Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Johnson V Corbyn: The Verdict

Tweeting yesterday, Guido Fawkes lamented that while the Tories are down in the polls on the same period during the last election, Labour is gathering momentum. Far from killing Jeremy Corbyn's chances, so far Boris Johnson's shown an inability to seal the deal. The opposition were supposed to be hopelessly divided, and with the semi-capitulation of Nigel Farage, getting a majority was supposed to be a formality. And yet here we are, as uncertain this time as last time.

The head-to-head format plays to the political dominance of the two parties. No chance of a third party interloper stealing the show, but it is a risk for Johnson. Lack of detail, bumbling and blustering, hazy and evasive, there is no speaker or Commons convention to save his blushes. And as for Corbyn, he is by now well-practised at these sort of things having not only seen off a plethora of opponents over the years, but was even little troubled by Andrew Neil and Jeremy Paxman. How then did they fare?

Both men opened with statements they stuck with throughout the debate. For Corbyn this election was about what kind of future you want, and promised a fairer country in which wealth and power is shared. This is versus a decade of Tory failure on health, the environment, the economy, and Brexit. Johnson for his part said we were having this election because of the deadlocked parliament. His priority is to get Brexit done. He has a deal ready to go, which is approved by all 635 Tory candidates (neglecting to mention signing up was a condition for standing), and then get on with other issues people care about. Dither and delay, and two referendums is all Labour offers.

Battle lines drawn, we moved straight into the first question which was about, you guessed it, Brexit. The questioner asked what they could say to reassure her that we won't be talking about this forever? Johnson reiterated his promise that we will come out on 31st Jan, which is in sharp contrast to Labour dither and delay. Corbyn responded that Labour's priority is to negotiate a credible leave option in three months, and then hold a referendum in six. By contrast, far from getting things done it will take seven years to negotiate a trade deal with the USA and years for a new arrangement with the EU. And on delaying matters, Johnson voted against Theresa May's deal twice before spending more time negotiating his own even worse plan. And Johnson's response? All he could do was bang on about how Corbyn would vote in Labour's mooted referendum. Sensibly, Jez refused to be drawn allowing him to reiterate again and again that Labour's policy is a second vote. Johnson might think he came off better in the exchange, but for those flirting with the LibDems in key marginals the Prime Minister gave Corbyn multiple opportunities to tell them what Labour's Brexit policy is. Well done that man.

Asked about whether the Tories would stick to the 2020 deadline for the end of the transition period, Johnson batted away expert concerns - rooted in actual history - and said a trade deal wouldn't take long because we have alignment with the EU already. I'm getting the nostalgia chills. Remember when Johnson's friends said Brexit would be easy? In his response, Corbyn waved about redacted documents concerning UK-US trade deal talks and how they showed American companies would be given full market access to the NHS.

On the union, they were asked if it was worth sacrificing for Brexit. A pertinent question considering the answer from Tory party members is an emphatic yes. Jez said Johnson's deal imperils the union with Northern Ireland by drawing a trade barrier down the Irish Sea. Brazenly dismissing this fact of his actual deal, Johnson argued his deal takes the UK out of the EU together. Whereas the real danger is from a Labour government who would make an arrangement with the SNP and willingly concede another independent referendum for doing so. Corbyn immediately ruled this out, and challenged the SNP not to back Labour's programme at Westminster. And besides, coming back at more repetitive jibes from Johnson, "we've had nine years of chaotic coalitions already".

Then came the question every politician dreads: how can we trust you? Seeing how political debate under their respective leaderships had become so toxic, how can anyone have faith in your integrity and bring us back together? Johnson conceded that trust in politics had corroded, but this is because parliament refusing to honour that promise of implementing the result of the EU referendum, and Labour are actively blocking Brexit. The best way to restore trust is to get it done and move on. Replying, Corbyn said trust is something that has to be earned. Politicians have to listen and good leadership is about listening to people from all kinds of backgrounds and putting their ideas into practice. You measure the character of a leader by how they bring people together, not divide them. Integrity and honesty is a sticky wicket as far as Johnson is concerned, and so he talked about his record: 20,000 extra police officers, upgrading 20 hospitals and building 40 new hospitals (a demonstrable lie), uprating the living wage, getting Brexit sorted. Corbyn replied it was important to be clear about what you plan to do, and so Labour is clear on the EU and all the spending commitments have full costings in the grey book accompanying the manifesto. Therefore, when he was asked about anti-semitism he came across as the passionate anti-racism campaigner he's always been. Johnson on the other hand was asked specifically about truth telling and honesty, and deflected - clumsily - onto the "complete failure in Labour on anti-semitism and Brexit". Luckily for him he was not picked up on this egregious question avoidance.

Asked about the future of the NHS, Jeremy Corbyn talked about his friend, Jayne, who passed away Monday morning. She was admitted and filmed her experience and had to wait eight hours for treatment because no one was available to see her. This is a common experience with stressed staff and lacking facilities. Johnson for his part talked about the NHS, abstractly, as a most brilliant thing. They were putting £34bn in, and were pledged to building 40 hospitals (that lie again ...), a plan for tens of thousands of nurses and 6,000 more GPs. Replying, Corbyn said the NHS was suffering its worst A&E performance ever, was reeling under 33,000 unfilled vacancies, and we've seen the NHS taken to court by billionaires for not handing them health contracts. Johnson pretended innocence by claiming the Tories haven't and wouldn't put the health service up for sale. The Tories will continue to fund it with a strong economy and protect, and nothing would be more ruinous than Labour's plan for a four-day week. Corbyn quickly came back with how a shorter working week, which would apply across society, would actually improve health and wellbeing.

Following a scrappy round on spending, we got quick fire questions. Asked if the monarchy is fit for purpose, Corbyn coyly replied it "needs a bit of improvement". Johnson on the other hand said they were "beyond reproach". On Prince Andrew, Corbyn said that before we spend time talking about him we should be discussing the victims of Epstein's abuse first. Johnson mumbled something about letting the law take its course. On favourite foreign leader, Johnson said the EU27 while Corbyn mentioned António Guterres, the present Secretary General of the UN. And on climate change, Johnson said it was a "colossal issue" and Corbyn said it was a massive issue for everyone. As he started talking about the effects on the poor in the developing world, the Tory-supporting sections of the audience started getting restless and called out. If anything was to help mobilise the green-minded voters ummin and ahhing about voting ...

And that was it. Summing up, Corbyn said you've seen the real choice at this election, and so if you're not registered you should go online and do so now. He said this was a once in a generation election to tackle the climate emergency, create jobs and rebuild industry. "Vote for hope and vote for Labour on !2th December." Johnson agreed the choice was very simple - get Brexit done or vote for a groundhog year. And because Corbyn couldn't answer his questions, it shows he's unfit to be Prime Minister.

In my view, Corbyn performed better because he's simply better versed in this kind of format. But there was nothing there that would have disappointed those set on voting for the Tories. Johnson had a simple script of sticking with Brexit, talking about the (non-existent) strong economy, and rubbishing Labour as ditherers and Brexit frustraters. Johnson certainly made a mistake by allowing Corbyn to put over Labour's supposedly complex Brexit position in terms so simple that even ardent "Corbyn-is-a-Brexiteer" LibDems can understand it.

Was it job done, then? Corbyn will certainly have reminded many who voted Labour in 2017 that, actually, the bloke they had a punt on back then is still the same and cares about the issues they care about. One certainly hope tonight's performance has won many of them back.

Monday, 18 November 2019

Business, As Usual

"Business can and must be a force for good", said Jo Swinson in her cringe-making, arse-licking speech at the CBI this afternoon. "We owe you so much for what you do, you create wealth in our country, build world-leading industries, and enable investment in our public services." The effusive praise the LibDem leader heaped on the assembled would have been too unseemly even for Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair. In reality, despite Swinson's warm, ego-stroking words there is little world beating about British business and the class it props up. Despite guzzling up entire menus of tax cuts over the last decade, productivity is stagnant, investment is falling and research and design spending lags well behind that of UK competitor states. As a rule the British bourgeoisie are risk averse, pathetically timid, and recoil in horror at any utterance that dares venture criticism of their decadent, idle, entitled existence.

What then did Swinson have to share with the assembled CBI junket junkies, apart from the usual bad faith? She promised a £50bn "remain bonus" to be invested in education should she get the opportunity to revoke Article 50. There was a half-inching of putting workers on boards, reforming fiduciary duty so firms are not beholden to share holder value only, and what the thinks is the real slam dunk: the so-called "skills wallet". This exercise in neoliberal folderol gifts everyone £10k to spend on education, training and retraining. If we indulge the fantasy of the LibDems forming the next government, how will this be used in practice? It just about covers the cost of one year's tuition at an institution of higher learning, so in this instance it's a means of depressing student tuition debt. Or the other most likely use is as payment to big employers for providing training on the many joke apprenticeship schemes they run. But in most cases it will lie around unused, as per very similar schemes in the past. Still, according to the Graun Swinson got the best reception. Egregious flattery will earn faintly mocking applause.

As for Boris Johnson's turn on the stage, this was easily his worst performance behind a podium ... since his last one. Bumbling, winging it as usual, at one point the CBI's host had to quietly intervene to help him with an answer. And yet this most brazen of bullshitters largely enjoys the privilege of a free pass. I say largely, because C4 News have pulled him up on one of his claims. After mealy mouthed platitudes about prioritising the NHS, he announced - to an audible gasp - that he was scrapping the planned Corporation Tax cuts, saving the exchequer £6bn. Which is funny because the Tories have long maintained lower taxes bring in more revenue, but whatever. Johnson accused Labour of planning the highest tax rate in Europe which, Channel 4 have helpfully noted, is not the case. John McDonnell's "Marxist" plan would still leave Britain with a lower rate than Soviet France and Socialist Germany, and even Bolshevist Portugal. It doesn't need to be true, though. Johnson can put out the most egregious lies because the base want to believe.

What promises did he make to business then? There was the pledge to get Brexit done which, under his plan, will mean no such thing. Johnson also promised a review of business rates and a cut to employers' National Insurance contributions. We'll see if the Tories provide the costings for that. As for the audience, they seemed very happy. Never underestimate British business's appetite for short-term ephemeral gains over fixing things for the long-term, and to hell with the consequences.

Which means this was always going to be a tough crowd for Jeremy Corbyn. And his speech contained few surprises. Setting out his mixed economy stall, his speech can be summed up thus:
if a Labour government is elected on 12th December you’re going to see more investment than you ever dreamt of. You’re going to have the best educated workforce you’ve ever hoped for. You’re going to get the world-leading infrastructure, including full-fibre broadband you’ve long demanded.
Corbyn then comes not to overthrow their system, but to save it. Alongside more taxes on higher earners, we saw such policies as tackling late payments, a bugbear for many a small business. A tackling of rip-off energy bills, reforming business rates, and setting up a Sustainable Investment Board to help power the green industrial revolution. These are all positions, I'm sure you'd agree, right up there with the liquidation of the kulaks and shipping industry off to the Urals. In truth, Corbynomics are about stepping in where the state has failed and business has refused to fill the gap. Full-fibre broadband, why is coverage so patchy and crap? Because it's been left to the market. Trains, why do we see record overcrowding and carriages leakier than the cabinet when Johnson was foreign secretary? Because it's been left to the market. And why is the NHS struggling to cope when record monies are pouring in? Again, it's thanks to the market. What Labour is doing is collectivising the risk by building infrastructure business can't and won't build without the state shouldering the cost. And who benefits the most from this? The members of the CBI.

Why then are they not beating a path to Labour's door? Because British business is highly class conscious. They fear even modest nationalisations might whet the appetite for more nationalisations, and an erosion of property rights. Though it is funny how this concern doesn't trouble them when the government are taking out compulsory purchase orders for HS2, and the putative expansion of Heathrow. No, what matters more is keeping workers in their place, keeping them atomised, glued to their phones, and uninterested in raising their eyes to the horizon. It would not be on if they started thinking unwelcome thoughts about how the system works, how it rips them off, and what the alternative might be. They fear Corbynism at the instinctive level because Labour is the thin end of a wedge that could challenge their supremacy in economics, and show them up for spivs and bone idle portfolio ponces. Here's why they prefer Johnson, even if his Brexit plan cuts Britain off at the knees and compounds the country's long-term slide in the global economic rankings.

Business as usual is business, as usual, letting their sectionalism and immediate class interests fog up the long view as they always have. But they should pause to think. Business might recoil from Labour now, but the time is going to come when someone tougher, more radical, and with greater levels of popular support will address them. This leader won't be there to flatter them like a LibDem lick-spittle, but lay down the law. And at that moment, the time the much nicer Jeremy Corbyn paid a visit and asked them, politely, to save themselves is sure to become a memory tinged with bitter regret.

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Sunday, 17 November 2019

The Problem with Old People

It was a modest sized bungalow. A fresh extension had been added to the side of the house and the occupant, a woman in her late 60s to early 70s, beckoned us across the astroturf lawn to her patio doors. "I'll be voting Tory this time", she said. "We need to get Brexit done." Picking at her reasoning, it was the bickering of politicians that annoyed her the most. And when we moved on to policy issues her eyes glazed over and spoke the following remarkable words: "the country has never been so prosperous." At that point we decided time was best spent on someone else's doorstep and we moved off. This brief chat typified two things: it underlined Labour's old people problem and speaks to the single political success of the Cameron government's time in power - the insulation of retirees from the pressures facing the rest of the population.

Naturally, we're not talking about all older people. But poll after poll, election after election, and country after country shows a pronounced bias among the old to right wing parties. And this is especially acute when we talk about hard right populist insurgencies, like the Brexit Party here, the AfD in Germany, FN in France and so on. Why? Is this simply an expression of the old adage that you tend to get more conservative as you grow older? No.

As this blog has discussed many times, the age split in voting intentions across the Western world is an expression of a class cohort effect. The fact the younger you are, the more socially liberal you're more likely to be is less a consequence of "multicultural lefty crap", as the thankfully former Tory MP Aidan Burley once put it, but a cultural mutation in the class composition of the advanced capitalist societies. Without going too far down this particular rabbit hole (much more here and here), it will suffice to say that as the state expanded in the post-war years millions of workers were drawn into employment whose object was the reproduction of capitalist social relations themselves. Education, health, social services, the civil service generally, local government were the main areas of growth. The character of this work centred on the engineering of human beings, the combination of socialising them and patching them up. As deindustrialisation started taking hold and neoliberal capitalism emerged from the rubble of the class battles of the 1980s, not only were these services contracted out, the market also started intervening more directly in the engineering of subjectivities. Consumer capitalism was already well practised at selling lifestyles, but as the service sector expanded and industry upped sticks the provision of services became increasingly central to the accumulation of capital. What mattered less was the brute physicality of the human body and more the subtle intricacies of our competencies as social beings, but not just any way of being: the kind of agreeable personality able to get on with and relate to people from a diversity of backgrounds. There are two consequences that flow from this. Social liberalism is less a matter of "propaganda" as the far right maintains, but a tolerance arising spontaneously from the everyday existence of tens of millions of people. And secondly, the younger someone is the more likely their career is or will be characterised by the immaterial, social labour. Therefore it stands to reason younger people are going to relate better to parties that embody those values, while the reverse is true of those coming to the end of their working lives or are retired. This is something the so-called Blue Labour tendency recognises, but thinks we should tail the prejudices and fading peccadilloes of the old and abandoning social liberalism for, at best, a studied neutrality with respect to their propensity to conservatism. A position that would destroy the Labour Party in less than a generation.

The second issue is the problem of property. Value congruence is only one part of the explanation for the polarisation of politics along age lines. The apparent conservatising effect of age is not some essentialist feature of the life course, but a consequence of acquiring property. It used to go something like this. You start off in life after school with a job. And as you get older, you and your partner acquire a house, cars, kids, has a modest sum saved in the bank for a rainy day, and by retirement you're set with a liveable pension combining occupational and state schemes, and a few assets acquired over a life time of graft. If you're under 50, you know this fiction is not the case. One of the biggest problems the Tories are facing is how property acquisition is eroding, which is one of the processes driving the party's long-term decline. The Tories are visibly and obviously a barrier to the modest aspirations of increasing numbers of working people. And one of the reasons they cannot address this is because high property prices and the proliferation of renting is very much in the interests of their coalition of older voters. For among the ranks of retirees are a not inconsiderable number of petty landlords who rent out their old family homes or other properties. Therefore keeping them sweet and onside means screwing younger workers, even if the price the party will pay is their decreasing political viability in the medium to long-term. And it also means this constituency are not about to support Labour who are pledged, perversely, to getting the cycle of property acquisition moving again alongside curbs on private renting and the building of good quality council housing.

Not unrelated to property is the declassing experience of retirement itself, which is simultaneously individuating, disempowering, and lumpenising. Going from arranging your life around the need to earn a wage a salary to not can be wrenching, and leaves the retired to find purpose in other things. For some it might be the near full-time pursuit of hobbies, but often the consequences can be social withdrawal and isolation. No wonder old age loneliness is at epidemic levels. Whatever the case the freedom from work, or at least working full-time, affords a certain freedom and the inclination to do as one pleases. In a society such as ours where the individual is formally sovereign, independent, and therefore the arbiter of what is right and what is wrong, retirement approaches this neoliberal ego ideal. This declassing is something David Cameron understood at an instinctive level. "Protecting" older people from his government's cuts programme wasn't a charitable move but an astute political one. Dave knew that ensuring pensions rose while exempting older people in public housing from the bedroom tax, cuts to council tax and changes to income support insulated them (to a degree) from his attack on government spending, and therefore the pressures borne from the rest of the population. Further, because pensioners are on fixed incomes and atomised, they - like small business people - are prone to social anxieties. The reason the right wing press pump out the most ludicrous scare stories and are happy to abet the Tories in doing so is because it speaks to a structurally anxious social location, and they lap it up. Hence also the tendency to the punitive and the scapegoat. The right are past masters in condensing intangible fears around groups of undesirables, and and satisfying them by being seen to give them a good kicking and making their lives a misery. The hostile environment, for example, is part and parcel of this formula. Labour, especially under Jeremy Corbyn, is also a bogeyman that fits this political typing to a tee. The spending plans conjure up the mythologised Winter of Discontent, the foreign policy an Operation Sea Lion rerun with Jihadists and bolshevised Brussels bureaucrats, and any hint of making life better for working people a concession to snowflakery and idleness.

This situation, of the old effectively turning against the young, is not natural. It is a situation arrived at by policy decisions, and cynically sustained by the Tories and the powerful forces they act for. The question is how to turn this around? And the answer is ... not before election day. Strong campaigning by Labour and using all means, such as getting younger relatives to lean on the old, can make a small difference. As could targeted anti-Tory campaigning aimed at suppressing their vote. But we're talking about sustained effort over years in government. To turn the situation around for the old takes more than just banging on about saving the NHS, they have to see tangible improvements when they visit. The restoration of public transport (particularly buses) and a rebooted Post Office network can be parts of a strategy to break down isolation and dislocation. Opening FE and HE to lifelong education can encourage retirees to enter education, sometimes for the first time, would also build social cohesion and make the world appear less threatening and strange. And Labour's plan to break up private media monopolies would stymie the pipeline of poison that keeps pensioners frightened, weary, and anxious.

Again, it's worth reiterating that this can't be short circuited. Labour's old people problem does not go away if we pander to the concerns articulated by the right wing press, nor allow the Tories to set the terms of debate, nor water down while half-apologising for our programme. The only way to win over the old and disrupt the grip the Tories have on pensioners is by explicitly saying we are the party for everyone, and with the policies to match. And they know, the right know that if we get in and start removing the bases of pensioner anxiety, their long-term decline will speed up.

Friday, 15 November 2019

The Far Left and the 2019 General Election

Long-time readers know there is only one thing at stake in this election. And that is the performance of sundry far left organisations who decide to wade into the electoral arena. And here they all are in their dubious glory - seven organisations fielding a grand total of 16 candidates. That's four fewer then 2017's meagre showing. Apparently, the Alliance for Green Socialism and the Communist League are each standing an additional candidate, but damned if I can find them. No prizes for anyone who tracks down the missing constituencies (NB - Communist League filled out, below - thanks Rob). Anyway, here you go: fill your boots.

Alliance for Green Socialism
Leeds North East - Celia Foote
Leeds Wast - Mike Davis

Communist League
Tottenham - Jonathan Silberman
Wythenshawe and Sale East - Caroline Bellamy

People Before Profit Alliance
Belfast West - Gerry Carroll (4,132 (10.2%) 2017)
Foyle - Shaun Harkin (1,377 (3.0%) 2017)

Socialist Equality Party
Holborn and St Pancras - Thomas Scripps (last stood 2015)
Manchester Central - Dennis Leech
Sheffield Central - Chris Marsden

Socialist Labour Party
Hartlepool - Kevin Cranny (last stood 2005)

Socialist Party of Great Britain
Cardiff Central - Brian Johnson
Folkestone and Hythe - Andy Thomas (last stood 2015)

Workers Revolutionary Party
Camberwell and Peckham - Joshua Ogunleye (131 (0.2%) 2017)
Ealing Southall - Hassan Zulkifal (362 (0.8%) 2017)
Hackney South and Shoreditch - Jonty Leff
Kensington - Scott Dore
Tottenham - Frank Sweeney

I don't know, what is the point of these contests? It is very rare for self-declared left groups to consistently stand in the same place in the hope of building up their meagre levels of support over time, nor are election campaigns a particularly effective means of adding numbers to the organisation. That's if your politics is based around parading a jerry-rigged gaggle of silly geese as some sort of revolutionary combat party. But still, everyone needs a hobby.

Two things to note. First, at best we're looking at (potentially) 18 candidates out of a possible 631 British mainland constituencies, and the Lenin-like geniuses of British Trottery still couldn't avoid standing against each other in Tottenham. You could almost understand it if one was a Trot and another a Tankie, but in this case both the WRP and CL claim fidelity to the works of the Old Man. Less amusing however is the WRP's decision to contest Kensington where, you will recall, Labour's Emma Dent Coad pulled off a famous victory last time by the slender margin of 20 votes. Rather than picking any number of safe seats with huge majorities to offload copies of the terminally unreadable News Line they're hoping instead to ponce a few dozen votes off Labour's tally and help hand the seat back to the Tories. We should recall that in its prime the WRP were a disgusting rape cult with a sideline in photographing Iraqi dissidents resident in Britain and flogging the snaps to Saddam Hussein's regime. With crimes like these in your back catalogue, scabbing on the wider labour movement is small beer.

With the sole exception of the People Before Profit Alliance in Northern Ireland, each one of these challenges will barely catch the notice of a minority of a minority of the voting public. A complete waste of time and energy as well as an indulgent one when the prize is almost within reach and everyone, especially those with campaigning experience, should be getting stuck into this. But hey sundry far left groupuscules, you do sectarian you.

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John McDonnell Interview

Watch Michael Walker and Aaron Bastani interview John McDonnell, the people's bank manager, about Labour's superfast broadband pledge, the steps toward universal basic services, and the party's vision for transforming Britain.

And we can realise this vision in less than a month. Join Labour and get stuck in!

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

The Shape of Tory Things to Come

As the floods have swamped parts of the Midlands and Northern England, it's becoming obvious the reception Boris Johnson has received during his "hands-on" photo opps visits are a growing calamity as fas as the Tory party's campaign is concerned. Whether having trouble working out how to use a mop in Matlock to initially refusing to engage with local south Yorkshire media to getting it in the ear from outraged residents, his performance was woeful. Johnson might have refused to declare the floods a national disaster, but that's sure what his campaign is looking like. Contrast this with the approach Jeremy Corbyn took, with swift calls for decisive action backed by properly funded flood prevention/management. Johnson has shown himself to be an utter shambles, and when push comes to shove he has to be forced to affect concern for ordinary people coping with disaster.

There's a strange pattern concerning Tory Prime Ministers and their response to these kinds of events. Back in early 2014, Dave was caught short in his response to the winter floods in the South West and parts of Wales. What didn't help matters was how the axe had fallen on flood defence spending during his watch thanks to his government's deficit monomania. Unsurprisingly, he wanted to avoid getting berated in public by an angry farmer ruined for the sake of pennies, or villages full of people forced from their homes by rising water. I'm sure all these people were positively glowing when Sajid Javid thanked the British people for their sacrifices during the years of public spending cuts.

And Theresa May too, you'll remember, was pilloried for her lacklustre response to the Grenfell fire tragedy. When the official visit finally took place and she spoke to residents, it was after Jeremy Corbyn had led the way and, incredibly, Andrea Leadsom. As May studiously avoided all but the most tightly controlled encounter with the general public in that year's election, even to the point of helicoptering in to a remote Scottish location without public transport links for a meeting with the Tory faithful, one can only imagine how she would have coped with a Grenfell family raw with grief and seething with anger that, again, penny pinching had cost the lives of friends and neighbours.

There's more than an inability to handle normal people going on here. If the Tories truly, genuinely believed their policies were doing the right thing they wouldn't be so shamefaced about being held to account for them. But they know their cuts and underfunding come with real costs borne by others. A flick of a pen here and the deletion of a budget line there can be washed down with a glass of port, but they absolutely hate it when the distance government and privilege affords collapses and truth of their decisions thrusts itself into their face. Out and about in inundated Yorkshire fields, a creature like Johnson knows he is exposed to the unknown. When everyone has a camera filming every move, handshake and conversation, the danger his crafted image might slip is ever present. And so it has proved. Small wonder it is now Conservative Party strategy not to go wall-to-wall with Johnson who, you will remember, won the leadership contest on account of his being an electoral asset.

In the grand scheme of things, is it going to matter? Readers will also recall that, in 2014, despite Tory culpability for the damage wrought on the South West how, just over a year later, the Liberal Democrats were turfed out of their strongholds. Save Bristol and Exeter the West Country was awash with Conservative blue. This time, however, the floods have just happened and given the forecasts the weather might get worse as the campaign grinds on. There's no chance of their disappearing down the memory hole. Now this doesn't mean that affected rural constituencies are bound to turn to Jeremy Corbyn in protest - though who wouldn't welcome the emergence of the shy Labour voter? - but it could suppress the Tory vote out of utter disgust with the government's couldn't-be-arsed response. This puts a hole in Johnson's so-called red wall strategy and calls into question their ability to take the seats that need to fall their way, which isn't at all helped by Nigel Farage's half-surrender either.

The floods are a terrible tragedy for all involved, but they are a foretaste of what is to come if Boris Johnson is returned with a majority. Haphazard, unfocused and everything-on-the-cheap spending on flood defence and essential infrastructure, zero action taken against factors exacerbating flooding, and a general care-free attitude so long as it doesn't impact Johnson's toffee-nosed kind of people is going to be our lot. You can't say we weren't warned in advance.

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Monday, 11 November 2019

Nigel Farage's Surrender Act

What was Nigel Farage's price? A nice warm seat in the House of Lords? No, apparently he's already turned the ermine down. How about a gong or, even better, a knighthood? We'll see when the New Year's honours swing round. Whatever convinced Farage to stand the Brexit Party down in the 317 Tory-held seats, surely some pay off will find its way to him should the Tories be successful on 12th December. Spare a moment then for those 300-odd would-be Brexit Party candidates who stumped up the hundred quid application fee only be told no refund will be given. On second thoughts, don't.

Farage's Brexit Party certainly had the money and the candidates to pull a wider challenge off, and so why not? At his press conference, Farage accused Labour of betraying its leave voters whereas the Tories are on course for a departure from the transition period (assuming Johnson's Brexit deal gets through the Commons) by the end of next year. Yes, imagine being a leader of a rival political party in late 2019 and believing a promise made by the Prime Minister. The reality is Farage knows the Tories' position is built on a foundation of sand. Having swallowed all the media hype about how Johnson "the campaigner" is going to rout Corbyn, the polling figures are showing a rally to Labour yielding numbers better than at this stage in the contest in 2017. If it carries on like this, and it could, then we're either in hung parliament territory or, terror of terrors, Labour is the largest party with perhaps even a majority. In latter cases Farage should thank his lucky stars that a Labour win at least guarantees him continued relevance.

Still, if ensuring Brexit happens is the objective then Farage's very own surrender act is a bit weird. To get it through while avoiding a second referendum, Johnson needs a majority. Standing "spoiler" candidates in Labour and LibDem-held seats is, by any reckoning, more likely to hit Tory chances of acquiring more seats. For example in my very own Stoke-on-Trent Central splitting the vote, as per UKIP's performance in the 2017 by-election, ensured Labour held on while the purple vote combined with the Tories exceeded ours. They slipped back at the general election and we polled just over half of total votes cast. The Brexit Party standing again is more likely than not to help the same happen again, unless specific factors come into play. Nevertheless if Farage is stuck on this peculiar game, neither me nor any sitting Labour MP are about to stop him.

How about Labour, can this harm the party like 2015? Perhaps, perhaps not. Just as Johnson's chances rely on polarising the vote and the Tories being the main beneficiary of the leave vote, Labour has to squeeze the LibDems and the Greens. Farage's retreat from the field tarnishes his image as a serious contender and as an anti-establishment politician. It might be a unilateral act on his part, but subordinating BXP to the Tories' electoral effort is more than suggestive of their being in hock together. Now this might not matter much in the Home Counties, but it does in many a Labour-held seat. Class consciousness isn't what it used to be, but there's residue enough that so-called Labour leavers, who may have dallied with UKIP and BXP in EU elections, would not ever vote Tory and will find Farage's desperate toadying to Johnson utterly repugnant. In short, the class character of the Brexit Party (remember, it is an actual company) stands thoroughly exposed, and many a Labour-inclined would-be BXP voter will act accordingly.

And so, as this general election trundles on its semblance to the last continues to bear a striking similarity, albeit the right are unravelling and Labour are putting on the numbers at a faster pace. And if we dare to dream and Jeremy Corbyn is put into Number 10, a small part of this great victory would be thanks to the unintended consequences of Farage's spoiler move. Perhaps he'll get a gong after all.

Sunday, 10 November 2019

The Tory Party's £1.2 Trillion Lie

In Tim Bale's history of the Conservatives, he makes the obvious point that to all intents and purposes the editorial offices of the right wing press are an arm of the party. And that was brought home this Sunday morning looking at the splash shared across the front pages of the Tory-supporting rags. All of them led with the news that the next Labour government is going to spend £1.2 trillion, which amounts to an extra £650m a day. The Tories have even set up an information gathering website to back the claim up. This has led to claim and counter-claim rocking back and forth across Sunday politics shows and social media, with the rather rash decision of Sajid Javid to challenge none other than the people's bank manager, John McDonnell, to a TV debate - a move Labour has jumped on with alacrity.

Since Labour emerged as a serious contender for government a century ago, making up stuff about Labour's spending plans is par the course. Readers with long memories will remember the 1992 general election in which the Tories accused Labour in a poster campaign of plotting a double whammy of more taxes and higher prices. So memorable in fact the Tories have put it on a tea towel. This time though the Tory attack runs the risk of overreaching. Yes, they wanted a figure out of the door that catches in the memory but £1.2tn just sounds like a ludicrous figure plucked from the sky. And when you look at the "evidence" the Tories have marshalled, this is exactly what they've done.

In the executive summary of the 36 page Tory document, they are brazen with the double dishonesty of their accounting. For one they tot up every spending commitment in the 2017 manifesto plus every commitment made by shadow ministers since, every policy passed by Labour conference, and every Labour policy paper. As anyone with a little bit of knowledge about Labour knows, conference votes on policy but there is no mechanism of forcing the leadership to accept it. Just ask Tony Blair about that. Instead, what goes into the manifesto is determined by the Clause V meeting, which variously draws on National Policy Forum documents, motions passed at conference, drafts of the manifesto, and policy papers. Lumping all this material together and totting up the price tag is the first wilful distortion the Tories accomplish. The second? They suppose every policy is going to be enacted on day one of the new parliament. They say it themselves: "All costings have been given for a five-year period, as this is the standard length of a Parliament." And so eye-catching items like the basic income trial or the four day week, which would take a while to implement - say two years into the 2019-24 parliament - are treated as if enacted from the off. To be sure, if Labour did the same trick on Tory spending commitments they would be the first crying to the press about the beastly lies told about them.

While it is useful for activists to know the nuts and bolts of this ludicrous Tory attack, as Grace Blakeley notes if you have to explain, you're losing. And so the best way of blunting the Tory lies is turning the problem back on its head - why does their spending only focus on electorally convenient items like policing and the NHS, and not the housing crisis, the crumbling infrastructure and public squalor of nine years of neglect, and flood defences in the Midlands and the North?

This brings us to the main point. Politics is about interests, and the Tories have been the traditional safeguard of bourgeois interests. And wherever there is an established, elite interest any old rope will do. We've seen it in the Labour Party as the right have crumbled, and we routinely see it from the Tories and their press helpers. It is not "conspiracy thinking" to suppose politics involves lying, as a recent silly book supposed, but a straightforward fact of political life. The Tories for their part are relying on lying about Labour because there is nothing else in the tank. How do they propose to fix the multiple problems plaguing the UK? How are they going to solve the productivity crisis, transition to a green economy, get mass property acquisition moving again, all the while in hock to the most damaging approach to Brexit designed expressly with the tax dodgers and low pay gluttons in mind? They can't, and they know they can't. And so they have to lie.

What effect will our £1.2tn lie have? Not a great deal, one would imagine. Where Labour seeks to inspire its voters, the Tories rely on fear to get theirs out. By demonising Corbyn and trotting out the old bankruptcy theme Johnson and friends are hoping the vote will firm up and give them extra reasons, apart from Brexit, to keep Labour out. And when your strategy relies not on persuading floating voters but turning out the already convinced, every body counts.

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Saturday, 9 November 2019

The End of Stalinism

What an amazing contrast. The breaching of the Berlin Wall was greeted by ecstatic scenes right across the Western world. 10 years after and the party was still in full triumphal swing, being a decade into the end of history and a rapidly globalising world of dual sovereignty - capital was king, and markets our monarch. And then 10 years on, in 2009, the commemoration of the collapse of East Germany, or the German Democratic Republic to appease readers with a Stalinist fetish, was more downbeat thanks to the worst economic crisis since the 1929 Wall Street crash. And now, in 2019, events marking the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the end of the USSR and its client regimes are even more sombre. Speaking in Berlin, Angela Merkel chose the occasion to remind everyone that democracy is not a given, and that universal values are menaced from the extremes. In an obvious swipe against the racist right in power in Hungary and Poland, and advancing even in Germany, it was nevertheless fitting in given how the GDR was a totalitarianism born out of the ashes of its genocidal other, which in turn was the (by no means inevitable) consequence of the collapse of bourgeois democracy.

From gloating to shame-faced apologia, that is some distance travelled in a blink of the historical eye. For those who weren't around during the Cold War, it is difficult to convey how different the world felt. For some, the tyrannies stretching from the Elbe to the Bering Sea were misrecognised as zones of workers' control, where capitalism had been suppressed (true) and something better ruled in its wake (not true). It was a comfort and an alternative, and helped keep generations of leftists going when things weren't great. And this suited the captains of industry and their cadres of paid ideologists quite nicely. To most people, including those in the labour movement, the likes of East Germany were a model alright, a model to avoid. For every Communist Party activist the Soviet bloc kept going, dozens, scores, hundreds found the idea of socialism repugnant. If socialism is nationalised industry plus a knock on the door at midnight, we'll stick with capitalism ta.

Yet while, perversely, so-called really existing socialism was a buttress for post-war Keynesian capitalism, the very existence of an alternative system in the East had put our own ruling classes on notice. The Russian Revolution was and remains the largest blow against capital to date, and though the revolution succumbed to isolation, bureaucratisation, and became one of history's most grotesque dictatorships, hard won victory over Nazi Germany and support for communists elsewhere saw Stalinism advance across the world after the war. And where it won, capital was largely uprooted, markets suppressed and and effectively closed to Western capital, with one or two exceptions. In other words, the existence of these regimes struck at the root of and challenged bourgeois property relations and with it the very basis of capitalism itself. For as long as global capitalism faced off against global Stalinism, bourgeois dreams were frequently interrupted by communist nightmares.

And so with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rapid collapse of the Warsaw Pact signatories and finally the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself two years later, you can understand why Fukuyama's end of history thesis got such traction. Capitalism had been trembling at the very thought of the communist phantom since the 1840s, and all it took were gaudy consumerist baubles and the freedom to speak your mind to exorcise it - permanently. And so when we talk about the triumph of neoliberalism, its spread as the new common sense was greatly aided by the expiration of its collectivist nemesis. The various permutations of ruling class ideologies were "proven" by history, and everything associated with the fallen Soviets and socialism more generally didn't so much fade away as practically drop out of public consciousness altogether. And at the point Tony Blair assumed Labour's leadership, it was almost as if socialism had been uninvented, so thorough was its purge from mainstream politics. Consciousness was thrown back and its only now, with the rise of Corbynism here in the UK are we groping back toward a new class conscious politics.

This was characterised, as my erstwhile comrades at the Weekly Worker used to put it, as a period of reaction of a special type. i.e. One in which labour movements and their parties had not been physically liquidated but ideologically defeated. The decline of old-style industrial working class consciousness pre-dated the Thatcher/Reagan era, as well as the end of the USSR, but were greatly accelerated by both. No Soviets meant no alternative to free market capitalism. Worse, while the USSR and its clients discredited socialism in life they carried on doing so in death. With the brutalist politics to match the brutalist architecture, the Soviet Union committed the cardinal sin of any putative alternative - it failed spectacularly. Nevertheless, that period has come to an end. Political polarisation is a fact of life as the old fault lines push to the surface and burst open all over the world. Even if Labour loses the socialist genie's not going back into the bottle, and any incoming Tory government will have its hands full placating growing disaffection - especially from those at the sharp end of their policies.

As Angela Merkel made her remarks at the designated graveside of East Germany, she did so as her system is imperilled by stuttering growth rates, a long-term swing against the power of capital, the law of value, and the nature of property, an inability to provide a decent, rounded standard of living for millions in the advanced countries, and its systemic culpability for climate crisis. Socialism is back, and communism is more than just sassy memes on the internet. Looking back on the disbanding of the Stasi, the dismantling of the wall, and the disintegration of a superpower bloc from the vantage of 30 years, their passing into the pages of history is starting to look more like a clearing of the air. And this, comrades, means our politics can soar to undreamed of heights without the burden of tyranny weighing us down.

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Friday, 8 November 2019

Labour's General Election Campaign

You've seen the polls and I've seen the polls, and it could happen again. The Tories lead but not by the same margin they enjoyed in 2017. And once the general election starter pistol fired we've seen a modest rally in Labour's numbers and one that, with some hard campaigning and smart messaging, could climb higher and higher. For Tories who had the jitters about Boris Johnson's gung-ho approach to the election, a small turn around even at this stage of the campaign is enough to activate the tingly terrors - especially when their campaign is hitting the buffers already.

As I've recently argued, there are good reasons to compare what will happen at this election with 2017's outing - and not just because it was two-and-a-half years ago. 2017 and 2019 are elections in which mass politics comes back in to play. By mass politics, I mean parties are once again large campaigning machines. Labour's advantage here is obvious, but the Liberal Democrat organisation is at an all-time peak, the SNP are huge - proportional to Scotland's population much larger than Labour - and even the Tories have undergone a mini revival membership-wise, though how much those joined at the urgings of Arron Banks will do the hard campaigning yards remains to be seen. Nevertheless, Labour's numerical advantage in England and Wales matters. Therefore, as the election campaigning gets under way what is Labour's election strategy looking like?

First of all, on the nuts and bolts there is a big difference versus last time. Then, with many Labour MPs convinced oblivion was skulking around the corner we saw something of a split effort: some MPs, mostly of the Corbysceptic variety it has to be said, ran their own efforts. At time the campaign looked like 229 separate parliamentary by-elections were being fought. And we see it again, with some candidates pushing their names in Labour-coloured leaflets and claiming to stand for something called 'real Labour', or some such nonsense. How well these efforts fare depend on whether sitting MPs have alienated a chunk of their activists or not, but what matters is the unavoidable and all-encompassing Brexit horizon. In 2017 exit day was just shy of two years off (lol), and so it was an issue relegated to the never-never. Not now. If you're determined to stand as an 'independent' candidate, relegating the party label to the background invites scrutiny of your personal positioning on Brexit, and the consequences this may entail. Such candidates may come to rue the day they decided to strike out on their own.

Thankfully, this time Labour is running a proper national campaign. No arms tied behind the back as per previously. You'll recall back then it was basically social media plus Jez rallies, while the centre egregiously misallocated funds and resources to super safe seats, and Momentum and local activists filled the vacuum. Now there is a very clear target seat strategy, a disciplined and political approach to campaigning with a key message each day, and allocation of resources matching local need. And yes, Momentum's toolkit has evolved too - informed by real time data activists can be directed to where the need is keenest. When Jeremy Corbyn talked about the most radical campaign the country had ever seen, he wasn't just thinking in terms of the politics. Labour almost achieved complete success in 2017 because the party became a swarm that swamped its opponents, circumnavigated the media, was self-activating and pulled the vote out thanks to the millions of conversations its members head with their workmates, neighbours, and friends. Remember, few are the people who don't know a Labour Party member.

Also significant is the major reduction in the number of distractions from our own side. The worst of Labour's 2017 cadre of MPs have absented themselves from the scene, and the self-cancellation of Tom Watson and the implosion of Chris Williamson significantly reduces the scope for unhelpful interventions from the right and the ultra-left. Nevertheless, there was something interesting about the social media reception toward the fates of both men. On the Chris front, his followers in the main expressed disappointment but did not go out on a denunciation limb nor resign en masse. And the departure of Tom Watson was met by a wall of equanimity too. No gloating, overt celebrating, nor cross words but, weirdly, tributes from those who wouldn't otherwise give him time of day. Now this is interesting because the media are desperate for something, anything to beat about the campaign's head. A series of tweets from Labour activists sticking it to Tom while sticking up for Chris would have been just what the doctor ordered, and yet they were denied. Yes, there is an election on but the response is suggestive of something more: a growing maturity of the movement. And why does this matter? Because, if anything, its responses to the last 18 months of demobilisation and siege has been fractious and bordered on the pathological. If the right were looking for an easy take over should Labour not win, they might wish to think again. But more importantly where the cut and thrust of election battle is concerned, the party is in a process of becoming - of becoming spontaneously cohesive and disciplined, which makes it much harder for the Tories to blow off course and undermine.

And so Labour enters this election trailing in the polls with the odds seemingly stacked against it. We've been here before. But only a fool would bet against a Corbyn insurgency, following the two surges that transformed the Labour Party and the third which transformed the political situation. Labour has the message, the policies, and the social weight. We can win this comrades.