Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Learning from the Westminster Terror Attack

At the time of writing, three people lie dead because of a hate-filled zealot. Whoever this man was and whatever his motivations were, nothing compelled him to drive a four-by-four down the pavement on Westminster Bridge. A grievance, real or imagined, didn't cause him to leave his home with a machete blade this afternoon. His intention to cause a mass casualty event on the day Belgium and Europe remembered last year's callous attacks on Brussels airport and metro was something dreamt, planned for, and worked toward. As his biography is picked apart, we can try and understand the motivations, but doing so is never an excuse in justifying them.

In this case, the security services acted in an exemplary fashion. The ring of steel protecting Parliament did its job, and the attacker was stopped just inside the gate to the grounds, though not before he stabbed and killed a police guard. Given the sudden nature of the attack, it's very difficult to see what else could have been done, though that does not preclude an analysis of the incident.

And, in a very rare instance, I'm going to defend the intelligence services. There is a very good chance the assailant was on a terror watch list. It's quite possible he had been or was presently under surveillance. Inevitably, the questions will be asked why he wasn't detected and/or picked up before now and prevented from undertaking this afternoon's attack. Again, while it's right such issues should be explored, lessons drawn and, if there is a case of egregious carelessness that those responsible be held to account, what really has to be asked is what could have been done differently? Thankfully, we don't have indefinite detention without trial of suspects, but unless there are teams on standby covering the move of every single suspect then the answer has to be very little. Watching someone getting into their car and driving into central London is not immediately suggestive of suspicious activity. There is no way his intent to kill could be inferred before the car mounted the pavement and started accelerating towards passers by. This kind of attack is next to impossible to prevent if someone is so minded to carry it out.

The main political take home from this, however, is despite the three murders and multiple injuries is that the police response acted exactly as it should. Parliament was protected and the attacker prevented from causing even more harm. Thankfully, the mass carnage we saw in Paris, Brussels, and Berlin was avoided because of timely action. The way to ensure, in the medium to long-term, that terror attacks are ultimately fruitless is by preserving what we have. If the reaction from the government is another curtailment of liberty and freedoms, they've won. If it marks a shift away from multiculturalism, with all its problems, to one-size-fits-all, they've won. If it heralds another round of attacks on Muslims, they've won.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Collapse of the Labour Right

In calling out Jon Lansman and Momentum publicly for the temerity of, you know, organising, Tom Watson has made a fool of himself. Worse than that, in attacking a mooted alliance between Momentum and Unite he has gone so far as to suggest there is something improper about unions seeking to maximise their influence in the Labour Party. It's only a hop, skip and a jump away from questioning the legitimacy of trade unions acting politically at all, and that's a very dangerous game. Understandably, Len McCluskey has replied in his inimitable style and the war of words continue via social media, while spilling out continually into Unite's own bad-tempered general secretary election, and potentially damaging Labour's own council and mayoral campaigns.

Tom Watson is frequently attacked by Corbyn supporters as disingenuous and hypocritical because, let's make no bones about it, his criticisms of them often are. From the Brownist machinations against His Blairness, to the minor skirmishes with Progress during the Miliband years, and now in the era of Corbynism, Tom has acquired and assiduously cultivated a cloak-and-dagger reputation. He is the fixer to end all fixers, the puppet master that has the party bureaucracy dancing along with his manipulations. While he is responsible and accountable for his actions, Tom is a product and heir to a tradition that has long cast a shadow over the Labour Party, and one coming to its end. I am talking about the old Labour trade union right.

Packing meetings, nobbling selections, stitching up internal elections, blocking and suppressing opponents, elevating bad faith to the status of performance art - all lovingly narrated in Uncle John Golding's The Hammer of the Left - are, or were the old right's stock-in-trade. I say were because while the culture of shenanigans is very much part of the party's make up, it is increasingly getting more difficult to pull off. There are three reasons for this. First, there is much greater visibility than previously. Cases of egregious bad behaviour, especially in these factionally charged times, can get publicity. And lots of it. That damages the party politically, and this behaviour impinges on the second factor: the membership. Typically dismissed as keyboard warriors who've never seen doorsteps outside Google Images, in reality the massive 2015-16 intake are no more or less active than the majority of "old" party card holders. They turn up at meetings. They turn up and campaign. Abuses of democracy and process can serve to mobilise and strengthen their determination to stick with the leader and his programme (after all, that is the basis of Jeremy Corbyn's appeal). In effect, the membership, which remains majority Jez, make the discharge of bureaucratic chicanery more difficult and more expensive, politically, for those who indulge it.

And the last point is the virtual disappearance of the trade union right. The fixers of old had one foot in the PLP and the party machinery, and another in the trade unions. While workplace organisation was much stronger and consequently more militant than present before 1979, its concomitant was a quiescent bureaucracy uninterested in rocking the boat too much in the wider party. While nostalgics write of the transmission belt unions provided from the works' canteen to Westminster's terrace, worker MPs, with some exceptions, packed bureaucratic habits of thought alongside their underwear and Sunday best as they made their journey to Parliament. Likewise trade union officialdom reinforced exactly the same sensibility as they engaged in party structures. Keep things on an even keel, anything for a quiet life. The unions wouldn't intervene too overtly or too consistently in "high politics" provided Labour delivered the policies and in return they were expected to pacify and discipline their memberships at the party's behest. The relationship gave trade union leaders and senior officials direct access to ministers and Number 10, and an input into policy, but led to combustible politics as the 1975-79 Labour government shows. Upon Blair's election as Labour leader in 1994, the relationship became increasingly one-sided as the years wore on. The unions were still expected to rein in industrial action, and in return, well, the Tories will be kept out.

This was an unsustainable situation. Readers may recall from the period of the late 90s on how unions slowly but surely turned left. General secretaries preaching the virtues of "partnership" and cooperation were replaced one-by-one by a clutch of officials collectively dubbed the awkward squad. Politically speaking, they were all well within the envelope of big tent trade unionism but to greater and lesser degrees they took more uncompromising stances with regard to members' interests. This firmed up even further after Brown's defeat and the dawning of the Tory/LibDem coalition. First, most affiliated unions organised (haphazardly, it has to be said) for Ed Miliband and were for the most part later forced by active members into stumping for Jeremy Corbyn. Meanwhile, trade union officialdom has almost been entirely replaced by a layer or organisers who were lay members during the New Labour years and, in some cases, would have participated in disputes Blair and Brown oversaw. This is particularly the case with the Communication Workers' Union and the monomaniacal attempts by a Labour government to soften Royal Mail up for privatisation. The overall result is a shift in trade union bureaucracies and powerful lay committees to range from the soft left to Corbynism in political composition. Only USDAW and wee Community remain largely unaffected.

You can see where this leads. When it comes to affiliated trade union input into Labour, basically the material base for a union-backed Labour right has withered away. Because Blairism, as a variant of liberalism believed its own Third Way waffle and failed to understand the labour movement. It simultaneously set about undermining the electoral coalition it built in the country, while negligently and blindly destroying its own allies on the trade union right in the party. While unions are not monoliths, they are not disposed to be the guarantor of machine politics any longer, especially as it tries and stymies their influence. And so the material base for that has largely shrunk to party positions - lay and staff - elected office, and whatever can me mustered via Labour First, Progress, and the affiliated societies. In this context, more trade union participation represents a threat. Hence the overt hostility shown Len McCluskey, who has long promised more Unite input into the party, is far from an irrational dislike.

Once placed in this context, the anonymous briefings to the press, the moaning at PLP meetings, the compliance unit and its doings, the studied refusal to fight the leadership politically, the bizarre criticisms levelled at Momentum as a Corbyn proxy and Unite, and the utterly counter-productive behaviour makes sense. They are, effectively, the last gasps of a gravely weakened tradition lacking a discernible way of coming back. If they want to retake the Labour Party and become relevant again, a massive rethink is needed. But for as long as they're unwilling to even understand why there are where they are (apart from one brave and largely unacknowledged exception), they're stuck. If not doomed.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

The SWP's Split from TUSC

I can't be arsed with yet another disingenuous Labour Party spat, so I'm turning to less weightier matters. Socialist Worker announced week before last that the SWP were departing from the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Coatesy over at the Tendance has the story. Their reason for departing is because TUSC voted to field candidates in this May's local elections (talk about leaving it late in the day), and as far as the SWP are concerned this meant its participation in the alliance had become a barrier to cosying up to the Labour left and recruiting. I hate to break it to you guys, but that's not your bar to success.

In truth, the SWP had only ever been a semi-detached TUSC affiliate, and was always viewed as such by its primary sponsor. Writing in the latest issue of the soaraway Socialist, Clive Heemskirk notes the SWP's refusal to take political responsibility for TUSC candidates in England and Wales at the recent conference vote and so their departure wasn't unexpected. Readers with long memories will recall the Socialist Party itself walked out of the Socialist Alliance in 2001 as it would not/could not countenance following a majority line enforced by the SWP, and so 16 years on we find the SWP swanning off because it could not tolerate being a minority subordinate to the SP. I love me some irony.

Clive's response to the SWP's flounce goes on to draw distinction between the SWP in England and Wales, and what's left of their sorry outfit in Scotland. There, the Swps remain affiliates of Scottish TUSC and are participating in this May's council elections. This is on the grounds that the SNP's demolition of Labour has shown alternatives are possible, and that Our Kez is a Blairite. Not unreasonably, Clive points out that from the perspective of sects aspiring to lead a proletarian revolution, Carwyn Jones and Welsh Labour, and local government across England are qualitatively no different. Rather than forcing a Liverpool-style confrontation with the government - which is the blueprint for running councils For All Time, regardless of circumstances - Labour have taken on the role of administering cuts and therefore little better than Tory authorities who wield the axe with alacrity.

Of course, the real reason the SWP left TUSC is a case of why bother? Throughout its history, the "party" has zigzagged from one position to another. Before the Socialist Alliance and Respect, elections were distractions from the class struggle. Then during their star crossed affair with the Gorgeous One, leaflets about dog poo and getting the vote out were the pinnacles of revolutionary politics. And since then, it's back to tedious old movementism with dilettante forays into elections under the TUSC banner. For an organisation past its sell by, and with a reputation for toxicity among labour movement activists (especially younger comrades) on a par with Nigel Farage, they certainly don't lose anything by withdrawing from TUSC.

As for TUSC and the SP itself, they too aren't exactly going places. Rumours persist that the RMT are seriously thinking about reaffiliation to Labour, and so they should. But for the SP themselves, it's no secret they've had a very difficult time orienting towards Corbynism. First, after years of saying the Labour Party was dead for the purposes of socialist politics it springs back into life. Beyond petitioning and flogging their papers on the margins of the Corbyn movement, their impact has been nil. Even worse, there is anecdotal evidence that Corbynism is undercutting them. However, as the SP has more of a root in political realities than the SWP (which isn't saying much) the option of packing their bags and trying to ponce off campaigns a la their erstwhile bedfellows doesn't exist. All they can do is wait and hope for an opening seeing as their campaign to get "former Labour Party members" (i.e. members of Militant's editorial board and others) reinstated went nowhere.

However, this isn't entirely down to having-nothing-better-to-do. As the SP noted, their local election campaigns are "targeted". This might have something to do with a collapse in activists willing to put up, but also, they can "help" Corbyn. This is probably crediting them too much nous, but they know their vote is going to be utterly derisory. By standing against councillors and council candidates they view as anti-Corbyn, TUSC might just win enough to prevent them from being elected. As Momentum fights inside, the SP are taking them on outside. The "Blairites" are weakened and, it is to be hoped, Corbyn supporters would be grateful. That a Tory or a kipper could get in instead is of little consequence. That it would cause nary a ripple on events unfolding in the Labour Party doesn't matter either. The main audience to be convinced of their continued efficacy and relevance are SP members themselves. Appearances of everything, their real standing in the world, nothing.

And so another milestone in TUSC's and, indeed, British Trotskyism's demise passes. Unfortunately for comrades clinging to the tradition, there isn't going to be an influx of tens of thousands to save them. They - the SP and SWP - passed up their moments to make history. Instead, they can look forward to being less a plaything and more a minor trinket, forgotten and seldom seen at the bottom of history's pocket.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

The Audacity of Osborne

I hear tell of George Osborne applying for the Evening Standard vacancy only after other people came to him for advice on their applications. What a charmer. Still, his landing the editorship of London's biggest free sheet is as shocking as it is audacious. How is it someone barely able to string a sentence together, let alone lacking journalistic experience of any kind, can simply drop into and run one of the country's biggest titles, and carry on doing another five jobs, including the nominally full-time role of representing the good people of Tatton?

Connections, of course. Standard proprietor, Evgeny Lebedev said "I am proud to have an editor of such substance, who reinforces The Standard's standing and influence in London and whose political viewpoint - socially liberal and economically pragmatic - closely matches that of many of our readers". Lebedev is the son of an oligarch who got stinking rich thanks to the plundering of Russian industry after the fall of the USSR, and has basically spent his entire life swanning around the jet set and organising parties for celebrities and other chums in London. Osborne and Dave are previous attendees of these lavish jollies, which is pure coincidence, of course. For Lebedev, buying the former chancellor for the pocket change of £200k a year ensures he has an in where the future of the Conservative Party is concerned. Favours rendered always come with the expectation of favours to be conferred.

Of Osborne himself, this move nakedly demonstrates the incestuous character of our elites and, fundamentally, how they work. It shows how the dispositions, networks, and cultures of our gilded rulers form a social mesh that automatically qualifies them within the terms of that social world for the privileged positions of running our most powerful and influential institutions when such opportunities arise. It doesn't matter that Osborne isn't and has never been a journalist, his social weight and inertia helps ensure it is not a matter of plugging a square peg into a round hole. This process of fitting, of integrating individuals was something the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu spent his career exploring. Permit me a moment of self-plagiarism:
His basic ideas are that each of us are endowed with a set of dispositions and preferences acquired throughout our lives (the habitus), and this acquisition is always overlaced by patterns of domination and (relative) privilege. My working class Tory background, for example, is part of my being and conditions my interests, dispositions and position-takings in ways I am aware and not aware of. And it will always be the case. More obvious examples are how the physicalities of our bodies, the genders, ethnicities, and disabilities condition and shape the habitus. The habitus is socially acquired and is irreducibly social. Bourdieu also argued that societies can be understood as if they are great meshes of overlapping fields. All human endeavour, from the operation of culture, through to the internal doings of institutions and right down to the pecking order in the local bowling club can be understood as if they were economies. The marketplace is typically a scene of competition (and collusion) between actors to secure market share, hence profits, hence economic capital for themselves. Other human activities can be understood the same way. Education systems see pupils compete through a battery of assessments for grades, i.e. cultural capital. Literary fiction is a competition among authors for the cultural capital specific to that field - prizes, critical acclaim, recognition. Politics the acquisition of political capital, and so on. What Bourdieu does is to link up habitus and field. Through socialisation, education, extra-curricular interests, work and so on one's habitus acquires social and cultural capital, and the more one possesses the better fit there is between the individual and a greater number of fields. It's not that Oxbridge graduates are especially brainy, it's that their acculturation and networks disproportionately favours their chances of succeeding across a greater range of social fields. They have the strategies and know how to get on that puts them at an advantage vis a vis the rest of the graduate population ... This, however, is not a theory of unproblematic social integration. It's a theory of best fit.
What the ownership of large quantities of cultural capital does is endow an over-exaggerated sense of one's self-worth as well as entitled expectations. Osborne, having effortlessly done the Member of Parliament thing (the benefit of having staff who can do the job for you!) and undermined the position of British capitalism from Number 11, again without breaking a sweat, for him the editorship of the Standard is merely just another set of meetings he will attend to, a few bits of documents to shuffle through, and a few decisions to be made for others to carry out. This mode of working is pretty standard among our social betters. For ridiculous money and wedges of prestige, their actual responsibilities barely extend beyond reading and commenting on briefing notes. These are hyped up as difficult, complex tasks that only the super-talented can do, but all their discharge actually requires is acculturation and a bit of front.

The politics of the move are more than foolish. Osborne, hailed as a genius by people who can't tell the difference between it and deviousness, could well end up harming his prime ministerial ambitions and the standing of Lebedev's comic. While most people who read papers know they have a political affiliation and editorial line, the legitimacy in part derives from their formal separation from the parties they back. The little bit of critical distance confers authority on editorials, and also means that politicians themselves pay attention. Because Theresa May and Sadiq Khan know the Standard is a vehicle for Osborne's views, neither are going to take its criticism and cajoling at all seriously. Indeed, in Khan's case - despite his ill-judged congratulations - they can be publicly dismissed with virtually no electoral backwash from Standard readers.

And so, George Osborne. The move into journalism, if it can be called that, is certainly a hubristic one. But we all know what follows on after.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Dutch Lessons for the Centre Left

A much-hyped populist-right party with a "charismatic" figurehead and a sideline in racism, where have we heard that story before? Well, across nearly every Western liberal democracy it seems. But in the Netherlands today, the exit polls strongly suggest Geert Wilders' misnamed Freedom Party (PVV) has juddered to a deserved halt. The hype surrounding his person served to boost turn out of anti-Wilders sentiment. Their seat tally is up from 12 to 19, but hardly the lead they were hoping for. Likewise the liberal-leftish Democrats 66 (D66) and the Christian Democrats also move up to 19 while the governing People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) make for the biggest party with a likely haul of 31 seats. The Green Left also make an advance from minor party status to the big leagues with a possible 16 seats. The checking of Wilders and his rancid politics is welcome (remember, it happened here first), but the other big story is the complete collapse of the PvdA or, for you and me, the Dutch Labour Party.

Going into this election, the PvdA held the second largest number of seats in the Tweede Kamer, or House of Representatives. At 35, it was only outstripped by the VVD at 40, and so governed in a grand coalition of the centre left and centre right. As the junior partner, the PvdA's leader Lodewijk Asscher (pictured) served as Deputy Prime Minister to the VVD's Mark Rutte. And the coalition proved to be problematic for both parties. No sooner was the ink dry on their 2012 agreement, they shared a plunge in poll ratings. The VVD tumbled from around 40% and has mostly languished between 24 and 28 percentage points since. Not good. The PvdA's fall from approximately 38% was even more immediate and spectacular. By late 2013 it sunk to a low of 13%, and on the eve-of-poll were commanding, if that's the right word, under eleven per cent. That will give them nine seats. In short, a complete disaster and shambles.

I know people on the centre left don't want to hear it, but I'm going to spell it out again anyway. The malaise afflicting social democratic and labourist politics isn't a force of nature, it's not that electorates have become massive racists or impatient with the boring, plodding work of parliamentary government. The collapse of PASOK in Greece, the humiliation about to be visited on the Socialist Party in France, the failure of Renzi's referendum in Italy, the dismal performance of the Democrats and blue collar swing to Trump have a common theme. Indeed, the collapse of Scottish Labour and the 2015 evisceration of the Liberal Democrats share it too. All of them, every single one of them, did and were seen to be acting against the interests of their constituencies.

Blair-like Third Way politics might have fooled leaders of class and labour movement-based parties that class and labour movements don't matter any more, but political realities and interests do not respect wonkish delusions. Enacting policies that attack our people, defined broadly as the coalition of voters who are conscious that their interests are best served by returning the centre left, will only break them up. Pushing through cuts, attacking unions, undermining public provision, the promotion of market reforms, all of these policies hurt our people, alienate them, and fracture the bedrock of our support. Our alliance thrives on solidarity. It weakens and splinters under conditions of insecurity. It doesn't take genius to work it out.

Unfortunately for the PvdA, they now join that long list of miserable failures. The very act of going into government with its most bitter opponent was bad enough - imagine a Tory/Labour coalition - but to then sit with them as you deliver a programme of austerity that attacks your own base ... words do not exist to describe such stupidity and recklessness.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Nicola Sturgeon's Independence Ambush

Back in the halcyon times of the UK Left Network discussion list, plenty of participants had bust ups with the grandly over-titled Scottish Republican Socialist Movement - a "movement" with more initials than members, one of the slogans often attending its adherents' contributions was "Britain out of Ireland, Scotland out of Britain". Well, it has to be said, that's not looking anywhere as fanciful as it did 15-16 years ago.

Theresa May must be bitterly cursing Nicola Sturgeon's intervention in the Brexit debate and reminding her of the almighty hash she's making of it. A scant 24 hours earlier, this blog happened to raise the issue that Westminster and its media had seemingly forgotten about, the Scottish dimension to Brexit. Indeed, by all accounts Sturgeon's pledge to put a second independence referendum in motion caught the government completely on the hop. While I don't think too much of her politics - palest pink social justice politics plus independence monomania - Sturgeon is much cannier than the flotsam and jetsam of the Tory elite, and that includes our dear leader. For instance, just check out her lame, not to say hypocritical, reply to the First Minister.

Ever since the UK's first near-death experience at the hands of the Scottish independence referendum result, the SNP have been itching to have a second crack at it. After all independence at whatever price is their party's raison d'etre. Expecting them not to advocate for it, strategise for it, and work toward it is like supposing the Tories would not hand perks and privileges out to the already wealthy. With Holyrood in the party's control and as near as dammit a full roster of Scottish constituencies at Westminster, Sturgeon and the SNP have an opportunity they just cannot pass up. You would have thought the presence of so many Scottish Nationalists in clear view from the Prime Minister's seat might have caused her to take some notice of them. Even Hammond thought they were worth a cheap troll. And yet, for all of May's talk about the preciousness of the United Kingdom, for all her sharey carey nonsense, her determination to seriously weaken British capitalism for the sake of preventing a few tens of thousands of Europeans here, a few tens of thousands of Europeans there coming here to work and contribute was always going to put her on a collision course with the Scottish government. Let there be no doubt. Theresa May is responsible for this mess. It is her, no one else, that has gone out of her way to ignore the pro-EU aspirations of a voting majority of Scots.

As far as Sturgeon is concerned, May's stupidity is a gift. Here we have a clear case of Westminster forcing on Scotland a political reality it did not vote for. The promise set out in The Promise - remember that? - that Scotland is an equal and valued partner in the UK is shown to be demonstrably false. Sturgeon and the SNP have a grievance. And, fortuitously for the pro-independence case, one of the key props of Better Together, EU membership, is going to get wrenched away from them. While it is true an independent Scotland would have to re-apply as soon as it leaves the UK, for the SNP and its hegemonic "inclusive" civic nationalism, it has the advantage of aligning more happily with the liberal utopianism that attends the EU than the backward, little Englandism of Number 10. Scotland does and always will carry out more business with the rest of the UK than the EU, but economic realities these days are trumped, sometimes literally, by nonsense nationalism. All Sturgeon is doing is striking while the iron is hot. The forces of unionism are divided and weak. The much-talked about return of Scottish Toryism is little to crow about, and Scottish Labour virtually used itself up in defending the union last time and is something of a shambles, unfortunately. If not now for the SNP, when?

There's also the small matter of the SNP's immediate interests getting served. Scottish local elections are coming up and, surely, the party can expect to do very well indeed. Even if the results are a mere adjustment in toward Westminster/Holyrood levels of support, the SNP can reasonably expect to net hundreds of seats, mostly at Labour's expense. I don't want to be cynical (who, me?), but throwing independence back into political contention has the happy consequence of obscuring the party's record in government. A less-than-stellar performance on education and an outright refusal to effectively use the powers available to it to ameliorate cuts coming from Westminster immediately spring to mind.

Nevertheless, it could turn out that Sturgeon is doing the rest of the UK a service. An independence referendum isn't likely for a couple of years, and she knows the harder the Brexit the easier the SNP's case will be. May doesn't want to go down in history as an even worse Prime Minister than her predecessor. She doesn't want to be the one nation Tory who sacrificed the UK on the altar of border controls and so, yes, it is possible that Sturgeon's ambush, for all the sound and fury, might force her to moderate her negotiating position and make an independence referendum victory less likely. How delightfully ironic.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Will Brexit Kill the Boundary Review?

I'm breaking that rule, again. You know, the one forbidding ventures into the realm of political predictions. Perhaps the recent foray into long range forecasting has empowered me to speak about matters in the nearer term. So here it is: the redrawing of constituency boundaries isn't going to happen. Okay, let me rephrase that, it's looking increasingly unlikely that the government are going to follow through. Bold claim, but what's the basis for it?

Look at the chaos embroiling Theresa May's government. Brexit was and is a tricky proposition, and by stupidly aiming for the worst kind on offer her government is unnecessarily multiplying problems for itself. Determined to be the super-toughest on immigration, May is determined that there is no way UKIP can outflank them on the right ever again. Yes - and just when you thought Tory leaders had stopped tilting to this dysfunctional bunch of has-beens, May carries on the tradition established by her predecessor. As such, not only is she colliding with the reality-facing sections of her backbenches over guarantees for EU residents, but this foolishness is imperilling the unity of the UK, again. Nicola Sturgeon has rattled the cage of a summer 2018 independence referendum, and the ongoing deadlock over the Northern Ireland executive - plus questions marks over the border and the overdue decaying of Loyalism there - puts the possibility of a united Ireland on the feasibility list. If either of these come to pass and the government carelessly loses a part of the UK, it's curtains for the Prime Minister.

Apart from that, our old friend, alleged Conservative election fraud during 2015 is making menacing forays back into the front and centre of Westminster politics. The emergence of running the Thanet campaign full-time in a clear breach of civil service rules, and now Grant Shapps weighing in to confirm the allegations ... oh, what a lovely mess! The pressure will be on the CPS to not take matters further once police investigations are completed, but if they do and charges levied lead to successful prosecutions, May could see her majority disappear mid-way through negotiations with Brussels. Not ideal.

Oh yes, and there is also the small matter of the National Insurance nightmare. An unforced error from the point of view of politics, it has merited front page coverage for a further day as well as being a main talking point during the Sunday politics shows. If only the bedroom tax or cuts to the disabled had commanded anywhere near as much concern. This occasioned another bout of acrimony but also, interestingly, May went out her way to defend the change. What that means is she cannot be seen to retreat from her position. She has made sure Hammond's policy is her policy. Having seen down the grammar school rebellion, and opposition to cuts to disability benefit, she'll try bulldozing this one. Retreat would make her look weak, and an indecisive profile on the eve of Brexit negotiations would be politically calamitous.

Still, May is by nature cautious. With chaos exploding around her, she wouldn't welcome more distractions and "unnecessary" backbench rebellions. This, alas, is what redrawing constituency boundaries promises. With the commanding poll lead, Tories normally happy to vacate disappearing seats likely to be lost at the next election for a twilight in the Lords might now object. Even never-weres and never-will-bes entertain delusions of ascending to high office, so why abandon any chance of that? In short, a plan means another possible rebellion. The second problem is May cannot simply stuff the Lords with refugees from her benches. Given the boundary exercise is partially justified by reducing the cost of politics, it makes her vulnerable to charges of cronyist profligacy and venal self-interest, a badge her one nation image would be wise to avoid. The second problem, according to chatter at Westminster, is parliamentary time. There is a growing realisation in the Commons that the overdetermination of politics by Brexit will crowd out legislative time for everything else. The raft of legislation needed to establish a new trading relationship with the EU and the rest of the world, and the scrutiny this requires has been estimated to take up to 10 years. Yes, if this blog is still going in 2027 Brexit will be a regular feature, so there's something to look forward to. Therefore the unnecessaries are going to get squeezed, and that could very well include the boundary review recommendations - especially so if, by then, Jeremy Corbyn still leads Labour and we languish behind in the polls.

I could be wrong. I sometimes am. But a reading of the situation suggests the long grass is the most likely home for whatever the Boundary Commission eventually comes up with.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Why the Right Fears the Four-Day Week

I've got a guilty secret. I subscribe to CapX's mailing list and occasionally, I like some of its output. For those of you who don't know (or don't care) what CapX is, it's a fancy ass blog that styles itself as the home of some of the best politics writers going. And Daniel Hannan. It also happens to be firmly on the right somewhere between Cameroonism and the batshittery of so-called libertarianism. In many ways, its stock-in-trade is contrarianism, albeit not as strident or as obviously stupid as your average Brendan O'Neill missive. Its niche is the provision of middle brow arguments bigging up Uber, applauding Tory economic policy (well, until this happened), and blindly, blithely cheering on the anarchy of market fundamentalism. Still, lefties used to the thought-free rantings that normally passes for right wing thinking should check it out if they want their conservatism a touch more substantial.

Anyway, scrolling through their plugs last week, I came across this by Allard Dembe, a Health Services academic at Ohio State University. And his piece, 'The hidden dangers of a four-day workweek' isn't exactly a title that leaves a lot to the imagination. As readers know, there is an emerging trend on the left (and, indeed, in politics as a whole) interested in what's happening at work. Chiefly, most worrying for policy makers - and a system utterly dependent on the disciplining of workers - are predictions that advancing automation is set to wipe out millions of jobs, make thousands of occupation types redundant, and that the new jobs set to fill the gap will neither be available in sufficient quantities or offer a like-for-like replacement (Andy's taken a recent look at this, I plan on replying in due course). Hence discussion has been doing the rounds about reducing the working week, or introducing a basic income to support people outside of work.

As the historical record shows, the workers' movement from its inception has fought to reduce the number of hours we spend selling our labour power in return for a wage or a salary. As the work/life boundary becomes blurred for large numbers of workers and work is extending itself beyond the formal work day, we need to take this more seriously and start asking serious questions about what the economy should be for, rather than limiting economic debate to pushing up GDP figures and job creation strategies. It's in this context that Dembe's arguments should be appraised.

Dembe has considerable experience studying workplaces, and possesses a long publication list that testifies to this. Unfortunately, sometimes expertise doesn't necessarily mean you ask the right questions. He begins by listing a number of companies that have experimented with four-day working and outlines advantages in terms of reduced overheads for business, less time spent commuting, and so on. And then goes on to rubbish it by listing the disadvantages. Chief among them are the consequences of compressing work time. For instance, assuming that five eight-hour days are crammed into four days, Dembe notes the risk of at-work accidents creep upwards. Furthermore, using 32 years worth of data, long work hours are related to a plethora of later life health problems. And that's before we start talking about mental health problems, parental responsibilities and the like. He concludes, "I don’t know about you, but the prospect of a four-day week scares me. I already have a hard enough time getting my regular weekly work done over five days."

There is an obvious point here. Can you tell what it is yet? Why yes, Dembe is assuming the number of hours worked in a week are inviolable. There is more than one way to shorten the working week. Assuming the "hegemonic" normal working week, you could just redistribute the hours across four days. Or, here's a radical suggestion, work commitments could be redesigned so the number of hours worked are less. Instead of a working week of four 10 hour days, how about four eight hour days? As we have seen over the course of the last 30 years, productivity gains have resulted in record profits while wages have lagged well behind, and living standards kept afloat mainly thanks to credit and cheap consumer durables. There is no reason, apart from politics, why work could not be reorganised to spread these gains to everyone through the reduction of the working week without loss of wages. For Dembe, CapX and friends this cannot be countenanced - a day less at work surely means fully automated luxury communism is next.

What Dembe's piece demonstrates is a total poverty of imagination. It's a case study in how capital's intellectual bodyguards cynically try and narrow the horizon of possibilities around a particular issue, in this instance labour's economic dependence on capital, foreclose alternatives by failing to even mention them, and then provide drab technical reasons why such-and-such a proposal is unworkable and/or undesirable.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Truxton for the MegaDrive/Genesis

Taking a night off from the politics and suchlike, it's time we had a look at a well known MegaDrive title that's been in my sights for some time. Truxton, or Tatsujin as it was dubbed in Japan, is a vertically scrolling shooter that sees you operate a rocketship of doom against waves upon waves of dastardly aliens just begging to get blasted. Yes, as no frills shooters go, Truxton pretty much wrote the book.

As an early MegaDrive title, I remember its review back in t'day in jolly old Computer and Video Games. In common with nearly all of the initial crop of games, Tatsujin as we knew it then walked away with a massive pile of accolades. Remember, these were the days when replication of the arcade experience was the sine qua non of action-based gaming. The tiny number of screen shots jumped off the page and looked like something I'd only ever see at the sadly-missed American Adventure up the road. The graphics were crisp and crapped over all the shooters available on the 16-bit home computers, and the bosses were simply huge. I think this was the moment when I realised that the pennies I had hitherto put away for an Amiga might best go on Sega's machine instead - even though the official release was still over a year away.

Summer of 1991 came round and I finally had cash enough to sink into a MegaDrive. I started off with two games and spent the next year or so (very) slowly building up a collection. Truxton as it was now styled for Western audiences by this time wasn't something I particularly fancied, until the purveyor of cheapo console games on Ripley market introduce a swapping service. For a complete game and a fiver, you could have a new game. This is how I got my copy, stupidly swapping my original, complete and pristine copy of Star Control for it. Duh. And you know what, I was disappointed.

Truxton made a fantastic first impression in 1989, but three years later while it was old hat, even if considered a solid blast by the video game mag cognoscenti. I was forced to reluctantly agree at the time. It was tough - stupidly so, in places - and for a shooter, and a Toaplan-developed one at that, the thumping soundtrack I was expecting was curiously absent. The music still disappoints to this day. It hung around on my shelf for a while before getting swapped for Michael Jackson's Moonwalker (which, in its turn, later made way for Golden Axe). And that was it until a couple of years ago when I picked it up in my second wind of MegaDrive collecting. Did absence make the heart grow fonder?

Not this time, alas. Those first impressions formed 20 years ago all came back when it flashed up on my MegaDrive. The format, fly up a forced scrolling screen dispatching waves of enemies can be quite satisfying, but in Truxton's case it is marred by a litany of cheap deaths. Baddies suddenly appearing up your backside with little chance to avoid them. Exploding light bulbs (yes, really) that throw shards of death around the screen while trying to battle hordes of aliens are annoying. And, occasionally, those evil sods off screen throwing a bullet or two in your direction. This is partially compensated by the weaponry, of which there are three types obtained through power ups. The standard spread shot eventually develops a shield of bullets that prevent any kamikaze sneak attacks from the rear. But not helpful against the light bulbs. The "green weapon" is the most powerful but concentrates your fire in a strictly narrow column of death to the front of your craft. Excellent for bosses, not ideal for the rest of the level where enemies pop up from here, there and everywhere. And lastly there is the most awesome looking weapon, the lightning. On the screenshots it looks extremely impressive, and powered up fully five columns of electrical energy stream out to encompass almost the entirety of your screen. Problems? Sides remain vulnerable, the bolts can obscure exploding enemies, and there are nefarious mid-level bosses that use the beams to home in on your craft. Though word has to go to the Truxton smart bomb, which remains the most awesomely ostentatious explosion grace a 16-bit machine.

This might sound like a whinge (and it is), but it does make for a very frustrating experience. One moment you're basking in the near-invulnerability of total destructive power, and one cheap death reduces you back to a sluggish, underpowered vulnerable nonsense. Under these circumstances, you're sure to be less X-wing, more ex-wing. Yes, it's one of them. Truxton also has the annoying Toaplan characteristic of offering speed ups to the point of uncontrollability, making it nigh on impossible to effectively avoid enemy fire without careening into something else.

Despite being annoying and having rubbish music, Truxton managed to accomplish a few important firsts for the MegaDrive. The game helped cement its reputation as a machine capable of arcade quality action in the sphere of vertically scrolling shooting. Which, at the time, was (with its horizontally-scrolling brethren) the canonical game form - albeit one due to be replaced by the platformer. As far as I know, Truxton was the first game of its type for the MegaDrive. Second, it repeated the trick Altered Beast managed to pull by showing off (a little bit) some of the tricks the machine was capable of. There was some sprite rotation-y stuff on some of the enemies, and sometimes this was accomplished with many of them at screen on once. This was then a big deal, albeit one not picked up on at the time. Second, the game throws a lot of enemies at you without any slow down - again, a truly impressive feat of programming on then new hardware. Thirdly, Truxton also established the base standards one should expect from a game of this kind. Plenty of enemies, challenge, beastly big bosses - these were the standards by which vertically scrolling console shooters were to be judged. It wasn't a canonical game, but nevertheless the conventions it condensed were sublimated into reviewers' judgement criteria. As a rule, if a game didn't advance or innovate beyond what was on offer here it was destined to be a sure fire critical failure.

As games go, Truxton is now a museum piece. Worth a whirl certainly, but rapidly eclipsed at the time by other vertically scrolling fare Super Aleste as well as Toaplan's subsequent efforts on the MegaDrive.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Hammond's National Insurance Nightmare

George Osborne may have been the worst chancellor of modern times, but he understood one thing. Subordinating the national interest, i.e. those of British business-in-general to the narrow concerns of the Conservative Party, allowed for good press and the accumulation of political capital. It didn't matter if these actions weakened the economy or made life worse for millions just as long as it helped secure the next election, which it duly did. "Call me" Philip Hammond, is a very different kind of chancellor. As he got up at yesterday's budget statement, he entertained the chamber with a handful of zingers at Labour and the SNP's expense, but effectively he did the anti-Osborne. His was a thin, technocratic position that didn't pay too close an attention to politics, and as a result the politics played him.

First and foremost was floundering into a trap of the Tory Party's own making. You may recall the weird campaign they ran in the run up to the general election: a promise to spray paint public services with money, while emphasising prudence and responsible spending that channnelled circa 1996 Gordon Brown. At the time, Dave and Osborne made a big show of accusing Labour of wanting to quietly raise National Insurance (or the jobs tax as they opportunistically dubbed it), and this forced the sainted Ed to publicly forswear any such thing. Meanwhile, they ensured it appeared no less than four times in their manifesto. And now, the Tories have gone and broken it. Hammond has tried saying that the pledge only meant a certain kind of NI contribution. More fool the Tory electorate for missing the caveat at the time, eh? And so it presents as a straight pledge break, which is something no politician should be seen to do.

And then it's who is affected. It's a smash and grab on the petit bourgeoisie, of the army of small business people and self-employed whose ranks swelled after the crash hit, redundancies were handed out and secure job opportunities shrivelled up. Traditionally the backbone of centre right parties everywhere, it's as if Hammond failed to make the political calculations as he was adding up the sums. Or perhaps he did, thinking it unlikely they'd pass over to Labour amidst its current travails. Which might be true, but there are other options for narked off Tory voters. From a press reception point of view, it was never going to go down well with the perennially terrified readers of The Daily Mail anyway. But neither did he latch on to the position of freelance hacks and those associated with right wing titles in a self-employed capacity: many a columnist would have to cough up. Bearing in mind Osborne delivered budgets much worse then Hammond, and much more damaging too, it's amusing to see the Tories hit with a wall of negative coverage.

Then why do it? The Conservatives are galloping ahead in the polls, May is retaining a favourable approval rating, and for the most part the media remain entirely fixated on Jeremy Corbyn and how many times he blew his nose today. An unnecessary own goal? Perhaps. From a technical-fiddly point of view of raising extra monies, it does have the virtue of bring National Insurance in line with PAYE and making the system fairer, as Hammond puts it. And, while it would be news to most wage and salary earners that self-employed people have enjoyed reduced contributions rates, now they do know about it the Tories are going to have to bank on them thinking it's fair too. A bit of a gamble to be sure, but if this is "necessary" then now is the time to do it.

This morning, Nick Robinson referred to Hammond as "Spreadshit Phil". Perhaps it wasn't entirely a slip.