Mixed metaphors in the AV race

Is AV a horse race or a football match? Or is it just whatever the plebs can understand?

What if a general election were a horse race? No, too complicated. Fences. Horses and jockeys. Difficult to understand. I'll try again. What if a general election were a 100-metre race? Mmm, no, too tricky. Scope for misunderstandings. Lanes cause problems. No, that won't do. That won't do at all. Starting pistols? Photo finishes? All far too hard to understand. Give me a minute.

OK, let's say a general election is just like a cricket match. And the ball is your vote, and the stumps are the winning margin, and you bowl your vote at the winning margin, and . . . no. No, no, no. This isn't helping at all.

I'll try again. Nice and simple. Because you're stupid. Because you're too thick to get the idea of voting, and you need it turned into something that you can understand, because you hate the idea of politics and everything that goes with it; and besides, you don't have the time to think about facts, or problems, or complexity, or nuance – you're just a tot in a crib, waiting for Daddy to tell you a story. You don't want anything other than a happy ending.

Let's face it, you're thick. You're dumb. You're barely more than a dribbling infant slamming its tiny hands into a bowl of goo because you like the way it splatters. That's the level we're trying to pitch this at. Because that's all you're capable of getting. Voting is something that you're afraid of because you're a dummy, and unless we talk to you about it bright colours AND CAPITAL LETTERS and smiley faces, you're not going to get your oh-so-pretty little heads around it, are you?

OK. So. Right. Imagine you're at a football match, right, and the team you wanted to win didn't win because someone else wanted the other team to win, even though they actually wanted your team to win. Yes . . .? No. No, we really aren't making any headway.

OK, let's see if we can try and nudge you in the right direction another way. What if someone you liked thought about voting in a particular way; what would you think then? Look, here's someone famous, them off from off of the television. What do you think now? They look pretty bright, don't they, and they got famous for writing, or being funny, or running around and jumping over hurdles, or whatever it is; and look, they think this way. Or, if that won't convince you, look at these bad people, people you don't like. They're bad people, and they think this way. Now what do you think?

Forget about all those thoughts about things being slightly more complicated than they might at first appear. Try to forget, if you can. It's a miracle you don't burn yourself on the toaster every morning, really, but there it is; you've made it through life this far without too many problems, and so you get given a vote, to do with as you wish. It's just that, well, you don't want to do all that boring stuff about democracy, and representation, or the comparable benefits of different voting systems, do you? You don't want to think about all that. You've got better things to do.

So let's just talk about things in a simplistic, infantile way that you can comprehend, even in your tiny squashy noggin, because you're frankly not bright enough to want to know about anything that's slightly more difficult to grasp than a slap in the face with a gardening glove. Just you leave it to us to tell you how to do it. And there you are! Democracy will be improved unimaginably, just by you putting your vote here. Or there. Wherever we've told you to put it. Because it's the right thing for YOU.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.