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Laurie Penny on owls: Everything is awful, vote for owls

I was preparing myself to vote Labour with gritted teeth if there were no good Green candidates in my area but I’d feel far less dirty about the whole thing if I knew I was getting my own owl. 

Ed Owl-i-band

In the latest edition of Westminster politics looking more and more like a rejected script from The Thick Of It, it is several hours since an official Twitter account for the political party that still claims to represent the interests of working class people in Britain sent out a missive appearing to offer everyone in the nation an owl. 

 

 

Various factions of the creaky Labour PR machine are now trying to deflect blame for what we shall call the Tweet Twoo incident. These, bear in mind, are the same people who let Ed Miliband pose with a creepy smile and a copy of the Sun last week – and then made him apologise. 

The official story is that their feed was “hacked”, although nobody knows how, or why, or what hacking actually means, or which ornithology enthusiast apparently broke into the Labour Press Twitter feed in order to tweet something random about birds. It could have been a disgruntled intern, or somebody’s drunk colleague. Whichever it was, this is still my favourite thing that’s happened in this country since that time the BNP were chased through Whitehall by a group of women dressed as badgers.

The anti-fascist badgers, however, did make me briefly feel proud to be British. Owlgate, once I’d got over giggling so hard I accidentally inhaled a bit of toast, is pretty dispiriting. The fact is that the owls, prank or not, are the only policy Labour has come up with in the past 12 months that has been at all inspiring. Their headline move of the past month has been promising more pressure on young people, who clearly haven’t been screwed over enough by six years of austerity, punitive housing and welfare policies and soaring education costs. Labour is now telling young people aged 18-21 that they won’t receive the crumbs of state support they were still entitled to unless they find work or training, which probably means more unpaid labour at Poundland. I was preparing myself to vote Labour with gritted teeth if there were no good Green candidates in my area but I’d feel far less dirty about the whole thing if I knew I was getting my own owl. 

The more you think about it, the better an idea it is. The Tories have channelled enormous efforts into unifying an increasingly divided and unequal nation, beating up teenage protesters in the street, deflecting anger onto immigrants, the disabled and people with mental health difficulties, and trying to get us all to talk about “British Values” as if a bunch of right-wing aristocrats inhabited the same planet as their electorate, let alone the same country. Instead of all that, why not just buy everyone a slightly exotic pet? It might not be a social media gaffe after all. It might be genius.

I do have a few questions, though. I want to know if the owls will be standardised. Who-whoo do I contact if my owl is defective? Will I have to raise my owl from a chick, feeding it tiny little gross bits of mouse and mince, or will it be presented to me personally by the council on the day Miliband swoops into power? Will the unemployed have to turn up at the Raptor Centre twice a week in order to keep their owl? How long will asylum seekers have to wait until they receive an owl of their own? What if some people, perhaps because of cultural differences, might prefer a different bird of prey, say a buzzard or a crested goshawk? Will small boys in Northern towns be allowed to keep their kestrels? If we must have an owl, can we choose what kind?  The public demands answers.

Perhaps it’ll turn out that the Americans are right. Maybe Britain actually is a land of magic and make-believe, in which case it shouldn’t just be students at Hogwarts who are entitled to an owl. They’ve privatised the post office, so perhaps this is Labour’s solution: owls swooping down the chimneys of local authority-owned housing, dropping eviction notices and stern letters from the Department for Work and Pensions telling people with terminal cancer that they have to get a job or be kicked out on the street.

Or maybe it’ll be more like the film Labyrinth, but instead of a snowy owl flapping into your bedroom and turning into David Bowie in a fright wig and very tight tights, it turns into Ed Miliband. Hold that thought in your mind for a second, and imagine Owl Miliband waggling a magic crystal ball about and telling jobless, hopeless young people that their benefits have been stolen away, far far away, to the centre of a treacherous maze, lost for ever unless they can find work or training in thirteen hours.

What we need is a robust, brave opposition that can actually come up with policies to make people’s lives better, rather than competing with the Conservatives to bully benefit claimants and immigrants, a game nobody wins apart from whoever slides into Downing Street next year on a slimy trickle of popular prejudice. Instead we’ve got a bloodless, practically leaderless bunch of incompetents trying and failing to look as nasty and therefore electable as the Tories and only managing to look like a awkward kids in unconvincing monster masks. I had a final point to make, but I’m just too depressed. Give me my owl now and go away.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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The Conservative-DUP deal is great news for the DUP, but bad news for Theresa May

The DUP has secured a 10 per cent increase in Northern Ireland's budget in return for propping up the Prime Minister.

Well, that’s that then. Theresa May has reached an accord with the Democratic Unionist Party to keep herself in office. Among the items: the triple lock on pensions will remain in place, and the winter fuel allowance will not be means-tested across the United Kingdom. In addition, the DUP have bagged an extra £1bn of spending for Northern Ireland, which will go on schools, hospitals and roads. That’s more than a five per cent increase in Northern Ireland’s budget, which in 2016-7 was just £9.8bn.

The most politically significant item will be the extension of the military covenant – the government’s agreement to look after veterans of war and their families – to Northern Ireland. Although the price tag is small, extending priority access to healthcare to veterans is particularly contentious in Northern Ireland, where they have served not just overseas but in Northern Ireland itself. Sensitivities about the role of the Armed Forces in the Troubles were why the Labour government of Tony Blair did not include Northern Ireland in the covenant in 2000, when elements of it were first codified.

It gives an opportunity for the SNP…

Gina Miller, whose court judgement successfully forced the government into holding a vote on triggering Article 50, has claimed that an increase in spending in Northern Ireland will automatically entail spending increases in Wales and Scotland thanks to the Barnett formula. This allocates funding for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland based on spending in England or on GB-wide schemes.

However, this is incorrect. The Barnett formula has no legal force, and, in any case, is calculated using England as a baseline. However, that won’t stop the SNP MPs making political hay with the issue, particularly as “the Vow” – the last minute promise by the three Unionist party leaders during the 2014 independence referendum – promised to codify the formula. They will argue this breaks the spirit, if not the letter of the vow. 

…and Welsh Labour

However, the SNP will have a direct opponent in Wales. The Welsh Labour party has long argued that the Barnett formula, devised in 1978, gives too little to Wales. They will take the accord with Northern Ireland as an opportunity to argue that the formula should be ripped up and renegotiated.

It risks toxifying the Tories further

The DUP’s socially conservative positions, though they put them on the same side as their voters, are anathema to many voters in England, Scotland and Wales. Although the DUP’s positions on abortion and equal marriage will not be brought to bear on rUK, the association could leave a bad taste in the mouth for voters considering a Conservative vote next time. Added to that, the bumper increase in spending in Northern Ireland will make it even harder to win support for continuing cuts in the rest of the United Kingdom.

All of which is moot if the Conservatives U-Turn on austerity

Of course, all of these problems will fade if the Conservatives further loosen their deficit target, as they did last year. Turning on the spending taps in England, Scotland and Wales is probably their last, best chance of turning around the grim political picture.

It’s a remarkable coup for Arlene Foster

The agreement, which ticks a number of boxes for the DUP, caps off an astonishing reversal of fortunes for the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster. The significant increase in spending in Northern Ireland – equivalent to the budget of the entirety of the United Kingdom going up by £70bn over two years  – is only the biggest ticket item. The extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland appeals to two longstanding aims of the DUP. The first is to end “Northern Ireland exceptionalism” wherever possible, and the second is the red meat to their voters in offering better treatment to veterans.

It feels like a lifetime ago when you remember that in March 2017, Foster was a weakened figure having led the DUP into its worst election result since the creation of the devolved assembly at Stormont.

The election result, in which the DUP took the lion’s share of Westminster seats in Northern Ireland, is part of that. But so too are the series of canny moves made by Foster in the aftermath of her March disappointment. By attending Martin McGuinness’s funeral and striking a more consensual note on some issues, she has helped shed some of the blame for the collapse of power-sharing, and proven herself to be a tricky negotiator.

Conservatives are hoping it will be plain sailing for them, and the DUP from now on should take note. 

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.

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