Sunday, 21 July 2019

James Bond and Fragile Masculinity

Last week the internet was seized by a paroxysm of outrage. Like a fast radio burst, it was energetic and dazzling. And then it was gone. I speak of news that the next James Bond is to be a black woman, played by Lashana Lynch. Deary me. Scanning the horizon of Twitter was like gazing upon a misogynistic hellscape. We found (mostly middle-aged, white) men complaining about how Bond *can't* be a woman because the films are all about fast women and fast cars, and how boys are having their role models stripped away from them. But, strictly speaking, we're not getting a female James Bond. The plot of the next film sees Bond enjoying retirement in Jamaica, until he's recalled back into service. The controversy lies in his replacement, because she introduces herself as 007. Not Bond then, but another character entirely with the same 00 designation. And those men who had a masculinity melt down because gender blasphemy, they really need to chill their beans. Examining the scant details of the scene, the old male supremacy subtext is there: Bond needs to come back because the new 007, the woman, isn't up to the job. What an empowering, gender-warping message.

I don't know how complainers would cope if they knew the British secret services routinely employs women as field agents, and have done so for over a century. Make them cry harder? Though moaning about women replacing male characters in popular culture is nothing new, we've come to see more of it lately. In fact, it appears to be accelerating. Star Trek Discovery got it in the neck for daring to cast a black woman as the lead character, a few years ago the Ghostbusters reboot received brickbats not for its quality, but because it starred women. As I write there's another meltdown happening because Natalie Portman is due to play Thor in the next cinematic outing for the character (never mind "female Thor" has already featured in a run of comics). It is certainly true we are seeing a greater visibility of women in more varied TV and film roles, and this has especially been the case this last decade with dozens of acclaimed woman-led dramas getting the plaudits and reaping success. So pushback was inevitable. But what is the root of this? Why should the masculinity of some men feel affronted when fictional characters have their genders flipped? Why the abject failure to man up?

It speaks to a certain anxiety in the world. The so-called alt-right with its performative displays of misogyny, such as the desperately try hard sexism of failed UKIP candidate, Carl Benjamin, is a symptom of gendered entitlements in crisis. Indeed, the incels, the Men Going Their Own Way movement, the "perfect gentlemen" who gun down young women, the popularity of Jordan Peterson's self-help manuals, the attraction - to some - of fascism, belies a certain frustration. The gendered codes curled up in our socialisation, and force fed us through multiple streams of media still assume male supremacy. It is the unremarked, unspoken starting point for so much. It assumes men are individuals who acquire their manly status by asserting themselves against the world. Women on the other hand are defined by their relationships and responsibilities toward others, they are part of the world to be asserted against. The problem is that while gendered inequality obviously still exists, and men have the most wealth, the most opportunities, and are therefore more likely to possess the above entitled mindset, the relationships underpinning this are shifting quickly. And decaying.

A lot of this has to do with work. For as long as the bulk of the population have to sell their labour in return for a wage or a salary, class matters, and the forms it takes shape and condition gendered expectations and experiences. The industrial worker, once the hegemonic form of conceiving and being working class (and still is for some centrist-types), dominated the 20th century. Manual work, toil, sweat, dirt, the physicality of working the land, in a factory, or an extractive industry ensured class markers were simultaneously gender markers. Coupled to this elision of strength and manliness were the ideologies associated with the social wage: men were responsible for providing for their wives and families, and the understanding - the tacit social contract between labour movement, the employers, and the state - was the wage provided for all the family. Men then were providers, and as the sole or main income their wages were the material basis for patriarchy at home. However, male dominance is not preordained. Since the 1970s, the social wage has declined and with it more women have entered into the work force; the masculine industries of old have undergone steep decline, meaning these kinds of jobs are increasingly things of the part; men and women increasingly compete for the same kind of jobs. And lastly, the character of new jobs are a lot different from the industrial worker of old. And so as the grounds shift, proletarian patriarchy is destabilised.

These new jobs, characterised by immaterial labour are based around the production of knowledge, services, care, relationships. These do not the use of the body's brute force but our social capacities and aptitudes - intelligence, creativity, empathy - and these are mobilised to make relationships, and profits. This highlights an interesting tension in the way contemporary capitalism works. The individuated masculinity of the industrial worker has been recouped and redeployed culturally, and as a mode of governance in the age of neoliberal capitalism. We are posited as individuals who are, fundamentally, on our own. Gender, ethnicity, sexuality and background are no longer barriers to success. You get out of our meritocratic systems what you put in. You, the individual, is sovereign in ways the masculine classed subject used to be. But there is a glaring cultural contradiction between this consumerist sovereignty and having to submit to the will of others in the workplace, be it the employer directly or the demands of service users and clients. This is where masculinity has particular difficulties. The continuities between masculine and neoliberal subjects renders men at a double disadvantage in job roles fundamentally oriented toward others, whereas these same jobs are culturally more attuned to feminine virtues. Cooperation, networking, caring, empathising, all the facets of emotional labour draw upon and have greater fit with the gender socialised into these mores. Therefore men are more likely to suffer a gendered form of anxiety between their gendered and classed positions, and in a very real sense are at a competitive disadvantage as these kinds of jobs and careers grow - for as long as the gendering of boys and men does not keep up with developments.

What this means is we have a man's world in the process of becoming something else. The sexism of the age of industry was about maintaining separation, of reinforcing a sexual division of labour around highly gendered modes of work. The sexism we see today recalls past privilege, but is fundamentally rooted in relationships in long-term decline. It comes from anomie, of men raised and habituated to a world that only partly exists and is fading rapidly. And so we see a recrudescence of violence against women, of shock value sexism, and the incessant whining about women ruining video games and films. They know the game is up and their privilege is slipping away, and we're left with a dwindling band who were promised the earth, but all they got was a shitty bedroom and a chip on their shoulder.

And so whether it's James Bond, Thor, Star Trek, Ghostbusters, or something else, we're going to have to suffer the wailing voices of dethroned masculinity until the point they dwindle into irrelevance. It might be unpleasant, it might be damaging, but as night follows day they are destined to be crushed under the weight of the fates. Male privilege is under attack, and its survival isn't looking good.

Saturday, 20 July 2019

The Moon and Capitalism

The Moon landing 50 years ago today ranks as the most audacious and spectacular event of the 20th century. Billions watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin goofing about the surface, and for a moment it appeared - at least transmitted by retrospective commemorations - that the human race was united in awe. For the first time members of our species escaped the gravity well of our world and took our first steps onto a body other than the Earth. It represented the pinnacle of human ingenuity, and was testament to the courage of the men prepared to risk a lingering, public death had it all gone wrong. Rightly, and despite the motives of the US government who put them there, for as long as there are people the flight of Apollo 11 is and be celebrated among our greatest collective accomplishments.

We should salute the army of NASA technicians, astronauts, admin and support staff that made the Apollo programme possible, acknowledge the spin offs and engineering know-how - later largely harnessed by the computer industry - and the inspiration it provided tens of thousands of scientific careers, it also has to be stripped down to its bare essentials. The space race was all about super power politics, of accomplishing an ambitious technical feat that would burnish the victor's soft power around the world, and demonstrate to the other side just what it was capable of. Though even this reading needs picking apart. The USSR were the first to place a satellite in orbit and send a cosmonaut into space, but the competition to get to the Moon was pure American theatre. They needed to be bolder and better than anything the Soviets had achieved. Who cares about the laurels for the first interplanetary flyby if you can land people on the Moon? The USSR, for their part, weren't terribly interested in playing this game. Soviet missions to the surface were robotic and sample return affairs. They were the first to reach the Moon, return images of its far side, and put a mission into orbit, and they did have a secret programme looking at crewed missions but it was never conceived in competition with the Americans, and for the rest of its existence the USSR confined nearly all its efforts to Low Earth Orbit. The race then was non-existent, and the whole premise was contrived in terms of US triumphalism. And, as we know, once the spectacle of the first landing was done the Apollo programme was discarded as an inconvenience by the Nixon administration and the plug was pulled. Nevertheless, in terms of domestic politics because there was a nationalistic underpinning to the whole enterprise, the Republicans have, since the early 80s, positioned themselves as the Moonshot's ideological heirs. Dear old Ronnie had the Strategic Defence Initiative, or 'Star Wars' - a means of militarising space to make safe the American homeland from nuclear attack. Dubya in 2003 unveiled a vision of space exploration for NASA, with the aim of returning astronauts to the Moon by 2020. Um. And Trump and Mike Pence have talked up America's return to the lunar surface with an ambitious target of achieving it within the next five years. These are not people who come in peace for all mankind. They only have the interests of the US state front and centre.

Though now, the context is different to 50 years ago. There are multiple space faring nations. As I write, the International Space Station is crewed by one Russian and two Americans, and will shortly be joined by another Russian, American, and Italian. The Chinese Chang'e 4 probe is currently sat on the Moon's surface, and seven spacecraft are operating in orbit around Mars from NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Indian Space Research Organisation. Japan has orbited and successfully landed twice on the asteroid Ryugu with the object of returning samples. And even Israel almost became the fourth country in history to accomplish a soft landing on the Moon. NASA are by far the most advanced of the space agencies, but its dominance isn't what it was. With space getting more crowded, a declining superpower with a paranoid cast of mind might feel it necessary to demonstrate who's boss with another spectacular mission. Who controls the heavens will have the Earth, after all. Yet while space is the new arena for powers great and small, there's a new player on the block: the market.

To get a grasp of the relationship between states and markets, examining the political economy of space while our adventures off-world are in their infancy is a good place to start. During the post-war period, a number of mainstream and radical economists drew attention to the importance of military spending. Indeed, in his final address as President, Eisenhower warned Americans about the power of the military-industrial complex, such was the close relationship between capital and arms. In the US, it was the war time economy that ultimately shook off the doldrums of the depression, and throughout the Cold War period military spending provided a guaranteed market for sections of capital. Between the start of the Korean War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, US military spending peaked at 12% of GDP and (unevenly) fell as to around six per cent. These were still astronomical sums, and provided guaranteed markets for defence contractors, strategic industries, and thousands of smaller and medium-sized businesses. The multiplier effects Keynes wrote about, of how public spending puts money in people's pockets which, in turn, put cash in the registers of businesses helped ensure there was a stable element underpinning the post-war boom. We saw similar in most of the other advanced economies, though nowhere near to the same scale, leading some - particularly those associated with Tony Cliff, the guru of the Socialist Workers Party - to argue capitalism was propped up by a permanent arms economy and that military competition with the USSR offsetted crisis tendencies and kept matters on an even keel. For a while at least.

Space programmes, at least in the West, have traditionally been a subset of military spending. The array of NASA programmes are supplied by many of the same outfits you would find competing for defence contracts, and as the technology has become more reliable and costs have fallen, we're starting to see companies muscle in to more areas. Having long built communication satellites, private capital is getting into the launch game. Following the patterns of innovation examined in Mariana Mazzucato's The Entrepreneurial State, the leading space companies - SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin - are based on and refine technologies that are with us thanks to decades of publicly funded research. SpaceX is used to launch cargo to and from the ISS, a market Blue Origin is keen to get into with cheaper and reusable launch vehicles, as well as providing landing craft for Moon missions. Virgin on the other hand are trying to tap directly into crewed missions with a twin track approach of ferrying astronauts to orbiting science facilities and lowering the barrier of entry to space tourism. All, however, depend on state investment and the state-as-consumer for their viability. In and of themselves, even with the billionaires behind them and their visions of setting up shop on Mars, space markets are not viable without state initiative - and this will be the case for quite some time.

Nevertheless, the introduction of for-profit operators adds pressure to cost reduction, which comes with all that implies. Though the customer at the moment is in the position of determining the regulations and standards of space flight. Moving on from Low Earth Orbit to the Moon, driven by state agencies, will nevertheless offer further market opportunities. If NASA's present plans come to fruition - the establishment of a permanent station in orbit around the Moon, followed by landings, and the erection of a base on the surface - these require resupply, new materials, new construction technologies and so on. The state makes and continues to make the strategic investment, and the market effectively works around the edges in tendering for contracts. And once the base or bases are established, a new research and development economy develops. Chief are supplying and extracting resources to live off the land, the building and maintenance of viable biospheres, and the spin offs this can have for settlement efforts elsewhere in space and conservation at home. Also important will be lunar prospecting and mineral exploration. A supposed abundance of helium-3, a potential fuel, is certainly seen as a potential resource by the Indian, Chinese, and Russian space agencies. Though even without a mining bonanza though, the Moon offers an attractive way station for further missions. Its ample water resources for rocket fuel and oxygen production, and smaller gravity well makes it a better location to reach deeper into the solar system than the Earth. All this is speculative, of course, but well within existing capacities, and is possible because several states are stumping up strategic investment.

And the prize? Capitalism needs new markets; it has to accumulate or die. The exploration of space, visiting and settling the Moon, fanning out and spreading the human presence to the planets and asteroids represent stupendous technical challenges, but it is something else. It's about the industrialisation of space. States, with the USA leading the pack, are providing an infrastructure around which new industries and markets can grow, and once the resources of other worlds - be they asteroids or planets - can be mined profitably, then the commodification of the solar system will be rapid and possibly chaotic.

The last crewed mission to the Moon departed its surface in December 1972. If we do return in the next five years, or by the end of the next decade, or whenever, it is very unlikely the Moon will be left to simply abide for an extended period of time ever again. Geopolitics is making our satellite a place of interest, and with big companies scenting big dollar, there is a strengthening of the commercial imperative to get in on the ground floor and shape the markets to come. If the Americans do not do this, then someone else sooner or later will.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Against the New Corbyn Coup

According to Marx, history repeats itself twice: first time as tragedy, second time as farce. News reaches us that Labour peers are are considering a no confidence vote against Jeremy Corbyn. Because the last one worked so well. This follows the sacking of Baroness Hayter for likening the leader's office to Hitler's bunker, and an advert in The Graun taken out by Labour lords criticising the leadership for its lack of action over anti-semitism. As has been commented, one of the signatories was one Iain McNicol, the man more than any other responsible for delays to the complaint process and, as it turns out, the author of the Non-Disclosure Agreements signed by party staff that have excited the press recently. Imagine the chutzpah and dishonesty of signing a letter condemning your own inaction and, some might say, intentional tardiness. Incredible.

If the peers decide to proceed, they'll probably pass their motion but what will it achieve? I ask, because in the lead up to trigger ballots they serve to remind the membership that the party needs MPs who will actually deliver for our people instead of their bank balances, social standing, and self-importance. Of course, our lords are not spontaneously reacting to the sacking of a popular peer: it has to be placed in the context of long-term plotting and destabilisation, at the heart of which is Tom Watson. And as it happens, Isabel Hardman has an interesting piece in the latest Spectator looking at the Labour right's strategy in more depth.

I've expended many words on their plight over the last few years, and especially their strategies and stunts. Driving a wedge between Corbyn and Corbyn supporters on the issue of a second referendum was and is one such ploy. Talking up and amplifying anti-semitism as a means of damaging the leadership instead of working to resolve the issue is another. And while this probably won a few people here and there away from the left, the real direction of travel has been the dissolution of the right. Before the first coup after the EU referendum, the parliamentary party majority behaved like such entitled, spoiled brats that it turned a layer of Corbyn sceptics against them. I was one of them. And since, their efforts at making out Labour is "confused" about Brexit and is uniquely anti-semitic has had the consequence of demobilising their own support. You win faction fights by gaining numbers, not shedding them all over the place. The resignations from Labour of sundry MPs - the CHUKists, Iain Austin, John Woodcock - were also self-inflicted wounds. How then to wrestle the party back from the membership, cause as much disruption as possible, but actually grow your support? This is the right's strategic dilemma.

According to the Speccie piece, Tom Watson and friends scent an opportunity. Corbynism, apparently, is in crisis and a symptom of this are divisions over Brexit and anti-semitism and, if you spend five minutes peering at left Twitter, ostensible comrades are denouncing ostensible comrades and falling out over these and other issues. And after months of difficulties (not least, those awful results) there is a sense of siege and paranoia at the top of the party. In this context Watson's criticisms and denunciations should be taken as calculated interventions. This ratcheting up of tensions amount to a cold coup, of attempts "to surround and destabilise Corbyn and his lieutenants, until they resign of their own accord". Meanwhile, Watson tries cutting a shop steward-style figure among his colleagues, someone armed with tea and a sympathetic ear who channels discontent and tries keeping disaffected MPs on board. The piece credits him with preventing six or so from jumping ship, but it must rankle that former close ally Ian Austin was among the departures.

Helping keep the right wing show together at Westminster is one thing, but out in the wilds of the party membership? We are told that Future Britain, the supposedly innocuous ideas factory launched by Watson back in March, is going to expand and become a centrist Momentum with the clear object of removing Corbyn. And one way it will go about its business is "that this voice will become so deafening and destabilising, with a blizzard of angry letters and protests against the leadership, that it makes it impossible for Corbyn to continue." Please, try not to laugh. Angry letters. Unfortunately for Watson and friends, time is not on the plotters' side. As Hardman notes, an election is very likely in the Autumn and the worst outcome could happen: not a Boris Johnson-led government, but Jeremy in Number 10. Their Herculean task is not only to manoeuvre Corbyn into resignation, but ensure there is a soft left replacement - albeit one Watson can control - in place to take over. Angel Rayner and Rebecca Long-Bailey are touted as possible replacements, though you get the sense no one's asked them if they fancy themselves the pawns of absurdist right wing fantasies.

Because we are talking absurdism here. The moment for a centrist Momentum with any chance of getting a hearing was during the second leadership election. Look how Labour First and Progress have thrived these last three years, despite relaunches and a rebrand. How might another bland, say-nothing group succeed where they have miserably failed? And as for the tactics, good grief, a letter writing campaign? Is this the best Watson's celebrated tactical genius can come up with? And how do they think they're going to unseat Corbyn when the left are incomparably stronger than in 2016? This is truly desperate stuff, and what Isabel Hardman has produced here is a feel good piece for the Labour right, a rosy picture of their dire situation. Because for all their clever-clever politics, they assume no one to their left can see what they're doing. Indeed, what kind of factional operator telegraphs their intentions to a mass market politics publication? Some facts. As much a load of MPs would like to see Corbyn gone, few are in the mood to pick a fight. The summer is here and their energy and morale has already been sapped by the exhaustion of the Brexit process - they haven't got the will or time to mount the sort of energetic challenge any serious attempt at toppling Corbyn requires. Why do you think the peers are flying the kite instead of PLP dissidents? And, yes, there is the small matter of MPs attending to their own constituency organisations in advance of the coming trigger ballots. A move against Corbyn in the summer months would galvanise members as we have seen before, recruit new activists, and create a more challenging environment for anyone part of a putative coup hoping to be reselected. In all, it's a dose of wishful thinking.

The truth of the matter is in four years the Labour right do not understand, or seemingly want to even comprehend what has happened to the party and what Jeremy Corbyn is. People don't support him because he's a kindly chap who's done a bit of activism, but because of the politics he represents. Corbyn is the lightning rod for a current of opinion fed up with dog-eat-dog nothing will ever get better, the grey miserablism of the rich getting richer while basic services fall apart, hate crime is on the up, wages and jobs are crap, housing is in short supply, the climate emergency is virtually ignored, and the future is filled with uncertainty and despair. They cannot grasp that the electorate has changed and new groups are moving into politics in large numbers - and want their needs and concerns addressed. Corbynism isn't a thing because new arms are getting twisted by old hands, as Watson once put it, but because its politics are the most appropriate form of working class politics at the moment. The gruel the Labour right offer in contrast is straight up anti-Corbynism and nothing else. There is no strategy for keeping the party's coalition together, no diagnosis of the challenges we face, and no clue how to take the Tories on and win. Like old school Trots of decades past for whom matters like sexual equality and racism were to be addressed after the revolution, so one's eyes cannot be lifted to the political horizon until Corbyn is pushed into retirement.

When you read about this stuff, when your social media feeds are cluttered with whingeing, stupidity and dishonesty about the Labour Party, it can be dispiriting. You can understand why some people throw their hands up and find other things to do. But the situation we're in, and why the Labour right are reduced to having untouchable proxies do their work for them is because they're pitifully weak - perhaps the weakest they've ever been. And their failure to realistically consider their capacity vs the rest of the party merely underlines this point. Whom the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad, and as they shrivel and decompose their collective imagination is befogged by delusion and make believe. And even better if you are, like me, exasperated by their antics and want to see something done you don't have to wait it out. You can take action. The best way to put a stop to this nonsense is by getting involved and recruiting people. Make sure you attend your CLP and branch meetings. And make sure you vote to open reselections when the trigger ballot is held.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Corbynomics Vs Neoliberalism

A very interesting discussion on Novara Media on Tuesday night. Michael was joined by James Meadway, oft-credited with the heavy lifting regards Corbynomics, and Gillian Keegan, Conservative MP for Chichester. For a Tory to appear on Novara is interesting in and of itself, but how she engages with and tries rebutting James's position is a useful lesson in Tory thought processes. She no doubt genuinely believes that austerity was necessary and worthwhile, and neoliberal economics are the best way to go, but how she defends these positions betrays a certain something. It reminds me of defences of privilege. Anyone speaking up for inequality knows it's an untenable position, but reach for any old rope to try and justify it. Gillian does exactly the same here, preferring to shelter in ideology and occasionally shouting Corbyn! and McDonnell! instead of addressing James's points and Labour's economic programme.

Worth watching.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Ralph Miliband on Conservative Parties

Just finished reading Ralph Miliband's (AKA Best Miliband) classic work, The State in Capitalist Society. Partly on the occasion of 50 years since its publication, partly because Alex recently had a show on it, and lastly because of some additional reading concerning the old book on the decline and fall of the Tories. The book plan is coming along nicely and can't wait to start writing properly, though if you've been following my commentary on the Tories since returning to blogging in 2012 you will have a good impression of the lines of argument.

Anyway, reading always partially involves quote mining, so here is what he had to say about conservative parties.

... conservatism, however pronounced, does not entail the rejection of all measures of reform, but lives on the contrary by the endorsement and promulgation of reform at the least possible cost to the existing structure of power and privilege ... conservative parties ... remain primarily the defence organisations, in the political field, of business and property. What they really 'aggregate' are the different interests of the dominant classes. Precisely because the latter are not solid, congealed economic and social blocs, they require political formations which reconcile, coordinate, and fuse their interests, and which express their common purposes as well as their separate interests. These purposes and interests also require ideological clothing suitable for political competition in the age of 'mass politics'; one of the special functions of conservative political parties is to provide that necessary clothing. (The State in Capitalist Society 1969, p.168)

If I get a bit of time, I might write more about Miliband's book at the weekend. Needless to say, it comes highly recommended.

Monday, 15 July 2019

Facing Up to the CHUK Up

Writing at the beginning of the month, I hoped never having to put pen to paper, or finger to key, about Change UK and their progeny ever again. That was a bit of a fib, because there are few things more joyous than picking over the carcass of an arrogant, bankrupt project doomed to failure at the outset. Told you so ain't big, ain't clever, but it's always good for a laugh. Having written more times than I care to link to about the prospects of a new (self-defined) centrist formation, it was clear they risked getting pulled under by the eddys of turbulent politics because a) they did not understand Corbynism, let alone the political world as it exists in 2019, b) assumed a mass constituency for centrism was out there gagging for representation, and c) lacked the first clue about organising a party. Therefore after the crashing and the burning I approached this piece from Gavin Shuker with some interest. How do the CHUKs, now spread across three parties, make sense of their failed enterprise?

In a flourish of nonsensical boosterism any ex-Trot would be familiar with, despite the failure of Change UK, our Gavin says "that we pulled that off [i.e. the formation of a new organisation] was a testament to the desire of millions of people, feeling as politically homeless as the MPs that jumped, for something hopeful." Um no, Gavin. Getting a few like minded parliamentarians together and having a press conference is no more an achievement than registering a company, or putting a leaflet through someone's door. Had CHUK launched, immediately set about recruiting hundreds of thousands of new members, and struck a chord in the country at large then your project would have been a "testament" to "the desire of millions", instead of an escape pod for a bunch of useless scabs.

He goes on, acknowledging CHUK was ground down by forces much greater than it but aren't, by themselves, capable of solving the Brexit thanks to the move to four-party politics. Well, that is debatable and is likely a transitory moment - all the polls save YouGov are suggesting movements away from it, but even so. Why did CHUK fail when the discredited and disgraced Liberal Democrats surged instead? Why did the shiny, new centrist project come unstuck despite attracting greater media coverage and the yellow party went home with the bacon? Apart from being "premature" (an act of hubris no less, says Gavin), having a daft logo, and splitting the remain vote are the reasons. The real reason, of course, is that the LibDems are a proper political party with deep roots, a campaigning profile, and persistence over time. CHUK was and is a fly-by-night vanity project for a bunch of careerists without careers, and the electorate ignored them accordingly.

With a complete inability of getting to grips with his own failure, Gavin hits his stride when occupying the only territory that elicits passionate politics from the Labour right: attacking the left. Jeremy Corbyn is evil as that Panorama attests. And from his position as a former member of the party's elite, stuff like reselections, member input into policy, and introducing more democracy and accountability into the party means "the shutting down of democratic processes and debate". Hmmm. Gavin really needs to stop mistaking Twitter for the Labour Party.

Nevertheless, he does make an interesting a point eventually. He acknowledges that Corbynism is now much stronger in the party than when the parliamentary party pursued its coup against the membership. And unless Labour MPs do something, Corbyn could - horror of horrors - gain more seats like last time and perhaps even form a government at the next election. "If you're going to stay and fight", chides Gavin, "you're actually going to need to do both". Ouch. All putative Labour rebels need are 52 MPs to launch a new leadership challenge, and Gavin signs off with the challenge: "History is not just shaped by action, but by inaction as well."

What to make of this? Gavin and his mates are last night's chip paper. Well, all except for one, of course. They have no power nor influence save whatever friendships they've salvaged with the backbench grey blurs of the Parliamentary Labour Party. And, while Gavin has the political sense of an amoeba, he does have enough of a clue to realise a rebellion of Labour MPs in 2019 has no chance of removing Jezza. Corbynphobic MPs realise it too. They know if they make a move, they might as well head to the railway station and buy themselves a one way ticket on the deselection express. No one wants career suicide, so they're content to let the cold coup rumble on in the hope they can survive the trigger ballots, the next election, and make some sort of life for themselves after Jez steps down. Labour MPs know this, we know this, and Gavin and his sad little squad know it too. Which makes his pleading all the more desperate and pathetic. The whole article is a valedictory wail of despair. Our would-be rebels cannot save their skin, and in their hour of need they cling to the delusion that Corbyn can be forced out and the CHUKas be let back in, job for life restored. That Gavin Shuker chooses to humiliate himself in this way shows that perhaps the penny has finally dropped. Sad for him and his ilk that no one cares.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Which Pollster to Believe?

Polls can be confusing. Let's consider two from the end of this week. According to the latest from YouGov, the Tories lead on 24%, the Brexit Party on 21%, Labour on 20% and the LibDems 19%. We're still very much in four-party territory and the crisis of the two-party system we entered into after the EU elections hasn't gone away. But if you look at Survation's latest, we find a different story. Here, Labour is on 29%, the Tories 23%, BXP 20%, and the LibDems on 19%. Who's right, and who should we take with a pinch of salt?

There are two ways of looking at this. We can compare the polling with recent findings from other companies, and we can look at the methodologies employed. Looking at the mood music coming from other pollsters, only one other has been out out recently and that was from BMG Research. It had the Tories on 28%, Labour 27%, LibDems 18%, and BXP 14%, and its fieldwork was done the week before last. Not much to go with then. One might suppose a drift away from four-party politics over time since the EU election lies a month or so behind us, and the underlying political economy that gave us the 2017 election result hasn't gone away, but equally one could counter that the tedious Tory leadership election and the total dominance of everything by Brexit ensures the parties defined by the referendum - the LibDems and BXP - remain viable options. The fact two polls support the first proposition while another provides succour for the second mean neither position can be affirmed with any confidence on the basis of numbers alone.

We're going to have to look at methodology then. The case for YouGov is of all the polling outfits, in the run up to the EU elections they were consistently the outliers. For instance, in the last round before polling day YouGov had Labour on 13%, the Tories 7%, LibDems 19% and BXP 37%. In the event they massively overestimated Nigel Farage's party (it got 30.5%) but were the closest on the other parties. Compare this to Survation (23%, 14%, 12%, and 31% respectively) and BMG (18%, 12%, 17%, and 35%). YouGov come away smelling of roses and proved outliers aren't always wrong. And yet, if we wind time back a little bit, in GB-only polling for the 2017 General Election YouGov tanked with a 42% Con, 35% Labour eve-of-poll forecast, BMG 46% vs 33%, and Survation 41% vs 40%. BMG was nowhere, YouGov closer on the Tories, but crucially Survation was almost on the nose for Labour's vote.

To make sense of this we need to remember that the EU elections are second order elections. In political science terms, these tend not to matter so much to voters vs first order elections: i.e. ones that determine the government, a general election. And so we see a number of effects: turnout is usually depressed, and punters are more likely to stray from their normal voting behaviour and vote as a protest or go for a party closer to their political heart's desire. It's something we see in every by-election, be it parliamentary or for the local council, and certainly helped explain the result in Peterborough. There is also another oft unremarked effect. We know older people generally speaking are more likely to turn out than the young, with pensioners the most likely of all. This is doubly the case when it comes to second order elections, so it tends to skew toward their proclivities. YouGov polling weights its results to recognise this differential turnout by age, hence we find their massive overestimation of BXP's vote but an accurate forecast of Labour's support. Survation tend not to weight theirs in the same way, which meant they were more sensitive to the movements of younger voters in 2017 and more or less on the money.

What does this mean for Westminster intention polling now? Well, it all depends on what the next general election is going to be like. As Boris Johnson is odd on to win the Tory leadership, we know what his strategy is: ramp up the Brexit rhetoric, dribble some drivel about patriotism, and try and remake the coalition of voters Theresa May pulled together by squeezing the Brexit Party. This is not without difficulties and, if you want to be mischievous, it more or less amounts to a 35% strategy - just enough to get over the line in the context of a split electorate. But by pursuing a polarising electoral strategy, despite the usual tricks, Johnson runs the risk of uniting voters behind Jeremy Corbyn which, among other reasons, is what happened last time. When turn out is up, the differential age effect is depressed, which favours Survation. If the public look disengaged and nonplussed, then YouGov's methodology and polling has more chance of being right. Our job then is to mobilise, mobilise, and mobilise. An election could only be a couple of months away, and Johnson is both a known quantity and completely beatable.

New Left Blogs July 2019

Another trickle of new blogs have come my way this last month, so why not take a look? It shouldn't really need saying, but a mention doesn't necessarily mean political endorsement. Right, without further ado:

1. I. Kosigan (Twitter)

2. PCS Broad Left Network (Twitter)

3. The Overtake (Twitter)

If you know of any new(ish) blogs and podcasts that haven't featured before then drop me a line via the comments, email, Facebook, or Twitter. Please note I'm looking for blogs that have started within the last 12 months or thereabouts. The new blog round up appears when I have enough new blogs to justify a post!

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Gauntlet II for the Nintendo Entertainment System

How do you replicate the table top role playing game experience on computers, game consoles, and arcade machines? In the early 1980s this was a question many a game designer, programmer, studio and software house grappled with. Some went about it with the semi-faithful rendering of RPG mechanics, involving character generation, levelling and experience, and random monster battles part-based on numeric attributes. Others decided to dispense with this completely. One stand out title in the latter genre, and a precursor of the loot 'em ups that came later was Atari's Gauntlet and its sequels.

The principle of Gauntlet and the imaginatively-titled Gauntlet II, which is our concern for this evening, is simple. You or a bunch of mates pick one character class - a warrior, a valkyrie, a wizard, or an elf - which have their own unique abilities, just like the player character system from jolly old Dungeons & Dragons. The warrior is hard and one-shots everything, the valkyrie has the best armour and soaks up damage, the wizard has the best magic (who'd have thunk it?), and the elf zips along and a nifty pace. And what do you then do with these abilities? You're dropped into a dungeon packed with ghosties, ghoulies, and other unsavoury denizens of the dank and the dark and, well, you kill them. Each level is premised on finding the exit but between it and you are potentially hundreds of enemies. Each monster type have spawning locations that vomit forth the nasties until the player destroys them. Failure to do so can easily result in your being swamped by dozens of enemies at a time. Of course, some are more dangerous than others. The most annoying are the grim reaper-types who can only be offed by magic potion. If you haven't got one, they'll latch on and drain away your energy. Not helpful. As a nod to its D&D inspiration, this is represented by a number instead of a bar. Nevertheless, each level has its attractions too. Some are straight forward, some involve a bit of exploration and nous to work out how to proceed to the exit. Even better, there's plenty of loot to be had along the way. I don't know what it is, seeing as you don't get rewards or extra energy for racking up the points, but once you're in the game and a treasure chest is there you feel compelled to pick it up. But also there are potions, food, special abilities, and keys that open up new areas of the map. It gets to the point that it almost feels like cheating if you head to the exit without taking a proper look around the level.

That's Gauntlet pretty much. The original coin-op was followed in 1986 by its sequel, which made it to the mighty NES in 1990, four years after its release. And as renditions go, the publishers, Mindscape, made a good effort. The title screen looks bland, but all told the essentials are there. The new power ups the sequel added, the bits and pieces of speech, the multiplayer facility and, crucially, the gameplay is here. But it is not perfect by any means. There is something slightly off about the player character hit box which occasionally makes it very difficult for you to go through a narrow gap in a wall. Not handy when your life is always counting down and a few nasties are on your tail. And unlike the arcade and other 8-bit versions, the NES is unable to pull off swarming properly - it slows right down, it flickers, it positively groans if too much is happening. It means you never really get the fear of being overwhelmed making it, to be honest, fairly easy. This is aided and abetted by a couple of cheats - if you stand still and don't do anything for a while, all the hidden entrances open up, and wait that bit longer all the walls turn into exits. Still, on the plus side there are 100 levels to get through, but with a twist. There are actually 130 levels in the NES version, but each time you play it selects a different hundred for that particular session. Plenty for Gauntlet fans to get into then.

What else can be said about Gauntlet II? Each level may differ and some are tricky to get through, but this is hardly cerebral-tickling stuff like its RPG forebears. Which is fine, but the action is not of the compulsive kind. There might be some completionist satisfaction to be had in playing until all 130 levels have had a visit, but to be honest we're not talking massive variety here and all too often they're fairly forgettable. Which is the problem when, truth be told. The action is this simple. Nevertheless, it still obeys the logics of neoliberal subjectivation we see in other video game RPGs. The whole loot thing is truly accumulation for accumulation's sake. Running round looking for food and potions, which boost the shrinking stamina point meter, is more accumulation with a purpose. But the constant ticking down of the meter is the in-game rendering of the old time-is-money adage. You're forced into constant cost/benefit decisions. Should you explore the level a little more to try and grab the food or the energy potion, or will you expend more stamina points doing so than you can possibly gain?

Also interesting is how the best character, by far, is the meaty, muscle-bound warrior dude. In the original D&D, the four human character classes truly balanced out strengths and weaknesses. Warriors were good in a fight, Magic Users had magic, Thieves were handy for lock picking, trap avoidance, and sneak attacks, and Clerics were a good mix of fighting ability and magic. In Gauntlet II however, the system breaks down. To get through the level and keep the monsters well away you need to be able to kill them and their spawning locations quickly. The problem is the non-warrior classes take multiple shots to off monsters, which makes you more vulnerable to attack. Moving quickly, being able to soak up more damage, having better magic, this is hardly compensation for a dungeon crawler based more on brute strength than the old noggin.

Is Gauntlet II worth a go today? Certainly. As a slice of history and precursor to today's dungeon crawlers, it shows where many contemporary game mechanics first had a proper airing. The game is very pick up and play friendly too, and can be a good laugh with other players (it supports up to four), but do not expect to find a gem that will hook you in and let you go. At its release it didn't offer a deep experience, and even less so today.

Friday, 12 July 2019

Boris Johnson Meets Andrew Neil

Who tuned in tonight to watch Andrew Neil grill Jeremy Hunt? Not me. As he's not going to win, there's little point dwelling upon his interview. Tonight then was all about Boris Johnson. Did we learn anything new, or were all our preconceptions reconfirmed?

We know from decades of suffering this oaf how he elbows his way into the centre of attention, and through a series of studied ruses not only monopolises it but manipulates the situation. As Hunt observed in a rare moment of insight during the ITV debates earlier this week, Boris Johnson will make you smile and while you're laughing you've forgotten how he didn't answer the question. That might work with the less experienced interviewer, or a one shot questioner in a press conference, but in a half hour sit down with the country's fiercest politics inquisitor?

Andrew Neil started off softly, asking Johnson about his character and whether he could be trusted. Perhaps expecting something a bit tougher, Johnson rejoined that there were no trust issues. He has fantastic conservative policies, which he will deliver - this is the judge of character that matters most. It was here Johnson floated one of his favourite policy themes - policing. The Tories think they have Labour on the run thanks to the increase in violent crime in London, something they (and Donald Trump, of course) are keen to hang on Sadiq Khan. Neil gave Johnson space to discuss how crime fell during his tenure as Mayor, and thus the trap was sprung. While crime fell by a fifth in the capital between 2008 and 2016, Brillo observed that it fell by 26% in the rest of the country, so why was the Johnson administration less effective in getting the figures down? Not surprisingly, there wasn't an answer. The man who would be Prime Minister lost his balance and never recovered.

Returning to the theme of character, Brillo asked why he didn't stand up for the UK's Ambassador to the US, Kim Darroch, whose withering diplomatic cables on the Mickey Mouse White House were published this week, and whose leaks are now subject of a police investigation. Indeed, returning to the ITV Debate Neil drew attention to the fact he was asked four times to offer Darroch his support and failed to do so. Johnson tried his damnedest to weasel his way out by saying "I support the principle of civil servants saying what they need to", which of course, is a manner of evading the question. Neil then put it to Johnson that he was actually happy to see the ambassador out because he had previously berated Jeremy Hunt for backing Darroch. Asked if he accepted the argument Johnson's refusal to back him contributed to Darroch's resignation, he had the chutzpah to claim the "job of politicians to stick up for civil servants", and that it was not right to drag someone's career into the public domain. The evasion of responsibility continued when quizzed about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Readers will recall how, because he hadn't read his briefing notes prior to a stint in front of the foreign affairs committee, his claim she was teaching journalism rather than simply holidaying, which was actually the case, has cost her an extra five years in prison. Johnson did his typical "you're exculpating the Iranian regime, it's all them" and rejected any suggestion he had any kind of responsibility for her fate. Needless to say, Neil berated him for making a bad situation worse.

Moving on to Brexit, Brillo asked if there was a deal in the offing prior to the Hallowe'en deadline and needed a few days over to finalise it, surely he - Johnson - would not walk away. His reply, which was unconvincing, went "we definitely come out", but we'll definitely have a deal by then anyway. Asked about his opposition to May's deal, Neil asked if Johnson would back it if all that was done was a change to the Irish backstop. Cue the full majesty of Johnson's Brexit fantasy. He said he would argue for the future of the border getting remitted to the free trade agreement he wants to negotiate with the EU. But, as Neil observed, the backstop is a fallback, a precondition for negotiations, a determination of what the UK/Ireland/EU relationship would be in the event of trade negotiations failing, an insurance policy. Damningly, it appears Johnson hasn't got his head around this very basic fact of Brexit. Which is why, by way of a miserable response, he said Neil was offering "defeatism and negativity" and what the negotiations need is "new optimism". And you thought Theresa May was bad.

One of the big fears of a Johnson government is his closing parliament to get a no deal Brexit through, something Rory Stewart (remember him?) warned could lead ot a civil war situation(!). So Brillo asked Johnson why he won't rule out shutting the doors. "I don't want to do that" snapped back Johnson, and besides, we shouldn't fear no deal. Not only are the preparations in hand, we can leave the EU without a deal and carry on as normal. A deft sidestep away from a tricky issue, but into another sticky one. Trying to look as if he knew what he is talking about, Johnson cited paragraph 5B of Article 24 of the 1994 GATT agreement which allows for the present relationship to remain in place for a decade. This then is Johnson's magic bullet, and assumes the EU would consent because it's in both parties interests. Be that as it may, Neil blind-sided Johnson by citing paragraph 5C, which he didn't know about. Under GATT rules 5B is only possible if there is some form of declaration about a future agreement and a timetable for talks. One would also assume in this relationship the UK becomes a rule taker, and cannot enter into separate arrangements with countries already covered by EU treaties (for instance, the Canadian, Japanese, and recent South American deals), and also it might be challenged by a third party - all good fun for the lawyers no doubt. While Neil didn't raise these complications, to the discovery of paragraph 5C all Johnson could do was mumble incoherently about "BBC-generated gloom and negativity", as if the national broadcaster had a hand in defining the global rules of trade.

Moving to Johnson's spending commitments, Neil observed that Philip Hammond's £26bn "fiscal headroom" for no deal planning isn't money set aside for a rainy day, but cash that can be borrowed according to the government's spending rules. Johnson replied his government would "continue to bear down on national debt, and setting out our plans." This money would be invested in education and the police, and amounts to significantly less than the money the Treasury is prepared to set aside, Johnson smugly retorted. And another trap was sprung. Neil flagged up the £9bn worth of tax cuts he'd promised the wealthiest tax payers by raising the threshold of the top rate, and the £13bn for taking the lowest paid out of National Insurance. It was almost as if Johnson doesn't think tax cuts are spending commitments too.

In all, this was the most dismal performance I've seen from a politician in some years, and it says everything about the state of the Tory party that this poltroon is odds on to be the next Prime Minister. This seat-of-the-pants, half-arsed, drivel-pedalling incompetence should damn his chances. Instead, for the unhinged faithful at home they'll think Johnson did a good job against an interviewer who browbeat him and didn't give him a proper chance to explain himself. The Tory membership might be easily fooled, but thankfully the electorate are not so gullible.