Saturday, 10 December 2016

Quick Notes on Sleaford

Only two things have come out of Sleaford. Those mods (well, their name anyway) and predictions of imminent doom for the Labour Party. Yes, at the Sleaford and North Hykeham by-election, Labour failed to turn in a creditable performance. It dropped seven points, the Tories and kippers lost a couple apiece, and the LibDems surged past from nowhere and claimed the number three spot.

I don't see cataclysm written in the by-election results. It's hardly a place Labour should expect to do well, but it does condense two problems the party has. The first is with the former LibDem voters. The 35 per cent strategy so-labelled by Dan Hodges claimed that Ed Miliband's Labour was content with building an electoral coalition from existing Labour voters and those fleeing the LibDems during the time of their coalition with the Tories. That, apparently, would be enough to carry a general election. Unfortunately, there was some substance to this as the data sent back to canvassing teams screened out Tories and had us knocking on doors of voters with Labour and LibDem affiliations, don't knows, and no previous data. I digress. The problem Labour has is these folks are going back to the yellow party. This is powering their excellent showing in local council by-elections, and the upset in Richmond.

This is not unrelated to the second problem: Labour's incoherence over Brexit. The LibDems are the party of in. UKIP remain the party of out. The Tories are managing the process and routinely cloak their cluelessness in babble like the infamous objective of a "red, white and blue Brexit". And Labour? Um.

This paralysis is simply not good enough. The official position of the leader's office is the acceptance of June's calamitous result, but that is where clarity ends. A simple critical Brexit position is all that needs taking up, one putting the interest of our people first. Let's call it what it should be: a class position. From here flows the rest - the holding out for a Brexit that isn't paid for by our class, that retains the environmental and workplace protections guaranteed by EU legislation, that doesn't shell out free money to some of Britain's biggest companies under the guise of tariff protection. Yet what do we see? The shadow chancellor borrowing May's rhetoric about making "a success of it", next to nothing from the leader except at Prime Minister's Questions, and too many Labour MPs who think shouting about the "need" for immigration controls will connect with our voters.

Brexit isn't going away and until the party pursues a clear, Brexit-critical line explicitly aligned with the interests of our people, more miserable results await.

Friday, 9 December 2016

The Three Ages of Politics Blogging

I've been doing this for 10 years, and a lot has happened to political blogging since starting out with a garish template and a dozen readers funnelled from the beloved UK Left Network. As well as the ceaseless churn of current affairs, the cultures of online commentary have mutated and, in many ways, come back to where the initial blogging started out from. I'm not one for cyclical views of history because, well, they're bollocks, but the shape of politics blogging in Britain more or less conforms to it.

I'm going to make a stab at three rough periodisations. As with most things social, hard and fast lines demarcating one set of relationships from another just don't exist. Matters of classification are analytical procedures only, but they do help bring out features and dynamics that dominated a given period. Without further ado ...

Age One: The Beginning, 2002-2009
As I've said before, the first blog I remember visiting was Harry's Place back in the dim and distant and thinking "hmmm, this sort of thing is never going to catch on". A true finger-on-the-pulse moment, that. Over the next seven years, politics blogs took off to the point that by the time this began trading under the 'A Very Public Sociologist' monicker, it was a late comer to an established scene. And for those who love themselves some nostalgia, the initial phase of blogging was a bit golden-agey. Social media was largely absent and so the networks now dependent on your Twitters and Facebooks were facilitated by blogs linking to one another through their blogrolls, inline hyperlinks, commenting on each others' efforts in the jolly old comment box, the sharing of memes and bigging each other up through monthly carnivals.

I don't want to post a utopian picture, because this was no News from Nowhere. Early blogging, then styled the blogosphere (shudder), was just as fractious as social media is now, albeit more concentrated and pulling in fewer people. Earnest sages worry that social media creates echo chambers of the like-minded, but there was never a heterotopia of the well informed flitting from blog-to-blog for a diet of varied comment. Lefties might have occasionally journeyed to Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale's Diary (as was), but I doubt many Tories paid a return visit to the likes of Lenin's Tomb, Socialist Unity, and The F Word. And no one paid any attention to what LibDem bloggers had to say. Then there were the blog wars. Bloggers would engage in lengthy and seemingly pointless feuds calling each other out for their "lies" and, on occasion, spats did end up in court. On the left, fractiousness usually lined up on sectarian lines and mirrored real disputes in real organisations. One of the classic moments was the so-called 'War of Kylie's Arse' (Splinty's overview here), in which real life lefties fell out over lechy observations made by George Galloway concerning the posterior of popular pop peddler, Kylie Minogue.

Yet this was an exciting, dynamic time for blogging. New kids on the block rocked up, rocked around for a few months, and rocked off again. Established politicos and hacks puzzled over what to make of this explosion in grassroots comment, and all the main parties set up their own 'homes' to aggregate comment and/or pool resources to ensure comment poured out two, three, many times a day. The model was simple: more posts meant more clicks. But as competition tends toward monopoly, so a few touched mainstream success and became super-blogs with large audiences in their own right. And the mainstream media were about to muscle in in a big way, closing off our age of heroes.

Age Two: Maturation, 2010-2015
By the time 2010 swung around, it was clear something qualitatively different was underway. It wasn't that bigger blogs got bigger, though some did, it was an effective merging of the groundswell of comment from outside traditional journalism with online ventures from established media. The Graun's Comment is Free had been going since before this blog began its journey, and gradually folks featured there started drifting into the print edition. Other papers and magazines hired folks who got their start in blogging, and from there some made the crossover into mainstream punditry. Blogs were still firing up by newbies, but by this time any chance of trading in Wordpress or Blogger for a paid gig was gone. Unless you were already connected with the media or were a recognised spox for a political tendency in one of the main parties, the road was closed. It's also worth noting that among the cluster of folks who did "make it", Oxbridge creds were disproportionately represented.

As blogging talent were harvested, papers and magazines shifted their business models and assumed the architecture commonplace among the blogs. Below the line commenting came as standard across practically all newspapers (except for the far left's seldom-read news sheets), as well as hyperlinking to their own articles stuck in the archive. As the sale of advertising space gave papers incentive to grow audiences for the all-important click-throughs, their efforts at colonising social media assumed a seriousness as the new decade got underway. At this stage Twitter was where their efforts were concentrated, because the audiences their were small and relatively incestuous, picking up bloggers with substantial followings made sense. But very quickly, the press - especially the right - got wise to how trolling people could boost audiences from people who'd never otherwise touch their goods. In marketing bigotry, the likes of The Mail could generate hundreds of thousands of extra page views thanks to outraged lefties. It also put them on a trajectory to being ever more outrageous to generate fury, and then the numbers.

All this meant that as blogging became utterly mainstream, it more or less disappeared. A few hardy independent souls carried on, but it was now a game for the committed/obsessed. Without the reach built up through brands and social media followings, they carried on in their niches which, in turn, made it difficult for newcomers to get a toehold and build audiences. The whole thing presented as a relatively rigid field of forces. The mainstream were at the top, the long-term indies stuck in the middle, and the churn from below barely troubled the layers above. Yet, while it looked like stasis had set in new movements were underway that brought us to the third age of blogging.

Age Three: The Challengers, 2015-present
Outsiders drove the first wave of blogging, and in the third wave the outsiders were at it again. Getting its start on YouTube and making a name for doing Channel 4 News's Unreported World at millennials, Vice came from nowhere and cornered a market no one knew was there. Murdoch quickly purchased it, but it kept the winning formula. Also catering for this demographic was BuzzFeed. As Vice broke through, BuzzFeed began making itself felt. Its success was initially driven by clickbait lists ripe for sharing between bored office workers, but quickly built a reputation for quality, if irreverent political journalism married to sassy, knowing presentation and a deep understanding of how the dynamics of social media work. And they cleaned up.

Vice and Buzzfeed erupted within the mainstream and are now as much of a mainstay of online news and comment as The Graun and Mail. But the fringes weren't quiet either. Breitbart, which was founded in 2007, was yet another boring Fox News knock-off for the interwebs and built itself over the water for doing Zinoviev Letter jobs on liberal institutions, such as the ACORN sting and the NAACP. They opened a London outlet under the auspices of the terminally dim Jame Delingpole, and later Farage sidekick Raheem Kassam. I'm not going to do more than note in passing the existence of Milo Yiannopoulos. Their material was much like the American parent's. Conspiracy nonsense, particularly around climate change. They catered for the angry white boy brigade crying over the existence of people other than them playing video games, and having opinions about them. And, lest we forget, pure unvarnished (racist) bullshit. In truth, few over here paid them any attention. But they did show it was possible to make a go of a social media-driven site based around hyper-partisanship.

This is where The Canary comes in. I'm not going to say too much as we'll visit it in the future. But its basic model is the same as Breitbart's. Semi-conspiracy theorising and painting of the world in simplistic black and white terms, instead of being their antipode it's their twin, albeit from a leftist perspective. It's a safe space that never challenges the reader's preconceptions, and is utterly uninterested in understanding how the world works. That isn't to say it doesn't produce the odd interesting piece, but their model steers away from serious thinking and does the causes it wishes to champion a disservice. The Canary was and is entirely outside of established media, and is unique in that it's grown its own stable of writers.

So much for the tectonics shifting around the big players. What about independent blogging? There's been something of a shift here, too. Social media has redefined blogging to the degree that while it was once driven by the need to capture audiences for blogs, increasingly blogging is an adjunct to social media. If you're a freelancer, for instance, articles not only put food on your table, they drive your social media profile which, in turn, drives up the price you can ask for your hot takes. As your social media profile is you, everything else is an appendage. And we shouldn't be surprised to find this is the case with independent blogging. Whenever I feature a new blog round up, a chunk of them ignore the standard blogging platforms for outlets that lend themselves to one-off or sporadic contributions, like Medium. Large numbers of established journos have them, as do politicians, and anyone for whom 140 characters is too short and the reach of a Facebook post is not enough. And this scene, if it can be called that, is thriving.

We're only at the beginning of the third phase, so it's nigh on impossible to see beyond it. People setting up blogs and writing about politics isn't going to stop, unless Theresa May's penchant for authoritarianism kiboshes the whole thing. But some of the big media organisations are in trouble. The Indy has shed its physical form and moved online entirely, but it remains very difficult to make money from digital product for all kinds of reasons. As papers dip beneath the threshold of financial viability, some are going to disappear and take their platforms with them. And that will open new spaces for rival outfits and bloggers and, who knows, perhaps yet another phase.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

10 Years of All That Is Solid

Tony Blair and George W Bush were mainstays of the political scene. Social media was confined to a tiny niche of hobbyists and nerds. Nigel Farage wasn't a household name. And pop music, generally speaking, was better than it is today (no, that's not old age speaking, it's a fact). One Friday evening in 2006, an obscure PhD student who happened to be a member of an obscure Trotskyist outfit in an obscure corner of the country sat himself down and started writing. 10 years on and countless evenings later, the dullard is still writing.

Yes, December 8th 2016 marks a whole decade of blogging. While most of the '06 scene have passed onto lighter forms of entertainment and/or greater, better things, here we bloody well are.

I'll have a few things to say about what's happened to politics blogging over the course of those 10 years in the next post, but until then here are the all-time greatest hits, the posts that have commanded most attention in terms of raw audience numbers. Some of them are good, at least in my own eyes. Some of them bad. And others a bit pointless. Glancing down the list, readers might spot a certain fondness for lists. I cannot tell a lie. As a kid, ever since compiling a compendium of every Transformer then known (Generation One to the cognoscenti) I've had a compulsion to list things. Hence it's fitting that so many should make the cut of the 100 most read posts, and that this blog marks its 10 years with its own list.

Here's to the next decade!

100. Ken Livingstone, Labour and Anti-Semitism (April 2016)
99. Top 100 Independent Tweeting Bloggers 2013 (January 2014)
98. Why is the BBC Silent About Tory Electoral Fraud? (May 2016)
97. After Neoliberalism (August 2016)
96. Who is White Van Dan? (November 2014)
95. When Men's Bodies Meet Side-Saddle Trunks (June 2014)
94. Doncaster SWP: Why We Resigned (July 2010)
93. Kenneth Tong and the Fame Game (January 2011)
92. The Far Left and the 2015 UK General Election (April 2015)
91. The Difficulty Writing About Video Games (December 2012)
90. Top 100 Independent Tweeting Bloggers 2015 (January 2016)
89. Islam and the New Atheists (July 2013)
88. Problems with Porn (December 2007)
87. The Far Left and Revolutionary Identity Politics (November 2013)
86. How to Destroy a Blog Post (June 2013)
85. SWP: Life on the Revolutionary Treadmill (January 2013)
84. Lessons of the Labour Leadership Campaigns (September 2015)
83. Egypt: Revolution, Democracy and Leadership (February 2011)
82. What has Happened to Germaine Greer? (May 2013)
81. Top 100 Tweeting Bloggers 2013 (December 2013)
80. The Work Programme: Still Worse Than Useless (January 2013)
79. Post-Materialism and Class (August 2008)
78. Why I Didn't Support the March on Stoke (February 2013)
77. Doctor Who: Sexism and Audience (December 2012)
76. Is Corbynism a Social Movement? (August 2016)
75. The SWP: A Short Obituary (March 2013)
74. Celebrity Strikebreakers (November 2010)
73. Sharon O'Donnell and Jumping the Gun (January 2014)
72. Top 100 Tweeting Politics Commentators 2014 (December 2014)
71. Lindsey German Resigns from SWP! (February 2010)
70. Porn as Ideology (December 2009)
69. Zombies and Ideology (November 2010)
68. What Next for Politics? (September 2014)
67. Where Now for the SWP? (January 2013)
66. Gramsci, Althusser and Hegemonic Struggle (August 2009)
65. Splits and the Socialist Party (August 2013)
64. Consumer Culture and Postmodernism (July 2010)
63. Top 100 Independent Tweeting Bloggers 2012 (January 2013)
62. SWP Bullies London Black Revolutionaries (November 2014)
61. Dear Liz Kendall (May 2015)
60. The Far Left after the Election (May 2010)
59. It's Time to Bash Benefit-Bashing (October 2012)
58. Mary Daly, Death of a Feminist (January 2010)
57. Ian Watkins and Narcissism (December 2013)
56. Top 100 Tweeting Politics Commentators 2015 (December 2015)
55. The Far Left and the 2010 UK General Election (April 2010)
54. Chris Bambery Resigns from the SWP (April 2011)
53. The SWP, Rape, and Revolutionary Justice (January 2013)
52. Top 100 Independent Tweeting Bloggers 2014 (January 2015)
51. Far Left UK General Election 2015 Results (May 2015)
50. Why the Establishment Doesn't Get Corbynism (August 2016)
49. Splitting the Labour Party (July 2016)
48. Machiavelli and Marxist Politics (July 2010)
47. Roy Bhaskar: Worst Writer Ever (October 2010)
46. Top 100 Tweeting Bloggers 2010 (December 2010)
45. Jeremy Corbyn in Stoke-on-Trent (September 2016)
44. Sex, Power Play and Trotskyism (January 2014)
43. Melanie Phillips: Marketing Bigotry (January 2011)
42. Top 100 Worst Blogs Poll (July 2010)
41. What is Happening to the Labour Party? (July 2016)
40. Whither Left Unity? (November 2013)
39. Claim Benefits? Then Bank Charges Are Illegal (March 2013)
38. The Guardian's 1,000 Books You Must Read (February 2009)
37. Five Books on Marx and Marxism (May 2013)
36. Ed Balls for Labour Leader (August 2010)
35. Cadre Parties and Mass Parties (November 2009)
34. Class and Ideology in Sex Party Secrets (January 2015)
33. Hitler, Charisma and Leadership (November 2012)
32. Why I Resigned from the Socialist Party (February 2010)
31. Foucault, Power and Sex (March 2007)
30. Against the Corbyn Coup (June 2016)
29. Raoul Moat, Gazza and the Media Circus (July 2010)
28. The Depravity of the SWP (October 2013)
27. EU Referendum: What Would Trotsky Do? (June 2016)
26. Lindsey Oil Refinery: The Media's Silence on the Cost (February 2009)
25. The UK's 100 Worst Political Blogs (September 2010)
24. Sexism and Abuse of Power in the SWP (March 2013)
23. Dawn Porter Free Lover (October 2008)
22. UK's Top 50 Worst Politics Blogs 2013 (September 2013)
21. Jeremy Corbyn's Prime Ministerial Speech (September 2016)
20. The Meaning of Conchita Wurst (May 2014)
19. Tommy Sheridan on Trial (October 2010)
18. Gramsci, Intellectuals and Class (January 2010)
17. Jeremy Corbyn and the SWP (October 2016)
16. The Perfect Vagina (August 2008)
15. Critiquing Doctor Who: Deep Breath (August 2014)
14. Is there Bias on BBC Question Time? (November 2012)
13. Top 100 Indie/Alternative Songs of the 90s (August 2015)
12. Top 100 Tweeting Bloggers 2012 (December 2012)
11. Louis Theroux Behind Bars (January 2008)
10. Dogging and Dogging Tales (April 2013)
9. Martin Smith Resigns from the SWP (July 2013)
8. Support for the SWP Central Committee (February 2013)
7. Why I Voted for Jeremy Corbyn (September 2016)
6. Top 100 Dance Songs of the 80s (December 2010)
5. Reluctant Corbynism (August 2016)
4. Natalija Belova and The Sun's Benefit Lies (January 2013)
3. Top 100 Dance Songs of the 00s (December 2009)
2. Top 100 Dance Songs of the 90s (August 2010)
1. Top 100 Dance Songs of the 70s (August 2014)

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Tribalism and the Progressive Alliance

As promised, let's talk about the so-called progressive alliance, that Labour, the LibDems, Greens, SNP, and Plaid should come to a non-aggression arrangement to maximise the anti-Conservative vote in upcoming by-elections and the next general election (now most unlikely to be next year). This means unpicking 'tribalism'.

Let's start off with a question. Though it has happened at local level on a number of occasions, most Labour people from all wings of the party would react with horror about cutting a deal with the Tories. Why? It isn't a matter of them being "not us". Politics is not a game of football where someone is wedded to one side and affects hatred for designated rivals. On the whole, the reaction against the Tories is because of what they do. We see their policies hammer our people and protect the privileged, and more often than not regardless of the damage they wreak on the fabric of social life. We know they represent a set of interests that ultimately aren't the same, and indeed are opposed to the interests of the people our party represents.

Let's bear that in mind when we come to the Liberal Democrats. Tony Blair liked to flatter them by pretending their party lies within the radical tradition, but that is to evacuate any sense of meaning from the term. The LibDems, historically, represented the less backward elements of the same class the Tories do. When they collapsed and were supplanted by Labour in the 1920s, they faded away into electoral obscurity. Yet, philosophically and in terms of its core constituency, they were not qualitatively different from the Tories. The Liberals as were had sharp policy differences with the Conservatives from time to time, but these were of degree and not of kind. And we don't need to play thought experiments or dredge up records in local government. They might have prevented some utterly mad Tory policies while in coalition, but their time with ministerial portfolios saw through cuts to social security, the doubling down of market mechanisms in the public sector (especially in the NHS), and a complete abandonment of their Keynes-lite strategy for getting the British economy moving again. They are hostile to trade unions acting politically and, lest we forget, that nice "lefty" Tim Farron is open to the idea of going in with the Tories again. Lovely.

The SNP and Plaid Cymru, on paper, should be better candidates for a progressive alliance. Leanne Wood is a nice centre left-type with a Trot pedigree to her name. Nicola Sturgeon's closet has no Fourth Internationalist skeletons, alas, but apart from independence you could make a case for the Scottish government being more consistently social democratic than the Labour administrations preceding it. What's more, the SNP had its own Corbyn-style surge long before Corbs lent his name to politics-defining membership surges. In one sense, the SNP is entirely different to what it was before the Scottish referendum. Most of the left are there. Most of the progressive vote are there. And yet, two stubborn political realities remain. Despite approaching the same number of members as the Tories, it has made little difference to the SNP politically. It remains pretty much the same outfit with the same people in charge. Scottish radicalism hasn't remade the party in the same way Corbynism has upended everything in Labour. That, ultimately, has something to do with the character of the SNP as a bourgeois nationalist party. The basic political subject it's trying to organise is the nation, and in capitalist societies the interests of the nation are defined in impeccably bourgeois terms: growing GDP, low inflation rates, balance of payments, the successful competition over markets and so on. True, the SNP offer 'nice' civic, left-tinged nationalism and not the ugly rubbish long associated with Britishness and Englishness in particular, yet it too cannot resist defining itself against the backward, Tory-voting xenophobes south of the border. Nor seeking to exacerbate divisions in Labour, its long time rival and potential future nemesis. Perhaps I'm old fashioned for sticking to the view that nationalism is the passage to division and the domination of politics by unscrupulous scoundrels. What an idle whimsy, eh? The same applies to Plaid as well. While seeking more autonomy for Wales in a federal-style arrangement, which seem entirely sensible to me, for PC it's a step toward independence and ultimately they organise on that basis, albeit much less successfully than their friends in the north. For us, interests and solidarity exits across borders. For the SNP and Plaid, that fundamentally threatens their project.

And the Greens. Of the four parties they are perhaps the best candidates for an alliance with Labour. Our party arose to prosecute the claims and interests of working people in capitalism, and green parties respond to the environmental despoliation that same system has accumulated in slag heaps, rubbish tips, and long-term changes to the climate. Both are potentially and imminently radical because of the adversarial position they have vis conventional economics. Where Labour and the Greens differ is at the level of constituency. Labour is powered by working people generally - historically most of the "traditional" working class and the middle class in the professions and public sector, and now increasingly by the networked worker. The Greens by small business and also sections of the middle class. Unlike the other parties, there is a tension between these constituencies but no fundamental opposition. An alliance that wouldn't lead to political catastrophe a la Italy's Democratic Party is possible here. Thing is, it's completely pointless. The Greens didn't cost Labour the general election. A deal would benefit the Greens - Caroline Lucas would remain unmolested in Brighton - but where's the quid pro quo for the much larger would-be partner?

There's nothing wrong with members from different parties working together where interests are episodically aligned, but a tie up is fraught with serious difficulties. There are significant sections in each, particularly Labour and the SNP who wouldn't countenance such a thing. Sinking differences into an amorphous nice-politics-for-nice-anti-Tory-people formation is a recipe for splits. The second problem is, well, the national card. The Tories proved adept at playing it in 2015 and, unfortunately, it did frighten the horses in too many marginals. A full blown alliance unhappily risks stirring the rank politics of English nationalism and anti-elite populism. Remember, the consequences of its recent outing hasn't been positive. And lastly, an alliance between irreconcilable parties won't fly because of the interests underpinning them. So-called tribalism recognises this truism of politics. No matter how crude its expression, such dumb materialism is more advanced than "enlightened" views stubbornly refusing to understand politics beyond free floating ideas.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Why Renzi Lost the Referendum

As someone who wasn't born into political radicalism (quite the opposite), relics of attitudes and ideas long abandoned sometimes clutter up the synapses. And one of these is a notion I used to hold about politicians. At the risk of making myself red faced, until quite late in the day I believed that climbing the greasy poll, to be a councillor, a Member of Parliament, and a minister you had to have something about you. Some level of intellect, a dash of charisma, the capacity to connect with people and, most helpful of all, nous. And a part of me is disappointed every time an elected representative falls short of these not-so-lofty expectations.

The gentleman who's had my head a-shaking at the start of this week is Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and the referendum he lost on bringing "stability" to government. As readers are aware, Italy's had almost as many different governments as there have been years since the Second World War. Renzi's ruling Democratic Party is the country's primary centre left formation, recently formed from a mishmash of the safely de-communised, social democratised former communist party, the Christian left, the greens and liberals, and a few others. These currents retain their distinct identities for the most part, with the several times diluted ex-PCI as the party's organisational backbone. Renzi for his part is described as half-way technocrat, half-way populist. He hails from a Christian democratic background and made a name for himself butting his head against the PD's leadership. He was also keen to portray himself as a moderniser in much the same vein as a certain someone, and for want of a better phrase has occupied the ground of liberal populism. Frequent targets of his rhetoric were the bankers and, in equal measure, the "privileges" secured by the trade unions (among which was protection from unjustified dismissals). How boringly petit bourgeois and, from the viewpoint of maintaining a healthy centre left, dumb.

After the 2008 crash, Italy's long-term weakness was exposed. GDP growth is anemic, and the country remains a long way off recovery. And you thought Britain's GDP recovery was tardy. Unemployment is falling again, but is dangerously high, contributing its part to the erosion of the established parties and providing the relevant combustibles to our friends in the Liga Nord and Five Star Movement.

As part of a package of measures he believed would pull Italy out of the doldrums, Renzi sought to inject stability into the notoriously fractious political system. Understandably thanks to 20 years under the fascist cosh and the unhappy experience of the Nazi occupation, the post-war constitution fashioned in 1947 balanced the powers of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Presently a vote of no confidence in the upper house can dismiss a government, and herein lies the Italian party system's instability. With the lack of so-called strong government, opponents of the Senate's constitutional rights argue that parties have a very hard time thinking and acting in the long-term, as well as taking on challenging and controversial political projects. Renzi's referendum was about curbing these powers as well as introducing a new electoral system. This would retain PR but give a bonus number of seats to any party crossing the 40% threshold. After much wrangling and horse trading, including a pact with Silvio Berlusconi of all people, the measures cleared both houses but not by the margin deemed necessary by the constitution. Therefore the proposals had to be put to a referendum.

Asking people to vote for a package of reform amounting to less democracy was never going to be an easy sell. Though, constitutionally speaking, Renzi didn't have much of a choice. But then he made the fatal error, and not one you'd expect from a politician proven to have nous enough to thrive in the rough and tumble of Italian politics. He committed a catastrophic mistake that not even Dave, the most politically inept PM of recent times was daft enough to make: by threatening to resign if the vote was lost, Renzi made the referendum all about him.

There is a tendency in politics to simplify things. Policies can be complex and beyond the ken of legislators, let alone a public who cast politics the odd sideways glance outside of election time. Perhaps this was part of Renzi's reasoning. I can't imagine, for instance, that many people were fussed whether the Senate was elected on a region-by-region basis or not. But most people would certainly have had an opinion on the Prime Minister's record, which calls into question Renzi's reasoning. While not polarising or as dismal as the hapless Francois Hollande, yet, those attacks on the centre left's bedrock will have not done him any favours. While the Catholic-rooted Italian Confederation of Workers' Trade Unions backed Renzi, the Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL) - the main target of the earlier labour market reform package - did not and agitated for a no vote. It might not have attracted the publicity of Beppe Grillo's oh-so funny antics, but this is a union that had pulled a million people out onto the streets of Rome to protest the attacks on workers. They were an important factor, a five million strong factor and one typically overlooked by a politician unable to comprehend the political character of the parties they lead. Compounding the foolishness was allowing the populists to, well, consolidate their populism. Personalising the referendum explicitly framed the proposals as an establishment stitch-up designed to give the elites a smoother ride, and granted the awful anti-politics of Five Star permission to gain extra ground. Renzi's best bet at winning was to turn it into a snoozefest rather than a shitfest, and he completely blew it.

Rightly, Italy said no to the changes. But in so doing, another Prime Minister says ciao - though no one should rule out repeat Berlusconi-style come backs for Renzi. And Grillo's movement has grown in strength and legitimacy. A good outcome with a pretty grizzly consequence, and yet another reminder why the centre left are on the retreat.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

French Lessons for the Centre Left

In ordinary times, a French president announcing they wouldn't be seeking re-election is something of a deal. Especially as none have stepped down after a single term in the history of the Fifth Republic. However, as it's 2016 this milestone will go down as but a detail. Still, you can't blame Francois Hollande for throwing in the towel. His approval ratings are among the most abysmal a Western leader has ever accrued and, as a result, the first round of the French presidential election was bound to finish with him in a heap, bruised and humiliated by a hostile electorate. All this matters because Hollande's collapse invites the far right under Marine Le Pen to consolidate their position and make further gains. And there are very serious lessons here for centre left politics everywhere.

Readers with memories and an acquiantance with French politics will recall that Hollande was selected via a primary to be the joint nominee of the Socialists and Radical Left, and beating the unlamented Nicolas Sarkozy in the second round of voting in the 2012 presidential elections. His platform was what we now call Milibandist, though it would be more accurate to note Hollande revealed his policies while the blessed Ed kept his under wraps, all in the hope of under-promising and over-delivering. Le sigh. Hollande favoured the stock items: regulation of finance, including the separation of investment and saving arms of banks, taxing the rich and turning up corporation tax, shrinking class sizes by hiring tens of thousands of teachers, equal rights for same sex partners, the founding of a public investment bank, lowering the retirement age, and targeting the creation of jobs for the young in unemployment black spots. Not a bad centre left offering, all told. Unfortunately, it's often what goes unsaid that can be more significant.

The first was labour market reform, or to put it more explicitly, the attempt to hammer workers conditions to help steady France's way through the consequences of the 2008 crash. On the one hand, Hollande tried to be the friend of the worker by making it easier for them to move jobs. The flipside, however, was a bonfire of employment rights. Getting rid of workers became easier, and it gave companies the right to cut wages and salaries during "tough times". It also shortened the period employees could contest lay offs in the courts. More controversial changes, was to do with pensions. Remember the pledge to lower the retirement age? France had a pensions deficit to contend with, which Hollande chose to plug by mandating an increase in contributions. This policy was successful in uniting France ... against him. Workers took to the streets in opposition, and the package had a torrid time getting through Parliament - especially from his own Socialist Party representatives. Meanwhile, he advanced a series of targeted tax breaks in the hope that French business would take on more workers, but unemployment remained stubborn. There was a certain incoherence to his approach, of helping his progressive vote out and kicking them simultaneously (also copied by Ed Miliband), which in practice meant paralysis and the perception of dithering and incompetence. Hollande got a temporary boost for firm action taken in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings, but the overall political dynamic quickly reasserted itself. Subsequent terrorist outrages have compounded the sense of rudderlessness. Still, despite the litany of failure and sense of doom dogging his presidency, under Hollande France managed to overtake Britain as the world's fifth largest economy.

The reason why Hollande is set to limp off the French political stage is thanks, once again, to the structural blindness of the centre left. In September 2014, his former partner published a memoir that called Hollande's integrity into question. Defending himself, he said his entire political career was guided by a commitment to helping the poor. And this sums up the problem. An ethical commitment to progressive politics is essential, but not sufficient for developing a properly political understanding. And that, at the risk of belabouring a point made countless times here, is politics is always fundamentally about interests. It's crude and impolite to discuss this publicly, but it's true. The right represent, defend, and attack on the behalf of class interests bound up with the status quo. And the left represent the interests of the many that, in the long-term, push beyond the limits of established politics and economics. However, while the left is drawn from and speaks to this huge constituency, it is stymied by its own refusal to see things as they are. It's not that the left are thick and have an imperfect understanding, but because the bulk of them engage in constitutional politics that in their everyday militate against seeing the world in this way. Change comes through committee meetings and resolutions, policy formation and implementation. Everything else is window dressing. And they are conditioned by the stakes of these political systems. The lived reality of voters is erased by the cult of numbers, or replacing the feeling and perception of economic relief by indices measuring GDP, inflation and wage growth. Interest becomes more and more narrowly refined into a bland national interest, expressed in increasing and decreasing metrics assumed to be in congruence with the good life. It's by this process that honest centre left politicians can come to believe liberalising hire and fire is in their constituents' interests, that making them work longer for less pension is something they should accept, because they are the nation and it's in the nation's interests these things should get sorted out.

It's this commonsense that is responsible for the incoherence of Hollande and Ed Miliband. And its consequences spell disaster for social democratic and labour parties. The Socialist presidency, the collapse of PSOE, the evisceration of Scottish Labour, the annihilation of PASOK and now Syriza. Where the centre left see themselves as somehow outside of history, where they substitute the politics of class for the politics of technocracy, they fail. They attack their base and sometimes, the base kills them in return. The right, on the other hand, never forget they're bound to certain class interests and that we live in a class society. If the centre left is to survive the apparent crisis breaking over us, we need to stop thinking woolly thoughts about the nature of our economy and politics and be as hard nosed about it as some are with their factional struggles and policy positioning. The centre left has to think radically about itself and its position. Otherwise the future is one of Francois Hollande-style approval ratings - forever.

Politics After Richmond

Late to the comment party, but whatevs. Zac Goldsmith thoroughly deserved to have his arse handed to him, even if it depended on the Liberal Democrats to get it done. His "independent challenge" to the Conservatives was successfully undermined by his own stupidity. Having the local association back him, making sure the Tory party proper didn't field a candidate, getting all his mates from the Commons to come down and campaign for him and then, the piece de resistance, not ruling out rejoining the Tories, the fool didn't so much as get found out as paraded his cynicism.

The by-election raises lots of questions for labour movement, not least so-called "tribalism" and the feasibility (as well as desirability) of a progressive alliance between centre left opponents of the Tories - which would encompass Labour, the LibDems, Greens, SNP, and Plaid Cymru. But we'll leave that for another time seeing as it won't be going away. There are three take homes from yesterday's results, and they are:

1. No early general election, and by early I mean one next year. What happened on Thursday can only reinforce Theresa May's snail-slow cautiousness. Going early while tempers are fraying over Brexit and with the initiative lying with her opponents appears foolish. Yes, there were special circumstances in Richmond thanks to being one of the country's most pro-Remain constituencies and having a history of substantial LibDem support before Goldsmith took it in 2010, but there was also the huge swing in Witney towards the yellows. And there's LibDem momentum in local by-elections, which also saw them take another council seat off the Tories on Thursday night. If I was looking for excuses to tarry, the idea of the LibDems taking back a good chunk of the seats they lost to the Tories last year cannot be ruled out. And with them goes the majority. May would not stake her future on scooping up more seats from Labour by way of compensation.

2. Sarah Olney's victory definitely breaks UKIP's hold on the protest-party-of-choice franchise. After the last "normal" by-election in Corby, UKIP have consistently come second (or first in the cases of Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless). Witney broke the pattern, and Richmond rubs it in. Not unreasonably, one might assume these are not natural UKIP territory, but neither was Eastleigh where Diane James put the frighteners on the LibDems. What's more, UKIP here stood aside and endorsed Goldsmith. This move that had no discernible impact on the outcome whatsoever, and exactly what you would expect to happen if their vote share was in decline, which it is. Kippers can shrug it off with their claims to be targeting Labour seats but having tried it for years, it remains a case of so far, so patchy.

3. More serious are the issues for Labour. It would be ridiculous to blame Jeremy Corbyn for Labour's lost deposit and vote that came in under the local constituency party membership. Even Tony Blair could only muster 12.6% of the vote in 1997. But it points to a danger as well. Labour have to perform a tricky balancing act. Two thirds of Labour voters may voted Remain back in June, but also two thirds of constituencies held by Labour MPs voted Leave. We cannot be seen to be going around appearing to thwart the public's verdict in the same way the LibDems can, but nor should we try and steal the Prime Minister's rhetoric about making everything a success. Labour must stake out its own Brexit scepticism that explicitly states to our core support that the party wants a deal that protects working class interests, and will scrutinise, criticise, and publicise its own positions to this end. A deal that seeks to foist the costs of Brexit onto our people is not acceptable, and we should clearly say so instead of shilly shallying about. Keir Stamer's 170 questions was a useful stunt and a good start, but we need to convert that from the discourse of the wonks into the language of the people. If we don't, the LibDems will move to monopolise this territory and reap the benefits, with potentially disastrous consequences for us.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Nalin & Kane - Open Your Eyes

Shall return with a double whammy tomorrow. In the interim, plunge back into 1999 ...

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Five Most Popular Posts for November

The five most-read last month were:

1. Race, Class and Donald Trump
2. Marine Le Pen on Andrew Marr
3. The End of Capitalism?
4. Momentum's Double Vision
5. How Likely is a General Election?

Good to see this blog's slightly different take on Donald Trump's unexpected election victory get top of the pops this month. While liberalism retreats into calling his voters racist and thick, just as they did with Brexit voters, Tory voters, Corbyn supporters, and anyone else falling short of their impeccable standards of political hygiene, there is an audience casting around for alternative explanations that go beyond middle class identity politics (and identity thinking). I hope this at least served as an entree. There's a very good chance Trump's win will boost Le Pen's chances in the French presidentials next May, which is not good news. Nor was it for Andrew Marr to get her on his show. Less a grilling and more a few turns on a sun bed, as abysmal politics broadcast journalism goes, we've been provided with a new floor. Well done. We also took a look at the end of capitalism, seeing as apocalypse is in the air, had a foray into Critical Corbyn Studies, and asked whether Theresa May is going to call an election. TL;DR answer? No.

Making the trip to second chance city this month is my review of Alex Nunns' The Candidate. It's an excellent read. If you've been good, it's well worth asking Santa for a copy! Oh yes, it's going to be December too. The month is traditionally a busy time on the blog, what with all that free time to soak up and annual blogging lists to post. NB This blog reaches its 10th (yes, 10th!) birthday on the 8th, so do expect some vainglorious nonsense.


Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The SNP's Blather About Blair

Tony Blair's politics are awful. But, after a 2.6 million word consideration of his conduct in the lead up to the Iraq War, I'm confident in the belief he's not a war criminal. However, some disagree and remain bent on bringing him to justice. The latest episode in this long-running drama was the motion put to the Commons earlier today by the SNP demanding yet another investigation. This was hung on the infamous note passed to George W Bush (relieved he won't now go down as the worst president in US history) saying "we will be with you, whatever". I can't see what purpose raking over all this for the fourth time would achieve, and think it's better left to the court of public opinion. And, as we know, their verdict is such that Blair remains a cult figure to fewer than 4.5% of the present Labour Party membership.

Well, actually, I can see a reason for some people wanting to go there yet again. As readers know, the motion was heavily defeated by Conservative and Labour votes. This came after a spat between the PLP majority and the leader's office over the appropriate response to the motion. The PLP wanted a three line whip to vote against, while Jeremy was equivocal and consented to a single line whip ... and making himself scarce in the process. However, contrary to what Stop the War think, this was no principled move by Alex Salmond and co. It was a political trap you could see from the Moon.

The PLP were right to oppose the motion, though for the wrong reasons. A defence of past votes cast in favour of the Iraq bloodbath, a residual loyalty to a fattening albatross around the old establishment's neck, some of the calculations undoubtedly were self-serving and arse-covering. Yet some might have spotted the wider politics too. In case anyone forgot Labour's summer of anything-but-love, the divisions haven't gone away. Instead, the emphatic backing of the party membership have imposed a truce on the PLP, though differences persist about what an accommodation with Corbynism involves. Yet that settlement, however imperfect it is, could fall apart if one of its fissures - in this case, differing attitudes to the Iraq War and His Blairness - is wrenched open further. Which is exactly what the SNP were trying to do. It's what any party opposed to Labour would try and do.

Herein lies the logic of Salmond's trap. The PLP would vote against the motion, confirming to former Scottish Labour voters that they remain the same old same old who made common cause with the Tories to keep the UK together and squash the progressive aspirations of the Scottish people. Had Corbyn been bounced into going along with it, that would have discomfited his leftist support base. And if he didn't and somehow avoided the vote, which he eventually did, he looks like a hostage to the PLP and boosts the demonstrably untrue ineffective opposition rubbish. In all, it suits the SNP for Labour to stay down and divided for as long as possible - they know their support in the medium and long-term might go back to Labour if it gets its act together and the SNP falls victim to a sudden shift in political fortune. If we draw one conclusion from 2016, it's that stranger things do happen.

A win-win for the SNP, then. Labour members are moaning about the PLP again, and Jezza made to look a bit rubbish. There was, however, an alternative. And that would have been for the leader to, um, have led. As a trap so obvious it made George Osborne's past stratagems look like Napoleonic masterstrokes, Jeremy should have attacked it as such, criticised the SNP for wasting Parliamentary time with petty point scoring, and voted down the motion on that basis. He should have trusted the good will the majority of party members have toward him as well as the utter non-issue it is among the wider electorate. This wouldn't have meant or been read by anyone that he'd gone soft on Blair and his legacy, but merely underlined the SNP's posturing. The lesson to take home is play the Parliamentary game, which is often irrelevant and mind numbing, or otherwise it will play you - and the consequences, unfortunately, are anything but trivial.