Monday, 12 October 2015

Corbymania and Momentum

Not being totally on the ball, I missed last week's announcement that supporters of Jeremy's successful leadership bid had declared their own organisation: Momentum. And now I'm over my curmudgeonly curmudgeonness, I'm going to take this opportunity to welcome it as a good thing.

It can go some way to addressing the "problem" of the Corbyn surge. This isn't a problem in terms of numbers, or that plenty of MPs are worried they may face deselection (IMO, reselection should be a matter of course), but one of harnessing the new found enthusiasm and integrating the masses of new members into the party. Both could prove difficult because a lot of the new intake appear to either be very raw, or are so-called 'values voters' turned active. i.e. Political commitment is an expression of individual values and personality traits, hence Labour has "come to them" rather than the other way round. That in mind, the trusty old structures of the party might not be the best way of retaining and training these new comrades.

From what I can tell, Corbynmania possessed the properties of a craze rather than a social movement. That's not a value judgement but rather an appreciation of the type of collective behaviour it initially manifested as. Allow me to explain. Huge numbers of people were responding as individuals (heavily mediated by social media) to Jeremy's campaign. This is qualitatively different from, say, the hard work Anna Turley and the local party are putting in in Redcar yielding thousands of new recruits galvanised by the SSI closure, the government's refusal to do anything, and the campaign against. The latter is, forgive the ghastly phrase, 'immediately immediate' while the former has a certain dislocated character that appeared immediate thanks to the collapse in distance social media, and Twitter in particular, can simulate. As I've written before in a totally different context, that doesn't mean the feeling and commitment it inspires is inauthentic or hollow, but it does pose difficulties when translating that into real world action. Let's be frank, monthly CLP and ward branch meetings are hardly the best showcase for the party. You turn up wanting to change the world and debate policies, and instead all you get is hairsplitting about last month's minutes and points of order.

Momentum, which presents as an open movement working to "organise in every town, city and village ... to encourage mass mobilisation for a more democratic, equal and decent society" appears well suited to capturing and steering the tens of thousands of new members. It can sort meetings and arrange campaign activity without the (IMO necessary) tedium properly constituted meetings of the party sometimes entails. It can sidestep the logjams of party cliques ensconced in local apparatuses, or the recalcitrance of MPs and their offices to campaign regularly and/or take a lead in organising voter registration, or campaign officers who can't be arsed. And most importantly it can organise on cross-constituency bases by intervening in or starting community/workplace campaigns outside of the electorally focused work of the party's established Local Campaign Forums. In short, it presents as a free flowing, fluidic organisation of networks of activists that are characteristic of mobilisations in the internet age. Corbynmania started as a craze but went on to become something else. And as sociologists of collective action will tell you, it's what toppled Arab dictators too.

Understandably, not everyone is cock-a-hoop about Momentum. The proposal to "make Labour a more democratic party, with the policies and collective will to implement them in government" have led some to attack it for factionalising (a crime the Labour right are definitely not guilty of what with their networks of cliques, think tanks, and open factions). Apart from the hysteria, there are signs sober thinking is starting to prevail. Richard Angell of Progress has dispensed some friendly(ish) advice, and Labour First have finally come out semi-openly. If the Labour right want to claw back lost ground, the way isn't the fixes and dirty tricks of old - as outlined in John Golding's compulsive The Hammer of the Left - not least because they're open to easy exposure, but by the good old method of out-campaigning, out-recruiting, and out-arguing. The right have got to get persuasive otherwise it will never win the hearts and minds it needs to.

Nevertheless, all party members should welcome Momentum, and even sell-out husks like me should get involved where possible. I want to see a strong Labour Party and string labour movement. That can be helped by Momentum serving as a bridge that integrates new members slowly into the party, habituates them to working with others who they may otherwise disagree with while fulfilling immediate campaign objectives. And who knows? The new arrivals might teach the old guard a trick or two as well.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

David & George

Returning to the carcasses of the Prime Minister's and Chancellor's speeches at Conservative Party conference, there's a juicy piece of carrion left no one else picked at.

As I've argued previously, the tradition these days is to read the chancellor's and leader's speeches as two parts of a piece. The former sets out the economic fiddlys and route to boom-time Britain, and the latter does the feels: the vision, the philosophy, the kind of society government is set on bringing into being. And so it was last week that we had sections of the commentariat embarrassing themselves with cringing enthusiasm as Dave's warm words erased the suffering of the poor and the vulnerable, as well as the kicking-to-come when cuts to working tax credits arrive. Dave and Osborne said nice centrist things, and were duly praised for uttering nice centrist things. Nearly everyone, myself included, saw it as a land grab for the ever-problematic notion of the centre ground. This was a not-so-subtle gambit aimed at boxing Labour into a hard left corner. Time will tell whether the rhetoric washes.

Something else is going on too. Dave's only got four-and-a-half years left in the job and the jostling is getting louder. Will it be George? Or can Theresa, Boris, Sajid, or Nicky take the crown? We know who the PM would prefer, but as late as last Spring Osborne was trailing in a miserable fifth place. Yes, at that stage even Liam Fox seemed a better proposition to Tory activists than the chancellor. What a difference an election can make. By June Osborne was up two, at three. And now? He's enjoyed top dog status three months running and has a 15-point lead over his nearest rival.

Osborne always has an eye to positioning vis a vis Labour, and his leadership rivals. In this regard, the speech was also about consolidating his position as Dave's heir apparent. It showed a willingness to reach out with a message non-Tory voters might find attractive. This is in marked contrast to the incoherent babble Johnson wrestled with on the podium, the UKIPification of May, and the austere brutalism of Javid. The latter two especially, who are the main threats to the succession, were so completely at odds with the main message of conference that you could be forgiven for thinking they were set up. At times sounding like she was singing from Britain First's hymn sheet, May harked back to the nasty party image she conjured up in a much earlier, celebrated speech. If anything, had Dave and Osborne not made 'nice' speeches there would have been some, not a significant amount, but some, who'd have let their membership lapse. And as for Javid with his Mekon-like redolence, he cuts a figure less sympathetic than the Dan Dare's Venusian nemesis. He could have delivered a speech with kittens springing from every paragraph and still looked utterly inhuman.

Using their control of the party, Dave and Osborne are riffing off each other. They're repositioning the Tories as the workers' party to knock the sharp corners off and boost its electoral appeal. They could do it. More importantly for not-so-gorgeous George, if he's the one seen to be the (joint) architect and the detoxification is (moderately) successful, he's by far the best placed to inherit the party. And that is exactly what will happen, unless event have other ideas.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Talmit's Adventure for the MegaDrive/Genesis

Despite the sophistry grown up around them, Marx's dialectics are quite simple to grasp. The starting point is everything is interconnected, everything is in tension, and everything is undergoing change. Talmit's Adventure (inexplicably changed from Marvel Land, as it was known in the rest of the world) is a digital artifact summing up the 'interpenetration of opposites' aspect of dialectics. i.e. The fusion of contradictory but mutually interdependent and constitutive aspects of a given whole. How so?

Talmit's Adventure is a lovely game. You are Prince Talmit and you must defeat the evil King Mole. The fairground gaiety of Marvel Land groans under the weight of his insidious occupation. And to compound the problem, Princess Wondra has been half-inched along with the fairies who'd protected the kingdom up until now. Some protection they turned out to be. Okay, the usual cliched rubbish of boy rescuing girl (in this case, girls) from the clutches of a maniacal bad 'un. Forget this nonsense, the art style of this game is luscious. Being a cutesy Japanese platform, as you might expect it takes more than a few character tips from manga and anime. Talmit is a big haired big eyed cutie-boy ... with green ears and an emerald tail. Okay. At the beginning of each level/life he gives you a little wave, and also expires in two entertaining animations - cartwheeling in the air with arms and legs akimbo; and - when falling into the water - Talmit splashes around before he's pulled under. If anime did public information films ...

What these successfully do is endear you to the character as you make your way through theme park after theme park level of bright colours, imaginative baddies (a flowering Venus fly trap in a bikini?) and neat graphical tricks. For a 1990 MegaDrive game, one does not expect fancy rotation tricks but they're there. There's a good deal of variety as well. Who also expected to see chocolate eclairs double up as platforms? Speaking of which, platforming is broken up by roller coaster rides and the obligatory end-of-level confrontation with a big bad. Though on this occasion, Namco decided to forego tradition and replace battles with mini games. The first has you playing paper, rock, and scissors, the second a weird button-mashing game, the third a game of cards, and finally a spell of whack-a-mole: appropriate considering the species of the villain. There's also a nice bonus round where you catch falling stars against the backdrop of carnival floats themed around Namco classics. Pac-Man, Mappy, they're all there - a company quirk they still like playing with. The levels are designed well and there are some very interesting ideas in here. Talmit's main power up, for example, is a whip attack that shows up as a string of clones that follow him around. This can only be utilised a certain number of times, but handily the range gets shorter and the doppelgangers fewer in number before it goes away completely. The music also goes with proceedings. Apart from the castle levels leading up to the boss confrontation where the tone goes a touch sombre (a la Super Mario Bros), bouncy tunes are the order of the day. Bouncy and irritating. While they do suit the game, they loop only after 20 seconds or so. Tedium.

And then there's the opposite that makes the lovely possible: the gameplay. As platforming goes, it's not terribly original. What the lovely, cutesy visuals hide is a hard-as-nails game. I would perhaps go so far to say it can be quite cheap at times as well. The first problem is controlling Talmit when he jumps. Unlike Mario and Sonic, there's something off about making accurate jumps, particularly if you have to fall a long way. More times than I can remember have I seen our lovable prince slip beneath the waves because the momentum was out. Compounding this problem is the demand for pinpoint accuracy when you boff an enemy. This requires landing on top of them, but the hit box is very narrow - perhaps a couple of pixels wide. You have to be dead on, otherwise - as the one-hit rule applies - you'll be dead. The levels contain some simple puzzles but, occasionally, utterly fiendish platform and enemy placement. The aforementioned roller coaster levels can be quite tricky getting used to, especially if you dare to jump - mastering the momentum mechanics is tricky and will cost life after life. The end-of-level encounters can be quite irritating, especially as the paper, rock, and scissors of the first boss appears to be entirely random and has little in the way of player input. Lose here and you're sent back to the start of the level. And as the levels go by the frustration does ramp up. All the gameplay problems abound in the last two acts of the game. Whack-a-mole with Kin Mole is a peace of cake. The actual proper boss battle is definitely not. His lightning bolt throwing doesn't seem to have much of a pattern, and it's quite easy to lose loads of lives. Dispatch him and Talmit has to flee the mole hill hideout with Wondra in tow. It means running through a level of collapsing platforms and falling stalactites, before hopping on a final roller coaster ride. In a lovely gesture by the programmers, die here and it's game over - regardless of the number of lives you have remaining.

There we have it. A true contradiction, a fusion of polar opposites: a brutalising experience prettified by an anime sensibility. It's the video game equivalent of an iron fist in a velvet glove. You think you're about to be tickled with a feather - instead you're flattened by an anvil.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Ideology in The Great British Bake Off

It caters for all tastes. The smells appeal to some and turn others off. It can and is served up overcooked and underdone. What's baking in the oven? Ideology. In a Britain-shaped tin.

For the first time last night, the residents of Chateau BC turned the dial to BBC One for the grand final of The Great British Bake Off, a phenomenon that's less a popular TV programme and more a cult for the 13.4m people who watched it. Having studiously avoided it, as a (former) non-watcher GBBO is impossible to escape. The show plays a fantastic Twitter game, the press are obsessed, and the News at Ten and Newsnight both featured the victorious Nadiya Hussain on their roster of the day's newsworthy, um, news.

Once we had it on, I couldn't help but be drawn in. Like the Sidebar of Shame, but without the foul aftertaste, watching the contestants hurrying hither, scurrying thither as they produced the most sumptuous food porn imaginable was compulsive. You couldn't taste the layered pastries or the cornucopia of cake, but it was almost as good. The camera work was every bit as explicit as the infamous M&S adverts of old. This was filth for foodies. But like all good game shows, for that is what GBBO is; tension and drama is the hook. The fun is rooting for your favourite and investing their travails with your hopes (and everyone was backing Nadiya, right?). So before we take the cake knife to the show, the first rule to peeling back the sugary layers of ideology is to note that above all GBBO works because it's entertaining.

Of course, entertaining itself is a loaded term. What we consider entertainment is fully loaded with cultural codes of acceptability/unacceptability and, of course, has a history. The experience of being entertained is underpinned by what the PoMos used to call intertextuality. To get a text, in this case a beloved TV programme, it demands the reader/viewer has a familiarity with genre, the cultural codes the show draws on, and something of the wider zeitgeist - fashionable structures of feeling and popular cultural practices currently enjoying wide affirmation and participation.

Let's lose the cultural studies babble. There are two important matters GBBO addresses. One almost banal and done-to-death, and the other less so. For right wingers, Bake Off was a manifestation of the dreaded PC culture. Even Ian the LibDem was treated like a human being, for crying out loud. This is socialist propaganda through the medium of chocolatey noms, a meringue-tipped missile threatening the last bigoted redoubts with tolerance and respect. How awful. And what really riles the right is the show's appropriation of the quintessentially English garden fete. The marquee is redolent of tombola, brick-a-brak sales, Hoopla with the vicar, and definitely no non-white people. Of course, Bake Off isn't cooking up full communism or anything of the sort. It articulates the contemporary sense of Britishness, a multinational identity that tries to include everyone who identifies as British, regardless of their background. It's pointless to speculate whether the inclusivity of GBBO is intentional. The point is that it reflects the experiences of increasing numbers of people. Hence why the unreconstructed xenophobic right hate it. It's less a statement of intent than a representation of what really is. Seeing a Muslim woman win by out-Englishing "proper" English people over 10 weeks rubs them up the wrong way. It reminds them that they've already lost.

The second key GBBO prop is that structure of feeling that, want for a better phrase, you might call 'cupcake conformity'. Back when I was a horny handed son of toil doing working in a factory, we had a peculiar tradition of birthday boys/girls bringing in cakes on their special day (shatloads of doughnuts when it was my turn, if you must know). It was a nice gesture of sharing that helped bring the twilight shift a ripple of harmony inbetween the effing and blinding, the bitching, and fallings outs. Fast forward, the provision of cake - usually of the cuppy kind - at managerial meetings/large gatherings is so ubiquitous that HR manuals surely must contain chapters on confectionery provision. It knocks the sharp corners off bad news. Discussing the possibility of redundancies and/or increased workloads seem less worse if the meeting papers are accompanied by a plate of fairy cakes. Food, of course, is often an accomplice of sociability. By giving cake, we can pretend the power structures that rule our lives at work are as fluffy as the delicious sponge. The employer/employee relation, an inequitable and exploitative fact of life for all capitalist societies, tastes much sweeter wrapped in a paper case. The better the cake, the duller the pain.

With its ubiquity in the workplace, it's little wonder we're living in the age of the March of the Cake. Going through a break up? Have some cake. Bricking it before the interview? Have some cake. Depressed? Have some cake. It's not just that human beings are sugar-loving beasties (which we generally are). The cake has moved from just being a treat to a therapeutic treatment. Huxley's Brave New World had soma, we've got chocolate gateaux. And because cake's ubiquitous, it would be shocking had GBBO never taken off.

GBBO works because it marries genuinely entertaining drama and suspense to a sense of inclusiveness, of reflecting and promoting British unity around a cake tray of goodies.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Dave's Speech: It's Just Words

Some journalists are incredibly gullible. On the basis of his rhetoric, Dan Hodges tweeted "Could someone on the Left tell me which part of David Cameron's speech I'm meant to disagree with." How about Dave's outright porkie concerning Jeremy Corbyn's comments on the assassination of Osama Bin Laden? Seeing as Dan's less a journo and more a well remunerated "opinion former", what does a proper one think? Jane Merrick of the Indy on Sunday writes "Labour's gigantic problem: why did I, from a Liverpool comp, who voted for Blair & never voted Tory, agree nearly every word of PM's speech?" Seduced by words, it's never occurred to Jane that what the Tories say might be quite different from what they do.

And that's what Dave's speech was. It's just words and positioning. As I've said previously, the established tradition is to take the chancellor (and shadow) and the leader (and the opposition leader) speeches as a piece. They complement each other. Though, this year, the two leading figures in the two leading parties had different priorities. John McDonnell's speech was outward facing and signalled his intent to contest Osborne's ill-deserved reputation for economic competency directly. Jeremy Corbyn's, however, defined himself and consolidated the position of the new leadership. The audience was primarily the movement and core/swing "values" voters.

Osborne's and Dave's were outward facing, they wanted the so-called centre ground which, they believe, has now been evacuated by Labour. With most of the media on side, they know they can get away with stealing New Labourish language around inclusion and social liberalism while carrying on cutting, carrying on privatising, carrying on undermining the security of everyday life. They're unaccountable and untouchable.

This is no accident. It plays to the enclosed sniffing grounds our indefatigable news hounds inhabit. Just because those bearing the brunt aren't nice middle class journalists allows one to suppose that Dave has gone all nice, that the Tories are no longer nasty, that compassionate Conservatism is back. No, all it means is the Tories are taking care to choose their victims. They're ensuring those who pay for the next five years of Tory government are those people these self-same journos will never give a shit about.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Britain First and Cynicism

A documentary about Britain's First virtual fascist group, Britain First? Why ever not. With UKIP commanding four million votes at the general election, the press stuffed with xenophobic bullshit as per, and the woman who would lead the Tories pitching herself as Nigel Farage's successor, a little package shedding light on a tiny and utterly marginal fascist group isn't likely to create much harm.

My bad. Of course, Britain First aren't a fascist group. Nor are they racist. As deputy fuhrer Jayda Fransen put it in We Want Our Country Back, the final programme in BBC Three's 'Race' season, BF welcome all British people regardless of race, gender, sexuality, and religion. So BF are fine with Sikhs and Hindus, for example, because they "properly integrate". Muslims, however, are different. They "refuse to integrate". If that was the case, she muses, "there would be no predominantly Muslim areas." With such a penetrating insight, I wonder what she would make of other migrant groups, such as Afro-Caribbeans, the Jews, the Irish, East Europeans, and the English abroad who so or have congregated in the same residential districts. It's also pure coincidence that the target of their hate are overwhelmingly non-white as well.

And so the justification of Britain First's organisation is based on a stupidity so incomprehensible that it can only make sense if it was a cynical lie. And that's the striking thing about the documentary. Much of what Fransen and her boss, former Nick Griffin lickspittle and BNP'er presser Paul Golding have to say is of the same piece. Are the pair of them as gormless and vacuous as they portray themselves, or does a cynicism suffuse their politics deeper than even the most soulless Westminster operators?

This documentary had a few exhibits. Driving around Luton picking fights with young Muslim guys for footage. Putting out leaflets making the - demonstrably false - claim that halal products are subject to zakat donations to jihadis. And, of course, over-inflating numbers on demonstrations. The crosses, the professed Christianity, the pretensions of non-violence, none of it rang true. These weren't the actions of zealots blinded by a set of twisted ideas, but people using these ideas, preying on the committed and the befuddled, and basically poncing a living off their "movement". Britain First is never likely to get anywhere, but for Fransen and Golding it beats working for a living. And they get to parade around like Z listers for those attracted to such things.

That doesn't mean BF should be ignored. Their mobilisations - such as their upcoming demo in Burton-upon-Trent on the 17th of this month - should be faced down. Their pop up paper stalls challenged. Their Facebook idiocies attacked. It gives them attention, which ultimately the frightful fuhrers need to keep the cash till a-chinging, but better that than complacency.

Sex Diaries: Gigolos

The selling of sex isn't usually regarded the stuff of light-hearted film making. That is, unless, it's men doing the selling. To women. And this was the topic of last night's Sex Diaries, a series of pieces by Charlie Russell exploring what you might call the margins of the popular sexual imagination (last week he looked at couples who bonk on webcam). On this occasion, Charlie was concerned with tracking down self-declared gigolos who advertised their services on particular internet sites. He managed to find three of them who were happy to speak on camera.

Up first was Ian (pictured), a 51 year old bloke from Eastbourne. He had had some success with women and was proud that he offered a 'luxury boyfriend experience'. A date with Ian typically begins with flowers or chocolates and then to dinner and drink. Often times the venue for the encounters are at his home, so he cooks the meals himself and is able to entertain his client in a homely, welcoming space as opposed to the anonymity of the hotel room. At £80/hour the service doesn't come cheaply, and Ian said it always ends in a sexual encounter. He was keen to stress this was very different to a walk-in walk-out date, which is tacky. As the programme wears on, he tells us the work has somewhat dried up, but it was never a career for him. He maintains it's not about the money but rather an occasion to connect with people. It's a hobby, basically.

Our other two gigolos are somewhat different. Joe from Normanton in Yorkshire decided to give it a go after losing his job. His motivation, again, was neither monetary or sexual but was, apparently, about having "different experiences". As we met him for the first time he hadn't had any luck, though one woman had offered to cook him a meal. On our second visit he was having a bit more success, but this was from men. He'd been asked to go dogging, and another had requested him come round his to do cleaning in a pinnie and bow tie. As a straight guy he wasn't keen on meeting this particular section of the market, but admitted he would be prepared to offer some sort of non-sexual service to gay men - such as a massage. Apart from this, Joe was establishing himself as a personal trainer and was open about his escorting "job" to these clients. Alas, in the end, his adventure in the sex industry saw him make a few hundred quid from mucky phone calls to other men and called it a day.

Our other victim was Ivo, a Latvian escort working in London. In stark contrast to Joe, he was making £800/week at an average of one booking a day. Musing on his circumstances, he said "Which guy wouldn't enjoy this job?". However, as it took off - he'd begun taking appointments from men as well - the fun aspect disappeared as he was run ragged by a growing list of clients. It was also eating into his training. Ivo was a martial artist and regular prize fighter, so by the end of it he was looking exhausted and unsure of what was going to happen next.

So much for the provider of services, but what about the client? Charlie had a very difficult time tracking down a woman willing to speak about her experiences. He turned up Laura, who was an escort herself. She paid £200 for two hours and deliberately set out to discover what it'd be like to receive a boyfriend experience. She enjoyed it, nor did she feel as though she had cheapened herself by paying for it.

What to make of it all? Of course, it highlights some of the gendered sexual hypocrisies we're very well aware of. At worst these men were portrayed as a bit lonely (all three lived alone at the time of filming), at best a little bit fruity and adventurous. Female escorts would get no such treatment in a documentary of this character. They might alternatively be women to be pitied, or objects to be reviled - especially had they followed Ivo in saying they enjoyed their work. Where I thought it really fell down, just like the week previous, was a lack of narrative. It didn't work as voyeurism as sex and the gigolo were strictly separated. The nearest we got was an unnamed woman asking Charlie for a bit of intimate footsie under the dinner table. Nor did it work as a morality tale a la Louis Theroux. We just got snippets of the participants' lives in their own words that left them banal, rather than exotic. Perhaps I've got it wrong and that was the point.

Monday, 5 October 2015

George Osborne's Stalinist Move

Is the loss of Lord Adonis from the Labour side of the Lords really a coup for George Osborne? Not really. A tsunami failed to erupt from the impact point in the cross benches, sweeping away the shiny new works of our equally shiny new leadership. The political damage is limited because he's not terribly well-known even among Labour members, let alone the electorate. And because, as a peer, he is fundamentally unaccountable. Besides, Adonis has form for trading in party memberships; and he's more a technocrat than a politician. This is a man who likes to do things, so had Osborne made the offer to head up his new infrastructure super-quango, I would have been very surprised had Adonis refused.

What is interesting, however, is the shift Osborne has made. Remember, the Tories didn't win the election from the centre. It was won from the right. Scaremongering about the SNP and nuclear disarmament, and foreign workers and social security recipients won them their undeserved majority. Matters weren't helped by the incoherence of Labour's alternative, but we'll leave that alone for now. However, the Tories were elected on the basis of an unworkable programme. In the panic less than a month from polling day, they trailed £28bn of unfunded spending pledges, as well as pledging to leave working tax credits well alone. Simultaneously, theirs was a policy platform counter-productive to the interests of British business as a whole, and therefore inimical to their own long-term interests as a party. Instead, we had a peculiar determination of economics by politics as the machinery of state pursued policies inimical to British capitalism - such as visa restrictions on foreign students studying in the UK, the EU referendum pledge, and, of course, continued austerity - so long as the immediate electoral interests of the Tory party were served. Osborne's speech, however, is a marked turn away from this. There's still the benefit bashing and privatisation mania you would expect, but under it all something else is stirring.

Historians of Soviet Russia know that in Stalin's rise to power, he offed Trotsky and the Left Opposition by playing to the centre and the right, criticising the Trotskyists' plans to reign in the market, the rich peasants, and bureaucrats grown fat off the back of both, and their plans to rapidly industrialise the USSR. When that was done and dusted, Stalin changed tack and attacked the marketeers, the kulaks, and those - like Bukharin - who favoured some private enterprise in the economy. And to boot the industrial plan was nicked as well, thought without the Trotskyists' insistence on worker management. Osborne is no Stalin. He lacks his cunning, for starters. However, the Tories have performed a similar move. Peddle nonsense and fear that Ed Miliband's concerns about inequality and advocacy of a proper industrial plan were 1930s retro communism replete with tractor production figures and an Outer Hebridean gulag before the election. And afterwards, start appropriating the plan as well as the rhetoric. Hence we have Michael "The Red" Gove attacking the undeserving rich. "Brother" Robert Halfon seeking to organise the workers, and now the comrade chancellor announcing the use of pension funds in infrastructure projects (on top of the Adonis vehicle) and a pledge to make the 'Northern Powerhouse' something more than meaningless waffle. It's all power to the councils too, as local authorities can look forward to more autonomy - albeit at the price of further huge cuts to the local government grant as the majority of councils are forced to get by more and more on the thin gruel of business rates and council tax.

Nevertheless, it was a good speech. Not in terms of its political content. Osborne's switch still means working people and those getting by with the support of public services are in for another kicking. There was plenty of praise for the worker of Tory myth, but nothing for workers losing their jobs in Redcar - you know, real, breathing workers doing tough industrial jobs. Yet, as a piece of positioning, it is a grab for the centre - a consummation of a 'win from the right but govern from the centre' strategy to prepare Osborne's graduation to Number 10. Looked at askance, as most people tend to do, this is superficially a programme for folk who are doing okay. It was about reassuring those frightened into voting Tory that all is safe and well. Them at the margins are the ones who we're going to sort out, not you, not the decent people who do the decent thing. Who on the face of it can disagree with the infrastructure announcement? More local autonomy? More money for people in work? The fly in Osborne's economic ointment has 'tax credits' written all over it. People might agree that social security shouldn't subsidise low pay - another half-inched Milibandism - but most would be queasy seeing millions of low paid workers lose out with scant compensation from the increased minimum wage and higher tax threshold. When even The Sun are having a go, events might throw Osborne's careful political balance out of kilter. The second bit is direction of travel. We know where the Tories are going - they want to build things (the phrase, "we are the builders" appeared no less than several thousand times and, again, borrowing from Stalin, Labour are "the wreckers") and turn Britain into a Germany/Scandinavia with high wages, but without the high taxes. Overall, what Osborne has outlined today is a plan that is nowhere near as counterproductive as their previous orientation.

Interestingly, Osborne's speech is similar to his opposite number's, last week. Both outlined plans for Britain. Both emphasised fiscal responsibility. And, fundamentally, both were aimed for wider audiences. Osborne's to assure that the Tories are no longer nasty. McDonnell's to assure that full communism is not among his plans. The problem is that the chancellor's speech shows he's quite clear that the unwarranted reputation the Tories have for economic competence is something he intends to keep hold of. Taking that back and convincing those who find Osborne's comments plausible and believable is going to be a tough task.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Jeers and Loathing in Manchester

If war is politics by other, more violent means; then surely politics is war via the demonstration, the megaphone, the occupation, the ballot box, and occasional argy-bargy between rival parties and factions. Hence politics and violence go hand in hand. It has become institutionalised and routinised in Western liberal democracies, but the association - as much as our (establishment) culture pretends otherwise - is there and can bubble its way to the surface. Yet it is sporadic and comes in two directions. There are individuals and/or political groups looking for rucks on demonstrations, or have targeted someone or, as is more often the case, some thing for violent direct action. And then there is the planned violence dished out by the police and their agents provocateurs. The former is rare and is pushed by those at the margins. The latter is more common, but is no less political than the anarchist who trashes a shopfront window. Yet we know that one form of political violence receives kids glove coverage, while the other is blown out of all proportion by headline writers and news bulletins.

This brings us to the events unfolding on Twitter this afternoon as Tory tweeters went into overdrive/meltdown over the spitting at and intimidation of journalists and egging of conference goers. While nothing compared to the student protests of five years back, it's all very stupid. Gobbing at and intimidating HuffPo and Telegraph journalists, and snarking at them the revolutionary armchair with imbecilities such as this is so utterly idiotic you almost don't know where to begin. They weren't the only ones. Kevin Maguire got some flak for his well-known Tory politics, and Michael Crick copped a wodge of gob too. In these circumstances, only one word will do: twattery.

That isn't to say stupid behaviour on today's demonstration is unknowable and mindless. Why, we might ask ourselves, have journalists (not all journos, as Laura McInerney observes) become a target? It's pretty obvious. On the one hand, they are the bodies-on-the-ground for organisations that routinely misreport and distort the truth for the Tories. It doesn't matter whether they're from the Labour-friendly Mirror and HuffPo, they're all seen as peas in a pod. On the other hand, as we know media firms are virtually untouchable. When Michael Crick files distorted rubbish about Jeremy Corbyn, or when the Telegraph competes with The Mail for the most ludicrous red-baiting stories, there is no comeback, no accountability. Social media and comment boxes offer simulacrum of holding journos to account, but the lie machine continues as before. This breeds resentment and frustration both, which some individuals then take out on the journos - as per today. Ditto for Tories, like our egged friend. Their government makes the lives of millions of people a struggle and a chore, but they avoided their electoral just desserts thanks to fearmongering, which was faithfully passed on for printing and broadcast. With the politicians out of reach, those nearer will have to do.

The twattery has proven contagious. Here are some Conservatives point-scoring off today's events:

What a pathetic sight. Particularly ironic are the comments of the last, whose Twitter profile says he doesn't believe in safe spaces.

I am tempted to say that if you don't want "Tory scum" yelling at you when you gather for a conference, it's probably a good idea not to pursue scummy policies. Nevertheless, this suits the Tory frame nicely. It's grist to the mill of their new trade union project, and allows them to portray their opposition as a rabble - as all governments of whatever hue do when there's a hint of trouble at a demonstration.

Yes, in the grand scheme of things, a slap here and a bit of goz there pail against the violence of the eviction, the care withdrawal, and the zero hours contract. If there is time and a place for trouble-making, today's demonstration wasn't it. The actions of a vanishingly tiny number have muddied the issue and gave the Tories a moral victory, even though there is an amoral vacuity at the heart of their programme. Meanwhile, the real story, the typical story of the demonstration, of tens of thousands of people - including families as per the snap from Newcastle-under-Lyme comrades featured atop this post - demonstrating their opposition to Tory policies has got lost.

Image Credit

New Blogs September/October 2015

October is here, and it's time for a new left blog round up.

1. Angry of the North (Labour) (Twitter)
2. Brigid Jones's Diary (Labour) (Twitter)
3. James Snell (Unaligned) (Twitter)
4. Labour First (Labour) (Twitter)
5. Leaders of the Opposition (Labour) (Twitter)
6. Left Gleaning (Labour) (Twitter)
7. Left-Wing Vibez (Labour) (Twitter)
8. Mike Knell (Unaligned)
9. On The Ground (Labour) (Twitter)
10. Mark Fiddaman (Unaligned/Spoof)
11. Political Sift (Labour) (Twitter)
12. Selfie Made Woman (Labour) (Twitter)
13. Simon Mair (Labour) (Twitter)
14. The Leveller (Unaligned) (Twitter)
15. Thoughtful Campaigner (Labour) (Twitter)

If you know of any new blogs that haven't featured before then drop me a line via the comments, email, Facebook or Twitter. Please note I'm looking for blogs that have started within the last 12 months. The new blog round up usually appears on the first Sunday of every month. And if it doesn't, it tends to turn up eventually!