Monday, 27 June 2022

Capitalising on Roe Vs Wade

Since Roe Vs Wade became a constitutional right via the Supreme Court in 1973, four men have held the White House for the Democrats. Between 1977 and 1981, 1993-95, 2009-11, and presently they have also held the Senate and the House of Representatives. Some of the years overlap with holding the presidency too. Yet, despite ample opportunity, the party has failed to legislate for and codify the right to an abortion. Indeed, sainted Barack Obama promised that signing it into law would be his first act as president. Needless to say, it wasn't an act at any time during his presidency. Whether it was complacency, not wanting to give the right something to mobilise around, or whether Obama simply didn't care enough, an opportunity was passed up to shield women from judicial attacks by the fundamentalist right.

When news leaked about the Supreme Court's plans to reverse the judgement, Democrat Senators mobilised to put abortion on the federal statue books. Unfortunately, their liberal heroics last month fell 49-51. A case of ah well nevertheless? No. With inflation creeping upwards and eating into the modest wage growth American enjoyed over the course 2021, Biden's achievements such as the trillion dollar infrastructure plan and the even larger Covid relief package are likely to become distant memories. Mobilising for the mid-terms, which were widely forecast to swing back toward the GOP as per the see-saw of US politics, was going to be a problem for the Democrats. With no answers to the current economic problems, they needed something that could turn out the vote and save their bacon.

Step forward Senate Majority leader Charles Schumer. He tabled the the Roe Vs Wade codification bill, but purposely designed it to lose. Knowing moderate Republicans would have a hard time supporting legislation allowing for abortion without term limits, it appears this "misfire" was quite deliberate. Democrats now have something to sell - a wedge issue which around 60% of Americans support. Billing themselves as democratic crusaders against the judicial activism of unelected, Trumpist fanatics is just the ticket. Yes, you read this correctly. Women's constitutional rights play second fiddle to the duplicity of House Democrats.

This will probably work. It won't be for the first time that a summer of mass activism is later channelled into the constitutional safety valve of Democrat election campaigns. But if the Democrats do retain their Senate majority, as past behaviour is the best indicator of future behaviour, are they really going to properly legislate for abortion? Are they going to codify LGBTQ rights and same-sex marriage while they can, or let the Supreme Court strike these down too in time for the next round of elections? Cynical politics is often mistaken for smart politics. The problem is, after a while, people can see through these tricks. The erosion of liberal democracies in recent years is partly thanks to this sort of behaviour. It depresses participation with the consequence of letting the likes of Donald Trump through. With a comeback for the perma tanned Antichrist on the cards, do the Democrats really want to be playing these games?

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Sunday, 26 June 2022

Keir Starmer's Centre Ground

How to celebrate an essential by-election victory? If you're Keir Starmer, you take to the pages of The Observer and claim it as a victory for the centre ground. Was it? On Thursday, Labour and the Liberal Democrats were the beneficiaries of an anti-Tory protest vote rather than a positive identification with either party. Don't take my predictably left wing take on Labour's performance for it, John Curtice agrees as well. But there is a point Starmer makes about "detoxifying" Labour and the role it played. He writes,
... we have rolled up our sleeves and focused on listening to the public and changing our party. We’ve rooted out the poison of antisemitism, shown unshakeable support for Nato, forged a new relationship with business, shed unworkable or unaffordable policies and created an election machine capable of taking on the Conservatives.
Let's retranslate this self-serving waffle. Under Starmer Labour has restated its commitment to the US-led alliance and the national security state, and made great public display out of its acceptance of the rules of the political game. Labour's noted silence on policy, apart from when a proposal swims with the public mood, has (mostly) bought off press hostility. There's no running commentary on anti-black and anti-Muslim racism in the party, no outcry over appalling cases of misogyny, and gone are stories about sending homeowners to the gulag and other red-baiting nonsense. Starmer has done his level best to assure the establishment that he poses no threat to their interests, which is just about the only sincere aspect of his politics, and they have reciprocated with neutral-to-warm coverage. Apart from the hardcore Tory outlets, but even here the anti-Starmer stories are more tepid and less frequent than that endured by his predecessor.

The result? A more benign political environment for Labour, and more voters prepared to give the party a punt. But does this mean a victory for the much-vaunted and forever vague centre ground, as Starmer claims? He writes "That’s not a place of mushy compromise or a halfway house between unpalatable extremes, but a centre ground driven by ethical purpose ... a place that is dedicated to answering the clarion call ... of all those demanding real change." He goes on to say it's the place from which Labour will become a restless, reforming government. It would tackle the "stagnant economy" and the chief reason why it's in the doldrums: "a failure to make the most of the enormous talents and resources that we have here in Britain." Superficial piffle that, in less colourful terms, resembles Boris Johnson's levelling up wheeze. He's good at talking about a modernisation project but is stubbornly and structurally incapable of delivery.

Of Starmer's radical centre, all we've really seen of substance so far is the aforementioned windfall tax and the bastardisation of Rebecca Long-Bailey's Green New Deal, repurposed as a renewable energy PFI by Rachel Reeves designed to lock 'green' capital into Labour's political fortunes. But because most people don't pay much attention to politics, but are nevertheless more likely to locate themselves in the centre than being at any of the "extremes" (regardless of the content of their political views), he's hoping that an explicitly centrist pitch will help along the vibing strategy.

Can this be enough? I doubt it. Regardless of who leads the Tories at the next general election, the only political strategy available to them is to put back together the 2017 and 2019 voter coalitions. In the absence of Brexit and anti-Corbyn fearmongering, this is exactly what their deliberate stoking of wedge issues is all about. This runs the risk of firming up the anti-Tory vote too, which contributed to Labour's better-than-expected result five years ago. But by the same token, if Starmer doesn't offer anything to leftist and progressive voters it's not just the supermajorities in the big cities that will reduce, but also Labour's chances in the marginals. Anti-Toryim can carry Labour in a by-election, but not when power is at stake.

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Saturday, 25 June 2022

Staring into the Abyss

The Conservative Party was braced for a loss in Wakefield. There were questions whether the Liberal Democrats could pull off a win in Tiverton. But comprehensive defeats in both, followed by the unanticipated resignation of Tory chair Oliver Dowden was the icing on the cake. If you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss will also gaze into you. And that sets the tone for a weekend of panic, recrimination, and despair among Conservative ranks. If the Wakefield swing was repeated on a national scale, the party would be reduced to 230-odd MPs and be out. If Tiverton is the strength of anti-Tory feeling at a general election, the welcome doom of the Tories are upon us: they would limp back into the Commons with 26 seats. Michael Howard, now with something of the fright about him, put the blame of the disaster at Boris Johnson's feet. Others prefer to cry foul, such as Attorney General Suella Braverman who wailed about a Lab/Lib pact that laid the Tories low. Forgetting how, in the last five years, the Tories have been in de facto coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party and their below stairs agreement with the Brexit Party in 2019 netted them an extra 20 seats.

Howard is right that the Johnson effect is proving a drag on the Tories. How PartyGate has played out and his shameless avoidance of accountability can only but damage the party further each day he spends in office. But the refusal to be seen to be doing anything about the cost of living crisis, of talking about plans and strategies to deliver on the priorities of the British people but then not delivering is getting noted all over the place. Everyone apart from the wealthy are taking hits to incomes thanks to price rises, and even the Tory base have to wait until next April before they can bank their above-inflation increase to pensions. There might be some truth that Tory voters abstained - by-elections always report lower turnouts than general elections, after all. But the problem Johnson has got, just as we saw in the local election results, is older people - among whom the Tories enjoy a peerless advantage - are more likely to turnout for second order elections (i.e. contests that aren't general elections), and so significant shifts among in these elections suggest the actual picture is grimmer when you take into account the fact Tory support tends to be lower among working age people.

Can things get worse for the Tories? Of course. The low key electoral pact between Labour and the LibDems should get the Tories fretting and sweating. Since last June's Chesham and Amersham result, vote switching on the part of anti-Tory voters has not only been crucial for LibDem by-election victories, they have taken on a sharper (some might say more ruthless) character. His esteemed holiness John Curtice is right to say in Wakefield and Tiverton, voters were less motivated by a positive case for Labour or the LibDems and were looking for who was best placed to give the Conservatives a kicking. The question is whether it can remain as potent in a general election. Past tactical voting campaigns are a mixed bag. If you listen to the Labour right, this was the sole reason for the party's unexpected success in 2017. In 2019, the plethora of remain-supporting tactical voting websites - often dispensing (purposely) duff advice - only helped consolidate the splits among the opposition parties - while, as we saw, the Tories benefited from its settlement with Nigel Farage. On the last outing, it's arguable tactical voting efforts on both sides weren't decisive as regards the result, but helped ensure Johnson did better than might otherwise have been the case.

There are three reasons why the Tories should be worried now. The first is a significant slice of the electorate have come to the conclusion about who best to vote for when it comes to seeing off Tory campaigns. Again, bear in mind there has been no media coming from Labour or the LibDems about who to vote for. Indeed, both maintain the fiction that the best way of beating Johnson is by voting for them. In other words, voters are acting independently of party direction. And they are doing so because of the second reason: the actions of the Tories themselves. Johnson stands exposed as a Prime Minister solely interested in the trappings of office. His programme, such as it is, is entirely negative. When it's not trying to gut the state's capacity to do things and therefore redraw permissible politics with a narrow horizon, the Tories are solely concerned with picking fights they think they can reap political profits from. Taken in conjunction with Tory failures and PartyGate they're helping solidify a tactically savvy, anti-Tory vote. Third, even if Johnson's services are dispensed of how likely will the current policy train switch tracks? Jeremy Hunt has said he'd do exactly the same as Johnson on the Northern Ireland Protocol. Penny Mordaunt or Liz Truss aren't going to abandon wedge politics. And even in the unlikely event of a soft makeover, people have memories.

None of this is pre-ordained, of course. But it is likely. And the Tory task becomes even hard if Labour breaks the habit of the last two years and hits upon attacks lines and a positive programme that resonates. Its role, as well as the LibDems, is to lean into this anti-Toryism and encourage it. The prize isn't just office, but a blow from which the Tory party may never recover.

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Thursday, 23 June 2022

Mick Lynch Vs the Media

No brain space to write anything for the third night running (sorry!). Instead, enjoy this piece from Novara on Mick Lynch and his filleting of the UK media.

Monday, 20 June 2022

Banning Solidarity

How is not turning up on rail workers' picket lines "showing leadership"? I ask, because this is the argument Keir Starmer used in a memo circulated to shadow cabinet members banning them from public displays of solidarity with strikers. It goes on to instruct them to "speak to members of your team to remind them of this and confirm with me that you have done so", having said the party already has established "robust lines". Because decrying strikes while half-heartedly criticising the Tories for provoking the dispute is what firmness looks like.

Labour Party politics come in two kinds. It either leads public opinion, which is always heavily manipulated, or tails it. Considering the right wing press have fallen behind the Tory line and their coverage is repackaged and spun by the BBC as faux "real concerns" about kids doing their exams and patients travelling to hospital appointments, as with so many other issues Starmer's "leadership" is a capitulation to pro-Tory framing. While this might be thought in terms of grubbing extra votes from imagined Sun readers who dwell exclusively in Leader's Office heads, distancing is him telling Briton's bosses that when push comes to shove, no government of his will back groups of workers against employers. Yes, he's promised some enhanced trade union rights but the responsible thing is for industrial disputes to sort themselves out, with the state - his administration - aloof from the fray. They have nothing to fear from Labour.

Let there be no doubt. "Showing leadership" in this situation is standing up against the government, rebutting Tory lies that fixate on drivers' wages - even though they're not striking, demanding to know where the Covid subsidy that kept rail afloat during the most acute phase of the pandemic went, and associating Labour with organised labour taking action to defend their livelihoods - and the network itself.

But Starmer's cowardice has a lineage that long pre-dates him. Remember, it only became standard to expect senior Labour politicians on picket lines during the Corbyn interlude. Before then, overt support from Labour MPs outside of the left were few and far between. During the Blair years, ministers almost relished industrial disputes as a means of showing how tough they were. In its actions and rhetoric during the firefighters' dispute of 2002-3 for instance, there was little to nothing separating New Labour from their Tory forebears. And throughout the long years of Conservative rule, disavowal and distancing from strike action was the norm, not the exception.

The inglorious tradition stretches back further still, and recalls the contradictions of Labourism. Once the party broke into the mainstream and sent parliamentarians to the big house, from the get go there was always a fraction not just temperamentally suited to the constitutionalism of procedure, but much preferred it to the messy business of winning advances on the industrial front. They wre a cut above, looked down on the people who put them there, and believed themselves superior to them. From their exalted positions they could see the way forward and they knew best, not those whose horizons ended at the factory gate and were mired in sectionalism and getting a few bob on the wage. They started seeing themselves as statesman, and their proper constituency was the national community, not a section of it.

These ideas are embedded in Labourism and persist not just because politics and economics are kept formally separate in the party/trade union split, but how aspirant politicians, even at the local level, are often cut off from and pay no heed to unions - and this is rewarded by the party. The lily-livered "leadership" of Starmer is reproduced by the conditions so many careerists encounter as they work their way up the greasy pole. Starmerism and its, at best, equivocation over workers in struggle is not new. It's an unwelcome throwback to the past.

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Sunday, 19 June 2022

Boris Johnson's "Luck"

Luck is not handed down by the fates. It's something you make. Consider Boris Johnson, the politician who has had more scrapes than any other significant Westminster figure this century. His survival after multiple scandals aren't quirks of fate, but the result of careful calculation. Going back to 2019, his taking over after Theresa May was pretty much a foregone conclusion. And then observing the opposition he faced across the Commons, he understood the only route to winning a majority was uniting the bulk of the 2016 Leave vote behind him. Facing down remainers in the parliamentary Tory party, he was able to convince most MPs of the electoral viability of his approach while rudely thrusting internal obstacles aside and making sure he played to backbench prejudices. This was not luck, this was cunning. It was political judgement.

Once the majority was won, over the last couple of years Johnson has expanded the payroll in parliament, giving him a large cadre of MPs who owe their extra bits of income to his largesse. Again, he didn't win the no confidence vote because fortune smiled on him. It was self-preservation before the fact. The discontented, as we know, were handily outnumbered by true believers and those whose voted follow their wallets.

And Johnson has mostly enjoyed the protection and patronage of the right wing press. They occasionally publish critical stories because even here, they're not monoliths. The papers have their pro- and anti-Johnson hacks, editors, and opinion writers, and sometimes a scandal is too big to ignore on pain of losing readers and market share. But when it comes down to it they will always plump for the Tories over Labour, unless the latter is congenially right wing enough. If the editors aren't resolute, the owners are and they know their best interests are served by keeping their buffoonish Prime Minister in office. Hence they've proven the keenest to "move on" from PartyGate. Again, not luck. But assiduously cultivated friends in high places.

Take the case of the disappearing news story as a case in point. Early editions of the Sunday Times splashed with news that Johnson had lined up Carrie Symonds, now Johnson, for his chief of staff job at the foreign office back in 2018. Not only would this have netted her a cool £100k non-job, this was while they were in the throes of their affair. Quite literally, according to an unnamed MP who walked in and caught them in flagrante. Another clear breach of the ministerial code then, and one well known in Westminster circles since Lord Ashcroft made it public in his hatchet job on our Covid-defying ABBA party hostess. What's curious is how the story made the Times early print editions, but vanished from later printings. Deepening the plot, a rewrite that appeared on the Mail Online vanished almost as quickly as it was posted.

According to the rumour mill, the order to pull the story came from on high. Which is curious: it was already out there, guaranteed to circulate far and wide on social media. And in the Mail's case, the extract from Ashcroft's book that contains the original allegation is still available on their website. Incredible.

But again, what this episode reminds us is that Boris Johnson isn't lucky. He has some of the most powerful people in the country batting for him. Some might call this luck. Others might call it an entirely corrupt set up.

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Saturday, 18 June 2022

A Note on Wedge Week

Floundering governments struggle to get their message across. Especially so when beset by division and the siege mentality has set in. One stratagem to try and bend media coverage in a positive way is to spend a period of time, usually a week, focusing on a policy or family of policies. The week before last, for instance, was "Health Week". Sajid Javid was pictured next to CT scanners, hospital car parks, and took questions on the NHS and how the health service is coping with the Covid-induced backlog (just don't mention that hospital admissions are rising again). This was supposed to showcase how the Tories can be trusted with the holiest of holies, and helping Javid fill up his picture portfolio for when the next leadership contest comes. Unfortunately for the Tories, it was entirely overshadowed by recent events.

Last week was a variation on the theme. If policy won't cut through, why not try dirty tricks? In what Paul Waugh dubbed "Wedge Week", the Tories deliberately stoked up tensions to win support around polarising issues. The disgusting Rwanda transportation plan ticks a couple of Tory boxes, not least the posturing on immigration and asylum this afforded them. The ECHR sequel, which allows for a hard-done-to Britain to face off against a European court recalls Brexit populism. The shameful and reckless antics about the Northern Ireland Protocol isn't entirely a matter of firming up the Tory base, but it can't harm it either. Then there are the railway strikes, which characteristically the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is lying about. And then Priti Patel handed down her decision about Julian Assange, predictably signing an extradition order and consigning him to an uncertain fate in the American penal system. On their own, each of these are outrages. Grouped together, it's evidently a conscious strategy.

An example of the UKIPification of the Tory party? Of presenting oneself the champion of an unsullied, pure people versus an array of corrupt establishments - in Wedge Week's case liberal lawyers, EU and foreign meddlers, union barons, and ne'er-do-well lefties? The Tories under Boris Johnson have knowingly taken on the populist mantle, and with "Get Brexit Done" they pulled off their famous election victory. But on the other hand, there is nothing new about these tactics. "Grown up" Theresa May often railed against those who would thwart Brexit. Before her Dave and Osborne pushed wedge issues around public spending and social security, positioning anyone of working age in receipt of support - including (some might say especially) the disabled - as some sort of aristocracy coining it off the back of everyone else. In the opposition years before Dave, Hague, IDS, and Howard alternated between liberal do-gooders, immigrants, and the European Union as their bete noires. And Thatcher and Major, if anything, had a pantheon of leftist and anti-British devilry - a rogues' gallery they could rely upon to mobilise their electorates.

With no solutions to the economic crisis bearing down on us, and a severe shock to the legitimation of the whole shebang, all the Tories have got in the tank is division and fear. As the favoured party of state in this country and custodian of capitalist relations, that means maintaining the cohesiveness of their side and the disruption and dispersal of the oppositions that come into being. And this isn't unique to the Tories, it's the ABC of right wing politics everywhere. One can choose to ignore it, as Labour are presently doing, and run the risk of getting defeated again, or come up with strategies for dealing with them. Wedge politics of the Tory kind work best when social polarisation underpins political polarisation. That's the situation we're in now, so the best counter is to short circuit them by posing some wedge issues of our own. PartyGate, the cost of living crisis, each are pregnant with opportunities begging to be taken. And yet ...

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Thursday, 16 June 2022

Being Boring

I can picture the scene. Keir Starmer gathers his lieutenants together for the weekly meeting. Some call in over Zoom. The session begins with Wes Streeting apologising to the shadow cabinet for offering encouragement to rail workers taking industrial action. We hear anodyne anecdote from the front lines in Wakefield - the scores on the door shows the contact rate is up x per cent and Labour promises have long broken the five figure mark. And then the centrepiece of every meeting: Starmer's summing up and lines for the week ahead. But instead of discussing the cost of living crisis and taking the fight to the Tories, he complains about leaks. "I'm fed up of being described as boring", he whinged. What's "boring", he cried, are leaks undermining Labour's chances of getting back into government. "What’s boring is being in opposition", he added in his Partridgesque tones.

He should feel touchy. The focus groups he sets great store by say the same thing. But does it really matter? Starmer thinks so, with his cringing allusions to the popular culture of yesteryear at Prime Minister's Question. Unfortunately, that makes him look try hard and inauthentic, a tag Labour are keen to shake off. Instead, Starmer should lean into it and embrace the grey. Back in the dim and distant, the party thought about capitalising on Gordon Brown's dour and austere image with a poster campaign that declared "No Flash, Just Gordon". One doesn't have to be a Brown fan to recognise this as a stroke of advertising genius, which is why Labour decided not to run it. It preferred to run posters with Dave posing on a Quattro and have Brown smiling awkwardly on YouTube instead.

Starmer's strength among Labour members who voted for him was an apparent seriousness of purpose. He was the "grown up" who would carry Corbynism to parts of the electorate the sainted Jeremy could not. He was boring and the membership wanted boring. It should be an advantage vis a vis the creature of constitutional havoc that is Boris Johnson. Where the Prime Minister lacks honour Starmer has integrity. Where Johnson says the first thing that comes to mind to get through the day's scrapes, Starmer is diligent and on top of his brief. Where the Tory leader lies Labour's leader will always tell the truth. Veteran watchers of Starmer's leadership know otherwise, but the Forde Report, the stitching up of Jeremy Corbyn, and the leadership pledges lost down the back of the sofa aren't well known. It's just internal Labour froth and noise little different to what the public have grown accustomed to since 2015 - and long tuned out.

Starmer could capitalise on this. After all, when the mud slinging starts and the likes of The Mail and The Express suddenly discover his past misdeeds, it's unlikely to land. Inner party minutiae is even more boring than the protagonist of this post. Looking at the polling comparing him to Johnson, he scores higher than his opponent on nearly every metric. Why is he refusing to turn what some see as a weakness into a strength? Because it means committing to something. Brown had his record and heavy weight reputation to rest on. Clement Attlee was a charisma-free zone, but had ideas. Starmer has neither of these. In politics he was previously Second Referendum man. And in policy, it's a Union Jack branded binder with nothing but blank sheets inside. For boring to work, substance is required. One has to stand for something. Which puts Starmer at a massive disadvantage versus Johnson, who has an inchoate culture war and a tepid modernisation project to lean back on.

Whether it's his judgement or the clueless crew he's surrounded himself with, Starmer is refusing to commit to anything. We've seen it over the Rwanda deportations, the train strikes, free school meals, and Covid mitigations. The Tories stole his one policy and there's little left. It appears Starmer is following the path set by Ed Miliband during his ill-fated tenure: stay silent on big ticket pledges, get the public on side with patriotic vibes, and 18 months to a couple of years out from election day start rolling out the policies. Promising nothing now gives the party a couple of years worth of grace so the Tory press can't turn mild mannered pledges into massive wedge issues. When they do pull these sorts of tricks the carefully cultivated vibes will insulate Starmer and co. from attack. So goes the theory, but in practice we're seeing a word more damaging than boring cropping up in poll findings: weak. By refusing to define yourself politically, the Tories will have a go for you. Predictably, the Captain Hindsight monicker has taken off, something Starmer might have avoided had he challenged the government's Covid strategy at the time instead of going along and uttering process criticisms. His silence on the train strikes won't save him from getting depicted as the RMT's marionette. And on it will go. We can write the headlines now.

In conventional political terms, there's never been a better time to be boring. The chaos and division of the Johnson years have produced a large section of the electorate who want to switch off from the antics and shenanigans, safe in the knowledge there's a competent hand on the tiller and things are improving. As cookie cutter politicians go, this should be Starmer's moment. He was made for it. But thanks to political cowardice and an absence of nous, he's trying his damnedest to pass the opportunity up.

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Wednesday, 15 June 2022

Refugees as Political Pawns

Thanks to the ruling from the European Court of Human Rights, Tuesday night's scheduled deportation of the first tranche of asylum seekers to Rwanda was thwarted. In response, Priti Patel vowed that Home Office lawyers would immediately start working to make sure the next flight isn't so delayed. Egg on the government's face, then. Or is it? The consensus amongst the professional commentariat and Twitterati is the delay suits Boris Johnson, Patel, and Number 10's little shop of horrors. It gives them another wedge issue where the Tories can portray themselves as the people's voice against an alliance of lefty lawyers and bleeding, liberal hearts. And it resurrects the ghost of Brexit. The ECHR and EU are entirely separate, but for the low information and/or permanently angry sections of Tory and Tory leaning voters, it's still Europe, it's still foreigners overruling the British, so what's the difference?

The Tories have had the ECHR in their sights for some time. In Johnson's and Theresa May's manifestos, there was a commitment to look at human rights and the Human Rights Act. This was reiterated in an interview with the Prime Minister following the flight's cancellation. Dave and Osborne's 2015 manifesto committed them to scrapping the HRA and redefining the UK's relationship with the ECHR. This was a low key pledge in the battery of Tory promises, fronted by the referendum pledge, to win back the UKIP vote. But prior to this senior Tories earned cheap applause from the press for fulminating against human rights - this included May who, in her then capacity as Home Secretary, toyed with leaving the ECHR. The Rwanda plan is the latest moment in an inglorious recent record shared across the Tory party.

Yet, despite the advantage the Tories think being beastly to the wretched of the earth affords them, it's not just about cynical vote chasing and distraction tactics. It goes to the heart of Tory statecraft. As explained here many times, successive governments for 40 years have centralised power and authority in the executive. During its expansion in the post-war period, the state became a constellation of institutions which had relative autonomy from and purviews separate to government. Tory class war on public sector unions and the introduction of market mechanisms as principles of governance theoretically cemented their separation from the centre, but in practice it gave the Cabinet and senior Whitehall officials carte blanche to intervene in them with all the subtleties of a wrecking ball. Jacob Rees-Mogg's policing of civil servants and declared intention to cut 91,000 jobs is typical of the relationship between government and the state's institutions.

This relates to the Tories' purpose, which is to consolidate, maintain, and see off any challenge to capitalist relations of production. They instinctively rail against any formally independent expertise or spaces of autonomy within the state because these offer the potential for initiative and spaces of organisation that run counter to their purposes. The Tories' eternal task, as borne out by 200 years of history, is to make sure labour is subordinate to capital and that nothing should come between them and their raison d'etre. Which is where the hostility to the EU came in. To paraphrase Thatcher, her Tories did not roll back the frontiers of the state in the 1980s only to have them reimposed at European level. She came round to the view that the EU was an impediment and brake on what the party of the British bourgeoisie think is necessary to manage "their" subordinates. Hence the high correlation between professed Thatcherism and Brexit enthusiasm. For them, exiting the EU is the removal of the final fetters on their programme of class rule. All the drek about sovereignty, democracy, and self-determination is about their freedom, their autonomy. The unsightly scrap with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and the contrived fight with the EHCR are extensions of the same logic.

This is an ongoing political project, and demands a political response. Unfortunately but predictably, Labour is nowhere to be seen. Having once used a wedge issue to his own advantage, these days Keir Starmer's isn't interested in leading public opinion. Not wanting to take a stand on anything, least of all something the Labour right regard as electoral Kryptonite, Starmer thinks remaining aloof from "culture war" issues will avoid him getting drawn into fighting where the Tories think they're comfortable and wield an advantage. But if the leader's office had a bit of nous about them, they might consider how Johnson is overplaying his hand. As we recently saw in Australia, the Coalition was pulverised because they had no answers on the pressing issues of the day and, crucially, a layer of their former support had grown fed up with their provocations and nonsense. The same is happening here with Tory worries about so-called Waitrose Woman and those stunning Liberal Democrat by-election victories. The harder the Tories push, the deeper they're driving a wedge into their own coalition. This layer, who found Tony Blair beguiling all those years ago, also exist in Labour's target seats - like the left wing voters Starmer has shown no interest in - and could be won to the party if our self-proclaimed "human rights lawyer" said something. But because Starmer wants to stay away from political struggle, he's unnecessarily handing the Tories the advantage of setting the terms of debate.

For now, refugees who were bound for Rwanda get to remain. But their future as political pawns in the Tories' games is, sadly, certain. As is the refusal of the official opposition to provide them and their supporters with any help.

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Monday, 13 June 2022

Manipulating Common Sense

House hunting is a thankless task. Checking out would-be homes on the internet, cooing over the lovely interiors and the space, and cursing because the price is just outside the budget or the next door neighbour is the sewage works. But the biggest issue is money, or the lack thereof. According to research seized upon by The Times, about half of Britons think lifestyle choices are the reason why younger people can't save money. It's easy come, easy go as those surveyed blamed streaming services, phones, holidays, and the kebab shop. So I've done some sums. We've had Netflix for about six years. Assuming a year's worth of membership has been constant at £80/annum, that's £480 paid over during this period. Just think of the houses we could have bought with that money! Or if, for the last 10 years, we had had no takeaways, ate out nowhere, nor gone to the pub, I might have saved about £5,000. Were we not indisciplined oiks, a veritable Palace of Versailles would be within reach.

To the credit of the research's author, Kent's Bobby Duffy, he thinks this conclusion is a nonsense. He writes,
The suggestion that the huge challenges young people face in buying their own home can be solved by skipping fancy coffees and Netflix entirely misses the point, but it’s still believed by half the public. It also reflects our general tendency to think bad of today’s young people. Throughout history people always think the current youth are the worst ever.
The Times decided to go with the headline 'Baby boomers say struggling young should cut Netflix'. Mischievous and misleading, because on this occasion the attitudes of older people aren't that much different from the rest of the population. According to the report, 52% of Boomers identified Netflix-and-thrill spending as a key reason why young people couldn't save and get on the housing ladder. For Gen X'ers, it was 46%, Millennials 48%, and Gen Z 43%. In other words a large part of the population have got mugged, ideologically speaking. While some might shake their heads and sign half of everyone off, there was a more interesting finding. Asked 'the key reasons that young adults today cannot afford to buy their own home are things like the increase in house prices, stricter lending rules and low wage growth', 72% of Boomers agreed or strongly agreed. For Gen X it was 79%, Millennials 78%, and Zoomers 73%. Interesting.

What to make of this? People are conflicted and contradictory - very few are systematically coherent on absolutely everything. And in this sense, perhaps only in this sense, certain politicians are closer to the public they chase than their radical critics might think. But opinion polls don't measure reasoning or understanding. They measure opinions, funnily enough. At anyone time, polls usually find between a fifth and a quarter don't have a view on an issue that hasn't had wall-to-wall coverage and isn't immediately emotive, like the death penalty or retaining the monarchy. But others are happy to venture an opinion, whether they know about the topic or not. This is where common sense comes in, the everyday discourse that takes the given as given. It fills in the gaps when someone encounters an unfamiliar situation, and it's reinforced through interaction, chats, and popular culture. Because it values the immediate and the empirical, it can be easy to manipulate by elites if they have a large media platform and can render their talking points in its terms.

I hate to keep on talking about Margaret Thatcher, but as a politician she was very gifted at this sort of thing. For example, comparing it to and pushing the line that state financing was the same as household budgets was a stroke of genius. It took a highly abstract and complex process and reduced it to something almost everyone could grasp. It didn't matter that it was wrong and distorted the perception of British political economy, it enabled her and the Tories to capitalise on it politically. The continued resonance of 'the taxpayer' is because of the commonsensical, cynically empiricist spin all parties and newspapers have out on this since Thatcher set the terms of definition. It also becomes powerful move when a scapegoating gambit can be associated with familiar patterns of behaviour. Attacking the unemployed or single mums as lazy, feckless, or as spongers works because a lot of people think some known personally to them approximate these categories. It can be especially toxic when it connects with senses of sacrifice and grievance. But again, these ruses can prove potent because they chime with the everyday.

It's at a lower level to be sure, but are the takeaways and holidays findings that much of a surprise. The images fed back from television of young people are usually superficial and highly consumerist. Stick on YouTube or watch the TikToks, the portrayal fed to their audiences are mostly carefree and frivolous. Nowhere do we find the realities of single mums caught by rising prices, responsibility to their kids, and the need to work to make ends meet. Or of the young lad treated as a dogsbody by his bosses, who expect him to come at short notice whenever there's a gap in the schedule. Out of sight, out of mind. Plus everyone knows someone who always has a take out coffee in hand, or look to get away at every available opportunity. Asked the question about the unseriousness of young people, it's these familiar relationships that immediately jump to mind when someone ticks the yes box. Including among young people themselves.

But there are limits. Manipulating common sense can work, but it's never total. Because common sense is rooted in the empirical, manipulation only works if it goes with grain of its logics. Hence why we have the seemingly contradictory findings about low wages, prices, and property values. They're not contradictory at all because these crises impinge on daily life. The comfortable boomers, hitherto shielded from the consequences of Tory economics, are meeting rising prices and energy bills with fixed incomes. The experiences of their grand children, millions of whom are stuck in renting and have no visible path to home ownership, can't be ignored either. In other words, what the survey demonstrates is, what we might crudely characterise as the discursive, can't put food on the table. Manipulation is successful if it helps deliver the goods. If it doesn't there might be problems.

And this, obviously, is an issue for the Conservatives right now. Faced with multiple crises, we see a return to the carrot and the stick. The carrot with regard to energy price assistance and a cheap homes wheeze. And the stick here is not a rod to beat the electorate with, but one to be thrown in the hope the more excitable will chase it. The disgusting Rwanda scheme, attacks on striking workers, moaning about the woke, threats over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and blaming young people for their predicaments all play a part as weapons of mass distraction. But many of these don't run with the commonsensical grain, and as the crisis deepens, which it will, the more difficult it becomes for the Tories and their press allies to manipulate as they have previously.

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