Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Tory Tribunal Fee Farce





















Unalloyed goodness is a rarity in politics, especially when it comes to labour movement politics. But the decision handed down by the Supreme Court this morning ruling that employment tribunal fees are unlawful is some of the best industrial news seen in years. Implemented by the Tories with Liberal Democrat support in 2013, it was ostensibly part of the contrived war on red tape. According to the former Prime Minister, workplace rights were getting in the way of job creation and growth. A convenient scapegoat when you consider the real reason for Britain's economic underperformance has much to do with business banking its profits and effectively going on capital strike. In reality, the introduction of fees strengthened management in the workplace and enabled a more precarious labour force. Bosses had the freedom to intimidate, bully, and diddle workers without any comeback.

Tribunals have always occupied a problematic place in the Tory imagination. They have the power to impose fines and order reinstatement of employment, though in practice many claimants settle for compensation. However, it represents an extra layer of mediation between employees and employer that implicitly challenges management's right to manage. The requirement to pay an upfront and non-refundable fee of between £390 and £1,200 to take an employer to tribunal was self-evidently unfair and unjust, and so had to be introduced under a smokescreen of bogus stories about vexatious claims and exporbitant penalties placing heavy loads on hard-pressed businesses. Incidentally, it was cuddlesome liberal hero Uncle Vince Cable who was responsible for most of the spadework done. In his role as business minister in the Coalition government, the new LibDem leader recommended and implemented the raising of the qualifying period for unfair dismissal from one to two years, and advocated the introduction of tribunal fees to "encourage potential claimants to fully consider their cases". Truly a case of looking from Tory to LibDem, LibDem to Tory, and not knowing which was which.

The Supreme Court judgement decreed that fees acted as a obstacle to justice. As most potential claims are for monies less than the tribunal cost, potential claimants were deterred due to the process leaving them further out of pocket, even if successful. And like so many of the measures the Tory/LibDem coalition brought in, it tended to disproportionately impact women. According to the BBC, the government indicated that it would reimburse all fee payments if they were found to have acted unlawfully. Hardly the language of a party determined to appeal the decision.

From the government's point of view, it's politically wise not to appeal. In the quiet of the summer, why give bored headline writers Tory meat to chow down on when, as far as they're concerned, they can carry on worrying the Labour Party? Even if they are minded to try and push something through the Commons when it reconvenes properly in October, being seen to not be on the workers' side and problems lining up all the backbenchers present a headache it could do without. There are no opportunities here for the Tories, just cost, cost, cost.

And what's good news for workers is also good news for the Labour Party. Yet again we have another instance of party policy - in this case the scrapping of tribunal fees - effectively being implemented by a Conservative government. How many more times is this going to happen between now and the next general election?

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Are Aliens Using a Star as a Nuclear Megadump?

Taking a break from the politics tonight to indulge something other than music and video games for a change. Instead, let's look at ... the strange. Do you remember the flurry of interest in KIC 8462852, better known as the alien megastructure star a couple of years ago? Well, observations are ongoing and yes, it's still behaving weirdly, but latest measurements are indicative of a huge cloud of dust and debris that is producing its celebrated dimming effects. For shame - no aliens. There was also some excitement last week when anomalous signals were received from Ross 128, a red dwarf star 11 light years away. They too turned out not to be aliens either. Double bah.

All is not lost. There is still plenty of weirdness in the heavens, and here's one. A star inexplicably made up of elements not found in nature. At least, as far as we know. The video below is from science fiction author John Michael Godier who definitely isn't a member of the goggle-eyed conspiracy brigade. It probably isn't aliens, but something very unusual is going on.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them




















When so much of the attention economy is organised around a moral deficit, that it lies frequently is hardly shocking. With little else in the news and silly season in full swing, the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn have shifted from scaremongering to telling lies about what he has and hasn't said or done. This morning the Daily Mail (who else?) screamed Corbyn's Student Debt Humiliation from its front page, accusing the Labour leader of u-turning on a pledge he never made and wasn't in the party's manifesto. That is Labour are accused of promising to write off student debts and then doing an about-turn. The Sun makes a similar argument in today's editorial too. The Express tried making hay with it, but who cares what they think.

The second follows comments Jeremy Corbyn made on Sunday's Andrew Marr. Asked about Labour's position on Brexit and the movement of workers after Britain has left the European Union, he said "there would be European workers working in Britain and British workers working in Europe as there are at the moment. What there wouldn't be is wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry ... You prevent agencies recruiting whole scale workforces and you advertise for jobs in the locality first ... what we wouldn't allow is this practice by agencies, it's quite disgraceful how they do it, to recruit a workforce, low paid, and bring them here in order to dismiss the existing workforce in the construction industry and then pay them low wages. It's appalling."

This earned the headline "Jeremy Corbyn: “wholesale” EU immigration has destroyed conditions for British workers" from the New Statesman, which has been taken up by sundry liberals on social media as proof of Jeremy's conversion to kipper-lite politics. Now, whether you agree or disagree with the statement made, it hardly lines up with what the NS said what he said, let alone UKIP's racist, bigoted ranting. What Jeremy did was make a point that anyone active in trade unionism will tell you is true. Employers purposely recruit overseas to undercut labour markets at home, a case of them bringing over workers and then lying back and watching the money roll in while it's those paid below market rates who bear the brunt of xenophobia and anti-immigrant hate. As always, it's worth remembering migrant workers don't cause low wages, employers do.

In both cases the substance - student fees, low paid workers from overseas - are just convenient stands to hang a coatload of lies on. There are three things at work here. Firstly, Jeremy Corbyn's enemies have thrown everything else at him and so are taking another tack. His greatest strength is his integrity, so why not call that into question by exposing him as a lying politician just like the rest? It doesn't matter that it's not true for some audiences. Many who remain attached to the old media are more likely believe such stories because if it was lies "they wouldn't be allowed to print it". Never underestimate the power and prevalence of audience naivete. Second, folks who've pointed out that students and the like are most unlikely to read these stories are missing the point. The first task for the Tories and their helpers is to try holding their vote together as the party frays and implodes. Reminding readers that Jeremy is devious as well as dangerous helps. In addition, there are Labour voters who read The Sun and The Mail. Not many to be sure, and obviously people with powerful media filters, but if a few can be shaken loose from Labour then that's helpful too. And lastly there is the attention economy as well. Outraged lefties have long been part of the audience the Daily Mail draws to its site and helping maintain the prices it charges for ad space. It also serves to drive a contrived story up the news agenda to the point where everyone has to cover it because everyone is covering it. Such a story might be untrue at worst and grossly exaggerated at best, but it helps keep others - like the trash the government dumped on the last day of Parliament out of the spotlight.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Andrea Leadsom for Tory Leader






















Oh And-re-a Lead-som. Oh And-re-a Lead-som. As a founder member of #Labour4Leadsom on Twitter, I was very pleased to see her make the headlines this week. For entirely the wrong reasons, of course. On Wednesday she did this - laugh-out-loud lols and no mistaking. And on the occasion of Jane Austen appearing on the new £10 note, Leadsom hailed her as one of our greatest living authors. Yep, thick as mince just about covers it. Nevertheless, I can't help but be beguiled by her. How someone with an obvious deficit of political nous and base intellect not only carries on in the front rank of British politics but is regarded as a contender for the Conservative Party leadership and, therefore, the office of Prime Minister is a whopper of a head scratcher. Last year Eric Pickles dubbed her an "an amateur who's already failed", and yet here she is. Leadsom is an amateur who appears to be succeeding.

I bring her up now because the storm clouds of a leadership challenge are gathering again. I'm still of the view Theresa May is going to cling on until after Brexit simply because a) it's in all the would-be challengers' interests that she be ousted, and therefore b) it's in none of the would-be challengers' interests that she be ousted. With no obvious leader-in-waiting and Brexit waiting to extract its heavy toll, it's better to have yesterday's woman carry the can for the time being. Getting rid, agreeing to an interim, such as David Davis, and then buying him a watch in time for the next general election might be sensible from the standpoint of party management, but less so if they want to go to the country again with their tired and transparent party-of-stability shtick. And let's face it, this election showed they don't have many cards to play.

Leaving that aside, Leadsom is bound to put in, even though she may face competition for the Tory fringe (read core) from funny-ha-ha Jacob Rees-Mogg. Surely neither would stand much of a chance? After all, this is the ruthlessly pragmatic Tories we're talking about here, the party that has never allowed principle to stand in the way of power lest government be used against them and the interests they represent. Yet is this a truth to be universally acknowledged for all time?

There are a few things that could favour a fringe challenge from a Leadsom or a Mogg. The first hurdle is the gate keeping process of the parliamentary party. Unlike Labour and its thresholds, in the event of an election a candidate requires only a proposer and a seconder from the Tory benches. There then follow rounds of ballots of MPs until only two remain, which then are put to the membership. As Leadsom made it to the second round before self-aborting in 2016, she stands in good stead to do so again. Why? Because of the members. In the frenzy following the Brexit vote, something interesting started happening to the Tories while the media were feasting on Labour's difficulties. That something interesting was an uptick in Tory membership. Many punters took the view that they would be able to join and get a say on who gets to run the party (and therefore be the next PM). The party however has a strict six month membership rule and once word got out this mini-surge fizzled. More important, however, was a growing social media movement among the dying grass roots. There were instances of "activists" lobbying MPs to support Leadsom or face deselection by their local association. When she retired this too fell away, but could the next leadership contest see its recrudescence?

Yes. Much to the chagrin and dread of Tory organisers, the collapse of UKIP and the polarisation of the vote has seen a return to the associations of all the horrible arseholes who upped sticks in pathetic protest against Dave's moves to equalise marriage for same-sex couples. UKIP is dead because UKIP is alive and well in the Tory party ranks. Therefore the membership base for a Leadsom challenge is wider than it was a year ago. You can expect these people to bang the drum loudly and being very annoying in pressing their MPs to back the hard right candidate. Second, looking across to the opposition benches they see that a values politician with ideas and principles, however much they may hate them, has not only taken over the leadership but has won additional votes and seats by offering clarity about where Labour stands. There are those on the right who believe offering a "principled" anti-liberal, pro-free market and, well, kipperish Toryism can win votes and elections too. All the hug-a-husky flim-flamery and caring about the poor were so much obstacles to success. As Leadsom (or Mogg) is nearest to this, we may have an occasion where twisted principle negates pragmatic concern because they think hard Toryism is a winner and she (or he) wins. If Corbyn can do it, why not Leadsom? This would entail a catastrophic misreading of the political situation, but you know what they say about interrupting enemies in the middle of making a mistake.

When it comes to dealing with the Tories it is not enough to beat them in an election. They have to be crushed and left permanently cowed. That demands they lose heavily after dropping to bits, splitting, and decomposing. And when they regroup and rebuild they are so thoroughly defanged they can never be in a position to ram through a damaging, destructive programme ever again. The scenario that best guarantees this outcome is if Leadsom is at the helm, and why Labour people should not hesitate in backing her for the next Conservative leader.

Again, after me. Oh And-re-a Lead-som. Oh And-re-a Lead-som.

Who's Heard of UnHerd?






















Unless you're totally plugged into the circuits of the Westminster world and its media bubble, you may have missed the soft launch of Tim Montgomerie's latest venture: UnHerd. Befitting a super serious outfit with offices in The Shard no less, it's pitched at "readers who choose the important to the new". This is reinforced by the pun-tastic monicker hung on the blog. In the bedazzling mediascape of the disposable hot take, UnHerd is opposing itself against the grain and offering what largely goes unheard: decent analysis backed with evidence and good writing. And it's un-herd because UnHerd writers and readers are are invited to refuse the company of the herd and do their own unfashionable thang.

A look at the folks recruited to help in Tim's efforts are none other than the likeable but vacuous Ruth Davidson, novelist Lionel Shriver, Jonathan Aitken, and snoring, boring bigot, Douglas Murray. The rest are a mix of up and comers, wannabes, and wonks. Basically, Tim has whipped out his mobile and tapped up those he thinks worthy of sinecure. It just so happens all of them, without exception, are part of the established pecking order of media comment too.

What then is the point? It's all very well having a product, but it needs to find an audience. In this regard UnHerd is arranging its output along five themes - Flyover country deserves a new deal, Religion is relevant (even if you don't believe), The end is (not) nigh, The tech industry mustn't own our futures, and Western capitalism must work for the many. If you're one of two people having a sense of de ja vu, these are concerns Tim ran with in his now defunct Good Right project. He's one of the few Tories that understand the class and the state of affairs they defend is imperilled and saving the show means giving a more freebies to the punters. Hence why the roster of writers run from Murray through to James Bloodworth. All, regardless of what you might think of their arguments, have written on the problems of capitalism and the state and all have something a rebooted Toryism might want to pinch. If only they had someone who could run with it half-convincingly.

Unfortunately for Tim, I don't think this project has much of a future. His big problem is the age of the superblog is done. If you go back to when blogging was in its infancy, it did happen and it did work. Conservative Home and LabourList assembled their great and the good to get the projects off the ground. Likewise Sunny Hundal's Liberal Conspiracy followed a similar approach. However, these were the only ones that made it for any length of time. The first two remain with us as the semi-official blogs of their respective parties, where as Sunny officially called time on LibCon in 2013. The only proven way for superblogs of big names to work is if they have an established media brand behind them. In the first few years of this decade it was they who vacuumed up the blogging celebs and signed them to their digital platforms. Those that have trod the trail UnHerd are on have not found bountiful pastures at the end, but the abattoir. The Good Right, gone. Byline? Who cares. CapX? Ditto. In each and every case, despite some "names" being involved they're very much less than the sum of their parts.

UnHerd then. A bit like Band Aid, minus the charidee. And largely missing the talent.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Corbynism and Scottish Labour



















This ridiculous piece of nonsense published by Labour Uncut during the election campaign made me very angry. Suggesting Labour were on course to lose 90 plus seats "based on the views of dozens of Labour candidates, party officials and activists following the past three weeks of intensive canvassing", it was a demoralising piece designed to demoralise and demobilise. Yet it was scrolling down and reading the section on Scotland that truly incensed me. It (correctly) projected Labour were on course to increase its representation in Scotland and, indeed, managed to exceed their forecast of four seats by returning seven MPs to Westminster. But it was the politics adopted that were deeply worrying. It argues that Ian Murray, Labour's sole survivor from the 2015 wipe out had urged voting tactically for the Tories to keep the SNP out. Yes, you read that correctly. An errant comment, perhaps? No. The entirety of the Labour Group on Aberdeen Council were suspended for forming a coalition with the Tories to prevent the SNP from forming an administration, and Our Kez herself matter of factly noted there were some seats where the Tories were better placed to defeat the SNP.

What a show. What a scabby, sorry show.

Cast your mind back to 2015. Everyone knew the SNP earthquake was coming and it turned out to be bigger than supposed. 56 out of 59 seats. The 'Westminster parties', as Nicola Sturgeon likes to call them, were confined to a single seat apiece. And the reasons why Scottish Labour imploded are well known. A rotting apparatus that viewed its constituents as mindless voting fodder, happily cosied up to the Tories in the awful Better Together campaign during the independence referendum and repeating their attack lines. Can you remember Ed Balls appearing alongside George Osborne and telling Scottish voters the UK would screw an independent Scotland? Because, yes, that happened and the wiseacres in London and Edinburgh thought nothing would come of it. How incredibly stupid can you be in a country where anti-Tory sentiment is a key part of the Scottish national character for a great many people, for a great many Labour voters? Therefore, to find Scottish Labour doubling down on what smashed them to bits is eye-clawingly idiotic.

I know why they did it. For Labour Uncut it was a masterstroke. "Savvy" campaigners had cottoned on to the electoral opportunities of riding the anti-independence vote, just like Ruth Davidson. And how can you argue with the results? I for one am going to damn well argue with the results. As Lesley Brennan from the Campaign for Socialism notes, for all the nous and sensible, sensible politics pushed by Our Kez Labour managed an uptick of fewer than 10,000 votes across Scotland. Labour didn't so much win its seats as the collapse of the SNP's support lost them. Would things have been different had Scottish Labour run a Corbynist campaign? Absolutely. The sociological character of the 2015 earthquake would have guaranteed it.

The movement called into being by the yes campaign was certainly nationalist, but that wasn't its most important feature. The people activated by independence were more than pissed off Labour voters, it was a large number of people from across the demographic spectrum, and a great many were motivated by the hopes they projected onto an independent Scotland. A country free from the Tories, and therefore free of dog-eat-dog, of remote, corrupt elites calling the shots, of cuts and privatisation, of insecurity, and of scaremongering and division peddling. And, of course, the young were the most enthusiastic and most numerous end of the pro-independence movement. Hmmm, where have we witnessed a very similar movement of late? As suggested last year, Corbynism and the SNP surge were part of the same process working its way through British politics. Why Scottish Labour is the one part of Britain where the party hasn't recruited hand over fist isn't just because of its unique awfulness, but because the most active part of what should be our constituency - the growing number of socialised/networked workers - is ensconced in and largely support the SNP.

Yet there is something of a mercenary character to this affiliation. Large numbers of left wingers in Scotland think independence is the way forward. I think that is badly mistaken and cuts against the realignment of class politics, but nevertheless it is a clear, principled position. However, many people voted for independence and got on the SNP's bandwagon because, for them, independence was the best vehicle for a socially just society. Despite that, two years on there is little evidence of grassroots radicalism working its way through the SNP's structures and changing its politics. The Scottish government have carried on as a social democratic-lite administration without many triumphs, but with an education system in such a state the Tories felt emboldened enough to go hard on it. They also gave the impression that independence is the be-all and end-all, regardless of circumstances, by trying to spring a second referendum when there is little appetite for one. To some it looked like a transparent attempt by Sturgeon to focus politics on independence to the exclusion of scrutiny on the party's patchy record in power. Second, and perhaps more importantly for the SNP in the short to medium term was losing 12 seats to the Tories, including Alex Salmond's and Angus Robertson's. The idea the SNP are an effective anti-Tory machine has been shattered. In the period of Scottish Labour's dominance, regardless of what you thought of them they managed to keep the Tories down. Two years into the SNP's supposedly stronger grip on Scottish politics and the Conservatives bounce back with their best result for over 30 years. Meanwhile south of the border Corbynism defied expectations and took seats from the Tories on a manifesto well to the left of what the SNP stood on. If it wasn't for the nationalists retreating then Theresa May would be gone and politics would be even more interesting.

Therefore, just as Jeremy Corbyn has saved the Labour Party in England and Wales from the fate of the centre left elsewhere, it is a matter of urgency Scottish Labour drops the zombie Blairism and the cretinous toadying of the Tories in the name of unionism. Corbyn and Corbynism has to have its opportunity to save the Scottish party too. It must strike out for the new ground represented by the rising socialised worker. If not, Scottish Labour is doomed. It really is as simple as that.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

All That Is Solid Blog Appeal





The left loves a good appeal. From the whip around for room costs to grandiose annual fundraisers, it's part of the labour movement's DNA. And it should never be otherwise. Loads of small donations from all over the place help maintain political or editorial independence. It's a sign that a lot of people like what you're doing on the basis of what you're doing already. If you rely on a few backers with deep pockets, then you're beholden to them. Your operation and your ideas are fine and dandy as long as moneybags is okay with it and it can make you lazy and vulnerable to getting cut off. Let that be a warning: Progress are in serious difficulties now Papa Sainsbury has pulled his annual £250k bung. To refer to them as the Militant of the right is to flatter them. The Tendency would never have left themselves as exposed.

You know what I'm leading up to, right? Yes, I'm launching my own appeal. But with a difference. You see, I don't need cash. My job keeps my affairs ticking over. Nor do I need megabucks to employ an assistant or get fancy software or fork out for hosting or a redesign or whatevs. All these things are fine.

No, what I am appealing for is something much harder to accumulate than cash: readers. The blog needs more Facebook likes. It needs more followers on Twitter. This is where you can help.

This blog isn't a slouch. Well, at least I don't think it is when it comes to readership. This month is looking like the busiest ever with over 160,000 page views projected by the time the calendar flips over into August. To give you an idea how far things have come, that is almost twice the total for the entire year of 2008 and not that far off equalling the entirety of 2014. By the end of this month this year's tally is likely to have surpassed the total number of views received in 2016. There can be large variations from day to day, but the trend is consistently upwards. That you're turning out something people want is a great feeling.

Yet this is small beer compared to some. Guido, the establishment's go-to presently receives around 154,000 page views a day. The new wave of left blogs probably aren't up there yet, but they cannot be far off. Skwawkbox was talking about hundreds of thousands of views during the busy period of the general election. Ditto The Canary which has seen it power past established outfits like the New Statesman in the web rankings. And Another Angry Voice has just shy of 330,000 likes on Facebook, translating into a lot of clickthrough. What all these sites have in common is they are operated full time and post multiple times a day. There is always something new, and that helps maintain the large number of page views.

This site is never going to get as many views, but they - the new left - does show there is a large audience for leftwing politics, an audience this place is barely scratching.

I am therefore humbly asking for your help. We live in interesting times again, but these are messy, confusing times as well. This blog has carved out a niche of trying to analyse things as they are, attempting to raise the level of debate and contributing towards a new left politics that prizes honest thinking and honest accounting about what has been done, where we are, and what we should do. It's a project I hope a lot of activists and comrades find worthwhile, even if they have to put up with my music taste and penchant for old video games occasionally intruding.

Unfortunately, there aren't a great many blogs like this. Ones that stand out are New Socialist, Chris Dillow, Stavvers, Flip Chart Rick, The Tendance, to name a few. However, fresh thinking and discussion about what is happening is needed. Alas, this gap remains unfilled by the new left blogs. At their best they're good for mobilising support for the Corbyn project, at worst we see boosterist churnalism, ill-researched conspiranoia and, appallingly, the scaremongering of vulnerable people.

The best antidote to this and a way of raising their standards is if serious thinking and serious analysis starts getting more traction, more views, more shares. You should therefore definitely read the sites mentioned above. But what I'm asking, pleading, is for you to help a blogger out. Could you please like the Facebook page so you a) never miss a post and b) allows you to share stuff on Facebook easily. In case you missed the big like button up top you can do so here. Could you get your friends and comrades to give us the thumbs up too. There is the Twitter as well. Either hit follow in the top right or head to the profile page for a good gawp at Stryper. Simply put, the greater the social media reach the more likely the serious questions facing the left, questions like understanding and getting to grips with the new class politics, the transformation of the Labour Party, and working out why the Tory vote is proving resilient despite blunder after cock up after disaster, are going to reach and engage the brains of more people. There is wisdom in that there crowd, after all.

Thanks for helping out.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Jeremy Corbyn and the Working Class




















Does Corbynism have a working class problem? No. And yes. Key to understanding how Labour beat expectations is the changing character of class politics. For a moment let's frame the issue with the deeply flawed official dominant conception of class used by the ONS. This divides people into six classifications that are typically grouped together as the ABC1s (managerial, professional, supervisory workers) and the C2DEs (skilled, semi-skilled, unskilled, casualised, unemployed, social security dependent). As a rule the former are the bedrock of the Tories and the latter is is perceived to be Labour's core vote. A highly simplistic bifurcation but one that has legs in our dumbed down political culture. The issue for the pundits, and one the academics are scratching their heads over, is how come Jeremy Corbyn's Labour did well in so-called middle class seats but retreated in its heartlands - places like Stoke South, Mansfield, Dudley, Ashfield, etc. And, in return, why did the Tories do well in these places while conceding Canterbury and Kensington, and retreating heavily in seats such as those held by Boris Johnson, Amber Rudd, and Iain Duncan Smith?

The newly emerging class politics offer the best interpretative frame for making sense of these outcomes. If you excavate the data, you find that Labour is projected to have won the election convincingly among working age people under the age of 54. The distortion, of Labour falling back in working class seats, is a consequence of older workers and retirees going for the Conservatives in big numbers across the ONS ranges. Therefore if we're talking about Labour having a working class problem we need to be clear what it is: it's an older working class problem, of the experience of class refracted by an approaching/actual withdrawal from the job market. If we’re suggesting Labour is undergoing a process of recomposition as it catches up with the new realities of class, then as per all processes of renewal some people are going to get left out. Does this have to be the case?

Before we go there, what does being working class today mean? For a great many of our people in the C2DE range, it entails the production of information, knowledge, services, care, and social relations. Their labour is largely immaterial in the sense the end product is something intangible. Leaving aside roles often crudely characterised as middle class jobs, consider immaterial working class jobs. What do you produce in a call centre? What do you produce sitting on a till? What do you produce caring for an old person? What do you produce when delivering a pizza, collecting money for charity, inputting data, assisting at the gym? Nothing tangible, nothing that can be taken off and sold like a slab of coal, a piece of pottery, a car. The conditions of work are unchanged, qualitatively speaking. You're still selling your time and ability to work in return for a wage, but what is being produced does have serious consequences for capital. When you're in the business of producing knowledge, information, and services of some description you are dependent upon the employee's capacity to perform socially. Creating new ideas or using interpersonal skills draws on stocks of social knowledge and behaviours that have been learned socially. They are the consequences of cooperative relationships that exist outside of the capital/labour relation and, what's more, cannot be appropriated and hoarded by bosses as a firm might do with the tools or machinery it provides to do the job. Furthermore, the store of social knowledge - what Michael Hardt and Toni Negri call the general intellect - is dynamic, ceaselessly enriched by experience and ideas, and is growing in density as the internet and social media technologies pull us all together into networks. As the general intellect grows, so capital tries to annex and appropriate more of it. It increasingly finds itself in a dependent position and one paradoxically expressed in an intensification and greater visibility of the power relations and exploitation at the heart of capitalist production. It is a lot of precarious working and few prospects, of precarity, misery, and debt.

What's this got to do with anything? The development of the general intellect allows for circuits for the sharing of common experiences and new ways for politics to be done. Corbynism, in my view, is an expression of large numbers of socialised and networked workers coming into political consciousness. And, unsurprisingly, as these conditions have spent the last 40 years growing and informing the socialising and subjectivising processes, the younger you are the more likely you work in or have been prepped for life as an immaterial labourer, and the greater the chance you might find Corbynism appealing. The well observed age effect in the 2017 general election is a class effect marking the transition in the composition of the working class away from material and toward immaterial labour. This is why Corbynism is the wave of the future. The Conservative vote performance was based on status groups and class fractions in historic decline.

Nevertheless, hubris begets nemesis and it would be a mistake for anyone to sit on their laurels and wait for the tick, tick, tick of demographic advantage and changes in class to grind an election victory out for Labour. It's a good job no one plans to. I'm not content to let old core seats fall to the Tories even if we make up the losses from elsewhere. The first thing to think about is social anxiety and self-security. If there is one thing this election proved above all else, it's that people don't vote for parties that make them afraid. Millions of people didn't vote Labour because of all the well-trailed stories - and not a few lies - written and broadcast about Jeremy Corbyn. Just as millions of people didn't vote Conservative because Theresa May was promising another five years of penny pinching misery. We need to crack this. Funnily enough, one of the key things underpinning anxious political behaviour is the ceaseless change and generalised precarity experienced by younger workers - the children and grandchildren of the voters that lined up behind the Tories. Because opportunity is scarce, whole "traditional" working class communities are emptying of younger people as they go elsewhere for work or education. This demographic drift is simultaneously rarefied (who to blame?) and tangible (look at all the closed shops), so you can understand why a politics based on nostalgia for a past that never was, or blames change on a menagerie of scapegoats, or why people promising to conserve one's way of life might come from and have appeal. The Tories are past masters at tearing up the social fabric and pitching in as the only ones who can ties the threads together again.

Secondly, there is the experience of ageing itself. The truism that one becomes more conservative as you get older is false. Rather as you withdraw from work, are somewhat marginalised by mainstream culture, and your earning power is in the hands of the pension provider (whether private or state), you become more concerned with security. It just so happens that the right are better than the left at capitalising on this permanent state of angst. This can be sublimated into all kinds of things, and you just have to look at the stories the Daily Mail and Daily Express run everyday that preys on this position. The demonising of Jeremy Corbyn and the distortion of his politics are of a piece that conjures up monsters to terrify the readers with the view of mobilising them behind the Conservatives. The Mail hates immigrants and Muslims, because Muslims are terrorists. And, oh look, the Labour leader has shared platforms with Islamists in the past. You get the general idea. So Labour are going to let the jihadis run amok. They're going to let the Russians invade. They're going to scrap the army. They're going to expropriate your bungalow and turn your grandkids into fistbumping communists. And worst of all, Labour are not going to spend money on bringing back blue passports.

Labour made a good fist of weaponising the security issue, ably assisted by the Prime Minister, but it was only able to make the barest of dents in the Tory lead among older workers. Simply guaranteeing the triple lock won't cut it, so we need to look beyond so-called retail politics. Thankfully there are two interrelated things Labour can do. The first is using the party. When you have a truly mass party, something interesting happens to politics: the party becomes a factor in any election. That's not just in terms of having scores of eager campaigners ready to hit the streets, but in having real social weight in a community. As we have seen from the mobilisation of the socialised/networked workers, support is like a self-replicating virus. It wasn't just the ideas and policies that excited younger voters, but also the fact Labour was humanised via the myriad memes, the myriad people they personally knew in their networks who were party members or supporters. The same applies in the places where Labour lost. Time was the party didn't need to do campaigning as it was part of the communities it represented. It follows that coming back in so-called left behind places must combine recruitment with the usual campaigning activities. Labour has a tendency to just let the membership tick over on its own whereas it should be something heavily pushed at all levels of the party. The more members there are in a constituency, the more likely it is someone who voted Conservative will know a Labour Party member, put a familiar human face on the party, and the persuasion can begin there. Remember, scaremongering is much more effective when the people the press's innumerable 'project fears' address do not have direct experience of the object or the people that are supposed to give them the night terrors. Therefore recruitment is never an optional extra, it is vital to Labour's success.

The second is about embedding the party. One of the few good things to have come from the otherwise underwhelming blue Labour tendency was the notion of the foundational economy, those bits of communities that produce the social fabric of a place. If you like, we're talking about the traditional stores of social knowledge - the newsagent who knows everyone, the window cleaner, the postie and the milkman who provide common reference points for everyone, the local pub(s), the community space occupied by schools, and the amenities that allowed these to be decent places to live. In an essay for the New Statesman, Chuka Umunna(!) argued that while New Labour invested in public infrastructure (somewhat problematically) it was indifferent to the social economies that sustained so many communities in medium sized cities and towns. Here Labour, with its huge membership, can fill this vacuum. In the first place by campaigning on local issues that matter. For instance, during the general election Labour had a number of campaign days targeting train stations to make the case for renationalising the rail. Fine and something as a commuter I'm happy with. But there are far more people in Stoke, for example, who use the fragmented and awful bus service, which fails to connect the city up properly and has damaged its social fabric. Here is an easily identified campaigning priority, and one Labour is taking up. Take your pick, every community has amenity issues that need addressing and is where Labour can make a difference. The other is to think about how Labour can build up community power and solidarity outside of campaigning. This is where the varied talents and interests of the members come in because they will know what is lacking and what can be done. The thing is, none of this is new. Labour movements across the West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries laid the groundwork for community infrastructure via their own social security net, cooperatives and friendly societies. How Labour came to weigh its vote in certain parts of the country later was a legacy of this organising role. It is in our party and our movement's DNA to repurpose and rebuild foundational economies and community fabric in the 21st century too.

If you were expecting an easy how-to, apologies. Addressing tensions between Corbynism and the working class means being clear which sections of the working class we're talking about. We must ask why some don't like and are not sold on Labour and its leader, and understand how that is the case. Muttering brainwashing isn't going to help. It goes deeper and demands we think about how class and age can intersect and is leading to millions of older people voting against their interests and those of their families. And once we have that understanding, we can start thinking about strategies for winning them back to Labour that do not concede ground to the fears whipped up by the press and the Tories. Hopefully readers will find some food for thought here.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Holding Out for a (Liberal) Hero

























Where have all the good men gone, and where are all the gods? Alongside Bonnie Tyler, a small coterie of liberals and self-defined centrists are asking the same thing. Yet there might be succour on the horizon. A rumour presently doing the rounds suggests Chuka Umunna had something more than a leadership campaign on the launch pad post-general election. That 'something' was the plan for a new centre party. Surely not! He has, after all, protested aplenty to the contrary. True or not, he is probably the Labour politician best placed to lead such an outfit. Consider the qualities needed. If one is going to take off it pays to have someone slick heading up the operation. He or she must also possess qualities one would expect a liberal hero to have: youth, dynamism, eloquence and, yes, a certain vacuity to suck in all those projected hopes. When you line the pantheon of the "radical centre" up - Emmanuel Macron, Justin Trudeau, Tony Blair ('97 vintage), Nick Clegg, the Clintons, and Barack Obama - what qualitative difference separates them and the political persona of the honourable member for Streatham? None. Same cookie cutter. Same flaky old dough.

This however is not another post on Chuka (we went there recently) but about the possibility of new middle-of-the-road force firing the fancies of people like Anna Soubry, Peter Mandelson, George Osborne, assorted Labour MPs and worthies, and getting something going. After all, His Blairness decrees that the centre ground is there, is squeezed, but is totally vital for the future of politics. Likewise, his former speech writer and now paid-for Corbyn sceptic Philip Collins reckons there is a "yawning chasm" in the middle of British politics. Yet the more we hear tell of such a thing, the harder it is to spot. The latest aggregate poll tracker from Britain Elects puts the Liberal Democrats, the archetypal centre party on a smidgen over six per cent. Such is the groundswell for liberalism in the Labour Party that the Progress candidate in 2015 received 4.5% of the vote, while itself boasting of around 2,500 members and is staring ruin in the face. And on the Tory side, Theresa May is in an awful spot but still preferred to bring back Michael Gove than offer an olive branch to the Cameroons. Centrism, if it ever was anything, is entirely a spent force. There is just no call for it. I repeat, there is just no call for it.

What's driving the fever dreams for a new party? Partly, it's despair. The battle for the Labour Party isn't over yet, but the election result has ensured the struggle is tilting the left's way. Matters aren't helped much by the fact Blairism destroyed its base in the Labour Party while they ran the show. How then can politics of the Liz Kendall or Yvette Cooper sort come back now the ranks of Corbyn supporters in the PLP have grown, most of the trade unions are on board, and the huge bulk of the members are sold on the left's strategy? Short of a catastrophe for Corbyn, they cannot. Or at least can't for a long bloody time. Therefore we are left with an elite caste of politicians without a party to lord over. How awful for them. If that wasn't bad enough, the election result has confounded everything they know about politics. Blair has finally acknowledged the weight of evidence and conceded that Jeremy Corbyn could be Prime Minister, but critical reflection about how and why they got everything wrong remains absent. When a political trend or movement hits an impasse like the one soggy Blairist/Cameroon/liberal centrism is stuck in, two outcomes are possible. A rethink and reorientation, or a doubling down and retreat into fantasy.

Self-described centrism has chosen the latter, and are clutching to their chests the comfort blanket of centrist triumphs past. In the dim and distant, the SDP split from Labour came at a time when the party was to the left and gripped by factional intrigue versus a right wing Tory party. Aren't those stars aligning again? Might history repeat itself? As omens go, it just so happens Anna Soubry, currently the Conservative MP for Broxtowe and noted Cameroon was a founding member of the SDP. Fancy that. Upon splitting, they won a respectable number of defections from the Labour benches, briefly polled very strongly and, in terms of votes cast, won just shy of eight million votes in 1983 in alliance with the Liberals. It's worth noting before the SDP the Liberals were hardly tearing up the track so in effect, the new party made its own political space. Never mind what happened in the end and forget how it split the anti-Tory vote and ensured two large majorities for Thatcher, the SDP experience shows it can be done. When things are in flux anything is possible.

Bolstering this analysis hope is the election of the Jupiterian God-king across the Channel. Consider how his rise to power appears. If you ignore a career spent in elite departments of the civil service, years wine and cheesing as a city slicker, then acquiring a position on Francois Hollande's staff before graduating to finance minister and resigning from the government in a blaze of publicity, it looks like Macron suddenly rose from nowhere to the top job. It doesn't take much to tweak the subsequent story either. The two-thirds vote won facing off against Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidentials was driven by enthusiasm, not the repugnance of and fear toward a fascist candidate. Likewise, the clean sweep in June's Parliamentary contest was the third way driving all before it and nothing to do with the historically low turn out. If that can happen in France, why can't it happen in Britain?

The problem with this so-called analysis is that we don't have a British Macron in waiting. He is in fact the French Blair. By that I'm suggesting the liberal hero moment in British politics lies in its past. Blairism was only possible because the labour movement was weak, and it rode roughshod over a damaged and despised Tory opposition. It could get away with promising little while undermining its own constituency because there wasn't an alternative. In 2017 any politician from any party presenting a vacuous platform backed by vacuous sloganeering is on track for a hard dose of electoral reality. The votes won't stack up, and even if they did the electoral system will do a good job of derailing their translation into seats.

Those are the hard realities for "centrist" politics. Yet we find accompanying political turbulence a great deal of political stupidity, as the Tories have recently reminded us. With everything against them, by cherry picking history it is possible for hardcore Blairists, liberals, and Cameroons to fool themselves into thinking a new project is a go-er simply because their clique groupthink tells them it's a good idea. I hope and look forward to them decamping or, if you will, making a "centre parting" and setting up a SDP mark II. After all, we know history tends toward farce the more one tries to repeat it.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Tony Blair is Wrong about Everything




















Taking time out from hanging with Bono and advising Central Asian dictators on how best to spin repression and executions, His Blairness has condescended to return to British politics to tell us things. And there are two things on his mind: Brexit and the election result. To save you the trouble, I've read his essay so you don't have to.

Boiling his argument down to its constituent parts, the first is the usual Brexit is bad and is a massive distraction from more pressing problems. Well, there's no disagreement here. Brexit is bad, and one cannot deny that third country status outside of the single market and the customs union is going to cause major problems. That said, we shouldn't just accept this situation. It's the job of political leaders to act as educators and set forth a number of Brexit options, which could include an invitation for the EU to reform as a price of keeping our membership. According to some unspecified chats he's had with the movers and the shakers, they want us to stay and are even willing to compromise on free movement.

Oh really? Colour me sceptical. Some of us can remember the debacle of Dave's negotiations with the EU early in 2016. He was then told repeatedly the "four freedoms" of the EU - the frictionless movement of goods, services, capital and people - are indivisible, and there is no budging on this. Over a year on and the answer is still the same. Managerially it might make sense for the EU27 to fudge it, but politically it's an absolute no. Nothing would stir up far right populism more than Britain opting out of free movement of labour but retaining the benefits of everything else. So excuse my French when I say Blair is talking out his backside.

The other problem is intractable nature of Brexit. Staying in the EU is not and cannot be on the table, regardless of whether it reforms or not unless there is a democratic vote to undo the referendum. Do we need reminding that setting aside a decision whose legitimacy is accepted by the vast majority is a really stupid and dangerous thing to do? As Blair notes, there is no political groundswell for revisiting the decision, and so we're stuck. Blair can rail against this along with the other nostalgics who refuse to accept the result, but that's what we've got to deal with. Again, while it makes economic sense to remain party to as many EU institutions and agreements as possible, in the end both the Tories and Labour have eyes on the politics. For the Tories, it's about protecting the interests they've always protected and trying not to plunge themselves further into ruination. That also means not leaving openings to their right again. Labour, as outside the negotiating process, also has a very difficult line to tread. According to YouGov contra Blair, reacting against Brexit was not a self-reported reason for voting Labour (while guarding it was the main reason respondents gave for voting Tory), so the claims remainers are going to dump the party when they find out it is committed to seeing Brexit through is bunk. But it must be careful - being honest that Brexit is going to hurt and that only Labour can fix the messes and divisions the Tories have left is a start, but it much stretch every sinew to ensure the costs of Brexit are not borne by our people. An extremely difficult task in the best of times (you try managing a capitalist economy in the interests of the many), but one that is existential for Labour as it adjusts to the new class relationships of the 21st century. Get it wrong then Labour will get consigned to the history books.

Hopeless on the politics of Brexit, I wasn't holding out much for his analysis of the election result. Naturally, there was no reflection on why he called it wrong, but that's par the course - two years on his remaining friends in the Labour Party still haven't asked the key questions about Corbynism, let alone arrived at any answers about why it brushed them aside and won millions of new votes. That in mind, Blair is forced to suppress the Corbyn factor and talk up the rubbish Tory campaign. Undeniably it played its part, but if negativity toward Theresa May was the driving factor that would not explain the dramatic uplift in Jeremy Corbyn's personal ratings. Indeed, according to the YouGov data above anti-Tory/anti-May sentiment combined fell well short of the main driver of Labour support, which was the manifesto. Jeremy as a positive reason to vote Labour wasn't far behind either. Compare this to Tory voters, in which anti-Labour and anti-Jez motivations (combined) are way out in front. This isn't surprising considering how the Tories are dependent on fear and loathing to cohere their vote. For Blair's project however, it must simply ignore the evidence, and in this case it means passing over the appeal of Corbynism and pretending it's nothing more than "unreconstructed hard left economics" that cannot "answer the call of the future". Au contraire, the chord it struck for millions of people across the occupational range just goes to show they were the most modern politics on offer.

Those for whom Blair is "the master", he does offer some hope. "People will default to populism when a radical centre is not on offer; where it is, they will vote it in, as Macron has shown", he argues. Ah yes, Emmanuel Macron, the absurd "Jupiterian" (neo)liberal hero of France and his "complex thoughts". Like Blair's analysis of the British election, this observation requires overlooking a lot of things. Like the collapse of the Socialist Party for adopting the sort of politics Blair pursued in office (and Macron has promised more of), the collapse of the centre right that allowed him to get through by default to run off against Marine Le Pen, and the historically low turn out at last month's parliamentary elections (48% and 43% in rounds one and two, respectively). Blair might think Macron represents a return to the centre, but it's the last gasp of a knackered politics. One hopes a turn to the left might come as per Britain, but politics is unlikely to be straitjacketed by cosy liberalism for long.

All that said, why bother paying attention to what Blair has to say? Believe me, I'd rather not have to but there are two very good reasons why we should. The first is because he gets wall-to-wall coverage in the media. It behoves us to take him seriously as an object of criticism just as so many of them take him seriously as an object of emulation. I recall his unhelpful intervention on Brexit during the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election campaign and how much trouble it caused on the doorstep. The second point is he condenses the views of decaying liberalism. He acknowledges politics have changed, but he clings on to the same old same old. He offers up the centre ground as the source of solutions and, bizarrely, as the agent for change ("The space for the centre may seem smaller; but the need for it is ever bigger"). Such dogmatic insistence on a force that never existed is flatly delusional. Blair also talks of problems, but seems to think a bit of managerialism here and there's going to sort things out. From his point of view and according to his own words, it appears the more things change the more they stay the same. Imperious in his arrogance yet ignorant of his obsolescence, Blair's intervention epitomises the global establishment he represents. He may have been the future once, but increasingly socialism is the future now.