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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.

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.