agreed to meet at Maidenhead station” he continued. “Oh shit, yes we did” I replied.

And so began my career as a Liberal Democrat activist. I did eventually get to Maidenhead and start knocking on doors and delivering leaflets. I was campaigning on behalf of Kathy Newbound, a popular local councillor in the traditional mould of Lib Dem community activists. The Party had a come a credible second in the seat in the 2001 General Election and had gained further ground in the local elections that followed.

And it was alluring for another reason: the MP our victory would unseat was high profile. At that point she was Shadow Secretary of State for Families but she had previously been the Chairman of the Conservative Party. In which role, she had made herself notorious for telling the Tories they were perceived as ‘the nasty party’. Despite that what most people knew her for was her flamboyant taste in footwear.

The Liberal Democrat effort to defeat Theresa May was part of what became known as the ‘decapitation strategy‘. It is remembered as an outright failure. Virtually all the senior Tories it targeted dug in and built up the personal votes in their constituencies. At the same time CCHQ employed some of the most sophisticated campaigning British politics had yet seen. For example, they used data purchased from marketing firms to find voters susceptible to messages about the further reaches of the Liberal Democrat manifesto. So owners of land rovers got direct mail about the Lib Dem plans for a tax on 4x4s. At a time when the Liberal Democrats still had to rely on dropping the same leaflet through every door on a street, this was devastating stuff. Michael Howard’s majority barely fell and remained well over 10,000. David Davis’ went from under 2,000 to over 5,000. And Theresa May’s basically doubled.

Nonetheless, the strategy was not quite a total failure. Shadow Education Secretary Tim Collins was defeated by one Tim Farron. So it’s not totally implausible that Mrs May might have lost her seat back in 2005. If that had happened how would Britain now be different?

We could ask if there are features of her tenure as Home Secretary that are unique to her as an individual and which another Conservative would not have replicated?

But the more interesting question is who would now be Prime Minister? Without the rocks of Mrs May’s childlessness to run aground on, would Andrea Leadsom have triumphed? Would the void have been filled by another Remain supporting cabinet minister? Would Gove or Johnson have been able to satisfy their palpable craving for the top job? Or would Mrs May simply have re-entered parliament in 2010 either for Maidenhead or another constituency, and then continued her path to the premiership?

Absent the final option, my read is that British politics would now be pretty different. Mrs May’s peculiar combination of having supported remain but not too loudly, having been in Mr Cameron’s cabinet but not being close to him, of being culturally aligned  with the Party’s grassroots and having a reputation for being tough on immigration allowed her to contain the divides within the Conservatives. I do not see anyone else with a similar combination and I suspect that without her the Party would now be fighting itself in a positively Labour like fashion.

Reflections on a by-election in Witney

This is essentially my ‘hot take’ on the Witney by-election. At time of writing it’s almost 10pm here in South Korea. So I’m prioritising speed over things like finding links to support my assertions, redrafting and proofreading. If that leads to problems, please point it out in the comments and I will try to rectify them.

1: The Liberal Democrats can go on the offensive again

The 2015 General Election showed the incumbency advantage enjoyed by Lib Dems to be hugely overrated. However, for the duration of the coalition it was basically all we had going for us. From 2010 onwards, all our attempts to break into new territory or appeal to new groups of voters floundered. We could only seriously compete in (some of) our existing seats.

That dynamic seems to have shifted. It must be a mathematical certainty that the bulk of people who voted Lib Dem yesterday didn’t do so in 2015. That supports the pattern that we’ve seen in a string of spectacular local council by-election wins.

It’s important not to get carried away here. What we are describing is mostly potential rather than actual. The Party still has basically the same poll ratings it had in our annus horribilis of 2015. And I’m not sure whether affluent rural and suburban remain voting Tory areas are a great platform for a broader resurgence. If Labour gets its act together we could still be stuffed. But at least for now our potential to decline exists alongside the tantalising possibility of growth.

Or put another way in the ecosystem that is British politics, the Liberal Democrats are now predators as well as prey.

2: It’s going to take a miracle to stop a Hard Brexit

The implosion of the Labour Party has turned Britain into a version of one of those American congressional districts gerrymandered to make it an impregnable Republican fortress that as a result has a really hardline congressman more worried about pleasing the handful of ideologues who vote in primaries than in the opinions of the broader electorate.

The events that followed the Brexit vote would not lead you to suspect that Leave had only squeaked a victory by less than the margin of error of a standard opinion poll. It seems that the only view the government seems interested in are those of the most ardent outers and it will do that by delivering a maximalist version of Brexit. This fact will doubtless distress the 48% who voted to remain and presumably at least some of the leavers who were told quite explicitly that they could ‘have their cake and eat it’. But broad swathes of the country being opposed to the direction the government is going in does not matter to Theresa May. As long as there is no credible threat to Conservative rule from another party, all she has to do to maintain her premiership is keep her own deeply eurosceptic party happy.

A win in Witney might have shaken that sense of invulnerability. I am, of course, not criticising anyone involved in the campaign for not securing that an outright victory. Getting to a strong second from basically nowhere is an incredible achievement that was at the very limits of what could realistically be achieved. But that’s kind of the point: we’re running out of plausible ways to prevent our country blundering out of the Single Market.

3: Cosmopolitanism is the opium of the elites?

The past few years have been taxing for the left-wing parties. A key reason for that is they’ve tended to rely on combining their traditional base amongst the unionised working class with strong support from middle class professionals. The increasing prominence of issues of culture and identity has frayed and in some cases broken this alignment because the two halves of it generally have very different views on the merits of an open society.

A commonly articulated response to this problem is that social democratic parties need to pursue a more resolutely left-wing economic agenda. This will supposedly increase the salience of the traditional left-right dichotomy and consequently downplay the problematic open-closed one.

I doubt this will work. I see little evidence that the working class voters who are the audience for this socialist sound and fury will fall for this misdirection. I find the notion that their cultural grievances are just sublimated economic anxiety unconvincing and I suspect they would find it a tad patronising. The Sanders and Corbyn movements have tried this approach and yet appear to draw the vast bulk of their support from the middle class left.

Rather than accentuating economic issues to appeal to a shrinking working class, it would probably be wiser to accentuate cultural ones and appeal to the growing populations of graduates and minorities. This is what seems to be the coalition that will allow the Democrats to win the White House for a third time in a row. It is the affluent suburbs of big cities where Clinton seems to be making the biggest gains against Trump. Witney is essentially what one of those areas looks like in a British context. The successes enjoyed first by Remain and then the Lib Dems in the seat indicate that achieving something similar in British politics is not impossible.

So perhaps the trick to making left-wing politics work in the 21st century is using social liberalism to get wealthy professionals to vote against their short run economic self-interest. Sort of like the Marxist concept of false consciousness but turned on its head.

Not saying that will be an easy trick to pull off but it seems like a more promising avenue to explore than hoping postwar socialism will suddenly start working again.

The last Lib Dem manifesto mentioned Israel more than the entire Asia-Pacific, and that’s a problem

The good folks at Liberal Democrat Voice have very kindly run an article I wrote on the Liberal Democrat policy towards the Asia-Pacific, or rather the lack of it. They sensibly ask contributors to keep their submissions fairly short. Given that I was writing about a rather broad topic that meant I had to leave a fair amount out. So for those of you who are interested, here is the unabridged version of the article.

Did you see Gary Johnson – the Libertarian Party candidate for the American presidency – forgetting ‘what’ Aleppo is? If not I’d recommend it:

I challenge you to watch the look of bafflement on his face and not laugh. But when you have finished chuckling, may I ask you a question? What do you think about Shenzhen?

My guess is most of you are now drawing a blank. Until I had to catch a train from Shenzhen station, I did not know either. Which is rather embarrassing as by one definition it is the 8th largest city in the world. It is adjacent to but several times the size of Hong Kong. Startlingly, China has grown so large that Hong Kong is no longer among its twenty largest cities.

Most Britons now know that China is enormous. What is less widely understood is that so is the rest of the Asia-Pacific region. Indeed more people live there than in the rest of the world combined:

18mtwufmgj2mojpg (1).jpg

Credit: Redditor valeriepieris

Despite this the last Liberal Democrat manifesto includes more references to Israel – which has 0.001% of the world’s population – than to all the countries in the Asia-Pacific combined. And the only context they are mentioned in is advocating the benefits of EU membership. There are (or have been) groups declaring themselves to be “the Liberal Democrat Friends…” of Israel, Palestine, Kashmir, India and Turkey but not of China, Indonesia or Vietnam.* Basically it appears that if a Lib Dem says they are interested in foreign policy that means they are interested in Europe or parts of the Islamic world somewhat adjacent to it.

I can foresee two possible reasons to think it is more import for British politicians to know about these regions than about the Asia-Pacific.

Firstly, they are nearer the UK. This has some merit but misses our close connection to the Asia-Pacific. Much of it used to be British colonies and as a result many Britons can trace their ancestry there. More than 100,000 students from the region study in the UK. China is our second largest import partner. Many of the financial flows to and from the Asia-Pacific go via the City of London. Lest we forget, HSBC stands for ‘the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation’. And thousands of British citizens, myself included, live in the region.

The other response might be to suggest that there have simply been more events worthy of our attention taking place in Europe and the Middle East. If you have been thinking this then this demonstrates my point about how little attention is paid to the Asia-Pacific. It is true that the region has not seen anything as grim as the Syrian Civil War of late. Though the situations of the Rohingya minority in Burma and of the citizens of North Korea do bear comparison.

However, plenty else has happened. Ponder the following developments:

When a crisis eventually pushes one of these issues into the spotlight of British politics – and that will happen sooner rather than later – will we have something more to offer than a Gary Johnson style blank stare? We certainly could. We have done it before. Paddy Ashdown’s advocacy of giving passports to the residents of Hong Kong ahead of its return to China was one of the issues the Party used to prove its relevancy and distinctiveness after the disaster of merger. But my impression is that our credibility on that issue was essentially down to Ashdown personally – he had lived in Hong Kong and spoke Chinese – and is not something that we institutionalised at all. I may be being unfair but I struggle to think of anyone other than Ashdown at a senior level in the Party who has much insight into the Asia-Pacific. We have to rectify that. The Asia-Pacific is set to be the fulcrum of the twentieth-first century. If we have nothing to say about it, in a real sense we have nothing to say about the world we live in.


*There are the Chinese Liberal Democrats but they exist “to promote closer links between the Party and the Chinese and South East Asian community in the UK.”


If you are interested in this topic then check out a post I wrote last year on why British politicians need to stop ignoring China

The inhumanity of immigration controls


I defy you to tell me this situation is empowering for ordinary people

‘Taking back control of our borders’ means a huge loss of control for individuals

I recently finished reading Fires and Ashes by Michael Ignatieff. This is a political memoir with a difference. Most books in this genre seek to justify their author’s career. Ignatieff begins by acknowledging that his was misconceived from the start and it was only vanity that led him to embark on it. He gave up an academic job at Harvard and a successful career as a public intellectual for a bid to become Canada’s Prime Minister. While he managed to win the leadership of the Liberal Party, this proved to be a disaster for him and the Party. An aristocratic background and affiliation to prestigious universities left him unable to escape an elitist vibe. Worse still he had spent most of his adult life outside Canada, which provided the basis for a relentless barrage of Conservative adverts warning Canadians that Ignatieff was “just visiting”. The result was the Liberals – who’ve governed Canada for longer than not – being outpolled not only by the Conservatives but also the left-wing NDP. Ignatieff was among the many Liberal MPs to lose their seats.

Canada inherited from Britain a Westminster style parliamentary system. That meant that in order to make a run for Prime Minister Ignatieff had to first become a Member of Parliament representing a constituency. That in turn involved him in the grunt work of finding solutions to the problems that an MP’s constituents have with officialdom. Not with policy changes but pleading e-mails and haranguing phone calls. Ignatieff explains that this experience led him to a less enchanted view of the state:

Most of the favours my staff asked for related to immigration. Here the gulf between liberal good intentions and bureaucratic reality widened into an abyss. A country that take in up to a quarter of a million people a year is bound to have a backlog of applicants, but our Citizenship and Immigration service seemed overwhelmed by the tide. Constituents would beg me to secure for some family member from Indian, Pakistan or the Middle East to attend a family christening, wedding or funeral. All of these visas are granted on a discretionary basis and the decisions often seemed arbitrary and unreasonable.

Our party had opened up the country to multicultural immigration in the late 1960s and we had traded on this for domestic support ever since. What we failed to attend to was that a baffling visa process seemed to stand in the path of every family reunion in our visible-minority communities. Multicultural citizenship for these communities was a costly and incomprehensible obstacle course.

I remember particularly two sisters, trained nurses of Indian parentage, who worked with us to get their aging parents over from India so the family could spend their last years together. The sisters took charge of the process. They went back to India and shepherded their parents through medical exams and immigration interviews, but still no visa was forthcoming. Finally, after I made a direct plea to the minister for immigration, the parents, by then in their late seventies, were granted a visa and arrived in Canada to be met by their overjoyed children. A week later the father died. The whole process had taken six years.

There was no single individual to blame for this tragic result – there rarely is – and the sisters even brought my staff flowers to thank them for their efforts. But the political implications were disturbing. Liberals like me, who believed in an empowering government, failed to appreciate what it was like to beg for visas, to queue in a government office, to be kept waiting or to hang around a mailbox every day for a late pension or unemployment insurance cheque.

Reading this brought to my mind Brexit and the slogan of the campaign for it: ‘take back control’.

This was applied first and foremost to the issue of immigration. Vote Leave told us that:

EU membership stops us controlling who comes into our country, on what terms, and who can be removed. The system is out of control.

But who is ‘we’ in this context? Vote Leave would presumably answer the British people. They’d have to do so through the British state. And how will they control it? Through the kind of bureaucracy Ignatieff found so dehumanising.

Having lived and worked abroad I’ve now gone through the process of applying for work permits multiple times. For me it has been an expensive annoyance. I’ve spent days, travelled hundreds of miles and spent at least $1000 to get pieces of paper in my passport. But I’m lucky.

I’ve seen people pay far higher costs than me. For example, the multinational couple I lived with for a few months, who had to navigate a kind of residential slalom – a year in the UK, a couple in the US – so that they could rely on their ability to live together. Or another friend who had to keep flying back to the US while living in the UK in order to maintain her Green Card.

And then there were the people who didn’t get visas at all. My former boss in Vietnam was denied a tourist visa to visit the UK because of fears she’d try and stay and work illegally. Given that she’d built a very accomplished career where she was this just seemed insulting and I can still remember my embarrassment when I heard this. Or the numerous fluent English speakers I’ve met who can’t teach English in Korea because they don’t have passports from what the ministry of immigration considers English speaking countries. That costs them a job and their potential customers a capable teacher.

And of course this is all at the softer end of the immigration system. The one time I got direct experience of the harder side was when I was a legal intern. I took a trip to Campsfield House to help interview inmates. ‘House’ in this case means one of the immigration service’s ‘prison with carpets’. The ‘crimes’ that led to incarceration at Campsfield were typically having the wrong paper work or being the wrong nationality. And the bureaucratic requirements of the immigration system often meshed poorly with the actual details of applicants lives. For example, we have abundant documentary evidence that being gay in Iran or Pakistan can cost you your life. But how do you provide documentary proof that you are actually gay and not just claiming to be in order to get into the UK?

And in recent years its become grimly clear that controlling legal routes into a country pushes people towards illegal ones. Getting away from the nightmare of conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa to safety in Europe requires dangerous journeys in the back of lorries or decidedly unseaworthy vessels. But it’s not like there are not reliable routes into Europe. I could catch a bus or plane. But the people whose live depend on making this journey would find that route blocked by border guards. Thus migration controls can turn a desire for safety deadly.

Up to now I’ve spoken mostly about the impact of immigration controls on potential migrants. Frankly that ought to be enough: migrants are people too. But for some people it’s necessary to show that the ‘native’ population are affected too. Well if you fall in love with foreign national or want to employ one or to have one visit you for an extended period or to have them as a customer for your business or collaborate with them on a project or teach them then you will find yourself enmeshed in the same nightmare world of seemingly never ending paperwork.

A bureaucracy will always struggle to see you as a person rather than a collection of documents. The beauty of free movement within the EU is that it circumvents this tendency. One document, your passport, gives you the same rights as a citizen of the country you are heading to. Before immigration, the cause celebre of British opponents of the EU was overregulation. Yet ironically their push for our departure will create a massive new field of regulation governing migration between the UK and its neighbours. You may feel those regulations are necessary but if so please recognise that they are a necessary evil. If Britain takes back control of its borders, that will mean a loss of control for millions of individual people – many of them British.