Arab Spring: from instability to progress

It’s time to re-write the rule book.

Authoritarian dictators may have ensured stability, via repression, trhoughout the countries of the Middle East and North Africa for the past 40 years - while the oil-hunger countries of the world watched - but it is mass instability that is now bringing rapid progress to the region. From the whirlwind of the Arab Spring - from street protests, to uprisings, to revolutions and civil war - we are seeing how instability is delivering seismic shifts and progress to the political, economic and social landscapes of Arab countries. And, it's happening within seasons, not decades, fuelled by the aspirations of its people.

Democracy takes time, granted, and how you get there has long been documented but what is happening in the Arab Spring can not easily be labelled, and no pre-packaged 'long-term strategy' readily applied. Its pace and unpredictability are its assets, which also mean it is impossible to judge the next step.

Instability can reduce confidence, breed doubt and panic - in Europe we currently fear Euro-contagion and a 'double dip' which has sent our markets reeling and gold bullion peaking. Similarly, some Arab countries are miscalculating their moves and imposing irrational policies to try and stabilise their countries while others are already planning elections, signing huge international investment deals and bringing together tribes and dissidents who have long been left out in the cold - and in many cases countries are doing both.

Indeed, many Arab countries will take two steps forward and one step back, and some will even resist change while also trying to introduce reform, as they learn how to read and respond to the 'Arab street'.

This past 10 days we have seen a plethora of such changes from Mahmoud Abbas submitting the UN bid for Palestine and boldly declaring that the Arab Spring has arrived in Jerusalem, to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia's incremental yet still unprecedented moves in giving women the vote in 2015 and revoking the sentence to lash a woman for driving her own car, Qatar continues its support for Arab nationalist uprisings - financially and militarily - by committing $0.5bn in development loans to Tunisia while at the same time accepting the resignation of the brains behind the rise of Al Jazeera, Waddah Khanfar, and replacing him with a Qatari royal, to the surprise return of President Saleh to Yemen and Turkey imposing an arms embargo on Syria while hosting opposition figures in Ankara.

The Arab Spring has reminded us all, including strategists who write 'five-year plans on progress and stability' and dictatorships that try to hold to power, that once in a while a black swan comes along, enabling incredible progress to be made even in the most unlikely of places, where instability can sometimes be a force for good and not knowing what the next move is, becomes your most an invaluable asset.

And, when that 'place' is an entire region of hundreds of millions of people - many who are under the age of 30 - who share a language, a culture, a hunger for change and progress, and a desire to achieve their aspirations, then it is time to re-write the rule book on 'how to deliver progressive change, equality and rights'. There are rumours that the Nobel committee will award this year's Nobel Peace Prize to the main actors in the Arab Spring, which would be consistent with having awarded it to John Hume and David Trimble previously. No one saw that coming either.

 

 

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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