Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Len McCluskey on Labour Anti-Semitism

Len McCluskey has played a blinder. Read his article for yourself. He doesn't give the impression, which he has in the past, that Labour anti-semitism is a put up job. He explicitly addresses it. Rightly, he contextualises it as an excrescence, a minority pursuit to be dug out and thrown out using the enhanced powers the party has adopted. And what he does is to give voice to the frustrations and anger rippling through the party membership about Labour's other big problem, the Parliamentary Labour Party problem.

Despite achieving in two years what it took Kinnock nine years to do (and even then got a much better share of the vote), large numbers of Labour MPs are not reconciled to Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, nor will they ever be. As noted last week, it's not a matter of a few disagreements here and there. When you have a big tent, you don't nod politely and sympathetically as folks take an axe to the supports, snip at the tethers and rip up the pegs. There is a hardcore group for whom their opposition to Corbyn is a cypher for their opposition to what Labour is becoming: a mass, democratic movement informed by and responding to the lived experience of millions of people hitherto excluded from mainstream politics. In our new, redefining, refounding party there is little room for champions of water privatisation, Labour friends of Erdoğan, enthusiasts for hospital car park charges, and self-styled practitioners of the stitch-up. They know it as well, and will do anything, anything to turn the clock back to the time when these people were feted, and their general shittiness wasn't a matter for embarrassment and shame.

This drives their exaggeration of Labour Party anti-semitism. As Len observes, it might be the case some are outraged by the emergence of anti-semitism, but it is also the case it is being talked up and used as a stick to beat the left and the Corbyn project with. They know Labour isn't riddled with anti-semites, they know that as a mass party it's bound to take in the prejudices - to a degree - from the society of which the party is part. But, appropriately in most cases, it's a scab our MPs can keep picking at. That Labour's leadership have looked all at sea at times has merely encouraged them. There are reasons for this, one being Corbyn's well known reluctance to throw long-terms associations under a bus, even if they have dodgy af views on some issues, but it doesn't matter. He could be as contrite as can be, not hang around with the "wrong Jews" any more, and get the Jewish Board of Deputies to oversee Labour's disputes panel, and it still wouldn't be enough. Because it's not about anti-Jewish racism. It's about politics. I know it, you know it, they know it, and the membership knows it.

Going from their behaviour, some have reluctantly accepted they're not going to stand as a Labour candidate ever again and so are bent on the destructive course of doing all they can to wreck the party's chances. They are doing over the party now, but they can be stopped. Their martyrdom fantasies culminate in a departure from Labour at the point maximum mayhem can be inflicted. I've said it before and I'll say it again, the membership can enforce a timetable on them by CLPs ensuring they send delegates to conference who agree with mandatory reselection - such is a suitable finish for people prepared to use anti-semitism for something as inconsequential as their dreary, unremarkable careers.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Owen Jones vs the British Media Establishment

It was January 1994 when my A-Level Sociology class got to grips with the media. I can remember learning about the discredited hypodermic model of media/audience interaction, the pluralist argument that whatever was transmitted or made it into print was there because the audience wanted it, as well as the bits and bobs of Marx and Weber around the edges manifesting as the manipulation and hegemony arguments. The first was a simplistic rough and ready view that ventured much of the media was privately owned and is therefore the conduit through which the politics of their owners were peddled to the punters. The latter was associated with the Glasgow University Media Group, who were famous for, funnily enough, their Bad News series of in-depth studies of the media. Among other things, they argued the framing of news stories and the slants they take are indicative of common backgrounds and common outlooks among senior journalists. If memory serves, yours truly got my first good mark for an essay arguing there was a relationship between the two, that papers reflecting their owners' prejudices actively hired journos who shared them.

This brings us to the case of Owen Jones vs the British Media Establishment. For saying the obvious about the press pack, Owen has been subject to a full spectrum pile-on by some of the best known politics commentators in the land. Amusingly, they spent the best part of the weekend proving his point for him. How very thoughtful. Why then has Owen's critique, known to everyone who's done a bit of sociology and media studies, driven them into apoplexy?

There are the professional myths that gird their loins. In Bourdieu's career long study of fields, he observed that the cultures of politics, of professions, of organisations, of families, of practically every set of social relationships are organised as if they are economies, and can be read in terms of the accumulation of capital specific to the field these practices take place in. For example, commenting knowledgeably on the finer points of the Russian Revolution at a Trot educational, rustling up a GBBO signature bake for RAG week, and saying at a job interview you've applied because of the "challenge", are all moves that accumulate cultural capital in those fields whether that was the intent or not. This only works if all participants buy in to the conceits that structure the field, that the stakes matter. Like 1917 having a bearing on what tiny groups of self-described revolutionaries should do in 21st century Britain, pretending those involved in RAG week truly, deeply care about charidee, and no one ever goes for a job because of the money. At some level, everyone knows the real state of affairs, but because they are so readily accepted, particularly by those utterly immersed in the fields, the behaviours and strategies that go with active participation are assimilated to one's set of dispositions and countenance - what Bourdieu calls habitus. The more cultural capital is situated in and absorbed by your habitus, the more natural you look in that field.

When you get a gig in the establishment media you too have to go through a load of rigmarole specific to it - assuming you want to advance to a well remunerated berth and be regarded as someone who matters. Writing about everything everyone else is writing about, ensuring your views remain within a scale of acceptable opinion, paying heed to and nodding toward more senior figures in the field, and so on. These inculcate a habitus appropriate to these settings, of not just conscious adherence to sets of values but getting a feel for the game, of imbibing the doxa - the unconscious premises - of the field. The unthought assumptions we've seen blown apart so many times these last few years, such as Brexit wouldn't win, Trump would fail, and Corbyn would be crucified by May are examples of the unconscious feeling that permeates and continues to condition the media field. Not a million miles away, and ultimately rooted in the doxa is what Bourdieu refers to as the illusio, or the ideology of the field. The illusio of journalism, wherever you go, is of fierce independence that speaks truth to power/tells it how it is, and are uniquely positioned to cast a dispassionate eye over the scene. Owen humbugged the high-minded ideology of the British media scene, called out the titans of political comment as nothing more than lucky recipients of social processes, and rightly criticised them for being part of an insular, privileged and out-of-touch culture.

Yet why has this riled them so much, and why now? That Owen is part of their universe and is one of its most popular and influential inhabitants has something to do with it, but renegacy only goes so far. Exposing the media field as a field like any other is one thing, but doing so at this juncture when establishment media is in crisis is quite another. They don't know their world any more, thanks to the - for them - counter-intuitive rise of Corbynism and the fall out of polarising politics, something that is barely acknowledged let alone talked about. They got it wrong and continue to get it wrong, spectacularly. And, crucially, when they know they're wrong they don't know why they're wrong. The second problem is how social media is a great leveller. Once upon a time, you'd file your article and make your report, and that would be it. Yes, perhaps a bit of fan mail would drift in but that would be all. Now, social media brings their audience and, more importantly, their critics right up to their faces. They can console themselves in having substantial followings, but when all is said and done they know they're no better, and in many cases a great deal worse, than loads of others without their platform or connections.

Last of all, and most importantly, their lofty perch is creaking in the wind. Collapsing press circulation, growing audience scepticism of the media, and the eruption of the new left blogs is stirring up anxiety. A sense of nemesis is abroad, a palpable pulse of desperation as they struggle to reassert their pre-eminence. The recent shoddy behaviour of the BBC on Newsnight, for example, makes little sense unless you factor in the controversy it was bound to stir up on social media. Likewise the vituperative attacks on Jeremy Corbyn, the barely concealed glee over anti-semitism claims, it goes on and on.

The egregious bias, the bad faith and overly partisan attacks are the spasms, the doomed squeals of a caste of "professionals" who have got found out and whose future is uncertain. Owen's real crime, and one that might cost him commissions, is to remind his "colleagues" that they're not forever, and oblivion could come knocking at any moment.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Thursday, 19 April 2018

A Case for Mandatory Reselection

Not more centre party rumours. Perhaps it's just churnalism. After all, it's not like British politics is gripped by a major scandal or anything.

Touring the debris of recent weeks, Andrew Grice riffs off anti-semitism, Syria, and the Skripals to argue that relations between Labour's "two tribes" are breaking down and that a parting is inevitable. The only chance of salvaging the situation is, apparently, if Jeremy Corbyn speaks out for MPs who were on that anti-semitism protest and recommend they not be deselected. Given some of the most awful, anti-working class and anti-Corbyn people in Labour politics were in attendance, how about "no".

Let's be quite clear about the balance of power in the Labour Party. Corbyn is strong and immovable. The unions are onside. The central administration is under the left's control. Momentum is a large, growing and inescapable presence many multiples larger than the combined strength of Labour's right, and the membership, in the main, are extremely critical of the activities of our self-described Labour rebels. They might not like Corbyn's positioning on foreign affairs, but the real reason why "the level of despair is back to mid-2016" is because they're utterly powerless. They have no strategy, no way of asserting their former dominance, and only command attention when they're pouring scorn on their leader. Small wonder the fantasy of a new centre party exercises such a pull. It's the nostalgia fever dream of what they have always wanted: a technocratic outfit sans the hideous trade unions and a membership who expect a say over how things are run.

This is not a "tribal" issue, as Andrew and tedious Westminster commentators like to style these things, but a matter of interest. Should the Labour Party reflect the lives and articulate the interests of the working class as it exists now, in 2018, or pursue the austerity-happy, business-friendly, elite-embracing strategies that have proved such a success for centre left parties elsewhere?

The sad truth is there's no reconciling with these people. This is not a broad tent issue, it's a matter of fundamentally being at odds with what the Labour Party has become and is becoming. Until they do the decent thing and follow the logic of their politics out of the party, they will use their position as official Labour representatives to attack, undermine, destabilise and wreck the party's chances. Their powers may be depleted but their access to the media is not, and they are willing participants in, as Owen notes, their efforts at delegitimising the left as a whole. And they will keep at it until, at a time they think is right for them, they'll decamp to cause maximum damage.

Enough. The membership are not powerless to do something about this. At Labour Party conference this year mandatory reselection of MPs will be debated and voted on. It's in our power to select constituency delegates who support the policy and get it through. And if we're successful, it will force the hand of the hostiles to put up, or spend the next few years scrabbling around their constituencies begging for reselection. We will see what stomach they have for opposition then. Meanwhile, we can be confident that whatever outfit they come up with isn't going to be much trouble - unless you seriously think an alliance of Blairists, Woke Soubz, and the Liberal Democrats will be a goer among Labour's left-minded electorate more so than Tory voters.

Remember, Jeremy Corbyn and the leadership have bent over backwards to accommodate the self-designated core group hostile, and at every turn they've made their contempt clear. It's about time the membership showed them their contempt as well.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

The Tory Politics of the Windrush Scandal

You don't need me to tell you what a disgrace Theresa May is. She can't be accused of mishandling the Windrush scandal, because the pain and misery caused to surviving family members is by design, not by accident. As Diane Abbott puts it, "Tory MPs and commentators who have always supported the government’s policy of creating a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants express astonishment that there is now a hostile environment." The government can try and plead ignorance, but the Home Office have been aware for years of the issues. Migrants who came here when they were little kids and have spent their entire lives working and raising families have fielded queries about their immigration status when they suddenly found themselves out of work, not eligible for social security, and denied treatment on the NHS. It wasn't picked up as a pressing issue because the Home Office doesn't care, and this indifference is baked into the immigration system by successive editorial-chasing home secretaries.

Immigration is the one topic we're "never allowed" to talk about, but it's the topic the press never shut up about. Since the war, and in some dishonourable cases long before it, the press have vilified successive waves of people coming here - Caribbeans, Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Ugandan Asians, Africans, East Europeans. They are responsible for framing migrants as "a problem", it is they who are responsible for scapegoating them for job losses and housing shortages, it is they who have powered the disfigurement of British politics by far right demagogues and hucksters, and it is they who stand responsible, along with the Prime Minister, for the disgusting abuses that are immigration detention centres and the officially-sanctioned harassment suffered at the hands of the Tory Home Office. They try and wash their hands of the misery they've caused, but it is they more than any other set of institutions who have whipped up anti-immigrant hysteria. They are the tools of divide and rule.

I'm not about to let Theresa May off the hook, though. By all accounts, when it comes to immigration sundry Tories are prepared to play cynical political games. Boris Johnson, for instance, is one of their vacant hypocrites who talks up the contributions waves of immigration have made to national life out of one side of his mouth, but carps on about controlling Britain's borders and nudge-nudge we don't want any more of the beggars here out of the other. But when it comes to the "right kind" of migrant, such as overseas students wishing to study at British universities, he and virtually every other cabinet member agree they should get special treatment and not be counted in the immigration figures. The only one who doesn't, the one who insists they too face the unremittingly hostile Home Office treatment is none other than the Prime Minister herself. For the others, anti-immigration posturing is a matter of opportunism. They're not so vulgar to actually believe it. For May on the other hand ...

No one talks about "Mayism" any more, but for a brief period between her assumption of office and calling the general election (a year ago to the very day, folks), it looked like a new hegemonic project was in the offing. i.e. A resetting of class alliances designed to buttress Conservative political dominance in the medium to long-term along with a new common sense that would be difficult to challenge and, as per Thatcherism's midwifing of New Labour into the world, ensure whatever came next would be committed to politics within the terms May sets out. However, it was a project erected on the most unstable of foundations. Her recommitment to One Nation Toryism sounded better than the dog-eat-dog idiocies of Dave and Osborne, but nevertheless its appeal was limited. Continuity Thatcher in some respects, the cut of May's authoritarian jib was never going to appeal to the newly important topographies of Britain's class landscape. Not that it mattered. After all, socially liberal youngsters never vote, do they?

You don't need to lather yourself with poststructuralist philosophy to know that a useful way of holding together a block of people is by uniting them against some alien "other". May, in her speeches about how wonderful her Britain is bound to be, waxed lyrically about insecurity. She understands, at least rhetorically, that a sense of dislocation and anxiety breeds disengagement and irreverence. To this she opposed a society (yes, there is such a thing as society) where everyone had a place and knew their place - in both senses of the term. And that means creating in-groups and out-groups. In are the fuzzily defined "British people", replete with some lip service to its multicultural and diverse characteristics. But in the outs were people who wanted to come here. May linked stability and senses of place with what we have, and made it contingent on severely limiting the numbers who might otherwise "threaten" it. Vote Leave with its "Take Back Control" slogan, which more than any other positioning won the referendum for Brexit, was seamlessly annexed to her project. Anti-immigrant Brexit voters found a willing ear and a comely xenophobic politics with Theresa May and her "team".

As such, from what May believes (yes, she does really hold a candle for this rebooted, anti-immigrant one nation Toryism) and the pragmatics of holding her declining coalition together, the Windrush families were always going to be double victims of her deliberate hostility to migrant populations. Double because her rules rendered them non-people as far as the state was concerned, and then treated them as such as they tried rectifying their residency status. None of this would have troubled her because she firmly believes you can never lose votes by being beastly to immigrants, and you can never gain them for helping them out, let alone being welcoming. Besides, the core of her coalition aren't going to care.

Not for the first time May has miscalculated. There is a hard core who won't countenance any immigration, but even among conservative layers of the population there is a residual (some might say grudging) affection for Commonwealth migrants, particularly those who arrived from the Caribbean. Unlike EU migrants and more recent arrivals, these are empire people who came to Britain because the mother country put out the call. They are, for millions of May's current supporters, part of the "in" team. To find out that they're not and have been subject to shabby treatment has certainly wounded May in their eyes - hence the apology, going cap in hand to visiting Commonwealth leaders, and trying to push the blame on to Labour in today's PMQs.

Might we be turning corner in wider attitudes to immigration? I doubt it, but there is no doubt this crisis has exposed the venality and heartlessness of May's government to many voters prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt, and that makes her already precarious position even more uncertain.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Jeremy Hunt: A Very Qualified Defence

No, I haven't lost my mind. And no, I'm not soft soaping his failure to register a 50% stake in his wife's property company. I mean, come on, who hasn't done this? Instead, it's the other story that has excited the press this last week: his expenses claim for a 27p car journey. Not only am I going to explain how such an apparently absurd claim is possible (the Indy notes another Tory MP put a claim in for 9p also), but I'm going to defend them.

The first thing to remember is MPs expenses are not what they used to be. Before the scandal blew up in 2009 the expenses system was used to supplement honourable members' incomes. There were all kinds of egregious abuses, the most notorious of which were expense submissions for duck houses and getting one's moat cleaned. In the furore following the scandal the system was overhauled and made much more transparent. Gone were the perks of getting the taxpayer to stump up mortgage payments for a Central London town house which you could then sell on for a tidy profit. Instead they started to resemble normal expenses you would incur during and at the behest of work. In the main, the £150ish thousand MPs typically claim covers office budgets. This includes staff, rent, stationery and IT, and travel. Using expenses to subsidise one's lavish lifestyle is much more difficult and can easily be called out by the transparency that has been introduced into the system. It's because of this we know the blessed Jeremy Hunt was paid his 27 pence.

Why the tiny claim, then? Is Hunt and sundry MPs that miserly? No. I recall the time my my former boss got stung for putting in a 4p claim. This wasn't because he was especially tight, rather it had to do with how the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority expects journeys to be specified when making an expenses claim. For instance, on a typical Friday he'd be picked up and conveyed to his first meeting of the day. Then he'd be off to another meeting or a morning surgery before heading back to the office. Grabbing something to eat, he would be driven to the next surgery around the corner in Stoke Library before going from there to yet another couple of meetings before a quick tea and whatever was going on that evening. Instead of putting expenses in for the total mileage, IPSA expects each journey to be broken down into legs and claimed for individually. Hence the absurdly low claims.

MPs could avoid embarrassing themselves this way, I suppose. But they are right to put in claims. In the first place, travel claims don't always go to the claiming member. In our case, Tristram was driven hither and thither by one of his staff. These were her expenses. Should modestly paid employees of Parliament subsidise their work's petrol? Absolutely not. The second, broader point, is being a MP is a job like any other. In the commission of their duties, expenses are incurred as parliamentary representatives. i.e. In work, not as private individuals. Therefore work should stump up the cash, whether it's for short hops in a car, a wreath for Remembrance Day, tea and biscuits for the office or whatever.

Work is work, and so Jeremy Hunt was entirely right to make his claim. But there is a broader point. IPSA and its expenses system is set up just for these sorts of press exposés, and to make the suggestion something dishonest and nefarious is going on. There are plenty of reasons to criticise MPs, but the present state of affairs benefits no one. It's time this farce was professionalised and the sting taken out of expenses.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Theresa May's Theatrical War

War and politics go hand in hand, which is something Theresa May certainly understands even if sundry Labour backbenchers do not. Reminding us of this was a rumour reported on by BBC Washington correspondent, Jon Sopel. He suggests that while the US led the bombing of selected targets in and around Damascus, it was actually the French and the British who were egging on an immediate response. The suggestion being that May wanted it done sooner rather than later to avoid the decision going before Parliament and risking the fate of her predecessor. This is a scandalous state of affairs if true, but one that is entirely plausible given May's unenviable track record of dodging scrutiny and having little time for the democratic niceties of Parliament. Can this be explained solely in terms of her personality quirks and leadership style? No.

Ironically, May probably would have won a vote in the Commons. Unlike the muddled Syria motion Dave brought before Parliament in 2013, the objective of missile strikes were very limited: an ostensible diminution of Assad's capacity to wage chemical warfare in the future and to demonstrate to the world that such atrocities merit a punishment beating. There are people on the government benches who are opposed to military action, but are more than matched by the 30 to 50 Labour MPs convinced strikes are appropriate (some of whom are so gung-ho it's hard to envisage circumstances where they wouldn't back a military action). May therefore didn't want to risk it. Her premiership is characterised by a play-it-safe attitude, whether before the election, during her farcical campaign, and in the shambles after - if your authority is shot only a limited room for manoeuvre remains. Dave was damaged by losing his Syria vote, but thanks to the coalition he lived to fight another day. Had May lost this vote, under the circumstances, the consequences could have proven different: she might have been out of her job.

Second, while in one respect timing isn't crucial, timing is crucial. Eh? Despite some of the idiot musings to have poured forth onto the airwaves and status updates in recent days, the bombings were not about halting a humanitarian emergency, nor was there any suggestion further chemical attacks were imminent. In May's case, it was about avoiding Parliament certainly, but had she delayed and waited for the inspectors to make their assessments, this is time where her control of the narrative could have slipped away. According to Survation, 54% believe there should have been a Parliamentary vote on military action and only a fifth endorse the bombing. That could only go up as more critical voices get more air time, and opponents of war start mobilising the numbers and wresting the conversation away from her and the Tory editorial offices. Once a few dozen CLPs had made their opinions known, some of those Labour MPs she would have had to rely on to get a vote through might not have proven so reliable after all.

Third, a short, sharp, quick intervention is a way of laying to rest the howling phantoms of Afghanistan and Iraq. Allowing Trump to gloat about the success of the strikes, of emphasising the precision character of the attacks (according to regime sources, there were only three injuries resulting from them), of curtailing public debate and speculation, May is rehabilitating the illusion of a costless war, or simulated war. Pressing buttons and causing explosions, of a rain of bombs carrying away military targets and weapons infrastructure but never civilians, this is how war in the 21st century should be - trust us and war can become painless, especially when the Russians are phoned up in advance so their personnel (and those of the regime) can get out of Dodge. It is ultimately a performative, theatrical war that gives off the impression of "doing something" to salve one's conscience and that of an imagined public when, in fact, it might be doing nothing or, worse, touching off a wider conflagration.

Will May succeed in rehabilitating this idea of war? Unlikely. Nevertheless her action alongside Trump and Macron has serious consequences. She has abrogated Parliamentary convention and returned war making to the office of the Prime Minister. She has flouted the UN Charter, and by attacking when she did May circumvented due process - the weapons inspectors hadn't even begun their investigation when the missiles flew. In so doing she has let every big power know they can flout international law with impunity, and as a consequence is helping make the world a more uncertain, if not dangerous place.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Jeremy Corbyn and the Anti-War Rightwingers

Politics sometimes makes for uncomfortable and uninvited bedfellows. Take poor old Jeremy Corbyn for instance. Since the left took over the Labour Party, we've been plagued with stories about cranks, weirds and racists taking out membership and getting spun by the media, sundry centrists and the Tories as some how indicative and typical of our party's transformation. The never-ending difficulty of "left wing" anti-semitism is a prominent case in point. Another strange group of people, who wouldn't ordinarily be seen within a million miles of supporting Corbyn's Labour are groups of right wingers. Among them you can count Peter Hitchens and sundry back bench Tories, Nigel Farage, and Arron Banks. They, like Corbyn, are opposed to military action against the Assad regime following an apparent chemical attack on Saturday. What's going on here? How can it be this bunch of anti-working class shysters find themselves on the same side as Labour's leader and the majority of left wing opinion? Are we seeing a convergence on matters of foreign policy?

Of course not.

Let's consider Jeremy Corbyn's positions on foreign affairs. He is variously characterised (if not caricatured) as someone who puts a minus wherever the government of the day, regardless of colouration, puts a plus. Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, in each case Corbyn has not just voted against bombings and war, he has via his associations with Stop the War actively campaigned against them. The official politics of StW aren't the best in my view, but this is not the horizon that limits Corbyn's positions. Clearly influenced by Lenin's approach to imperialism and the neo-Gramscian view of international relations, he understands there is a pecking order in the world with the United States at the top, and its allies/vassals each occupying a subordinate perch. With Marxists, he understands this is the key prop of a fundamentally unjust social order, and yet he differs with the Marxist position in two crucial aspects.

In the first place, Corbyn's internationalism isn't about defeatism, the idea that wars waged by big power states abroad can be turned into revolutionary openings at home. Instead he holds to a left wing but marginalised view well within established conventions: what you might call strong multilateralism. This favours strengthening international law under the aegis of the United Nations and, crucially, ensuring all states are equal before it. In practice this means the UN would acquire the trappings of a supranational state whose law, and therefore sovereignty would come above the others. The second string to Corbyn's bow is his pacifism: the simple but straightforward view that war is almost always wrong. Therefore Labour's position on Syria remains one of a negotiated solution followed by institution building, just as it would be for virtually any other live conflict or flashpoint. Naturally, Marxists armed with their theories of imperialism, of core and periphery nations, or the emergence of a decentered 'Empire' of diffuse and multiplying sovereignty would regard this as muddled and utopian. Perhaps it is, but the fusion of a Marxist understanding of global political economy and power politics, combined with pacifism and a stress on international law makes up Corbyn's strong multilateralism. It is what it is.

This is opposed to the dominant approach in the foreign policy establishments of the Western powers, and the armchair warriors of pundit planet: liberal interventionism. It pays lip service to the salience of international law and the UN - when it suits - but calls for military action, either by a coalition of nations or by the US as guarantor of the international order, on the grounds of egregious human rights abuses and/or violations of democratic norms. Consider, again, responses to Syria and Venezuela, for example. Note, this is how liberal interventionism presents itself. In practice, it is more often than not a justification for the playing out of power political moves. The build up to Iraq, of course, saw this hypocrisy displayed to full effect. For all the homilies about human rights, democracy and so on the occupying powers set up a corrupt, sectarian state whose stupid oppression later facilitated the rapid take over of huge chunks of its territory by a few thousand Islamists. Their rhetoric of freedom was belied by their looting of Iraq's oil industry and ensuring reconstruction contracts, coincidentally enough, went primarily to American and British companies.

All very well, but what has this got to do with our "pacifistic" right wingers? There are two strands here, one I'm certain patrician(ish) Tories like Hitchens share: the well worn Tory scepticism of grand schemes. Interventionism in its Blair/Cameron guise thinks you can build democracies by dropping bombs on people, of using munitions to blast the slate clean and starting over with an off-the-shelf constitution and a timetable for parliamentary elections. Critiquing liberal interventionism might be informed by democratic assumptions, or colonialist ones (they're not "ready" for democracy). Overlapping with this is the self-styled "realist" approach to foreign affairs. That is what matters in the world are Britain's interests, not principles or commitments to supra-national outfits like the EU and the UN. As far as Hitchens, Banks and Farage are concerned they are not convinced that Britain's interests are served by getting more tangled in the Syrian civil war, nor by ratcheting up the tension with Russia. For them, with Brexit looming, Britain's interests (which is synonymous with their interpretation of its commercial and big power interests) should be focused on trade deals and renewing its "romantic" ties with the Commonwealth in a 21st century retread of Lord Beaverbrook's desire to transform the ex-empire into a free trade area. They are not opposed to the unilateral exertion of Britain's military power, they have merely set their face against it in this instance.

What we are seeing then is not a convergence of views, but a momentary coincidence of them. Whatever you think of Corbyn's position, his is based on addressing the injustice and global imbalances of the international order by introducing strong regulation via the UN. This is anathema to the "anti-war" right for whom all that matters are British interests, however they define them. To pretend that they share the same position is intellectually vacuous posturing - a position, one might say, specifically contrived to avoid having to engage with the substance of Corbyn's critique of international relations, let alone its more consistent embodiment of liberal, internationalist and social democratic values.

Monday, 9 April 2018

The Grim Reality of Making Peace in Syria

There is a sickness at the heart of British politics. As readers know, there was an apparent mass casualty chemical weapons attack on Douma in Syria - another grim episode in a civil war showing few signs of petering out any time soon. Surely most political people spared a thought for the victims, before thinking about what to do next. According to Boris Johnson, reports of the attack should be investigated and on the basis of said investigation the perpetrators be held to account. Labour's statement says exactly the same thing, sans the ritual denunciation of Russia but holds out for concrete steps to be taken to restart peace talks. That seems quite sensible to me, but that's only if you're, you know, interested in finding a way out of this appalling conflict. Unfortunately, not everyone is of the same view.

Take the always ridiculous Sajid Javid, for example. He sees dying children, he sees Labour's press release, and he says it "could have been written by the Kremlin". Likewise, the media have taken the same tack - this HuffPo article chimes in, claiming Labour's position - which is the same as the government's position has been "widely condemned". The proof of the breadth of this condemnation was, um, Javid's tweet. It's almost as if "get Jeremy" has become the overriding cause of British politics, and no matter what the issue is it has to be spun to blame Corbyn. I bet even Johnson's congratulating the anti-immigrant and, yes, anti-semitic Viktor Orban, the re-elected Prime Minister of Hungary, is somehow Corbyn's fault. Absurd normally, but in Syria's case, to reduce a vile atrocity in a brutal civil war to Westminster knockabout is despicable.

Nevertheless, while not for one moment conceding ground to Tories and Labour's own B52 Bevanites, it's not difficult to understand the frustrations many people have about Syria. The country is a charnal house on the doorstep of Europe, periodically commanding the news with grisly war crimes and constantly, consistently supplying endless stories of misery that don't capture headlines and attention, but is nevertheless there. Every now and then up pops someone to remind us that not intervening in wars is not without costs, as if they're the only ones to have had this epiphany. Of course, Britain is not not involved already in Syria. Special forces are in the field, the UK set about bombing IS targets in Syria and Iraq with alacrity, and British drone attacks have been made against regime targets. There are also the arms it has sent to various opponents of Assad, not all of whom are secularists, let alone democracy-loving liberals. And it has not used its good offices to rein in Erdogan's Turkey, for whom the Syrian civil war is an opportunity to continue its filthy war against the Kurds. What then is the balance sheet of Britain's intervention so far? Has it made peace more likely, or exacerbated the conflict?

But let's take the interventionist objection head on. Yes, not engaging in full-on intervention has its costs. We see it everyday in the news reports. Yet what is the alternative? Had the West intervened Libya-style before the Russians got involved, Assad would not likely have lasted five minutes. But the long occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq cast their shadows over Western military action. And besides, had America, Britain and France bombed the regime into a richly deserved grave, the Islamist militias - including the black reaction of Islamic State would have benefited. Rather than having eastern parts of Syria under its control, it could have encompassed much more - including Damascus. Getting them out of Mosul and Raqqa wasn't an easy task, and having to deal with them in this scenario would have cost greater quantities of blood and treasure.

That was then, but now "punishing" the Assad regime means going up against its backers in Moscow who, for domestic political reasons, cannot be seen to back down. War with Russia is unlikely, but not impossible. The potential is there for a wider conflagration and the prospect of even more destruction and death. Though it is worth noting how despite repeated atrocities covered for by Russia, the British government remains strangely reticent about pursuing sanctions that would really bite the Putin government hard. Russia may be a vast country, have a large population, and a powerful military backed by nuclear weapons, but in economic terms it is roughly the size of Italy. That the Tories hardly countenance the damage this could cause and therefore the pressure it would exert, especially in conjunction with others, and their recent skirting around sanctions with regards to the Skripal affair, this begs the necessity for some very serious questions.

There is an alternative to squaring up against Russia or doing nothing. It's difficult, it would probably see some pretty loathsome people go unpunished, and will in all likelihood keep a murderous dictator in power. And that is the suggestion made at the end of Labour's press release, that instead of throwing our hands up or indulging sweaty 1980s Cold War fantasies the West starts thinking about what it can do to promote a peaceful, negotiated end. Not a temporary ceasefire here or there, but one recognising the realities of the conflict on the ground and the significant bar against escalated Western intervention. Like I said, it might taste like ashes in the mouth, but in the absence of any viable alternative course of action, what else can be done?

Sunday, 8 April 2018

The Centre Party Delusion

When your idea is universally pooh-poohed, chances are it isn't a very good one. Such is the announcement of the imminent (still) birth of yet another centrist party, vying for the mantle of mild social democracy while being for "entrepreneurship" and "immigration controls". Sounds pretty much like the Labour Party under Ed Miliband, and we all know how that turned out.

In theory. at least according to the venerable Andrew Rawnsley, he opines that there is what you might call an "objective" constituency for such a party. Polls show high numbers of 'don't knows' when asked to pick between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. Apparently, 45% of people think there needs to be a new centre party, and some 56% believe existing parties don't represent them. Rather than auguring the dawn for a rejuvenated centre, these can mean all kinds of things. After seeing the collapse of the Liberal Democrats over the course of the coalition government, it is quite possible large numbers of people *did* see the need for a new centre party (this figure is from 2015) once the existing one became a busted flush. That doesn't suppose they would be prepared to support it. Likewise, poll after poll shows that the majority of the electorate define themselves as being in the political centre. Not because they identify with Labour melts and Tory wets but, sadly, not a great many people are au fait with the difference between left and right and so identifying yourself as centre is non-committal and sensible without letting on your ignorance. Face it, if you were uninterested in politics would you take the time to understand the gradations of difference between left and right?

And then we have the issue of representation itself. There are large numbers of people who believe there isn't a party for them because none 100% agree with them, and/or do not talk about the things they believe are important. Here is why the pull of Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn has proven so powerful, because they articulate outlooks that were/are excluded from the political mainstream. Thinking about exclusion now, in 2018, Corbynism has pulled in large numbers hitherto outside the mainstream politics game, while the collapse of UKIP into the inconsequential has taken one party identity away from millions of voters. Yes, they might find succour with the Tories, but that doesn't mean they identify with them. As Paula Surridge points out, it's the "authoritarian" voters (particularly those who are left wing, economically speaking) who are under-represented. Think they're game for a touchy-feely/immigration-bad/free-market-good "centre" party?

When you're in Westminster, or at the top of the business/third sector tree like our network of guilded centrists with £50m to burn, it can appear as if the only politics that matters is what happens in the chamber, the committee room, the lobby, the editorial offices, the broadcast studios and the think tanks. Indeed, this is why the post-Brexit coup against Jeremy Corbyn failed - because the PLP majority bought into the illusion that only they mattered, while his base was in the wider party: the membership and the trade unions. From this point of view, having sympathetic MPs, journos and think tankers on side, a policy platform, full-time "researchers" and cash in the kitty, this simulacrum of a party can appear a real goer to its wealthy backers.

What they don't understand, what most in and around politics fail to understand is that politics is a social phenomena, it'd about relationships and interests. Parties are machines, but they cannot simply be called into existence as per one's accountant conjuring up a shell company when taxes are due. Parties become successful because they articulate demands that chime with the experiences of large numbers of people, and they don't do it just the once, it has to be repeated day in, day out. The Conservatives and Labour are the top political dogs in Britain because of their roots in the most salient relationships in which a society like our depends: the wage relationship, and what they have to say speaks in a variety of ways to the collective experiences of millions. When Labour and Social Democratic parties "forget" where they're from, they begin actively disorganising the class base they organised in the first place, and more often than not fall apart. PASOK, Scottish Labour, the French Socialist Party, the Dutch Labour Party, the SPD - how many more dead and dying parties will it take before self-described centre lefts notice how common actions have common consequences?

Talk of new centre parties are among Westminster's most frequently indulged fantasies, because self-described centrists have nowhere to go and no strategy to get them out of their hole. The LibDems are barely viable, May panders to her cracked hard right, and now members expect more of MPs and expect them to be accountable, life inside Labour is chafing. If only centrists could have the politics they deserve! In the unlikely event of a new outfit attracting big names, it will be shortly before the next general election and will launch with the express purpose of grabbing enough votes from Labour to prevent it from forming a government. Fancy the sound of such a scenario? I pity you. If this is where your bewilderment toward and hate of the resurgent left is taking you, why not do the honourable thing.