Thursday, 27 October 2016

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Should Labour Stand in Richmond?

Labour is standing in the Richmond Park by-election. But should it? At the 2015 general election, Zac Goldsmith romped home with 58% of the vote. The Liberal Democrat runner up mustered 19% while Labour languished on 12%. The highest proportion we ever managed was at the 1997 high watermark, and then it was a measly twelve-and-a-half per cent. This is a seat in which Labour is doomed to be sidelined as the Tories and LibDems fight it out. Small wonder that with anti-Goldsmith considerations in mind, Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy, and Jonathan Reynolds have come out and said we should duck the fight and give the LibDems a clear run.

The answer depends on your conception of politics, what you thing is going on now British politics is in a state of flux and, flowing from that, your strategy for progressive politics. If you think the vote is split and your priority is an alliance of angels tying Labour up with the LibDems, Greens, SNP, and Plaid Cymru to get the Tories out and proportional representation in, fine. If you look a bit deeper beneath the surface, then matters look somewhat different.

As I've argued before, Labour isn't a workers' party with a bourgeois leadership as per the Lenin's 1920 formulation, but is rather a proletarian party. Put away your images of cloth caps and chimney stacks, I'm using 'proletariat' in the old, old sense of people who sell their labour power for a living. That can take diverse forms, and attracts varied remunerative compensation based on region, skill level, availability, costs of reproducing these workers, and so on. As such, contra the depictions of proletarians in popular culture and A-level text books, it is a heterogeneous category of people to which the overwhelming bulk of people in our society will belong, do belong, and have belonged to. This doesn't and has never precluded status conflicts between different sections of our people, but it does indicate a substantive unity: that income is contingent primarily on one's ability to labour for an employer, regardless of how small or hefty that wage or salary is. Nevertheless, because material and autonomy privileges afforded by work spin off in lifestyle differences, positions that are privileged vis a vis one another, and the acquisition of different levels of cultural and social capital, certain sections tend to be more wedded to the prevailing system than others and are prepared to defend those advantages at their expense. This noisy, contradictory mess of a class built the Labour Party to ameliorate capitalism, not to overthrow it. It explains why the party has a left/right divide, why the right throughout the party's history have tended to call the shots and how the party has always accommodated itself to capitalism.

Making matters more complex is that British politics is undergoing realignment, and because the stultifying electoral system locks out new/challenger parties, the process is now working through the Labour Party - having had turns with the LibDems, BNP, UKIP, and the SNP using different classes and strata. To save writing it all out again, the ridiculous numbers of people who've joined Labour
... are drawn from the emerging occupations - the knowledge worker, the care worker, the precarious worker, forms of labour that are mostly concerned with the provision of a service in some way, work that has the production of social relations at its heart ... This section of people who have to sell their labour power in return for a wage or salary are a rising group. Just as the industrial worker was the "hegemonic" form of work and the left's preferred political agent of the past, so the networked worker (for want of a better phrase) is the increasingly dominant constituency in all the advanced countries. It's slowly waking up, therefore it is vital for the future health of our party that we be its party of choice.
Politics isn't about an irrational, tribal affiliation to a label. It's about interests, and it's in our class interest to ensure Labour captures this movement of networked workers by addressing it, mobilising it, and standing up for it in the media, in Parliament, and at the ballot box. We are the progressive party not because it's a flash word that sounds nice. We are the organised expression of the wave of the future, of the overwhelming majority, of the universal interest. We stand a chance of becoming more than the sum of our parts if we organise everywhere.

This is the main reason why we shouldn't countenance a deal with the LibDems in any instance but the most exceptional circumstances. Like gestures of respect in the tragic event of a murder of a MP, or where the obvious outcome is uncertainty between the yellow of liberalism and the brown of fascism. Again, this isn't because they're uniquely objectionable, but because they're not a progressive party. Yes, sorry. They might like electoral reform, be (formally) anti-racist, believe in things like climate change, have a better position on the EU than most Trotskysists, and are alright (on paper) on matters of liberty and individual freedom. Dipping beneath the froth into the social substance that makes them up, the LibDems are, ultimately, a party of capital. That isn't to say they're primarily made up of business people - that isn't even true of Theresa May's Conservatives. Composition-wise, today's LibDems are a middle class party - a large smattering of the relatively privileged sections of our class, and a smaller sprinkle of the self-employed. Yet the interests it tends to are those of capital and the vanishingly small number of people who live off its unearned proceeds. We have an interest in overcoming our divisions and building a society in which capital is entirely socialised. The LibDems, in contrast, appeal to and reinforce those divisions to pose as better/more rational managers of capital's interests. The basis of liberalism reifies and fetishises the individual, becoming an abstraction providing the dull conformity and crushing tyranny of the market and the workplace philosophical cover. Any identity of interest between them and us is coincidental and episodic, as the experience of coalition government should remind us.

The choice isn't one of boneheadedly standing a candidate when the greater good demands a break from the norm. It's the refusal to subordinate our political project, of standing for the interests of the majority to another who does not, will not, and cannot.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Zac Goldsmith's By-Election Stunt

We have by-elections arising from tragedy. We have by-elections arising out of farce. Zac Goldsmith's decision today to resign his Richmond Park seat in protest against the government's decision to approve a third runway at Heathrow falls firmly in the latter category. This gesture will see him defend his seat as an independent while the Tory party proper have declared they won't be running.

I don't know if Goldsmith is fishing for complements and plaudits. "Oh, he's so, so principled" will come the leader writers of the Tory petit bourgeois. I'm happy to agree that another runway is more than unhelpful where our emission targets are concerned. And from an economic standpoint, throwing down yet more air infrastructure while the existing connectivity leaves a great deal to be desired seems neither wise, nor in line with the Tory aspiration to rebalance the economy away from London and the South East. However, progressive and socialist objections to the development are about enhancing the environment for the enjoyment and enrichment of human beings which, in this case, necessarily means opposing more pollution, more noise, and more congestion. Goldsmith may also believe thunder over Richmond should come from too frequent storm clouds as opposed to additional jet engines, but his greenery is ultimately misanthropic and backward looking. A conservationism in which a reified environment comes before the people who inhabit it and give it meaning, small wonder his "principled politics" happily coexisted with the nudge, nudge racism of the London mayoral campaign.

But let's be serious here. Everything about the coming by-election reeks of a gentlemanly understanding, the sort accompanied by funny handshakes and weird winking. Having made a song and dance about resigning should Heathrow get the go ahead, it was impossible for Goldsmith to find a face saving way out. However, as the Tories aren't putting up against him in practice it will mean very little, assuming he wins the by-election. The government's majority drops by one, but over on the opposition benches there's little reason to believe Theresa May won't find a supplicant happy to go along with the rest of her programme. And then, 18 months to two years down the line, she gives her overrated grand narrative a splash of green and Zac will come back to the fold.

That assumes he can retain the constituency. As Stephen Bush observes, on first glance Richmond looks like a super safe Tory seat. But it scored below the Tory London average during the mayoral contest, suggesting there isn't as much of a personal vote as one might suppose. This might have something to do with Richmond being one of the Tories' most liberal seats. It wouldn't have appreciated their MP's dog whistling Islamophobia, nor the love he gave Leave while the borough voted Remain. Furthermore, it was as recent as 2005 that Susan Kramer held the seat for the LibDems with a seven point advantage over the Tories. Reduced to under 20% in 2015, there is a good chance they could come surging back - especially as they too oppose the third runway. No doubt they'll crank up the battered by-election machinery deployed to excellent effect in Witney, but will the Tories mobilise for their unofficial candidate?

Monday, 24 October 2016

Hitler: The Rise and Fall

Broadcast on More4 these last few weeks is the definitive documentary about the Nazi leader. Bear in mind those are their words, not mine. Like most pieces that try and unpick Adolf Hitler, this claims to get at the man behind the monster by building on insights dredged up by decades of scholarship. And yet, somehow, despite there being virtually nothing that hasn't been said or written about Hitler, TV documentaries always miss the mark. Rather than challenge the myth that he was a political titan in a field of mediocrities, they tend to reconfirm it. In no sense is he analysed in his context, as the head of a social movement and, as such, he gets off as one of history's great (but damned) men. In this respect, I'm afraid to say Rise and Fall is no different.

Despite drawing on academics and experts, Rise and Fall's obvious shortcoming concerns Hitler's rise to power. Obvious, because it is repeated time and again. As even my cat knows, after the Munich Beer Hall Putsch Hitler came to the conclusion that (relatively) peaceful and constitutional campaigning was the way forward for the fledgling Nazi movement. Violence against opponents was ever present, but this took place alongside the work of contesting elections, kissing babies, setting up Nazi social clubs, and so on. After his release from Landsberg prison, Hitler set about reorganising the Nazis and polishing up his image as a dynamic politician. The conventional narrative, which Rise and Fall parrots, is that he got nowhere - despite the celebrity Hitler's trial afforded him - until the Depression came knocking and Germany's economy nosedived. Once this happened, Hitler's assumption of power was more or less guaranteed.

As anyone who imbibed their inter-war history from the teet of Trotskyism knows, matters were more complex. In histories of the time, backed up by Trotsky's excellent contemporary analyses of the rise of Nazism, we were told that Hitler was the fault of Joe Stalin and his minions in the German Communist Party (KPD). The most powerful and well-organised party in the Communist International outside of the USSR, with the onset of economic crisis the official Comintern line declared that a new period in politics had opened up in which revolution was imminent. The time now was to take the offensive and declare war on all capitalist parties, and this included (and especially targeted) the mainstream social democratic and labour parties. In Britain's case, where the tiny CPGB's positioning vis a vis the Labour Party merely reinforced their stillborn status, in Germany the effects were far more serious. Trotsky had rightly identified that the Nazis presented the labour movement a mortal threat, and for that reason the KPD and Social Democrats (SPD) should make common cause to crush the Nazis on the streets and drive them out of politics. They certainly had the combined social weight and large enough militias to do so. And yet, time and again, opportunities for unity were passed up as the KPD pursued the "class against class" line. Rather than seeing the SPD as potential allies, they were "social fascists" to be smashed alongside the real fascists. The fact Stalin's Comintern carried on with this policy to the mutual ruination of German communism and social democracy underlined its bankruptcy and the need for a new revolutionary centre, as far as Trotsky was concerned.

While this was true, Trotsky is a touch guilty of over egging the pudding. Yes, the main enemies were the Nazis, but the KPD didn't pursue the class against class line just because Moscow told them to. The KPD was mainly a young party, but it contained plenty of activists who were around when the Social Democrats in government used proto-fascist militias to murder Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, two of the party's outstanding early leaders. It was the SPD that colluded with the army against the communist government in Bavaria, and summarily executed its key cadre when the Munich soviet collapsed. While history does not excuse the communist failure to unite against the Nazis, it helps explain why many party members swallowed the social fascist line. Meanwhile, the SPD weren't especially keen on forging an alliance against the Nazis with the revolutionary left either - what was taking place on Germany's streets were secondary to its constitutional responsibility toward the republic it had created, and manoeuvring with bourgeois parties to keep the possibility of mainstream coalition government open.

The Nazis were fortunate to face a divided labour movement. By the time they were in government and used the emergency powers contrived by Hitler in the wake of the Reichstag Fire, they were able to roll over both parties without so much as a shot fired. This outcome, however, was not predetermined. Politics are always fluid, and because of the repeated blunders in the face of the Nazi threat Germany succumbed to fascism.

Needless to say, this opportunity to defeat the Nazis was passed over in favour of a narrative of a smooth assumption of power. But the second point, which rarely warrants a mention, is that by the time Hitler was invited to form a government, his party was past its electoral peak. In the July 1932 general election, the Nazis became the biggest party in the Reichstag with 37% of the popular vote (13,750,000 votes) and 280 seats. Come the November election, they lost two million votes and 34 seats. Rise nevertheless portrayed Hindenburg's invitation to Hitler as a natural outcome of an insurgent Nazi party. In fact, by this time Germany was over the worst of the economic crisis and clearly, all it took was a few months for former Nazi voters to get fed up of Hitler's shenanigans and posturing. It was the play of bourgeois coalition politics that elevated the Nazis to the level it could cut liberal democracy's throat. The options were there for yet another bourgeois/SPD coalition, and yet at this late stage the establishment feared the KPD more. In those final free elections it rose to 100 seats and almost six million votes while the SPD's support was spiralling downward. Again, Hitler's rise was not inevitable.

Unfortunately, by skirting over these important historical details they reinforce the Führer myth. As established scholarship has asserted time and again, Hitler was an ignorant blowhard that rendered him entirely inflexible, and was a man consumed by infantile fantasies fed by cowboy novels and Wagnerian opera. He had a talent for rabble rousing, a flare for marketing, and a cunning that could sniff out weakness in others. None of these attributes are signs of genius: they are banal character traits shared by tens, if not hundreds of millions of people. In his rise to power, what is striking is less an exercise of preternatural talents but exceptional luck. Luck that his opponents underestimated the Nazi movement, despite the living example of Fascist Italy, luck that the labour movement was consumed by its own civil war, and luck that the game of government formation made the Nazis an invitation at the moment their support had started to plunge. If you're looking for the last word on this topic, Hitler: The Rise and Fall isn't it.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Theresa May and Thatcherism

There is a touch of confusion about Theresa May's political posturing. The apparent lurch "to the left" signified by her abandonment of Osbornomics (and, of course, Osborne himself) for soft Keynesianism sits uneasily with a commitment to hard Brexit. The homage paid to official anti-racism is at odds with her immigrant bashing. And her fabled competence, her "no Flash, just Gordon" schtick looks ridiculous when she puts off key decisions, slaps down cabinet divisions, and every time one recalls the three fools she's placed in charge of Brexit. Is May riddled with contradictions? Yes, but the answer doesn't lie in character flaws. One has to look to the nature of her political project, the class relationships underpinning it, and the economic and political crisis engulfing British capital and the British state.

We've talked about Thatcherism and the settlement she imposed after the class battles of the 1980s on many occasions. As British capitalism was gripped by periodic crisis in the 70s, the old social democratic levers of managing economic turbulence couldn't stand up to the winds howling through the global economy. Britain, like other advanced nations, faced the puzzle of stagflation - of rising unemployment and rising prices. According to received wisdom, if you cut incomes then prices would fall. Likewise, if wages rise prices go up. Capitalism wasn't behaving properly. More seriously from the standpoint of British capital, the post-war consensus of state intervention, nationalised industry, and mass workplaces had concentrated large numbers of working people in close proximity. It meant that once the oil shock and Vietnam kickstarted inflation and workers fought to maintain their living standards, the spectre of trade union militancy threatened to cripple strategic industry and render government powerless. As the experience of Ted Heath, and the unhappy relationship between Wilson and Callaghan's governments had with our movement demonstrated, British capital had grounds for concern.

Thatcher captured the Conservative Party for the then radical right. Economically, they sought to restore the sovereignty of capital over the economy by curbing working class power first and then going for the institutional props of the post-war consensus. That was the aim, though - contrary to popular belief - Thatcher and friends didn't have a carefully crafted plan. Her new commonsense only became so through her attacks and victories against organised labour, aided by a slavish, cheer-leading press and an array of think tanks and campaigning organisations that either lent her intellectual credibility or softened up the ideological ground for her market fundamentalism and Victorian morality. Only in retrospect does Thatcherism look inevitable, its precepts obvious when, in fact, they were conjunctural adaptations to struggle. She and her government could have been defeated on a number of occasions. If only it wasn't for the SDP split. The Falklands War. The blunders of the Miners' Strike. Things could have turned out much differently.

As we know, Thatcher won. But what exactly won? Thatcherism promised to make Britain great again, words similar to those we find echoed today in the land over the sea. The last hurrah for the British empire over a sheep-worried rock in the south Atlantic was a personal triumph for Thatcher, and gave her licence to wrap herself in the flag whenever she felt like it. She broke the labour movement and shackled it with the most repressive labour relations legislation seen in an advanced liberal democracy. Resources were poured into beefing up the police, the military, and the surveillance state - strangely, the one part of government no neoliberal ever wants to shrink. The city was deregulated, the nationalised industries shut or privatised, council housing flogged off, and communities full of our people left to rot. The economy boomed and enough of the boats floated upwards - some rising much faster than others as the trend to greater inequality reasserted itself. Yet Thatcher did not solve the crisis afflicting British capital, it was merely postponed. Her asset and credit powered boom turned into a bust. By the time her memory was warming the cockles of Tory hearts made bitter by the Major years, the economy took off again. Yet under Blair and right up to the 2008 crash, the character of British growth followed the pattern established by Thatcher. Sell off state assets and/or use public monies to create artificial markets. Continue subsidising the rich with low corporation tax and top income tax rates. Kowtow to the socially useless but GDP-useful city slickers. Keep house prices going and throw credit around like confetti. Meanwhile the gutting of the real economy continued apace. Neoliberalism was the commonsense, Thatcher's settlement was preserved. Despite some welcome reforms, it was business as usual.

The structural weaknesses of the British economy were thrown open to scrutiny by the crash. From the standpoint of capital, these were the overdependence on financial and service-based industries and precious little manufacturing, the stark imbalance between the south east and the rest, short-termism, the balance of payments vis a vis the rest of the world and, for some, the dependence of regional economies on public sector subsidy. The Tory answer was to blame Labour spending for the crash, and identify closing the deficit between what the government receives and what it spends as the chief task of our time. This very simple narrative, dutifully broadcast parroted by helpful editorial offices, got traction and dominated British politics between 2010 and 2015, and helped the Tories into power. The rhetoric therefore became about rebalancing the economy. Osborne had his policy train sets in the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine, and HS2 was approved with a view to spreading London's prosperity about. Low paid workers were taken out of tax, the public sector shrunk further allowing private providers to miraculously fill in social provision they were previously "crowded out from", and so on. I'm sure readers don't need me to dwell on the last five or so years of failure. Time and again, short-term political interests trumped the long-term health of British capitalism. In the truest sense Dave and Osborne were Thatcher's sons. They destroyed institutional props, gutted local government and social security, privatised whatever they could get away with, and believed that people should make their own way through the mess they made. After all, the market is the be-all and end-all and can organise everything much better than anything else. Far from addressing British economic weakness, they too exacerbated it. Though were happy to hide behind GDP figures and underemployment dressed up as record employment.

To speak of May as continuity Thatcherism seems, at first glance, a bit daft. Her economic platform, such as it is, communes more with the spirit of Keynes. Your Friedmans and von Hayeks are now banished to purgatory. Leaving aside the anti-immigrant nonsense for a moment, on face value it appears to be a programme more in tune with addressing the structural problems of British capitalism. A break with neoliberalism and Thatcherism, then? Yes, and no. Certainly on the overt level of economic management it is. Mouthing one nation rhetoric is one thing, but using it as a basis to inform policy is definitely something Thatcher never did. On the surface, the philosophical objection to state intervention has slung its hook and a full appropriation of Ed Miliband Thought affected. On the other hand, it's not. Neoliberalism is more than an economic perspective, an ideology, a technique. It is a way of being, a mode of subjection, a method of creating human beings of a certain type. At this level, the rational, entrepreneurial, acquisitive, self-interest and self-reliant individual is as much part of May's programme as it was for Blair and Brown, for Dave, Major, and Thatcher (as well as, whisper it, Miliband's). Her cod talk of equality and meritocracy is entirely within the envelope of neoliberal governance. In this respect, it's a continuation, not a repudiation of Thatcherism.

Yet there are those stubborn inconsistencies. How can May see "sense" when it comes to a pro-active, state managed economic strategy and burgeoning inequality, but risk angering business over immigration controls and hard Brexit? It's because, like Thatcher's time in power, hers is a class project. Ultimately, Thatcherism wasn't about fixing the economics of British capitalism. That was a secondary concern. Instead, the objective was the smashing and subordination of the labour movement, of rebalancing the tilt of class relations firmly to the right. The anti-trade union agitation and legislation, state authoritarianism, the scapegoating of minorities, the flag waving, the traditional values, all were moments and supports for Thatcher's project. And it succeeded. This new post-social democratic balance of class forces remained the case throughout the Major years. It wasn't upended by Blair and Brown. Indeed, they were obsequious in preserving this state of affairs. The class relations underpinning capital's dominance were, interestingly, most threatened by Dave. His Tory party grew decadent from the standpoint of his class not just because his motley crew took decisions dysfunctional for British capitalism, but also from the point of view of the maintenance of these class relationships. Letting inequality get out of control, jeopardising the integrity of the British state for incredibly low returns, allowing a hard right party grow legs, and pursuing incredibly narrow, sectional policies so the traditional B team of British capitalism falls to the left and is in the process of becoming something else. In short, Dave's cluelessness and negligence put the Thatcherite class settlement under threat.

Now May's incoherence starts making sense. She's putting the band back together. While the support of British business is unlikely to go anywhere, she can have another go at rebuilding the Thatcherite coalition underpinning the right wing balance of class forces. So the anti-Labour sections of the working class who've had their heads turned by UKIP, and the right leaning sections of small business and the managerial middle class. What they crave is the stability and security of a firm hand. The politics of May's economics is protecting them from the headwinds of global competition, while giving their children a route to a more stable life free of housing and job worries. The crackdown on immigration is to show she's doing something not just about the competition and resource pressures from increasing numbers of migrant workers (exacerbated by the government's scrapping of the Migrant Impact Fund to begin with - some might say deliberately and with these consequences in mind), but also to ease those troubled by the appearance of Polski Skleps, the sounds of strange languages down the town centre, and the very idea people are coming over here and stealing our jobs and sponging off social security simultaneously.

Following the ideas of Stuart Hall, for whom Thatcherism was a hegemonic project that prosecuted class struggle economically, politically, and ideologically, May's project falls short. It's a patching up operation doing what it needs to do to ensure the balance of class forces remains on the right. While it can rely on the media to carry on carrying on churning out the anti-working class, anti-migrant, anti-socialist - especially now it has a lightning rod in the shape of Jeremy Corbyn - her political project could so easily come unstuck. While she affects as a competent, authoritarian figure, during her first 100 days in office May has demonstrated a pronounced tendency to dither, delay, and duck out when things get tough. Qualities one does not associate with competence and getting things done, so perhaps it's accurate to describer her emergent doctrine as 'May-beism'. The second is Tory disunity. When Johnson, Davis, and disgraced trade minister Liam Fox aren't publicly scrapping in the press, it's briefing against Philip Hammond. And, on his part, briefings against hard Brexit fanatics in the Cabinet. Compounding that are europhobic back benchers who think the complexity of withdrawing from a bloc we're economically integrated into is a case of backsliding political silly buggers. And then there are those defenestrated Cameroons like Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry happy to make known their unhappiness. The third is the politics of managing Brexit, of having a strategy, rolling with the punches, striking a deal (or a transitional deal), and everything that comes with it.

And fourth is the future of the Conservative Party as a viable caretaker of the Thatcherite class settlement. Triangulating to win back the sorts of constituencies Thatcher had in her handbag is one thing. But holding onto those who quite liked Dave's Notting Hill Toryism is another. More difficult is the party's demographic time bomb. The media weaponry arranged in defence of the settlement is growing less effective. The age ranges who lap it up are disproportionately middle aged to elderly. They're the ones most likely to vote, of course, but they're not going to be around forever. A generation is rising that is at the sharp end of inequality, debt, and insecurity. They're socially liberal and hate the idea that Brexit is going to rob them of even more opportunities, the rights and the perks those older voters have denied them. Their displeasure is taking on flesh in the Labour Party and SNP, and to a lesser extent the Greens and LibDems.

Winning over this hard-pressed but socially liberal generation of networked workers is a tough ask for the Tory party, and especially Theresa May's project as constituted. Hence why hers can only be a holding operation. It can win back the kippery and chauvinist sections of the working class, middle class, and small business by peddling the politics of the past, thereby possibly securing elections wins in the near future. Beyond that, as attitude survey after attitude survey show, all three of these constituencies are in historic decline. Winning the future is beyond May's politics and, possibly, the Thatcherite settlement itself. It is therefore down to us - the labour movement, the left, everyone who supports socialist and progressive politics - to define that future and make it ours. Because if we don't, someone else will.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Two Points About Two By-Elections

Is the new normal the same as the old normal? As previously argued, the 2012 Corby by-election called so former Tory MP Louise Mensch could spend more time trolling 17 year olds on Twitter was the last political contest in England and Wales where UKIP wasn't a factor. For every parliamentary by-election after, they were. They had become the go-to protest regardless of who was holding the seat, and chalked up seconds in each. That remained the case in this Parliament until Thursday.

Standing aside in Batley and Spen like the other parties, Witney was the contest to prove their flush isn't entirely busted. Instead their slice of the vote fell by more than half, were beaten by the Greens, and the deposit forfeit. Please be patient while my crocodile cries me a river. Instead, the LibDems surged past Labour and grabbed the coveted second place slot. Dave's majority fell by 15 points, but with another 15 separating the newly anointed Robert Courts from the yellow party I don't think he'll be getting to twitchy about the size of his majority. Still, could ongoing political instability now manifest itself as an apparent return to how things used to be before the purples pooped the party?

There are a couple of emergent trends that say ... possibly. We know UKIP's all over bar the shouting, but their failure cannot explain, in this instance, an insurgent LibDem vote in a super safe Tory seat. The LibDems have effectively acquired a second wind since the referendum. Building on creditable local council by-election performances over the last year, these last four months see them up 19 seats, and they're taking seats from everyone though, it has to be said, mainly the Tories. There could be a couple of things going on. Firstly, as the die hard remainer party they might be attracting some who are wedded to the European Union and don't presently find Labour attractive for all the usual reasons. But more important is Theresa May's authoritarianism, Wrexitism, and anti-immigrant posturing. Dave was awful, but he could occasionally affect the pose of a liberal Tory well. Say what you like about the man, but he was no racist and didn't play fast and loose with immigration in the same way May is doing. Well, that has consequences, and so for a chunk of Tory support the LibDems are a fair option. Not that May is entirely bothered seeing as she's cultivating the kipper and non-Labour voting sections of the working class to the exclusion of all else. If this dynamic persists, it could well mean the LibDems might take back the seats grabbed by the Tories. What will happen in Richmond Park should Zac Goldsmith resign over Heathrow is set to be interesting.

Turning to Batley and Spen, the by-election we should never have had to have, there was never any question of Tracy Brabin not holding the seat for Labour. With the other main parties standing aside, our vote share increased by almost 43 points and none of her opponents - the flotsam and jetsam of a shattered far right - went home with their deposits. The by-election, however, comes with a warning. Between them the English Democrats, BNP, Liberty GB, and NF pulled together 8.9% of the vote. Ten per cent if you include the idiotic 'Anti-Corbyn' standing under 'English Independence'. Their collective vote may well have been swelled by the absence of any other party, but the fact that one in ten was prepared to vote for a racist after their previous MP was murdered by a member of the far right is deeply, deeply troubling. If UKIP are going to disappear up their own backsides, well, the Liberal Democrats might not be the only ones to acquire newly-found support.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Against Political Fairy Tales

Have you seen the latest Ipsos Mori poll? It's grim. The Tories have an 18 point lead over Labour. The last YouGov from a week ago is also pretty depressing. There, Theresa May's clueless Conservatives were on 42% while Labour limps in on 28%. Not good.

What also isn't good is the coincident circulation of this. It got wide traction a week ago, and found itself bandied about again, as if in some way it invalidates the polls above.

A story. When I was tucked away in Stoke-on-Trent Central's constituency office, I remember an email from an opponent to equal marriage. The author, who regularly sent in evangelical Christian missives, urged the boss to vote against the bill went it came before the Commons. She claimed there was a majority against because a 600,000 signature position (or thereabouts) had got handed in. The polls showing consistent support for a change in the law were wrong because they were based on asking much smaller numbers of people.

Exactly the same logic is on display above. Because some 9,500 participated in Cllr Ben Walker's poll, that means it's more valid than anything our professional pollsters put out. And, oh look, the originator is a Tory councillor so the 60% rating for Labour can't be wrong.

If you're someone who fell for this, this is why you shouldn't. Polling isn't an exact science (in fact, it's not even a science), and they nearly all got the general election and EU referendum results wrong. Wrong, but close. This was because the sample sizes they worked with were weighted to match the voting population. If, for example, men are slightly more likely to vote in elections than women then those proportions will be reflected in the sample. And so on for other demographic characteristics. The sample therefore is more or less a microcosm of what Britain's electorate look like.

The poll represents no one but the people who decided to take part in it. It's an elective poll, not a weighted one. And the problem in this context is it peddles a myth, a fairy tale that everything is fine and the polls are covering up Jeremy Corbyn's massive levels of support. The task is not to hide from reality. If one is truly a radical, it must be confronted.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Place of Religion in Peace and War

Last week's Sociology Research Seminar Series slot at the University of Derby addressed itself to the ambivalent role played by religion in modern wars. Given by Paul Weller, Emeritus professor and former head of the Centre for Society, Religion, and Belief, his paper, 'The Politics of Fear: Religions, Conflict, and Diplomacy' wasn't just a survey of how religion is implicated in conflict but was also a consideration of the historic role it has played in overcoming them - and what it can do in the future.

Beginning with the Cold War, as the two great power blocs confronted one another all political and cultural questions were, to greater or lesser extents, overdetermined by the stand off. As such, it asked religion which side it was on. The West was the upholder of individualism, capitalism, and styled itself as irreducibly Christian. The East was collectivist, socialist, and atheistic. Surely it would be an easy decision? From the standpoint of Eastern Europe's Stalinist monoliths, the Catholic Church was eyed with some suspicion (and, as we know from the Polish experience, they were right to be worried). Simultaneously, there were conscious efforts to rally Christianity to the banner of anti-communism. Yet there were resistances on the part of Europe's faith communities to being co-opted either way. For example, the Church of the Czech Brethren offered their own imminent critique of East and West by singling out anti-human tendencies in both systems, while declaring for neither side. There were also serious efforts at Christian/Marxist dialogues spearheaded by a number of Western Communist Parties, and the Conference of European Churches and the Christian Peace Conference worked at cross-bloc communication aiming at de-escalation.

The end of the Cold War led to a new world order, and one in which ideologues rushed in to define the new foe. In his hubristic The End of History and the Last Man, the once-notorious (and now largely forgotten) Francis Fukuyama, capitalism and liberalism were declared triumphant. Communism was gone, fascism long-dead and so we'd reached the end. There is no competitor as our way of the world had proved its superiority over all-comers. In his arrogance, Fukuyama however did note that Islamic fundamentalism presented something of a challenge, but it was one rooted by geography and could not pose as a global alternative to the West. Others were less discerning. Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations clearly located Islam as the West's new Other, a thesis that obviously gained much traction after the September 11th attacks. The establishment attitude to Muslim communities in its midst varied from country to country, but at least in the British and American context officialdom's political and security discourse differentiated between 'good' (moderate) and 'bad' (extremist) Muslims. The latter were positioned as utterly unusual because of their uncompromising religious/political positioning, desire to afflict mass civilian casualties, and utter disregard for their own lives in the commission of terrorist operations.

Moving specifically to IS, for adherents their "caliphate" is the only place it's possible to live properly Islamic lives. In their cod theology, they see themselves as a state actor setting about the work of constructing something new that could attract Muslims from all over. Therefore it and its co-thinkers in Boko Haram have temporal and territorial aims. They want to create a space that removes uncertainty and indeterminacy and forces Muslims to choose between the land of belief and the lands of unbelief. They also look toward eternity in the belief this brings on the end times: in sharpening the confrontation between IS and the West via terror attacks, the more that is being done to bring on the final battle and the coming of the Kingdom of God.

For Paul, the problem the West has is all military action does is feed their theology. Long-term, particularly here, there has to be the creation of alternative religious narratives that prioritise negotiations between Muslims and other faiths, while all the time challenging the apocalypticism underpinning IS and other species of Islamism. For example, the present bete noire of the Turkish government, Fethullah Gülen argues that rather than opposing a liberal Islam to their fundamentalism, one needs to centre on the critical resources within the belief system and articulate an agenda of critical questioning. IS justify their atrocities according to convenient scriptural authorities, but at the same time it may contain the seeds of their demise.

Monday, 17 October 2016

UKIP After Steven Woolfe

It's been a torrid time for UKIP since the referendum in June. And not in a good way. On no less than three occasions, the cause of the purple party's discomforts have, ostensibly, centered upon the person of Steven Woolfe. There was the farce of the leadership campaign where, readers will recall, Woolfe demonstrated his lightning fast organising skills by submitting his candidate's application some 17 minutes late. Compounding this most rookie of errors were revelations he'd let his membership lapse. Oh, and that he'd forgotten to declare an ancient drink driving conviction while standing for the 2012 Police and Crime Commissioner elections in Greater Manchester, leaving him open to charges of electoral fraud. Then, at the start of the month, we were entertained by the fracas between Woolfe and the aptly named Mike Hookem MEP. And now, there's this.

In quitting UKIP "with immediate effect", Woolfe is unsparing with his criticisms. There are "huge negative camps" threatening the party with "a death spiral", and members saying "horrific" things to each other. Standard for UKIP, I'd have thought. He also concludes that the party has next to no future without Nigel Farage as he's the only figure capable of keeping a lid on things. True, but even then, UKIP was plagued with infighting, splits, briefing and counter briefings, and a disproportionate number of its wastrel MEPs hauled before the courts. And there's also the suggestion the party's on the hook for 800 grand, minus a willing sugar daddy to make the shortfall good.

This latest round in UKIP's decline is something first forecast on this blog after the 2015 general election. Feeding off the historic anti-Labour sections of the working class, the lumpens, the petit bourgeoisie, and retirees, UKIP's core, if it can be called that, was always highly volatile. A coalition built around europhobia and anti-immigrant bigotry can glue such a bloc together for a time. The adhesive can be strengthened by the application of a charismatic man-of-the-people type, and for a while, it worked. While it was on the up, it appeared as if these divisions didn't matter. UKIP have shrugged off dodgy MEPs and egos as it climbed the polls, won the European elections, nicked two MPs off the Tories, netted councillors, and made the political weather. But after the general election, and post the EU referendum, the party's tendency to historic decline has accelerated. With Theresa May cornering the let's-be-beastly-to-foreigners market, UKIP is not about to repeat the glories. With or without Farage.

Which is why, ultimately, Woolfe has thrown the towel in. He deserves some credit for speaking candidly to the BBC about his injuries, but one thing he isn't is stupid. Apart from his politics, Woolfe does seem personable and usually acquits himself well on the television. Yet he hasn't got what it takes to lead UKIP's gaggle of silly, stupid, racist geese. In his presentation and personality there is nothing setting him apart from any other smooth, media trained mainstream politician. Qualities that might endear him to a nice Conservative Association somewhere, sometime, but definitely not what a so-called people's army demands. They need a Farage or, ugh, a Kilroy.

The departure of Woolfe epitomises the crisis, the cracking up of UKIP. The party is dying because it cannot replace itself. there just aren't sufficient numbers of younger activists and, crucially, voters willing to give the party time of day. Small wonder it can manage a succession properly. Looking among the personages and non-personalities of the party's leading cadre, there is not one among them capable of filling Farage's shoes. And in the politics after the referendum, it lacks purpose beyond an occasional council by-election annoyance. Woolfe's departure might be enough to save his career from the knackers yard of politics. It looks increasingly like the same can't be said for his erstwhile party.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Anti-Semitism and Labour, Again

Among Jeremy Corbyn's failings, according to The Times this morning, is the Labour Party becoming a "safe space" for anti-semites. Of course, it is not now nor has ever been a safe space for anti-semitism - as the recent expulsions testify. Yet this is the spin our increasingly partisan "paper of record" chooses to put on the release of the Home Affairs Select Committee report, Antisemitism in the UK.

On page six it says,
This report focuses to some extent on the Labour Party, because it has been the main source of recent allegations of antisemitism associated with political parties. It should be emphasised that the majority of antisemitic abuse and crime has historically been, and continues to be, committed by individuals associated with (or motivated by) far-right wing parties and political activity. Although there is little reliable or representative data on contemporary sources of antisemitism, CST figures suggest that around three-quarters of all politically-motivated antisemitic incidents come from far-right sources.
It also adds that while the other parties have their issues, it's concerning that anti-semitism should have reared its head in the party most historically associated with anti-racism and equality. What's going on?

As readers know, my view is Labour has an anti-semitism problem in so far as society at large has such a problem. It is not institutionally prejudiced and discriminatory toward Jewish people, but nor are we talking about a media invention without substance. Since Jeremy Corbyn emerged as a serious contender for the Labour leadership, the party has attracted fringe elements of the anti-war movement who explicitly identify as anti-Zionist as the flipside of being pro-Palestinian, some September 11th truth'er conspiracy theorists, and idiots for whom politics is a form of radical performance art. In addition, the heat of Labour's internal divisions has proved a useful foil for hardcore racists, among whom are those using Jeremy Corbyn as a fig leaf for their views, and trolls happy to fan the anti-semitic flames as long as it scorches the leadership and the wider party.

What I think the report gets right is critiquing the shortcomings of the Chakrabarti report which, rightly, found anti-semitism wasn't a systemic problem in the Labour Party (despite not running with an operational definition of what it actually is). And rightly it also criticises the cack handed way in which the leadership have undermined their exoneration by handing the report's author a berth in the House of Lords and now a position in the shadow cabinet. If you're going to make a deal about doing new politics, the first rule is to not look like the old politics. It is also right to criticise Ken Livingstone and Jackie Walker for their childish provocations - in both case it shows an appalling lack of judgement and zero awareness about how their behaviour reflects on the party and the political current they support. Or perhaps they did know and just don't care about their responsibility to the wider movement. Of course, what the report doesn't address is the factional uses to which all of this is being put. Indeed, this morning's BBC Breakfast, Andrea Leadsom's former cheerleader-in-chief Tim Loughton was doing just that.

In the party's defence, this reply has been posted to the Labour leader's Facebook page, responding to some of its points and making a number of important criticisms of the report. But does that make the select committee publication another addition to the ledger of smears and baseless claims? If only. Yes, it's damaging to Labour, and there are interests in portraying our party as a uniquely anti-semitic outfit that is not welcome to Jewish people. Context is everything. But that doesn't mean its findings can be swept under the carpet, which seems to be the stock response of some.