Thursday, July 11, 2024

No Change concerning electoral imbalance

Following Labour's landslide in the UK general election with less votes than the Corbyn party managed to achieve in 2019 there has been much debate over whether it is time to push for electoral reform. But would a move to proportional representation be beneficial and would it result in parties such as Reform UK being given a bigger platform?

Channel 4 News recently showed what the UK parliament might look like if the 4th July vote had been translated into seats under proportional representation. On the face of it Labour is certainly diminished with both the Tories and Reform UK taking a great deal more seats. However, if people were voting under a proportional representation system the electorate would likely vote very differently.

In July's election many people voted 'tactically' to 'get the Tories out' rather than with their heart and along party lines. Unless a staunch Lib Dem member, those who might have otherwise voted for the Liberal Democrats would in many constituencies shifted to vote Labour. This lending of votes gives a false impression that Labour had gained support amongst the British electorate.

There would have been many Tory supporters who were disillusioned with their party but unable to swing further right to Reform UK. This same demographic might have supported the Lib Dems but felt there would have been little point in areas where the Lib Dems only garner a relatively small level of support.

This may also partially explain the extremely low turnout which on average measured in at just 59.9%.

This of course does not fully explain what occurred on Thursday 4th July. Causes of voter apathy are multifold. There is of course a growing disillusionment with politicians on all sides. There is a growing feeling that whoever one votes for, nothing will ultimately change.

This is almost certainly true with the first past the post system. British politics has, for at least 100 years, simply rocked back and forth between Labour and the Conservatives. And apart from a few brief periods where sitting governments have sought to form an alliance or pact, there has always been a majority with minor parties having very little influence on policy.

Those opposing proportional representation often point to Israel and its having to form tenuous coalitions. But Israel is an exception given it has a relatively small house and also a fractured politique.

But beyond Israel many countries that use PR have few problems. In Europe, the UK is one of only three countries not using PR. Belarus and France are the only outliers. Some 31 countries use a Party List Proportional Representation while five use a Parallel voting/Mixed system, two use a Single Transferable Vote and two use a Mixed Member Proportional Representation.

For Brits these terms may seem confusing. Certainly the First Past the Post [FPTP] is simple to understand, but in many instances across constituencies there are situations where more than half the electorate are represented by someone they didn't vote for.

The disparity and division is even more stark if turnout is low. In the case of the recent election voter turnout was as low as 50% in some constituencies with the declared winner taking as little as 30% of those who bothered to vote.

For example Basildon, which has an electorate of nearly 77,000, saw a turnout of 55%. This accounted for around a little over 42,000 actually turning out to vote. Of this the vote for the winning candidate and that in second place was just 22 votes and accounted for 30.6% each of those that voted. But of the overall electorate the winning candidate only took 16.7%.

Of course one could blame the 45% who, for whatever reason, didn't vote. But even putting that aside, some 69% of those that voted did not vote for the winning candidate.

While there is certainly an element of apathy on the part of voters, one major factor behind many people's not taking part in an election is due to the fact that their vote more often than not doesn't get recognised.

In this particular constituency the 5% of voters backed Green and the Lib Dems. Yet in our current FPTP system the Greens took 4 seats which represents a little under 1% of the seats in parliament. On average the vote for the Green party was between 4 and 6%. Though with strong campaigning and other factors the party beat all odds and gained 4 seats with a vote share of between 40 and 56%.

The Lib Dems' share varied across the country. In some areas their vote barely exceeded 1 or 2%. But in areas in which it secured seats it often took in excess of 40% of the vote.  Yet overall the number of seats secured in parliament, while much larger than in previous elections, did not reflect the number of votes the Lib Dems received overall.

According to the Electoral Reform Society the 2024 election was "one of the most disproportionate results in recent history", with Labour winning 63% of seats from only 33.8% of the vote. Should the UK have used a more proportional system, Reform UK would expect to have 93 MPs, the Green party 44, the Lib Dems 79, the Conservatives 154, and Labour would have only 220.

For those proposing a change to the electoral system , which have tended to err on centrist or fringe parties, such figures might be concerning, given such a system could potentially give a right-wing party headed by Nigel Farage 93 seats over his current 5. The Greens would also have gained significantly too, up from a meagre 4 MPs to 44. Meanwhile the Lib Dems would only have secured a handful of extra seats. The Tories would remain in second place and slightly higher than their current number of seats. But Labour would have no sweeping mandate as it would have no majority in the house.

Indeed in such a situation, such is often the case in places like Germany, coalitions or agreements are made, if not on a permanent basis, certainly for passing legislation upon which like-minded parties can agree.

Ironically it has been the right-wing press, and members of right leaning parties that have added their voice to the call for electoral reform. Ahead of the election many papers and politicians were raising fears of a so-called Labour-dictatorship with its likely super majority.

Of course it is very much sour grapes since it is unlikely those same papers or politicians would be calling for a rethink of the way elections are decided should the polls have been showing the Conservatives to be heading towards a landslide victory.

While for many people, Farage's politics are reprehensible, he makes a valid point when it comes to representation in parliament and how skewed the system is.

There are those on the left and among centrists that might fear a move to PR, given how Reform UK could seize a large number of seats - based on the 2024 election at least.

However, a PR system might prompt people to vote much differently. There would, for example, be far less tactical voting since every vote would count. Moreover, given this, many otherwise apathetic voters might feel more inclined to exercise their democratic choice.

Labour could, with its large mandate, push electoral reform through. However, it is unlikely so to do. It has made no commitment in its manifesto, and in previous questions concerning electoral reform Labour has always rejected the notion. Moreover, given its having received such a large majority on so few votes, Labour would be unlikely to facilitate a loss of such a mandate.

The word Change might have dominated Labour's manifesto, but they will be reluctant to rock the current status quo.

Unfortunately it will mean that in the medium to long term one can only look forward to the ping pong political charade that is first past the post.

Labour may not in a single term manage to turn the economy around or fix the multitude of problems left in the wake of 14 years of Tory chaos, Brexit, the fallout from the war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic. But the disaster of the Tory years will still remain fresh in people's minds in 5 years time, thus resulting in a likely second term for Labour. However, after a decade of being unable to fix Brexit Britain, a more moderate Tory party will probably return once again.

The only possible chance of breaking this cycle will be if Labour loses its majority when the country goes to the polls again in 2029 and are forced by the opposition to make a change to Britain's broken electoral system.

[electoral-reform / election24 / Guardian / YouGov / Guardian / Guardian comment / C4News - YouTube / Daily Mail / Independent (paywall) / 

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Western democracy at risk

Autocratic and authoritarian states, especially the likes of China, will feel confident that their methods of running a country are far more superior than so-called liberal democracies.

While China is certainly a totalitarian state with one party rule, it maintains stability and plans for the long term without the interference of petty squabbles from various political factions interfering with its long term goals.

And while there are few that would advocate a similar type of government in developing and established democracies, the chaos that has been observed in recent months and years in the US, Europe and parts of Asia only strengthens China's resolve that their system is better.


Political divisions and petty squabbles in Britain saw the Tory party tear itself apart leading to a referendum which resulted in the country leaving the European Union. This has itself divided a nation politically and arguably made the country economically as well as politically bankrupt.

Immigration was a pivotal factor behind that vote, even if mainly capitalised upon by the right wing politicians such as Nigel Farage who has led an anti-European campaign over many years. He has headed UKIP - the United Kingdom Independence Party - which later morphed into the Brexit Party, and now hopes to take a seat in parliament as leader of the Reform Party.

While the parties have campaigned on several issues, much has focused on immigration and Britain's membership of the EU. Uncontrolled immigration - according to Farage - has led to the many problems that Britain has faced over the years. Moreover, the EU, he claims, has stifled Britain's ability to stop migrants heading to Britain's shores.

Rallying calls

Immigration has become the rallying call for the 'far-right' across Europe too. While Britain is struggling to solve the issue of 'small boats' landing on its beaches and the problem of dealing with processing them, so too is mainland Europe.

There are perceptions and realities concerning mass migration. It would not be untrue to say that some migrants have brought problems. Some have been found guilty of criminal activity following their arrival. Others have, however, integrated into society and contributed in a meaningful way.

There is of course a cost to all immigrants arriving 'illegally' - shorthand for not having applied ahead of time for asylum. All asylum seekers have to be processed. If their asylum case is approved they can stay. If not they may be deported. But both here and abroad funding for the processing system has been cut and the infrastructure intended to deal with the growing numbers has been gradually dismantled or not been increased to deal with the problem.

Dealing with immigration

Thus, as numbers of asylum seekers grow there has been a threefold problem. The first issue has been where to house them. Some have been placed in hotels, at specially built camps and at old RAF bases. There is then the need to process each and every person. This process has become problematic for many reasons. One issue is first identifying some of those detained given that many have disposed of their passports or ID, though it is unclear what percentage of asylum seekers have done this. Then there is the actual processing of their claims. This can take many months and, because the system has itself been slimmed down, takes far longer than it used to. The problem is further complicated by the fact that some asylum seekers may appeal the decision should it fail. And even if a failed claim is rubber stamped it could take months, if not years, to return the individuals concerned.

Putting aside the human costs, there is a financial cost. And while this might be relatively small in terms of a government's entire budget, it is nonetheless significant. As such many voters are drawn to the dog-whistle politics of right-wing politicians.

Dog-whistle politics

Listening to Nigel Farage supporters in Clacton recently many repeat the same lines that have become the stereotyped view of the closet racist.

"Immigration is out of control," was an oft repeated line from many with others saying that immigrants were the cause of people's inability to get a doctor's appointment. "It never used to be like this," said one Farage supporter in Clacton soon after the Reform Party leader announced his candidacy.

Ironically, this is from an area which is predominantly white British. Clacton has a population of 53,000 and yet 'foreigners' account for only 3,000 half of which were born in the EU [Demographics]. 

Thus any perceived problems brought with immigration are less likely to be due to personal experience than from reading tabloid headlines.

And the same is true across Europe with images of boats arriving on south European shores driving people's attitudes.

The immigration issue has been capitalised upon by the likes of Italy's Georgia Meloni, Hungary's Victor Orban and France's Marine Le Pen amongst others. And this culminated in a shock leaning to the right in the latest European elections. The most concerning win was in France where Le Pen's Rassemblement National party polled nearly twice the number of votes than Macon's Renaissance party and secured a third of the French seats in the European parliament. This prompted the French president to call a snap election which some French political pundits described as a risky gamble.

Overall the makeup of the European parliament has little changed, but there is growing concern that there is a growing shift towards the far-right with many young people amongst those drawn towards these right wing parties.

The political turmoil is not helped by the fact that the number of candidates can run into dozens. In the case of the recent European election there were some 38 candidates in France alone. Many barely polled more than 1% of the vote which highlights the irrelevance of many such candidates. Moreover, there was less than a 50% turnout, an apparent indication that many people feel either disenfranchised or politically apathetic.

Disillusion in politics 

Such opinions are common. Quite a number of individuals talked to in Clacton expressed disillusionment with the political system. "I've only voted once," a bouncer in a pub said, though he could not remember for whom he'd placed his cross. As for whether he'd vote in the upcoming UK election he said he had no intention of doing so expressing the view that all politicians lied and didn't keep their promises. Others admitted they were politically illiterate and probably wouldn't vote. Such attitudes came mostly from the young, some of which seemed to have little or no knowledge of those standing. "Who's Nigel Farage?" was a common response from eighteen to twenty five year olds with some only identifying him with the television program "I'm a Celebrity".

So what of Farage and his chances of taking a seat in parliament. Certainly there were many people on the street proclaiming support for Farage.  "Nigel Farage says it how it is. That is why I quite like him. He definitely stands for what England is," one young lad told the Daily Mail. Another local, a 74-year old construction training company boss, said that Farage "talks a lot of sense." But there were many that thought he was a narcissist and only in it for his own ends. Such voices were admittedly difficult to find. "He's a twit," one haulage driver said. Another was critical of his role in bringing about the EU referendum. "Well Brexit's going well isn't it," one woman, who works in retail, said. "Everything's more expensive, cost of living has risen," she said.

"He screwed over European politics and now he's going to screw over our own," said another lone voice. "He's here for his own self worth."

"I think he's a total snake and I think he's got nothing to do with Clacton," another told Novara Media.  

The immigration election

Farage has dubbed the 2024 election the immigration election, and this is certainly the focus of many of those who say they'll vote for him.

"I feel like a foreigner in my own country, that's what I feel like," one man, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan 'Don't judge a book by its cover', told a reporter. Of Farage he had only praise. "He's a man that speaks the truth and steps forward."

"Where are leaders with integrity? I believe Nigel's got that," another local, wearing a FCUK baseball cap, claimed. Another also had faith in Farage. "If you support him he'll make Clacton great." [Joe / Joe]

Dissenting voices

While many people in Clacton were supportive of Farage despite a few dissenting voices, outside the town voters were far more critical. One Londoner was of the view that he's certainly get lots of votes from "Blue rinse Tories" who are "racist, misogynist and xenophobes" [iPaper].

There are some political pundits and even some Labour politicians that have almost welcomed his winning in order to bring him to account as he sits on the opposition benches [LBC]. 

However, anyone who is familiar with parliamentary protocol will know that many politicians rarely get a chance to speak bar a few questions if the leader of a party during PMQs. Thus Farage is unlikely to bring much debate to the house of commons. He's unlikely to do much for the people of Clacton either. But just as he left what he called a gravy train of the European Parliament so he is likely to get on another and rake in many thousands plus expenses as a Reform UK MP.

Emboldening the far-right

There is a danger that it could embolden him and others like him further. Certainly, despite the low turnout at the European elections, the far-right parties in Europe have become emboldened by the strong results in their favour.

The young that have voted for them in vast numbers, and are also likely to vote for Farage, seem to have forgotten their history. Farage claimed many young people did not know what D-Day was about as the country marked 80 years since the invasion. Yet it seems that many people have also forgotten how the far-right came to power in Weimar Germany in the 1930s and how Hitler eventually took control and abandoned democracy.

Farage and his ilk had during the Brexit campaign prophesied  that the EU would collapse. However many far-right parties are looking not to follow in a repeat of Britain's leaving the EU than to consolidate power through it [Le Monde].

Across the pond one waits with bated breath for the US presidential election in November which looks almost certain to put Trump back in the White House, a man that has already spoken about making considerable constitutional changes.

Rise of populist politics

There are surely many that will say that democracy will win and that people will come to their senses. But populist politics are taking hold as countries struggle financially, the cost of living rises, and immigrants and foreigners are made scapegoats for societal issues.

Even if western democracies don't collapse and become autocratic fascist dictatorships, it seems almost inevitable that political chaos is just years away.

None of this bodes well to persuade the likes of China to embrace democracy. China won't relish such chaos since it will affect its important markets. But it will nonetheless merely look on and exploit the situation where it can.

Education and democracy

"Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education," Franklin D Roosevelt once said.

Such lines have been repeated in contemporary times too with Serj Tankian warning that without education, a path to autocracy is almost certain.

In his 2012 song Uneducated Democracy he pens, "Without an education there is no real democracy. Without an education there is only autocracy."

A democratic society is fragile and ripe for exploitation. A successful democracy relies heavily on the abilities and intelligence of the populace.

Given the uneducated views expressed in the last week on the streets of Clacton, the future is far from hopeful.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Damp start to election campaign

The election campaign started off as a rather damp squib with Rishi Sunak's soggy announcement as he was drenched by rain and drowned out by D.Ream's 'Things can only get better'.

But one week in and it's been a rather damp start to a six week campaign.

The Lib Dems have focused on the state of Britain's water supply and the literally shitty state that water companies have left the waterways, rivers and seas in.

Tim Faron, a former Lib Dem leader, told BBC Radio 4 they would radically overhaul the UK's water industry.

Meanwhile the current leader Sir Ed Davey conducted a bizarre interview with Sky News while perched on a waterboard in order to highlight similar issues, although the message was somewhat lost as one was focused on whether Sir Ed would end up as wet as Rishi Sunak last week.

The Tories meanwhile have hardly capitalised on putting out their message. The only major policy raised since last week has been a call to arms with the suggestion they would reintroduce National Service.

After only two days of campaigning Rishi Sunak took the weekend off [Guardian]. Meanwhile other MPs apparently resigned to the fact that the Tories are a busted flush have gone on holiday.

Hard man Brexit Steve Baker, the Northern Ireland minister, has been accused of giving up after jetting off to Greece instead of campaigning in his marginal constituency.

Baker defended his decision not to cancel his holiday plans, stating, "The Prime Minister told everyone we could go on holiday and then called a snap election. So I've chosen to do my campaign work in Greece." [Mirror]

Starmer launched his election campaign on the back of the simple slogan 'Change'. Yet this has been capitalised upon by Labour's political opponents pointing out just how much Starmer himself has changed and that what one wants in a potential PM is stability.

One case in point is Brexit on which Starmer has flip-flopped from a remain position through a people's vote position and now a 'make Brexit work' position.

On the fifth day of campaigning he said there was "No case" for going back into the EU.

Sir Keir Starmer was at an Airbus factory in Hertfordshire fielded questions from the public and reporters.

Speaking to the latter, he was asked whether a Labour government would review freedom of movement with the EU.

"We haven't got it any more, and we're not going back," he said. "There is no case for saying we go back into the EU."

He referred to the outcome of the 2016 referendum, despite having later campaigned for a second one.

But Sir Keir said he thinks "we can get a better deal" with the bloc.

He called for a "closer relationship", especially on trade and defence.

However, the EU as late as last June said the Brexit deal cannot be renegotiated with a new PM.

Whilst there would be a review of the deal Britain left with, the European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic has said the EU would likely look at it in 2026 and warned that it would only cover the "implementation" of the deal rather than wholesale changes. Sefcovic also said customs checks at the border would likely remain but stressed the TCA had not been used to its "full potential" [iNews].

This would be a blow to any party that made a claim to renegotiate issues that have seriously affected trade and movement of goods. The tailbacks of lorries at Dover and stacking of lorries on the M20, as part of Operation Brock, is now so commonplace that it's rarely even reported anymore. In fact the tailbacks at Dover are almost daily and are further exacerbated during busy holiday periods when Britons seek to head to the continent for a vacation.

Indeed this Bank Holiday weekend saw massive delays at the port of Dover with motorists stuck in queues for up to five hours. The situation has become normal in Brexit Britain and barely got a mention in the papers though the BBC website did highlight the issue [BBC]. There have been calls for a review into the problems [BBC]. But everyone knows it primarily comes down to Brexit.

There are however only three parties that have even promoted the idea of moving closer to rejoining the EU, the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru and the SNP, although the Lib Dems are a little reluctant to mention the subject [Politico].

Election coverage has also been extremely sparse. In particular, TV news coverage of election campaigning has in places almost been non-existent.

On Wednesday one might have blinked and missed Rishi Sunak's visit to Penzance in Cornwall. It was unclear from the brief clip shown of Sir Ed Davey on the BBC where the Lib Dems were even campaigning. And as for Labour, Starmer had seemingly disappeared as a row over Diane Abbott grew.

Elected as Britain's first black female MP in 1987 she has in the last few months become a thorn in Labour's side.

Abbott was suspended from the party in 2023 after suggesting Jewish people do not face racism and her comments were deemed anti-semitic by the Labour leader [BBC].

Just over five weeks out from the general election, she had the whip restored to her, paving the way for the veteran MP to run for Labour again in her Hackney North constituency.

However, reports quickly emerged that she had been barred from standing in July's election. Sir Keir Starmer denied this was the case, saying, "No decision has been taken to bar her going forward."

Yet Abbott was out on the street saying she would stay on as an MP for "as long as it is possible".

Confusion over Abbott's being allowed to stand appears to stem from an unknown Labour source who briefed journalists that Abbott would be barred from standing again in her Hackney North and Stoke Newington constituency despite the whip having been returned to her.

Starmer meanwhile has not been seen resulting in an almost Where's Wally moment for the Labour leader.

This is certainly not a good moment for Labour in what is a relatively short election campaign.

Most people have likely made up their minds - if the polls are to be believed - though there will be many floating voters out there.

Yet none of the parties has yet released their party manifesto.

Last week's election launch ran with headlines of Things can only get wetter. Given the rather wet election campaign thus far, this was rather apt.

[pictured - election parody posters]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Rats leave sinking ship as UK election set for 4th July

Following Rishi Sunak's ill-advised calling of an early election, two more MPs have thrown in the towel. Michael Gove has said he won't stand for his seat in Surrey Heath, and Andrea Leadsom has also stood back from standing in South Northamptonshire.

The Conservative party has more than 150 seats, and rising, with no candidate. That is a lot of candidates for CCHQ to find before 7th June and a lot of wasted campaigning days. It does rather indicate Sunak called the election before his party was ready. Seventy eight have stood down with Gove and Leadsom being the latest. And some political pundits expect more to leap off the ship this weekend.

There appears to be much underlying anger within the party that Sunak made an almost unilateral decision to call a summer election without, apparently, even informing his cabinet [BBC / Economic Times]. Whilst this is speculation, the fact that his Foreign Secretary David Cameron had to cut short his visit to Albania and Defence Secretary Grant Shapps had to shelve a planned foreign visit reinforces this theory.

Many people in the party thought they had until Autumn to decide their position. With Sunak's early and unexpected election announcement, they are now feeling the party is over.

The election launch was not helped by Sunak's apparent impulsive decision to call it on Wednesday, the only day when veteran anti-Brexit protester Steve Bray and his supporters is in London with his loud speaker blasting sounds of satirical tunes in the direction of No.10.

Sunak would have known this as he left for PMQs at 11:30. He should also have been aware that the weather forecast was for continual rain throughout the day.

But just as King Canute couldn't hold back the tide, Sunak could not stop the heavens from opening up and carried on regardless. Shortly after five p.m. he went outside to deliver a nearly ten minute dialogue whilst being drenched by rain and blasted by the sounds of the 1997 Labour theme, Things Can Only Get Better by D.Ream, from Steve Bray's speaker at the end of the street.

It was already raining as the PM stepped towards the lectern. But as he continued through his speech the rain increased and by the end his suit was completely ruined and soaked - no doubt it was consigned to the dustbin shortly afterwards.

It wasn't perhaps surprising that many headlines in the papers the following day focused on the weather.

References to a damp squib were made while the Telegraph referenced the D.Ream song with 'Things Can Only Get Wetter'.

The Daily Mirror meanwhile went with a prediction of Drown & Out.

The more serious headlines still thought his election launch was ill-advised.

Many thought it was a 'gamble' and that Sunak had 'bet the house'.

Labour might think they've got it all sewn up. But complacency is not advised in Britain's divided post-Brexit society, still in turmoil as it endures a cost of living crisis.

Labour, at least according to polls, are likely to take the keys to No.10 as it sits some 20 points ahead of the Tories

But while the Conservatives will lose votes many traditional Tory voters may shift to the centrist Lib Dems or the more right leaning Reform Party. Indeed both parties are particularly focused on campaigning in Tory constituencies.

Wales might see a shift away from Labour especially after anti-motorist policies and growing dissatisfaction in the Labour administration in the Welsh parliament. Plaid Cymru could do a lot better than usual.

Scotland could win something back for Labour after problems the SNP has suffered with internal squabbles and scandals.

There is also a question concerning turnout with concerns from all sides it could be as low as 60%.

There is also concern amongst many traditional Labour voters who see Starmer as being little different from the Tories.

A cartoon published just one week before the election announcement in the Evening Standard alluded to just this with Starmer complaining a portrait of him with a red background wasn't blue enough. There is also the issue surrounding Gaza, which has proved contentious as Starmer holds with Israel's right to defend itself and won't concede to far left demands to call for a ceasefire in the region.

At the end of it all there are only two certainties. One, that there'll be a change of government. But, two, nothing will really change.

The country remains politically divided. Moreover, it is arguably bankrupt which will leave a new Labour administration in a difficult position to do anything to solve Britain's many problems.

Sunak has pointed to the pandemic and the war in Ukraine as well as rising energy prices as being challenges that Britain has faced and something that any government in power would have faced. This is partially true. But the elephant in the room which he has consistently ignored is Brexit which has seriously affected Britain's economic position.

Labour too has also ignored the B-word and failed to discuss how the country might improve trade with Europe post-Brexit.

Only the Lib Dems have suggested they wish to realign and build a closer relationship with the EU and rejoin the single market and customs union. Whilst not mentioning the subject of rejoining, it is in fact code for doing just that. Remember the 4 pillars? The cornerstones of the single market are often said to be the "four freedoms" – the free movement of people, goods, services and capital. These freedoms are embedded in the European Union's treaties and form the basis of the Single Market legislative framework.

The UK is still perhaps a long way off of rejoining the EU unless the5re is a major see-change in people's thinking and a huge swing towards the Lib Dems. But a Labour-Lib Dem coalition, the most likely outcome of this election, is perhaps a small step to Britain's rejoining the bloc and rebuilding its place in the world.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Concerns that Baltimore incident was a cyberattack

Less than a day after a huge cargo vessel crashed into the Francis Scott Bridge in Baltimore, severing a major artery and putting one of America's most important ports out of action, some have suggested the incident was the result of a deliberate cyber attack. Six people, who were working on the bridge at the time of the incident, have been declared missing presumed dead. Two others were rescued, one of them in serious condition and who is being treated in hospital.

But focus has now shifted to recovery and determining the cause of the crash.

Authorities have dismissed the notion of the incident being a terrorist attack, though the investigation only began late in the day on Tuesday 26th March, hours after the vessel had struck the bridge bringing the entire structure into the water.

Power issues

Video from a web streaming camera showed that prior to the impact, the cargo vessel appeared to lose and regain power several times. Thick smoke was also seen to issue from a funnel just moments before the ship hit the bridge.  

Twenty two crew, all said to be Indian nationals, according to WION, were on board at the time, though it is not known how many would have been active at the time given it was making sail soon after midnight.

Cyberattack theories

While it is of course possible that the crash was merely a catastrophic accident, it could have also been a deliberate cyber attack.

Mitags, a website focused on maritime risk management raises a number of key risks concerning cargo vessels. One particular aspect, key to this incident, concerns "Propulsion, Machinery & Power Control Systems" which could be vulnerable to cyber attacks. "Since electronic programs control the physical actions of the ship, they can fall victim to a cyber attack and threaten ship control," the website claims.

"Cybersecurity has never been more critical to the marine sector. We depend on electronics for everything from vessel navigation to maintenance, and their proper function is essential to protect crew and vessel safety."

"As maritime technology advances, electronic OT — Operational Technology — systems that physically control the ship are being integrated with IT — Information Technology — systems. As vessels update their systems to more advanced, electronically controlled components, they'll need to increase their vigilance because IT systems can be attacked and controlled by outside parties."

This does not prove that the Baltimore incident was a cyber attack. But it does at least suggest it as a possibility.

Online conspiracies

Journalist Laura Logan is adamant that the crash was a direct result of a cyberattack. "I don't believe in coincidences," she says, while pointing to the facts that - deliberate or not - the incident has severed a major route for hazardous materials, eg petroleum, chemicals etc., and will cause major disruption for months. The I-695, that was cut when the bridge collapsed, is an auxiliary route of the I-95, a conduit running some 3,096 km along the eastern seaboard.

The closure, which could run into many months, if not years, will seriously affect the estimated 35,000 vehicles that traversed the bridge every day. Commercial vehicles carrying materials that are prohibited in the tunnel crossings, including recreation vehicles carrying propane, will now have to plan on using the I-695 (Baltimore Beltway) between Essex and Glen Burnie. This will add significant driving time [CBS]. There will also be significant disruption to shipping as other ports are forced to take up the slack.

There are around six cargo vessels that are stuck in the Baltimore harbour, as well as a number of navy ships and dozens of smaller vessels. But the knock on effect of the tragedy that occurred on the 26th March could be disruptive and costly.

Such issues were raised by Logan in a discussion with Steve Bannon on America's Voice  a right-wing to far-right streaming, cable and satellite television channel [Wikipedia].

Logan is seen as controversial for her backing a number of conspiracy theories, and Bannon too has been much criticised for his right wing political leaning. Well known conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has also speculated the ship was struck by a cyber attack.

And such theories have flooded the Internet concerning the collision [Newsweek].

While the White House has dismissed such theories, a cyberattack should not be immediately dismissed even if it is mostly being promoted by well known conspiracy theorists.

Past cyber attacks

Cyber attacks against shipping have occurred before. In fact the US military were last month reported to have launched a cyber attack on an Iranian ship according to NBC [YouTube].

The report claims an Iranian military ship that had been collecting intelligence on cargo vessels in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, was targeted.

And according to Cydome, an Israeli startup which develops maritime cybersecurity solutions, cyber attacks have been targeted at a number of ships over the last few months [Cydome].

In fact according to Cydome maritime cyber attacks are on the rise with one said to occur every three days on average.

Previous reports have also highlighted the risk. While most cyber attacks have tended to be ransomware demands some are far more worrisome.

Ships at sea are susceptible to cyberattacks. Modern navigation relies on positioning systems, which has led to fears of jamming or altering location coordinates. An activity called spoofing refers to sending false data to navigation systems. In 2013, a test verified the possibility of spoofing a cruise ship's navigation system [Psiaki M. L. and Humphreys T. E. (2016) Protecting 'PS From Spoofers Is Critical to the Future of Navigation]. Two alleged but unconfirmed incidents, both involving a large number of vessels, have occurred; in 2016 near South Korea, and in June 2017 in the Black Sea.

In two other incidents, serious hacker involvement is suspected. In 2010, an oil rig on a voyage from Korea to South America suffered a delay of 19 days due to a system shutdown off the coast of Africa [Kaspersky Lab (2015) Maritime industry is easy meat for cyber criminals / Reuters].

And in February 2017, a German containership reportedly lost control of its navigation systems for 10 hours while sailing from Cyprus to Djibouti [KIISKI - PDF].

Spoofing & hacking

A spoofer's ability to overtake aeroplanes or ships to induce a crash might be something akin to a James Bond plot - see for example Tomorrow New Dies - but it is fast becoming a reality [Spectrum].

The Baltimore incident comes within days of reports that the Chinese have launched a series of serious hacking attacks against both the US and UK, something China denies [Guardian / BBC]..

But the coincidence of timing may not be lost on some.


It has been reported that the 'black box' has been recovered from the Singaporean registered Dali cargo vessel.

It may be that the official explanation will be something mundane as a technical fault. But this will not likely silence the theories circulating online [Daily Mail].

Whatever the cause, it will take some time to clear the channel. The salvage might take several weeks. But as for replacing the bridge, that could take years. The original bridge took five years to construct in the early 1970s.

Accident or attack, the effects of the incident will last for some time to come.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Royal family in turmoil amidst rumours & conspiracy theories

If reports seen across the pond are to be believed, the house of Windsor could be at an end. There are growing concerns not only for King Charles III, but also his wife Queen Camilla and his daughter in law Catherine, the Princess of Wales. Information concerning the Royals is difficult to substantiate, nut the secrecy surrounding the family and recent bizarre press releases from the palace have only helped fuel rumours and conspiracy theories.

The ailing King

In recent weeks, US tabloids, amongst a number of other international media outlets, have reported that the King's health is far more serious than has been reported to the British public. British newspapers have thus far only reported the official line that the monarch is suffering from prostate problems and a 'form of cancer'.

However, the National Enquirer is amongst a number of publications that have reported that the King has pancreatic cancer and less than six months to live.

Whilst first reported in the Enquirer, the story has been picked up by a number of other publications, though the news has been largely hidden from the British public.

Internet searches in the UK fail to bring forth links to such sites but if using a VPN - which circumvents country restrictions - the same searches result in dozens of links leading to the concerning reports about the British monarch [BoingBoing / Magzter / The News pk / BTimes].

The National Enquirer's report could be easily dismissed given its history as being a sensationalist supermarket tabloid magazine. But it has often been right about its claims though it has also had to settle various lawsuits [Wikipedia].

Even if one dismisses the headlines concerning the type of cancer and the seriousness of the King's condition there are little reported nuggets of truth within the National Enquirer's reporting. The publication states that Dr Michael Dixon, known for his strong beliefs in homoeopathy and faith healing, is overseeing Charles' treatment [Guardian].

The National Enquirer's sensationalist report came just 20 days after it was announced King Charles had been diagnosed with "a form of cancer" which had prompted many news stations to flip to saturation coverage of the news for several hours despite few facts being known.

That announcement on the 5th of February came at the same time that Kate Middleton had also been admitted to hospital for unspecified 'abdominal surgery'.

Secrecy fuels conspiracies

The secrecy, vagueness and the warning off of press photographers by Kensington Palace as they camped outside the hospital where she was being treated, has only fuelled speculation, rumours and conspiracy theories.

As a high profile royal, Kate Middleton's admission to hospital was bound to draw much media attention. As such dozens of press photographers gathered daily outside the clinic where she was being treated. But, in what was seen by many members of the press as unwarranted control, representatives from Kensington Palace demanded to see press passes and later issued a warning to the major agencies that they would be dropped from future royal rotas should they not leave. This despite the media gathering being situated in a public space.

"Sadly, despite us sharing the wishes of the Prince and Princess that they'd like privacy at this time, yesterday we saw a significant number of photographers stationed outside the hospital. I have spoken directly to the respective photography agencies and picture editors of those present and reminded them if they continue to be there they will not be accredited by Kensington Palace for the foreseeable future. I'll allow those of you who did have photographers down there yesterday, to pick that up with your picture editors. However, in the knowledge my plea will fall of deaf ears and in the spirit of openness I always employ – and again, not for reporting but for guidance only, the Wales children will not be visiting The London Clinic this weekend, so I strongly discourage anyone from stationing themselves there." the full statement said.

As a result many agency photographers were withdrawn leaving only freelancers and the so-called paparazzi.

Where's Kate?

That was in the third week of January and until March there had been no sighting of the future Queen. Then a photograph emerged purporting to be Kate Middleton sitting in the passenger seat of an Audi being driven from Windsor alongside her mother. The picture, distributed by the photo agency Backgrid was extremely grainy which appeared to have been added in post-production given the emergence of a clear picture just hours later.

The picture only fuelled further speculation. The woman seemed to be of fuller face than Kate and the clear frame appeared not to show Kate's distinctive mole above her right lip. The fact that she was wearing larger dark shades created speculation amongst some that the person was in fact her sister Pippa.

The picture however was hidden from the eyes of the British public with only a few news outlets even reporting on the claim that the Princess of Wales was seen in public for the first time since her operation. Indeed the picture was only used in foreign publications, most notably the American tabloids [TMZ / HarpersBizaar / TimesNowNews /  LTN].

Mother's Day fiasco

Moving on just a week and the waters were further muddied after Kensington Palace released a picture of Kate and the three children on Mother's Day. Several major agencies that were distributing the photograph soon withdrew the picture and issued a kill notice saying that the picture had been digitally manipulated [BBC].

There was no immediate statement forthcoming from Kensington Palace, resulting in conspiracies and rumours becoming even more out of control. What, if anything were they, 'the firm', trying to hide? Then around twelve hours after the picture was killed by PA, AFP, Reuters and Getty, a statement was released via Twitter. "Like many amateur photographers, I do occasionally experiment with editing. I wanted to express my apologies for any confusion the family photograph we shared yesterday caused. I hope everyone celebrating had a very happy Mother's Day. C" However, occasionally experimenting with editing does not explain the strange anomalies that appear in the photograph particularly with the hands of the children such as contorted hands and a missing thumb as well as inexplicable blurring or smearing of certain parts of the photograph.

The photograph released on Mother's Day in the UK was clearly manipulated with sometimes inexplicable photoshop techniques. There have been more questions than answers concerning the release of the photograph fueling a plethora of conspiracy theories. While some are clearly outlandish and easily dismissed others are less easily explained. One theory swirling on social media platforms suggested that the picture was a composite including the pasting of Kate's head from a 2016 cover of Vogue which bears a striking similarity to that in the controversial Mother's Day picture [Daily Mail].

Following the publication of the photograph, press photographers captured what was reported to be Kate leaving the Windsor estate, sitting in the back of a vehicle with Prince William as he headed for a Commonwealth service at Westminster Abbey. Yet given her face is turned away from the camera there are many who are still unconvinced it was even her. There was also no clue as to where she was supposedly headed with no statement forthcoming from Kensington Palace.

Grim US reports

US tabloids have already painted a dark picture, suggesting everything from a possible cancer diagnosis to eating disorders and even suggesting domestic violence within the family.

Of course, these reports are based solely on unofficial leaks and rumours. But Kensington Palace is doing nothing to allay these reports. Moreover, their secretive and clumsy media management has only fuelled the fire.

Further confusion has been sown after Kate Middleton's name was removed from an event on 8th June 8, soon after the British army announced she would attend.

Discounting the controversial Mother's Day picture and the two paparazzi pictures, Kate Middleton hasn't been seen in public since Christmas 2023, and Kensington Palace had not released any photos or videos of her until Sunday 10th March.


Her absence has caused a social-media firestorm as royal watchers questioned her whereabouts and condition online. However, the palace said she was doing well as recently as 29th February.

Outside of social media, the mainstream media, especially in the US, are having a field day with the issue surrounding Kate Middleton's whereabouts.

The Daily Show makes light of the recent photoshopped picture and Kate's taking responsibility for the mistakes [Twitter / YouTube]. Meanwhile Stephen Colbert also made fun of the situation and joked about a rumoured affair between Prince William and Sarah Rose Cholmondeley, the Marchioness of Cholmondeley [Twitter] something that has been little reported in the UK [MSN].

If the stories in the US tabloids are to be believed, the Royal family is all but finished. According to the National Enquirer and The Globe, Camilla faces a possible double mastectomy due to cancer, Kate has a whole number of health issues and may even divorce the future King. And William's coronation may well be sooner than expected with plans reportedly being made for a state funeral for the current monarch, King Charles III.

Sources 'familiar with the situation' say that major picture agencies are already making plans for a state funeral later this year, tvnewswatch was learned.

More bad news ahead

Meanwhile, there may be further bad news in the coming months for the Royal family. There are several royals that are well into their 80s and 90s. As such it is only a matter of time before the likes of the Duke of Gloucester, 79, Princess Alexandra, 87, the first cousin of the late Queen, her brothers Prince Michael of Kent, 81, and the Duke of Kent, 88, as well as the Duchess of Kent, 91, pass on.

The furore concerning Prince Andrew has yet to be laid to rest [Sky News] although he has been more visible in recent months with suggestions he has been repositioning himself within the royal family [Daily Mail].  

Tragedy has already struck in recent weeks with Pippa Middleton's ex-boyfriend, Thomas Kingston being found dead at his parent's home in Cotswolds Village in England, on 25th February. Kingston, 45, was apparently found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, though Internet conspiracy theories abound suggesting foul play.

A private funeral was held, away from the glare of cameras, with only a select few in attendance, amongst them the Prince of Wales, the Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, the Duke of Kent and Princess Alexandra alongside Lady Gabriella and Mr Kingston's family [BBC / Sky News].

Whatever the truth is concerning the King's health, that of Queen Camilla, Kate's health and whereabouts as well as the state of the relationship between her and the future King, Prince William, the public are certainly questioning the honesty and future of the Royal Family.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Sunday, February 04, 2024

Hard cheese for the UK dairy industry

In the lead up to the EU referendum, those who promoted Brexit promised that Britain would see to opening up new markets and new opportunities beyond the EU.

However, nearly nine years after that fateful vote and two years after Britain officially left the block after delays in negotiating a deal with the EU, Britain has failed to make any meaningful free trade agreements with any country outside the bloc and those it has managed to secure pale into insignificance compared to what was offered through being an EU member state.

A particular case in point is the trade deal made with Australia which, even according to former environment secretary George Eustace, has left worse off. Eustice, who helped secure the first post-Brexit deal negotiated from scratch, told a Commons debate that it was "not actually a very good deal for the UK" [Guardian / BBC].

The deal was even mocked on Australian breakfast television.

The deal removes tariffs on £4.3bn of exports, making it cheaper to sell iconic products like cars, Scotch whisky and ceramics into Australia, according to the UK government which called the agreement  'historic'. However, the deal was only forecast to raise Britain's GDP by 0.08% by 2035 [Guardian].   

In the northern hemisphere Britain has failed to make any inroads in terms of making deals. Despite a 'special relationship' with the US, a free trade deal seems as elusive as ever.

The same is true of Canada, a commonwealth country with Britain expected to reestablish stronger ties.

But despite nearly two years of negotiations everything fell flat in January leaving Britain worse off than had it remained part of the EU.

Canada had been pushing for the UK to relax a ban on hormone-treated beef, which its producers say in effect shuts them out of the British market [BBC].

However, the same meat products remain banned in the EU despite having a trade agreement with Canada known as CETA or Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement.

Britain previously traded under these rules but having left the EU had to negotiate its own agreement.

Under CETA there exists a tariff rate quota of 16,000,000 kilograms for EU cheeses with the likes of France, Italy and the Netherlands benefitting substantially. But after the 1st January 2024 Britain fell out of this arrangement and with no separate deal in place it could prove disastrous for the UK dairy industry.

From the 1st January 2024, for UK cheese to be eligible for export under Canada's WTO quota, UK exporters need to ensure the Canadian importer they are partnering with has access to an import licence for the 'non-EU sources reserve'.  

If UK exporters do not have this, any cheese products they export to Canada will be subject to the full tariffs which amount to 245% [UK Gov].

This could mean tougher trading terms for the UK with a partner that accounted for 1.4% of its total trade in the 12 months to June 2023.

The UK exported over two million kilograms of cheese to Canada in 2022. And a massive slice of that are Coombe Castle products. "Essentially, we're going to fall off the edge of a cliff at the end of this year," Darren Larvin, the managing director of Coombe Castle International, was quoted as saying by CBC last December.

Prior to January 2024 a 320 gram pack of Coombe Castle cheese cost Ca$12.99 [around £7.60]. With a 245% mark up this would push the price up to some Ca$31.82 [£18.65].

Goods trade between the two countries was worth £19.2bn in 2020, according to the UK government, with UK imports from Canada worth £7.3bn and UK exports to Canada worth £11.8bn.

And while overall UK cheese exports to Canada are relatively small, it is nonetheless significant. British cheese exports to Canada were worth £18.7m - or 2.4% of total cheese exports - in 2022, according to the Food and Drink Federation (FDF). That translates to Canada importing a little more than two million kilograms of cheese from the UK (its fifth largest supplier), international trade data indicates [BBC].

For some firms the loss of this market could be devastating with some being forced to reduce production and staff. The longer the situation continues the more difficult it will be to reestablish trade links.

Boris Johnson had sold Brexit with priceless opportunities such as being able to sell "more affordable high-quality cheese to Canada" [Daily Mail]. But instead the lies and failed promises have left a sour taste and left many cheese makers cheesed off [Guardian].

But it's no joke for the estimated 7,845 people employed in the British butter & cheese industry. A 2.5% loss in trade with Canada could potentially result in job losses. And while it might be a simplification to say the industry could see a similar cut in jobs, this could translate into around 200 job losses. For firms such as Coombe Castle, which send around a third of its products to Canada, it's an existential crisis.

Overall Britain's cheese exports have shrunk in the last year, decreasing by £-4.11M (-5.65%) from £72.7M to £68.6M [OEC]. The collapse of a potential trade deal with Canada will do nothing to boost confidence.

And it's not just cheese either. The breakdown in talks mean British car firms could also face higher tariffs. It will also mean Britain will miss out on opportunities to secure better terms for digital trade, which makes up four-fifths of the UK's services exports to Canada.

"This was supposed to be done quite quickly because it was just an upgrade of an existing deal," says William Bain, head of trade policy at the British Chambers of Commerce. "But in the end, it has taken two years to achieve nothing." [Telegraph]

Once again, Britain has found that Brexit was not quite the land of open opportunities, unicorns and sunny uplands that was sold to the British public.

tvnewswatch, London, UK