Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Learning from the Westminster Terror Attack

At the time of writing, three people lie dead because of a hate-filled zealot. Whoever this man was and whatever his motivations were, nothing compelled him to drive a four-by-four down the pavement on Westminster Bridge. A grievance, real or imagined, didn't cause him to leave his home with a machete blade this afternoon. His intention to cause a mass casualty event on the day Belgium and Europe remembered last year's callous attacks on Brussels airport and metro was something dreamt, planned for, and worked toward. As his biography is picked apart, we can try and understand the motivations, but doing so is never an excuse in justifying them.

In this case, the security services acted in an exemplary fashion. The ring of steel protecting Parliament did its job, and the attacker was stopped just inside the gate to the grounds, though not before he stabbed and killed a police guard. Given the sudden nature of the attack, it's very difficult to see what else could have been done, though that does not preclude an analysis of the incident.

And, in a very rare instance, I'm going to defend the intelligence services. There is a very good chance the assailant was on a terror watch list. It's quite possible he had been or was presently under surveillance. Inevitably, the questions will be asked why he wasn't detected and/or picked up before now and prevented from undertaking this afternoon's attack. Again, while it's right such issues should be explored, lessons drawn and, if there is a case of egregious carelessness that those responsible be held to account, what really has to be asked is what could have been done differently? Thankfully, we don't have indefinite detention without trial of suspects, but unless there are teams on standby covering the move of every single suspect then the answer has to be very little. Watching someone getting into their car and driving into central London is not immediately suggestive of suspicious activity. There is no way his intent to kill could be inferred before the car mounted the pavement and started accelerating towards passers by. This kind of attack is next to impossible to prevent if someone is so minded to carry it out.

The main political take home from this, however, is despite the three murders and multiple injuries is that the police response acted exactly as it should. Parliament was protected and the attacker prevented from causing even more harm. Thankfully, the mass carnage we saw in Paris, Brussels, and Berlin was avoided because of timely action. The way to ensure, in the medium to long-term, that terror attacks are ultimately fruitless is by preserving what we have. If the reaction from the government is another curtailment of liberty and freedoms, they've won. If it marks a shift away from multiculturalism, with all its problems, to one-size-fits-all, they've won. If it heralds another round of attacks on Muslims, they've won.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Collapse of the Labour Right

In calling out Jon Lansman and Momentum publicly for the temerity of, you know, organising, Tom Watson has made a fool of himself. Worse than that, in attacking a mooted alliance between Momentum and Unite he has gone so far as to suggest there is something improper about unions seeking to maximise their influence in the Labour Party. It's only a hop, skip and a jump away from questioning the legitimacy of trade unions acting politically at all, and that's a very dangerous game. Understandably, Len McCluskey has replied in his inimitable style and the war of words continue via social media, while spilling out continually into Unite's own bad-tempered general secretary election, and potentially damaging Labour's own council and mayoral campaigns.

Tom Watson is frequently attacked by Corbyn supporters as disingenuous and hypocritical because, let's make no bones about it, his criticisms of them often are. From the Brownist machinations against His Blairness, to the minor skirmishes with Progress during the Miliband years, and now in the era of Corbynism, Tom has acquired and assiduously cultivated a cloak-and-dagger reputation. He is the fixer to end all fixers, the puppet master that has the party bureaucracy dancing along with his manipulations. While he is responsible and accountable for his actions, Tom is a product and heir to a tradition that has long cast a shadow over the Labour Party, and one coming to its end. I am talking about the old Labour trade union right.

Packing meetings, nobbling selections, stitching up internal elections, blocking and suppressing opponents, elevating bad faith to the status of performance art - all lovingly narrated in Uncle John Golding's The Hammer of the Left - are, or were the old right's stock-in-trade. I say were because while the culture of shenanigans is very much part of the party's make up, it is increasingly getting more difficult to pull off. There are three reasons for this. First, there is much greater visibility than previously. Cases of egregious bad behaviour, especially in these factionally charged times, can get publicity. And lots of it. That damages the party politically, and this behaviour impinges on the second factor: the membership. Typically dismissed as keyboard warriors who've never seen doorsteps outside Google Images, in reality the massive 2015-16 intake are no more or less active than the majority of "old" party card holders. They turn up at meetings. They turn up and campaign. Abuses of democracy and process can serve to mobilise and strengthen their determination to stick with the leader and his programme (after all, that is the basis of Jeremy Corbyn's appeal). In effect, the membership, which remains majority Jez, make the discharge of bureaucratic chicanery more difficult and more expensive, politically, for those who indulge it.

And the last point is the virtual disappearance of the trade union right. The fixers of old had one foot in the PLP and the party machinery, and another in the trade unions. While workplace organisation was much stronger and consequently more militant than present before 1979, its concomitant was a quiescent bureaucracy uninterested in rocking the boat too much in the wider party. While nostalgics write of the transmission belt unions provided from the works' canteen to Westminster's terrace, worker MPs, with some exceptions, packed bureaucratic habits of thought alongside their underwear and Sunday best as they made their journey to Parliament. Likewise trade union officialdom reinforced exactly the same sensibility as they engaged in party structures. Keep things on an even keel, anything for a quiet life. The unions wouldn't intervene too overtly or too consistently in "high politics" provided Labour delivered the policies and in return they were expected to pacify and discipline their memberships at the party's behest. The relationship gave trade union leaders and senior officials direct access to ministers and Number 10, and an input into policy, but led to combustible politics as the 1975-79 Labour government shows. Upon Blair's election as Labour leader in 1994, the relationship became increasingly one-sided as the years wore on. The unions were still expected to rein in industrial action, and in return, well, the Tories will be kept out.

This was an unsustainable situation. Readers may recall from the period of the late 90s on how unions slowly but surely turned left. General secretaries preaching the virtues of "partnership" and cooperation were replaced one-by-one by a clutch of officials collectively dubbed the awkward squad. Politically speaking, they were all well within the envelope of big tent trade unionism but to greater and lesser degrees they took more uncompromising stances with regard to members' interests. This firmed up even further after Brown's defeat and the dawning of the Tory/LibDem coalition. First, most affiliated unions organised (haphazardly, it has to be said) for Ed Miliband and were for the most part later forced by active members into stumping for Jeremy Corbyn. Meanwhile, trade union officialdom has almost been entirely replaced by a layer or organisers who were lay members during the New Labour years and, in some cases, would have participated in disputes Blair and Brown oversaw. This is particularly the case with the Communication Workers' Union and the monomaniacal attempts by a Labour government to soften Royal Mail up for privatisation. The overall result is a shift in trade union bureaucracies and powerful lay committees to range from the soft left to Corbynism in political composition. Only USDAW and wee Community remain largely unaffected.

You can see where this leads. When it comes to affiliated trade union input into Labour, basically the material base for a union-backed Labour right has withered away. Because Blairism, as a variant of liberalism believed its own Third Way waffle and failed to understand the labour movement. It simultaneously set about undermining the electoral coalition it built in the country, while negligently and blindly destroying its own allies on the trade union right in the party. While unions are not monoliths, they are not disposed to be the guarantor of machine politics any longer, especially as it tries and stymies their influence. And so the material base for that has largely shrunk to party positions - lay and staff - elected office, and whatever can me mustered via Labour First, Progress, and the affiliated societies. In this context, more trade union participation represents a threat. Hence the overt hostility shown Len McCluskey, who has long promised more Unite input into the party, is far from an irrational dislike.

Once placed in this context, the anonymous briefings to the press, the moaning at PLP meetings, the compliance unit and its doings, the studied refusal to fight the leadership politically, the bizarre criticisms levelled at Momentum as a Corbyn proxy and Unite, and the utterly counter-productive behaviour makes sense. They are, effectively, the last gasps of a gravely weakened tradition lacking a discernible way of coming back. If they want to retake the Labour Party and become relevant again, a massive rethink is needed. But for as long as they're unwilling to even understand why there are where they are (apart from one brave and largely unacknowledged exception), they're stuck. If not doomed.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

The SWP's Split from TUSC

I can't be arsed with yet another disingenuous Labour Party spat, so I'm turning to less weightier matters. Socialist Worker announced week before last that the SWP were departing from the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Coatesy over at the Tendance has the story. Their reason for departing is because TUSC voted to field candidates in this May's local elections (talk about leaving it late in the day), and as far as the SWP are concerned this meant its participation in the alliance had become a barrier to cosying up to the Labour left and recruiting. I hate to break it to you guys, but that's not your bar to success.

In truth, the SWP had only ever been a semi-detached TUSC affiliate, and was always viewed as such by its primary sponsor. Writing in the latest issue of the soaraway Socialist, Clive Heemskirk notes the SWP's refusal to take political responsibility for TUSC candidates in England and Wales at the recent conference vote and so their departure wasn't unexpected. Readers with long memories will recall the Socialist Party itself walked out of the Socialist Alliance in 2001 as it would not/could not countenance following a majority line enforced by the SWP, and so 16 years on we find the SWP swanning off because it could not tolerate being a minority subordinate to the SP. I love me some irony.

Clive's response to the SWP's flounce goes on to draw distinction between the SWP in England and Wales, and what's left of their sorry outfit in Scotland. There, the Swps remain affiliates of Scottish TUSC and are participating in this May's council elections. This is on the grounds that the SNP's demolition of Labour has shown alternatives are possible, and that Our Kez is a Blairite. Not unreasonably, Clive points out that from the perspective of sects aspiring to lead a proletarian revolution, Carwyn Jones and Welsh Labour, and local government across England are qualitatively no different. Rather than forcing a Liverpool-style confrontation with the government - which is the blueprint for running councils For All Time, regardless of circumstances - Labour have taken on the role of administering cuts and therefore little better than Tory authorities who wield the axe with alacrity.

Of course, the real reason the SWP left TUSC is a case of why bother? Throughout its history, the "party" has zigzagged from one position to another. Before the Socialist Alliance and Respect, elections were distractions from the class struggle. Then during their star crossed affair with the Gorgeous One, leaflets about dog poo and getting the vote out were the pinnacles of revolutionary politics. And since then, it's back to tedious old movementism with dilettante forays into elections under the TUSC banner. For an organisation past its sell by, and with a reputation for toxicity among labour movement activists (especially younger comrades) on a par with Nigel Farage, they certainly don't lose anything by withdrawing from TUSC.

As for TUSC and the SP itself, they too aren't exactly going places. Rumours persist that the RMT are seriously thinking about reaffiliation to Labour, and so they should. But for the SP themselves, it's no secret they've had a very difficult time orienting towards Corbynism. First, after years of saying the Labour Party was dead for the purposes of socialist politics it springs back into life. Beyond petitioning and flogging their papers on the margins of the Corbyn movement, their impact has been nil. Even worse, there is anecdotal evidence that Corbynism is undercutting them. However, as the SP has more of a root in political realities than the SWP (which isn't saying much) the option of packing their bags and trying to ponce off campaigns a la their erstwhile bedfellows doesn't exist. All they can do is wait and hope for an opening seeing as their campaign to get "former Labour Party members" (i.e. members of Militant's editorial board and others) reinstated went nowhere.

However, this isn't entirely down to having-nothing-better-to-do. As the SP noted, their local election campaigns are "targeted". This might have something to do with a collapse in activists willing to put up, but also, they can "help" Corbyn. This is probably crediting them too much nous, but they know their vote is going to be utterly derisory. By standing against councillors and council candidates they view as anti-Corbyn, TUSC might just win enough to prevent them from being elected. As Momentum fights inside, the SP are taking them on outside. The "Blairites" are weakened and, it is to be hoped, Corbyn supporters would be grateful. That a Tory or a kipper could get in instead is of little consequence. That it would cause nary a ripple on events unfolding in the Labour Party doesn't matter either. The main audience to be convinced of their continued efficacy and relevance are SP members themselves. Appearances of everything, their real standing in the world, nothing.

And so another milestone in TUSC's and, indeed, British Trotskyism's demise passes. Unfortunately for comrades clinging to the tradition, there isn't going to be an influx of tens of thousands to save them. They - the SP and SWP - passed up their moments to make history. Instead, they can look forward to being less a plaything and more a minor trinket, forgotten and seldom seen at the bottom of history's pocket.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

The Audacity of Osborne

I hear tell of George Osborne applying for the Evening Standard vacancy only after other people came to him for advice on their applications. What a charmer. Still, his landing the editorship of London's biggest free sheet is as shocking as it is audacious. How is it someone barely able to string a sentence together, let alone lacking journalistic experience of any kind, can simply drop into and run one of the country's biggest titles, and carry on doing another five jobs, including the nominally full-time role of representing the good people of Tatton?

Connections, of course. Standard proprietor, Evgeny Lebedev said "I am proud to have an editor of such substance, who reinforces The Standard's standing and influence in London and whose political viewpoint - socially liberal and economically pragmatic - closely matches that of many of our readers". Lebedev is the son of an oligarch who got stinking rich thanks to the plundering of Russian industry after the fall of the USSR, and has basically spent his entire life swanning around the jet set and organising parties for celebrities and other chums in London. Osborne and Dave are previous attendees of these lavish jollies, which is pure coincidence, of course. For Lebedev, buying the former chancellor for the pocket change of £200k a year ensures he has an in where the future of the Conservative Party is concerned. Favours rendered always come with the expectation of favours to be conferred.

Of Osborne himself, this move nakedly demonstrates the incestuous character of our elites and, fundamentally, how they work. It shows how the dispositions, networks, and cultures of our gilded rulers form a social mesh that automatically qualifies them within the terms of that social world for the privileged positions of running our most powerful and influential institutions when such opportunities arise. It doesn't matter that Osborne isn't and has never been a journalist, his social weight and inertia helps ensure it is not a matter of plugging a square peg into a round hole. This process of fitting, of integrating individuals was something the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu spent his career exploring. Permit me a moment of self-plagiarism:
His basic ideas are that each of us are endowed with a set of dispositions and preferences acquired throughout our lives (the habitus), and this acquisition is always overlaced by patterns of domination and (relative) privilege. My working class Tory background, for example, is part of my being and conditions my interests, dispositions and position-takings in ways I am aware and not aware of. And it will always be the case. More obvious examples are how the physicalities of our bodies, the genders, ethnicities, and disabilities condition and shape the habitus. The habitus is socially acquired and is irreducibly social. Bourdieu also argued that societies can be understood as if they are great meshes of overlapping fields. All human endeavour, from the operation of culture, through to the internal doings of institutions and right down to the pecking order in the local bowling club can be understood as if they were economies. The marketplace is typically a scene of competition (and collusion) between actors to secure market share, hence profits, hence economic capital for themselves. Other human activities can be understood the same way. Education systems see pupils compete through a battery of assessments for grades, i.e. cultural capital. Literary fiction is a competition among authors for the cultural capital specific to that field - prizes, critical acclaim, recognition. Politics the acquisition of political capital, and so on. What Bourdieu does is to link up habitus and field. Through socialisation, education, extra-curricular interests, work and so on one's habitus acquires social and cultural capital, and the more one possesses the better fit there is between the individual and a greater number of fields. It's not that Oxbridge graduates are especially brainy, it's that their acculturation and networks disproportionately favours their chances of succeeding across a greater range of social fields. They have the strategies and know how to get on that puts them at an advantage vis a vis the rest of the graduate population ... This, however, is not a theory of unproblematic social integration. It's a theory of best fit.
What the ownership of large quantities of cultural capital does is endow an over-exaggerated sense of one's self-worth as well as entitled expectations. Osborne, having effortlessly done the Member of Parliament thing (the benefit of having staff who can do the job for you!) and undermined the position of British capitalism from Number 11, again without breaking a sweat, for him the editorship of the Standard is merely just another set of meetings he will attend to, a few bits of documents to shuffle through, and a few decisions to be made for others to carry out. This mode of working is pretty standard among our social betters. For ridiculous money and wedges of prestige, their actual responsibilities barely extend beyond reading and commenting on briefing notes. These are hyped up as difficult, complex tasks that only the super-talented can do, but all their discharge actually requires is acculturation and a bit of front.

The politics of the move are more than foolish. Osborne, hailed as a genius by people who can't tell the difference between it and deviousness, could well end up harming his prime ministerial ambitions and the standing of Lebedev's comic. While most people who read papers know they have a political affiliation and editorial line, the legitimacy in part derives from their formal separation from the parties they back. The little bit of critical distance confers authority on editorials, and also means that politicians themselves pay attention. Because Theresa May and Sadiq Khan know the Standard is a vehicle for Osborne's views, neither are going to take its criticism and cajoling at all seriously. Indeed, in Khan's case - despite his ill-judged congratulations - they can be publicly dismissed with virtually no electoral backwash from Standard readers.

And so, George Osborne. The move into journalism, if it can be called that, is certainly a hubristic one. But we all know what follows on after.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Dutch Lessons for the Centre Left

A much-hyped populist-right party with a "charismatic" figurehead and a sideline in racism, where have we heard that story before? Well, across nearly every Western liberal democracy it seems. But in the Netherlands today, the exit polls strongly suggest Geert Wilders' misnamed Freedom Party (PVV) has juddered to a deserved halt. The hype surrounding his person served to boost turn out of anti-Wilders sentiment. Their seat tally is up from 12 to 19, but hardly the lead they were hoping for. Likewise the liberal-leftish Democrats 66 (D66) and the Christian Democrats also move up to 19 while the governing People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) make for the biggest party with a likely haul of 31 seats. The Green Left also make an advance from minor party status to the big leagues with a possible 16 seats. The checking of Wilders and his rancid politics is welcome (remember, it happened here first), but the other big story is the complete collapse of the PvdA or, for you and me, the Dutch Labour Party.

Going into this election, the PvdA held the second largest number of seats in the Tweede Kamer, or House of Representatives. At 35, it was only outstripped by the VVD at 40, and so governed in a grand coalition of the centre left and centre right. As the junior partner, the PvdA's leader Lodewijk Asscher (pictured) served as Deputy Prime Minister to the VVD's Mark Rutte. And the coalition proved to be problematic for both parties. No sooner was the ink dry on their 2012 agreement, they shared a plunge in poll ratings. The VVD tumbled from around 40% and has mostly languished between 24 and 28 percentage points since. Not good. The PvdA's fall from approximately 38% was even more immediate and spectacular. By late 2013 it sunk to a low of 13%, and on the eve-of-poll were commanding, if that's the right word, under eleven per cent. That will give them nine seats. In short, a complete disaster and shambles.

I know people on the centre left don't want to hear it, but I'm going to spell it out again anyway. The malaise afflicting social democratic and labourist politics isn't a force of nature, it's not that electorates have become massive racists or impatient with the boring, plodding work of parliamentary government. The collapse of PASOK in Greece, the humiliation about to be visited on the Socialist Party in France, the failure of Renzi's referendum in Italy, the dismal performance of the Democrats and blue collar swing to Trump have a common theme. Indeed, the collapse of Scottish Labour and the 2015 evisceration of the Liberal Democrats share it too. All of them, every single one of them, did and were seen to be acting against the interests of their constituencies.

Blair-like Third Way politics might have fooled leaders of class and labour movement-based parties that class and labour movements don't matter any more, but political realities and interests do not respect wonkish delusions. Enacting policies that attack our people, defined broadly as the coalition of voters who are conscious that their interests are best served by returning the centre left, will only break them up. Pushing through cuts, attacking unions, undermining public provision, the promotion of market reforms, all of these policies hurt our people, alienate them, and fracture the bedrock of our support. Our alliance thrives on solidarity. It weakens and splinters under conditions of insecurity. It doesn't take genius to work it out.

Unfortunately for the PvdA, they now join that long list of miserable failures. The very act of going into government with its most bitter opponent was bad enough - imagine a Tory/Labour coalition - but to then sit with them as you deliver a programme of austerity that attacks your own base ... words do not exist to describe such stupidity and recklessness.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Nicola Sturgeon's Independence Ambush

Back in the halcyon times of the UK Left Network discussion list, plenty of participants had bust ups with the grandly over-titled Scottish Republican Socialist Movement - a "movement" with more initials than members, one of the slogans often attending its adherents' contributions was "Britain out of Ireland, Scotland out of Britain". Well, it has to be said, that's not looking anywhere as fanciful as it did 15-16 years ago.

Theresa May must be bitterly cursing Nicola Sturgeon's intervention in the Brexit debate and reminding her of the almighty hash she's making of it. A scant 24 hours earlier, this blog happened to raise the issue that Westminster and its media had seemingly forgotten about, the Scottish dimension to Brexit. Indeed, by all accounts Sturgeon's pledge to put a second independence referendum in motion caught the government completely on the hop. While I don't think too much of her politics - palest pink social justice politics plus independence monomania - Sturgeon is much cannier than the flotsam and jetsam of the Tory elite, and that includes our dear leader. For instance, just check out her lame, not to say hypocritical, reply to the First Minister.

Ever since the UK's first near-death experience at the hands of the Scottish independence referendum result, the SNP have been itching to have a second crack at it. After all independence at whatever price is their party's raison d'etre. Expecting them not to advocate for it, strategise for it, and work toward it is like supposing the Tories would not hand perks and privileges out to the already wealthy. With Holyrood in the party's control and as near as dammit a full roster of Scottish constituencies at Westminster, Sturgeon and the SNP have an opportunity they just cannot pass up. You would have thought the presence of so many Scottish Nationalists in clear view from the Prime Minister's seat might have caused her to take some notice of them. Even Hammond thought they were worth a cheap troll. And yet, for all of May's talk about the preciousness of the United Kingdom, for all her sharey carey nonsense, her determination to seriously weaken British capitalism for the sake of preventing a few tens of thousands of Europeans here, a few tens of thousands of Europeans there coming here to work and contribute was always going to put her on a collision course with the Scottish government. Let there be no doubt. Theresa May is responsible for this mess. It is her, no one else, that has gone out of her way to ignore the pro-EU aspirations of a voting majority of Scots.

As far as Sturgeon is concerned, May's stupidity is a gift. Here we have a clear case of Westminster forcing on Scotland a political reality it did not vote for. The promise set out in The Promise - remember that? - that Scotland is an equal and valued partner in the UK is shown to be demonstrably false. Sturgeon and the SNP have a grievance. And, fortuitously for the pro-independence case, one of the key props of Better Together, EU membership, is going to get wrenched away from them. While it is true an independent Scotland would have to re-apply as soon as it leaves the UK, for the SNP and its hegemonic "inclusive" civic nationalism, it has the advantage of aligning more happily with the liberal utopianism that attends the EU than the backward, little Englandism of Number 10. Scotland does and always will carry out more business with the rest of the UK than the EU, but economic realities these days are trumped, sometimes literally, by nonsense nationalism. All Sturgeon is doing is striking while the iron is hot. The forces of unionism are divided and weak. The much-talked about return of Scottish Toryism is little to crow about, and Scottish Labour virtually used itself up in defending the union last time and is something of a shambles, unfortunately. If not now for the SNP, when?

There's also the small matter of the SNP's immediate interests getting served. Scottish local elections are coming up and, surely, the party can expect to do very well indeed. Even if the results are a mere adjustment in toward Westminster/Holyrood levels of support, the SNP can reasonably expect to net hundreds of seats, mostly at Labour's expense. I don't want to be cynical (who, me?), but throwing independence back into political contention has the happy consequence of obscuring the party's record in government. A less-than-stellar performance on education and an outright refusal to effectively use the powers available to it to ameliorate cuts coming from Westminster immediately spring to mind.

Nevertheless, it could turn out that Sturgeon is doing the rest of the UK a service. An independence referendum isn't likely for a couple of years, and she knows the harder the Brexit the easier the SNP's case will be. May doesn't want to go down in history as an even worse Prime Minister than her predecessor. She doesn't want to be the one nation Tory who sacrificed the UK on the altar of border controls and so, yes, it is possible that Sturgeon's ambush, for all the sound and fury, might force her to moderate her negotiating position and make an independence referendum victory less likely. How delightfully ironic.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Will Brexit Kill the Boundary Review?

I'm breaking that rule, again. You know, the one forbidding ventures into the realm of political predictions. Perhaps the recent foray into long range forecasting has empowered me to speak about matters in the nearer term. So here it is: the redrawing of constituency boundaries isn't going to happen. Okay, let me rephrase that, it's looking increasingly unlikely that the government are going to follow through. Bold claim, but what's the basis for it?

Look at the chaos embroiling Theresa May's government. Brexit was and is a tricky proposition, and by stupidly aiming for the worst kind on offer her government is unnecessarily multiplying problems for itself. Determined to be the super-toughest on immigration, May is determined that there is no way UKIP can outflank them on the right ever again. Yes - and just when you thought Tory leaders had stopped tilting to this dysfunctional bunch of has-beens, May carries on the tradition established by her predecessor. As such, not only is she colliding with the reality-facing sections of her backbenches over guarantees for EU residents, but this foolishness is imperilling the unity of the UK, again. Nicola Sturgeon has rattled the cage of a summer 2018 independence referendum, and the ongoing deadlock over the Northern Ireland executive - plus questions marks over the border and the overdue decaying of Loyalism there - puts the possibility of a united Ireland on the feasibility list. If either of these come to pass and the government carelessly loses a part of the UK, it's curtains for the Prime Minister.

Apart from that, our old friend, alleged Conservative election fraud during 2015 is making menacing forays back into the front and centre of Westminster politics. The emergence of running the Thanet campaign full-time in a clear breach of civil service rules, and now Grant Shapps weighing in to confirm the allegations ... oh, what a lovely mess! The pressure will be on the CPS to not take matters further once police investigations are completed, but if they do and charges levied lead to successful prosecutions, May could see her majority disappear mid-way through negotiations with Brussels. Not ideal.

Oh yes, and there is also the small matter of the National Insurance nightmare. An unforced error from the point of view of politics, it has merited front page coverage for a further day as well as being a main talking point during the Sunday politics shows. If only the bedroom tax or cuts to the disabled had commanded anywhere near as much concern. This occasioned another bout of acrimony but also, interestingly, May went out her way to defend the change. What that means is she cannot be seen to retreat from her position. She has made sure Hammond's policy is her policy. Having seen down the grammar school rebellion, and opposition to cuts to disability benefit, she'll try bulldozing this one. Retreat would make her look weak, and an indecisive profile on the eve of Brexit negotiations would be politically calamitous.

Still, May is by nature cautious. With chaos exploding around her, she wouldn't welcome more distractions and "unnecessary" backbench rebellions. This, alas, is what redrawing constituency boundaries promises. With the commanding poll lead, Tories normally happy to vacate disappearing seats likely to be lost at the next election for a twilight in the Lords might now object. Even never-weres and never-will-bes entertain delusions of ascending to high office, so why abandon any chance of that? In short, a plan means another possible rebellion. The second problem is May cannot simply stuff the Lords with refugees from her benches. Given the boundary exercise is partially justified by reducing the cost of politics, it makes her vulnerable to charges of cronyist profligacy and venal self-interest, a badge her one nation image would be wise to avoid. The second problem, according to chatter at Westminster, is parliamentary time. There is a growing realisation in the Commons that the overdetermination of politics by Brexit will crowd out legislative time for everything else. The raft of legislation needed to establish a new trading relationship with the EU and the rest of the world, and the scrutiny this requires has been estimated to take up to 10 years. Yes, if this blog is still going in 2027 Brexit will be a regular feature, so there's something to look forward to. Therefore the unnecessaries are going to get squeezed, and that could very well include the boundary review recommendations - especially so if, by then, Jeremy Corbyn still leads Labour and we languish behind in the polls.

I could be wrong. I sometimes am. But a reading of the situation suggests the long grass is the most likely home for whatever the Boundary Commission eventually comes up with.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Why the Right Fears the Four-Day Week

I've got a guilty secret. I subscribe to CapX's mailing list and occasionally, I like some of its output. For those of you who don't know (or don't care) what CapX is, it's a fancy ass blog that styles itself as the home of some of the best politics writers going. And Daniel Hannan. It also happens to be firmly on the right somewhere between Cameroonism and the batshittery of so-called libertarianism. In many ways, its stock-in-trade is contrarianism, albeit not as strident or as obviously stupid as your average Brendan O'Neill missive. Its niche is the provision of middle brow arguments bigging up Uber, applauding Tory economic policy (well, until this happened), and blindly, blithely cheering on the anarchy of market fundamentalism. Still, lefties used to the thought-free rantings that normally passes for right wing thinking should check it out if they want their conservatism a touch more substantial.

Anyway, scrolling through their plugs last week, I came across this by Allard Dembe, a Health Services academic at Ohio State University. And his piece, 'The hidden dangers of a four-day workweek' isn't exactly a title that leaves a lot to the imagination. As readers know, there is an emerging trend on the left (and, indeed, in politics as a whole) interested in what's happening at work. Chiefly, most worrying for policy makers - and a system utterly dependent on the disciplining of workers - are predictions that advancing automation is set to wipe out millions of jobs, make thousands of occupation types redundant, and that the new jobs set to fill the gap will neither be available in sufficient quantities or offer a like-for-like replacement (Andy's taken a recent look at this, I plan on replying in due course). Hence discussion has been doing the rounds about reducing the working week, or introducing a basic income to support people outside of work.

As the historical record shows, the workers' movement from its inception has fought to reduce the number of hours we spend selling our labour power in return for a wage or a salary. As the work/life boundary becomes blurred for large numbers of workers and work is extending itself beyond the formal work day, we need to take this more seriously and start asking serious questions about what the economy should be for, rather than limiting economic debate to pushing up GDP figures and job creation strategies. It's in this context that Dembe's arguments should be appraised.

Dembe has considerable experience studying workplaces, and possesses a long publication list that testifies to this. Unfortunately, sometimes expertise doesn't necessarily mean you ask the right questions. He begins by listing a number of companies that have experimented with four-day working and outlines advantages in terms of reduced overheads for business, less time spent commuting, and so on. And then goes on to rubbish it by listing the disadvantages. Chief among them are the consequences of compressing work time. For instance, assuming that five eight-hour days are crammed into four days, Dembe notes the risk of at-work accidents creep upwards. Furthermore, using 32 years worth of data, long work hours are related to a plethora of later life health problems. And that's before we start talking about mental health problems, parental responsibilities and the like. He concludes, "I don’t know about you, but the prospect of a four-day week scares me. I already have a hard enough time getting my regular weekly work done over five days."

There is an obvious point here. Can you tell what it is yet? Why yes, Dembe is assuming the number of hours worked in a week are inviolable. There is more than one way to shorten the working week. Assuming the "hegemonic" normal working week, you could just redistribute the hours across four days. Or, here's a radical suggestion, work commitments could be redesigned so the number of hours worked are less. Instead of a working week of four 10 hour days, how about four eight hour days? As we have seen over the course of the last 30 years, productivity gains have resulted in record profits while wages have lagged well behind, and living standards kept afloat mainly thanks to credit and cheap consumer durables. There is no reason, apart from politics, why work could not be reorganised to spread these gains to everyone through the reduction of the working week without loss of wages. For Dembe, CapX and friends this cannot be countenanced - a day less at work surely means fully automated luxury communism is next.

What Dembe's piece demonstrates is a total poverty of imagination. It's a case study in how capital's intellectual bodyguards cynically try and narrow the horizon of possibilities around a particular issue, in this instance labour's economic dependence on capital, foreclose alternatives by failing to even mention them, and then provide drab technical reasons why such-and-such a proposal is unworkable and/or undesirable.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Truxton for the MegaDrive/Genesis

Taking a night off from the politics and suchlike, it's time we had a look at a well known MegaDrive title that's been in my sights for some time. Truxton, or Tatsujin as it was dubbed in Japan, is a vertically scrolling shooter that sees you operate a rocketship of doom against waves upon waves of dastardly aliens just begging to get blasted. Yes, as no frills shooters go, Truxton pretty much wrote the book.

As an early MegaDrive title, I remember its review back in t'day in jolly old Computer and Video Games. In common with nearly all of the initial crop of games, Tatsujin as we knew it then walked away with a massive pile of accolades. Remember, these were the days when replication of the arcade experience was the sine qua non of action-based gaming. The tiny number of screen shots jumped off the page and looked like something I'd only ever see at the sadly-missed American Adventure up the road. The graphics were crisp and crapped over all the shooters available on the 16-bit home computers, and the bosses were simply huge. I think this was the moment when I realised that the pennies I had hitherto put away for an Amiga might best go on Sega's machine instead - even though the official release was still over a year away.

Summer of 1991 came round and I finally had cash enough to sink into a MegaDrive. I started off with two games and spent the next year or so (very) slowly building up a collection. Truxton as it was now styled for Western audiences by this time wasn't something I particularly fancied, until the purveyor of cheapo console games on Ripley market introduce a swapping service. For a complete game and a fiver, you could have a new game. This is how I got my copy, stupidly swapping my original, complete and pristine copy of Star Control for it. Duh. And you know what, I was disappointed.

Truxton made a fantastic first impression in 1989, but three years later while it was old hat, even if considered a solid blast by the video game mag cognoscenti. I was forced to reluctantly agree at the time. It was tough - stupidly so, in places - and for a shooter, and a Toaplan-developed one at that, the thumping soundtrack I was expecting was curiously absent. The music still disappoints to this day. It hung around on my shelf for a while before getting swapped for Michael Jackson's Moonwalker (which, in its turn, later made way for Golden Axe). And that was it until a couple of years ago when I picked it up in my second wind of MegaDrive collecting. Did absence make the heart grow fonder?

Not this time, alas. Those first impressions formed 20 years ago all came back when it flashed up on my MegaDrive. The format, fly up a forced scrolling screen dispatching waves of enemies can be quite satisfying, but in Truxton's case it is marred by a litany of cheap deaths. Baddies suddenly appearing up your backside with little chance to avoid them. Exploding light bulbs (yes, really) that throw shards of death around the screen while trying to battle hordes of aliens are annoying. And, occasionally, those evil sods off screen throwing a bullet or two in your direction. This is partially compensated by the weaponry, of which there are three types obtained through power ups. The standard spread shot eventually develops a shield of bullets that prevent any kamikaze sneak attacks from the rear. But not helpful against the light bulbs. The "green weapon" is the most powerful but concentrates your fire in a strictly narrow column of death to the front of your craft. Excellent for bosses, not ideal for the rest of the level where enemies pop up from here, there and everywhere. And lastly there is the most awesome looking weapon, the lightning. On the screenshots it looks extremely impressive, and powered up fully five columns of electrical energy stream out to encompass almost the entirety of your screen. Problems? Sides remain vulnerable, the bolts can obscure exploding enemies, and there are nefarious mid-level bosses that use the beams to home in on your craft. Though word has to go to the Truxton smart bomb, which remains the most awesomely ostentatious explosion grace a 16-bit machine.

This might sound like a whinge (and it is), but it does make for a very frustrating experience. One moment you're basking in the near-invulnerability of total destructive power, and one cheap death reduces you back to a sluggish, underpowered vulnerable nonsense. Under these circumstances, you're sure to be less X-wing, more ex-wing. Yes, it's one of them. Truxton also has the annoying Toaplan characteristic of offering speed ups to the point of uncontrollability, making it nigh on impossible to effectively avoid enemy fire without careening into something else.

Despite being annoying and having rubbish music, Truxton managed to accomplish a few important firsts for the MegaDrive. The game helped cement its reputation as a machine capable of arcade quality action in the sphere of vertically scrolling shooting. Which, at the time, was (with its horizontally-scrolling brethren) the canonical game form - albeit one due to be replaced by the platformer. As far as I know, Truxton was the first game of its type for the MegaDrive. Second, it repeated the trick Altered Beast managed to pull by showing off (a little bit) some of the tricks the machine was capable of. There was some sprite rotation-y stuff on some of the enemies, and sometimes this was accomplished with many of them at screen on once. This was then a big deal, albeit one not picked up on at the time. Second, the game throws a lot of enemies at you without any slow down - again, a truly impressive feat of programming on then new hardware. Thirdly, Truxton also established the base standards one should expect from a game of this kind. Plenty of enemies, challenge, beastly big bosses - these were the standards by which vertically scrolling console shooters were to be judged. It wasn't a canonical game, but nevertheless the conventions it condensed were sublimated into reviewers' judgement criteria. As a rule, if a game didn't advance or innovate beyond what was on offer here it was destined to be a sure fire critical failure.

As games go, Truxton is now a museum piece. Worth a whirl certainly, but rapidly eclipsed at the time by other vertically scrolling fare Super Aleste as well as Toaplan's subsequent efforts on the MegaDrive.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Hammond's National Insurance Nightmare

George Osborne may have been the worst chancellor of modern times, but he understood one thing. Subordinating the national interest, i.e. those of British business-in-general to the narrow concerns of the Conservative Party, allowed for good press and the accumulation of political capital. It didn't matter if these actions weakened the economy or made life worse for millions just as long as it helped secure the next election, which it duly did. "Call me" Philip Hammond, is a very different kind of chancellor. As he got up at yesterday's budget statement, he entertained the chamber with a handful of zingers at Labour and the SNP's expense, but effectively he did the anti-Osborne. His was a thin, technocratic position that didn't pay too close an attention to politics, and as a result the politics played him.

First and foremost was floundering into a trap of the Tory Party's own making. You may recall the weird campaign they ran in the run up to the general election: a promise to spray paint public services with money, while emphasising prudence and responsible spending that channnelled circa 1996 Gordon Brown. At the time, Dave and Osborne made a big show of accusing Labour of wanting to quietly raise National Insurance (or the jobs tax as they opportunistically dubbed it), and this forced the sainted Ed to publicly forswear any such thing. Meanwhile, they ensured it appeared no less than four times in their manifesto. And now, the Tories have gone and broken it. Hammond has tried saying that the pledge only meant a certain kind of NI contribution. More fool the Tory electorate for missing the caveat at the time, eh? And so it presents as a straight pledge break, which is something no politician should be seen to do.

And then it's who is affected. It's a smash and grab on the petit bourgeoisie, of the army of small business people and self-employed whose ranks swelled after the crash hit, redundancies were handed out and secure job opportunities shrivelled up. Traditionally the backbone of centre right parties everywhere, it's as if Hammond failed to make the political calculations as he was adding up the sums. Or perhaps he did, thinking it unlikely they'd pass over to Labour amidst its current travails. Which might be true, but there are other options for narked off Tory voters. From a press reception point of view, it was never going to go down well with the perennially terrified readers of The Daily Mail anyway. But neither did he latch on to the position of freelance hacks and those associated with right wing titles in a self-employed capacity: many a columnist would have to cough up. Bearing in mind Osborne delivered budgets much worse then Hammond, and much more damaging too, it's amusing to see the Tories hit with a wall of negative coverage.

Then why do it? The Conservatives are galloping ahead in the polls, May is retaining a favourable approval rating, and for the most part the media remain entirely fixated on Jeremy Corbyn and how many times he blew his nose today. An unnecessary own goal? Perhaps. From a technical-fiddly point of view of raising extra monies, it does have the virtue of bring National Insurance in line with PAYE and making the system fairer, as Hammond puts it. And, while it would be news to most wage and salary earners that self-employed people have enjoyed reduced contributions rates, now they do know about it the Tories are going to have to bank on them thinking it's fair too. A bit of a gamble to be sure, but if this is "necessary" then now is the time to do it.

This morning, Nick Robinson referred to Hammond as "Spreadshit Phil". Perhaps it wasn't entirely a slip.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Stupidity of Melanie Phillips

It's chip wrappings now, but I still wanted to say a few things about Melanie Phillips and her egregious stupidity. In case you missed it, she caused a flap with this article that made a number of tendentious claims. Namely that Great Britain is an ancient nation whose existence predated the Act of Union, and is therefore indivisible while, at the same time, Ireland "has a tenuous claim to nationhood"

This is Mel up to her old tricks. Back in her day as an ideologue-in-residence at, where else?, The Daily Mail, she regularly churned out awful rubbish and racist hogwash. She in fact pioneered trolling in national newspapers as a business model. Why rely on the crusty old Colonel Blimps - for whom the internet is communism, or something - when you can pile up the visits and advertising rates by hooking in lefty audiences outraged at explicit displays of bigotry? It's a lesson the gutter press and its scribblers have long taken aboard, and it works. Would I be writing about this if no one paid her any attention?

Take her points about Linda Colley and Benedict Anderson. Judging by her brief discussion of their analysis of nationalities and nationalism, she never got past the blurb on the back of either Britons: Forging the Nation nor Imagined Communities. She falsely attributes them the argument that because nations were artificial ("invented") they could therefore be declared and dissolved. Um, no. Modern British identity is a contradictory mishmash of the reactionary and the progressive, of a nostalgic paean to a bloody legacy of conquest and empire, and a contemporary tolerance of difference and inclusivity. The bits and the bobs fixing these coordinates in popular consciousness are moments and personalities deemed to embody nationally-inflected values and character. And you know what, Mel? These are argued over constantly. Each generation comes onto the scene and rewrites the national story. Different narratives are conceived (invented, if you like) and consciously pushed by politicians, intellectuals, and movements from above and below. Each rewrite works upon the inheritance of past iterations, which carries material weight among institutions, education systems, modes of habit and thought, and so on. No rewrite is total, but the nation can be significantly redefined. And, of course, Mel knows this. If she believed the British character was an eternal set of values unchanged from Roman times, she wouldn't spend her time fulminating at the liberal turn British national identity has taken, or the cultural "threats" posed by the sundry brown-skinned minorities she despises.

On self-contradiction, she says Britain forged a national identity out of fending off successive waves of invaders to these shores. The British national story certainly draws on those experiences long after the fact, but in her addled brain, has she not considered that the Irish might also arrive at a common sense of nationhood through being on the receiving end of invasion, occupation, colonisation, emigration, partition and liberation? Climactic events like the Irish Rebellion, the Potato Famine, the Easter Rising, as far as Mel is concerned are these "improper" to hang a national narrative on? Can only the experience of being a conquering nation, of being at the centre of mighty empires just as the French, Germans, Russians were be the correct conditions under which authentic nationhood is forged? Again, we know she doesn't really believe this. As one of Israel's most fanatical and uncritical cheerleaders, she accepts the official narrative of Jews being a nation prior to the state's foundation in 1948. Experiences of persecution, repression, and genocide are legitimate building blocks for nations that get Mel's seal of approval in this case, but not for countries she dislikes.

The thing is we know Mel really believes her stuff, which makes her so bankable. But what this article betrays is a mindset in which the spark of intellect fizzled out long ago. Putting forward arguments that are self-contradicting at some points, and show her up to be a massive hypocrite in others and all the while indulging wilful misinterpretation of people she disagrees with betrays a deeply stupid, vanishingly dim, petty-minded character. Don't let anyone tell you that her and her like get a national platform on the basis of merit.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Supporting the Women's Quilt

A cross post from Emma Burnell about an excellent initiative started by friend-of-the-blog, Cllr Roxanne Ellis.

How do you turn hundreds of separate tales of murder, loss, grief and abuse into something positive? How do you turn a statistic that is at once both shocking and under-reported into something that tells stories and raises awareness?

For Gedling Labour Councillor Roxanne Ellis, this became more than an academic question when she was made aware of the Femicide Census. Based on the Counting Dead Women project by Karen Ingalla Smith, the Femicide Census lists the women who have died at the hands of men since 2009.

As Roxanne said: “Even though academically I knew that it was around two a week it wasn’t until I saw it all laid out that it truly struck home just how many it was. After that I thought that these women deserved to be more than numbers.”

Many of us when faced with such shocking numbers got angry. Roxanne on the other hand, got creative.

“The idea of the quilt came about because it is a traditionally feminine skill and one that is accessible to everyone, we have had women draw on their patch with pens, paint, stick, appliqué and embroider their patches. It is also one where people can work on their patches wherever they want and then they can be brought together. There was also inspiration taken from the AIDS quilt and the visual impact of that amazing piece of work.”

Women from all over the country have contributed their anger, their mourning, but more importantly their creativity and their celebration of the women who have been lost.

Andrea heard about the project from a friend on Facebook.

“I had a very cruel and abusive father. he did terrible things to my mother, most of which I was made to watch. My earliest memory is trying to pull him off her when he was on top of her, hitting her.”

Andrea’s mother eventually did leave her father, but was left with severe depression. She died some time later in a car accident and Andrea has never quite stopped blaming herself. When her father died four years ago, she felt nothing but relief.

“I wanted to be involved because it is a small way of alerting people to such an enormous problem in our society. My 12 year old daughter and I have done a patch each, which has given me the opportunity to talk to her about my experiences and to talk about how she must never be such a victim and what she can do. This has made me feel more open about the subject.”

Laura wanted to commemorate a teacher — 
Julie Ann Semper — who had meant a great deal to her who was later murdered.

“I met Julie while she was part of the student support at what used to be castle college. Our relationship was based around college, but we used to drink in the same pub after class ended! I first heard about the quilt when Roxanne told me about it and asked if I’d like to take part. I didn’t even make the connection in my brain about Julie to begin with until I looked at the names to choose from and it stood out to me — I knew that was the patch I wanted and needed to do as I knew her personally.”

Laura says “I hope [the quilt] will help recognise these women not as murder victims, but as the women they were beforehand.

This is echoed by Roxanne.

“What I hope to achieve is to start a conversation about domestic violence where victims become names and not numbers. In the long term I would like to see reporting changed to be more about the woman victims and not the male perpetrators. When researching the women included, often all the quilters could find about the woman was the way she had been killed.”

The quilt is nearly finished. It will be launched in Westminster Hall on International Women’s Day and is being supported by the Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party. When that’s done. The quilt is to go on tour. There are many who would like to see it displayed in their home towns or in honour of local victims who are commemorated in it. But this costs money. So there is now a Go Fund Me set up to see this happen. They are already over halfway to achieving their target.

Eventually, the quilt will be donated to a museum. But the community of women who have come together to create it remains strong. There have also been suggestions that they could start a new quilt for the women killed in 2016–17 for next International Women’s Day. Such an ambition is — of course — bitter sweet. One can only hope such a project would never be required. But with femicide at epidemic levels, sadly that seems a distant hope.

In the meantime, as is fitting, Roxanne should have the last — positive — word.

“We have really built an amazing community. One of our members said that she had never truly understood sisterhood until she took part in the quilt project.”.

Please consider donating to support the continued progress of the quilt and the work of celebrating the women murdered by men. To give a donation please go here.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Meet the Next Tory Leader

Let's leave behind the argy-bargy and specumalations surrounding Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership, and turn our attention to the Conservatives and who will succeed Theresa May. It's not exciting anyone at the moment because the issue is beyond settled. May convincingly took the farce of the Tory party leadership contest and now rides high in the polls. And yet, as everyone obsesses about Labour's difficulties we have a tendency to forget that May possesses a sliver of a majority, and adding Copeland to her tally does nothing to change that. Brexit is a destruction derby's worth of car crashes waiting to happen, little of which is going to reflect positively on her. The backbenchers might start getting restless, especially if sense is imbibed and a hard Brexit avoided. And there are those pesky events - the economy, NHS, schools, disability cuts - threatening to throw a spanner in the works. Oh, and lest we forget, the Tory electoral fraud story is menacing the outer edges of the problems piling into the PM's in tray.

Okay, assume May is going and the Tory benches are jostling and jockeying. Who will it be? The big beasts are set to pile in. Bottler Boris will be itching for another try. Disgraced serving minister Liam Fox and David Davis are sure to have a punt. Anna Soubry and the unlamented George Osborne are odds on to pitch in, and don't be surprised if the likes of "Handbags" Fallon, the dread Leadsom and Jake Rees-Mogg chuck in too. Yet I don't think any of these will win.

Long-time readers know I have a soft spot for Ruth Davidson. And seriously, who doesn't. From the distance of 200 miles and mediated by telly and Twitter, she comes across as smart, warm, funny, genuine. You could almost forget that as the leader of the Scottish Tories she stands implacably opposed to the interests of our movement. Now, the Tories are doing well but their historic problems haven't gone away. Secular decline in membership and vote share is temporarily offset by the exigencies of the moment, but in the long-term demographic change still favours Labour, hence the boundary review. To solve their problem, the Tories need to intersect with the rising generation: their bank of "mature voters" is paying negative interest, after all.

Someone like Ruth Davidson is what they need, someone not too obviously tainted with Tory baggage like cruel politics and comic batshittery. Someone who appears to take the one-nationism seriously, cares about working class people and their aspirations, comes across well and hails from a relatively normal background. And someone with a bit of drive too.

Unfortunately, the Tories have such a woman who isn't safely penned away at Holyrood. Apart from Johnson, who was a national political figure already, she's the stand out from the party's 2015 intake. I'm making a long range forecast now. She's charismatic, media friendly, has a few maverick tendencies but, from the standpoint of copy, for the right reasons. Ambitious, she put in for the Cambs and Peterboro' mayoralty and didn't get it, but that speaks of someone chafing at the relative powerlessness of the backbenches. That local role had real decision-making teeth to it, which no doubt proved quite tempting. So, if she has an opportunity to go for the top job, she will. And mark my words, she'll probably get it. Dear reader, I give you our movement's future nemesis: Heidi Allen MP.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Owen Jones and Naive Cynicism

Why has there been a rapid descent in the eyes of many Jeremy Corbyn supporters of Owen Jones? Formerly the favoured son of the British radical left, he finds himself hanging out with Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell in the demonology, and he didn't even have to sex up a dossier to get there. It interests me and disturbs me for a couple of reasons. Interests because his latest missives (here and here) are pretty obvious and should be totally uncontroversial. But, and this is the disturbing bit, for some, they are anything but. What the hell is going on?

Naive cynicism, that's what. This is the "spontaneous" mode of thought entirely appropriate to the age of anti-politics and, you might argue, the logical common sense culmination of our economics. You know what it is, especially if you were out in Stoke, it's jolly old you're-all-the-same-ism. The view that everyone, everyone is self-interested and motivated by ulterior reasons. For example, I write this blog because gizzajob. Owen has criticisms of Corbs because he wants a seat/is paid to by The Graun. I think you get the picture. This belief about hidden agendas isn't just a property of loyal Corbyn supporters. I've seen it assume different forms over the last three or four years in the mutterings of, respectively, UKIP supporters, ScotNats, self-identified Milifandom (remember that?), and our friends over the water for whom Donald Trump is their saviour. It shades into conspiracy theory, but it's something a bit more than that: a bona fide political phenomenon.

From within Corbynism, that is as a trend and movement rather than a body of ideas, there is a correspondence between naive cynicism as a sensibility and the 18 months Jeremy has held the leadership. First, there was the character assassination during the 2015 leadership campaign. Then came more press attacks and sniping in the media from MPs. This was followed by the attempted coup, a summer of flailing ourselves in the full glare of the media, and since then even more bad press and endless speculation about the leadership and eventual succession. For many Jeremy supporters, this is an appalling spectacle and they're absolutely right: no other political leader, perhaps not even Arthur Scargill at the height of the Miners' Strike has faced such levels of hostility. It's one reason why, for instance, I set aside my Corbyn scepticism and voted for him second time round. With this not totally-unjustified siege mentality, more than a few take the view that if you're not defending the leader and the party but raising criticisms of your own, you're not helping. In fact, worse than that, you're part of the amalgam of enemies lining up to put the boot in. In Owen's case, because he's using his Graun slot to raise tricky questions instead of taking on the enemy 100% of the time, he's part of the problem. As is anyone vaguely on the left and not sold on the leadership and its strategy. Even worse, because of Owen's history, presence and prior following, his doubts amount to a red Tory Trojan horse designed to undermine confidence in Corbyn and supplant him. Owen's noted enthusiasm for Clive Lewis is evidence enough that he's not interested in making the project work.

Naive cynicism finds more fuel from the parliamentary party not respecting the will of the members, and it burns with a great deal of resentment. Now, though the briefings and public slaggings off have piped right down, the boycott of front bench positions is still on. And Labour MPs continue to infuriate Jeremy supporters by greeting him with silence every time he bobs up at Prime Minister's Questions, refuse to shout encouragement, barrack the Tories and back him even when, time after time, Theresa May comes off worse. This rubs off on Owen's work because while he criticises the right of the party for not understanding where Corbynism came from in the first place (and, it has to be said, they're still not interested and hope it will simply go away), in their view he doesn't take the PLP to task enough for not fulfilling their obligations. If the party's public representatives did unite behind the leader, if they did all pull in the same direction then our media problems would disappear and people would take a look at Labour's radical policies. The flip side to naive cynicism is naive faith, that everything would be okay if Corbyn and Corbynism was given a chance. Only if that were the case ...

The persistence of naive cynicism among Corbyn's supporters is reinforced by the actions and inactions of others, but its ultimate root lies in the continued immaturity of Corbynism as a movement. Last summer, I wrote about how he was the focal point of a diffuse anti-austerity/left anti-politics sentiment looking for a catalyst to bring it into being, and the adulation and support Jeremy received was symptomatic of a young movement in the process of formation. This, however, was organising from a low base - the tidal wave of support thrust aloft a Labour left that was barely clinging on as Alex Nunns argues - and it was mostly masses of atomised individuals encouraged to join the party by the strength of social media ties. Events have conspired since to disperse the movement. Corbyn supporters have become involved in constituency parties and campaigning activity mostly as individuals or small groups and mixing with old members. This was inevitable and necessary, but without a clear lead from either Momentum (as it became bogged down in internal battles) or strategic guidance from the leader's office about what the left should be doing now, or even attempts from within the left to push political education - something sorely missing from the Labour Party as a whole - the Corbyn movement became stuck. Now fed by an ecology of blogs and spokespeople who coheres it solely as a support group, this does precious little to develop it as a movement that can turn outwards and work around the obstacles presented by a hostile media and recalcitrant political establishment. Because its development is stuck, it's starting to shake to pieces.

It doesn't have to be like this. Naive cynicism is the start of something. It's the most elementary form of rejectionist thinking and is malleable in all kinds of directions. The job of everyone in the labour movement who fancies themselves leftwing is to engage, persuade, develop and push the enthusiasm and energy Corbyn brought into the party, of shaping nascent oppositionism into critically-minded materially-rooted socialist politics. But development requires action from the leadership too, and they will find good advice about what needs to be done - ironically - in the very pieces by Owen that have earned a whirlwind of condemnation.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Unsolicited Advice for New Labour MPs

No, not New Labour MPs, as in Blairites, but Labour MPs that, um, happen to be new. Or will be new, soon. Like that there Gareth Snell recently returned from Stoke-on-Trent Central. Except not him, because he knows this stuff already. Here's some advice about the small p politics of being an honourable member from someone who has never been a MP and doesn't work in politics, but has opinions.

First, before you get there. If you're applying for a seat, especially if it's a by-election make sure your social media is thoroughly cleaned up before you've announced you're in the running. As soon as your name appears anywhere in connection to the seat, whether as a possible contender or a long listed candidate, there will be someone from a certain sewer-dwelling website going through your feeds looking for stinky stuff. In fact, don't wait until then. Sort it now.

Okay, well done, you've won your election and you're off to the Commons. All of a sudden you're expected to be an advocate, a lobbyist, a leader, a tribune, an example, and an office manager more or less from day one. Oh yes, and you don't have much power either. Did no one tell you that? But you do have a pretty hefty salary. Your first decision is what you're going to do with it. You can trouser the lot, but that's not recommended. Nor is doing the workers-MP-on-a-workers-wage schtick if you don't want ostracising, which isn't good for getting stuff done on behalf of the people you're representing. So, once the PLP has taken its share (ah, you weren't told about that either), and with plenty left over a yearly donation to CLP/branch funds is a must, whether the local party is cash strapped or not. Also, during this Parliament Ruth Smeeth was one of the few MPs to refuse the 10% pay rise and instead used that cash to fund charitable causes in her Stoke North and Kidsgrove constituency. Doing that or something similar is the right thing to do, and has the happy consequence of paying itself back many times over in goodwill.

That's the easy bit. Then comes sorting out your staffing. The first rule here is do not employ your family. Conservative MPs are buggers for doing this. Nearly every Tory MP whose office arrangements I know something about employ otherwise unemployable husbands and wives and sons and daughters. All at the top of IPSA pay scales, funnily enough. Also, they tend not to get too much heat from the media for it. As you're Labour, if you're daft and go down this route there's a much greater chance you'll cop for it. So don't. Second, it is absolutely crucial you have two operations, regardless of whether you represent a London constituency or not. You need parliamentary staff (one usually suffices when you're a backbencher) and staff in a constituency office. And this is more than just a matter of division of labour.

Your parliamentary assistant is useful for briefing notes, speeches, popping down to the Commons library, tours for constituents, babysitting guests and a thousand and one other things. Just don't get them washing your laundry or driving round London doing your shopping. That. Is. Not. What. They're. For. There is another, understated advantage for having permanent parliamentary staff. They will hang around and socialise with other bag carriers. This is good, so make sure you hire someone gregarious. Because they can do a lot of networking for you. If you're interested in making a splash in a particular policy area, a good staffer will have a working knowledge of what their mates are working on and might suggest meetings with such-and-such MP looking into something similar. That's the good, noble reason. Then there's gossip. You might have gathered by now, politics loves gossip and Westminster is full of it. Having a staffer helps keep you abreast of what's going on where indiscretions are rife and nothing stays under wraps for long. As much as you might dislike this sort of thing, you've got to have eyes and ears working for you.

Constituency staff are slightly different but no less important. Unless you're from the the Paul Nuttall school of lazy arses, you're going to be in Parliament most of the time, so your constituency staff will be the primary means by which the constituency and the members interact with you. So choose wisely. You don't want staff watching Jeremy Kyle all day instead of doing work. You don't want anyone taking a haughty attitude to members, and you certainly don't want employees causing embarrassment by inappropriately using your constituency property when you're not around. My recommendations would be two or three staff who don't necessarily share your brand of Labourist politics, which is good for advice/speaking truth to power. So go on, hire a Progress member and a Corbynist. Make sure you take on people with good writing and communication skills - they will be making representations on your behalf to ministers and sending things to constituents in your name. Preferably, hire people who live in or will move into your constituency and so know what it's like living there. And, this cannot be emphasised enough, employ party members. Membership is no guarantee of good judgement, but party members more likely have an eye for bits and bobs of casework that have local and national party political ramifications. Also, as members in the local party they straight away strengthen your base and will likely build close relationships with councillors and key local activists. The gossip function applies here too. Staff, however, aren't robots. Turn over is quite high, partly because there is no career progression. So give them autonomy. Allow them to fill their notebooks with contacts, to go on visits to local employers, public bodies, charities, etc. Give them projects to do and goals to work towards. Don't be an overbearing boss, don't micromanage and ensure you don't employ anyone as office manager with that kind of attitude. If you treat them well, take them seriously, listen to them, you will have their loyalty and support beyond the terms of employment.

On your relationship to your constituency party, take it very seriously. Only fools don't believe the CLP is the boss. Remember, you're only going to Westminster because the Labour badge was against your name. So be hands on, but not too hands on. Make sure you turn up to constituency meetings and give your report. If you're invited to a local party event, make sure you're there much more than not. Go out for drinks with members after meetings. Organise affordable socials and muck in. Even accept the odd dinner invite, and not just with the nice middle class professionals who want to show you their bookshelves. Have time for people, don't give politicians' answers in meetings, and listen. One thing you'll find are lots of irritating members like me: people wanting to tell you how to do your job. Take the time to respond as the one thing you want to avoid is a reputation for having a tin ear. And if you haven't got it, you're going to have to dig deep wells of patience - there's no way round it. At the same time, don't be afraid to push your politics. The sad fact is the best place to go to avoid talking politics is a Labour Party meeting, so change that, politicise things, work to persuade members of the merits of your views. Also, be very clear and provide a political rationale for the two or three priorities/hobby horses you have and update folks on any progress made. The members chose you and are invested in your success, so make them feel part of it.

While we're talking constituencies, you simply must be all over yours like a rash. Good staff can cover for your absence some of the time, but you should lead from the front. This is doubly important in marginal seats, for obvious reasons, but also "stronghold" working class seats like Stoke Central to break the cycle of disenchantment and disengagement. Do the bulk of your surgeries. Make sure you or a staff member attends stuff you're invited to. Make sure you have an extremely good relationship with local unions and do what local members ask. Keep an eye on new businesses opening up and get in touch to offer support. Work to bring people together around common interests and projects. Build a good working relationship with the local authority, whether Labour-run or not, but do not be afraid to take them to task or go to war with them when necessary. And campaign hard by helping out local councillors, running your own doorknocking/leafleting sessions, and supporting local Labour Group priorities. Show you're an attentive, dynamic MP by putting yourself out there.

Last of all, remember you're a member of the PLP. You're in a privileged position, but that doesn't grant you a privileged point of view. You may be clever, be a good organiser, possess a silver tongue, great charisma, or an unaffected manner, but you're no better, smarter, or savvier than the great bulk of Labour activists. Luckier, maybe. Do bear that in mind as your brain starts playing host to the parliamentary ways of doing things. As an opposition MP, your powerlessness will be reinforced every time the Tories push through legislation that attacks our people. As you dwell inside a media bubble, all of a sudden things that barely registered when you were a civilian loom large in yours and others' imaginations. Both of these work together into a commonsense in which Parliament and getting power is the be-all and end-all, and that will work to distort your view of the world. Hence why you need good staff and good relations with your constituency party, these people can anchor you.

The second thing to remember is what politics is about. It's the interests, stupid. The Labour Party is the political expression of the labour movement, and was founded by the organised working class and the progressive middle class to prosecute their interests. Arguably, its failure to do so is the root of the party's present malaise. The story is the same in France, where too many of our people have been abandoned to the fascists, and in Italy. Your job as a Labour Party activist who happens to be a MP is to follow those interests through. The boarding school/pressure cooker environment can engender the feeling of all MPs being in it together, regardless of party. You start feeling that way you need to shut that shit down. Go ahead, pursue friendly, congenial relations with politicians from other parties, but never forget they're means to an end to get your way - the party's way. Because they will be doing exactly the same to you. Remember, it's only Labour that think the party's there for the common good, the Tories aren't naive enough to entertain such a delusion.