Sporting Controversies will Disrupt Relations with Russia

The recent controversy surrounding Russian sport reached a zenith with the publication of a report by the world anti-doping agency (WADA) accusing the Russian state of being complicit in an unprecedented deception of anti-doping regulations for Russian athletes. The repercussions of the report will be felt beyond the world of sport, and could make easing political and social tension with Russia increasingly difficult for Europe and the United States.

WADA’s report is the latest in a series of incidents that have greatly damaged Russia’s sporting and national image. It follows highly publicised incidents in Russia domestic football that show that homophobic and racist attitudes are rife amongst Russian football supporters, and the disturbing organised violence of Russian hooligans in France during the recent  European football championships.

A natural backlash against Russia has resulted, with Russian athletes banned from competing in the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Whilst this sort reaction is understandable, it could well reinforce a Cold War style ‘encirclement’ mentality in the minds of many ordinary Russians and politicians. This attitude, born out of the belief that Russia is encircled by hostile nations, was fuelled in the days of Stalin as a way of galvanising the Russian population against other nations that were mistrustful of the socialist path that the country had taken after the 1917 revolution. In the modern day, the proliferation of a similar way of thinking has dangerous implications when the need for deescalating tensions with Russia is paramount.

Other factors away from the world of sport are fanning the flames. Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian leadership style and foreign policy are reminiscent of the strategies employed by the USSR during the Cold War. This has undoubtedly contributed to the resurgence of a Cold War style mentality in Russia. Another factor that cannot be ignored is the need for national pride that has motivated the above controversies. The WADA report for instance, suggested that one of the motivations behind the doping scandal was the desire by the Russian government to enhance the performance of its athletes who were seen to have performed unacceptably in previous international athletics tournaments.

Russia must modernise its way of thinking and other nations must continue to tread carefully when imposing sanctions in sporting terms. These sanctions will fracture the relationship between Russia and the rest of the world further, at a time when the need for stability is desperate.

Counter-terrorism: Security Can’t Make Us Safe

Thursday 14th July. A man drove a lorry into a crowd of 30,000 people gathered to watch the Bastille Day fireworks from the seafront Promenade des Anglais. 84 people were killed in minutes, including more than 10 children.

In the days since we have seen familiar scenes. Francois Hollande has extended the national state of emergency. Theresa May has pledged greater security funding and a full review of security procedures in England. Boris Johnson condemned the “appalling” incident, which demonstrated “a continuing threat to us in the whole of Europe and we must meet it together”. But for all the condemnation, the calls for solidarity, vigilance, and stricter security measures, are we any safer?

Let’s assume – as everyone has done – that Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was an Islamic extremist. The fact remains that he had no known Jihadi links and his actions were totally unpredicted. France has officially been in a state of emergency since the Paris attacks in November and yet he went under the radar. Perhaps in the coming weeks we will discover that there was an oversight by police or counter-terrorism units. But there will always be gaps and mistakes. We live in an age where we spend more than ever on national security and yet we feel less and less safe. We need a new approach.

We need to address the motivation behind terrorism. What is it that drives individuals to commit unspeakable acts, to sacrifice their lives? Islam is a lazy answer. In an interview on CNN Reza Aslan made this point: “Islam is just a religion and just like every religion in the world it depends on what you bring to it… People are violent or peaceful, and that depends on their politics, their social world, the way that they see their communities, the way that they see themselves.” It takes more than religious belief to create a terrorist. You need political conviction, passion, perceived moral justification and, crucially, disenfranchisement. No-one takes the decision to kill themselves and murder innocent people lightly. A terrorist is someone who believes in a cause so strongly that they will sacrifice everything for it, someone who feels they have no other options. If we ignore the political and social factors that lead to radicalisation we miss a chance to prevent it.

Increasing security will not suppress radicalisation. In fact mass surveillance, detainment without trial, racial profiling, tightening of immigration and media contempt all contribute to it. It is not enough to tell them that they are wrong – we must convince them that they are wrong, convince those at risk of radicalisation that there is hope, that the west is not at war with Islam, that violence is not the only route to change and that their concerns are being heard. In order to prevent terrorism we must address the motivation behind it. Until we do so we won’t be safe.

Theresa May should call an early election!

The country has a new Prime Minister. Theresa May has replaced David Cameron and has begun her premiership. As Prime Minister May faces a lot of major decisions and hurdles. Most pressingly is what to do about Brexit and negotiating the best deal for the country. Also there is another dilemma: should May call an early General Election?

The triggers for calling a General Election are now different with the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. In theory this means the next General Election will not be until Thursday 7th May 2020. There are ways to get round this Act though. May, could propose a General Election, and challenge the opposition to refuse to provide the two-thirds majority required to vote the motion through. The government could repeal the act through a simple majority or a vote of no confidence could be proposed in the Government, giving the Opposition 14 days to form a new Government, at the end of which the Conservative majority could simply vote that they had no confidence in the proposed alternative administration, and an election would be declared.

So why should May call an election? May is in her honeymoon period against a weak Labour party and Labour leader. In the latest opinion polls for YouGov and Opinium May and the Tories have large leads. Polls can change and can be wrong but these results are promising and would indicate May has nothing to fear by going to the country. These favourable circumstances could change quickly and should Theresa May choose to wait until 2020 then the political climate may well be different.

Furthermore an election victory gives May a personal mandate and she would not suffer the same criticisms as Gordon Brown did when he famously turned down the chance of a snap election. It could also make her job a lot easier. May has a small majority which could easily be overturned by a group of rebels angry at her for any number of reasons. A larger majority would make governing easier and the government would be more stable as a result.

The truth is we don’t know too much about Theresa May. She has a reputation as a cautious politician, but did choose a bold Cabinet. Given what has happened in our politics over the last few months, the easy decision would be to stick as we are. However if May is brave, she could well increase the Conservative majority and place herself and her party in a dominant position for some years to come.

 

Corbyn is right to refuse debates!

Parliament is now in recess. After an eventful few months MPs have gone home and embarked on their holidays. The Conservatives have elected a new leader and Prime Minister; Labour want to elect a new leader and both UKIP and the Greens are also in the middle of leadership contests. There will be no summer off for political anoraks this year.

Jeremy Corbyn remains the clear front-runner in the Labour leadership race. He is attracting large crowds over the country and it is believed that a high proportion of the new batch of registered supporters back Corbyn. The latest polls show Corbyn with a big lead over his competitor Owen Smith and the bookmakers consider the race to almost be over. This is why it came as no surprise to me that Corbyn turned down the opportunity to debate Owen Smith in a head to head hustings.

Corbyn as the front-runner has little to gain from these contests. Debates tend to favour the challenger, hence why Owen Smith’s team are pushing so hard for them and calling Corbyn out for not participating. Corbyn was relatively unheard of when he performed well in hustings last summer with his leadership rivals unsure of how to deal with him. This time it would be different and Owen Smith would likely take a much more confrontational position which could damage Corbyn.

Corbyn presently is a bigger draw than Owen Smith. This is largely due to a large proportion of the public and some Labour supporters not knowing much about Owen Smith or even who he was. Giving Smith more time on television and in hustings would allow him to cut through the press and reach out and appeal directly to voters and win over Labour supporters. This is a situation Corbyn would hope to avoid.

Jeremy Corbyn and his team will attempt to play a similar game to David Cameron prior to the last General Election. Ideally Corbyn will want no debates, but given this is unlikely he will at least want debates on his terms and in a format which can do him the least damage. (Corbyn would also argue he is meeting Labour voters every day and is not scared of the debate!) Jeremy Corbyn will win this leadership race, barring a real game-changer. Debates can fall into this category and therefore don’t expect Corbyn to become a fan anytime soon.

Trump Will Not be a One-Off Presidential Candidate

Donald Trump once again displayed his talent for causing controversy with his criticism of the parents of Captain Humayun Khan, an American Muslim soldier who was killed in action during the Iraq War in 2004. His comments once again called into question the Republican candidate’s attitude toward the issue of racial relations. However, despite the shock that his remarks have caused, the worrying prospect that such behaviour may become the norm in future US presidential elections cannot be ignored.

Aside from the remorseless and uncaring manner of his comments, Trump’s criticism of Khan’s bereaved parents was unsettling because it showed that Khan had failed to win Trump’s respect despite sacrificing his life for his country. The link between Khan’s Islamic background, Trump’s comments and the hard line stance that he has taken over the issue of Islam in America is clear. The mere thought that these comments were racially motivated is enough for eerie historical comparisons to be made between Captain Khan and African-American soldiers who fought for the US during both World Wars, but returned home to experience the same racism, bigotry and violence that they had always faced.

What is also of considerable concern is the legacy that Trump’s success may leave. He has actively caused controversy to stir up more support amongst his anti-establishmentarian followers. It is unlikely that this anti-establishment feeling will subside anytime soon. It has been caused by escalating social tensions over sensitive issues such as race, immigration and gun control, which has been exacerbated by increasing instances of violence over these areas. The recent shootings in Dallas and Orlando to name but two examples. These tensions will take a long time to reconcile. The prospect of another candidate like Trump, who seeks to use this tension to their benefit emerging again in the future is realistic.

The notion that the sort of rhetoric directed toward Captain Khan’s family could consequently become the norm in US elections is disturbing. Finding a way to reconcile the social and political tension that helped give rise to it will be the greatest domestic challenge faced by the White House and Congress over the coming years. Unless genuine bi-partisan agreements and compromises are reached over the contentious issues plaguing US society, something which both major parties and the White House have failed to do during the Obama administration, we could very see this election campaign repeat itself soon.

 

Peerage Chaos

It is testament to the current state of the Labour Party that despite the furore around David Cameron’s resignation honours, it was a decision made by the Labour leadership that garnered the most headlines; this being Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to offer former Director of Liberty Shami Chakrabiti a peerage.

Shami Chakrabiti had recently appointed by Jeremy Corbyn to conduct a review into anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. Chakrabiti’s findings were very sensible (if not too dramatic!) and appeared at least temporarily to address this issue. Alas not. The timing of Corbyn’s decision has raised both ethical and political questions and places a big asterix over the findings of the review.

Politically, this was a missed opportunity for Labour. After Theresa May refused to intervene and Conservative donor Ian Turner turned down a knighthood, Labour had a chance to make some political capital. Jeremy Corbyn’s initial promise during the leadership contest last year not to create any new peers was immediately broken and with that the chance to take the political high ground disappeared. It is clear that the damage this would do should have been picked up by the Labour leadership team, who have managed to miss a clear conflict of interests.

The ethical problem for Corbyn arises over when he made this offer. If it was made during or before the inquiry was conducted, was any sort of pressure placed on Chakrabiti to come to the correct conclusion? This hypothesis was given further weight by accusations from former Labour advisor Ned Simons who claimed Chakrabiti ignored explicit warnings about anti-Semitic comments made by Jeremy Corbyn’s staff. The offer of a peerage has also angered The Board of Deputies with vice President Marie van der Zyl calling the decision beyond disappointing in a statement released by the organisation.

On a larger scale, this whole debacle has raised questions about our honours system. An honour should only be awarded to those who have gone above and beyond and not simply to those who have completed their jobs. Cameron’s resignation honours list smacks of cronyism and is exactly the sort of thing which puts people off politics. We need our politics to be pure and beyond reproach. Once again this has not been the case and that should disappoint anyone interested in politics.

 

 

 

The Lib Dems could be back in business!

The last few years has been a chastening period for the Liberal Democrats. It started with the coalition and the broken promise on tuition fees and was followed by poor local election results; finally culminating in the 2015 General Election where the party was reduced just to 8 seats. Since then a lot has happened in British politics and the Liberal Democrats have struggled to gain attention.

Britain’s decision to leave the European Union has changed politics forever in this country. The historic vote has opened up new schisms in British politics and has mobilised a new generation of voters, especially ‘Remain’ voters. Among these ‘Remain’ voters there is a real sense of anger and a feeling that they have been let down by the result. Although this is not the result the Liberal Democrats wanted or campaigned for, this may present them with an opportunity.

The Liberal Democrats are unashamedly pro-European. Leader Tim Farron has already stated the party will fight the 2020 General Election on a platform of reversing Brexit. This will appeal to a decent proportion of the 48% of the country who voted to Remain in the European Union and want to see Brexit avoided at all costs. It opens up opportunities in ‘Remain’ strongholds, particularly in London where the Liberal Democrats lost seats in the 2015 General Election.

Furthermore the ongoing turmoil of the Labour Party creates a space for the Liberal Democrats to exploit. Labour’s move to the left has given the Liberal Democrats a chance to appeal to voters on the centre left who feel alienated by the Labour Party. Some clever political positioning alongside their stance on the EU could enable the Liberal Democrats to quickly recover some ground lost over the last few years.

The Liberal Democrats are showing some signs of recovery, but have yet to achieve anything too dramatic. This may not change anytime soon. However a gradual recovery from a party many thought to be dead should not be scoffed at. It is impossible to predict what will happen next in politics in this country, but maybe just maybe a Liberal Democrat revival is not too far off.

 

 

Russia’s Very Own Turkish Coup

The move by Russia to normalise its relations with Turkey was unexpected. However, it makes perfect sense when one considers Russia’s foreign policy strategy is focused on outmanoeuvring the US and Europe over the refugee and Syria crises.

The tension that had until recently dogged relations between the two nations had been caused by the downing of a Russian jet near Turkey’s border with Syria on 24th November last year. One of the most significant links between this incident and the normalisation of Russo-Turkish relations is that a repeat is now highly unlikely. The strengthening of ties between the two will allow the Russians additional freedom to conduct airstrikes in Syria. Russia is thus in a considerably stronger position to advance its own aims and those of Bashar al-Assad, something which the US and Europe do not want to see.

The significance of Turkey in the current refugee crisis cannot be ignored either. There are approximately 2.75 million refugees currently in Turkey. Russia, like ISIS, has utilised the crisis to destabilise the domestic and foreign affairs of the US and Europe. The normalisation of ties with Turkey will give the Russians increased influence over the fate of the millions of refugees resident there. This spells bad news for a Europe that is already being strained at a political and societal level by both this crisis and Brexit. The EU’s aim of expanding will also have been set back by the normalisation as Turkey had a significant interest in one day joining the EU. It is now highly doubtful that this will happen anytime in the short or medium term future, and once again shows the ease at which Russia is able to outflank the EU at a diplomatic level.

Normalisation of relations with Turkey was nothing short of a masterstroke from Russia. It shows that they are still a force to be reckoned with on the world stage, whilst decreasing the likelihood of a solution to the refugee and Syrian crises and the instability in the EU being found. Should the isolationist and unstable Donald Trump capture the White House later this year, Russia’s work to ensure that it becomes one of the dominant powers in Eurasia will be frighteningly close to fruition. The need for greater cohesion and purpose within the EU, and for the West in general over the refugee and Syria crises has never been greater.

Corbyn’s stance on NATO is an insult to Labour’s past!

The Labour leadership debates thus far have been dominated by questions about electability, coups and potential splits, but in the last hustings the debate took a different turn and moved onto NATO. Jeremy Corbyn has always been lukewarm about NATO and in response to a topic controversially refused to commit to upholding Article 5: the principle of collective defence (“an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies”).

One of the reasons for Corbyn’s popularity has been his stance on foreign affairs. Corbyn was a famous opponent of the Iraq War and is a long-standing critic of military intervention of any sort. In the 2015 Labour leadership debates Corbyn claimed he could not think of an instance where he would use military force. This was a position he further advanced with these views. Corbyn stated he wanted to avoid getting involved militarily and wanted to achieve a world where we did not need to go to war.

NATO was co-founded by a Labour government led by Clement Attlee in 1949 after World War 2 around the idea of collective security. Although NATO hasn’t always guaranteed world peace it has largely been successful in its aims and has acted as a deterrent for aggressive nations. War is a last resort and all other options must be exhausted before a military solution is implemented, but we must be realistic about the world we live in. Corbyn is right that we should pursue world peace with vigour and attempt to improve relations with other countries, but is wrong to suggest we shouldn’t uphold Article 5. A refusal to come to the aid of a fellow NATO member is a dereliction of duty and is a stance which should not be compatible with being leader of the Labour Party.

The hope is this situation never arises, but if NATO is to work as a deterrent all nations need to be committed to its goals and working together. Being lukewarm about NATO will only give succour to aggressive nations. It is not a stance which is popular with Labour MPs highlighted in this article by Wes Streeting and with the general public according to a 2014 poll. Corbyn’s idealism has been praised by many but this is a step too far and has made the job of re-uniting the Labour Party all the harder.

Why Russia Want Trump to Win

The linking of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign to Russia raises questions over what Russia may have to gain from a Trump victory in the election later this year.

The answer appears obvious at first. Trump has previously praised Vladimir Putin and has suggested that the United States’ NATO allies will only be able to guarantee American protection by fulfilling their ‘obligations’ to the US under his watch. Such statements further empower Russia and fit in with Trump’s isolationist outlook on foreign policy. Should Trump be given a chance to realise this vision and scale back or withdraw existing American international commitments, it would give Russia a golden opportunity to increase its global influence.

The Russians would also undoubtedly prefer a politically inexperienced Trump to be in the White House come next January. However, the key factor behind why they would find a Trump victory preferable is China. Russia’s recent normalisation of its relations with Turkey showed its desire to continue its aggressive foreign policies of the past few years, as the normalisation allowed it increased freedom to conduct airstrikes in Syria without serious reprisal. This evidences a clear desire from the Russians to expand their influence over Eurasia. China is its biggest rival in this regard with its gargantuan population, and burgeoning economy and military might. Trump’s rhetoric toward China has been markedly confrontational. His foreign policy promises thus far include labelling China as a currency manipulator and bolstering the US military presence in the South China Seas. If successfully enacted, these policies would result in the US and China spending time and resources on countering each other as opposed to Russia.

It cannot be conclusively proven that the Russians are influencing the US election. What has been obvious for a long time however is that international order is returning to a balance of power state with no one state dominant over the international system. The US, China and Russia instead all vie for increased global influence in order to gain an advantage over one another. A Trump victory would seriously affect the balance of power in Russia and China’s favour. All that remains to be seen is whether this possibility will affect the way millions of Americans vote when they go to the polls on November 8th. The pleasing aspect for the Russians and the Chinese is the not inconsiderable possibility that it will not.

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