Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Understanding Corbynmania

It's not the key factor explaining why Labour aren't doing spectacularly well at the moment, but the never ending tit-for-tat in the press, on the telly, on the internets isn't helping much. It is a truism that divided parties don't win elections, after all.

Then there were these polling figures of Labour Party members. Some 65% of them think Jeremy is doing well as party leader, while only 38% of those polled believe he'll ever make Number 10, and, controversially, 56% say taking a principled line is the correct way to do politics, even if it means losing elections. You can imagine that caused a few feathers to be spat down Portcullis House.

There's no use pretending there aren't divisions. And divisions, I'm afraid, are inevitable in large parties. Not because we're full on ornery b'stards who factionalise for kicks, but because both the big Britain-wide parties are agglomerates of different interests. The Tories aren't simply the party of business and Labour the party of workers, both are sectionalised by occasional tension, occasional competition between types of business, industrial sectors, professions, status, occupational groups. Behind each set of ideas or policy agendas duking it out in committee rooms and association bars are interests they correspond to. It's not that shadowy cabals sit around and think up stuff that helps them (though, of course, this happens too, which is why a lot of corporates and super rich sugardaddies flood think tanks with cash), but rather at some point down the line an idea is caught up with or pushes against certain interests that structure British politics. For example, Liam Byrne's economics appear neutral and technocratic, but implementing them would meet stiff resistance by sections of business, despite offering a programme that business-as-a-whole stands to benefit from. I digress. The divisions we see between Jeremy and his majority, and the PLP and their minority in the party likewise map onto those competing interests, and they're not going to go away. The job for the leadership - any leadership - is to manage them, and for any challengers to be aware of how they balance out and ride them when they feel it's opportune.

This in mind, how then are the, for want of a better phrase, - Corbynites - to be understood? I think, more or less, there are two broad groups. There were the members and long-time supporters that voted Jeremy in the leadership campaign. These are 'party people', comrades who are Labour to their marrow, folks who understand the party's culture, understand the party is a coalition, and understand that if we're going to get anywhere we have to pull together as a collective and pool our talents as well as our energies. Everyone who supported Jeremy that I know in real life come from this group.

The second group, and the real topic of this post, are the more visible and more "enthusiastic" Corbyn supporters. The ones who enjoy trolling the likes of Mike Gapes and other standard bearers of the ancien regime. The ones who launch change.org petitions against recalcitrant MPs, and festoon their social media with markers of Corbyn authenticity. There's a lot of them, and a good chunk have joined the party. Yet in the main, their Labour support begins and ends with Jeremy. I see the "if Jeremy is toppled I'm leaving the party" refrain everyday, give or take. The party and the movement isn't the repository of progressive social change, a single man is. Ironic considering this 'great man' approach is a million miles away from Jeremy's own politics. They swell constituency membership lists, but tend not to get involved in meetings or campaigns, preferring to keep their activism, such as it is, online. As a whole, they tend to be raw and new to politics - hence why they share analogous characteristics with cybernats and UKIP supporters one tends to bump into online: a black and white view of the world, faith in one or two leading figures, scathing responses to naysayers, and dare I also say an assumed victimhood?

It's the latter group, of course, that attract the headlines and the moaning in the papers, as if sending a few nasty tweets was akin to getting a midnight visit from the GPU. Yet it is entirely explicable and, perhaps, avoidable.

Let's have another lesson from history. Political radicalism, of whatever stripe, takes root and puts on mass weight when large numbers of people are excluded from political process. Hamas, for example, owes its support amongst the imprisoned population of Gaza because, whatever you think of them, they portray themselves and have a record of being Israel's most implacable foe. That wouldn't be possible without Israel sitting on them. Why did the Provos assume a republican socialist character in Northern Ireland? Because militancy and armed struggle was perceived by the Catholic minority to be the only language the British state understood. Why did the early mass workers' parties of Western Europe adopt Marxist and revolutionary politics? Had the exclusion from official politics of the proletarian mass have something to do with it?

Corbynmania finds its ultimate source not in the whiz-bang campaigning skills of Jeremy's leadership team, but the exclusion of members and the perceived interests of working class people from having any meaningful influence over the direction of the party since at least His Blairness took over in 1994. For example, trade union exec after trade union exec lined up behind Jeremy because they remember being taken for cash cows and little else at best, or potential enemies at worst. The truth of the matter is Blair's centralisation of the party institutionalised an organised distrust of the members. It was the PLP who had the nation's pulse, not the activists who, being "real people" themselves, presumably mix with "real people" daily. And as lines for directing policy from the constituencies were shut down, and candidate selections were manipulated and circumvented for the benefit of favoured folk, and, let's be honest, right-wing policies adopted on grounds of supposed electoral expediency, a resentment built in the party and the trade union movement against all of this. The initial offerings in the Labour leadership contest, followed by the cack-handed debacle of the tax credit vote catalysed the resentment and burst open the repressive bonds that had hitherto held it in check. We know the rest. In hindsight, is it any surprise Jeremy trounced all-comers?

This brings us back to the poll. These numbers are being fed by a perception that, despite winning the leadership, there are plenty in the PLP carrying on in the old way, of trying to exclude and thwart the newly empowered membership. The more certain MPs carry on, the more they're making a rod for their own back. That resentment that took 20 years to fester is still there, and many Corbynites feel it keenly. And it's not a battle our PLP refuseniks can win. I know what the calculation is. Many couldn't give two hoots if tens of thousands of new party members decamped if they manage to toss Jeremy out of a window. They suppose that the potential for deselection is lessened. True, but it is also a possibility - one that had grown increasingly probable thanks to the foundation of Momentum - that many raw Corbynites are integrated into the party and become "proper" party people. On the one hand they're not going to look too kindly upon MPs seeking reselection in redrawn constituencies if they've been vocal in their opposition or seen to have undermined Jeremy. And second, by virtue of their behaviour, a stab-in-the-back myth could be persuasively powerful in mobilising a winning majority behind a leftist successor. No wonder there are those on the centre and right of the party who keep their mutterings to themselves and think active opposition is most unwise.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Jeremy Corbyn and Insecurity

Relax, Labour is not going to lose the Oldham by-election so there's no need to look for a bus to throw Jeremy under. It will be fine. Ish. Yes, the majority bequeathed by Michael Meacher is going to be cut, and part of that's because fewer people turn out for by-elections unless fired up by some motivating factor or another. Yet the coming performance can, should, and will be read as an early verdict on Jeremy's leadership.

Remember, Oldham West is a so-called "core area" filled full with "our people" - a mix of white and Asian working class and small business people. If Labour cannot win and win convincingly in a constituency of this composition, then we're in trouble. Second, much was made during the Labour leadership campaign that Jeremy had what it takes to reach out to voters alienated from politics, chiefly Labour people who've drifted to UKIP, or lapsed into voter abstention. Can his leadership inspire these folks back to the fold? Well, going by the inside track among activists who've worked the seat solidly these last few weeks, there is a Jeremy effect but, unfortunately, not the one the tens of thousands who supported him were hoping for. Apparently, one-in-ten of our regular supporters are either thinking of sitting at home or flirting with another party on by-election day.

As any party activist will tell you, voter ID is hardly a benchmark the science of data collection relies on. But then there is that ComRes poll that has the Conservatives on a 15-point lead. Is that the sky I hear tumbling down outside my door? No. As UK Polling Report note in their useful commentary on the poll, this is less a result of our party vote fracturing and more a case of them weighting it to reflect turn outs by class and age demographics. This could be dismissed seeing how the pollsters proper cocked up the general election, but the trend - also helpfully provided on the aforementioned - is one of divergence vis a vis the Tories. If that wasn't annoying enough, the actual votes in actual local council by-elections this month are pretty poor, and with only one more Thursday to go it's unlikely Labour are going to pull the irons from the fire in time to avoid turning in the worst monthly performance since this blog started tracking local by-elections.

This could be a temporary blip, a week being a long time and all that. Unfortunately, I don't think this is the case. Consider this for a moment. The government are on the ropes over tax credits. Jeremy Hunt, the clutz in charge of flogging off NHS services to "any willing provider", has provoked an ill-judged dispute with junior doctors. He's had his face smacked by a 98% support for full strike action on a 76% turn out. This week Osborne's going to announce more swingeing cuts to public services and, if that wasn't all, the press regardless of political complexion has been rammed with coverage over the shitty behaviour of Mark Clarke and the predatory cesspit of Tory activist life. It's hard to imagine the enemies of our movement getting a rougher ride out there in real-life land, and yet our support is failing. Why?

The Tories won in May because they played the fear card. They could very well win in 2020 as their policies increase precarity and pile up social anxiety. What Labour needs to do is make the issue of security its own. I've been banging about it for ages, not least because insecurity and the fear it engenders is the well-spring for all manner of nasties. Racism, antipathy to immigrants, social distrust, UKIP/far right voting. This was something the old leadership under Saint Ed at best only half-got, but what Jeremy and co. understood. Until this week.

Jeremy's position on shoot-to-kill is right, but was handled spectacularly badly in the wake of the Paris attacks. His equivocal response painted his leadership into a corner that suggested he would not countenance armed responses to terrorists on the streets of Britain. Very quickly, it didn't take much to string this together with his pacifism, with John McDonnell's did-he/didn't-he signing of a letter calling for the abolition of MI5 and armed police, opposition to bombing IS targets in Syria, and long-term objection to Trident replacement, And in so doing, Jez fell into a bind of his own making. In an anxious country where the Bulldog spirit has long since evaporated and insecurity is milked for political purposes, putting yourself out there as someone who isn't prepared to do what is perceived to be necessary to make the country safe against its enemies is doomed politically and guaranteed to fail electorally. In short, Jeremy has positioned the party as an unsafe option, and that is not a great place to be in.

Can Labour come back from this and win? It pains me to say this. I think anyone addressing the British political scene soberly, with an understanding of the emotions, the interests, the shifts that structure it day-to-day and week-to-week is going to have to err on the side of no. It's one thing to stir up insecurity for political benefit, as the Tories are past masters at doing. Quite another to be seen inadequate and equivocal before it.

iPads and Socialism

Socialism is Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10 plus superfast broadband! Okay, not as pithy as Lenin's definition involving soviet power and electrification, but John McDonnell's speech on Wednesday is a continuation of a fine tradition in left and centre left politics: the close alignment of our policy agenda with technological dynamism. Though, of course, it's more than just a nice rhetorical flourish - the lining up alongside futurity in John's case has a double purpose. His iPads and Socialism speech was an attempt to wrest the white heat of technology from the grip of George Osborne, who's made much of his fetish for graphene and high speed rail; and to bring out the shiny contours of contemporary left Labourism against the soot-streaked brutalism of nationalisations past.

While John is often portrayed as a wild-eyed Bolshevist burning with the ambition to collectivise the FTSE 100, his speech contained very little that might suggest expropriating the expropriators is on his mind. Still, city slickers might get a bit angsty over his desire to do something with the huge piles of cash big business are sitting on. This graph from Michael Roberts demonstrates the problem:

How to unlock this cash? John said Britain needs to look at "ways to change our corporate tax system and work constructively with companies to give them the incentives to invest wisely ... a higher tax on retained earnings should be investigated." That seems quite reasonable to me and anyone not ideologically committed to stuffing the maws of corporate accounts with even more gold in the hope that someone, somewhere will invest as per Osborne's illiterate and dysfunctional long-term economic plan.

Some might take this as evidence of Labour's anti-business stance, though being super business-friendly has never stopped the Tories enunciating such. Yet, again, what is on offer here isn't socialism as such but rather a kinder, fairer capitalism. As John notes, what he's seeking is a "compact" between government, business, and science to plan for growth. This would mean addressing skills gaps in increasingly crucial sectors, turning attention to the threats and promises of automation, as well as providing a context for more profitable investment. Think of it as capitalism as if rationality mattered. And, as you might expect, John takes a swipe at the idiocy of Osborne's austerity.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Putting aside the PLP froth and different approaches to matters of terrorism and war, economically speaking a great deal unites Labour. Compare John's scheme with the more "mainstream" vision outlined by Liam Byrne. I don't think there are differences of kind here, merely of degree and emphasis. Unfortunately, our opponents are aware of this even if we're not, and will say and do anything to keep the political focus away from the economy - even when there's a spending review imminent.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

The Magus by John Fowles

Okay, I read quite a bit. I'm not a full on book snob, but thanks to reading so much and working randomly through the huge pile of novels we've accumulated over the years, when something stands out I know it has to be good. And that's just happened reading The Magus by John Fowles.

Being at once highly educated yet appallingly ignorant, I knew the book had a good reputation, but in the manner of Paul Coehlo's The Alchemist has a following. Anticipating some semi-mystic wittering common among the more esoteric offerings of the 1960s and 70s, The Magus took those expectations and fed them into the shredder. It also turns out that The Magus is pretty impossible to review.

What Fowles has given us is a novel that plays with coming-of-age tropes, tragic love affairs, and detective stories, but also throws in Greek myth, psychoanalysis, Nazis, Shakespeare, hypnosis. It's difficult to say anything that doesn't spoil the book in some way, except to say the whole thing is a rabbit hole that draws you in deeper and deeper. Once you're satisfied with one explanation for the goings ons, it's upended and the mystery rewrites itself. In this respect it reminded me a bit of Lost, without losing itself in the complexity of the plot. In literature, the nearest it comes to is probably Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco, though Fowles' novel is more accessible and satisfying.

Because it questions the extent to which one can rely on one's own perceptions, sense-making, and intentions, The Magus has lazily been described as a postmodern novel. This is a bit of retrospective padding. Given its concerns with the mind and the unconscious, and its darting twists and unexpected - and sometimes absurd - set-pieces, The Magus is a culmination of surrealist themes the postmodern later drew upon.

Call me a proselytiser, but it's not often a novel really grabs me. This one has. Get it. Read it.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Dee Dee - Forever

Not feeling a blog post tonight. But I am in the mood for chrome and neon.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

John van de Laarschot: A Political Obituary

A week ago one of the most controversial figures ever to have graced Stoke-on-Trent politics left the stage. I'm referring to John van de Laarschot, the now ex-chief executive of the six towns' beloved City Council. For a council officer supposed to remain in the shadows, he was certainly one of the best known unelected city servant ever to have graced his office. It almost got to the point where he was a household name. Rare are the occasions the chief executive of the local authority makes front page news of the local rag. In this one respect, Stoke was unique.

JvdL, as he was often referred to down the council, was appointed in October 2009 by the then governing coalition of City Independents and Tories. However, as the bulk of his time with the city was under the 2011-15 Labour administration, he was most closely identified with our party. His appointment came at a time of acute instability at the council. A year before his appointment, Stoke-on-Trent had decided to scrap the mayoralty by referendum (contemporary piece here). And this was after a long period of bloody and dysfunctional infighting in the council chamber. Equally as chaotic were the musical chairs in the upper echelons of the civic centre as senior officers came and went. On top of this then, as now, the city's economy was in one might be euphemistically described as a challenging position. Stoke needed a hero on a white charger, and JvdL was sold as that man.

This is the first curiosity around JvdL. Having previously served as chief executive of Torridge District Council - an authority hardly known for a resurgent economy - somehow convinced leading councillors he was a superstar chief executive. The three feathers in his cap that no doubt helped was improving the finances of the North Devonshire borough; experience as a senior manager at PepsiCo, and a stint on Wife Swap. What can I say? Some folks are easily impressed. JvdL started on £194k/year, which rose to £230k after increments were applied. And there were various golden handcuff clauses and guaranteed payouts if he was let g. Fair play to his canny negotiating skills - shame on the coalition's abysmal fools who nodded this idiocy through.

By the time Labour came to office JvdL it was too late to dismiss him under employment law. And besides, things appeared to be changing. Anticipating a Labour victory, under his direction officers had been beavering away on Mandate for Change, which was something approaching a long-term economic plan for the city. Too some fanfare the council announced the red carpet was getting rolled out for business. Local employers were wined and dined, potential inward investors charmed and smarmed. The city centre-first strategy (rightly) affirmed. Overall, there was an impression of movement, of things starting to happen. Having attended a number of City Council soirees back in the day, JvdL certainly looked the part. He presented himself and the city he ran confidently and not without an element of aplomb. He was a showman with the kind of business charisma managers and investors would have found compelling.

Nevertheless, he was constantly dogged by his humongous salary; a sum that went down like a yard of sick in a city not known for its overgenerous wage earnings. There was that and a question of what he actually did. I remember one councillor telling me about going to him with some numbers to which he replied "I don't do detail". His subordinates were likewise mystified. There were lots of meetings. And meetings with consultants he'd previously had associations with, but little idea what he did on a day-to-day basis. What is it you can do to justify such a massive wad? His leadership was also lacking in certain parts of the council. The so-called sexy stuff in local government is always around infrastructure and regeneration. Adult and children's social care, not so much. The feeling down the civic was that JvdL was very much a regen manager - the rest was left to his mixed bag of lieutenants who, like most councils, ranged from the scarily competent to the terrifyingly clueless.

Now John has gone, is the council better for his tenure? In some respects it's a more professional outfit. A leaner one, certainly, thanks to the ceaseless barrage of cuts. But still dysfunctional in many respects. The jobsworth culture, the uncaring culture, the working-in-silos culture - features common in all large organisations, public and private - wasn't really addressed. As for the regen strategy associated with his time, well, we'll never know if it's set to bear fruit seeing as the City Idiots and their Tory helpers have junked it. I don't think JvdL was worth the cash, but because of their stupidity and petty-mindedness, we'll never know for sure.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Understanding Social Media Solidarity

It used to be said that the lowest form of solidarity was signing a petition. Now you might argue that it's changing your social media avatars so they reflect the topical campaign of the month. It is with this jaundiced and sceptical eye that Camilla Hodgson reviews the phenomenon of millions of people giving their social media a Tricolore filter in solidarity with the French people against last Friday's attacks.

In his Economic Theory of Democracy (1957), Anthony Downs argued that the propensity to vote was an outcome of the probability one's vote is decisive (P) in a given electoral contest taken with the perception that one benefits from your chosen party winning over and above opposing parties (B), minus the cost of voting (C). Both Conservatives and Labour heavily played the PB themes at the last election, each painting the other in blood-curdling terms and aggressively chasing every vote. And because the polls were close, parties and commentators alike expected a much higher turnout. In the end, the latter was up by a blip, and Labour was trounced as bits of its (former) support stuck to UKIP or stayed at home (among other reasons). From the Downsian perspective, the PB-C formula* played out as Labour voters in sufficient numbers thought their vote didn't matter, that there weren't enough incentives on offer from their party, and the cost of ploughing through party literature, watching political broadcasts and TV debates, and finally going out to vote were too high for too many.

What's this got to do with the price of social media filters? Adapted to the world of tweets and Facebook updates, and doing some injury to Downs' formulation, everyone knows filtering one's avi through the colours of the Republic isn't going to have a meaningful impact on the world. Yet demonstrating one's opposition to IS in a way that is cost free makes some sort of sense. The benefit of being seen as a caring soul touched by awful events does not see one benefit materially, except in the sense of signalling one's virtue.

That, at least, is how a rational choice approach might explain why an ocean of red, white, and blue has taken over the internet. And, as such, it shows up the limits of its utility. Everyone here is self-motivated and self-interested, expressions of solidarity and support have an undercurrent of bad faith. It does not recognise that people can be genuinely moved by tragedy. Looking at my Facebook updates, which contains some real people as opposed to the politics weirdos I follow on Twitter, folks ranging across the spectrum of politicisation, from the heavily committed to couldn't-give-two-hoots demonstrated their solidarity and sympathy. And, undoubtedly why it was closely felt in ways the atrocities in Lebanon and Kenya just weren't - unfortunately - is cultural proximity. Most people don't know a great deal about France, French politics, or French society, but they know enough that they are like us. Hence it's very easy to imagine being at the footy, sinking a jar or two down the bar, enjoying a gig and facing the sort of nightmare Paris has been through. Among the outpouring of pity and sadness, as well as rage against the IS death cult, there is a tinge of fear in there as well, that this could be visited upon a British city.

To return to Camilla's New Statesman piece, the point of filtering your avatar is ... well, it varies. There is no point as such, and if there is a consequence it is to strengthen the social bonds, to create a shared emotion; a 'we' in a highly varied, digitally individuated world - just as it is with other outbreaks of social media solidarity.

*Any resemblance between this formula and the arrangement of my own initials are entirely coincidental.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Jeremy Corbyn and Shoot-to-Kill

You can understand the thirst for vengeance. Last night, France flew sorties over Syria to strike IS targets in Raqqa, the capital of their ramshackle semi-state. They reportedly hit a recruitment centre and munitions depot. Other facilities on the receiving end of French ordinance were a hospital, a museum, a stadium, and a chicken farm. Still, "something" has been done. IS have had a taste of fire, even if civilians every bit as innocent as the murdered in Paris lost their lives in the French bombing.

Whenever there is an appalling outrage on Western soil, or mass civilian casualties mount overseas, as per the Tunisian beach murders or the bombing of a Russian airliner, politicians and media outlets combine their outrage with simple non-solutions that paint one half of the world in saintly white and the other in sinner's black. The complexity of the situation, of the drives that fuel IS support here and abroad, which few establishment figures are normally interested in anyway, are painted out. They're against us, so let's kill 'em. Alas, turning Raqqa and parts of Sinai and Yemen into the Moon will kill terrorists, but does nothing to address the causes of terrorism. Such is the folly of dressing ourselves in saintly white as against their sinner's black.

At times likes these, pointing out the bleeding obvious can at best be seen as an eccentricity. At worst, nuance is tantamount to flying the IS standard. This in mind, I wouldn't like to think some in the media have been waiting to turn the Paris tragedy into an opportunity to attack Jeremy Corbyn, but it would appear some were lying in wait to use the occasion to attack Jeremy Corbyn. Some were a bit quick off the mark, while others waited to see what Jez had to say. And so, tonight, after saying a shoot-to-kill policy on the streets of Britain is not a good idea. Cue outrage.

Let's be clear what a shoot-to-kill policy is and isn't. What it isn't is police getting into gunfights with armed terrorists, as per what happened in Paris. That is an armed response to an emergency situation and anyone in the commission of a terrorist outrage can expect to be held to account by a hail of bullets. That is, first and foremost, a police operational matter of which there is oversight after the fact. What a shoot-to-kill policy is is the gunning down of suspects. Not someone already attacking civilians. Not someone in a gun fight with police. So when Jeremy says he's against a shoot-to-kill policy, he's being highly specific. He's not suggesting armed response throw down their arms and risk themselves and civilian lives to lay the cuffs on someone spraying all and sundry with gunfire. What he is suggesting is that shooting people first and asking questions later, is something we might want to avoid. And you know what? He's wise to make this call. In the aftermath of the July bombings 10 years ago, as the police were on edge and London as a whole jittery, in a catastrophic failure of intelligence Jean Charles de Menezes was wrestled to the floor of a tube carriage and shot four times in the head by police. Do we want to see a repeat, really?

The spin, however, is very different. Jeremy would have us fight terrorists with tea and a slice of muesli, the editorials and front pages will say tomorrow. Like I said, if there are barrels to scrape there are plenty willing to reach deep into them and, again, the tragedy is that another moment to think creatively about and ask searching questions about the jihadi imagination and why some disaffected Muslim youth turn to IS will surely be lost.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

After the Paris Attacks

Near the beginning of the year I had to write about a set of Paris attacks, and as it comes to a close here we are again. As 129 innocent people lie dead thanks to the cowardly actions of self-styled warriors of Allah, the awful shock is tempered by a world-weary inevitably, a sense that something like the Charlie Hebdo massacre was always going to happen again. And again. And again. For the murderous thugs and zealots of IS, there is no out-of-bounds, no target too soft to be the object of an outrage, but to defeat them the powers ranged against IS can't carry on as they have been doing. Here are some scattered thoughts on military "hard" power, and the crucial importance of the "soft".

1. Up until now their jerry-rigged caliphate in Iraq and Syria has concentrated Islamists from across the globe. For the thousands of volunteers pulled in from Western Europe and North America, there's a place on the map they can go; an imagined community of small minds for whom medievalism backed by selective Qu'ranic verse is their vision of heaven on earth. Here they can live out their brutalised fantasies against defenceless Yazidi, or pretend domestic bliss under self-ordained Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Now that its supply lines from Turkey are under regular attack by the Russians, no matter how attractive IS territory may appear to the jihadi imagination, getting there is much more difficult. As the siege ratchets up and their pocket of territory contracts, that leaves more would-be fighters in the West available for operations like yesterday's outrage. Perversely, as IS weakens in its stronghold the capacity for (semi-autonomous) terror attacks in the West become more potent.

2. Nevertheless, there are military options. The blood price paid by Russian tourists and pleasure-seeking Parisians has redrawn the complex alignments in Syria, again. Francois Hollande and Vladimir Putin are on the same page and, understandably, there's probably a unanimity of public opinion across Europe against Islamism. Who wouldn't want to see IS perish beneath a whirlwind of bombs? The danger of entanglements between Western and Russian aircraft in Syrian skies has receded and a unified response is now, for the moment, possible. But as an objective, given the above, is it possible and desirable? First of all the crushing of IS cannot be accomplished by upping the number of sorties flown. It requires troops, and is there any appetite that same public opinion to put Western and Russian soldiers in harm's way? Is that even the case in a France raw with grief? It's unlikely. However, there are already troops on the ground who are proving effective against the Islamists. The problem is there's not enough of them, and Turkey are intent on bombing them behind their lines. If the West/Russia are not intent on fielding soldiers against IS, they're going to have to cut a deal with the Kurds and offer them more than the present alliance of convenience between them and the US State Department.

If, however, the unthinkable happens and ground troops are sent against IS, as much as the latter would relish the fight the modern firepower and well-trained forces France, Russia, and Britain have at their disposal shouldn't have too much trouble rooting out and destroying IS. IS aren't going up against the ramshackle Iraqi army, and neither would the great powers be facing a well-motivated indigenous insurgency as per Basra and Helmand. Were IS to be eradicated from their homeland, it might, might, rob IS sympathisers elsewhere of a focus and demonstrate the futility of their impoverished politics. If not here, where? If not now, when? What's the point if your efforts are doomed to perish? Then again, their bit-part theology is hardly conducive to rational thought. Its other-worldly orientation can easily adapt itself to life without the so-called caliphate and alibi terrorism for terrorism's sake. And, of course, pasting IS territory with bombs isn't very likely to well-dispose civilians to the West, threatening a renewed cycle of radicalisation and violence.

3. Speaking on BBC News this lunch time, Lord Carlile - the so-called terrorism expert - called for Muslim leaders and young Muslims to come forward and be more forthright in their condemnation. What on earth does he think they have been doing? British mosques regularly ring out with denunciation against Islamic State and extremism. There are plenty of Muslims making plain their opposition to fundamentalist terrorism. Should Carlile pause before speaking ill-informed bollocks in future, perhaps he might like to reflect why the Muslim voices the media much prefers to give national platforms to are unrepresentative self-publicists like the rancid Anjem Choudary, or dishonest frauds like Mo Ansar. Where's the call for the media to act responsibly and reflect the popular opinion of British Muslims? Your voice can only carry so far if the press and the broadcasters are utterly uninterested in what you have to say.

And here is the problem the political and security establishment refuse to confront. While it is crass and stupid to say the West is to blame for Islamist extremism, radicalisation doesn't happen in a vacuum. It's not as if young Muslims stumble on propaganda videos and are turned into hate-filled zealots on the basis of IS battle images or pictures of fighters with kittens. They appeal to some because they seize on real grievances and work on them. Every time there is an Islamist outrage, Muslims are targeted in sporadic revenge attacks by far right thugs, are blamed by politicians and media figures, and told in no uncertain terms that they must integrate better. Often times, the need for terror is surplus to requirements - politicians and the media froth away anyway. A perception that Muslims are treated as second class citizens at home is repeated by what happens abroad. Contrast the sensitive and humanising coverage the Paris victims have - rightly - received with Palestinians murdered by Israelis, civilians killed by US drone attacks, or people blown apart by suicide bombs in Baghdad or Beirut. The second class status of Muslims is perpetuated in the way the tragedies befalling the Muslim world are covered. Is it any wonder that some might find themselves alienated from official society? That a rational kernel wrapped in an IS shell can cut through and mobilise a very small minority of disaffected young Muslims?

IS themselves are well aware their appeal lies in this tension, and their terrorist actions are designed to exploit it. Attacking soft targets puts European Muslims in general under pressure by the media, by the security apparatus, by the populist and far right. Nothing would suit IS more if the Paris attacks are followed by waves of arson and violence and, in five weeks time, a good election result for the Front National. It also helps explain why Friday's killers had fake Syrian passports - the more antipathy that can be stirred up against Muslim refugees, the more the West's human rights rhetoric are exposed as hypocrisy, the greater the pool from which IS can recruit.

Bombing IS and destroying them on the battlefield might stamp them out in the short-term, but for as long as grievances are fed there will be people ready and more than willing to exploit them. Injuncting Muslims to sort themselves out is not going to disperse the jihadi imagination. British society, French society, Western society has to look at itself and address the mainstream practices and inequalities that can turn small numbers of marginalised populations into vicious, hate-filled mass murderers.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Navigating Our Divided PLP

Is the Labour Party divided? Of course it is. But divided doesn't necessarily mean at each others' throats, at least some of the time. As divisions have been the theme of the week, it's time to quickly cast one's eye over the Parliamentary Labour Party and discern what groups are emerging among this most august of bodies.

1. The 4.5%ers These aren't everyone who backed the blessed Liz, but rather the headbangers that outright refuse to reconcile themselves to the new regime. Caution was thrown to the wind long ago as all that matters is the removal of Jeremy and all his works. The chief offender, of course, is our friend Simon Danczuk. While, wisely, other 4.5%ers put clear water between him and them, his behaviour exemplifies everything this tendency stands for. An over-inflated sense of self-importance, a conceit that he uniquely knows what Labour people want, a deeply impoverished political imagination, and absolutely no interest in seeing the party do well. He fires off his well remunerated Mail on Sunday column each week with broadsides aimed at the new leadership and, by extension, the majority of members who voted for him, and he's uninterested in fighting the factional fight. This is his opportunity to make a name and, more importantly, some cash. After all, he's going to have a hefty bill to foot once the Child Support Agency catch up with him.

While not as plainly self-serving as Danczuk, the rest of the 4.5%ers seem utterly lost. They have no strategy for taking back the party, so they're reduced to ill-judged remarks and cack-handed interventions that almost appear designed to alienate potential supporters. Remember, these are the people styling themselves as the election-winning specialists - and they can't even get building support - the most basic of factional ABC's - right.

2. The Corbyn Sceptics Probably the largest section of the PLP, the sceptics believe Labour doesn't have a hope winning with the present leadership. Unlike their 4.5% compadres, with whom they may share many political positions and basic outlooks, they have the strategic sense to realise that if the party is going to be won back over, the game ahead is long. There is no strategy as such, yet, but one is beginning to emerge. Liam Byrne's speech was the first proper, thought out intervention in this area. He articulated a critique of Corbynomics while stipulating an alternative that was not neoliberal (indeed, its death was proclaimed), nor as left as Jeremy's plans, but nonetheless a coherent and much more preferable alternative to the thin gruel served up by Dave and Osborne. And this is the right tack to take. When your politics have been routed, the road back means winning the intellectual battle and forging a vision. I would expect similar pitches from a variety of figures in the coming months as the proliferation of groupings like Red Shift and Labour Together set out their manifestos.

Yet at the same time, this collection of MPs are not happy with the antics of the 4.5%. Whatever they do is bound to reflect on them. Because it was Blairites - in the main - who defied the whip over Osborne's budget surplus stunt, the rest get tarred with the same brush, even though the bulk of them remained loyal. This group know that they need to charm the members and win the battle of ideas. Open opposition and outright destabilisation is but a recipe for a future 'stab in the back' myth, should Jeremy be seen not to deliver election victories. And we know from history how powerful that kind of story can be. Careful, careful, is the Sceptics' watchword.

3. The Go-With-The-Flows There is some travel between this group and the sceptics. They might be critical of Jeremy and, likewise, believe he's not going to win an election, but are cogniscent of the fact that he is the memberships' choice (since swelled by tens of thousands of Corbyn supporters) he deserves a fair crack of the whip. Andy Burnham, Angela Eagle, Tom Watson, and Hillary Benn, despite their public disagreements with Jeremy, are probably the leading figures of this tendency within the PLP. They will continue to state their own positions, but are highly unlikely to lead a rebellion or organise opposition. If you like, these are "proper party people" who, whatever you might think of them, believe the party comes first and will acquit their duties accordingly.

The relationship between this group and Corbynism is quite complex. Sceptical, yes, but they recognise that the huge influx of new members presents an opportunity for the party to renew itself. While some of this wave will dissipate in time, particularly those for whom politics is a keyboard as opposed to a physical pursuit, they believe experience will moderate their views - and this is more likely if the PLP has a constructive as opposed to antagonistic relationship with the new arrivals.

4. The Corbynistas The smallest group of all, of course. Yet their weakness is backed by their huge majority among the membership and, so far, my summer prediction that this reality would act as a disciplining mechanism on the PLP has borne out. Whether this will be the case should Labour be afflicted by poor election results and dogged by dismal polling remains to be seen. That said, it's hard to imagine Jeremy stepping down any time between now and 2015. After all, it's not every day the Labour left capture the party's leadership.