Saturday, 16 February 2019

Come to the Media Democracy Festival

Saturday 16th March. Doing much? If there's nothing penned in and you're in or can get yourself down London town, why not come to the 2019 Media Democracy Festival? Here's the blurb.

"The Media Democracy Festival brings together media democracy campaigners, journalists, researchers and citizens to take part in discussions on a range of issues from challenging bias to confronting Islamophobia and from how we can take on the tech platforms to producing a media manifesto for the next election. It has a fantastic range of speakers and workshops throughout the day.

The Media Democracy Festival is about imagining a media that informs, represents, and empowers us, and planning how we get there.

This year the festival is growing so that more people can attend. Our aim is to build a diverse and powerful movement for Media Democracy in the UK.

Speakers: Ash Sarkar, Owen Jones, Dawn Foster, Clive Lewis MP, Maya Goodfellow, Faiza Shaheen, Tom Mills, Kate Osamor MP, Anamik Saha, Grace Blakeley, Natalie Fenton, Matt Zarb-Cousin, David Wearing, Rachel O'Neill, Clare Hymer, Asad Rehman, Dalia Gebrial, Eleanor Penny, Hicham Yezza, Dan Hind, Michael Walker, Liz Fekete, Nathan Schneider, Juliet Jacques, Des Freedman, Layla-Roxanne Hill, Narzanin Massoumi, Helen Belcher, Sarah O'Connell, Sophie Varlow, Justin Schlosberg, Marijam Didžgalvytė, Jack Frayne-Reid, Jonathon Shafi, Yohann Koshy, Vanessa Baird, Nick Mahony, Aurelian Mondon, Joss Hands, Teun Gautier, Patrick Chalmers, John Vidal, Riley Quinn.

Join us on 16 March and be part of building a democratic media."

You can join in the discussion on Facebook here and grab your tickets here. A number of tickets are available for unwaged/students, standard tickets go for a fiver and the solidarity price is £8. I understand there will be an after festival party in the evening ... And if that's not incentive enough, yours truly has a ticket booked and will be going along.

Hope to see you in a month's time!

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Crash Course in Irish Politics

At a loose end? Know little to nothing about Irish politics? Then this utterly brilliant episode of TyskySour from Novara Media is the one for you. Here, Michael Walker is in conversation with Sinn Fein's Chris Hazzard and the New Left Review's Dan Finn. They address the position of Northern Ireland in relation to Brexit, whether it's hastening the day for a united Ireland, the shenanigans and permutations of the statelet's politics and much, much else besides. I can't recommend this enough.

As always, Novara could do with helping out so please consider donating here.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Party Before Country

What is the "national interest"? In everyday thinking, the world is composed of different nations. These compete with each other for markets, resources, prestige and, occasionally, territory. To serve a national interest is to maximise a nation's share of all these things. But this is pure ideology, or to use another commonsensical expression, total bunkum. A nation, as Benedict Anderson had it, is an imagined community. A shared history, language, and cultural touchstones are the stuff by which nations are thought and they supposedly bind us together in common endeavours. Surely then the national interest is merely the aggregation of what's best for the majority of people who happen to be a given nationality, right? It's not. The social context of all nations is an international system underpinned by the globalised capitalist mode of production, an irreducibly extractive and exploitative economic system that sees a tiny minority pile up vast quantities of unearned wealth. The state's job is to manage this state of affairs, meaning each nation is scarred by a writhing, angry class divide between those who own capital and those who don't. The state, however, is sovereign. As far as official society is concerned, what it says goes. Therefore the nation and the national interest is explicitly identified with those of the state, and the state's interest is indissociable from the interests of "its" capitalism. The national interest is therefore the common bourgeois interest.

Forgive the long preamble, but understanding this is important if we are to properly understand Theresa May's approach to Brexit. A month ago, her Brexit deal was shown the door by a record-setting Commons vote. And so she changed tack. From her my-way-or-no-way strategy prior to the vote, she put her best listening face forward and declared she was open to suggestions. In they came, from demented Brexiteers to continuity remainers in search of an escape from the impasse. Making the choice between a soft Brexit deal that was in the national interest as per the definition above, or going with the unworkable plan junking the Irish backstop and comprehensively rejected by the EU, keeping the bulk of her party together ... she chose the latter. Then heading off to Brussels she discombobulated her backbenchers by simultaneously ruling out and ruling in the Irish backstop. Bizarre. This chicanery was upset by Jeremy Corbyn's letter to the Prime Minister, which outlined Labour's red lines for supporting her deal. You'll recall this annoyed the remainers here, mainly because Guy Verhofstadt and Donald Tusk were very welcoming of the proposals. Not least because its desire for a continued customs union with the EU is the least disruptive Brexit there is. Then Sunday night May's reply to Corbyn winged its way to the leader's office. She rejected the customs union because the UK should be free to strike its own trade deals (again, for reasons to do with Tory posturing more than anything else), but made cooing noises about more talks, etc. If running the clock down is how you get your deal through the Commons, then you would do exactly as May has done this last fortnight.

Then there's the the suggestion tonight that May is reconciled to a no deal Brexit, because the politics of it make her and the Tory party look good. Well, it keeps the party together anyway. Paul Waugh quoting an anonymous source reports "She’s been told – ‘You need to understand prime minister, it’s very simple maths – the ERG [European Research Group] will fuck you, fuck the Conservative party and they will throw themselves over a cliff. Your Remainer colleagues will not’. It’s who’s got the biggest balls." However, one shouldn't overstate the foolhardiness of the ERG, they don't want to be the ones to crash the Tory party and open the door to Corbynism.

May's perception of the immediate interests of the Conservative Party have guided her Brexit strategy and shenanigans since. In this respect, she is no different to her predecessor. The question is when the national interest, the collective capitalist interest, is so obviously ill-served by a no deal Brexit and a sensible arrangement eminently do-able, why is she willing for British capital to take a battering so the Tory party doesn't? Again, it comes down to the priority of class politics over economic order politics. One of the crises besetting the Tory party is its disarticulation from business-at-large, and the growing hegemony of the most reckless, short-termist and decadent sections of British capital. A no deal Brexit is sure to compound this further. But, as May knows, doing a deal with Corbyn could completely wreck the Tory party and a split between the Tory mainstream and its enfeebled centre right on the one hand, and its hard right on the other could keep them out of government for, well, forever. Her class instinct pushes her toward preserving the Tories at all costs because the party has traditionally been the political vehicle and articulator of those interests. Casting about the political landscape now, alternatives to the right are a joke, liberalism/centrism are effectively political elites without a party, and the Labour Party are going to nationalise your wine cellar. Or to put it another way, in the absence of a political formation for bourgeois interests May's overwhelming priority is to preserve the Tories, as battered and knackered they are. How they can recover and reverse their long-term decline is not her concern - that's the problem for a future leader. Therefore the profit margins of British capital are a price worth paying if the Tory party, the chosen organ of bourgeois rule, survives.

This shows in extremis the class character of the national interest, of "putting the country first". For May the fate of her class is inextricably bound up with the Tories, and so as far as she's concerned she is pursuing the national interest. But her no deal nonsense will mean more than a few companies going into the red, it means severe limits on international trade, rising prices, businesses going to the wall and with it burgeoning unemployment. Still, she and the cracked Tory elite won't have to pony up the cost for saving their party - they've volunteered us for that.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Introducing The Brexit Party

What's that coming over the hill, is it a monster? No, it's Nigel Farage's newest vanity vehicle, The Brexit Party. Launched on Friday and causing a media flap for all of five minutes, Farage has warned it fully intends to contest the European elections in the event of Article 50 being extended. "I sincerely hope that this prospect is recognised by both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party as a threat", he says. The new party is registered with the Electoral Commission, and has attracted support from Stephen Woolfe (remember him?) and former UKIP leader in Wales, Nathan Gill. And Farage is claiming 15,000 people have signed up in the first 24 hours.

"Signed up" here is an interesting phrase, because the new party possesses the most most rudimentary of websites. As you can't even join, anyone "signing up" is presumably added to a mailing list. And, in truth, it looks a bit half-arsed and disjointed. I guess Arron Banks wasn't able to dip into his magic pockets to produce the moolah for a professional-looking job on this occasion. And if you read around TBP's origins the unserious, hedging-our-bets impression is reinforced. Catherine Blaiklock, one of Farage's lackeys, has put in the hard yards of doing the paper work and getting the registration sorted out. But she says she won't run it without him on board, but if he's there then she'll happily do all the "donkey work". Also, note Farage's equivocation. TBP will only contest if Brexit is delayed, and those are the circumstances under which he'll lead it. I can understand his reticence. His gig at LBC pulls in the dough with a minimum of effort exerted, so why tour the draughty community centres and share beers with pub bore gammon unless one absolutely has to?

Let us suppose TBP with its alleged million quids' worth of donations are able to get its act together, and Farage does properly come on board, how can we expect the party to fare? The first thing to consider is its main competition, UKIP. Under the leadership of Gerard Batten the party's best known figures have jumped ship, suffering even a defection to the SDP, a political feat no leader has accomplished since the 1980s. And it's not difficult to see why. The door is now open to the very dregs of political life, including ranting YouTube incels and fascists. This has the potential to permanently cripple UKIP as a political force because, funnily enough, recent electoral history has shown that lots of people don't like unambiguously racist parties. That said, not many people pay attention to the minutiae of politics and therefore know Farage has cut ties with the purple people bleaters. I mean, there are plenty of people in Stoke who still think Labour run the council when it hasn't for four years. Unless Farage absolutely canes his switch of allegiances in the broadcast media and can get the right wing press to provide him free publicity then UKIP might limp on.

But here is the wider issue. The circumstances that gave rise to UKIP do not pertain any more. That party's slide into irrelevance began well before it took its far right turn, and this was for two reasons. Theresa May's strategy was interested in soaking up the kippers' support by positioning the Tories as the Brexit party. Despite the hash she's making of it, this is where the Tory party is and helps explain why their support hasn't collapsed. And, as a smaller party with shallow roots, as media attention focused on Corbynism, Brexit, and divisions in the two main parties, the lack of publicity has proven as effective as covering its face with a pillow. The party's not there encroaching on people's awareness, and so it's (deservedly) slipped beneath notice.

This has consequences for Farage and TBP too. A new populist party on the fringes is, yawn, old hat where our excitable media are concerned. It looked fresh and exciting five or six years ago, but right wing demagoguery is ten-a-penny these days. And that's just on the Tory back benches. What incentive is there to offer them coverage? Farage does have a following and, among other things, personifies Brexit to friend and foe. As such he could mobilise the old faithful. In the age of social media, this retinue of the crackered and knackered might theoretically overcome the block on publicity as per Labour at the last general election, but when the defining feature of this cohort of voters is lack of engagement with online then a repeat of Jeremy Corbyn's stellar performance is not terribly likely. It is also worth bearing in mind that while UKIP did very well out of media appearances, the other leg of their political canter was boosted by activism. Kippers did stalls, they went door-to-door leafleting, haphazardly canvassed and stood in council and parliamentary by-elections, and local elections. This bloodied the troops and got them used to political work. Farage's new outfit is seemingly poised to do none of this, hoping that a wave of (non-existent) media interest will carry them to success.

Nevertheless, there are opportunities for them. The first are events. If Article 50 is delayed, or Brexit is perceived as insufficiently Brexity among the 10 per cent or so of voters obsessing over it, then Farage could find a media opening and strike a chord with these people. If somehow we end up staying in the EU this becomes a dead cert. The second is the advantage of the name. 'The Brexit Party' requires nothing in the way of explanation - just compare this with the litany of stupid names coming forward for the putative but present/absent new centre party. However, success can breed the circumstances for defeat. With a huge new left and an angry remain activist base that Farage never had to face before, should TBP start getting traction the impetus for counter-movement mobilisation grows. This is more than just waving lollypops in Farage's face outside of a public meeting, it means motivating voters. And as UKIP have done well in past European elections thanks to depressed turnouts, they might not find they have the field all their own way.

If Farage was hoping for a bit of plain sailing, of reliving the glory days of 2013 to 2016 where he was feted and the political world opened up to him like a delicate flower, he's going to get disabused of the nostalgics very quickly. Half-arsed and half-baked and with very little in The Brexit Party's favour, it's difficult to fancy their chances.

The Politics of Tory Time Wasting

Of Rory Stewart, my significant other often says he doesn't look like a politician. He looks like an actor playing a politician. It's not just our Rory, though. Consider the Prime Minister. On Friday she tweeted "I'm clear that I am going to deliver Brexit, I'm going to deliver it on time, that's what I'm going to do for the British public - I'll be negotiating hard in the coming days to do just that." We know this is a load of rubbish. EU heroes Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker and Guy Verhofstadt have more or less intimated that May is just pantomiming politics and is wasting everyone's time. Which, of course, is the point. There is a clock ticking away and the chance she'll be able to get her deal through the Commons increases in proportion to our proximity to the cliff edge of a no-deal Brexit.

Playing for time and conveying an impression of feverish activity where there is none isn't a skill unique to politicians, but where our friends the Conservatives are concerned it has undergone something of a mutation. We need not expend any more time on Theresa May's woeful efforts, so let us clamber into the time machine and head back to the happy years of the pre-Brexit days. Approximately three years ago Dave went to Brussels to renegotiate the UK's membership of the European Union. People in the know then, as now, cast aspersions on his efforts to secure significant exceptions from the responsibilities of EU membership. And he came home with very little. The reward was small beer - to secure the Tory party right flank against a UKIP who polled very well in 2015 - but he put the house on it anyway. Nevertheless, the idea he'd achieved a meaningful change to the UK's obligations were risible and didn't wash, despite the efforts of the best spinners in the business. It nevertheless allowed Dave to look busy. A great deal of effort expended for something that, had it all gone according to plan, wouldn't have mattered much.

This characterises the modus operandi of the European Research Group and, appropriately enough, professional wastemen like Boris Johnson. Effectively, their vision of Britain post-Brexit is a big job of make-work for them. For tedious patricians like Rees-Mogg, it's more than an opportunity for his hedge fund to do well. The whole shit show is an affords a chance for the Tories to restore the leadership function of their class, of restoring their place in an ideological firmament that dethroned them throughout the course of the 20th century (forgetting Thatcher herself made her contribution). By tearing up all the agreements with the EU and, with it, all the trade deals with other states, such as Japan, South Korea and Canada - though the Faroe Islands are in the bag - Tories can globe trot and, in the full glare of publicity, sign up the trade deals they previously dumped. You can see it now, Mogg jetting off to exotic locales and bringing back with him an army transport full of pineapples. The disgraced Liam Fox loaded up with gadgetry to accompany his piece of paper with Japan's signature on it, and Boris Johnson messing with his hair and declaring a new era of cooperation as the Australian and New Zealand deals are sorted. To them, this is their Empire 2.0, their chance to play the great white hero swashbuckling across the globe and securing British interests. And their hope is it will play well at home. In their minds they're providing leadership to a country where it's sorely lacking and their reward will be seats and high office in perpetuity.

Meanwhile, in the scheme of the real world this is just displacement activity. A politics of wasting time to alibi the Tory party's absence on the big questions, like rebuilding Britain's economy, tackling the problems of the NHS, the underfunding of schools and early years, the lack of interest in the care crisis, and the looming, glooming threat of climate change. Even worse from the Tory point of view their obsession with jet setting sabotages further the strained relationship between the party and its constituency of voters because they're not addressing their concerns either, making the likelihood they'll get to act out these dismal neo-imperial fantasies somewhat more remote. Good.

It's a symptom of the awful state the Tories are in that a well worn political tactic has become elevated to the raison d'etre of a not insubstantial section of the party. All the more reason why our politics should work actively toward breaking them up so they never get the chance to form a government again.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Filling the Void

It's a funny old game. The problem with politics these days, at least for some, is there's too much of it. Just ask Brenda. But it wasn't very long ago, less than half a decade in fact, that the best political brains and some MPs were worried there was too little. From approximately the late 1990s, large numbers of political scientists fretted about the erosion of liberal democracy because people were becoming disengaged. And parties didn't help as they pursued concerns that appeared to matter to parliamentary elites and few others, while showing scant interest in the job of representing the constituencies their parties were set up to support.

Peter Mair's book Ruling the Void is probably the best summary of these kinds of arguments. Long in gestation, it was incomplete at the time of his sudden passing in 2011 and therefore - as the foreword explains - is a bit disjointed. This doesn't matter much in the main part of the book, but the final chapter on the European Union seems a bit shoehorned - though the argument Mair makes do have an important bearing concerns the malaise (as was) of politics.

Mair sums up the problem thus:
The age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, the have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form. (p.1)
He suggests we're in a state of non-sovereignty (or what others term post-democracy) characterised by an indifference to and a lack of interest in democratic politics. This was exacerbated by the anti-politics rhetoric of opportunist politicians and partisan media, the conscious attempt to wrestle decision making away from democratic decision-making and putting them in the hands of technocrats, and the view governmental authority was eroding thanks to the powerful currents of globalisation. For Mair this found reflection in the technical and academic literature with arguments stating that democracy was inimical to long-term planning and expert decisions, balanced by a growing literature interested in the substance and meaning of democracy.

As a political scientist, Mair is very careful to state what politics are in decline. The 'sub-politics' of Beck, or what Giddens termed as 'life politics' and today we call identity politics wasn't necessarily in crisis but institutional politics certainly were. But for Mair, disengagement was double-sided. Electorates were losing interest in politicians, and politicians in electorates. The evidence was legion. Across European liberal democracies, electoral turn out rose consistently in the 1950s. More or less stabilised between then and the 1980s, took a slight dip in the 90s and entered rapid decline at the beginning of this century. Electoral volatility, the measure of stability in party systems, was also more or less stable for most of the post-war period (with some important exceptions) but the emergence of new parties with significant support and the (partial) eclipse of the old. Simultaneously, voters were leaving behind partisan loyalties and becoming more mercenary in their voting habits, and by the end of the century party membership as a percentage of voters had halved, on average. Nevertheless one interesting trend is in party systems given to fragmentation is that in first order (i.e. general) elections they tend to band together in alliances or blocs that more or less reflect the traditional left/right divide. Italy was a prime example of this until recently.

Can we identify some key drivers of this disillusionment? For Mair, a key development was the development of the 'catch-all party'. As parties in democracies have an interest in winning votes and therefore seats for its candidates, there is a competitive necessity to grow the party's electorate. The quickest and surest means for doing this is by adopting policies and manifestos that appeal to the widest possible range of people. New Labour is the archetypal example, but it's something everyone's had a go at. The problem is if all parties submit to this competitive logic, the core of their identities and coalition of interests are increasingly displaced, parties tend to converge around a centre ground where most of the electorate are (perceived to be) located, and for voters they become more or less indistinguishable. To test whether this was the case, Mair reviews data on the number of coalition governments and similarities of manifestos and what do you know. The number of coalition governments have increased over time and statements of intent have grown broadly similar.

The additional problem of catch-all parties are their tendency to empower party elites as distance grows between them, the party membership and their constituencies. With their orientation toward office, the relationships between leaders and members - what political scientists refer to as the linkage function tethering politicians to broad constituencies of voters - are attenuated and what happens at home in the local party or local authority area is small beer compared to "real politics" at the national level. Readers can think of plenty of UK MPs who fit this mould. Facilitating this 'autonomisation' further is the displacing of donors by state funding, either on a payment-by-election-results basis (like Germany) or benefits in kind, such as access to broadcast media and free party political advertising. The result is the party-in-the-institutions is privileged over the party-in-the-country.

In many ways, the European Union is an instantiation and enabler of these trends. As an elite project from the outset, it was effectively born as a post-democratic institution. This was a place where economic and, increasingly, political integration was planned out and executed according to expert advice, decision-making, and according to their time tables. There is, of course, the European Parliament. Staffed by appointees from member state parliaments between 1952 and 1979, and directly elected thereafter it is still the case that the body is not sovereign. It has legislative power but does not possess the powers to propose legislation, and is more an elected consultative body. Furthermore, as far as Mair was concerned, it is a democratic body without a demos. There is no pan-European popular politics, which is reflected in the quota system by which EU members states return MEPs. Therefore elections to the parliament are largely seen as pointless and most voters are in the dark about its responsibilities and functions. Worst, for Mair, because it exemplifies the disconnect of voters and party elites it is vulnerable to populist insurgencies who use the language of anti-politics and the opportunity of its elections to try and blow the system up, and getting a slice of electoral office for themselves.

While an accurate summary of the era of post-politics with plenty of insights, particularly as regards the EU, arguably this period has passed. Or, to be more accurate, is in the process of passing. In Britain, in the wake of the Scottish referendum the political party started making a come back. The trend has since continued. The SNP experienced its surge in membership, followed by the Greens, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats. The relationship to their constituencies appear to be a more active one as well. The parties have rediscovered that responding to the concerns of their constituencies at the expense of an exclusive concern with the structures of governance is the key to political rejuvenation and, especially in the SNP and Labour cases, vital for electoral success. In Germany, the centrist coalition of Merkel's CDU/CSU with the Social Democrats have helped solidify the right populist insurgency of the AfD, but more significantly has put booster rockets under the Greens. France is seeing the centre besieged by a noisy and violent street movement that rejects all conventional politics as establishment politics. But the process is unfolding unevenly. In the UK, the Tories are untouched by the return of mass politics. They can assemble a mass voter constituency but their capacity to do so diminishes daily as their party organisation is rapidly decomposing. This is because they have become disarticulated from a mass constituency, and presently show no means of recovery let alone an awareness of their predicament.

In short, it turns out the solution to anti-politics or post-politics was more politics all along. There are still a lot of problems Mair identified that hang around. Mass politics might be returning, but turnouts and penetration of the electorate by party memberships remain at historic lows (despite their upward trajectories). The old elites habituated to the old ways are kicking around and causing trouble, and mass indifference and cynicism remains an obstacle, but it can be overcome by doing the painstaking campaigning work and community organising that built mass parties in the first place. Nevertheless, the era of ruling the void looks like it's at an end. The job now is to fill it. With what and whom is up to us.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

A Special Place in Hell

Unwise his comments may be from the standpoint of diplomatic protocol, it's difficult to disagree with Donald Tusk. There should be a special place for Brexiteers who lied, peddled racist politics, and hitched themselves to the Leave bandwagon for entirely selfish reasons. Space must also be reserved on the damnation list for the former Prime Minister for failing to order any contingency planning in case Leave won the referendum. And when we think about the current occupant of the highest office? Oh boy.

Of course, the Brexiteers love it when any European politician or bureaucrat goes off on one about Brexit. They take up the comments and spin themselves and plucky old Britain as hard done to by the nasty foreigner in the hope it plays well with what they consider to be "the country". The always absurd Andrea Leadsom demanded an apology from Tusk, and Jacob Rees-Mogg tweeted some bollocks about St Thomas Aquinas. This will be followed by outraged editorials (my money's on the Express to produce the most frothing), and a few pub bores and kippers are bound to get themselves in a lather about it all. Meanwhile most people are going to look on with bemusement and wondering when this whole Brexit mess is going to get sorted.

Someone else who benefits from Tusk's cuss is Theresa May. Never the most consistent of Prime Ministers, she lived up to her reputation of being somewhat elastic with her word during her speech to Northern Ireland businesses on Tuesday. Now, bear in mind what has happened in politics of late. May's deal went down to a historic defeat. Faced with the Scylla of caving in to the Brexiteers on the hard right, and the Charybdis of a sensible customs-union based Brexit that already commands the majority of the Commons, as ever May put her party interest first and whipped her troops into supporting a new negotiating stance that re-opens the Irish backstop. Keen Brexit watchers will recall that the backstop was entirely her own invention in the first place, but such is politics. And so May is going in to bat for putting a time limit on the insurance policy in case her government proves incapable of striking a trade deal with the EU. Except she's not. She has assured Northern Ireland business that the UK isn't leaving the EU without some permutation of a backstop to prevent the return of the hard border. Eh? In her own words:

There is no suggestion that we are not going to ensure that in the future there is provision for this – it has been called an insurance policy, the backstop – that ensures that if the future relationship is not in place by the end of the implementation period, there will be arrangements in place to ensure that we deliver no hard border.

This isn't what she signed on to when May renewed her alliance with the ERG. For them, moaning about the inviolability of the UK is just cover because they feel compelled to hide their true intentions. Offered concessions at the Brexit Select Committee around a legal guarantee that Britain would not be bound in perpetuity to the backstop agreement should it be triggered, Andrea Jenkyns and John Whittingdale rejected it out of hand. No deal remains their objective, and there's nothing Brussels can do to persuade them to come to an arrangement. If this is resolved, this wing of the ERG will find some other reason to oppose a deal.

Given May's equivocation over the compact they thought was signed and sealed, they're getting a taste of what Michel Barnier has put up with these last couple of years. And yet the gnashing and the whingeing has curiously absented itself. Are they biting their lips out of deference to May going to Brussels for negotiations? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. Last week, it was continuity remain locked in a bitter dispute. This week's it's the Brexiteers' turn. As Alex Wickham reports, Tory party unity over the so-called Malthouse Compromise has frayed already. Central is the claim that a scheduled trip to Northern Ireland organised by the Alternative Arrangements Working Group (the outfit tasked to come up with a solution to the border issue) saw leading Brexiteers pull out because they were due to meet with civil servants, business and local politicians who would tell them what no deal means. It's interesting how power can never stomach its truth. They felt they were being stitched up, and so cancelled their flight yesterday afternoon. More interestingly for connoisseurs of Tory in-fighting, this is symptomatic of an internal ERG split on what concessions would be acceptable. Some, as per Jenkyns and Whittingdale are demanding the removal of a backstop entirely as a condition of their support because, you know, the risk of a return to violence and misery is a price worth paying for the ERG's tax haven fantasies. Others accept it but are on the time-limited wagon. What a shame. Or, as one Tory noted, "It is ironic that something supposed to overcome division within the Conservative Party has caused further division". Quite.

Don't know about you, but I can't get enough of the Tory party volatility. At the rate things are going, Theresa May could go into her meeting on Thursday with Jean-Claude Juncker promising to negotiate out the backstop, and reveal to the world how she's signed up to a full UK-wide customs union Brexit with a year-long extension to Article 50. To be honest, I doubt May fully knows what she's doing from one day to the next. But it doesn't matter for her. The shilly-shallying and the games playing, the scuttling backwards and forwards to Dublin and Brussels does achieve one thing: it keeps winding the clock down to when enough Tory and Labour MPs feel compelled to support her deal. We know her game, she knows her game, and she knows we know and we know she knows, but none of this is stopping the zombie-like resurrection of her deal and her steering of the country to the brink.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Review - The Thatcherite Offensive

Tentatively writing off to the SWP a long, long time ago asking for more information about their organisation they sent me back a letter, a copy of Socialist Worker, Lindsey German's short pamphlet on the revolutionary party and Paul Foot's Why You Should Be a Socialist. What struck me about the latter was the cogency and simplicity of his potted class struggle history of the post-war period. His treatment of the Thatcher governments were especially clear: what we had was a pre-meditated class offensive against the working class and its institutions, and one that mobilised all the resources of the state to smash the miners and clamp down on organised labour in general.

Alexander Gallas's The Thatcherite Offensive: A Neo-Poulantzasian Analysis is the long overdue scholarly elaboration of Foot's narrative. Drawing on documentary sources he makes the case that the Thatcherites had a plan for remoulding society, central to which was the striking of a new balance between capital and labour in capitals's favour. As such the offensive is periodised into broad sections of advance and consolidation before petering out and then the inauguration of a different class settlement under New Labour.

Drawing on the seminal work of Nicos Poulantzas on the state, there are a number of useful concepts Gallas employs. Firstly, discussing the 'power bloc' when referring to the ruling class. This is useful because, by its nature, a bloc is contingent; a semi-coherent assemblage of elite alliances, networks and connections roughly pulling in the same direction. It is therefore composed of personnel from political parties, capitalists and senior business staff, heads of state institutions, the top of the legal profession, notables from the arts and celebrity, and so on. A Marxist, or a Neo-Poulantzasian appreciation of class has to pay attention to how the bloc organises, its tensions and contradictions, its movements and its crises. The second key conceptual distinction applies to bourgeois politics at large: between class politics and economic order politics. Of course, this is an analytical separation because, in practice, they have a tendency to intertwine. But in Gallas's hands, it's about the orientation of policy and political strategy. We'll see how this works out shortly.

Beginning with the post-war period, Gallas draws attention to the fundamental instability and weakness of Britain's institutions. Compared with say West Germany whose structured capitalism, ironically, had a bit to with the institution building of its British occupiers after the war, corporatism in Britain was half-hearted, unsettled, and never properly locked capital and labour into stable tripartite relationships. Class struggle was central here but moved through a number of ad hoc institutional arrangements, and often erupted into open warfare - particularly in the 1970s. However, what quickly became obvious was that none of the frameworks established were able to manage class politics, nor was the power bloc nor the labour movement strong enough to decisively defeat the other. Each were capable of offensives, and likewise each could defend themselves.

Matters came to a head with the defeat of the Tories by the miners twice. After her election as party leader in 1975, Thatcher's priority was the breaking and taming of the labour movement. She immediately set up four secret Tory working groups. One of these, the Authority of Government Group addressed emergencies that posed government authority a threat, such as another miners' strike. While it was populated by conciliators (characteristic of the ancien regime) and hardliners alike, it recommended continuously updated contingency plans, coal stockpiles, PR strategies aimed at undermining public support for any strike, and even redesigning power stations to make them harder to picket It also warned against all-out confrontation and picking and choosing battles. More interesting, and revealing, was the Nationalised Industries Policy Group set up under Nicholas Ridley. His remit was the management and privatisation of these businesses, and Ridley's conclusions recommended a clear strategy for confronting and undermining union power. Like the Carrington group it advocated conciliatory positions for tactical reasons while not deviating from the overall plan Also crucial was some of the language Thatcher later deployed. Rather than setting out their objectives in the clear language of class (no bourgeois or petit bourgeois could ever be so vulgar), it opted for "non-class" markers of division. Folks familiar with the Dave era distinction between the strivers vs the skivers will know what I'm talking about. Keith Joseph's group, which was published at the 1977 Tory conference, made the case for "economic liberalism" but was clear it required a repressive approach to industrial relations: freedom for capital was only possible if labour lay in chains. And the Stepping Stones report written by the businessmen John Hoskyns and Norman Strauss, but commissioned by Thatcher and Joseph, argued for a fundamental shift in Britain's political economy that would favour future Conservative election victories. This systematic approach, however, was contingent upon defeating the unions.

For Gallas, this shows the intellectual energies of the Tories in opposition were consumed by plotting strategies to redress the capital/labour relationship. With the Grunwicks dispute and the Winter of Discontent, the Tories trialled their anti-union rhetoric. Then, as now, certain editorial offices abided by the party line and, unfortunately, they were able to intersect with a wider mass of voters who were put out by the latter strikes, given it was public sector unions who were taking action and therefore public services were affected. Given Labour went to the polls when it did, it's difficult to see how the 1979 election wasn't anything other than a foregone conclusion.

Nevertheless, despite the preparations for confrontation Gallas argued the first Thatcher term was more about economic order politics. Monetarism and control of the money supply was loudly trumpeted, and laissez-faire entered the mainstream political lexicon. Meanwhile more resources were poured into building up the police and anti-union legislation introduced, though at this time concessions were made to public sector unions to avoid big confrontations. The top rate of tax was reduced from 83% to 60% while VAT was almost doubled from 8% to 15%, and exchange controls and bank lending restrictions were lifted. Tough commercial-oriented expectations were imposed on nationalised industries and interest rates were put up, increasing the pound's value but rendering Britain's exports uncompetitive. This induced a collapse in manufacturing and mass unemployment, which nevertheless afforded the Tories some ideological hay making around the supposed inefficiency of state-owned industry. This was also the term the Tories started gradually unveiling what Gallas refers to as their 'two-nation strategy'. Rather than building a hegemonic bloc in which popular consent is won among the mass of the population, Gramsci-style, the Tories were interested in dividing up their potential opponents and winning a section of them over. The sell off of council houses was explicitly thought in these terms. Owner occupiers have property, which might subsequently condition their outlook, and the issuing of mortgages to pay for them has a disciplining effect. People are less likely to strike if it risks losing the roof over their heads. Later, privatisation of the utilities and the issuing of shares were conceived in similar terms. The Tories weren't interested in winning everyone over, but their popular capitalism was designed to creating a layer of beneficiaries who did well out of their government - or aspired to.

We know well what came next. Thatcher won the 1983 general election off the back of a popular war and a chronically split opposition. Immediately preparations were stepped up for a confrontation with the miners and, well, we know what happened next. This set the tone for other important disputes during the remainder of the decade. The violence of the state and the repressive legislation of her anti-union laws were used in tandem to destroy the print unions at Wapping, and break the collective strength of sea crews at P&O Ferries. However, while the latter two disputes proceeded with Tory connivance they were nowhere near as hands-on as Thatcher was with the miners. As the decade wore on and labour reeling from a strategic defeat, more conciliatory voices in the Tories started being heard. These included the likes of Michael Heseltine who favoured an abandonment of laissez-faire and a rebooted industrial activism. Nevertheless privatisations went through ("if you see Sid, tell him ...") and reforms to schools and the NHS imposed internal markets, ostensibly to drive up standards, in practice to pioneer private sector service delivery for public services funded by the taxpayer - something Blair and Brown were later to take up with alacrity. However, Thatcher fell as her poll tax fuelled mass opposition and despite winning the 1992 general election, the Major government was ill-equipped to manage the new class order their party has inaugurated. They lay the groundwork for capital's further penetration of the state apparatus with PFI and outsourcing, but the main preoccupation for the Tories - Europe - was for Gallas ultimately a dispute about managing class struggle. Full integration into the European Community and then the EU meant a recasting of the dynamics of capital and labour more in line with the (slowly neoliberalising) corporatism of European nations, and enhanced rights for the trade unions. At least that's what sundry Tories feared.

It was the failure of their economic order politics, the Exchange Rate Mechanism debacle, that finished the Tories off within six months of winning their election. Nevertheless when they were booted out, for the first two years New Labour offered nothing beyond continuity. While they stuck to Tory spending plans, it began its programme of "modernisation" with referenda to introduce devolved authorities. The repressive extractive strategy of the Tories continued (Blair boasted of still having the most restrictive Labour laws in the Western world) with the maintenance of their shackles on trade unions, but offered minor concessions in the realm of individual and not collective rights at work, as well as the minimum wage, protection from unfair dismissal after a year in the job, and limited freedom to organise in the workplace. Nevertheless, for Gallas this constituted a one nation hegemonic project. Rather than trying to set different sections of the population against one another the by-word for New Labour was inclusion, and we say a battery of strategies to give everyone a stake in the "young country". Gallas stresses the widening participation in the labour market agenda and how coercion was used along with retraining and education to maximise "opportunities" and get people off unemployment benefit. You could also point to efforts at official anti-racism and multi-culturalism, promoting women, and the legislation aimed at normalising same-sex relationships. It was still neoliberalism, it accepted the settlement Thatcher struck in the 1980s, but what it was was a species of neoliberalism but with a recalibrated approach to class politics. One, I would argue, Dave in the 00s turned away from as he capitalised on the consequences of the crash - itself a consequence of decades of deregulation, looting of the public purse, and market madness.

The Thatcherite Offensive is an essential work not just for Thatcher obsessives, but for anyone who wants to understand how politics works. It also includes a nerdy but necessary review of contemporary Marxist debates over what Thatcherism represented, including what our friend Stuart Hall had to say. Gallas also addresses the critiques of Poulantzas's work, including the role of non-class related inequalities in state strategies. From my standpoint, as someone shortly to start writing a book on the Tories and has spent more time than is healthy commenting on and thinking about them it was gratifying to find a writer whose basic approach isn't a million miles from my own. What is also useful is Gallas's stress on contingency. Thatcherism was planned, but it didn't always go according to plan and, indeed, was vulnerable and could have been defeated. A useful caveat for anyone writing, thinking, and participating in the grand sweep of huge social movements and the class struggles to come.

Monday, 4 February 2019

Sunday, 3 February 2019

A New Centrist Party is Still a Stupid Idea

The tide flows in and out, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and discontented Labour MPs keep promising they're going to split off and launch a new party "soon". According to Toby Helm, one of The Observer's's biggest cheerleaders for this miserable Blairist project, discontent over Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn's foreign policy positioning are bringing them close to quitting. But hold on a moment, thanks to the benefit of having a memory aren't these always the reasons? So why now, what's new, how have things changed?

Continuing the fine tradition of the diminishing number of MPs said to be champing at the bit for a new party, Toby's exclusive puts the latest tally at six, which is down six on the proto-party talks alleged to have taken place last summer, and the 30-40, and 80-100 before then. Who are our dramatis personae on this occasion? There's Angela Smith, the MP who has curiously chosen the private ownership of water has her hill to die on. We have our mate Chris Leslie, or as I prefer him, vacuity in a suit. And, on this occasion, Luciana Berger's name is roped in. Hers has proven a career noteworthy in two respects - she's more famous for quitting the shadow role for mental health than anything she did with it, and her murky selection in 2010 thanks to knowing the right people over and above any discernible talent. Who could be the "three others" on the verge of quitting? Mike Gapes has recently been straining to get in the news, so one shouldn't rule him out. With gravitas like this on their side, how could they not succeed?

Well, they are going to fail and hard if they ever have the guts to follow through their tiresome threats. When these stories started circulating in the summer after the last general election, the conditions against a new party then still apply. There is zero name recognition for the people involved except perhaps, ho ho, Tony Blair. Apart from money, they have no leader, no activists, no profile with the wider public, and not even a pool of voters - despite their best efforts at trying to win one. Though, to be honest, whatever this gaggle of has beens and never weres decide to do they're doomed anyway. There's more of a chance of Donald Trump showing some humility than any of these getting adopted again by their constituency party as Labour candidates.

Why go through this tedious, rinse-and-repeat ritual of announcing their intentions? Just as matters have come to a head for Theresa May, so Brexit is forcing the petty scheming of the Blairists to a conclusion. This last week has shown there is no way to get their beloved (and undesirable) second referendum through the Commons. For all their disingenuous arguments like "how can more democracy be undemocratic?" (an point, we'll note, they never accept when it applies to the left's efforts at democratising the Labour Party), and the huge amount of money spent and unrivalled media access, they've succeeded in persuading absolutely none of their colleagues that a rerun is a good 'un. They've finally hit the brick wall of reality, and they think a new party - or at least the talk of one - will help scrape them off.

The other consideration is the infighting within continuity remain itself. From before the referendum until now it's been a top down, elite affair with the interests of British capital front and centre. Only someone who is a member of these exalted circles and moves exclusively within them could think putting forward Alastair Campbell as one of its main spox is a good idea. However, as Buzzfeed reported last month the campaign is falling prey to the centrifugal pressures rending at it. One faction want it to continue as an umbrella organisation determined to avoid Brexit, and they're at odds with the others for whom anti-Corbynism is the chief consideration. And in turn both are variously ill-disposed to the prima donna moving and shaking by Chuka Umunna who has long harboured his own vanity project. In other words, without really doing anything they've knackered themselves out.

What's left for them to do? Continuity remain was a hiding to nothing, and there is zero chance of them making a comeback in Labour. They had the opportunity to re-examine their politics and think about what they mean in the context of Labour offering a genuinely transformative programme, but for them to put the party first was asking too much. Besides, that's something to be expected of the little people but not mighty Westminster titans like themselves. They've mouthed off so many times without putting on the trousers, and because they have zero name recognition and no experience of organising bar ordering what to have for lunch, any new party would be a miserable, half-hearted and dismal effort. A fitting finis to their careers, don't you think?