Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The Tory Party's 15% Strategy

Thankfully conference speeches don't win general elections. There is no denying that Dave's final performance at the Tory party's annual gathering was masterful. It oozed the prime ministerial, that much exalted but seldom-attained quality. His speech was passionate, confident, coherent. Apart from an untimely Freudian ("... these are the people we resent"), Dave acted the part well. He did what he is genuinely good at: putting on a show.

As delegates pack their bags and fish forgotten prawn vol-au-vents from their pockets, those not thinking forbidden UKIP thoughts might have a spring in their step. Dave made pitched the Tories as the party for everybody, as a trade union for the stalwart hard-working people of Britain. They are the party of social justice, the one who will abolish youth unemployment by refusing social security assistance to anyone aged between 18 and 21; the party who makes work pay by taking more low earners out of tax while clobbering them with £500 worth of tax credit cuts; and lastly the party who intent on rewarding hard work by raising the 40p tax threshold to £50k/year, handing yet another tax cut to the 15% wealthiest people. If social justice is the redistribution of resource from the poor to the well off, then no one can touch the Tories.

In many ways, Dave speech was pitched to the middle ground. The thing is the Tories haven't a clue what that middle ground looks like. The way IBS punched the air when Dave paraded his tax cut for the rich tells you that that's where they think middle Britain is, not the average and median wage of around £24k. On the tax credit cut too. Osborne defended this on Monday by suggesting the majority had brought into austerity and would be happy to do their bit. And this is the man many Tories hail as a political genius. It doesn't take a particularly canny operator to note that while the rich gain, those of more modest means will be covering the bill. Here's some news for Osbo, Dave, and their hired Australian help. The centre ground is sceptical of Europe, immigration and social security, but is to the Tories' left on job security, tax, privatisation, the NHS, house building, pensions, the minimum wage and a good deal more. Unfortunately, that centre ground is also mired in fatalism, hence no slam dunk for a Labour leadership determined to softly step its way to victory next year.

What Dave delivered today was a speech that wallowed in British patriotism, a celebration of our country as a collective endeavour embracing everyone. Yet despite himself this was a core vote speech. And even then, the core who are swinging or have swung to UKIP will find nothing here to dissuade them from supporting the purple people bleaters. As Matt Goodwin notes, a few tax bribes will not buy off UKIP support. They are for the most part deeply anxious, anomic, and ill at ease with what they think Britain has become. Forget the economy. It's that sense of self-security, stupid.

Can we take anything from Dave's speech? Yes. If Labour have a so-called "35% strategy" then this is the Conservatives' 15% strategy. It signals the hard limits of the Tory imagination and their incapacity to overcome the organic crisis afflicting British Conservatism. A good speech, yes; but a loser's speech all the same. The general election next year is Labour's to lose.

Five Most Popular Posts for September

Most read this month were:

1. British Trotskyism and Scottish Independence
2. An Open Letter to Yes-Voting Socialists
3. The UK's Would-Be Assassins
4. Seven Leftwing Reasons for Staying With Us
5. The Spectrum of Misogyny

For the umpteenth time, a post about that most relevant of movements, British Trotskyism, emerges victorious in the page view wars. It never ceases to surprise me how much of a market, if it could be described as such, exists for ruminations on its comings and goings. Well, I suppose there's an argument to be made for regarding ex-Trots as Britain's biggest politics tribe.

It has been a very busy month round the blog all told. As most of the left in Scotland were aboard the independence bandwagon, socialist arguments against separation were few and far between. I guess this blog was one of the handful putting forward that view.

Everyone deserves a second chance, so here are a couple you may have previously missed. What Next for Politics? looked at official politics in the immediate aftermath of the referendum and how it impacts the fortunes of the Tories, Labour, UKIP and the so-called '45 Movement'. The other is a bit more weighty and also has a question to ask: Does Globalisation Breed Nationalism?

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Steps - Stomp

Freshers' flu, what a drag. But I suppose it was bound to happen. Cooped up on poorly ventilated buses with scores of choking, sneezing youngsters. Having enthusiastic students bound up to you in the first week declaring that they too have fallen foul of this autumnal menace. And lo, so it was that your humble scribe has been sat on the sofa with a hot water bottle, a blanket, and Tory party conference for company. Yes, I'm begging my antibodies to kick this blight into touch. No one should have to sit through Boris Johnson's oh so funny gags.

As such there's no proper post this evening. Instead I've reached into the archive and retrieved this. Okay, my taste receptors are malfunctioning but now and then uncool and supercheesy acts turn out works of genius. This was one such occasion:



Sunday, 28 September 2014

Sex and Westminster

I love Tory sleaze, and no one does sex scandal quite like the Conservatives. Can you remember the 90s, the decade where John Major urged his party to get "back to basics"? Alan Clark, Steven Norris, Jeffrey Archer, David Mellor, Stephen Milligan. A roll call of Carry On farce and sexual tragedy if there ever was one, rounded off nicely by the revelation that its architect had hypocritically enjoyed an affair himself.

Fast forward to 2014 and things are out of sorts. Sleazy relations between the Tory party and its cabal of shadowy donors abound but barely raise an eyebrow. Likewise, as real scandal shakes its thang in plain sight with nary a complaint, politicians' good old-fashioned extra-marital leg overs have receded into the distance. Curious.

There are some exceptions. Such as the low-level fun with Grant Shapps' Twitter account. When you're as promiscuous as he is ... in following people, we shouldn't be shocked when it turns out he's following a dominatrix and a self-described "porn slut" among 27,000 others.

And then there are scandals like those visited upon Brooks Newmark, late of the Cabinet Office. You know how it is, man "meets" woman on Twitter, flirty direct messages are exchanged and boom, the John Thomas bomb is dropped. Newmark isn't the first to have his exposure exposed, nor will he be the last. But on this occasion, the guffaws occasioning a Tory's downfall are stymied by the circumstances.

This was entrapment. Yes, there is something rather distasteful about the power asymmetry (cabinet member cracking on to a supposed junior Tory researcher in her 20s), but as we now know Newmark was taken for a mug. The young woman in question was a male freelancer using a fake Twitter account and false images to draw him in. He aimed to show how MPs used social media to pursue relationships. All he has done is to snare a silly old fool and make life very uncomfortable for him. Our reporter has damaged a family, not a Tory party putting a brave face on yet another UKIP defection. So shame on the freelancer. Shame on the Sunday Mirror for running this meritless story.

This episode highlights something else about the media's relationship with Westminster. While there are serious allegations about sexual pressure and exploitation, plenty of consensual and gossip-worthy relationships are happening discreetly and not-so-discreetly, as per all workplaces. The former senior cabinet member known for his serial flings with younger women MPs. The spad-turned-politician who bonked their married boss. The back benchers who've been having an affair for years. The MP caught at it on the beach during party conference. No names of course, but they all involve Labour MPs. The question is if these rumours and whispers reached me in a constituency office tucked away down a Stoke-on-Trent side street, then the lobby hacks and the news desks would know about it too. Yet there appears to be something of a gentleman's agreement between MPs and the media. Should an MP stray outside the village's elite - a dalliance with a society hostess here, an ambitious young hack there they're fair game. This was the unspoken rule Newmark transgressed. Within the confines of Westminster itself, between consenting MPs what happens on the green benches stays on the green benches.

What do the press get from not prying into these liaisons? One presumes chummy relationships, leaks, privileged access, inside tracks. Goes to show what goes unsaid can often be as significant as that which is stated.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Saturday Interview: Evan Smith

Evan Smith is a Vice-Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Flinders University, South Australia, and works at the intersection between contemporary history, politics and criminology, with a little bit of cultural studies thrown in. He has written widely on the British far left, immigration, anti-racism and political activism. He currently runs his own blog Hatful of History and tweets from @hatfulofhistory. He has recently co-edited a volume of the history of the British far left, Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester University Press), and co-written a book on British immigration control, Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control (Palgrave Macmillan).

- Why did you start blogging?

I started blogging in August 2012. I was working in the public service and wanted a site that showcased all the different research projects that I was undertaking, so I started Hatful of History for that purpose. My research is very politically focused and quite contemporary so I tried to highlight the links between current political events and the recent past.

- What's been your best blogging experience?

I'm not sure, but I have had some big name academic types (who I had read for years) contact me and say that they've enjoyed my blog. That's pretty cool.

- Have you any blogging advice for new starters?

Be sure that you can dedicate enough time to it. Blogs need attention and there's nothing worse than a sparsely updated blog.

- Do you find social media useful for activist-y and scholarly-type things?

Yes for both. Twitter and my blog have helped me connect to many new academics and I've made some wonderful friendships through them. I've also been able to disseminate my publications much more widely through social media than before. Twitter's also great for asking questions and getting access to journal articles that you don't have a subscription to.

I'm not heavily involved in political activism day to day, but I think social media has helped activists get their message out and reach new audiences. The internet is not a substitute for face-to-face interaction and people on the streets, but it's a handy tool for organising these traditional forms of activism.

- Who are your biggest intellectual influences?

​Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, David Garland, John Solomos, Imogen Tyler, Philippa Levine, Gilles Deleuze, Eric Hobsbawm, Natalie Zemon Davis, Peter Fryer, A. Sivanandan, etc.

- What are you reading at the moment?

The INLA: Deadly Divisions by Henry McDonald and Jack Holland. I'm looking forward to reading Bernard Sumner's autobiography when it arrives.

- What was the last film you saw?

Generation War - a German mini-series about five young adults during the Second World War. It was well produced, but a bit problematic.

Do you have a favourite novel?

- I know it's a wanky art student classic, but Albert Camus' The Outsider would have to be my favourite novel. I don't have time to read much fiction so bleakness and brevity make it a great read.

- Can you name an idea or an issue on which you've changed your mind?

​Postmodernism. Like a lot of people with a Marxist background, I used to be very sceptical of postmodernism, but I started reading Richard J. Evans' In Defence of History alongside Foucault and Althusser in third year, and my thinking was transformed.

Along similar lines, I came across the idea of intersectionality as I was finishing my PhD. I wish I had been introduced to it three years earlier - it made sense of so many concepts that I had struggled to make sense of!

- How many political organisations have you been a member of?

Only one. I was a member of Resistance (the youth wing of the Democratic Socialist Party) for six months in 1999 (I was 17). I joined them on a Sunday afternoon before going to see the Beastie Boys.

As a historian of the far left's various groups, I am very wary of political organisations now.

- What set of ideas do you think it most important to disseminate?

​Something akin to a Marxist understanding that nearly all progressive ideas are interconnected - economic equality, the fight against racism, feminism, environmentalism, same-sex equality, etc. I am just not convinced that the economic base determines everything else.

- What set of ideas do you think it most important to combat?

​Neoliberal capitalism, racism, fascism, homophobia, sexism, transphobia, climate change denial etc. One of the ideas that I am most passionate about fighting is the idea of the 'need' for immigration control in any form. I am strongly committed to the idea of no borders and the idea that no one can be 'illegal'.

- Can you name a work of non-fiction which has had a major influence on how you think about the world?

​This would largely correlate with my intellectual influences listed above. But it was Rius' Marx for Beginners that I read in year 11 that really kick started my whole political/historical trajectory.

- Who are your political heroes?

This is a difficult question, because I don't really have political 'heroes'. But inspirational people for me include Stuart Hall, David Widgery, Jayaben Desai, Anwar Ditta, E.P. Thompson, Claudia Jones, H.V. Evatt, Ruth First, Billy Bragg.

- How about political villains?

Too many to mention.

- What do you think is the most pressing political task of the day?

As I said above, all things are interconnected, so it's difficult to isolate one issue that is 'most pressing'. I guess addressing climate change is the most pressing in the long-term, but my energies are usually focussed towards the 'no borders' argument and fighting the hysteria around refugees in Australia (and in the UK).

- If you could affect a major policy change, what would it be?

The end of mandatory detention for asylum seekers in Australia.

- What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world?

Economic inequality and the scarcity of resources that capitalism creates. Probably.

- What would be your most important piece of advice about life?

Life's too short to be a conservative.

- What is your favourite song?

It changes, but probably in my all time top 10 would be stuff like Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards by Billy Bragg, The Queen is Dead by The Smiths, Big Time Sensuality by Bjork, La Pastie de la Bourgeoisie by Belle & Sebastian and Deutschland (Has Gotta Die!) by Atari Teenage Riot.

- Do you have a favourite video game?

Arcade: Point Blank, NBA Jam, Mortal Kombat, Super Street Fighter
NES: Super Mario Bros 1,2 and 3, Kung Fu, Excitebike
SNES: Super Mario Kart, Street Fighter II (Hyperfight)
Nintendo 64: Goldeneye
Megadrive: Mortal Kombat, Sonic the Hedgehog
PC: Civilization II
Playstation: Tekken 2 and 3, This is Football

You can tell that I haven't played video games in a while! But used to read Mean Machines magazine devotedly in 1990s.

- What do you consider the most important personal quality?

Empathy.

- What personal fault do you most dislike?

Condescension.

- What, if anything, do you worry about?

Everything. But I try to keep it under a cool, calm exterior.

- And any pet peeves?

The pettiness of The Australian newspaper.

- What piece of advice would you give to your much younger self?

Try harder at undergraduate level. You'll appreciate it when you're on the other side of the classroom.

- What do you like doing in your spare time?

Apart from family stuff, watching British crime drama, football, record collecting and enjoying Australian cafe culture. You miss a good coffee when you're in the UK.

- What is your most treasured possession?

You can't say that children are possessions, so it would be my record collection. I especially like my Australian 2xLP edition of The Smiths' The World Won't Listen.

- Do you have any guilty pleasures?

I have every Gilmore Girls series on DVD. I downloaded two Iggy Azalea singles recently.

- What talent would you most like to have?

Excellent football skills.

- If you could have one (more or less realistic) wish come true - apart from getting loads of money - what would you wish for?

A permanent academic position.

- Speaking of cash, how, if at all, would you change your life were you suddenly to win or inherit an enormously large sum of money?

Get a bigger place for the family, move closer to rest of the extended family and beach, get a new(ish) car, pay off debts.

- If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be?

Luis Bunuel, Tony Wilson and Alexei Sayle.

- As a non-Labour labour movement person, do you think Labour will win next year?

Yes, the Lib Dem vote will shift towards Labour and the UKIP will siphon off some Tory votes, I reckon. Labour will get over the line with a small majority, so maybe another election will be called, like 1951 or 1966.

Quarter Three Local By-election Results 2014

Party
Number of candidates
Total vote
%
+/- 
Q2
Average/
contest
+/- 
Q2
+/- Seats
Conservative
          64
24,875
    28.1%
  -1.5%
     389
    -271
    -8
Labour
          60
23,393
    26.4%
  -5.5%
     390
    -359
   +6
LibDem
          44
12,607
    14.3%
 +3.2%
     287
      -84
   +1
UKIP
          50
13,479
    15.2%
 +1.7%
     270
    -250
     0
SNP*
            1
     595
      0.7%
  -1.0%
     595
    -297
    -1
Plaid Cymru**
            1
     228
      0.3%
 +0.2%
     228
    -101
     0
Green
          34
  3,758
      4.2%
  -2.1%
     111
    -259
   +1
BNP
            1
       58
    0.07%
-0.03%
       58
    -269
     0
TUSC
            7
     130 
      0.1%
  -0.2%
       19
      -50
    0
Independent***
          27
 5,592
      6.3%
 +1.5%
     207
    -178
     0
Other****
          12
 3,562
      4.0%
 +3.3%
     297
   +116
   +1

* There was one by-election in Scotland.
** There were four by-elections in Wales.
*** There were six contests with independent clashes this quarter.
**** 'Other' this quarter comprised Patriotic Socialist (2), Blue (13), Tower Hamlets First (762, 744, 726), Mebyon Kernow (217 and 58), Liberal (121), It's Our County (835), English Democrats (20 and 43), British Democrat (95), and Christian (33 votes).

88,457 votes were cast over 64 individual local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. Fractions are rounded to one decimal place for percentages, and the nearest whole number for averages. You can compare these with Quarter Two 2014's results here.

Okay. It gets real from here on in. A number of pollsters predict that Labour will get more seats but lose the popular vote - a scenario born out in this quarter. But the forecasting capacity of local council by-elections come with some serious caveats. Firstly, it's mostly hardcore voters that tend to turn out for them. As a group they are older than the average voter, more likely to be swayed by local factors in these contests and, if you follow the polls, older voters more predisposed to be Conservative (and UKIP) voters. It is reasonable to assume that, if anything, local by-election results give them a disproportionate boost not found in the general population.

Second, as noted on many previous occasions the greater the choice and the fact these elections "don't matter" put a downward pressure on the vote shares of the two main parties. In a general election the direction of voting travel will favour them, though not as much as is usually supposed. UKIP's vote, for example, is unlikely to collapse.

Here's another hypothesis. As we get nearer to the general election, local by-elections will start behaving more like general elections. The lure of protest voting and saliency of potholes down the lane diminish as voters start considering who they want to run the government.

So, by-elections disproportionately favour Tory and UKIP votes. And the impending general election will impact results more as we get closer to the date. We shall see.