Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa - One Kiss

Got something in the works on Jon Cruddas's polemic against the new left, but it won't see the light of day, um, tonight. Here then is a top summery tune for your consideration.

Monday, 21 May 2018

There's the Decency, Kenneth

I'm glad Ken Livingstone has decided to quit the Labour Party because I agree with his resignation statement. He writes "The ongoing issues around my suspension from the Labour Party have become a distraction from the key political issue of our time – which is to replace a Tory government overseeing falling living standards and spiralling poverty ... However any further disciplinary action against me may drag on for months or even years, distracting attention from Jeremy’s policies." Yes, his repeated remarks were a distraction from what the Labour Party is trying to achieve. And you know who's to blame for that? The former Labour Mayor of London, one Ken Livingstone.

Is Ken anti-semitic? I don't believe he is, but it's easy to see why others might have drawn this conclusion. When you have, on the record, compared Jews to Nazis, made out Hitler was some sort of Zionist "before he went mad", and stubbornly, repeatedly talked up collaboration between the Third Reich and the Zionist movement, and carried on once it became a major political scandal, you do start to wonder. Normal behaviour is to try and get out of the hole you're in, not calling in the earth movers.

The problem with Ken and, unfortunately, many politicians and activists is he thought he was bigger than the party. And in Ken's case, when you've been a prominent figure on the left for almost four decades, and won an election as against the full weight of the New Labour machine at the peak of Blair's imperial majesty, you can understand why. But, unfortunately, there is a culture on the left of a certain radical narcissism. This is characterised chiefly by the adoption of provocative position-taking, behaviour that is shrill, shouty-shouty, self-aggrandising and downright annoying, and a studied refusal to ever put the collective interest of the politics, party or movement one is ostensibly committed to before their ever-so-important selves. Ken fits this like a glove, but there are others. Our "friends" Tony Greenstein and Jackie Walker, for whom bringing Labour into disrepute is a price worth paying as long as they can carry on acting like overgrown children. Gerry Downing of Socialist Fight thought it was fine and dandy to rhetorically support Islamic State, and write about a transnational "Jewish bourgeoisie" exerting a malign influence on world politics, slap bang in the middle of an anti-semitism row. That "Dr ACActivism" fool who dashed onto the stage this year's Eurovision to shout a muffled "For the Nazis of the UK media, we demand freedom" is another example. And there are our old favourites: George Galloway and Tommy Sheridan, though the less said about them the better.

There isn't anything particularly radical about radical narcissism, and it's no different from what we can find on the right. There's nothing necessarily political about it either. In a world in which we are exhorted to be responsible for our actions, to pull up our bootstraps and be masters of our own fates without assistance or support from others, it is we - individuals, ourselves - who are the supreme authority and arbiters of efficacy. Discipline, optics, persuasion, none of these thing matter. The individual is everything. The movement, the politics, nothing.

By removing himself from politics and putting the party first Ken has done the decent thing. Ironically, by resigning his Labour membership he became a better Labour and Jeremy Corbyn supporter and left behind him his hitherto primary loyalty: the Ken Livingstone Party. But now life after politics beckons he should spend his time repairing his reputation, and avoid the temptation of the broadcast studio and the inevitable questions about Hitler and Jews.

NB Image courtesy of Jewdas.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

On the Lewisham East Shenanigans

It's going to be a match made in heaven. No, not the Royal wedding, but the solemn and holy contract made between Lewisham East Labour Party and their new Prospective Parliamentary Candidate, Janet Daby. Winning 288 votes to Sakina Sheikh's 135 and Claudia Webbe's 35, Janet's win is convincing. Not even a united left or a second preference deal struck beforehand would have been able to see her off. Yet, thinking about it, did the left actually lose? Well, no. Apparently not. Forget the backslapping and what have you from the usual suspects online and consider that Janet voted for Jeremy Corbyn in both leadership contests, which is more than, ahem, some Corbyn supporters can say. It would be a real stretch to describe her as a right wing figure, unless wanting to keep Britain in the single market post-Brexit invalidates one's left credentials. Instead, consider it like this: how screwed must Labour First and Progress be when they're forced to endorse a candidate with impeccable pro-Corbyn credentials. This is not a loss for the left, and more an underlining of the right's weakness.

The selection did threaten to descend into farce, however, when Unite stumped up evidence of Sakina's alleged involvement with Take Back the City, a campaign group who stood candidates for last year's London Assembly elections. Immediately she was suspended and within minutes put back on the selection shortlist. What a farce. Not at all coincidentally, Unite had endorsed Claudia for the seat and so sat on this information, which was not disclosed to the NEC's shortlisting panel, before springing it at the last possible moment.

Unfortunately, Unite have form for what you might call bureaucratic bulldozering. As the largest affiliate to Labour, the role the union has played in clearing out Labour First's administrative power base in the West Midlands, and its bastions of power inside and around the leader's office, Unite has a certain weight, and it's not averse to using this to get its way. Having got the union's fingers burned in the particularly clumsy intervention in Falkirk a million years ago (remember that?), its seems the Unite's respect for subtlety has not grown alongside its clout. Replacing politics with administrative activism, to give it a euphemism, is the wrong approach to take. Corbynism will not succeed if it's merely an exercise in replacing a right wing bureaucracy with a left wing one. But quite apart from what Corbynism and the Labour Party might become, it's embarrassing and makes Labour look like some tin pot outfit as opposed to a party serious about government.

More worryingly, there's an element of recklessness here. The right in Unite got a right old clobbering after Gerard Coyne's failed run for general secretary. And rightly so. He ran a disgraceful campaign. Readers who have followed the saga since will note Coyne and his band of ne'er-do-wells have petitioned to overturn Len McCluskey's victory by going on about process and procedure, not that they ever bothered his campaign while the election was on. I digress. But just ask yourselves this. If you're going to be in and out of court over the next year against an opponent seeking to rubbish you and the structures of your union and for whom bureaucratic abuses is part of his case, is it smart politics to be seen publicly, in the full glare of the anti-Corbyn and, yes, anti-Unite media, to be pulling off egregious dirty tricks and attempted stitch ups?

No. Let Lewisham East be the end. The new politics can never be victorious if they rely on the old ways.

Friday, 18 May 2018

The Royal Wedding and Indifference

It's nice that a young couple have met, fallen in love, and are due to formalise their commitment to one another. For them, their family and their friends it will (hopefully) be a wonderful day, something they'll live to fondly remember. And as it's wall-to-wall telly and press, you might have heard something about it. Ah yes, the royal wedding, the taxpayer funded jamboree of bowing and scraping we are officially celebrating this weekend. Yes, I'm sure it comes as no surprise to find that this wee corner of the internet finds the spectacle not just cringe-inducing, but thanks to Windsor Council's cleansing of the streets of the homeless, and the money thrown at it while we "can't afford" to safely clad tower blocks, the absurd pomp of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's wedding will be as tawdry as it is tacky.

That's not how millions of people will see it. For a great many, Royal occasions offer something uncomplicated and pure. The monarch and her progeny did not seek their station in life, it was thrust upon them by accidents of birth. The institution embodies duty and service in which the Queen is a repository, an empty vessel if you will, into which hopes, meaning and narratives are poured. For those ill at ease with what Britain has become, the sheer longevity of the monarchy gives them something unchanging to hang on to. Less a tug of the forelock and more of a grip, this is ably assisted by the eternity of the Queen herself. But not just the Queen, the royal family has something for everyone. In the retired Prince Philip and, to a lesser extent, Charles, we find two fossils who embody the backward-looking anxieties of the nation. The Queen's consort with his hilarious racist quips, and the heir with his meddling in matters political - they're just telling it as it is, innit? Just like all the loudmouths out there, albeit in plummier, more refined tones. And with the younger Royals, we see modern Britain poking through. "Wills" and Kate are inoffensive and pleasant and considering their backgrounds, feudal-old money and nouveau riche, come across as surprisingly normal and relatable. Likewise, Harry has grown to occupy the same wholesome, do-gooding space after a shaky start (booze, partying, Third Reich cosplay). And with Meghan, we start to see the family's first rank resemble multicultural Britain - a woman who is divorced, is foreign, and horrifyingly for the Daily Mail brigade, mixed race.

No doubt things have changed for the Windsors, and for the better. Irony of ironies, the troublesome princess who did the institution a favour by dying in a Parisian tunnel 20-odd years ago went one step further. How Diana settled into her role as the once-future queen by being touchy-feely and hanging out with the slighted and blighted of the earth ended up providing the template for how to be the British sovereign for the 21st century - roles the Cambridges and Harry have avidly taken to, at least if you swallow everything broadcast and written about them. And so the institution appears stronger now than it has been for last 30 years.

Yet there might be something interesting a-stirring. And this is the widespread indifference, occasionally acknowledged by establishment outlets, to the wedding. How to explain? Yes, Harry isn't ever going to become King. Despite the big deal that is being made, in terms of Royal events this is distinctly second order. Matters aren't helped by the FA Cup Final, but also for the indifferent it is very easy to escape the hype around the wedding - easier than Wills 'n' Kate, the jubilees, the Queen Mother's funeral, and the suffocating, maudlin miasma that hung over Britain in the aftermath of Diana's demise.

Indifference is a latent menace in their heralded celebrity/PR strategy. The Royals have always been celebrities, have always got spoken about in the gossip columns, but unlike their parents the press have proven much more hands off with the princes. Harry's occasional misadventures were an irregular fixture, but neither of them sustained full scale character assassination as per other members of the family firm. The problem is how long can this carry on, especially if anyone in our couple of, well, power couples indulge an indiscretion or end up in a scrape. Ideally, for the institution's survival, they have to keep their noses super clean, especially when Charles inherits the throne and starts putting people's backs up. Diana-like beatification has to attend to the princes and their families in contrast to a monarch who, according to watchers, is set upon a larger political role. And why should we be surprised? He was born to rule, after all. The difficulty here for what comes after is if, under Charles, they take the inoffensive path and only make headlines for opening the Invictus Games, etc. Without gossip swirling about then, in the medium to long-term their standing could suffer from a lack of interest. I mean, just look at the tedium of the stories about Meghan's family, the will-he/won't-he speculation about whether Dad would give her away, and so on. Even the most avid royalist would find this mind dribbling banality insulting. Likewise, new royal babies or two, the first day of nursery and school are not the stuff by which a mass public warms to their future King. The young royals run the risk of popping up in the popular consciousness as shiny, expensive baubles and little else. On the one hand this might not matter, monarchic succession isn't democratic, but the institution needs popular support to continue, otherwise more people might start asking what's the point.

Put away your fantasies involving Madame Guillotine and storming Buckingham Palace. The danger for the British monarchy is its coming to an end with a shrug.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Suspend Labour Friends of Israel

This, from Emily Thornberry, is a powerful statement.
“We condemn unreservedly the Israeli government for their brutal, lethal and utterly unjustified actions on the Gaza border, and our thoughts are with all those Palestinians in Gaza whose loved ones have been killed or injured as a result.

“These actions are made all the worse because they come not as the result of a disproportionate over-reaction to one day’s protests, but as the culmination of six weeks of an apparently systemic and deliberate policy of killing and maiming unarmed protestors and bystanders who pose no threat to the forces at the Gaza border, many of them shot in the back, many of them shot hundreds of metres from the border, and many of them children.

“Throughout that six-week period, the UN’s Secretary General has been calling for an independent investigation into these incidents, one that should urgently determine whether international law has been broken, and hold the Netanyahu government to account for their actions. The UK should lead calls for the UN Security Council to order such an investigation today.

“These incidents must also be the catalyst for urgent and concerted international pressure on the Netanyahu government to lift the blockade on Gaza, and end Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories. No longer can Netanyahu act as a law unto himself, under the protection of the Trump administration, whose decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem today has further inflamed the situation.

“In the meantime, we urge the Israeli forces serving on the Gaza border to show some long-overdue responsibility to their fellow human beings, and stop this vicious and utterly avoidable slaughter of peaceful protesters demanding the right to return to their homes.”
 This, from Labour Friends of Israel, is disgusting:
Tragic events on the Gazan border; all civilian deaths are regrettable. Hamas must accept responsibility for these events. Their successful attempt to hijack peaceful protest as cover to attack Israeli border communities must be condemned by all who seek peace in the Middle East.
What a despicable bout of victim-blaming. Taking its line straight from the spin put out by Tel Aviv, it lays responsibility at the hands of Hamas and not the people giving the orders and firing the guns. Was it Hamas, for example, that shot Palestinian journalists from the Israeli side of the fence while they covered the protests of recent weeks? Is it Hamas who invited Israeli army snipers to take potshots at passersbys walking hundreds of feet away from the so-called IDF's positions? Was it Hamas who shot hundreds of fleeing demonstrators in the back? Our LFI "comrades" know full well this isn't the case, but are nevertheless happy to go along with the Netanyahu line. As far as they're concerned, Palestinians aren't full, conscious proper human beings like you and me. They are dangerous automatons manipulated by Hamas and Iran, and so meeting stones and burning tires with automatic weapons fire, armoured personnel carriers, and white phosphorous is no biggie.

Let us be clear, this is not routine behaviour, even when a democratic state - a term that should be used advisedly in Israel's case - is an occupying power and locked into a low intensity but long-running conflict. For all of its stupid brutalities, the British army did not routinely massacre dozens of protesters in Northern Ireland. Even now, despite the crimes committed by India in Kashmir, including soldiers firing on civilians, nothing there in recent times approaches the deaths Israel have inflicted today and over the course of the last month. Funnily enough, they are exceeded only by the death factory Syria has become under Assad, and the Britain-backed bombing of Yemen by Saudi Arabia, both of which are full blooded and exceedingly bloody conflicts.

Clearly, Netanyahu and his gang, officers of the IDF and the soldiers pulling the triggers are committing appalling crimes and deserve to be tried. For their part, in soft soaping this criminal action LFI are beyond the pale and bring the Labour Party into disrepute. Their denial of basic humanity to today's victims, their slandering of the dozens dead, and the alibiing of a massacre calls for the immediate suspension of the organisation and its office holders.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Enemies to the Left

At the end of this month, the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, the RMT, will be debating at a special conference whether to affiliate to the Labour Party. Readers who've been around the block will remember the union was expelled in 2004 for backing candidates that offered left challenges to Blair's programme of war, cuts, and privatisation. Fast forward 14 years and the situation in the Labour Party has completely changed. Those who ruled the roost are a cranky and, as far as party membership are concerned, reviled and despised rump. The left are now in charge and with every passing day its hold on the party gets stronger as old, establishment MPs quit the field and what remains of the Blairist activist base huddle for warmth around Progress editorials. What better time is there to reaffiliate?

Well no, it's a rubbish time for the RMT to return to the Labour Party. At least according to the Socialist Party. That's right. Even though Labour is led by the left, possesses a membership larger than all the other parties combined, saw its vote surge by nine percentage points at the 2017 general election, has spurred on a politicisation of large numbers of young people ("the youth" in SP parlance) and welcomed the Fire Brigades Union back into the fold, the RMT shouldn't affiliate. Of course, my very erstwhile comrades have an interest to declare. Should they apply for affiliation, the SP's miserable Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition loses its single trade union affiliate. It goes from being dead in the water to Davy Jones's locker quicker than you can say "Ted Grant was right". Obviously, the SP can't admit openly that their reasoning is determined by the preservation of their marginal influence, but let's see what they do have to say.

The anonymous article in 24th April's edition of The Socialist reprints a piece from the SP's London Underground bulletin, The Red Line. In all likelihood authored by someone from the industrial department as opposed to a rail worker, it pays lip service to reaffiliation but that it should be declined on the terms offered. The main issue exercising the SP is the RMT's political independence. This means the freedom to fund certain Labour MPs and endorsing struggles within the Labour Party, such as Jeremy Corbyn's two leadership campaigns, while reserving the right to stand council candidates in cuts-happy local authorities. And how effective has the exercising of this right proven? In the SP's report of TUSC's local election results, punters are supposed to be wowed that TUSC came bottom of the poll and failed to get even a tenth of the Labour vote in Waltham Forest, pleased at getting 14% in Kirklees after two years of anti-cuts NHS work, and the return of a SP councillor in Southampton who stands as an independent instead of TUSC or Socialist Alternative. Not getting elected on your party label counts as success in SP world. Yes, it's easy to take the piss out of self-serving analyses of electoral performance, but this is the metric you choose to be judged by when you pursue votes. The SP are at pains to explain that they targeted cutting councils and councillors who didn't support Corbyn, but by being inside of the selection process the RMT could have made a difference by encouraging its own members to put themselves forward and getting selected in their stead. Indeed, hundreds of former SP members have done just this and traded their party cards in for Labour membership. Exercising "independence" via TUSC has achieved nothing but humiliation and disillusion for the activists involved.

The SP then goes on to ask what collective rights would the RMT obtain. It argues Labour Party structures are largely unchanged since the days of Tony Blair, and we are treated to a litany of bureaucratic practices. Unions only have a small role on the National Policy Forum, they have 50% of conference delegates, union branches have little input into council candidate selection, and therefore the RMT should steer clear. This, of course, means ignoring how Labour isn't the finished article, it is a site of struggle. Just because the SP has a hard time thinking about changes to political circumstances doesn't mean circumstances don't change. Within the last 18 months in the West Midlands, for example, the backbone of Labour First and the old union right of Unite's WestMids office and the regional party apparatus has collapsed, leaving nothing but bones, dust and the impotent squealing of your Ian Austins and John Spellars. The party regional board, once hand-picked by full-time officials, is elected and has strong left representation. Nationally, I'm sure it hasn't even escaped the SP's notice that Labour has a left wing general secretary and right wing officialdom at Southside and in London have resigned their jobs rather than carry on. There is also Labour's democracy review the RMT (and anyone else) can contribute to, and the likelihood mandatory reselection will be in front of conference. I don't know in what universe the Labour Party structures haven't changed, but it certainly isn't this one.

There are some legitimate sectional concerns RMT members might have. In a very heavily slanted report on an affiliation debate (which does very little to confer the flavour or set out the contending positions), it notes RMT members in Scotland would have issues with Labour considering what has happened there since 2014. True, Scottish Labour does have serious problems and despite its leadership being won from the left, plenty of scabby dregs remain. A job of work has to be done, and the transformation of Scottish Labour into something that can articulate 21st century class politics would be massively helped by the affiliation of and participation in the party by the most militant trade union in the land. And what does the RMT gain? Another means of exerting pressure on the behaviour of Labour MSPs and councillors, just as other unions do - see last year's victorious Birmingham bin dispute, for instance.

The sad fact is even if these excuses, because that's what they are, for not affiliating didn't exist the SP would invent some others. What they want is to be allowed entry into the Labour Party on their terms. Even when they were pushing their Campaign for a New Workers' Party, the only model for a new party they would countenance was a federal affair in which they had full freedom to do as they please. It's almost as if they cannot conceive any other immediate future for their organisation than re-enacting its Militant days, despite being out on their tod for nearly 30 years. A parasite without a host, independent life has been a cruel and bruising affair and only hugging a parent organism can deliver the sustenance the SP craves.

That Karl Marx was a perceptive fellow, and in The Manifesto he noted that communists have no interests separate from or opposed to wage earners as a whole. Quite. Except here we have a Trotskyist outfit, a latter day communist organisation ever keen to advertise its formal adherence to Marxist ideas but studiously unwilling to apply them to their practice. Class struggle is the reality of British politics, and uniting the strength of the labour movement with the millions of people newly won to the left Labour Party would be a major milestone in the rebuilding of socialist politics. And yet we find the Socialist Party, a small group doing everything it can to earn its 'sectarians on the fringes of the labour movement' epithet by obstructing this process of recomposition. And for what? To keep a pointless electoral coalition unknown to most RMT members, let alone members of the public on life support? To flatter the self-importance of the terminally dull SP exec and its general secretary of 54 years? To validate its ridiculous perspective that Labour was lost to the working class and could never be claimed for socialist politics? Whatever, the reasoning doesn't matter. The SP are standing in the way and deserve to be given short shrift by RMT members and the rest of the labour movement. Old Kerensky, the unlamented moderate head of the provisional government of revolutionary Russia was wrong. There are enemies to the left.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Wellred Films: Mass Trespass

A great short film from the comrades at Wellred. More info here from the Morning Star's interview with Alan Story.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

On the Centrist Fetishising of Talent

The PLP loses one of the persistent grumblers and stirrers, and in all likelihood will be replaced by someone from the left. How then, how can Heidi Alexander's resignation be described as a "fresh blow against Jeremy Corbyn"? Well, in all honesty it can't. Unless something goes catastrophically wrong during the coming Lewisham East by-election (are we going to see core group hostile theatrics immediately before polling day?), Corbyn and the left are going to be strengthened. We get what we want and, well, Heidi gets what she wants too. Win-win, as the management gurus put it.

This post isn't going to crow (much) over her departure to Sadiq Khan's office, but I am interested in a common theme that greeted her resignation, and those of sundry others. This is the notion of "talent". Or, to be more accurate, its fetishisation. Now, I don't know a great deal about Heidi beyond her political persona. She was an enthusiastic participant in the coup that never was, chaired Labour's successful mayoral campaign in London, and is reportedly relaxed about NHS marketisation, even to the point of employing a private health lobbyist. Of course, none of this is ideological. Simply a case of "what works".

This is all fine and dandy, but do the skills that got her from jobbing around a MP's office back in the day to a plum seat to a City Hall berth evidence exceptional talent? Not really. Public speaking, giving good presentation, project management, organising skills, networking, and awareness of current affairs are very handy abilities to have, but they're not exactly scarce. Millions of people have them and, as the job market continues to shift in the direction of immaterial labour, more and more are acquiring them. What Heidi possesses then is not "talent", but something else: social and cultural capital.

We've discussed this before in the peculiar and seemingly effortless segue George Osborne made from front rank Tory politics to Evening Standard editor with less journalistic experience than your average Parish Council newsletter writer. What mattered the most, what Evgeny Lebedev purchased him for, were his connections in the establishment and, crucially, influence over whatever happens to the flailing and failing Conservative Party in the coming years. That wasn't all, though. Osborne is a true believer. While claiming to eschew dogma and embracing "common sense", he genuinely believes the policies he pursued were the best for all concerned. Yes, doing so meant ignoring facts, suppressing critical reports, and telling outright porkies. His cracked ideas came with a barrage balloon full of bad faith and, entirely coincidentally, the policies these informed reasserted the economic distribution no Tory ever objects to: the movement of wealth from the mass to the minority.

Heidi is a different kettle of fish, but the same logics benefiting Osborne are the ones that have conferred her the London transport gig. She has connections, pull, and weight in the Labour Party, in the wider wonk community, and she has a certain media profile - including good relationships with sympathetic journalists. She knows how to be responsible for big projects and understands the political sensitivities surrounding a potentially controversial portfolio better than a business person or a career civil servant. Her politics are also pretty identical to those of her boss, and as a close ally they're likely to be close on most if not all issues. It isn't the skills that are decisive then, it's the social and cultural capital. This is the field of politics, and she has the dispositions and feels for the game most appropriate to it.

In his approach to unravelling the social, Pierre Bourdieu noted all fields have a property to them, an 'illusio'. Participants in a field have to subscribe to that which imbues their activities with worthy meaning, though often it is meaningless and transparently ideological to those viewing from the outside in. The Tories and their shamanic incantation of GDP figures and numbers in employment, the pretence of passion for customer service when getting a retail job, being a fearless defender of the truth for journos, sticking to insipid managerialism to catch the swing voters, you get the picture. The illusio is a consensual hallucination everyone must accept to be taken seriously by others as a valid and serious participant, and as such what was illusory takes material form as it is embedded in and kowtowed to in the course of the everyday social life of the field.

This brings us back to talent and its fetishisation. For those who cry about the departure of "talent" from the PLP, its invocation is an injunction for mourning. In the absence of any other prized political quality - charisma, popularity, originality, intellect - all that's left is the spinning of commonplace skills, because it's rude and undermines the field of politics (and any other field, for that matter) to talk about someone's elevation in terms of cronyism. It also has the, again coincidentally, handy by-product of not having to engage with the politics. An invocation of talent is an avoidance strategy. Because, to be sure, the old Labour establishment are defeated and don't know how to come back, and the last thing they want to confront is their abysmal refusal to take stock of their predicament in public view.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Understanding the Local Election Logjam

About a year ago, I was invited to write on the local elections and what they meant for the General Election. My argument was things were looking bad because the council results were pretty bad. This wasn't what said august publication wanted to publish so it never appeared, which is just as well as I got it completely wrong. Having learned my lesson I kept my counsel this year, but my gut feeling was right. There was no disaster, nor was there anything resembling a breakthrough. Instead, what we got was some modest(ish) progress in seats won, some spectacular vote tallies and big swings - particularly in London - but no lasting damage on the Tories.

Yet for those paid to carp and crow, and others who like to advertise their deficit of political nous for free, Thursday was a complete disaster. Extrapolating the results nationwide - a foolhardy affair when different dynamics are in play in local elections - neither the Tories nor Labour would have enough seats to govern alone, and so the Liberal Democrats and the SNP come into coalition play. I'm sure you've seen/heard the mantra: "eight years into a Tory government and all we can manage are a handful of seats. With [insert centrist messiah here] at the helm Labour would be 20 points ahead and on course to beat Theresa May."

Let us utter a truth that seldom troubles political punditry. Unless local elections occur in the lead up to a bigger contest, like 2017's, large numbers of voters who trudge to the polls to elect a council don't always have national politics in mind. On Thursday, Labour was defending just shy of 2,300 seats compared to the Conservatives' 1,365. The former gained 77 and the latter lost 33, a loss somewhat cushioned by the collapse of UKIP's vote and the return of their voters to the Tory fold. Labour also went into the contest with 74 councils, and came out with the control of ... 74 councils. The Tories were defending 49 and lost three. In many areas Labour went into battle with the baggage of incumbency. Haringey of homelessness-is-a-price-worth-paying gentrification fame lost seven seats, in Derby Labour lost three seats and saw the council slide into no overall control, and Nuneaton and Bedworth were also lost. Yet these were made up elsewhere by gaining Tower Hamlets, Plymouth and Kirklees.

However, if we take the incumbency argument and generalise it to explain the depression of Labour's vote, that also means ignoring the not-bad results for the Tories. They did, after all, only drop three councils. Apart from a couple of special circumstances, like Barnet (though Labour's vote went up) and Pendle, their vote more or less held firm. Are they immune to localised weariness? No. Likewise, while I agree with Lewis that Labour doesn't have a compelling local council story to tell (once they get into office, too many Labour Council Leaders forget they're politicians and suddenly start acting like managers and accountants), neither do the Tories.

What to explain stasis? Yes, it might have something to do with our old friend polarisation. In case you've been reading nothing but mainstream comment since last year, the stark polarisation of the electorate around Labour and the Conservatives is an unavoidable fact of political life. It's confirmed time after time by polling and appears pretty resilient. Windrush, Tory in-fighting, and incompetence hasn't had an appreciable effect on Tory numbers. Likewise, the anti-semitism idiocies, Corbyn's refusal to kowtow to established conventions on war, the most vicious media assault ever unleashed on a British political leader, etc. haven't done anything to Labour either. The occasionally noted new features of politics, such as the fall out from Brexit, socially liberal vs illiberal values, the sharp age split between younger and in work vs the older and retired are symptomatic of movements and change in the guts of our society. Effectively, there are two political mainstreams.

A consequence of this is the big swings we used to see in "normal politics", of the party of government getting punished at second order elections, of poll shares taking a tumble when a party did something egregiously stupid or wrong, they're all gone. I like a good irony, and that political stability means electoral volatility while crisis begets stasis, if not paralysis, is one to savour. But that's what we have. British politics is logjammed for the foreseeable and voting goes back to being more of a turnout game, a la the 1950 and 1951 general elections. Unfortunately for the Tories, with years in government yet to go and a voter base in long-term decline, the deadlock has a much greater chance of breaking in Labour's favour.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Bite the Bullet or Bite the Dust?

Imagine, if you will, the issuing of a document from the cranky wing of your own party that threatens to collapse your government. Then pretend spinning it as a contribution to the "policy-making process" because you are desperate, desperate to hang on. Well, you don't have to poke around that particular thought experiment because this is the state of Theresa May's premiership. Liberal Ambz may have resigned on Sunday, but the government was rudderless long before it.

May's project, if it can even be called that, is to just about get her government through each day as it comes. She harbours an ambition of leading the Tories into the next general election, but that's about the limit to it. Once she believed she could reshape British politics, and looked like she was in a position to do so. Ah well. And so we have a finely balanced government in which everyone has an interest in seeing her go, so no one has an interest in deposing her. Forget the cabinet guff about leavers and remainers, what's at stake is ambition and advancement. Johnson fancies it. Gove fancies it. Fox fancies it. Williamson fancies it. Javid fancies it. Even Jeremy Hunt fancies it. What none of them covet, however, is the ignominy of a fractured party, complex Brexit negotiations the government still haven't got a handle on, and facing a the possibility of a comprehensive defeat at the hands of Jeremy Corbyn. They won't move until she moves, despite mutterings around the backstairs, and so on drags the agony.

The doings of our friends the European Research Group does, nevertheless, pose a threat that could upend the balance. Clearly, it is obvious to anyone without either an axe to grind or personal investment in the Tories that if Britain wants to have something approaching "frictionless trade" with the EU while avoiding a return of the border in Ireland, or its shifting into the Irish Sea, then it's either going to have to reaffirm present customs relations or try and recast them as a new customs union - as per Labour's position. May, as a not particularly adroit appeaser of her Brexit crank band has junked the words custom and union as unacceptable and, while hoping the ultras don't notice, favours, um, a customs union with the EU. A variation of Labour's position, in other words. The ERGies, or Moggleyites (select your preference) might be daft, but they're not that blinkered. In all likelihood such a lash up would keep Britain close in the EU's orbit, close to its regulatory standards, and retain the pre-eminence of EU law over English (and Scottish) law. All unacceptable for our belligerent Brexiteers.

You'll be familiar with their dismal political project by now. Ripping up and disaggregating 40-odd years of economic integration with the EU and its predecessors will be magically compensated for by trade deals with Australia and New Zealand. But we'll have sovereignty back and what we'd do with it is reduce corporation tax to minus figures and transform Britain into Singapore (democracy optional) and bask in a new golden age of global trade. Undoubtedly, some of the ERG crew and their small gaggle of supporters find this genuinely inspiring and have worked it up into a grand scheme of post-imperial, national renewal. Those, however, are the good reasons. Because we are talking about politics and politics are, as we know, about the clash of interests, you have to ask who gains from this putative state of affairs?

The ERG is a project articulating the interests of a section of British capital or, to be more precise, finance. Superficially dynamic but socially useless, anyone who have interests in zero capital controls, low-to-no tax regimes, and a well educated but quiescent labour force kept on a leash by tight labour laws would prosper in the medium to long-term in this "Global Britain". In this respect they are utterly Thatcherite, and not just because of their market fundamentalism, but because the ERG would happily throw the collective interests of British business under a bus for their narrow concerns. Funnily enough, it makes them the heirs to Dave as well, as well as toxic for May.

Brexit is their opportunity, their "we're in the money", to borrow a phrase, golden opportunity to shape British politics around the ERG's priorities. Mogg might say he would never conceive of voting to bring May down now, but they're not about to let this chance slip away without a struggle. If they can be so cavalier about the general interests of their class, shafting May's government is small beer. Just as well then that May is stonewalling with another round of "revisions" and "clarifications", but sooner or later she's going to have to bite the bullet or bite the dust. Which will it be?

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Theorising Conservative Catastrophe

As you may or may not know, I'm interested in and presently reading around the political sociology of the Conservative Party, a pursuit that has earned me a few funny looks on the train to and from work. Long time readers will also know I'm particularly concerned with thinking about the possibility of a terminal crisis facing the party. With membership below 100,000, an appeal largely confined to older and declining sections of the electorate, it's difficult now to see how they can reinvent themselves without serious bloodletting and splits.

None of this was inevitable, but their structural problems were certainly a long time coming. The Tories didn't, for example, need to relentlessly hammer the young, turn a blind eye to whole swathes of the population, to whole regions, nor retrench market fundamentalism after the 2008 crash. But they did anyway, and one of its happy by-products has been an acceleration of their demise. Factor in what's going on in the guts of capitalism, and it's more than possible the Tories now are showing the centre right everywhere the difficulties that are coming to them.

In trying to come to grips with the problems facing the Tories, we have to differentiate between their purchase with the electorate and the declining party organisation. I've expended thousands upon thousands of words on the former so, just this once, they don't bear repeating. What then does the literature say so far? Geoffrey Wheatcroft's The Strange Death of Tory England sounds like a good place to start. Writing in 2005 and after three thumping general election defeats, but before Dave effortlessly drifted onto the scene, Wheatcroft was interested in how the Tories went from the most successful liberal democratic party in the world to, well, the carve up it suffered at the hands of New Labour. This had a lot had to do with how the Tory Party changed over the course of the 20th century from a body that counted literal representatives of capital among the bulk of its parliamentary cadres to their displacement and elbowing aside by professional politicians - best exemplified by Margaret Thatcher and the coterie who rose with her.

Wheatcroft argues, via an entertaining and waspish safari of (parliamentary) Conservative Party history, is this cohort of MPs were more in tune with the political rhythms of the country than either Labour or the old school patricians. Tony Blair's genius was to annex this programme in its entirety, selling back to the British people a politics that respected aspiration, individuality, and success. With this ground so thoroughly colonised and locked down, what was left for the Tories? Tacking to the right and point away from where the electorate were made little headway. As he noted, though Labour's majority fell from 413 to 355 seats and the Tories put on 33, their vote only nudged up by 0.7%. The Tories didn't win voters, rather Labour lost them as they stayed at home. Nevertheless, from Wheatcroft's point of view and, remember, pre-Dave, there was nowhere for them to go.

You can understand Wheatcroft's argument making sense at the time, but ultimately what happened after the crash and under Ed Miliband showed the limits of Labour's capacity to huddle the political centre. And, also, the Tories'. Theresa May, for instance, did not pursue a centre ground strategy and polled a vote comparable to anything Thatcher pulled off. Her unfortunate fate was to be up against Jeremy Corbyn's Labour.

Yet there is something to his argument that change came along with the displacement of the patricians. As a number of academic commentators on the Tories noted throughout the 1990s, the one nation approach we most associate with MacMillan and the aristocratic grandees of old found less favour on the party's benches as the 1970s wore on. As inflation rose and strikes along with it, most leading Tories were of the view that more consultation and negotiation between themselves, when they were in government, and the unions were necessary. Ted Heath, for example, was initially bullish before being forced to climb down on the provisions of his Industrial Relations Act. The view was if unions knew the facts of economic life and were integrated into industrial decision making, this would discipline the organised working class and the whole country could stride along to a future characterised by partnership rather than conflict. This consensual approach was rejected by the rising generation of neoliberal MPs who agitated for tough legislation aimed at the unions, and - arse about tit - argued price inflation was driven by rising wages, as opposed to rising prices spurring wage militancy.

The received academic wisdom (for instance, see Pete Dorey's The Conservative Party and the Trade Unions), is this generation of MPs were drawn from outside big business and had prior careers either in the professions (the law, mostly), small and medium sized enterprise, and other backgrounds. Norman Tebbit, for example, entered Parliament in 1970 after a career as a pilot and a trade union official. Because few had experience of managing large numbers of staff and of negotiating with workforces subject to collective bargaining, this lack of experience manifested as a more gung ho attitude to industrial conflict. They didn't have a personal stake in good industrial relations.

The petit bourgeoisie is the class caught in a vice between the contending forces of capital and labour, and occasionally flatters itself into thinking this is a privileged standpoint separate from and above the daily grind of class struggle. The attitude of Thatcher, petit bourgeois to a tee, and her rising faction was one of contempt toward their so-called betters. Thatcher hated the unions, but she also hated the conciliators and hoorays for whom their standing in the Tories was by virtue of position and favour. The struggle within the Tory party in the 1970s was a class struggle in which, ultimately, the big capital tied to the post-war order lost and was sidelined. Thatcher was able to dismantle the received consensus not just because she fought and won pitched battles with the labour movement, but also because she was largely independent from the sections of capital that lost out as the neoliberal settlement came into bloodied being. Therefore, contrary to arguments previously made here, it wasn't Blairism that broke the Tory hold over capital-in-general, it was Thatcher.

The question then is whether there's a relationship between what Thatcher did and the million member decline between the party's assumption of office and its relinquishing by John Major in 1997. After all, it wasn't just big business that was routinely ignored unless it was onside - restructuring British capitalism sent thousands upon thousands of family firms and family stores to the knackers yard. It would be a surprise if there wasn't a link between the two. But nevertheless, the collapse of party organisation might have more mundane explanations. Parties, for example, tend not to grow when they are in government and they were in office for a long time. However, the problem is their membership still hasn't begun to recover. Another might be located in the generalised antipathy to official politics that really took root in the Blair years. All parties suffered a partial collapse in organising capacity and it's only recently that the political party has seen a strange return - it's just that the stars have aligned for everyone but the Tories, so far.

No firm conclusions yet then, but there's a scent of something on the ground worth trailing.

Five Most Popular Posts in May

Here we go, here we go:

1. The Cloying Desperation of the Tory Press
2. Owen Jones vs the British Media Establishment
3. Skripal Skulduggery
4. The Tory Politics of the Windrush Scandal
5. The Centre Party Delusion

It's good to see a month in which the entire top five is occupied by barbs that analyse and critique the powerful, and that despite the slacking the numbers are largely holding up. Jolly good show. Taking aim at the media is always a sure fire thing to do where indie blogging is concerned, as the top two this month prove - not least helped by the sharpening of politics and issues around media framing and bias are increasingly discussed. The remainder touch on the month's big issues and, I hope, they've given readers pause for thought.

Who's hanging around in the second chance saloon as day breaks over this May Day? Why, it's the missive from last night, my overview of Amber Rudd's celebrated resignation. Get it while it's hot!