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Sensemaker, 30 October 2020

Friday 30 October 2020

What just happened


Long stories short

  • The French president, Emmanuel Macron, said that his country will “not give in to any terror” after an attacker killed three people in Nice’s Notre-Dame basilica.
  • Donald Trump and Joe Biden both campaigned in the crucial swing state of Florida yesterday. “You hold the key,” said Biden. “If Florida goes blue [i.e. Democrat], it’s over.”
  • Amazon’s third-quarter results were stronger than expected. At £6.3 billion, the company’s net income was three times larger than last year’s figure.

At last night’s Tortoise ThinkIn, the broadcaster James O’Brien advanced the view that “there is no point in having a mind if you never change it”. Looking back on anti-semitism in Labour’s ranks during his leadership, Jeremy Corbyn would have done well to observe this principle.

Instead, in his response yesterday to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report, he clung stubbornly to his familiar position that the “scale of the problem was… dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party”.

Corbyn knew full well that this particular claim was utterly unacceptable to his successor as leader, Sir Keir Starmer, who made clear again yesterday that if “after all the pain, all the grief, and all the evidence in this report, there are still those who think there’s no problem with antisemitism in the Labour Party, that it’s all exaggerated, or a factional attack, then, frankly, you are part of the problem too, and you should be nowhere near the Labour Party either”.

Although the decisions to suspend Corbyn from the party and remove the parliamentary whip from him were taken, respectively, by David Evans, Labour’s general secretary, and Nick Brown, the party’s chief whip, his fate had already been sealed by Starmer’s unambiguous position.

The EHRC’s report is a shaming indictment of a historically progressive party that prides itself on its opposition to all forms of bigotry and xenophobia. This is also the first time that the commission, established by Labour in 2006, has concluded that a body under investigation was in breach of the law.

Its key findings:

  • The party was responsible for “unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination” – and an environment in which antisemitic tropes were commonplace and complaints of antisemitism routinely dismissed as smears.
  • Its practice of “political interference” into the handling of antisemitism complaints was unlawful and Corbyn’s office meddled in disciplinary cases that were deemed “politically sensitive”.
  • Crucially, “antisemitism within the Labour Party could have been tackled more effectively if the leadership had chosen to do so”.
  • Labour is now legally obliged to draft an action plan by 10 December to tackle the findings of unlawful behaviour.

Starmer has been accused by Corbyn’s supporters of triggering an unnecessary civil war and condemning the party to years of introspection and faction-fighting. Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, Labour’s biggest donor, denounced the suspension as “an act of grave injustice” and declared that it would “create chaos within the party and in doing so compromise Labour’s chances of a general election victory”.

Yet this is the opposite of the truth.

  • The party has been mired in civil war for years, and was destroyed at the general election in December – its worst result since 1935 – because it was perceived by voters to be out of touch, divided and unable to resolve its own internal struggles. Labour antisemitism, intrinsically appalling, was also an emblem of broader toxicities and weaknesses.
  • The Left has been sniping at Starmer and the defining principles of his leadership since he was elected in April. In the last week alone, Diane Abbott, the former shadow home secretary, has accused him of plotting “to become leader of the Labour Party” while still working for Corbyn. McCluskey said that the Labour peer Peter Mandelson (whose grandfather was Jewish) should go “count” his “gold”. And Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s former chief of staff, wrote in Monday’s Guardian that the complaints about his handling of the problem were “primarily driven by political opposition to [his] socialist, internationalist politics”.

Labour has no plausible path back to power until it quashes this disunity once and for all. Had Starmer tolerated Corbyn’s provocative act of dissent yesterday, he would have looked indecisive, craven – and certainly ill-suited to the role of prime minister. As Labour’s history under Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair showed unequivocally, a party’s internal flaws must be addressed publicly and comprehensively before it can prevail in a general election.

Unity is desirable, but not unity born of weakness and phony moral equivalence. Sometimes, you cannot split the difference. Whatever retaliation the Left now musters – and it will – Starmer has displayed true leadership, in sharp contrast to his predecessor.

In the app today… we publish an article by one of our members, Paul Lusk, a writer about politics and Christianity. It responds to one of the entries in this week’s Tortoise File on US Battlegrounds, in which we reported that some Republican thinkers believe the “grand bargain” that has linked their party to Evangelical Christians for decades might have run its course. Not as far as the Evangelicals are concerned, says Paul. Also: in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail, James Harding explains why he cares quite so much about who becomes the next director general of the World Trade Organisation. And today’s Sensemaker Live ThinkIn, at 1pm GMT, will focus on the question of American culture and values: is the dream dead?

Please share this Sensemaker with your friends and colleagues.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Lagarde says spend
As the virus continues its resurgence across Europe, policymakers have two responses to consider: the public health response, of course – but also the economic one. That’s why Christine Lagarde’s words yesterday will have caught their attention. The president of the European Central Bank promised that her organisation will “recalibrate” its means of offering monetary support – which include, as Bloomberg puts it, “negative interest rates, bond purchases and cheap loans to banks” – at its next major meeting in December. That date may seem a while away when the need is so urgent, but Lagarde and the Bank are rarely so clear in advance. The signal to governments and others is: spend what you need to and, if you don’t have the cash, we are riding in to help. After all, as Mervyn King, the former governor of the Bank of England, argued on the Tortoise Slow Newscast last week, “the more stringent the [lockdown] restrictions, the more generous the support needs to be”.


New things technology, science, engineering

K-pop vs. QAnon
Online fandoms have been a feature of internet culture for decades, but few have used their organising power to the effect that K-pop superfans (aka stans) have. In June this year, teen Korean pop fans took credit for a prank that helped scupper a Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. During Black Lives Matter protests, police in Dallas asked the public to upload videos of any “illegal activity” at protests to an app; K-pop fans flooded it with concert videos instead. Now K-pop stans have another target in their sights: QAnon. This article from Bloomberg Businessweek charts how K-pop fans are using the tactics employed by white supremacists and conspiracy theorists – hijacking hashtags and spreading GIFs – against them. For more on stan culture, read this story by Tortoise reporter Claudia Williams.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

A rogue one
Astronomers have spotted the tiniest “rogue planet” detected in the universe so far. More than 4,000 planets have been discovered outside our solar system, but only a handful appear to be untethered from a home star, which makes them even harder to detect. This particular one was seen using gravitational microlensing, where a planet reveals itself by brightening the light of a distant background star as it passes in front of it. Because the planet is so small – smaller than Earth – it brightened the background star for just 42 minutes, a trillionth of a blink in the lifespan of the universe. Given you need the planet, star, lens and observer to be almost completely aligned, the astronomers are either very lucky or there are lots of these tiny journeymen planets, ejected from their parental system, wandering the universe alone, just waiting to be seen.


The 100-year life health, education, living, public policy

New Zealand’s referendum
New Zealand voters have decided to join the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Canada in legalising euthanasia. Preliminary results from a referendum on the subject show that 65 per cent of New Zealanders are in favour of assisted dying. The parameters of the country’s End of Life Choice Act will make it possible for terminally ill people with less than six months to live to end their lives. Patients requesting assisted dying due to old age, mental illness or disability will not be eligible. Opinion on euthanasia is shifting in the UK, too: a recent survey by the British Medical Association – a union that has long opposed assisted dying – found that 50 per cent of doctors believe they should be permitted to prescribe life-ending drugs for patients to take themselves.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Hope and history rhyme
Amid the election maelstrom, a quieter thing stood out yesterday. A video from Joe Biden, reading the words of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, over images of 2020 America. “History says, don’t hope on this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetime, the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme.” It’s a nod to Biden’s Irish-Catholic roots, and might just be a soft signal to a key voting bloc. Around 56 per cent of white Catholics across the US supported Trump in 2016, and battleground states such as Pennsylvania, where Biden was born, are around a quarter Catholic. In the first presidential debate, Biden said that people like Trump “look down their nose on people like Irish Catholics, like me, [who] grew up in Scranton”. Heaney was one of Ireland’s great unifiers, navigating its political and religious schisms. Biden is trying to be America’s.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Matthew d’Ancona
@MatthewdAncona

Xavier Greenwood
@XAMGreenwood

Ella Hill
@_EllaHill

Additional reporting by Peter Hoskin.