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Can Proportional Representation save Labour? And would that be a good thing?

Proportional Representation (PR) should not be the Left’s main demand; a “Progressive Alliance” would be terrible. But a new voting system could help the Left


The discussion around Proportional Representation (PR) is gathering steam among part of the Labour Left. The Independent reports that three-quarters of Labour members now support PR. 228 Constituency Labour Parties have signed a call for electoral reform. The call for PR has even been taken up by the left-wing faction Momentum. The current discussion has been provoked by two recent incidents.

First is the leadership election for the UNITE trade union, following the retirement of left-wing general secretary Len McCluskey. After leftist Howard Beckett withdrew, there are now two candidates from the left of the union – Steve Turner and Sharon Graham. This leads people to worry that the right-winger Gerard Coyne will slip through and win the election on a minority vote.

This is not the place to discuss the intricacies of the UNITE elections, but the election shows the danger of the First Past the Post (FPTP) system. The person with the most votes takes all, even if they are disliked by a majority of the voters. This is why many UNITE activists are calling for a Single Transferable Vote (a form of PR) in future elections.

Slump of Labour vote under Starmer

But the main reason for all the PR chatter is in reaction to “Sir” Keir Starmer continuing to lead the Labour Party into political oblivion. Two years ago, under Jeremy Corbyn, the party suffered unprecendented attacks from the press and sabotage from many people working for the party. Starmer supporters followed Tony Blair in sneering that “with any other leader, Labour would be 20 points ahead”. The results since Starmer took over have been derisory.

Just last month, there was the Hartlepool by-election, caused by the resignation of sitting Labour MP Mike Hill following allegations of sexual harassment and intimidation. Hartlepool is a working-class seat which has had a Labour MP since 1964. Any Labour candidate should have won easily – even Starmer’s choice, the Saudi-loving sexist Paul Williams.

It is very unusual for a ruling party to win a by election in a constituency that it lost in the previous general election. By elections tend to show protest votes against the incumbent government. Before Hartlepool, the government party had only ever retaken a seat in a by election 17 times – and only 5 times since the Second World War. Yet Labour still managed to lose Hartlepool to the ruling Tories.

Hartlepool was followed by Chesham and Amersham. Starmer’s apologists had said that Labour could not possibly have won Hartlepool, because prime minister Boris Johnson was benefiting from a “Covid bounce”. Yet the Liberal Democrats won Amersham with a 25% swing. Labour won only 622 votes – reportedly 2 more than the number of Labour party members in the constituency. It may be worth noting that in 2017, under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, Labour won 11,374 votes.

Since the election debacles, a number of people who should know better have been gleefully welcoming the defection of former Tory MP John Bercow to Labour. It should be pointed out that while Bercow has criticised Boris Johnson, he has not issued a single statement to say that his own politics have changed.

At the same time, these same people wilfully ignore the facts that: some Labour activists are leaving the party; others are staying in for the while but are withdrawing from activity; while other socialists are still being expelled on trumped-up charges. Even Jeremy Corbyn is still not allowed to sit as a Labour MP.

Time for a “Progressive Alliance”?

This is the background to a swath of articles in the left-leaning media, calling for a “Progressive Alliance”. This is where Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and maybe the SNP agree to stand down in elections, to enable a single anti-Tory candidate. Neal Lawson from Compass wrote in this week’s Guardian “there is no other way to stop a record fifth straight Conservative election victory, and the slide into a one-party state, than through a progressive alliance.”

Lawson’s example of a successful Progressive Alliance is the “remarkable relationship” (his words) between Tony Blair and former LibDem leader Paddy Ashdown. He also argues that “the societal challenges we face – of climate, culture, care, technology, ageing and inequality – simply can no longer be met by any single party.”

The campaigns for a Progressive Alliance and for PR are closely connected. In an editorial supporting a Progressive Alliance, the Guardian argued “Proportional representation is a way of redistributing power more fairly and encouraging consensus to be built across party lines.” Similarly, the organisation Reboot GB argues that PR “is an anchor for any Progressive Alliance”

A Progressive Alliance seems to have two main types of supporter on the Left. First there are the deluded, who believe that Lib Dems will break with the habit of a lifetime and support a full socialist platform. There is absolutely no reason to believe this. Remember that as recently as 2010-2015 the thoroughly neo-liberal Liberal Democrats were eagerly propping up a Tory government. And yet they would have the power of veto over any Progressive Alliance.

As for the social democratic nationalist parties, it is not long since Labour joined the Conservatives in the Better Together campaign aimed at preserving the Union and blocking Scottish independence. There is little evidence that Labour has moved from this position. Why on earth would the SNP or Plaid Cymru sign up to that?

Wouldn’t anything be better than Boris Johnson?

Then there are the desperate, who believe that Boris Johnson’s Tories are so qualitatively bad that anything must be better than this, even neo-liberalism lite. This view has the advantage that it acknowledges the reality of who the Lib Dems represent, and what they stand for. Note that it is no coincidence that Amersham is the 531st least deprived of England’s 533 parliamentary constituencies.

How things have changed since the heady days of Jeremy Corbyn. Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 election manifesto was both radical and popular. Labour Party membership tripled to 550,000 and between 73% and 83% of voters supported his plans to nationalise water, electricity, gas and the railways.

Even this manifesto was only possible in the face of opposition and even sabotage by a large number of Labour Party workers and a majority of Labour MPs. The idea that the Lib Dems would campaign for such a manifesto, or even allow it to come into being is a fantasy. Any Progressive Alliance depends on Labour having a programme which promises no fundamental change.

So what we are left with is a set of bland statements promising nothing more than “at least we’re not Boris Johnson”. In other words, the unsuccessful policies that Starmer has been following since he became party leader. This has not just led to a haemorrhaging of support for Labour. It also means that the many activists who were keen to campaign in 2017 will not be inspired next time round.

A “Progressive Alliance”, which handed power to the Tory enablers in the Lib Dems would reproduce the worst experiences of Starmerism, without offering voters any positive reasons to vote Labour or even giving party members a good reason why they should campaign. This will damage Labour’s vote even further.

Why now?

The current obsession with PR and “Progressive Alliances” is, at least in part, a hangover from old discussions about Brexit. A large part of the liberal-Left believed Brexit to be the most important political idea of the day. That meant that their conversation shifted away from the progressive demands in Corbyn’s manifesto.

It also caused many Labour members to seek alliances with a Liberal Democratic party, whose leader was not sure whether Gay sex was a sin, and whose 2019 election manifesto was described by the BBC as being more austere than the Tories’. This may have gone down well in the middle class clubs attended by Labour’s movers and shakers, but appalled working class voters, particularly in the North of England.

Allying with the Lib Dems was always a mistake. When Brexit was being pushed by the media as the only story that mattered, it was at least understandable. Now that Brexit no longer dominates political discussion, Labour has a chance to return to the class-based politics which caused people to enthusiastically campaign for a Corbyn government. Or, on the other hand, it can continue to cozy up to the Lib Dems.

Notwithstanding any criticism we may have of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, tens of thousands of people were enthused to go out on doorsteps to campaign for a manifesto which promised to change the world. Could we seriously expect similar excitement for an election campaign which has been approved by the Lib Dem’s hapless leader Ed Davey?

Does this mean that PR is a bad idea?

I used to be a fervent supporter of the FPTP system. We were living in slightly different times then. The Conservatives were clearly the party of Capital and bigotry. Labour – in part through its links with the trade unions, and often despite its political practice – was the party of the working class. The other parties didn’t stand for much at all, and rarely had any serious link with progressive politics, let alone class struggle.

This meant that it was generally a ‘Good Thing’ that elections were contested by the parties which represented – however vaguely – the two sides of class struggle. Even though Labour rarely implemented serious change (and when they did it was more likely to be restricting immigration than fighting racism), a Labour victory was seen as a win for ‘Our Side’. This was something which positively affected workers’ confidence to fight back.

Then a number of things happened. Perhaps most important is what has been called the Pasokification of European Social Democratic parties. This was most noticeable in Greece, but was a trend in most European countries. “Pasokification” involved social democratic parties like Labour shifting to the right as a reaction to falling votes.

In Britain and Germany we saw the Blair-Schröder paper attacking the rights of workers and the unemployed. Britain also experienced Tony Blair’s enthusiasm for the Gulf war. That led to a decreasing number of working class people identifying Labour as being “their” party. Even my mother – a lifelong Labour member – asked me who she should vote for now.

Partly as a result of this, some nationalist parties – like the SNP and Plaid Cymru – which had traditionally had fairly right wing programmes, started positioning themselves as social democrats. They overtook Labour on the Left. Other parties – like Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party or Respect – emerged, leading to the hope for a serious left-wing challenge to Labour. A main reason for their lack of success was FPTP.

Will PR save Labour? I hope not

The main argument currently used for PR seems to be that it is necessary to revive the Labour Party. Only under PR, the argument goes, will we have a chance of a Labour government – albeit in coalition with the Lib Dems. Without PR, Labour will never govern again. As Polly Toynbee argued in the Guardian, “If Labour doesn’t fight our broken electoral system, it could be out of power for ever.”

My argument for PR is quite the reverse. I want PR because I want to destroy Labour and replace it with something better. The last year under Starmer has proved the party to be unfit for purpose. Even under Corbyn, there were too many unelected functionaries who were able to block progress. Even the great 2017 manifesto was seriously flawed, with promises like 10,000 extra police.

I want a party that is more democratic, more anchored in social movements, more socialist. The problem is that, because of the electoral system, it has proved impossible to create such a party from scratch. The closest we have come to this was with the formation of the Respect party, and the election of the first MP left of Labour since 1950.

There were 2 problems with these developments. First, that MP was George Galloway, whose politics can be politely described as inconsistent. He made some great speeches against the war, but has more recently been seen palling up with Nigel Farage and urging Scottish voters to vote Tory to preserve the Union. His defence of Julian Assange against rape charges was that “not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion”.

Second, there was no serious break from Labour. Galloway was the only leading figure who moved from Labour to Respect. Most other people who opposed the war either stayed in Labour or moved into inactivity (often both). Respect aspired to be more than an electoral party. And yet its inability to win elections (with one exception) meant that it lacked the basis to become a mass party.

PR alone is insufficient

Under PR this could be different and we might see the basis for the emergence of a British SYRIZA, Podemos, or even die LINKE. We must attach several caveats to this statement. Firstly, the recent experience of all these parties shows that the formation of a new Left party is not a cure-all. Radical formations can still quickly descend into parliamentary cretinism and compromise.

Secondly: PR will not automatically benefit the Left. There is a reasonable argument that one reason that the next French President may be an outright fascist is the PR system. And in Britain, Ell Foran from Stats for Lefties estimated that UKIP, which won just one seat in the 2015 general election, would have won 79 seats under PR.

So, it would be a great mistake to advocate PR as a way of solving all our problems. PR opens an arena in which the Left can gain exposure and support. But it opens the same arena to more pernicious and dangerous forces. Merely changing the voting system is insufficient without political change at the basis.

A new party which unites the people who joined Corbyn’s Labour with the radical Left outside the party would be a massive step forward inside British politics. Yet, while I believe that parties are important for bringing activists together, without activity at the basis of society, Left parties are impotent. This means that any campaign for a different voting system must be secondary to action from below.

How can we change society?

The key thing lies in understanding how we can change society. Only this week, we have seen the unprecedented conviction of policemen responsible for the racist murders of George Floyd and Dalian Atkinson. This is testament to the ability of movements like Black Lives Matter to effect change. Similarly, the fact that the environment is on the political agenda is the result of the international mobilisations by Fridays for Future.

Even parliamentary reform is dependent on extra-parliamentary struggle. In 1974, Tory prime minister Ted Heath called a general election under the sloganWho governs Britain – the unions or the government?” Striking miners and other social movements showed Heath that it wasn’t him. The reason that Starmer’s Labour is in decline is to a large extent because it no longer has any organic link to movements outside parliament.

So, a campaign for progressive politics should not start with a demand for PR. This is not least because the implementation of PR would depend on the votes of a Tory government which is perfectly happy to profit from the current system. The best way to challenge the Tories is not by moral outrage but by building social movements which challenge everything they stand for.

If we build up these movements, other changes will follow.

Thanks to Hari Kumar, Carol McGuigan and Anna Southern for comments on an earlier version of this article.

CSD Berlin Pride

Demonstrating for LGBTQIA+ rights and diversity


CSD Berlin Pride is organising its first hybrid demonstration through Berlin on 26th June. CSD-Berlin pride sees itself as a political demonstration which gives visibility and space to the different, diverse and varied LGBTQIA+ community which has lived in Berlin for decades.

There will be three demos – East PRIDE which starts in Prenzlauer Berg, QTIBIPoC United: Reclaiming Pride in Kreuzberg and Queerschutz Now! In Neukölln. With diverse focal points and routes, we want to offer all members of the Community to sow their diversity and bid farewell to the ideas that one institution has the monopoly over the orientation of a CSD-Pride demonstration.

EAST Pride begins at 11 o’clock at the Gethsemane church in Prenzlauer Berg an evangelical service of worship and will concentrate on the lesbian and gay movement in the DDR. From 1pm, the route will pass through Danziger Straße, where the second clerical working group in East Berlin – the „Gesprächskreis Homosexualität“- was based.

The organisers of the Neukölln route Queerschutz Now want to make the desolate situation of LGBTQIA+ infrastructure visible. There will also be a focus on the situation of the T* community. This will be addressed by contributions from the club scene, culture and gastronomy.

The demo QTIBIPoC United: Reclaiming Pride is organised by actors in the QTBIPoC community. It will also start at 1pm in Kreuzberg and will focus on anti-racism and queerfeminism.

The marches will arrive at different times and places between Strausberger Platz and Alexanderplatz until 6pm. The demo is only possible under strict adherence to hygiene and distancing rules. You can find detailed information about the routes, programme and hygiene measures on the CSD Berlinpride homepage,

News from Berlin and Germany: 26th June 2021

Weekly news roundup from Berlin and Germany

Compiled by Phil Butland


Another occupied house threatened with an eviction notice

The owner of Rigaer Straße 94 wants to issue eviction orders against 3 or 4 tenants. This follows previous evictions from the same building. The house has been occupied since 1990 and is a symbol for the autonomous scene. Last Wednesday, activists erected barricades and police deployed water cannons and armoured recovery vehicles before breaking into the house. Berlin interior senator Andreas Geisel (SPD) expressed his support for the eviction. Source: Zeit

Axel-Springer group tells supporters of Palestine to find new jobs

The CEO of the Axel Springer group, which owns Bild. Die Welt and other newspapers, has said that workers who have problems with the Israel flag should find a job elsewhere. Mathias Döpfner made the statement in an international video conference with his employees. During the bombing of Gaza, the Springer press has flown an Israel flag in front of its headquarters, next to flags of Europe, Germany and Berlin. Döpfner called this “a sign of our solidarity”. Source: tacheles

Court rules that Airbnb must hand over landlord data

Airbnb must hand over data about landlords to the authorities if there is suspicion of a fake registration number. LINKE senator Sebastian Scheel celebrated the ruling, saying that “we can only differentiate between legal and illegal holiday homes if there is transparency and data requests are possible.” The case will probably now go to the higher court, and the Berlin Senate is planning new legislation to contain “touristification” of well-loved districts. Source: rbb

Nearly 350,000 votes for Expropriation

Nearly one tenth of Berliners have signed the petition for the Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen referendum. Nearly 350,000 signatures agree that private housing corporations which own more than 3,000 homes should be socialized. The campaign, which was supported by way over 1,000 active collectors has been collecting signatures for four months. The necessary quorum in Berlin is 7% of people eligible to vote – about 175,000 people. Even accounting for invalid signatures, this target has been reached despite pandemic and lockdown. Source: taz


We are talking about organised Nazis in the police”

The German police contains networks of right wing extremists and racists, including in the heavily armed special command troops. Philosopher Daniel Loick says that this is no surprize. Victims have been reporting such cases for decades. Right wing men are attracted to the claim that the special command troops are last battalion protecting Germany from extreme danger. Despite the attempt to recruit migrants to the Berlin police, the police is still carrying out racial profiling. Source: fr

Hamas flag to be banned in Germany

The CDU-SPD government fractions are united in the desire to ban Hamas flags from Germany. “We don’t want flags from terror organisations to be waved on German soil”, said the deputy CDU leader Thomas Frei. There are problems that Hamas does not have an official flag. Germany-based Israeli journalist Yossi Bartal also notes that even the Israeli politician Mansour Abbas has been photographed in front of the so-called Hamas flag. Abbas is a member of the coalition just elected to rule Israel. Source: taz

Rail union prepares strikes

The train drivers’ union, the GDL, announced that it will be balloting its members for strike action. Results are due on 9 August, and union leader Claus Weselsky is expecting more than 90% voting for strike action. Rail bosses have declared that drivers will receive no pay rise in 2021, and a 1.4% rise starting in October 2022. They also want to increase the number of shift changes made at short notice by up to 40%. Although the union has already lowered its demands, Deutsche Bahn is not budging. Source: nd

Corporations and politicians support LGBTIQ rights – but only when it costs nothing

UEFA banned Munich football stadium’s rainbow protest against homophobic Hungarian president Victor Orban. Rainbow flags were still flown from the town hall and posted in social media by politicians and corporations like BMW, Siemens and Sparkasse. But the CDU-SPD government is still opposing laws which will help LGBT people. Volkswagen is continuing to work with FIFA for next year’s World Cup in Qatar, despite the countries many human rights – including for LGBT people. Source: nd

Why “autonomous” strategies are doomed to fail

Autonomist politics are a short cut – as we can see by the experience of the German Left but also in Hamas in Palestine


I’ve already often written why I don’t regard autonomous strategies to be constructive. Here, I’m using the word “autonomous” much wider than it is generally understood. Autonomous ideas are based on the actions of a little group, which – isolated from the masses – deploys violence (and other force) against an over-powerful enemy. For me, this does not just what one today identifies with the masked autonomists, but also with “communist” groups like the RAF.

[translator’s note: the Rote Armee Fraktion / Red Army Fraction, sometimes better known as the Baader-Meinhof group, was an organisation which emerged in Germany after the decline of the 1968 movement. Despite their somewhat moralistic politics, they won the support of a significant number of German leftists. If you want to know more, see Uli Edel’s film “The Baader-Meinhof Complex”, Stefan Aust’s book of the same name, or Jillan Becker’s book “Hitler’s Children”]

As I have often stressed, I find the goals of the RAF (als part of an international anti-imperialist war at the time of the Vietnam war) to be completely legitimate. And the violence is to me benign and irrelevant compared to the violence of their enemies (who dropped more bombs on Vietnam then the whole of the Second World War, including firebombing women and children. This means that I cannot judge them morally, but I have a serious strategic criticism.

Anyone who decides to join the underground, and as a result to fight against an unassailable enemy in inevitable isolation, can never win. Even the best weaponry and education of the RAF was unable to defeat the powerful US Army – and, as became quickly clear, not even the state power of Germany. Furthermore, such autonomous strategies inevitably lead to turning away from the masses, resulting in not being able to integrate them in the movement, as an illegal group is unable to organise public stalls where they can approach normal people.

This isolation from the masses leads to a further problem. Because of the lack of feedback from the outside world, a sort of “spiritual incest” develops, in which a cadre organisation states that it is politically relevant without being able to be corrected by outsiders who report their mistakes. The result was that towards the end, the RAF developed absurd “analyses”, claiming that the German state was fascist – an assertion that many automonists hold today – through which an isolated group was able to believe that it could conquer the centralized state power. But no educated élite acting alone will be able to overthrow the capitalist state. This can only be achieved with resistance from the broad masses.

Let me go further, and extend it to groups which are not left-wing, such as the resistance against the Zionist occupation of Palestine. Exactly as with the RAF, I find the violence used by Hamas to be incomparable to that of their enemies. Palestine’s right to self-defence and resistance against occupation (including violent resistance) is covered by international law. I also find the goals of the resistance against the illegal occupation to be absolutely legitimate, even when I criticize the strategies used. Armed resistance, first from the PLO, and later from Hamas, has never achieved its goals, because even the best educated groups were never able to bring such an unbelievably militaristic, highly trained state, which was unconditionally supported by much more powerful states, to its knees,

The most recent actions of Hamas clearly show the weaknesses of their forms of action. Before the misslies were fired, there were mass mobilisations of Palestinians against the new ethnic cleansing by the Zionist colonial state in Sheikh Jarrah – that is, exactly what gives me the most hope. Hamas’s meaningless firing of missiles stabbed the mass demonstrations in the back, by driving attention away and making it easier for the Western media to talk solely about the missiles and to ignore the mass mobilisations.

Of course it is clear to me that Western politicians will always find a reason to demonise the Palestinian resistance. Even exemplary non-violent forms of action like BDS do not attract great enthusiasm (because the focus is no longer on violence but on left-wing forms of action), but on the contrary are demonised more than Hamas. But this does not change the fact that firing missiles at Israel abruptly stopped the protest and made it easier for the media to stay silent.

Injustice will never be ended by a small group – only the masses can do this. In factories with strikes, or by a reignition of the Arabic revolutions, in which democracy in Egypt offered solidarity with Palestine, and in a short period of time achieved more for Palestine than all the negotiations and resistance which came before. This resistance was drowned in blood by the mass murderer Al-Sisi, but still serves as a much better template for the liberation of Palestine.

Translation: Phil Butland

Greens plan election campaign based on “Inclusive Capitalism“

The recent Party Conference of the German Green Party shows that they are fully compliant with the needs of German Capitalism


Annalena Baerbock was wrapped in a dark green coat, in her hand two large stone tablets with ‘Ten Commandments’, which the Greens apparently want. Below the Moses display, in an advert it was written in capital letters: “why Green Commandments won’t lead us into the promised land.” This prominent ad appeared on the Friday before the Green Party Conference on the pages of the FAZ, the SZ and Zeit Online [the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Stuttgarter Zeitung and die Zeit are all major German broadsheet newspapers]. The ad had been placed by the neo-liberal lobby organisation Initiative Neue Soziale Marktwirtschaft (INSM); which is mainly financed by the metal and electronics industry. The advert achieved its goal – all hell broke out on Twitter, various newspapers took up the subject, editorial boards produced fact sheets.

At the same time large parts of the economy are anything but afraid of the Greens. The party demonstrated this spectacularly at the Party Conference, in adopting the election programme. Pragmatic, constructive, eye to eye with the boardroom, two thirds of the delegates rejected a resolution that planned a €200 increase to Hartz-IV benefits. The abolition of the Schuldenbremse (debt ceiling) similarly failed to make it into the programme, and there will be no nationalisation of real estate corporations under the Greens. A resolution to increase the top tax rate to 53 per cent was also defeated – the Conference decided a “moderate” increase to 48 per cent. The rich could breathe again. The car industry also had reason to celebrate: cars with combustion engines won’t be banned till 2030, not from 2025 as originally planned. And the defence industry was pleased to here that the Greens do not categorically rule out deploying combat drones.

Former Siemens boss Joe Kaeser gave a guest speech. The new chairman of Siemens Energy, describes himself as a “Believer in Inclusive Capitalism.” He insistently campaigned at the Conference for a ‘social-ecological market economy‘ – as an alternative to socialism. He appealed to the Greens not to miss the big chance to promote the head of the Environment department into the executive board of Germany.

Early praise from the Capital Fraction

Private banks also show no fear of Baerbock and Co for a long time. At the beginning of May, the federal association of German banks showered the following praise in Handelsblatt [a major newspaper of German big business]: the Greens are perhaps the first party to have understand that the change to a sustainable economy is only achievable with the support of the banks and the capital markets.

At the end of May, the UBS bank published an analysis of the coming General Election. A government containing Greens would be no cause for concern for investors. It would actually yield possibilities: developers of renewable energy plants would profit, as would car manufacturers with a focus on electric cars, semiconductor companies and companies providing green energy. A government coalition with the CDU would be the most likely scenario to gain support from the Euro and the deployment of certain competencies to Brussels.

With so much early praise from important fractions of capital, its not surprising that the Bundesvereinigung der Deutschen Arbeitgeberverbände (BDA) [Confederation of German Employers’ Associations] has criticised the INSM campaign. “Personal attacks and a false use of Christian imagery is not a reasonable way of dealing with the necessary competition for political content.” Apparently this is not the style of the BDA.

It seems that the INSM has not yet got the capitalist class message: the Greens and their leader Annalena Baerbock could lead German capital into the “Promised Land”, in a country where a ‘Green-varnished’ capitalism has a future.

This text was first published in German in the weekly newspaper der Freitag Reproduced with permission. Translator: Phil Butland.