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.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Toward a Sociology of Political Abuse

Here we go again. Theresa May's announcement of an inquiry into the abuse of parliamentary candidates came a day before racist toff Rhodri Colwyn Philipps got sent down for Facebook threats against Gina Miller. What with the proximity to the anniversary of Jo Cox's murder and the declaration of war by, I'm not making this up, the Daily Mail against "hard left bullies", we've reached another of these crescendos where comment on internet abuse is glutting the web.

What does and doesn't constitute abuse? There is a fine line between abuse and rudeness, but it exists nevertheless. Straight up abuse looks like this. It's the crap that Diane Abbott has put up with for three decades, it's the rape threats, the death threats, the anti-semitism and racism. It is designed to denigrate, humiliate and, in some cases, put people in fear of their lives and mental well-being. It is an order different from the usual rudeness one finds in the cut and thrust of politics. Abuse is not losing your rag in a discussion, getting angry at a figure of authority, or bluntly and sarcastically stating the idiocies of an opponent's position. A simple "that's bullshit" is not abuse, it's rudeness and rudeness serves the politics, albeit occasionally counter-productively. Abuse however is antithetical to politics, it's linguistic violence for its own sake.

You know that already. Nevertheless, while all abuse should be condemned and discouraged not all abuse is created equal. Or, rather, abuse comes from different directions and depending on its point of origin, reflect certain positions that exist in the great out there. The job of a left wing social media strategy is to understand and explain in order to think about effective means of tackling it. Only those carrying a pall of bad faith or a small imagination assimilate this to excusing abuse. Secondly, the targets of abuse matter. It's public figures who attract the lion share of vitriol and there are no prizes for noting women, ethnic minorities, and LGBT folks cop the heaviest loads of flak. That in itself says something.

The basic distinction I want to make is between abuse from below and abuse from above. That doesn't imply the inchoate insults flung from the many at the few is progressive or some such nonsense, but it does have a distinctive character. Such abuse usually stems from a position of relative powerlessness. By this, we're talking the strange frustrations Western cultures weave about our social being. How we are made as individuals sees us flattered, talked up, seduced and, at least officially, empowered to make choices about our lives. Regardless of where you stand in the pecking order, that message is constantly reinforced by public institutions, work, and popular culture. To get on you have to adapt to these rules or you fail. And herein lies the problem. We are all set up to fail. A sense of lack, of something missing is fundamental to the conditions of life, and that's because while we are inculcated and hailed as authors of our own destinies we're very clearly not. The promises of individuality and freedom ring hollow in the age of anxiety, where the good life fills our minds from infancy and yet is put out of reach by limited opportunities, crap and insecure jobs, sliding living standards, a dearth of affordable housing, and the persistent, nagging sense everything is changing and you're having a hard time holding on. A sense of trying to take back control is sublimated into hundreds of different pursuits, including voting for Brexit, and for a small subset of people trolling and abusing public figures is one way of getting a purchase. Abuse offers a simulation, a simulacra of mattering, of being someone who counts - especially if the target responds or reacts. The unnoticed is suddenly noticed, even if they're hiding behind an anonymous handle and all they're doing is shitposting, success in getting a rise is still success.

There are two further subdivisions that can be made here. The first stems from a nihilist narcissism, of finding exhilaration and affirmation in abuse, a catharsis in attacking public figures, particularly if they're women, black, or gay. For whatever reason, their anxieties associates with scapegoats and bigotry, and these terms are mobilised to harass and shut down particular personifications of trends they deem unacceptable. Don't like black people and think they have no place in public life? Attack Diane Abbott. Think gay people have too much visibility and shouldn't be accepted? Owen Jones is the journo to go for. Jealous/threatened by women? So many female MPs, journos, and celebs to choose from. The second comes from anger. Yes, the nihilists are angry, but the key difference here is the former are happy/fatalistic enough to carry on as they are. The latter group are moving, and they're moving towards politics and in the direction of active engagement. For this group, abuse is a crutch, an inarticulate substitute for the feelings they cannot put into language. A fusion of anger, resentment and frustration - for whatever reason, and for whatever politics - is pushing them along and for some a phase of abuse is just that, a moment on the way to developing a political consciousness of some description. The danger is that abuse never entirely goes away and they might feel it entirely reasonable (and justified) to conjure up such terms and tones later on, that abuse is a legitimate weapon. Though that poses more for left, which is a politics about building anew, versus the right, a politics set on preserving the old.

From the bottom, the abuse flies in and swarms over their targets. Except for a rare few cases, it is almost entirely self-activating. There is no coordinating intelligence malevolently targeting certain people and unleashing the hounds, but frequencies of abuse go up and down depending on targets' media presence and, more generally, what's happening in the news. Again, should we be shocked David Lammy has received abuse and death threats for his Grenfell fire campaigning work? We should be, but we're not. Abuse on social media is almost banal.

Then there is abuse from above, which is an entirely different kettle of fish. Again, we find ourselves looking at two different sorts that differ in form but accomplish the same thing, more or less. Our friends The Daily Mail and the tabloid press have done more than anyone to poison politics in this country. They demonise ethnicities, nationalities, they pruriently ogle semi-naked teenagers while attacking (liberal and left wing) women for defying their twisted conventions on what being a woman is supposed to be, and they properly monster fleeting or long-running hate figures. Even 17-year-olds are fair game. This abuse is read every day by millions of people and gives succour to the nihilists. Every time they attack Diane Abbott, that marks open season. Every feeble expose of "hard left" activists stirs up and mobilises its mob. The consequence of all this fear mongering and hate goes beyond providing an ideology bank loaning out bigotry for social media abuse, it helps cohere the base of the Conservative vote. It may be in long-term decline, but it cannot be dismissed. The other consequence, of course, is those receiving the orchestrated abuse have to waste time erecting defences and dealing with it.

The second is the next rung down, that is the minions of established politics and the media. While mostly not as overtly foul as a Paul Dacre op-ed, politicians and pundits have used their platforms not just to harass and bully, but also direct abuse coming up from below as well. They may have public spats with other names fairly frequently, and that usually pulls a train of abusers behind them, but they are likely to assist the demonisation of whole groups of people and some times highlight an ordinary Twitter user for a going over. They effectively try and make use of asymmetry, of the media power they find expressed in their following, to drive normal people out and disrupt their opponents. As established figures they tend to lean toward the right and cynically manipulate their followers, and therefore abuse, to keep them going. This is especially important as professional commentary is in crisis, and not just because the general election completely confounded their expectations. It's because in a world where everyone can be a commentator, no one can be a commentator. Social media menaces them and their old media bosses with existential threat, and at an instinctive level they know it.

These distinctions are analytical. One should not confuse the things of logic with the logic of things, and they dovetail and overlap. But they offer ways in to thinking about where abuse comes from, why people do it, and what ultimately can be done about it. Abuse therefore is a political question and demands a political, not a technical response.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Against a Tory/Labour Brexit Coalition

Theresa May fails at politics. What some of us knew a few months ago is now common currency, thanks to the worst campaign in modern times and plunging the Tories into a hole so big they haven't even found the sides yet. And she carries on blundering along. Cosying up to the man you derided as useless and a terrorist sympathiser is a terrible look. With hope it will shake loose softer Tory voters, versus those clinging on because Labour's social democratic programme is a prelude to fully expropriated propertyless communism.

Luckily for Theresa May, even the most desperate political position has some options. Though surely the one saying 'speedy, early retirement' must look more beguiling as the days pass. Still, there is an opportunity to take back some ground and, unwittingly, it's our friends Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper showing how this is possible. For Chuka, he's finally found a leadership role by palling with Anna Soubry and sundry others in their new All-Party Parliamentary Group on EU Relations. After his silly and pointless rebel amendment on single market membership, the latest ruse sees an attempted usurpation of Keir Stamer to position himself as Labour's leading voice on Brexit. On this, it's likely he can count on most of the Labour MPs who backed him previously, though the recent talk of deselection could temper some honourable members' enthusiasm for the single market.

And then there's Yvette's speech at the Fabians at the weekend where, you may recall she called for more cross-party collaboration on Brexit. She didn't say much except that Labour input would be crucial if Britain is to get a good deal. As I have previously said, this is potentially catastrophic. Having Labour joining with the Tories in taking Britain out of the EU, and being complicit in the baleful economic consequences sure to follow is suicidal. That doesn't mean Labour should be aloof from the negotiations, but its job is to scrutinise the government and use Parliament to knock the sharp edges off their haphazard and shortsighted negotiating strategy. Labour has to be seen to stand up to protect the interests of our people, and in 2022 or whenever go to the country with a plan for clearing up after Brexit and reforging these islands anew.

You can almost hear the "country first, not party!" crowd squealing, as if politics is just about grubbing for votes. Labour is undergoing a process of recomposition that has not only saved the party, but can change politics here for the better permanently and give impetus to movements of the new socialism elsewhere. The fate of this movement, this coming into political consciousness of millions of people is, quite frankly, more important than Brexit. Putting Labour at the negotiating table could risk an unraveling of this still-tentative and fragile process and undo everything that has been done. That is going to suit some, of course, but their inheritance would be a desiccated husk, a fate similar to the last two years of Scottish Labour but this time with no hope of coming back.

Nevertheless, the willingness of our leading would-be leaders to work across the House on something more than an episodic basis offers the Tories an olive branch. Desperation has forced May to make an offer to Labour and the other parties, but just as jumping feet first into Brexit negotiations is not in our interest, sharing a stinking wallow adjacent to the Tories absolutely suits them. And, if things get tricky as the negotiations proceed, those around May in possession of sufficient low cunning know if a Brexit "crisis" plus a soft "unity" offer was made over Jeremy Corbyn's head to the Chukas, the Yvettes, and/or their supporters, they might find some willing takers, particularly among the anti-Corbyn die-hards who keep threatening retirement and by-elections.

What would have been a preposterous suggestion immediately after the election is now a possible trick May's beleaguered team might think has legs, thanks mainly to two of the PLP's bestest and brightest.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Hardt and Negri on Immaterial Labour

We've talked about it a little bit recently and how immaterial labour is becoming increasingly important, but how should it be understood? In their Multitude, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri define two forms:
The first form refers to labour that is primarily intellectual or linguistic, such as problem solving, symbolic and analytical tasks, and linguistic expressions. This kind of immaterial labour produces ideas, symbols, codes, texts, linguistic figures, images and other such products. We call the other principle form of immaterial labour "affective labour". Unlike emotions, which are mental phenomena, affects refer equally to body and mind. In fact, affects, such as joy and sadness, reveal the present state of life in the entire organism, expressing a certain state of the body along with a certain mode of thinking. Affective labour, then, is labour that produces or manipulates affects such as a feeling of ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement, or passion. One can recognise affective labour, for example, in the work of legal assistants, flight attendants, and fast food workers (service with a smile). One indication of the rising importance of affective labour, at least in the dominant countries, is the tendency for employers to highlight education, attitude, character and "prosocial" behaviour as the primary skills employees need.
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri 2004 Multitude Penguin, p.108.

Of course, there is no hard and fast separation between the two. As they argue, the drawing on the intellect in a creative process usually involves mobilising affect as well, and vice versa.

We'll be returning to this in the future, so just parking up the quote for now.