Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Permanently Perpetuating Polarisation

"Thanks for the meal deal, but we were promised a new deal." Quite. Still, a feeble response befits a feeble summer statement. Rishi Sunak, sans the boondoggle coffee cup, announced the furlough scheme was winding down this October as planned. But no need for anyone to worry; the economy will be motoring ahead by then thanks to the stimulus and support the government are providing. Hence, the old Tory trick of re-announcing things got another outing in the form of stamp duty cuts, cash for decarbonising the public sector, and more (largely unspecified) infrastructure spending. So far, so March.

The genuinely new stuff was ... interesting. To entice people back to the UK's beleaguered hospitality industry, there are sweeping cuts to VAT on food, refreshments, overnight stays. Everything but booze, all told, and to last for six months. If Coronavirus hasn't gone away by the end of the period (it won't have) this is likely to be extended into the new year. To sweeten the treat, the government are offering 50% discounts on restaurant meals for up to £10. "Eat out to help out" is the dubious-sounding slogan for that one. It might also help bump up those covid-19 infection rates, underlining the decision that for the Tories, class power and economics come first, public health second.

It's jobs where Sunak's scheme is going to get the most attention. On furlough, employers are in line to receive £1,000 for every member of staff who comes off furlough and remains on the payroll come February. At £9bn budgeted for the scheme, even the dogs in the street can see the problems with this. As a job protection measure, it's useless. If an employer thinks laying off staff is going to make "efficiencies" then a thousand quid sweetener will not compensate for the salary saving. What it will do is provide a bung, albeit a fairly paltry one, to bigger business and large organisations planning on bringing back furloughed workers anyway. It might help a few small and medium sized businesses if they are opening up in October, but as retention schemes go it's dismally unambitious.

The Tories' youth employment initiative is even more of a joke. Talking about "good quality jobs" without cracking a smirk, Sunak announced a £2bn fund from which employers receive £1,000 to £2,000 bungs for "trainees", who in turn will have their minimum wage salary paid by the government. The higher payment comes into play if they are taken on for six months. If it sounds like a temporary fix to fiddle the jobless figures it probably is a temporary fix to fiddle the jobless figures. A passing familiarity with past Tory workfare schemes tells you all you need to know. The rest is more money for jobless support, including work coaches to get youngster back into earning. Even now, in the midst of the greatest implosion of the global economy since the 1930s, the Tories still believe it's the wrong approach to job-seeking, not lack of vacancies that causes unemployment.

It doesn't take an eagle eye, or a forensic leader of the opposition to spot there was nothing for renters, nothing for those stuck on social security for the foreseeable, nothing for equipping workers for the future, nothing for underemployment, nothing for social care, and nothing for the mental health epidemic. It's almost as if Sunak's overall concern is keeping the low waged, low skilled, low solidarity, low protections economy on the road. Forging ahead as if Coronavirus doesn't exist, trapping younger workers in the cycle of frustrated career aspirations and denying them their opportunity to get on the housing ladder, doing nothing does do something. It perpetuates political polarisation - something the Tories have, of course, done well out of. So far.

This is their game. Keep cultivating the circumstances holding their coalition together and dish out the stats of people helped by furlough and the so-called "kickstart" scheme when they're criticised. Undercutting this demands a strategy for breaking this base apart. Sadly, there's little sign of this penny dropping yet.

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Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Covid-19, Climate, and War Communism

Yet another excellent interview from the unmissable Politics Theory Other. In this episode, Alex speaks with Andreas Malm about Coronavirus, class, and climate collapse. All the light hearted topics! Here, Andreas argues the reason why lockdowns happened immediately versus the slow burn tardiness of climate change mitigation is because, in the first place, the metropole countries were affected and it was a health crisis the ruling class could not insulate themselves from. I'd certainly agree, but I think he underplays the biopolitical dimension - Western states largely moved before people started voting with their feet and work discipline dissolved. A minor quibble. However, moving on to climate change proper Andreas suggests we need to think of mitigation less in terms of Second World War national efforts and more as so-called War Communism - the emergency measures undertaken following the Russian Revolution to defend Soviet power against counterrevolution and the armies of intervention. In other words, the longer we leave climate change unaddressed the greater the likelihood unprecedented emergency measures will become necessary.

Give it a listen. And don't forget to help Politics Theory Other out via Patreon here.

Sunday, 5 July 2020

The Biopolitics of Herd Immunity

Capitalism is crippled by a crisis that is biopolitical in nature. For once, the contradictions of the system haven't exploded and sent growth rates spiralling southwards. Instead disease - an exogenous shock - attacks the fleshy bodies on which the system depends. No exploitation of labour, no commodities, hence no profits. In the UK, lest we forget, the government were forced into lockdown measures as people voted with their feet. The whip hand of the workplace was disarmed, normal life ground to a halt and the state found itself ministering necessary support for businesses and jobs, and ham-fistedly clamping down on the movement of people. Well, not everyone. Since, they've been chipping away at the lockdown. First, by refusing to insist all non-essential workplaces be closed. The aborted efforts with the schools. The gradual opening of non-essential shops. And now lifting the shutters on pubs and hairdressers before letting the rest of the beauty and hospitality industries resume. The Tories have weighed up the possibility of people contracting, suffering with, and dying from Covid-19 versus getting the wheels of commerce turning again (and their own reading of the politics) and have eased the lockdown further. They want business as usual, and are very happy for others to shoulder the risk.

Taken together then, the Tory effort was at first reluctant, is concerned above all with issues of labour discipline (see the imminent return of benefit sanctions, for example), and is actively massaging the biopolitics away from prioritising the health of bodies toward the health of capital. The latest exhibit in this strategy is the heavily briefed thoughts Rishi Sunak has been having about handing everyone £500. Sounds a bit of alright, doesn't it? When even Thatcherites recognise the importance of putting money into people's pockets, what's not to like? Well, as far as this putative initiative is concerned, plenty.

For starters, it's not filthy lucre. Under the proposed scheme, every adult is to receive a voucher for £500 and children £250, which can be spent in selected outlets - the hospitality industries in all likelihood, but also retailers - and then only face-to-face. Ordering online is ruled out. Having seen similar schemes in Wuhan and Taiwan, might it work here? Well, yes. But you can see the obvious problem. It discriminates against disabled people with mobility problems, others currently shielding thanks to chronic health conditions, and the elderly. They're much less likely to avail themselves of the government's largesse for obvious reasons. Then there are the workers as well. With £500 burning holes in everyone's pockets, not only is social distancing bound to me more difficult to manage, employers are going to pile on the pressure to make sure as many of their staff are on hand as is practicable - forget their concerns about getting stuck inside air conditioned shopping centres, stores, hotels, bars, and leisure facilities, and you can write off the worries about taking infection home. There is money to be made!

The fact this is under active consideration brings our old friend herd immunity back into play. It's all very well saying we can't have lockdown forever, but the sensible view is not to ease off when disease remains in general circulation, has the propensity to mushroom in local flare ups and the small matter of its still killing large numbers. This is where the voucher scheme and other easings off are particularly pernicious: not only do they try and re-establish the normal rhythms of discipline, surveillance, and control by channelling us back into the grooves of work and shopping, but very specifically they are designed to make the reimposition of lockdowns harder. Regardless of what the R rate says, effectively giving people free money and returning them to the shops, the pubs, the salons and the barbers, nudging the population toward something resembling normal life puts pressure on the scope and length of emergency measures where and when they're needed. Clinical need has been put back in its box. Other concerns have taken over. The capitalist normal, the axiom of profit before people, is restored.

As a piece of biopolitical management, it's almost admirable. A masterpiece of biopolitical manipulation, a class act of class politics in which dissenting voices have found themselves entirely crowded out. Not even the official opposition can bring itself to oppose. Which makes it all the more horrifying. At the risk of sounding like a cliche, a second wave is a question of when. Not if.

New Left Media July 2020

It's certainly something of a spring time for new left media at the moment, even if it's summer. I remember there being months when nothing would appear at all - long may this mushrooming of new initiatives continue!

1. Conquest of the Useless (Twitter)

2. Keeping the Lights On

3. Mary Kelly Foy (Twitter)

4. Sheff Socialist (Twitter)

5. The Tartan Socialist

6. Voice Britannia (Twitter)

7. Working Class Academics (Twitter)

If you know of any new(ish) blogs, podcasts, channels, Facebook pages or whatever that haven't featured before then drop me a line via the comments, email, Facebook, or Twitter. Please note I'm looking for blogs etc. that have started within the last 12 months or thereabouts. The new media round up appears hereabouts when there are enough new entrants to justify a post!

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Friday, 3 July 2020

The Weakness of Starmerism

I almost added it as a foot note to the piece about Tory short-termism. Asked about the loosening of lock down measures this weekend and, above all, opening the pubs up again, in line with his stance on schools Keir Starmer supports these too. Speaking to ITV earlier, shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds said the same thing and urged people to go out, spend money and otherwise partake. As Labour's leader isn't driven by a whack-a-mole approach to politics nor has to hold together a declining electoral coalition glued together by nationalist delusion, bloody mindedness, and fear, why is Labour going along with a strategy that, to put it mildly, is borderline sociopathic?

There are two things worth recalling here: one is about the everyday aspect of mainstream politics, and another that reaches into the core of Labourism. All politicians look for an easy life, and the easy life is where (they think) most voters are, and the best indicator of this - from within the point of view of bourgeois politics - is what the press say. After all, they sell papers and so have to reflect the opinion of readers out there otherwise no one would buy them, right? Hence there's never been a time when Tory MPs have worried about a Morning Star editorial. Leaving aside their dwindling circulations, politicians want to inhabit what former Brown aide Mike Jacobs called a 'normal operating sphere' of non-punishment. This normally comes into play for governments, but given Keir's studied statesmanly gait he shares a similar concern. Because Corbyn was bad, he has to be good, and this means over-emphasising conventional notions of electability and game playing. And so accepting Tory plans for schools, for pubs, their whole framing of the coronavirus crisis in fact, means Boris Johnson would be hard-pressed to lump Labour in with "the ditherers", therefore shutting down one line of attack that might resonate with the Tory faithful and their new periphery of Brexity vote-lenders. This in turn means Keir can play politics to his strengths, which is contrasting his shovel-ready leadership qualities versus the bumbling incompetence of Johnson.

The second? The tension in Labourism between what is and what might be. Having its origins in a historic alliance between a movement fighting for incremental workplace improvements and privileged professional layers, Labourism was born for the compromises, Byzantine procedures, and plodding constitutionalism of the House of Commons. To channel jolly old Lenin, if trade unionism is the bourgeois politics of the working class, i.e. seeking improvement for their lot within the confines of capitalism, Labourism is its expression writ large. Yet our class, broadly defined as everyone who has to sell their labour power in return for a wage, has a trajectory that tends to negate capitalism. The right to a decent standard of living, a home, freedom from work, a liveable environment, these are fundamentally at odds with a mode of production for whom the bottom line is the bottom line. Profit is the be-all and end-all. This was the case when Labourism was born, and is even more so now.

In the history of Labourism, the tussle between what is and what might be maps on to the eternal struggle of right versus left. The empiricism of appearance, the institutional weight of trade unionism and Labourist thought, not to mention the considerable rewards of office and the flows of money has seen Labour dominated by a concern to adapt to supporters and would-be supporters as they are, and keep them as they are: atomised workers, and therefore atomised voting fodder. What Corbynism represented was an attempt to break out of this straitjacket, hence it had to be destroyed. Contrary to the bullshit you find peddled everywhere, Labour under Corbyn was about building broad coalitions of voters and meeting them where they are, but with a programme that tried transforming them from objects into subjects. Even the Tories these days like to talk about empowerment, but Corbynism actually attempted it. Corbynism, like its Bennite forebear, was a movement from within Labourism that pushed it to its limits, And from there, perhaps a post-capitalist anywhere?

Starmerism, if we can speak of such a thing, is getting that genie back into the bottle. It does so by ostentatiously - not a word one normally associates with Keir Starmer - gripping Tory framing without contesting it, offering weak sauce managerial criticisms where it can muster a word against the government, stamping on anything one might construe as radical or, shudder, socialist, and evacuating anything resembling hope from the Labour Party's platform - something even Tony Blair recognised the importance of and was keen to cultivate. While it pretends itself pragmatic, it is the most dogmatic form of Labourism. It claims to be oriented to the challenges of the present, but wants to forever impose the past on the politics of the future. Sure, the party is improving in the polls. It might win an election on its present course (we'll see), but going by what Keir says and does all we can look forward is the status quo under more competent management. Therefore anyone thinking what we're seeing now is "caution" so Keir, as the new leader, can get a hearing are kidding themselves. What you see now is what we're getting, assuming he continues to get his own way. Coronavirus plus economic crisis plus Brexit equals a perfect storm for political polarisation, and inevitably demands a response equal to the moment. If Keir Starmer isn't forthcoming then his careful project will come to naught.

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Thursday, 2 July 2020

The Conservative Party and the State

Speeches by leading Tories are ten-a-penny and not worth your time. This rule to live by doesn't always hold, and Michael Gove's latest loquacious offering does repay careful reading. His 'The Privilege of Public Service isn't a paean to civil servants as the government cuts their numbers and drives down their salaries, but something more significant: the Tory view of the state and its role in the decade of post-coronavirus and post-Brexit reconstruction. It is a meditation on Tory statecraft: on what the state is for and what the state should do, and as a contribution to Conservative Party 'theory' it could become a significant milestone. Or is it? Might this, after all, just be an exercise in cloaking the Tories' latest doings in a pseudo-intellectual veneer?

On Monday, Boris Johnson did his big reveal and promised £5bn to get the country moving after lockdown. A paltry offering to be sure, but it is in the context of a (rhetorical) Tory turn to big spending, and one even avowed Thatcherites are signed up to. Gove's contribution is about tying it all together in a new Tory rebadging of what Keynesians might call the activist state. i.e. Using the power to make the law and its spending clout to stimulate the economy.

Let's peel back the mystical shell of obligation and "privilege" festooning the speech and get to the kernel of Gove's contribution. Faced with a huge raft of current and future challenges, he recommends looking not to Attlee (heaven forfend!) but across the sea to the New Deal administration of Franklin D Roosevelt - perhaps because he read a biography, as well as being more politically permissible to the Tory faithful than The Major. For Gove, Roosevelt's example is useful for mainstream politics today because he solved three problems. In the midst of the Depression, his New Deal programme got the gears of social mobility moving again and gave millions of Americans a stake in the everyday life of their nation again. As Gove puts it,
There are too many in our time and our society whose economic interests, and indeed whose values, have been forgotten. In our unequal times we must attend increasingly to those who have suffered from neglect and condescension and to those whose lives have been scarred by racism and prejudice. Our contemporary work of reform must put them first.
Second, by doing this Roosevelt was able to overcome the popular alienation from the state. However, it required more than just putting money in a worker's pocket. Like most Tories, or for that matter most mainstream politicians, the state is a lumbering thing as likely to cause harm as it fixes social ills. Roosevelt's solution, Gove gushes, was the creation of new institutions that proved to be "flexible, adaptive and empirical." If the state is a state of action, if things are seen to be done and are done, then it can restore its authority through its own form of the propaganda of the deed.

Roosevelt's third innovation was the empowerment of reformers. These were, effectively, entrepreneurial state bureaucrats whose "role was not to administer existing machines, or proclaim abstract virtues, but to act – to achieve real and concrete change in the lives of others." Therefore the lessons drawn for today can be summed up as inclusion, adaptability, and action, and therefore this should provide a blueprint (and an ethic) for reforming the state, and for governments to reform themselves. What then do the Tories have in store?

Government needs to prioritise getting things done over and above the analytical, evaluative and presentational: improving lives through the delivery of projects matters most. It therefore follows that government has to be enabling: to provide life-changing improvements or good services, ministers have to think about delivering for those who do make the difference. Second, as a means of reforming itself government has to define what "success" entails. Here Gove defines it in terms of "making citizens flourish", and so the assessment of government programmes has to be more than the bottom line. Reform also means not carrying on with the ceaseless churn in the civil service: not only should more technical and data literate skills be prized, career progression has to be dissociated from movement from one department to the next: the state would work better if it builds up expertise. Or, as Gove puts it, "deep knowledge as the servant of public interest." Nevertheless, the snobbish (nay, class conscious) impulse reveals itself as Gove looks forward to welcoming more people with a technical education into the state's employ - presumably because he, wrongly, thinks they're more likely to be less critical and easier to manage than civil servants with history or anthropology degrees. Lastly, there should be more experimentalism in the state. "The whole culture of Government, and the wider world of political commentary, is hostile to risk, adventure, experimentation and novelty," he opines. He might also be speaking about business.

In Conservatism according to Gove Thought the state is no longer a hindrance but the means for delivering Tory modernisation. And, is that it? While Gove has provided an account of the Tories' governing philosophy, his speech reads like a post facto rationalisation for their extreme short-termism, contempt for due process and accountability, and desire to pursue their hobby horses as they see fit. In this regard, there is a fundamental continuity of statecraft running through all the Prime Ministers, yes, even including those nice gentlemen Mr Blair and Mr Brown, back to Thatcher. Johnson and co have ditched the language of neoliberal economics, but their state order politics remain entirely consistent with it: remodel the state system so the centrality of government is overweening and checks on the executive's remit - other state institutions, watchdog quangos, parliamentary scrutiny and media accountability - are brushed aside by authoritarian, action-oriented government.

This then isn't a break with received Toryism, but a change of emphasis. There is a more hands-on approach to economic management, but that's really all that has changed. Johnson and Gove still have need for their authoritarian state, and the received forms of governance remain unchanged. Indeed, it's quite funny to see Gove moaning about the timidity of public institutions when you consider how thoroughly marketised they are, a transformation of the civil service John Major and later Tony Blair justified in terms of, ironically, unleashing the entrepreneurial talents of state employees.

What is sad though is I can imagine any number of Labour politicians listening to or reading Gove's speech, and finding nothing wrong with it whatsoever. Why shouldn't the state promote economic growth through targeted investment? Why shouldn't the state support a technocratic renovation of the civil service? Why shouldn't the state privilege a "what works" philosophy? What Gove has managed is to distil the behavioural characteristics of the otherwise empty "Johnsonism, and repackage it in a way that would appeal to those who fancy themselves as one-nationists, or technocrats. I'm surprised Andrew Adonis hasn't tweeted his enthusiastic praise. But what this spells out is Gove, Johnson, Cummings, and the rest are interested in empowering the state above all around their objectives. The rest of the settlement we've lived with for decades, the one underpinning political polarisation and rising social dislocations, is staying untouched.

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Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Psychopathy and Short-Termism

Coronavirus has supplied many more reasons for hating the Tories. Their complacency and cack-handedness have cost the unnecessary loss of tens of thousands of people. And their determination to push for the return to school, opening non-essential shops, and allowing pubs to operate is going to cost more lives. Who knew the last election would reveal its character as a life-or-death contest within so short a space of time? Underlining the government's light-minded approach in recent days has been a scandal over data. A scandal that should result in prosecutions when all this is done.

In the flap around the introduction of the first local lockdown in Leicester, it emerged the Tories were, as suspected, not reporting the full infection rate figures. The numbers put out in the public health press releases report the so-called 'pillar one' cases: these are tests processed and confirmed by government labs. These are typically administered in a hospital setting on medical and support staff, and patients with Covid symptoms. The 'pillar two' tests refers to the drive-in stations and at-home tests, which are then processed in private labs. It transpires the government have counted and publicised the pillar one tests, but not the pillar two tests. This matters because, firstly, local authorities have hitherto only been supplied with the pillar one numbers and, second, it presents a woefully distorted picture. Look at the Leicester example. Going by the first lot of testing, you could be forgiven for thinking there is no crisis. Transmission appears low as tests confirming a positive are bumping along with fewer than 10 cases since mid-May. Once you report the pillar two cases, the real rate of infection is surging. Instead of four or five confirmed infections a day in mid June, it actually stood at around 70.

Only so much about the government can be hung on ineptitude. Someone, somewhere, made the decision not to report the pillar two cases to give the impression the threat of coronavirus is lower than it actually is [correction - see comments]. And if they are a bureaucrat somewhere in Public Health England, someone in Number 10 also determined the government can live with the under-reporting of figures. I'm sure you have a good idea who's in the frame. In other words, the government have sold the public a pup. The lockdown has been eased this last month, and the opening of the pubs this weekend are based on a false prospectus. Tens of thousands have died preventable deaths, and tens of thousands more run the risk of a premature end. Just see for yourself how the Treasury are marketing this. Never in the history of this country has the government run such an irresponsible campaign.

This nevertheless raises something of a puzzle. The Tories are caught between the biopolitics and economics of this crisis and, unsurprisingly, are putting the interests of business before the health of the workers. Yet let's think this through for a moment. Whether the Tories care or not, politically their deception and inaction is suicidal. As we know, coronavirus is disproportionately fatal to the old, who happen to be their base on the whole). And advertising your incompetence with an ever widening pool of suffering and grief should mean curtains for the Tories' chances at the next election. Why is Johnson happy to risk lives on a course of action the Tories won't benefit from? How come the Conservatives are determined to test their support to destruction?

Not all answers involve playing chess in 11 dimensions. Parties and politicians make mistakes and misread situations, and this is one of them. Having almost delivered Brexit Johnson knows more generational culture war nonsense, with targeted splashes of cash, is the best way of keeping his declining voter coalition together. As he ostentatiously chafed against the remoaners and the prissy constitutionalists holding Britain back in the parliamentary struggles of late last year, ploughing forward against a new coalition of holder-backers and "ditherers" - teaching unions, Labour politicians, health experts - will get him the plaudits. He thinks. It's a calculated risk. Their hope is deaths and long-term morbidities won't reach a level sufficient to destroy the authority of his government, and the prize is getting the plaudits and props for seeing the country through to the other side of this most seminal of crises. Distinguishing between the doers and the ditherers, as he put it at PMQs on Wednesday, is a diagram of how he intends to shape "the discourse" over the coming years.

The second is the inescapable habitus of Conservative Party statecraft. Short-termism is as Tory as monocles and dishonesty. Dave was the "homework crisis" Prime Minister, a baleful characteristic of complacency that surfaced as early as his amateurish and poorly-managed campaign to become Tory leader, and featured both in his headlines-driven approach to policy making and increasingly risky political gambles for ever-depleting returns. This was also shared by Theresa May: the shape of Brexit and her attempts to get it through the Commons were determined by her desire to keep the Tories together as a going concern, which meant living from vote-to-vote and Commons appearance to Commons appearance. And, naturally, Johnson exhibited exactly the same behaviour. Except his short-termism was driven not by a love for his party, but an infatuation with ambition. Johnson is fond of the whack-a-mole metaphor for his approach to local Covid-19 outbreaks, but it reveals the Prime Minister's governing philosophy. If a problem crops up, clobber it and move to the next. This means reactive government, even if kicking cans down the road means an avalanche of crap comes rebounding back in the future. Johnson and his predecessors are guilty of this flippant and supremely damaging approach to government. Except now, married to a psychopathic political strategy, it means death on a massive scale.

Indeed, there are plenty of reasons to hate the Tories. Boris Johnson is determined to provide us with tens of thousands more.

Five Most Popular Posts in June

Here's what was hot during flaming June as visited by you, the viewer?

1. Stoke's Racist Lord Mayor
2. Do the Tories Fear Keir?
3. What is the Point of a New Left Party?
4. Labour Should Reject Contributory Benefits
5. On Hammering the Left

Aaaand the answer, discounting the miserable existence of Stoke's (now thankfully) ex-Lord Mayor, is ... more critical Keir studies! You know you love it, and as a content provider who am I not to supply the goodies? Coming in behind Potteries racism we have a consideration of whether Keir Starmer is frightening the Tories. And the answer is a mixed one. Then we have another entry into that sub-genre of labour movement writing: why trying to start a new party is a total non-starter. Moving on to a critique of Jonny Reynolds's thinking aloud about contributions-based social security, his advocacy for a two-tier system can only sap support for welfare, which is ironic considering his viewpoint is based on building support for it. And speaking of dumb, the rear is brought up with a reflection on why hammering the left won't reap electoral dividends and might, in fact, end up destroying Labour's new but more conditional base. All indications from this last week shows Keir either does not know or does not give a hoot.

We can expect more of the same in July, unfortunately. I'll try and at least provide entertaining reads about the coming shenanigans. As for the second chance saloon, propping up the bar this month you'll find my piece on Thatcherism and austerity. Or, why are Ayn Rand fans like Sajid Javid are fully on board with Johnson's plans even though his programme, ostensibly, isn't about cutting?

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

What I've Been Reading Recently

It's time to reveal what books I've managed to get through these last few months.

Sex, Gender, and the Conservative Party by Sarah Childs and Paul Webb
Defenders of Ultramar by Graham McNeill
Small Men on the Wrong Side of History by Ed West
The Autobiography by John Major
Nemesis Games by James SA Corey
An Ice Cream War by William Boyd
Will of Iron by George Mann
Revelations by George Mann
Fallen by George Mann
Solar by Ian McEwan
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel
England, Their England by AG Macdonnell

This list shows up the frustrations of lockdown. I remember thinking there would be plenty of time for even more reading when all this started. Three-and-a-half months later and only a fraction of the normal consumption has presented itself to my eyeballs. Book writing only makes up for some of this. I guess waiting around for trains takes up more time than I thought.

Looking at what has been read, I suppose what leaps out are the graphic novels by McNeill and Mann. These four collections are from the Warhammer 40k universe, which was something I was into back in the early 90s and revisited several years ago. Sadly, none of these novels are particularly good: the characterisation is pants, the storylines very A to B, but the star of 40k has been the unremitting grimness of the setting. If anything, these books are exercises in lore building, which I suppose might satisfy the devotee. Moving on from grimdark to grey, John Major's autobiography was very interesting - but that's all I'm going to say about it because the jolly old book talks about him at length and, in particular, his policy contribution to neoliberal governance.

Fingers crossed there will be more books to reflect upon in three months time! Have you been reading anything interesting recently?

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Saturday, 27 June 2020

What is the Point of a New Left Party?

Seeing as Keir Starmer is gearing up for a confrontation with the left following Rebecca Long-Bailey's sacking and despite what's in the best interests of the Labour Party, debate in and outside of the party has started thinking aloud about a new one. This would be a complete waste of time, whether the objective is to replace Labour with a mass socialist party or something modest like a 'left UKIP', an organisation of limited electoral appeal but viable enough to keep Labour from straying too far from left wing policies. As a wise voice points out, "If you spent the TIG years laughing at how they were going to lose their seats because the name recognition lies with Labour and not individual MPs how do you square that with the desire to have left Labour MPs break away now?" Quite. Let's think this through.

Anyone serious about either projects must reckon with history. The old, official Communist Party failed miserably in elections, only getting three MPs elected under its name in its 70-year history and, at most, a couple of hundred councillors. It was able to build significant influence in several trade unions but this withered as trade unionism changed and went into decline. The Independent Labour Party, which disaffiliated from Labour in 1931, had three MPs elected in 1945 and gained another the following year in a by-election, but they were all swept away in 1950. Militant was later to have success in the 1980s with three MPs, but these were only elected because they were Labour candidates. The Scottish Socialist Party had six MSPs elected in 2003 off the back of the anti-war movement, but that was thanks to the list PR system used to elect half of Holyrood's members. In 2007 these gains evaporated. And lastly George Galloway was able to get himself elected in 2005 and in the 2012 Bradford by-election as Respect's sole MP. This is your lot - it's gone from bad to worse since.

A question of the electoral system? Well, yes. But not the whole story. When you look at the left alternatives and formations of the last 25 years, whatever potential they had were hobbled by infighting and sectarianism. The Socialist Labour Party was strangled at birth by Arthur Scargill's failure to, first, reach an accommodation with Militant Labour (as the Socialist Party then called itself) to break the mould of sectarian politics, and then a subsequent witch hunt against anyone not to his liking. The Socialist Alliance was destroyed by the little Lenin syndrome of each of its two main participants, as was the case with Respect and latterly, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. This was forbidden from developing any life of its own by its principal sponsor, the SP. Indeed, the two largest Trotskyist organisations on the British left have undergone profound crises of their own - the SWP has its grotesque culture of leader worship to blame, one which saw it embroiled in covering up rape and sexual assault. And the Socialist Party preferred implosion to an honest accounting of, to everyone else, its obvious fallibility. Left Unity, an attempt to cobble something together in the early years of the decade sans the SP and SWP failed thanks to the double whammy of unseriousness and playground trottery. Last of all, the Scottish Socialist Party ekes out an existence doing nothing in particular - Tommy Sheridan's bitter legacy continues to cast its shadow.

Because these failed doesn't mean new initiatives are predetermined to follow their path, right? The issue all these organisations share was a failure to build a mass base. The CPGB, SSP, and Respect were able to acquire some aspects of one but this did not reproduce itself as a stable constituency, nor were these organisations sufficiently rooted to the point where they could shape their base. Leadership matters, of course, but the propensity for sectarian and unaccountable petty elites to emerge grows the more insulated they are from wider struggles. Take the British far left as a case in point: the bulk of their activism is not around workplace struggles, campaigns or what not, but the reproduction of their organisations themselves through petitions and paper sales - which tends to reinforce their distance from the class they aspire to lead as opposed to merging with it. This makes building a sustainable base difficult because this work is always prioritised. If they want to begin breaking out of this ghetto, a fundamental rethink and reorientation of their politics is required - something the far left as a collective have avoided since the CPGB's foundation.

Then we have competitors. I don't believe Keir Starmer or his people understand the composition of Labour's base, its dynamics and movements, nor its trajectory. The Labour Together report doesn't change that, despite the diplomatic nice words said in its direction by the leader's office. As Keir pivots to the right and the base starts fraying, there's an opportunity to intersect with activists and voters left high and dry. Indeed, and the Greens and Liberal Democrats (if they have any sense) are well-placed to scoop them up. They have activists, a proven (modest) record of electoral success, and are superficially attuned to the concerns of a chunk of Labour's new core vote. The SNP shows what happens when Labour loses sight of where its base is. How can a new left party that doesn't even exist and enjoys zero name recognition offer credible answers and be considered a good punt for the extra-Labour curious? Look at the state of the latest new left party, George Galloway's Workers' Party. Consciously a "patriotic" party that attempts to combine Brexity nationalism with Putin apologetics, and an undisguised (and unironic) admiration for Joe Stalin and all his works, it makes you wonder who it could possibly appeal to - apart from aged tankies nostalgic for the time before. It's embarrassing, frankly.

Let's park these issues to one side and consider the strongest argument from history in favour of a new workers/new left party: first past the post has locked all small parties out of parliamentary representation, but this was the case when Labour was founded. And yet Labour came to replace the Liberals as an electorally viable party of government in spite of the high bar of entry. True, true. But how did this happen? It involved alliances of convenience with the Liberals in certain seats and, oh yes, the small matter of a rising labour movement locked out of mainstream political representation. In the 2020s the situation is completely different. Trade unions aren't barred from political entry - most of them are satisfied (at the moment) with Keir Starmer nor is there much grumbling among the now growing membership about him. And besides, the contemporary work force is highly individuated: true, we have a rising cohort of the new working class, but their institutional expression was found in Corbynism. With its dissolution, its attachment to Labour is much more conditional. Good news for a new party, then? Well, no. Because it is more diffuse and harder to organise, even with the coronavirus crisis set on polarising the UK's political economy further. Its less conscious and confident sections are more likely to lapse into despondency and abstention than get angry and organised. We saw it happen last December, and it can happen again. In short, the conditions for a new party for the replacement of Labour are simply not there.

How about a left UKIP instead, effectively an electoral pressure group for socialism? Assuming it manages to avoid all the pitfalls outlined above, how does it move from a standing start to something that makes for sweaty palms in the leader's office? It's difficult to see how. UKIP's success tapped into a consolidating (but declining cohort) of voters largely organised by the hard right press, and tapped into widespread cultural currents of racism, Empire nostalgia, and British exceptionalism. Every five years it also had a set of elections it could easily dominate as a repository of protest voting. Its threat pushed Dave and the Tories to promise the referendum and, well, here we are. What opportunities are available for a left alternative to make a nuisance of itself? Local council by-elections? Elections for the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and London? Favourable press coverage? Considering the extra-Labour left's record of strategic ineptitude when it's not busy fighting among itself, the chances of navigating choppier political waters and reaching the golden isle range from nil to Davey Jones's locker.

Last of all, what is a new party for? You can look at the existing Labour left and answer this question easily: pushing socialist policies, building an infrastructure for political education and empowerment, drawing more people into politics, holding Labour's leadership to account. Success isn't guaranteed and it's never a bed of roses, but it exists, has a mass influence, and tens of thousands of activists. It's a serious endeavour and one that could retake control of Labour's National Executive Committee this summer. Some might think it's a waste of time, the right have won the leadership so why bother, but being part of this movement doesn't preclude doing things outside the party. Nothing is stopping anyone giving up dull party meetings and getting stuck into workplace or community activism, for example, and many thousands are going to do just that. It is not the be-all and end-all. Compared to this, what might a new party have to offer? Judging by snippets of conversation here and the odd polemic there, those arguing for one desire a space of the like-minded where they aren't sabotaged by their own side and feel it would be a better use of their time. That's fair enough, but let's not kid ourselves here. This is a project for building a social club or, at best, a sect no different from everything that has gone before.

If people want to leave Labour, fine. It's up to them. It is nevertheless better if comrades stay, even if, for totally understandable reasons, they choose not to actively participate and concentrate their energies elsewhere. This is simply a basic fact of the political situation we find ourselves in, this is our reality. A new party at best is an irrelevance, and at worst a means for disorganising the left further.