Thursday, 26 February 2015

Local Council By-Elections February 2015

Party
Number of Candidates
Total Vote
%
+/- Jan
Average/
contest
+/- Jan
+/-
Seats
Conservative
 5
1,924
  25.6%
  -5.0%
     385
   -98
    0
Labour
 5
2,696
  35.9%
+13.2%
     539
 +102
  +1
LibDem
 4
   638
    8.5%
   -3.4%
     160
  -122
    0
UKIP
 4
1,136
  15.1%
  +4.0%
     284
 +108
   -1
SNP*
 0
      0

 -15.4%
       0
-1,460 
   0
Plaid Cymru**
 1
   313
   4.2% 
  +4.2%
     313
 +313
    0
Green
 3
   486
    6.5%
   -1.3%
     162
    -85
    0
TUSC
 0
     
   
       
      
    0
Independent***
 2
   233
    3.1%
  +2.8%
     117
  +101
    0
Other****
 1
     80
    1.1%
  +1.1%
     +80
    +80
    0

* There were no by-elections in Scotland.
** There was one by-election in Wales.
*** There were no independent clashes.
**** 'Others' this month consisted of People First (80 votes)

Overall, 7,506 votes were cast over five local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Only one council seat changed hands. For comparison see January's results here.

A much better month for Labour, all told. Not only did it come top of the polling pops but managed to take a seat from UKIP in the process. More results like this as we lead into the big day, please.

Apart from that, there isn't a great deal to say. With only five by-elections taking place it's somewhat slim pickings, making wider generalisations problematic and foolhardy. Still, it might be worth noting a squeeze on the UKIP vote spotted in recent polling (and predicted by some pollsters ahead of the general election) doesn't appear to being making itself felt this month, though all these contests took place before the Channel Four mockumentary and BBC Two's Meet the Ukippers.

Next month, as far as I know only four by-elections are scheduled to take place. A disappointing time for trend watchers.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Postmodern Effacement of Class

From the mid-90s I became very interested in social theory for two reasons. In the first place, the clunky, cruddy Marxism imbibed at A-level were tools enough to help me understand the peculiarities of the social world. Was it a framework and a method appropriate to make proper sense of it? Or, indeed, had college taught me the proper stuff or instead sold me a pup that merely barked when Marxism was called? I was also very, very angry. Rather than let the SWP burn me up with pointless paper sales, I interrogated social theory and sociology for new ideas that might help change the world. When we finally got round to postmodernism and post-structuralism, precocious 19-year-old-me nommed it up. Its 'question everything' radicalism was very appealing. Here you had the flavour-of-the-decade and the philosophical knives were out. The Enlightenment and its unthought sexist, racist, and heteronormative assumptions got carved up in conference paper after article after book. Some of it was interesting and useful for refining my nuance to the subtle ways power and inequality operates, but ultimately it made me feel uncomfortable.

I'm from a working class family. My parents and grandparents had working class jobs, as did (and does) my brother. My extended family - aunts, uncles, cousins - all were from the sort of stock politicians fall over themselves to flatter and patronise. Despite being confirmed non-labour movement people, we never had it very good. My family lived in a small, cramped house and we knew some very tough times. Class is never a neutral demographic category, it wounds deeply and I am one of millions who carry the scars. This is precisely why Marxism appealed. It explained class, its role throughout history, and why it and capitalism are inseparable. If the history taught at school was the collective biography of the haves, Marxism was the story and condensed experience of the have nots. And this was also why your pomo types, be it the more activist-oriented scholarship of Michel Foucault or the sit-back-and-enjoy-the-show fatalism Jean Baudrillard, left me cold. In the name of anti-essentialism and anti-totalisation, Marx and Marxism was utterly dismissed as mechanical and irredeemably authoritarian, as if forced labour camps and the NKVD could be found wrapped up in the analysis of commodity fetishism and the materialist conception of history. When Marx went, so did any kind of class analysis. In book after book, it was explained that radical politics could do no better than contingent alliances between oppressed groups in pursuit of strictly limited objectives. There was no place for the experience of class and the place it occupies in a set of abstract but nevertheless real and systematic power relationships. It was as if millions of people like you and me didn't matter or exist.

Simultaneously, while the postmodern social theory I read was doubting the relevance and social weight of millions, the neoliberal restructuring of the world economy was in full swing. The political common sense was that the state should regulate capital and actively intervene in economic matters to secure socially just objectives were pooh poohed. At best its role was officially relegated to making one's country an attractive and safe place for footloose global capital looking to turn a buck. This may have meant holding down higher rate taxes, deregulating whole industries, and providing an educated and mostly docile workforce. At its worst, the state raged relentless class war upon social democratic reforms and labour movements. Once Thatcher had given the miners a kicking, the floodgates of privatisation really opened up. A deluge of wealth and power drained away from people who sold their capacity to work as well as those dependent on social security support in some way. Those at the very top were swamped by more cash than they ever could spend. The balance between capital and labour was tilting and inequality accelerated. Class analysis, which is and will always be relevant for as long as capitalism exists, became even more urgent, and yet was largely absent.

Why was there this disconnect between real world events and academia? 10 years before entering HE, class analysis generally and Marxism particularly were in rude health. My old university library had a well-stocked Marx and Marxism section, but the titles tapered off after 1985/6. It was as if the miners' defeat saw an almost withering of interest in the topic. In its stead came not only the fashion for all things post-structuralist, but also a wider sociological turn toward studying consumption and identity. This isn't to say academic treatments of gender, race/ethnicity, and sexuality suddenly exploded. They did not as throughout the 1970s and 80s they steadily grew in importance. Unfortunately, as the latter decade wore on as academic Marxism withered away so the politics that imbued this radical sociology slowly bled out. The collapse of the Soviet bloc at the 80s' end presented as the logical culmination of socialism's effacement in British academia.

Is that all there is to it? As any student of social dynamics will tell you, x does not translate automatically into y. The path of causation from one phenomenon to another is never smooth. Yet there are no real coincidences in the evolution and development of societies. Albert Einstein doesn't get much of an outing here, but he keenly observed that the gravitational pull of one object exerts a pull on every other object everywhere. There is a link, small, infinitesimal, and overwritten by the intervening influence of planets and stars between my laptop and the galactic centre, but it's there nonetheless. Similarly, the dynamic always moving/always changing stuff of social relations are interconnected and mutually conditioning down to the most micro of levels. This interpenetration constitutes social relations everywhere and encompasses all that have ever existed. Hence the triumph of capital over labour and the looting of the social commons that followed it on the one hand, and the voguish hegemony of a set of theories and thinkers who decried class analysis and declared Marxism old hat in the academy cannot be coincidental. The former conditions but does not determine the latter.

Going back to the angry young man I was (alas, the only difference now is I'm older), I didn't catch or appreciate any of this. The postmodern erasure of class for me was a function of faddishness, selling out, and the cotton wool cocooning of the ivory tower. In the context of the UK academic left, all of those were true, but they in turn were made possible and constituted by the myriad dynamisms spiraling outwards from that most key of class battles. What is required is an analytics of defeat, to understand how the state was emboldened, how an independent working class culture was weakened, how it impacted subsequent struggles and the mindsets of activists, how it helped efface class from popular culture, official discourse, media reporting and, for the purposes of this particular bugbear, how the comings and goings of academic personnel, balances of forces within the academy, the rise of vocationalism and traducing of the humanities interweave themselves, the events of 1984-5, and other continuities and trends not apparently immediately related to it. Irony of ironies, postmodernism's disappearance of class can only be exhaustively investigated with the tools and theories it rejected.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Will Natalie Bennett's Trainwreck Derail the Greens?

Doing okay in the polls ... has some popular, left wing policies ... yet there are questions surrounding the leader's competence. We've heard the story many times before, but on this occasion it's the Green Party and Natalie Bennett under the spotlight. In late January there was the Andrew Neil interview where she had certain difficulties outlining her party's position on the citizen's income. And today was her train wreck with Nick Ferrari on LBC, which you can listen to here if you're yet to hear it. The thing is, as awful as Ferrari is, his tone was measured (some might say gentle) throughout, and it's precisely that that made it so devastating. And as we know from Lord Fink and Malcolm Rifkind, the fashion in politics at the moment is to make a mistake and then compound it. Here's Baroness Jenny Jones helping make Natalie's day that little bit worse.

While this is a second media stumble in a month, I don't think this says much about Bennett's competency as a leader. Say what you like about her, regular slots on Question Time and various other politics programmes have done little to stymie the rapid growth in members and opinion poll scorings.

Does today's trainwreck matter? Not really. Like many others I winced by way through the LBC interview, but I'm in that tiny minority who pay attention to the comings and goings of campaigns and Westminster whimsies. Others not so engaged might have thought it a bit stilted and awkward, but had forgotten about it within five minutes of broadcast. The kids are unlikely to play excerpts to each other in the playground tomorrow. Furthermore, Bennett explains it all in terms of having a "mind blank". That happens sometimes, as the poor souls forced to listen to me drone on at work will tell you. However, what was so painfully obvious was Bennett did not have a handle on her brief. Whether that's because she was having a bad day, or her crib notes were poor, or because the Greens have yet to do proper costings on their pledges (which, as we know, will be in the manifesto), it looked very bad. Yet when the campaign cranks up all of his will be but a footnote. Journos are a predictable bunch and will try catching her out again in future. As we speak, I bet she and her team of friends and advisers are looking at ways of properly polishing up.

The second question, of course, is will it have any discernible impact on Green support. We will find out later in the week. I suspect not, though. This is not a Gillian Duffy moment, nor "the day the Green Party surge hit a cliff", as Adam Bienkov put it. 

It's long been established in the political science literature that the growth of Green parties are related to long-run shifts in class structures and values systems in affluent societies. As such the core Green voter tends to be "post-materialist". Their political participation is value rather than interest-oriented. In Germany the Greens were able to intersect with this growing constituency and build a substantial party with some serious electoral clout.

In Britain, the same broad strata also emerged but they tended to be ranged across the Labour Party, a section of which has always been an alliance between the labour movement and professional associations, and from the 80s onwards the SDP/Liberals and latterly the Liberal Democrats. With the collapse of the latter and the "under-promising" of Labour, the Greens here have finally been able to make inroads into this layer. Because this grouping has rejected the interest-based game of conventional politics in favour of something seemingly more radical, committed and would-be Green voters are unlikely to be phased by Bennett's lack of polish. Indeed, it might elicit sympathy and help secure that vote intention.

This then is but a blip. A bit of raucous fun for partisan saddoes, a bit of a face palm for some Green activists. In the grand scheme it will matter not a jot.

Monday, 23 February 2015

MPs and Second-Jobbing

Didn't they do well? Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw have done a blinder dragging Parliament's reputation through the muck yet again. Fair play to The Telegraph too, who teamed up with C4 Dispatches to complete the sting. Fortuitous timing too, this has helped push the paper's recent difficulties down the memory hole. Yet Rifkind and Straw, deary me. It is true that neither men were engaged in Parliamentary rule-breaking of Denis MacShane/Elliot Morley proportions, but it was very, very bad for all that. Writing to ministers on behalf of paying clients, that's cash for questions by other means. However, Straw apparently getting paid to sort out Ukraine and EU regulations for his client are, on my understanding, *within* the rules. And there are some politicians who do not understand why Parliament's standing is so low.

Back when the MPs' expenses scandal was all the rage, I noted it wouldn't be long before second jobbing became an issue. It's only taken five years but we're finally here. I was very pleased to see Ed Miliband quickly seize upon it, though to be fair he has been tapping this drum for a couple of years. True to form, our leadership-averse Prime Minister has ruled out doing anything.

Contrary to the BBC headlines, the Labour leader has not called for a ban on MPs' second jobs. Instead he wants a crackdown on paid directorships and consultancies. Quite right too. For example, I'm guessing few people would object to Tory MP Peter Beresford carrying on working as a dentist. Likewise, my ex-boss still teaches one module at his pre-Parliamentary place of work. Ditto for those current and soon-to-be Members who churn out a column or two for the national press. Provided everything is properly declared and does not interfere with Parliamentary duties, why ever not?

Consultancies and directorships are wholly different. A business only takes a MP on in arrangements of this sort if the relationship "adds value" to the company. In other words, gives them a commercial advantage. Hence from the outset the arrangement is potentially corrupt and corrupting, placing the MP in a conflict of interest between their private arrangements and public duties. It also distorts the democratic process, such as it is. Some 100 Tory MPs last year trousered thousands of pounds apiece from services rendered to a wide variety of businesses. These services may genuinely call on whatever business experience and acumen they have. It might also involve advice on how to get around bits of legislation, what's likely to be on X minister's policy agenda, etc. Crucially, their proximity ensures a congruence between their respective habits of mind ensuring that business interests have a preeminent influence on party policy making and the common sense of Tory Parliamentarians. This corrupting web of back-scratching is one of the means by which the Conservative Party stays in touch with its base. It draws sustenance from it, hence why Labour is dead right to attack it.

As it is when it comes to clamping down on things, there are always loopholes, dodges, and workarounds. I wonder, for example, how many spouses and partners will suddenly find themselves standing in for good members on company boards instead? Still, eradicating second-jobbing while ensuring "proper jobs" taken by MPs are properly scrutinised and regulated is one step toward giving politics the steam clean it desperately needs.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Is Ed Miliband the Next Margaret Thatcher?

When you're involved in politics you grow accustomed to hearing some very silly things. This is doubly so in the rarefied world of political comment. I don't get paid for my pearls (some people spot trains in their free time, I do this), yet the pressure to have something unique and interesting to say is inescapable. If all this blog did was regurgitate The Graun and FT, there would be few takers (cf. Socialist Worker and The Socialist). This becomes a compulsion if you have to grind a living from your keyboard, as a small but privileged number of writers do. If you've scaled the heights of a Polly Toynbee, Andrew Rawnsley, or even a Peter Oborne, access to the indiscreet chatterboxes of Westminster give your articles an edge those not so positioned fail to match. They instead have to stump up analyses no one has done, or tackle politics from an oblique and seldom-considered angle.

John Gray, the noted conservative philosopher, hardly rubs shoulders in the Z-list stable with the likes of me, but the laws of the field apply to him as much as anyone else. And so his over-long critical essay in the New Statesman, Misunderstanding the Present: Ed Miliband Wants to Govern a Country that Doesn't Exist (Thrifty Tirades of Gray, it ain't) seeks to capture the comment-hungry public with an interesting thesis: Ed Miliband has spectacularly misread the state politics is in.

There are two interlinked theses here. That Britain is ready for a Thatcher-style transformative government (it isn't) and that large numbers of voters are hungry for a change to Britain's political economy (they aren't). The 1979 playbook should be closed and left for historians and undergraduate essay writers to pick over: the bandwagon Thatcher was able to hitch her programme to and then later steer, albeit with unforeseen consequences, has departed the scene. There is no analogous conjuncture happening now, which means Ed's attempt to recast the shape of Britain in a more collectivist mode has hit the buffers before the engine has caught. And because this is out of step from where the people are, his project and, implicitly, Labour's electoral prospects are doomed.

I think Gray's analyses of 1979 and 2015 are mistaken. Taking Britain's break with the post-war consensus first, readers unfamiliar with the period could be thinking that Thatcher's Tories were elected on a wave of popular enthusiasm. Labour, paralysed by infighting, blighted by unions who allowed rubbish to pile up in city streets and had left the dead unburied, and snorting line after line of overblown statism and authoritarianism, were out of touch and out-of-step with where most people wanted to be. Thatcher's promise was to break with all that.

A nice story and one right wing tabloid editorials have wasted no chance repeating in the 36 years since. However, it's not true. Looking at contemporary polls Labour and the Tories regularly swapped lead positions in 1978. By year end Callaghan's government had developed a modest but consistent lead, until the notorious Winter of Discontent sunk Labour's chances. Never let a good crisis go to waste, and Thatcher certainly didn't. The Tories romped home with 44% of the vote, while Labour fell from 39% to 37%. Hardly indicative of a huge anti-Labour backlash.

The other assumption is that the Tories entered that general election with a worked-out programme for reconfiguring Britain, which a plurality of voters then endorsed. Flicking through their manifesto suggests such a reading. Then again, all Tory manifestos dating back to 1966 more or less say the same thing. Blah blah unions, blah blah individual sovereignty, blah blah evil socialism. The voting public who paid such things any mind were already familiar with this kind of rhetoric, hence it was unlikely they knowingly voted for a decade of dislocation and bitter battles. Anecdotes from the time seem to back this up. Over the years I've asked various activists who were around whether Thatcher's election was seen as a big deal, and apart from the novelty of having a woman as PM they all said it was initially seen as just another Tory government no different from its predecessors. Likewise, in her memoirs Thatcher was certainly committed to changing things but a coherent scheme only emerged after she had taken office.

Also, a reading of 1979 might suggest the stars were against what was to follow. No one would have been writing about reconfiguration of British capital via open confrontation between state and the labour movement. This was not yet five years after the miners had arguably brought Heath down. Large numbers of people might have been fed up with strike action, but cutting down the institutional power and scope of the labour movement was as unthinkable then than a resurgence of Liberal Democrat support is now. What Gray is guilty of doing is crushing 1979 beneath the condescension of almost 40 years of history. He's telescoped the (Westminster) common sense of 2015 and read it into insurgent intentions of seventies politicians and voters where no such things existed.

Coming up to date, Gray argues Ed Miliband sees himself as the Prime Minister who would rewind Thatcher's legacy. The problem is there's no appetite for such a project in wider society. There are two things here. Firstly, I don't know if Gray has been paying attention to the same Labour Party policy announcements as everyone else. It seems unlikely, because the Labour 'offer' - to use the awful managerial term - is characterised by deliberate caution. It doesn't so much break with the increasingly dysfunctional neoliberal settlement as push at its limits. The energy price cap (not freeze, John), the abolition of the bedroom tax, bringing together the NHS with a National Care Service, crackdowns on tax dodging, etc. can and will make a difference to the lives of millions, but are there as transformational as Gray supposes? Because complementing these policies are commitments to social security bashing, border tightening, and austerity-lite that are very much Westminster shibboleths. It's unfortunate the first two happen to be supported by broad swathes of the population and are capitulated to accordingly.

In short, whatever Ed's ambitions are - and I happen to agree with Gray's characterisation of them - the programme going into the election falls short of it, which has its own sets of difficulties as per the SNP and the Greens. "Under-promising and over-delivering" is Ed's favourite phrase among party audiences, and it has a certain logic. Because where Gray is mistaken is the assumption that Ed and the Labour leadership don't know that people are sceptical of things changing. They do, they encounter it every constituency surgery, every door knocking or phone bank session, every time they open the pages of the press or have a focus group in. The caution shown is a perfectly understandable response to electioneering in this sort of environment, however much a lefty like me might disagree with it.

The second point is spend some time on the doorstep, hang around with people thinking of lending votes to UKIP, the Greens, the SNP, or are not going to bother at all, how politics articulates interests and engages with voters is crying out for change. Look at the lives of millions of working people, trapped in precarious jobs and/or low pay. See how lopsided the economy remains toward finance and services and away from manufacturing. Look how everywhere outside the South East and London has been left to their own devices. Look how capital has basically been on investment strike since the 2008 crash while inequality has soared. Look at how the Conservative Party has degenerated to the point it should not be allowed to run a bath, let alone a country. The economic and political contradictions are piling up, whether people are aware of them or not. If this isn't a conjuncture demanding a settlement of one sort or another, I don't know what is.

It is surprising that Gray does not recognise this. After all, his philosophy is of the view that history is not progressive but cyclical, that indeed tragedy and farce return for encores after the main event. Ed Miliband isn't Margaret Thatcher. When he becomes PM in May, his programme will unfold on a pragmatic basis just as hers did. As the political tensions and economic difficulties stored up break, in their turn each offer opportunities for embedding that further and deeper, or taking society in a regressive direction. Our job as labour movement people is to ignore the counsels of despair, which is what Gray's essay essentially is, and work hard to make sure that our people, the overwhelming majority of people, benefit.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

The Communards - Never Can Say Goodbye

Ruminating on some heavy duty blog posts tonight. And it's Saturday, so let's go from one 80s moment to another. Never Can Say Goodbye is one of I think only two songs to have appeared in my infamous top 100s twice. This ditty's first time was at number 21 in the Top 100 Dance Tunes of the 1970s. It then repeated over a decade later as neither tragedy nor farce when The Communards' cover took it to number 10 in the 80s list

I'm sure you'll agree, it's a shit tonne better than the original.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Labour vs The Militant Tendency

The past really is a foreign country. Can you imagine if the BBC or ITV ponied up to Labour Party conference and asked to transmit a live debate between Progress and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy? It's unthinkable. Yet, in 1982 something similar did happen. At the year's party conference in Blackpool, the right won a majority on the NEC after much arm-twisting and shenanigans - some of which is outlined in John Golding's must-read, The Hammer of the Left. Immediately moves were afoot to curb the influence of the Militant Tendency (today's Socialist Party) who were then ensconced in the party. The NEC resolved to de-fang Militant's party-within-a-party by having them register as an official Labour-supporting organisation and, as a result, see much of their apparatus dissolved (famously, by the mid-80s Militant employed more full-time activists than the party itself).

The debate below which was broadcast in a prime time slot features the eternal general secretary, Peter Taaffe (50 years and counting), and the then soon-to-be deputy leader of Liverpool City Council, Tony Mulhearn. For the right representing the official party line saw Austin Mitchell, who is stepping down in May and has made a name in recent years as a boorish buffoon, and John Spellar who lost his seat in 1983 before getting returned again in 1992. The short film below is probably the only time representatives of both sides sat down and debated each other in a medium that has been captured for posterity. As such it's quite an important piece for labour movement geeks and far left watchers alike, regardless of your view of the issues.

It is interesting how both sides were right. Militant's charge that the right wanted them slung out by hook and by crook were correct, as subsequent rounds of expulsions demonstrated and, much later, memoirs admitted. Likewise, the right's claim that Militant was an undercover revolutionary socialist organisation with all the trappings associated with it was also spot on. 

More significant is how this film shows the distance traveled in politics in the 30-odd years since. TV Eye didn't broadcast the debate because everyone was a little bit funny or strange in the early 80s, or that the general public were just better informed and found such stuff riveting. What it demonstrated was that the labour movement and its internal goings on mattered in a society where its social weight and cultural presence was a good deal greater than today. The Labour right vs Militant debate was covered because at stake was the future direction of our movement, and hence the impact a victory for either side would have on wider society and particular the balance between capital and the state, and labour. It took the hammer blows of the miners' bitter defeat and subsequent wars of attrition against the organised working class to push our movement back to the present point of cultural marginality. Small wonder capital and the mainstream parties obsessively worry about reproducing working class people. The class war policies pursued by Thatcher curtailed its capacity to do so autonomously.

Anyway, enjoy this slice of labour movement history - if enjoy's the right word.



Hat tip @futureandpasts for alerting me to this.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Using and Abusing Refute

There were many things in The Telegraph's behaviour over yesterday's resignation of Peter Oborne I find annoying, but none so more irritating than a moment in their press release. The offender is highlighted in italics:
Like any other business, we never comment on individual commercial relationships, but our policy is absolutely clear.

We aim to provide all our commercial partners with a range of advertising solutions, but the distinction between advertising and our award-winning editorial operation has always been fundamental to our business.

We utterly refute any allegation to the contrary.
How have you refuted Oborne's allegations, Telegraph? I see no point by point rebuttal. Here, for example, is an example of refuting. It's me giving a Dan Hodges' piece a going over line-by-line. He offers an argument, I refute it with things like logic and evidence. What it does not mean is to deny or disagree. If one of the readers thinks I'm wasting my time in the Labour Party, I deny that is the case. It is only refuted (at least to my satisfaction) if I put forward a cogent, convincing response that grinds their argument down and proves it to be nothing more than a jumble of bruised and bloody words.

What's this? I looked at the Oxford Dictionaries site ran by Oxford University Press (which is not the same as the OED), the screen filled with something else:
Refute (Synonyms)

1.1 Prove that (someone) is wrong: his voice challenging his audience to rise and refute him

1.2 Deny or contradict (a statement or accusation): a spokesman totally refuted the allegation of bias
Since the sam hell when? I didn't get the memo when the meaning for refute suddenly annexed 'deny' or 'disagree with'. Anyone else spot it?

I haven't had the chance for an in-depth investigation, it's 23:15 hours for heaven's sake, but I have been probing the Daily Mail website in the hope it might be useful for once. And so it has. Near the bottom of the archive there are three pieces of interest. In Jacko speaks out on charges (November 24th, 2003), the paper writes "The Thriller star released a statement on a website set up to refute the allegations, which are believed to come from a 12 or 13-year-old cancer sufferer.". I'll go with that. The late Michael Jackson may or may not be guilty of heinous crimes, but getting the usage of refute right wasn't one of them. Similarly, in Rail union anger over track error (October 23rd, 2003) they write "The engineering firm strenuously denied allegations of impropriety and said it would strongly refute any allegations that documentation had been falsified." Bang on.

Then there is this. In Blair: I Did Not Mislead MPs (dated July 8th, 2003), a report about the Iraq war fallout, the Mail writes "Giving evidence to the House of Commons liaison committee, Mr Blair was asked about allegations that the House had been deliberately misled. Mr Blair responded: "Obviously I refute that entirely.""

Why am I not surprised that New Labour Newspeak is a key person of interest in the investigation? The MO fits perfectly. Take 'refute' and drop it liberally into party political discourse whenever 'disagree' or 'deny' would be the appropriate word, and you have a line repeated over the course of the subsequent news cycle. Saying you "refute any allegations", implies you have indeed made a refutation, albeit not in the footage employed in reports. As most people hold with the "classical" definition of refute, on the surface it appears that Blair - or any other agency uttering the corruption of the word - have sallied forth a rebuttal when nothing of the sort has occurred. It conjures up the existence of an absent support and absolves them from having to produce a real refutation. It's a sad, cynical way of trying to bend perception and reception through its deliberate misuse. It's semantic trickery, pure and simple.

That may or may not be the root of the decoupling of refute from refutation, but regardless of how often it is deployed its sounds incredibly jarring and clumsy. Keep 'em peeled, because when someone is claiming to 'refute' something, chances are they haven't.