Friday, 27 May 2016

Local Council By-Elections May 2016

Number of Candidates
Total Vote

* There was one by-election in Scotland
** There was one by-election in Wales
*** There were six Independent clashes
**** Others this month consisted of Pirate Party (26 votes), All People's Party (46, 64, 22, and 25 votes), An Independence from Europe (77 votes), BNP (73 votes), NF (14 votes), Loughton Residents' Association (659 votes), and Yorkshire First (131 and 133 votes)

Overall, 198,433 votes were cast over 83 local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. 18 council seats changed hands in total. For comparison with April's results, see here.

Well, what a month that was. Let's get the caveats in first. While this is superficially an excellent result for Labour, the by-elections rolled over into super Thursday were mostly in safe(ish) Labour areas. In total it picked up seven seats, but lost another three elsewhere. The Tories didn't fare well in wards they were never going to fare well in, but despite the losses (11 were lost with four gains) they did up their vote-per-candidate average - no mean feat in unfriendly territory.  Annoyingly for the LibDems but happily for UKIP, the latter's year-long run of conceding third place came to an end. There was only 400 votes in it, though by-election watchers will note the yellows only came close to the purples thanks to fielding more candidates. Here UKIP managed to gain three and lose three seats.

Sticking with UKIP for a moment, considering the character of the wards fought in this round of by-elections, according to the Jon Cruddas theory that the purples are breathing down Labour's neck in its core areas here, at least, doesn't stack up. Labour took seats from them on this occasion and as for the wider results, they were and have since been (wilfully?) misinterpreted and misread. Despite the testimony from Labour/UKIP switchers, there is little to suggest UKIP are polling significantly more than the 'natural' working class anti-Labour vote. But more on that another time.

Overall a bumper crop. I understand at least 14 by-elections are scheduled for June. With a smaller sample there are few things that can be said, but unless a bus brings this blog to a premature end they'll get covered anyway.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Secret Life of the Human Pups

Ah, the rich tapestry of human existence. Channel 4 has previously leered at dogging, and taken a voyeuristic peek behind the doors of exclusive sex parties. Polyamory, elderly sex workers, German brothels are also recent topics of late night tabloid telly. Who and what next? The commissioning editors must have thought long and hard before before coming up with ... human dogs.

No, I'm not talking about dogs who want to be human (doesn't that encompass all dogs anyway?). It's the other way round. Human beings, grown adults acting and performing like canines in dog suits. This is a subset of the Otherkin subculture, a group that identifies with mentally, spiritually, and where possible, physically with non-humans. These can be the fantastical, like elves, dragons, vampires, angels, and whatnot. Or the mundane, like cats, dolphins, and ... dogs. Most are happy to live out their identified species in groups of the like-minded where they can roleplay and suchlike. Puppy play, with its structure of handlers and pups grew out of the BDSM scene - hence why the dog outfits featured are basically fetish wear.

Secret Life of the Human Pups begins with Tom from Hertfordshire who, thanks to his doggy alter ego, Spot, won Mr Pup UK at a very alternative version of Crufts last year. This qualifies him for the Mr Puppy Europe competition in Antwerp to try and win the title of Europe's 'top dog'. As Spot, every spare moment is spent as a dog chasing puppy toys and curling up in his cage. As you might expect, this hasn't come without a personal cost. While she supports his alter-ego, Tom's ex-fiance Rachael makes it very clear throughout the programme that she would like their relationship to get back on track should he tire of being a dog. In the meantime, she's happy because he's happy, and he has no intention of putting his canine side to sleep.

The pups are one side of the subculture. The other are the puppy handlers. These are typically men (like the pups themselves) who provide opportunities for play, "training", and so on. The relationships sometimes are but not always conventionally intimate/romantic. The impression is given that the handlers are the ones that organise the subcultures. Kai, for instance, is in charge of online community pages (he estimates there are around 10,000 pups in the UK) and arranges the occasional meet up. Andy has six pups in his "pack" and says for him it's about creating a family, as well as being able to guide and shape young minds. He is also responsible for monthly meets. You are also left with the sense that despite its roots in the BDSM scene and reliance on fetish wear, the British community at least is not heavily sexualised. It has moved to centre on "head space", on concentrating on being and presenting as a dog.

This contrasts strongly with Europe. The footage from the Mr Puppy Europe competition in Antwerp leaves little doubt that this is a big part of the continental scene. From doors emblazoned with the legend "Warning, puppies in heat", to semi-naked blokes on leads, to raunchy competitive routines between pups and their handlers, Tom's/Spot's no-sex-please-we're-English routine perhaps cost him the top spot. But still, coming second he did better than the last 18 years of UK Eurovision entries.

In between there's a few snatched moments chatting with Chip, Bootbrush, Silver, Kaz, Pan Pup, and Dynamo, pups who provide little snippets about the life, and there are big recurring themes. The main one is putting aside anxiety and social convention and just being. As Chip put it, we have to be civilised and live within the boundaries of what it means to be human. As a pup he can throw that aside and become animalistic, but also be more sociable and playful without convention intervening. Likewise, Dynamo suggests that disproportionate numbers of pups have high pressure jobs and this is a form of escapism. This is hardly surprising. In fetish and S&M cultures, power play is central (indeed, a debate about sexual ethics once caused a Trot group to split). The appeal of being submissive is giving up control and subordinating one's body and sensations to the whims of another, and this can manifest itself in all kinds of ways. The Miss Whiplash trope beloved of 80s and 90s tabloid editors is the most conventional way of thinking about this, but it goes beyond someone getting tied to a post for a thrashing - for some it's a letting go of social mores and expectations and being governed by the pleasure over the reality principle, even if (depending on the context) that might involve some (eroticised) pain. The same kind of understanding applies here. Freud noted that we're born polymorphously perverse, as a bundle of desires that demand immediate satisfaction. As the infant matures into childhood and adulthood these instincts are tamed and we become beings capable of functioning in large, complex societies. Desires are repressed but constantly bubble up from the unconscious and can, in some cases, cause mental illness. Leaving aside debates about Freud, dogs are, if anything, four legged iterations of the id. They sleep when they want. They engorge themselves on food. They take pleasure in the most disgusting activities, and they're perhaps even more sex obsessed than their human masters. Framed in this way, as creatures that are mostly left to indulge every impulse and pleasure, you can see why being a dog might hold that escapist appeal.

As an escape, puppies differ from its Otherkin kin. The usual narrative of non-human identifiers tends to evoke mysticism and cross-species spiritualism (and cross-dimensional in the case of fantastical creatures) to interpret their desires to have pointy ears or take flight with a set of feathery wings. The relationship between their human and puppy selves presented here appears to be more contingent and less deep-rooted, at least in how they are presented.

The second interesting aspect to this is the pup subculture is almost entirely male, and that isn't because the men involved are mostly gay. Noting this, Kai suggests it's because women who move into pet play tend to prefer being kittens. I suppose one explanation is the well-worn gender typing of dogs and cats as embodying masculine and feminine traits. That can't be all of it though. Again, going from pups' testimony there is a bonding element to this. Masculinity is changing, but in its hegemonic forms at least the possibilities of intimate but non-sexual relationships between men remains circumscribed. Bonding over and fixating on traditional male pursuits largely remains the order of the day. Something like pup play transgresses this. For the handler, it allows for an exploration of a caring role vis a vis his pups, and for the pup themselves to experience being the object of care by another man. Similarly with the pup meet ups, it allows for a degree of physicality, of touching and being affectionate toward and with other men without triggering complex anxieties around sexuality and propriety - the rules of normal (gendered) human interaction no longer apply and new intimacies "not allowed" by conventional masculinity become possible and are accepted by participants.

There's always a danger with this sort of programme of pointing and laughing - we'll have to see what Gogglebox makes of it. But apart from the sub-salacious subject matter, Secret Life of the Human Pups raises interesting questions about social conventions that go beyond pups and their handlers. If, to paraphrase and twist our bearded German friend, there are groups of people who find solace not just in their animal functions, but in being actual animals, then something is severely lacking in our society if we can't find ourselves as thinking, feeling, sensuous human beings.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Paul Mason Vs Peter Taaffe

I missed this when it appeared on The Daily Politics back in April. What's interesting (or not) about the discussion between Paul and the eternal general secretary is how they talk past one another. Peter puts forward the arguments he's repeated for the last 52 years, and Paul trots out (forgive the useless pun) his networky/counterpower/Negri stuff and neither engages with the position of the other. If the left can't even properly talk to itself, how does it expect to persuade larger numbers to rally around its politics?

Friday, 20 May 2016

Lidia Isac - Falling Stars

Only 51 weeks until the Eurovision Song Contest! Ah, what a fantastic event this year's competition was. "Quality" isn't a word you often see parsing Eurovision, but it has come a long way since the unlistenable 80s and there were many solid entries. Ukraine, Russia, Israel, Bulgaria, even jolly old Blighty threw something good into the mix. Sadly, one that didn't make the cut is Falling Stars from Moldova's Lidia Isac. In retrospect my favourite from this year's crop, it's an Ibiza-friendly poppy dance tune with a few trancey undertones. Perfect for sharing on an otherwise blog-free Friday night!

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

On Tory Weakness

British politics has taken a turn for the worse of late, but let's not forget its settled, normal status is weird. Today's Queen's speech - the outline of "her" government's legislative programme for the coming year - is a case in point. In the thinnest of gruel, which we will come to sift through for juicy morsels shortly, we had the bizarre spectacle of a 15th century relic promising space ports, autonomous cars, and more drones. I'm not sure this is what old Trotters had in mind when he wrote about combined and uneven development. Weird.

The mainstream have had all afternoon to pore over the speech and the jolly Commons back-and-forth about it. Everyone knows it's a slim document so Dave can concentrate on the EU referendum, so push a few eye-catching, future-facing, and largely uncontroversial policies to the front and spend the rest of them time thinking of ways of scaring people to vote remain. It's also the case that this is a government on the ropes. As Jeremy noted rather wryly this afternoon, given the multiple climb downs of recent months, there's little point committing to extensive timetables when uncertainty governs the chances of getting new legislation through. Which probably explains why the so-called British Bill of Rights, a real boondoggle if there ever was one, was present in name only, and the government's academy plans are back in watered down form.

On top of this, there's a few concessions to prison reform, the "right" to broadband and, bizarrely, a requirement that all porn websites verify that their viewers are over 18. Um, how? The sugar tax is in, as is the "repatriation" of the paltry sums foreign visitors "take out" of the NHS. More help for adoption (welcome), and a greater extension of internet surveillance (not so welcome). Absent from today's speech but sure to make itself felt further down the line are government proposals to accelerate the costs of university. Coming in the week the UCU announced strike action and action short of strike in response to a derisory 1.1% pay proposal by the employers, HE is set to be the next big battleground.

While this programme is thinner than Dave's skin, it can't all be down to wanting a quiet life while the referendum campaign trundles on. The truth is the Tories are knackered as a political force. They're out of ideas, falling to bits, and their decline carries on despite winning last year's general election. And this weakness is reflected in their tribulations trying to get legislation through this last 12 months. The problem the Tories have is to successfully implement policy, they need to have a coalition behind them to back them up. This coalition is typically drawn from business elites, sections of the public sector and the media, and descend into its support that loyally turns out at elections. See how these interests have publicly coalesced around the remain campaign, for example. Unfortunately for Dave, he was able to cobble together an alliance of convenience for the general election, but that barely extended into his second term. This lack of a supporting coalition is sowing division in the Tories far beyond the EU fault line. Divisions have opened over tax credits, disability cuts, academisation. It's likely to carry on as future hot buttons glow with the heat of controversy.

Related to this is the Tories lack strategic nous vis a vis wider society. Thatcher had it. When she took on the labour movement, it was in a series of set pieces that saw the government battle individual opponents one at a time. When Liverpool City Council demanded funds, Thatcher stumped up. When the dockers and the pit inspectors threatened action, the government quickly and generously settled. Blair took this lesson on board and avoided set pieces entirely (which he mostly did), preferring to either contract out disputes or nibble around the edges in a series of very small hit-and-runs on pension schemes, retirement ages, working hours, and so on. These lessons have been unlearned by the present lot and in their stupidity court multiple disputes simultaneously. As far as they're concerned, society is so much Play-Doh that can be twisted and cut into whatever shapes they desire. In truth, the social is an agglomeration of individual and collective actions and actors working toward real and imagined interests. They have a movement, a weight, and trajectories that head in certain directions. As much as some Tories dream of rolling back welfare to pre-Beveridge days, undoing the NHS, and stuffing the labour movement below stairs the force of social necessity prevents them. Doing so requires that "backroom" governing coalition, political will and determination, a willingness to openly deploy the forces of the state, and the copious use of officially-sanctified violence. Of course, we're nowhere near that situation now, but in abutting against collections of interests far less powerful than those Thatcher defeated and ruined, the Tories have had to retreat. They are hemmed in by social necessity and can do comparatively little.

When we say the Tories are useless, that's no longer a statement of judgement: it's a factual description of their predicament. This isn't to suggest they can no longer do damage to the social fabric and lives of our people - a smarter, more strategic approach to policy implementation could give them a little more wiggle room. But once the EU referendum dust settles, whoever is left standing will find their programme stymied at every turn. Our movement may be weak, yet in slightly different but important ways, so is theirs.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Jeremy Corbyn's Speech to Progress

In yet another example of the lion laying down with the lamb, last Saturday say Jeremy Corbyn deliver a keynote speech at Progress conference. Yes, read that again. Jeremy Corbyn. Keynote. Progress conference. Debate rages whether it's broken, but everyone can agree that politics has definitely got weird. That speech then, yes. Not a great deal was said, and all was pretty cordial. The questions at the end were polite and business-like. No one attempted to be a hero or went nuclear or anything like that, and for his part Jeremy gave the kind of speech few, if any, on the left could disagree with. You can find an overview of it here.

There was, however, something of interest buried in the subtext. As I've argued before, Labour is part of a movement and for its continued health and electoral success it first has to be conscious of the its roots in particular constituencies, and use whatever influence it has to build up their strength, cohesiveness, and social power. This is something a great many in the PLP have forgotten (some of them purposely) or were never aware of in the first place. Jeremy's speech to Progress was a reminder of this. Accepting the pointless Progress mantra that Labour exists to win elections (pointless, because even those with the dimmest awareness of conventional politics knows it's about votes and voting), Jeremy set out how progressive Labour policies become embedded and long-lived because the labour movement takes them, makes them work, argues for their deepening, and defends them from rollback. And that movement through its deep roots in wider society and its pushing the interests of working people fuels Labour and powers it along. This is the ABC for politics rooted in the experience of the class that must sell its ability to work for a living, a revelation to those whose politics would rather pretend this isn't the case.

There are a couple more points about this as well. From the standpoint of pro- and anti-Jeremy forces in the Labour Party, this was a master stroke for both sides. For Jeremy as he continues to signal, after the local and devolved election results, that his kind of politics needs to build a coalition that goes beyond core voters plus habitual abstainers. It's a soft power move, effectively. And for Progress it's an indication to its support that they're pulling back from the hard, openly hostile position to one that is more quiet, more long-term, and one that engages with the programme while slowly extending its influence. There will still be a few MPs who shout their mouths off, but it is interesting how since the New Year those same MPs are starting to look more isolated and, well, obsessed.

There is a school of thought on the left (which finds a mirror on the Labour right) that Jeremy shouldn't bend over backwards to accommodate the right. They're never going to reconcile themselves to the democratic wishes of the party membership, and are forever destined to play a disruptive and counterproductive role. It's best they be allowed to split off and waltz into SDP-style oblivion. While all this is true and likely to prove itself time and again over the next few years, the idea of resolving it in this way is utterly ridiculous. Labour is a party of labour as it is, and finds expressed within it the outlooks, prejudices, and sectional interests of all kinds of occupations, ranging from the unskilled to the professional. The main and ongoing political crisis affecting labour as a whole are the multiple processes undermining the building of collective strength. The party's greatest strength (as well as its chief weakness) is it represents another arena in which these groups articulate their interests and assists in the process of becoming more than just a variegated collection of otherwise isolated and atomised workers. When rebuilding the power of labour so it's fighting fit for the awful challenges this century has in store, agitating for a left split or the expulsion of the right will not open the path to mass radicalisation. It's a recipe for tearing our movement apart and throwing back the necessary political work of organising ourselves in the present difficult circumstances.

In short, Jeremy was right to go and schmooze with Progress not just because it's good factional politics, but also he instinctively wants to, and is working toward, preserving our movement.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

After having it on the shelf for many years, I've finally got round to reading The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. It's a socialist classic every bit as vital and necessary as the more celebrated The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell. As such, I'm not going to give any spoilers away, as much as one can spoil a book that's knocked around for 110 years. But I will make the case for you to read it.

It follows the tribulations of Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant to the United States. Lured then as now by the promise of work and high wages, his illusions are quickly dashed as he settles into Packingtown (Chicago's New City district). Bringing with him an extended family, it is a remorseless tale of woe in which tragedy is heaped on misfortune piled upon yet more tragedy. It is a story of how working for the city's meat packers is fraught with precarity, exploitation, alienation, and destitution. As the book works through, circumstances and skulduggery break the family, break self-respect, and break the human spirit. Jurgis's career has him as a meat packer, a hobo, a beggar, a footpad, a political fixer, a scab, and finally achieves a redemption of sorts via socialist politics.

What can readers take away from an old propagandist novel aimed at early 20th century audiences?  Firstly, there is the burning sense of grievance. It's not the blind operation of the market serving Jurgis and his family a diet of misery. At each moment, the invisible hand has its strings pulled by the plotting of the beef trusts, the rigging of the city's politics and legal system, the criminality of capital's lieutenants, the corruption of union activists, and the calculations made to maintain this state of affairs. Injustice radiates off the page - only the most stone-hearted could fail to be moved. And what stirs is that the tyranny, cruelty, and brutality of the packing houses doesn't belong in the history books. It's in the semi-criminal factories and warehouses stuffed with migrant labour, legal and otherwise, across the advanced countries. It's the lot of the millions crammed into China's "special economic zones", of the Bangladeshi garment worker, and Brazilian child labourer, all the members of our class who continue to bear the crushing load and grinding iniquity of capital in circumstances not at all removed from The Jungle's meat packers.

There's something here for accelerationism. Early on, Sinclair relates the elaborate organisation of the vermin-infested meat packing plant, from the conveyor belt of cattle and pigs through the process of killing, cutting, boiling, freezing, packing, and the disposal of leftovers. Even the scamming, the strategies of waylaying the food standards inspector, the cutting and selling of winter ice from the stagnant waste pond, all are the fruits of scientific management techniques. In the whir of industrialised slaughter, each man, woman, and child is a cog whose activity is absolutely determined by the momentum of machinery driven by the maximisation of all possible profit. It's a regimented ordeal captured with a sense of horrified wonder, of how an enterprise can be so ingenious, so stupendous, and yet so inhuman. The Jungle isn't as pithy as Marx's praise and condemnation of capital in The Manifesto, but Sinclair's praising of the packing industry as a means of burying it has a rhetorical force rare even among radical literature.

If there are downsides to The Jungle, I think the party scene of the first chapter is out of place. And the final section of the book, where Jurgis is introduced to socialist politics, could come across a touch preachy (indeed, Sinclair himself later disowned it). But for comrades new to socialism, especially the more enthusiastic Jeremy supporters, this is vital reading. Like the experience of the newly radicalised, the scales tumble from Jurgis's eyes as the story of his life finally makes sense. He's seized by the zealotry of the convert and attempts his damnedest to recruit family members and acquaintances. Yet he's mystified that others cannot see what he sees, despite going through the same backbreaking, soul-shattering traumas. This teaches him patience and gives the book chance to explore the psyches of those resisting the socialist proposition. This is an ideal primer for the frustrations of radicalism, and is one I could have done with when I was an annoying 18 year old.

Publication was met with a ferocious scandal around food hygiene and adulteration, and new standards legislation was imposed on the beef trust. As Sinclair put it at the time, "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach." While this was a happy, if unintended consequence, The Jungle's radical edge is yet to be realised.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

What is Leanne Wood Playing At?

Plaid Cymru. They're a nice party, aren't they? Leanne Wood's a good lefty sort who found a niche for herself in British politics as Labour's external leftwing conscience, especially in the days of Blair and Brown. More radical than either Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, a lot of Labour folks had a soft spot for her even when the aforementioned would have many of the same spitting feathers. And as a party, Plaid weren't that threatening. We compete with them here and there, but there was and remains little sense that they're about to do an SNP and give Labour a routing. Even after they took the Rhondda. Well, today will go down in political history that the warm indulgence conferred upon them by Leanne's many admirers came to an end. Left wingers who took Plaid's promises at face value and gave them a punt because Carwyn Jones's Welsh Labour wasn't politically virtuous enough are set to repent.

In what was to be a formality this afternoon to swear in the First Minister, Carwyn put himself forward to lead a minority Labour government. But the chamber had a bit of a surprise. He found that Plaid had hatched a deal with UKIP and the Tories to oppose the conferment. The result was a tie, 29 votes for Carwyn, and 29 votes for Leanne. That's right, the "socialist" leader of Plaid Cymru came within an inch of taking power at the head of a green/blue/purple coalition. Let that sink in for a moment. An arrangement with the Tories, who Leanne has repeatedly (and rightly) criticised for their attacks on our people, and their indifferent dithering over Port Talbot. And an association with UKIP, who previously Plaid had denounced as a party "based on division and the scapegoating of vulnerable people", and whose leader was attacked as "the voice of the far right". And yet, here Leanne is, breaking bread with Welsh UKIP leader Neil Hamilton (Neil Hamilton!), Mark Reckless, and five other purple people bleaters. We all know about the lion lying with the lamb, but Plaid blocking with the most vociferous opponents of anything faintly whiffing of progressive politics?

Let's give PC the chance to explain themselves. According to the BBC, Plaid maintain that this afternoon's shenanigans are all Labour's fault (of course). Because the majority of the Welsh electorate didn't vote for Labour, then it's rather presumptive of the party to try and govern alone. It should have reached out to others in the chamber (i.e. them) to reach some accommodation instead of rushing ahead with the re-election of First Minister. There is a point here. After all, coming to an understanding with Plaid wouldn't be the first time Labour have struck a deal with them. Then again, Labour could (and should) counter that there are pressing problems, not least with steel, which require decisive leadership seeing as the UK government is refusing to provide any. And so we have deadlock. 30 for Plaid's coalition of the unhinged, and 30 for Labour and the single LibDem, Kirsty Williams (in a rare principled move for them, the yellow party refuse to treat with UKIP). And if this situation persists into the beginning of June, the Assembly will be dissolved and a fresh round of elections called.

Plaid's behaviour might seem bewildering, but it isn't really. It's a political party like any other, and all parties have the propensity to maximise opportunities for office. It's rare, I'm afraid to say, for principles to prove an obstacle. The LibDems here are a rare instance. Labour isn't supposed to cut deals with Tories, but that has occasionally happened in some open (and not-so-open) coalitions in various local authorities. The PLP also collaborates with backbench Tories over matters of mutual interest. There are, however, limits. Labour would never deal with UKIP, and studiously avoids high profile associations with Conservatives. That particular lesson has finally been learned thanks to Scotland.

The second, however, goes right to the heard of Plaid's political DNA. It is a nationalist party whose raison d'etre is an independent Wales. It might not talk about it much as the eventuality is as likely as a hyperbole-free public debate about Israel, but it's there. That's the party's axis in the same way class is for Labour and the Tories - as much as some in each would pretend (and prefer) it was otherwise. All nationalist movements and parties have their own lefts and rights, and presently the social democratic wing in Plaid (and the SNP) have their respective organisations locked down. The material roots of this situation lie in positioning themselves over a long period of opposition against Labour, and traction was achieved when colourless (neoliberal) managerialism ruled the Blairist/Brownite roost and continued under the blessed Ed. But ultimately, this is always and everywhere subordinate to the aim of national independence. Sometimes, at least theoretically, a national separatist project can serve progressive politics - especially where the denial of national rights is sowing division and poisoning the body politic. And yet, history has always shown that when it comes to the crunch, even when independence is on the side of right, class politics is subordinated to national politics with greater or lesser degrees of violence. While no one's seriously suggesting a bloody resolution to this in Plaid, the different basis of the party always puts its commitment to social democratic politics into question, as well as its availability to make deals with the most backward and dangerous forces in Britain.

What game is Leanne Wood and Plaid playing at? Nationalist politics.

Monday, 9 May 2016

The Canny Politics of Ruth Davidson

Most lefties have one or two favourite Tories. Me? I own a whole menagerie. Who can resist Nicholas Soames and his waspish tweets? Fabbers' endless self-parodying? The plastic Thatcher tributes by Anna Soubry? And Rees-Mogg's distillation of Tory toffism? Yet these colourful characters share a less appetising trait: they're all irredeemable bastards. I might titter at Fabricant and roll my eyes at our Jake, but I have no doubt these people are enemies of the labour movement. They would rather we didn't exist, and long for the days of the cap-doffing squire and the people who knew their place below stairs. And that's before you scrutinise their voting records for supporting attacks on the poorest and most vulnerable.

And then there is Ruth Davidson. Along with most of the commentariat, I can't help but have a soft spot for her. An openly gay straight-talking woman from a normal background, a politician with no airs and bullshit, a capacity to poke fun at herself, and comes across everywhere and always as unflappingly pleasant. Apart from her party affiliation, what is there not to like? So what is her secret? How is it that everyone is totally dippy when it comes to Ruth?

As an individual, Ruth seems perfectly sound. She stands out because she didn't go to politics stage school. She lacks the affectation and soundbite regurgitation of those in the game for too long, or never had a proper job before achieving office. How crap must politics be when "appearing normal" is a vote winner? Let's not be naive about this. Ruth may well be as she presents herself, but her image has gone through the wringer. It's sculpted, styled, trained, and got focus grouped to death. Ruth Davidson as a political personage is as artificial as Boris Johnson's oh-so-funny buffoonery and Dave's stage-hogging statesmanship. She's everyone's mate, the Tory whose gimmick is not looking, sounding, or behaving like a Tory.

Think on this a moment. What does Ruth Davidson stand for? Judging by the media coverage she's very pro-the union. 18 months ago, wherever there was a Better Together media opportunity, she wasn't sniffy about which Labour politician she took to the stage with. The memory abides of Gordon Brown making his bravura speech in the dying days of the referendum campaign, and there was Ruth, pictured clapping away with enthusiasm. We also know she's pro-EU, and has declared to be looking forward to working with the SNP to ensure Britain remains this June. And what else? Well, not a lot. If you must, scope out the Conservatives' Scottish Manifesto. Reading through it, there's very little you could disagree with. Seriously. Leaving aside the unionist stuff, most of it could have appeared in a SNP or Labour manifesto. It warns against centralisation, calls for more NHS funding, a more flexible social security system (which could be code for all kinds of things), addressing problems in the education system. This is not Toryism red in tooth and claw. Nor, actually, cuddly conservatism. It is an uncontroversial managerial politics with no sniff of right wingery at all.

Has this happened by accident? Absolutely not. Just as Ruth is a clean figure with no baggage at all, the Tories don't want to toxify their best bet with their own tarnished brand. So the manifesto matches her to a tee. No hard edges, no policies invoking unpleasant memories. It's straight-talking, oppositional, and above all, modest. It's a master class in political positioning. Ruth invites voters to give the blues a punt because they stand no chance of winning, but will manage a better job than Our Kez and Scottish Labour at holding the SNP to account. Opposing the SNP over the next four years isn't going to see the Tories at the eye of many political storms, there isn't much chance of them outraging public opinion. And then, come 2020 Ruth will make the same proposition again, slowly but surely building up a base for her new, reasonable Toryism until such a time it can challenge the SNP for supremacy. It's a long game, and a very smart game she's playing. Between now and then, she'll be detoxifying the Tories at every available opportunity. Why else do you think Ruth's keen to help Nicola Sturgeon make the case for Remain?

There are a few problems Ruth faces. So far she has disassociated the Scottish Tories from what's happening with the Tories at Westminster. Her very personality acts as a marker - she's a world apart from Dave and his gang of entitled dolts. But there will come times when she feels the heat for what's going on elsewhere. The devolution of further powers to Holyrood shield her to an extent, but what happens at Westminster does overdetermine the Scottish party system. Second, apart from unionism and fairly inconsequential matters like sentencing, Ruth's position absolutely depends on not taking a position, and especially one that smacks of traditional Toryism. The strategy that got the Tories second party status is quite brittle and liable to fall apart if they are forced to oppose popular policies. And there is the Scottish party itself. Of the few that are left, there's bound to be unreconstructed Tories hiding in the shadows ready with a verbal bomb or two primed to remind everyone that the modern Tory party is still the Tory party.

Ruth Davidson then. A likeable small p politician you could go for a coffee with or take down the pub quiz. But also a canny operator at the helm of the labour movement's implacable enemy in Scotland. Never forget that.