Monday, 30 May 2016

Altered Beast for the MegaDrive/Genesis

"Wise from your gwave!" An entire generation of gamers were introduced to Sega's 16-bit wonder machine with those very words. Grab your pack-in copy of Altered Beast, slam it in the slot, hit start and straight away your spanking new console was making like Jonathan Ross. Bwilliant. For folks of a certain age, no introduction is necessary for this game. It's fondly remembered and hated in equal measure because of its ubiquity and simple beat 'em up gameplay. And if you didn't have a MegaDrive, it was hard to escape as it was one of those rare games that got converted to every machine going. Even Nintendo got a version (at least in Japan).

Altered Beast debuted in the arcades in 1988 using Sega's System 16 board, which was then noted for its state-of-the-art scaling effects. While the game made limited use of this hardware, it proved a hit with enough players to guarantee it an after life as a home conversion. For those unfamiliar with the game, you are cast as a centurion resurrected to rescue Zeus's daughter, Athena from the evil clutches of Neff (as a powerful deity in her own right, quite why she needs rescuing is never explained). There follows five levels of beastie bashing and zombie slaying. Perhaps an early attract was how the undead exploded into chunks of flesh after getting a battering. Nice. As you move along you acquire power ups from killing a blue Cerberus, transforming your character into an ever-more buff killing machine. When three are scooped up you change into a beastie of your own - two different kinds of fireball-toting werewolf, a flying dragon with electrical attacks, a were-bear who can turn opponents into stone, and a were-tiger with a singularly rubbish energy ball that dances up and down the screen. For his part, Neff throws legions of ghouls and monsters your way, as well as depositing the climax of each level climaxes with a compulsory boss fight.

And that's all there is to it. A simple thump-a-thon with a Greek mythology theme and interesting power up mechanic appealed to the punters, so how could the home conversions go so horribly wrong? But they did. Commodore's Amiga, the most advanced micro of the time, had this abomination served up. Sega's own conversion to the Master System was pretty awful too. And yet, perversely this worked to Sega's advantage. Altered Beast on the MegaDrive is by far the closest of all the conversions produced for the 8- and 16-bit markets, and plays well too. It's nowhere near as difficult as the arcade parent, and is a nut so soft even the most cack-handed of gamers could crack it with enough practice. Such low difficulty helped generate demand for a new gaming experience - one could not dine out on Altered Beast for long. Importantly, it set a new standard for video games by being almost arcade perfect. For whatever reason, this was much harder to achieve on the likes of the Amiga and Atari ST and so, side-by-side, the MegaDrive version blew them out of the water - even though pound for pound it wasn't as advanced as Commodore's machine in a number of areas. It was a teaser as well, the gaming equivalent of flirty fishing. Well not mind-blowing by the standards of the date, the whole package was carried off with enough aplomb - big sprites, smooth scrolling, parallax, clear speech (which was seldom achieved in later MegaDrive games, bizarrely) to hint at the potential snuggled up in the system's hardware.

Altered Beast's big problem, however, was its strength. As a simplistic title video game evolution very quickly outpaced it. Within a year of its release it looked tired and a wee bit drab. It became the butt of console mags, with buyer's guide scores ranging from the average to the distinctly dire. Small wonder Sega eventually dropped it for the much more impressive Sonic the Hedgehog - a title that remains a peak achievement of 16-bit programming and game design. Yet it served its purpose. Altered Beast accelerated the take up of the (then) new generation of consoles, cleaving and converting Nintendo adherents in North America and throwing down an insurmountable challenge to the home computer formats in Western Europe. It was the shape of things to come and helped establish the 'arcade experience' as the key hegemonic game playing value where late 80s/early 90s gaming was concerned. So if you ever pick upon a review, whether from the time or more recently that heaps criticism on Altered Beast, just pity the fools: it had a profound, if understated impact on gaming.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Debunking the Yeti

When I was much younger my mind was so open you could have driven a bus through it. Not that I was gullible (I always knew that was a word in the dictionary), but when it came to strange phenomena you could sign me up for every cranky belief going. UFO's and the conspiracies surrounding them were a favourite, but everything else - Loch Ness Monster, ghoulies and ghosties, supernaturally things, I was game for the lot. Now (much) older and wiser, a part of me is gratified whenever long-standing mysteries are debunked and sensible, scientific explanations are offered. And so Channel 4's Yeti: Myth, Man or Beast? with former kids' naturalist, Mark Evans ticked my boxes because, beyond all reasonable doubt, it appears the myth of the abominable snowman was finally, properly been put to bed.

We know the stories and the photos of suspect-looking footprints, and the folklore of Himalayan people. There are also the slightly suspect artefacts of fur, bones, and preserved body parts Tibetan and Nepalese villagers have waved in front of Western cameras for decades. So clearly there is something going on. The mythology of the Yeti is based on something, but what? Mark advanced two hypotheses: that a species of Himalayan bear is the not-so-fantastical basis of many sightings for mountain climbers and local people, or that there is a prehistoric species of human rattling around the roof of the world. Which is it to be? Well, a bit of both.

Much of the programme is spent driving to remote villages, wallowing in breathtaking panoramas, interrogating Tibetans about their local legends, and hanging around labs explaining DNA analysis. For added padding, Mark meets the celebrated mountaineer Reinhold Messner, who happened to have a brush with our elusive friend on an expedition 30 years ago. Having done a great deal of research, he came to conclusion his Yeti could be a hitherto undiscovered species of bear. Au contraire thinks Steve Berry, another professional climber. Presenting a photograph of a set of footprints in the snow, he was adamant only a bipedal creature could have produced them - though when Mark asks a villager, he straight out says they were snow leopard tracks. Darn the cats!

Getting to the nitty gritty, we get back DNA results for fur, bone, and a bit of a dessicated paw and, alas, genetics say no. The Yeti relics were either lowland black bears or highland brown bears. No new species of human then. And yet the alternative hypothesis isn't entirely dead. In a bit of a left field twist, Mark makes mention of recent findings in Denisova cave in southern Siberia. Between 2000 and 2014 archaeologists unearthed fossils pointing to a new species of prehistoric human, who apparently lived alongside Neanderthals and overlapped with modern humans. Mark hypothesised that tales of the Yeti might be folk memory stretching back to these encounters. This begs the obvious question: if that's the case, then why are the legends confined to the Himalaya and not the surrounding lowlands?

In previous analysis of Denisovan fossil DNA, Mark argued that they shared a specific mutation with modern humans living in the highlands: the EPAS1 gene. He explains how non-Himalayans adapt to altitude my producing more red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body. However, over a long period this can lead to blood becoming more viscous and result in a number of potentially serious health problems. EPAS1 prevents blood from coagulating at altitude, which allows modern day Himalayans to live without any ill-effects. Mark suggests that this mutation could have been passed into the local population back in the dim and distant through interbreeding with Denisovans, and explains why the legends are particular to Himalayan peoples. This isn't entirely fanciful: there is evidence our ancestors did with Neanderthals. Taking DNA samples from Tibetan volunteers from a previous programme to a Californian lab, Mark was keen to pin down the date when such interbreeding could have taken place - and the result was stunning. The date range was between 40,000 and 7,000 years ago. Amazing.

Case closed then? Bears are responsible for contemporary sightings, and the interaction/interbreeding between our ancestors and Denisovans underpin the mythology. Seems pretty airtight. Yes, but one problem with Mark's "science bit". According to the work underpinning the identification of the EPAS1 gene, its emergence is far more recent in time. 3,000 years to be exact, and it's an independent evolutionary adaptation to a previously unhealthy environment - not the result of interbreeding. That the Denisovans had this too shouldn't be a surprise - nature is littered with examples of convergent and coincident evolution. For instance, combination of different genes had the same effects in the Andean and Ethiopian highlands too without the need of an exotic intervention from another species of human.

While systematic genetic analysis of these populations are ongoing, it's fair to conclude that bigfoot is dead, and has been for tens of thousands of years. Another mystery has been peeled back, and once more what was previously strange phenomena is something interesting but entirely explicable. As unreason spreads its wings and infects too many people with magical thinking, conspiratorial nonsense, and a desire to believe the weird and fantastical, Mark and Channel Four deserve praise for reminding its audience that we have the wherewithal to explain the world without the need for modern day pixies.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Dear Tony

Tony, Tony, Tony, Tony. When I was a Trot I had it drilled into me that you don't necessarily speak for yourself. You always have to think about how your conduct and the positions you're arguing might reflect on your comrades. This sense of political self-responsibility, I think, is something of a virtue and my many, many blogs (I hope) abide by this rule. When finger tips touch the keyboard, there is a sense of trying to say something that others might find helpful. Political argument, after all, is about arguing with purpose. With that in mind, what were you trying to achieve with your recent comments?

As you were once so fond of saying, I get it. Jeremy Corbyn isn't the man for you. You believe his route isn't the path to power, and that a government with the kinds of policies he favours would be a "dangerous experiment". There are two points worth making here. First, a bit of humility would be in order. Your tenure saw you undertake a reckless experiment with the Middle East. Despite repeated warnings at the time, you ploughed ahead with your friend George W Bush - who at least has the good grace to keep his mouth shut - and helped set in train a series of events that led to the formation of Islamic State. Even without that unhappy consequence, an Iraq riven with sectarian tensions and regular suicide bombings is your legacy, and you deserve to be dogged by it until the end of your days. Whatever may happen should Jeremy Corbyn make it to Number 10, he is most unlikely to leave it with the deaths of at least 250,000 people searing his conscience.

The second point is a matter of the burden of proof. How would a Jez-led Labour government be "dangerous"? It's not enough to boldly advance a position, you need to back it with solid argument. Where is the danger when all wings of the party are pretty united on matters of economic policy. The leadership believe the state should take an activist role vis a vis the economy, a position shared by even Peter Mandelson. On public services and social security, the leadership is committed to no more cuts - a policy that has (in words at least) been adopted by the Tories. It wants to see more houses built, a life-long education service introduced, the removal of the market from the NHS and its integration with adult social care, a devolution of powers to local authorities, an increased minimum wage. I've looked among these pretty mainstream Labourist aspirations, and can't see where danger threatens. Are we instead talking about foreign policy and military spending? On the European Union Jeremy has swallowed his well-known scepticism and has made a strong case for staying in. Is that going to change in a government led by him? Absolutely not. How about withdrawing from NATO? Again, most unlikely. And Trident? As a member of NATO Britain would remain under the US nuclear umbrella, a point Nicola Sturgeon hammered home for Scotland time and again whenever it raised its head in the independence referendum. And is scrapping Trident necessarily that insane considering the military brass themselves are divided on the merits of its renewal?

Come on Tony, you might as well say it. By setting your face against this policy agenda, you're setting your face against a mild social democratic programme. That doesn't affect you, of course. There's nothing you can say and do to win those over appalled at your behaviour during the Iraq crisis, and your downright disgusting activities spinning for Nursultan Nazarbayev, the dictator of Kazakhstan, since leaving office. Yet you are oblivious to the whirlwind your remaining friends in the party reap every time you open your trap. Your chums in Progress are too polite (and star struck) to tell you to can it, but every time you say something you make their project that little bit more difficult.

Perhaps your arguments would be better received if they articulated something, but they do not. For instance, you say that the centre ground needs to get its mojo back. What does this vapid nonsense even mean? The "centre ground" isn't some independent political force. You always previously understood it as a zone where the policy and value preferences of the majority of nice middle Englanders in nice middle class swing seats were located, and your strength lay in your appeal to those yearnings and prejudices. Secondly, the centre ground just doesn't exist. Even if we define it in terms of where the majority of views are clustered on a given set of issues, what is left is an almighty mess. For instance, according to Jon Cruddas's latest iteration of his working class conservatism hobby horse, most people believe the economy is skewed towards the interests of a powerful elite. Yet the same research (which isn't without its problems) also says austerity was "popular" and the reason we didn't win the election. Where's the centre ground here? The blessed Ed tried, oh he tried. On every issue, our policies had a go occupying the centre ground by pitching in terrain equidistant from an old school Labour position and that of the Tories. This was a recipe for incoherence when clarity was needed. And for following your playbook, you weirdly castigated Labour for being "too left-wing". There is also the small matter of politics shifting and new realities coming into play. When the situation is one where the main parties of the centre left and centre right are eroding as their natural constituencies are dispersing, the view that the beloved triangulation of old, which depended on taking core votes for granted is a go-er is a recipe, frankly, of accelerating that process.

It's no secret that I've never rated you as a strategic thinker, a figure of substance, or even a politician who can do the professional politician things. Winning three elections against hapless opponents isn't genius; it's good fortune. You had an opportunity after the premature passing of John Smith, and you took it. Yet you remain a creature of that moment. Now, politics is a lot less certain than it was when you ruled the roost, every time you pronounce on this or criticise that you show yourself up as a man out of your time. I know you can't help yourself, but those old times are never coming back. Even if the Labour centre or the Labour right win back the leadership, the times they have a-changed and it's up to the party to deal with things as they are now, not how you perceived them to be 19 years ago.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Local Council By-Elections May 2016

Number of Candidates
Total Vote

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Secret Life of the Human Pups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Paul Mason Vs Peter Taaffe

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

Friday, 20 May 2016

Lidia Isac - Falling Stars

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

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

On Tory Weakness

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

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

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

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

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

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