Monday, 23 November 2020

Boris Johnson's Christmas Cracker

"There is no point having a merry Christmas then burying friends and family in January." The fact such a statement has to be made by Gabriel Scally of Independent Sage says everything anyone needs to know about the government's Cornoavirus strategy up to this point. Well, Monday night was slated for the great reveal for life after 2nd December and, most importantly, what our Covid Christmas is going to look like. How do the new plans differ from what went before? And is it led by "the science", or the contradictory pressures pulling the Tories hither and thither? You can probably guess the answer.

For one, as per the customary press leaks the three tiers are returning, but with tougher measures. The new plans (pp 22-26 in the Covid Winter Plan) double down on the rule of six, offers new rules for indoor and outdoor activities and meetings ups, a gradation for hospitality services ranging from table ordering to complete closure except for takeaways, the opening of retail (including "non-essential") across all three tiers, a gradation of travelling restrictions except for "where necessary", which include education and work thanks to their magical tendency to ward off Coronavirus. There are differing rules on overnight accommodaion according to the tier, but not so for indoor leisure activities like the pool and the gym, and some live ents and sporting events are open with severely controlled numbers. Speaking from Downing Street earlier, Boris Johnson said he was "sorry" for the "hardship" these measures are bound to cause. Which is a good cue to remind the reader about how the Tories have chosen to allow this to happen. Given the ridiculous sums and monies poured into Tory donor pockets, they should not be let off the hook for choosing to condemn nearly half of all self-employed to no help, or for that matter putting the the wealth of the rentiers above the health of everyone else. They could live up to the rhetoric of putting their arms around the nation, but won't.

As far as the "toughness" of the new tiers go, this is an exercise in Johnsonian newspeak. The tiers are being significantly liberalised and regardless of the efforts individual businesses and public institutions are making to be Coronavirus compliant, the result is inevitable: a Christmas rise in infection rates. Nothing says festive quite like a nip of brandy, mince pies, and a dose of the Covids. At least, at least the temptation of going for a so-called Christmas truce to allow for something of a normal one has got rightly binned.

A lot here for a zero-Covid strategy to dislike, but the immediate tranche of criticism came from Johnson's backbenchers. Mark Harper, the newly minted King of the North (at least where Tory MPs are concerned) moaned about their not being much difference between tier three and the (haphazard) lockdown we're currently living through. Quite, except for the opening of all retail, along with indoor leisure facilities and limited gatherings for weddings, civil partnerships, and funerals. What about Labour? As of 22:00 hours not a sausage of a response. Remembering the best indicator of future behaviour is past behaviour, we're likely to get straightforward support with some quibbles about criteria for when areas drop tiers, and some other process complaints. It's opposition, but not as we know it.

In sum, Johnson's liberalisation of the Covid rules hardly fit the fever dreams of some, but does follow the well worn pattern of behaviour we've seen from the beginning of this government's handling of the crisis: an extreme reluctance to do anything substantial followed by a panicky - but necessary - blanket lockdown, and then a relaxation of measures in which the health of class relations are prioritised above public health. Everything changes, but nothing really changes. Except the growing death toll, avoidable infections, and more knowing the misery of long Covid.

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Sunday, 22 November 2020

What is the 'Great Reset'?

We've seen the Covid denialism, the playground pettyness of the anti-mask whingeing, and the regular demonstrations of those for whom the lockdown, social distancing, and the coming mass vaccination are tied together by conspiracy theory. Considering the complexity of 21st century societies with looming crisis and political instability set as the new normal, the appeal of such are not difficult to fathom. We might be headed to hell in a handcart, but at least conspiracy theory makes for an immediately relatable and easy-to-understand explanation for the many dooms visited upon us. The newest story doing the rounds, as helpfully outlined by the BBC, does the job of tying the global response to Coronavirus together as a prelude for some form of naked Iron Heel-style direct rule by and for the super rich. Sounds arresting.

Like nearly every conspiracy theory the "Great Reset" is all things to all people. Here we have one hyper-local blogger (remember them?) arguing, in all seriousness, that Boris Johnson has signed the Conservative Party up to a global communist plot. Others see it as a Keynesian conspiracy - led by Prince Charles, no less - to hammer individual freedom and bring the state back into matters economic. Terrifying. So-called Bitcoin libertarians are among those getting sweaty, and another boring bunch of contrarian think-tankers locate it as an authoritarian effort to force green capitalism down everyone's throat. And then we have the "leftist" version, such as the one forecasting a "a fascist transhumanist hell in which freedom has been abolished and humans are merged with robots and turned into commodities for elite profit." Naturally, the piercing dog whistle of "globalists" features heaviliy in the Great Reset discourse.

In this country, most of the running has been done by Neil Clark - litigant in a never-ending dispute with Times hack Oliver Kamm, and an interesting journalistic resume that sees him contributing features for The Mail and The Express while penning stuff for, um, The Morning Star and Russia Today. Of late, Neil's Twitter feed has ramped up the conspiratorial coverage, mixing in genuine questions about half-arsed policy such as the mooted "freedom pass" and concerns about the tier system with baseless claims a global fascist power grab is in preparation. This piece on RT sums up his position well. Using a speech by Boris Johnson in which he notes "History teaches us that things of this [the virus's] magnitude ... do not just come and go. They can be the trigger for economic and social change." A completely innocuous statement on Johnson's part, and completely uncontroversial. Except for Neil. This "trigger for ... change" is deeply sinister, apparently. Along with the green industrial revolution, social distancing is not going anywhere. As Neil puts it, "Working from home is here to stay, with “gigabit broadband,” shopping from home, conferencing from home… in fact, let’s do everything from home. Who needs to meet other human beings? Not that there’d be anywhere to meet, with pubs, cinemas and theatres all closed down due to the never-ending coronavirus restrictions." Never one to enjoy being in the position of defending the Prime Minister, but this is obvious bobbins. The problem with the national lockdown is it's not rigorous enough, and contrary to enthusiastically pulling down the shutters on the British economy the government spent the Summer undermining public health by opening everything up, with bribes to encourage people to visit restaurants, bars, pubs and what have you. Either the British government didn't mean it and was a grandiose distraction techinque vis their true conspiratorial intentions, or the argument is completely groundless.

And yet like all conspiracy theories, an element of truthiness based on some facts does exist. There is something called the Great Reset, and groups of elite policymakers and tech capital have been pushing it - albeit in broad daylight. Perhaps the illuminati are simply brazen these days by hosting a website on the World Economic Forum to allow all and sundry to peruse their schemes. What gives then, what is the plan? According to the blurb global capitalism needs a reset, citing examples of stalling economic growth, rising unemployment, and rising debt - two of these three being the case before lockdowns rolled around the world. The consequence is an intensification of existing inequalities and social problems, as well as opportunities for some governments to scrap regulations and protections in the name of jumpstarting economies. As these problems are global, a global effort is required to address them. As such, this requires scary policies like ... the coordination of tax regimes, addressing the rules of trade, and creating a "stakeholder economy" - fashionable managerial speak for decent wages, full employment and (perhaps/sometimes) a bit of a say over the workplace. The second component of this strategy is stimulus spending so we can bounce back from the Covid crisis, but these should be strategic investments that build for the future - so more green industry, better infrastructure, more responsive institutions, and incentives for private capital to follow this policy lead. Lastly, the final round of objectives is to harness the fruits of the fourth industrial revolution to address the health and social problems the pandemic is leaving in its wake. For anyone paying attention to British politics these last five years, what the World Economic Forum are proposing is little different from the policy menu of the last three Labour manifestos, and the rhetoric of Theresa May and Boris Johnson when a One Nation turn in their speeches were warranted.

In other words, what the Great Reset is is a prescription for fixing the problems global capitalism faces. What a shocker that a bunch of mainstream policy wonks, fancied visionaries, and businesses might band together to come up with a way forward for their system. Like this has never been done by anyone before. Perhaps we should look back at Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave and Nicolas Negroponte's Being Digital as advance warning of the global fascist one-world government we've lived under since the turn of the century. Oh, wait.

Like the most successful of conspiracy theories, the Great Reset idea takes a little bit of reality and runs with it, reliant on the fact most of the people who'll lap it up know little to nothing about what is being described and what is going on. Take the fourth industrial revolution cited by Neil Clark and his conspiranoid friends. This is not a plan as such, but rather the emergence of a cluster of new technologies around artificial intelligence, automation and robotics, genetic medicine, space flight, and much else besides. This is simply an aspect and outcome of capitalist development, and one the left is well aware of and has written a lot about. Any decent political programme worthy of its name would work to inform the public about and consider the social implications the possibilities these new tools allow for. This is exactly what the World Economic Forum and its founder, Klaus Schwab, are doing. It just so happens the key innovation of this fourth wave is the reduction of commodities to information, and the possibility for their endless, infinite reproducibility with zero to very low cost. Thanks to advances in 3D printing even physical goods won't be immune forever, and so the problem for their system and the wonks of the liberal centre and conservative right is not the general betterment of humanity, but how to save property relationships and profits from the fourth wave's existential challenge.

There are two issues here then. Advancing a ridiculous conspiracy theory can blunt serious and necessary criticisms of government policy. Already there have been several occasions of the Tories, for instance, dismissing critique of their measures as Covid denialism - and a stupidly irresponsible intervention from Labour aimed at curbing conspiracies ahead of the vaccine roll out. There's your first reason why anyone pushing the Great Reset conspiracy is a fool or a knave, especially if they claim to be on the left. Fancy another? As the point has been many times before, conspiracy theories are not just false in the sense they are presented, they stand in direct opposition to a real understanding of the way of the world, and particularly how money is made and power configures and flows. In this sense it's much worse than conservatism, which at least tries to deal with the world as it is through a lens distorted by privilege and ruling class interests. Conspiracy theory, like the Great Reset, is fundamentally backward because it refuses social explanation, petrifies the elite relationships it claims to uncover, and ultimately leads to fatalist resignation or the toxic politics of the far right. As we have some experience with.

There is then no 'Great Reset' conspiracy. It is, nevertheless, a collective effort of utter rubbish written from the right, and hyperbolic grifting bullshit from so-called leftists. If one cannot resist a little bit of theorising in this direction, ask what our super brave truth tellers stand to gain. How might rightwingers benefit from pretending opposition to their free market fundamentalism, even of the liberal/Keynesian variety, is a fundamental affront to human dignity? Why would a bunch of Bitcoin stans feel insecure about a global effort to promote green capitalism and socially useful (albeit still capitalist) production? And whatever might leftists without much of a platform accrue from being the voice of a "socialist" version of this pack of lies? Join the dots, as they say.

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Thursday, 19 November 2020

Why I've Left the Labour Party

When the NEC disputes panel met and reinstated Jeremy Corbyn to Labour membership, few could have guessed Keir Starmer's leadership was about to prolong the pain the party has suffered. And yet, this is exactly what he has decided to do. On what grounds the former leader remains outside the parliamentary party is unclear. There is no basis in the party rulebook for this state of affairs, and this anomalous situation is the result of Keir's flat-footed party management and incompetence. Whatever happens next, many members are not sticking around the party to find out. Scott Newton, an occasional guest poster in this corner of the internet is one of them. Like thousands of others he gave up his party membership yesterday (for info, I'm staying), and below he explains his reasoning. The right might find the implosion on their watch a reason to be cheerful, but the fools are forgetting they need the left to stand a chance of beating the Tories in 2024. Unless the Labour right is acting true to form and the only power they're serious about is within the party itself.

The reinstatement of Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party membership, quickly followed by the denial of the Labour Whip, is a cack-handed and malicious act which may have momentous consequences. Sir Keir Starmer's leadership has been characterised by a series of provocative moves against the Left, starting with the departure of Jennie Formby from the General Secretaryship and then the dismissal of the very able Rebecca Long-Bailey from her Shadow Education Secretary portfolio. The accusation of being soft on anti-Semitism has been the excuse for the shafting of both Long-Bailey and Corbyn. Unless anti-Semitism is to be defined as any comment critical of the Netanyahu government's treatment of the Palestinians, the charges in these cases are preposterous. Labour has certainly had its problems with anti-Semitism but these have not been on the scale many in the public have been led to believe by the press. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Starmer's real intention is to purge the Party of the radical social-democratic Left which emerged during Corbyn's leadership. Misgivings about the Starmer leadership have been growing on the Left since the spring, and the withholding of the Whip from Corbyn looks like the last piece of evidence needed to confirm them.

The outline of a new (or old) political profile for Labour is developing. It is Blairite on the domestic front and strongly Atlanticist in foreign affairs. The 2017 and 2019 commitments to a Green New Deal and public ownership of the railways and energy are being dismantled and dropped. It is now clear that anyone who expects serious progressive change from Starmer's Labour is deluding themselves.

For a brief time, Labour was offering an alternative to the austerity and neo-liberalism which have dominated British politics and economic policy for so long. The result was to attract a mass membership, much of it in a new, radical, socially networked working class based in the service sector (and much discussed on this blog). This reached 600,000 and saw Labour become Europe's largest democratic socialist party. Thousands of these members have been walking away in the last few months. Wednesday's news has led me to follow them and resign my Party membership after 45 years. Some friends have urged me to 'stay and fight'. And it is true that the departure of grass roots members like myself will have less impact than a money spider landing on an oak table. The problem is that the only effective protest available to those of us who are not office holders is to withhold our consent and goodwill - and our money.

Starmer's actions are not just driving members out but threatening to start a civil war within Labour. There may be support for him in the Parliamentary Party but trouble is likely on the NEC (where the Left has recently made gains), and in the trade unions and constituency parties. These last have already experienced provocative attempts on the part of the leadership at the suppression of dissent. Corbyn's reinstatement could have drawn a line under all these tensions and been used as a step towards Party unity. The refusal to grant him the Whip, however, makes conflict seem certain. It is hard to believe that those who took this decision were so stupid they did not see it coming. It is more likely they decided to press on regardless because they rate their mission of transforming the Party to be worth a sacrifice of power, in the short term (so they calculate) at least. But the implications may go beyond the short term and cripple Labour for years, driving away into the Greens, the SNP, Plaid, the Communists and radical Left groups many of those who had flocked to the Party in the Corbyn years.

In any event, as far as elections in the next few years are concerned Labour will either be fighting while deeply divided (and therefore unelectable) or offering Blairism Mark 2 (the latter being a prospect which many of us regard as about as appetising as a plate of dog shit). How many will rally to support a political organisation offering nothing more than a slightly softer version of a neo-liberal political economy which collapsed in 2008-9, has been on life-support ever since thanks to quantitative easing by the central banks and which has demonstrated its failings in spectacular and lethal fashion during the current COVID-19 pandemic? It's not just Corbyn and all those he has brought into Labour who have been repudiated here but, Blairism apart, the political and intellectual legacy of a great political party. It is leaving an ideological vacuum in British politics. And nature, as we know, abhors a vacuum.

I voted Labour through gritted teeth from 1997 until 2010. I won't be doing it again.

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Tuesday, 17 November 2020

The Reinstatement of Jeremy Corbyn

Absolutely the right decision. Following the farcical suspension of Jeremy Corbyn, the NEC disputes panel this afternoon met to reinstate him. Coming to a unanimous decision despite three of the panel not coming from the Corbyn-supporting wing of the party and one (one!) from the Labour First/Progress lash up, they came to the obvious conclusion it wouldn't stand up. By giving readmission the green light, they might just have saved Labour a lot of money in lost members' fees and possible litigation.

Despite the EHRC report decrying political interference in the complaints process, we saw a couple of goes coming from without and within. The Board of Deputies demanded the book be thrown at Jeremy, while overegging the findings of the EHRC report. And this afternoon, a group of anonymous (of course) Labour MPs were threatening to resign the whip if Jeremy was reinstated. Following the news, the "group" had reduced to one and by tomorrow? Zero in all likelihood.

The usual suspects had a winge and a moan, while Keir Starmer took to Twitter to put out a statement designed to placate everyone but is surely destined to annoy all and sundry. Surely he must be rueing the day his general secretary overreached his administrative powers and plunged Labour into another unnecessary mess.

The problem Keir has is he's a politics novice. Anyone could be forgiven for thinking a lawerly background would make him fleet of foot, intellectually speaking, and how he rose to the position of Director of Public Prosecutions suggests something about him. True, but going up the greasy pole of a state bureaucracy demands a different skillset to managing a political party. For one, MPs are not employees who can simply be bullied with blackmarks on the record and written warnings, and members, as voluntary participants, aren't about to be brought to heel as if they were minions not hitting sales tragets. Keir and David Evans therefore responded to the EHRC report and Jeremy's statement about it as managers instead of politicians. And by doing so, they've multiplied the pain.

Let's consider an alternative course of action. Keir could have put out an identical statement to today's, but three weeks ago. Not suspending Corbyn would have seen the same gnashing of teeth and bad faith grandstanding, but he could have absorbed the hit and within a week be concentrating on whatever he thinks he's concentrating on. Instead suspension has meant dragging the issue out, damaged Keir's standing as Mr Competence, reinforced the perception of Labour as a disunited party, and with nothing to show for it at the end. Rounds of applause for the grown ups in the room.

What Starmerism is is starting to become clearer. The process criticisms and concentration on Tory incompetence, the manager's fix for political problems, the impulse to restore public authority by sparing Boris Johnson political criticisms, an anaemic and overly technocratic Fabianism is the name of the game. This reflects Keir's personality and career trajectory, and sets the tone for the remainder of his leadership, whether this takes Labour into Number 10 again or not. We can now see the outlines of future crises and difficulties made worse by a mob-handed response with little thought given to the political balance in the party. One doesn't need the clairvoyance of Mystic Meg to divine future trouble with the left. And the right.

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Monday, 16 November 2020

The Far Left Vs Starmerism

The problem with motherloads of news (and a mountain of work) is certain items of interest get buried. Such as latest development's on Britain's far left. In September, the Socialist Party announced it was dusting off their vehicle of electoral convenience, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, ahead of next May's round of elections. And then, the coup! Last week, the SP press released the news that former Derby North Labour MP Chris Williamson had joined TUSC's steering committee and affiliated his proto-party, the Resistance Movement to TUSC. The Morning Star also reported Chris met with Arthur Scargill about cooperation with the Socialist Labour Party (remember them?), and it's worth recalling he has a good relationship with George Galloway who, while not ranting about how Donald Trump had the election stolen from him, doubles up as the leader of the Workers Party of Great Britain.

This is interesting for left trainspotters for two good reasons. Firstly, it interrupts the duopoly the Socialist Workers Party and the SP have exercised over left-of-Labour mobilisations since the early 00s. The Socialist Alliance, Respect, the short-lived and ugly-named Socialist Green Unity Coalition, No2EU, and from 2010 TUSC were/are "unity" projects cobbling together already-existing left groups, but revolved either around the SWP and SP as Britain's largest and most visible Trotskyist groups. The Corbynist interlude interrupted their electoral adventures, leaving the field clear to the more "interesting" elements of the far left. With Chris Williamson's departure from Labour and the formation of his group, his alliance with the SP certainly boosts the profile of TUSC, but arguably more significant is Galloway's party. Now claiming 56 branches and 4,000 members, on paper the organisation is larger than the SP and, perhaps, the SWP. At that size, its big fish in a small pond status means it could ignore the rest and do their own thing. Possible given the WPGB core are congenitally anti-Trotskyist, and happily oversaw purges on Scargill's behalf in the SLP before they fell out of favour. But the good relations between Galloway and TUSC's best-known figure might result in a non-aggression pact of some description and potentially foreshadowing a challenge wider than the 131 candidates TUSC rustled up in 2015.

On the Workers' Party itself, projection of significance and dynamism in the age of social media is super easy: what matters are the number of activists a party can mobilise. The cadre of the WPGB are the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), a very small Stalinoid Westboro Baptist Church with its leadership based around the progeny of Harpal Brar and fidelity to the revealed truth of Uncle Joe's Collected Works. Quite how an ideologically circumscribed sect whose shibboleths fly in the face of the historical record are going to cohabit with refugees from Corbynism is anyone's guess, but we'll find out in the fullness of time. But this does speak to something, which is the second point of interest: the generalised growth of the left.

Labour's NEC elections show the party has lost 57,000 members since Keir Starmer assumed the leadership, and the turnout suggests disengagement on the part of others. Most of these are going to be on the left, and a good proportion of them are on the market for some sort of alternative. The heft the WPGB claims isn't necessarily another case of revolutionary inflation: there are real opportunities for the parties of the far left to intersect with and put on a few thousands members each. This doesn't suggest any electoral challenge the WPGB and TUSC decides to mount, with or without one another, is going to do better than the sub one per cent scores such outfits can normally expect, but this isn't the point. For once, "putting down a marker" might actually help grow their organisations.

I say might, because the appeal these organisations have are quite limited. The SP/TUSC for its part fetishises and is trapped within an obsolete class politics, WPGB has Galloway, Stalinism, and his alliance with Scottish Tories, and Chris Williamson just can't stop sailing close to the wind on matters antisemitism. A subset of Jeremy Corbyn supporters might find this compelling, especially those who defined their affiliations in terms of fealty to his person than a political programme or attachment to a wider movement. And those who do wash up, how permanent will their new homes be? I can't imagine many taking kindly to being guilt tripped into the treadmill of paper selling and permanent activism while expecting to show deference to petty apparatchiks and, in Galloway's case, the Glorious Leader.

Until that day comes, there is some danger a far left election challenge might pose Labour. Not existential by any means. Whatever the fantasy, they are not about to become a new left party/workers' party with mass roots or an episodically significant "left UKIP" that might do to Labour what Nigel Farage did to the Tories. But around the edges, a few hundred votes for a candidate here, a couple more for a paper candidate there could make the difference between a Labour gain/hold and a Tory or Liberal Democrat sneaking through the middle. And, if 2024 is going to be a tight election powered by polarisation, every vote and every seat counts. The more Starmerism reveals itself as an authoritarian managerialist project in the Milibandist mode of a "good" capitalism, the more the risk is run as more disgruntled former Labourists jump ship and help build the far left challenge. This far out from the election Labour's leadership can elect to do something about it, but as Keir and co. don't understand Labour's own base I wouldn't put the house on it.

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Sunday, 15 November 2020

Labour's Anti-Vax Social Media Ban

Switiching on the television this morning, up popped Jonathan Ashworth on BBC Breakfast. He was there to explain Labour's latest policy announcement: the need for clamping down on anti-vaxxers online. Or, to be more accurate, introducing a range of penalties to force social media firms to clear this stuff from their platforms. He said this content is "exploiting people's fears, their mistrust of institutions and governments and spreading poison and harm." Can't really disagree. He argued this was not the same as voicing genuine concerns about the Coronavirus vaccine or raising questions of the government's management of the crisis, but with the roll out of a vaccine to begin soon (we'll see) it's imperative something is done to stop the flood of disinformation.

I have some sympathy with the intentions behind Labour's policy. Covid conspriracism is annoying. Its adjacency to QAnon and right wing conspiracy politics makes it worrying. Its mobilisations have undoubtedly spread infections, which is far more dangerous to the mainly middle-aged people attracted to these politics than the summer's Black Lives Matter protests. And, from a public health point of view, irresponsible and potentially dangerous. While the coming politics of vaccination are set to revolve around who should be prioritised, public anger at queue jumping, and how far down the age range the programme is going to reach, Covid denialism and the standard anti-vax "scepticism" is creating a hardened bloc of refuseniks. Some estimates put them at around 20% of the population. They might be protected by herd immunity when everyone else gets their medicine, or they might find themselves hit with another wave of Coronavirus with the added health costs and unnecessary deaths it would bring. And this creates new dangers - Covid-19 is a slow evolving virus, but every infection is an opportunity for mutation and potentially more virulent and deadly strains in the future. This is not idle speculation, as Denmark's mink farm crisis demonstrates. How to prevent this state of affairs?

There are no easy answers, and neither is simply banning anti-vax content. For one, nothing puts rocket boosters under conspiracy theories quite like authorities taking action against their "revealed truth". A social media ban might hinder the denialism, at least intially, but reinforces its key tenets and converts what is stupid into something seductive. The second is, despite the assurances made by Labour's health shadow this morning, we're getting into thought crime territory. The original lockdown was necessary, and it drove the infection rate right down. We'll see what the results of its half-arsed sequel will be, but between March and May the balance between public health pressure and the encroachment on liberty was a mess. Like banning people from visiting the countryside, or the allowance of a single hour outside for exercise and whatnot, or the exemptions enjoyed by recently late of Downing Street advisors. The outcome was more farce than tragedy, but the outcome of a ban might have unforeseen consequences.

For example, if the fining structure accompanying Labour's suggestions are especially punitive your Instagrams, Facebooks, and Twitters are going to introduce pre-screening on a large scale. Done on the basis of key words and key phrases, this means a lot of material discussing the politics of the vaccine are going to get blocked, or held forever in moderation hell until some luckless employee gets to eyeball it. Mission creep therefore is inevitable, embedded in the architecture of compliance each firm devises. With the left in particular having its reach actively stymied by Facebook, we know what this means for critical media. And if the flows of discourse outside the bounds of establishment media is blocked, guess who wins? Why, the traditional news and print outlets.

This is not a conspiracy though. Labour aren't part of the "great reset" or some such nonsense, but it does offer pointers about its political direction under Keir Starmer. Speaking on Desert Island Discs, he reiterated his commitment to retaining Labour as a broad church, despite recent events. Be that as it may, Keir's range and style of opposition versus the Tories is quite limited and technocratic, avoiding substantive issues like the roots of Tory incompetence, the corrupt abandonment of procurement rules by the government to shovel public funds into private pockets (family and friends of top Tories, obviously), and a studied avoidance of talking about the dead. This is not just because Keir is looking at improving his standing and wanting to avoid the charge of point scoring, it says something about his politics: he is looking to preserve state authority.

On BBC Breakfast, Jonathan Ashworth said the ban was driven by a desire to restore public trust in institutions. A laudible aim for someone entirely inside Labourism's statist traditions, but also hopelessly naive. Covid conspiracism and the irreverenace it feeds off is inseparable from long-term processes of political disengagement. And yet, it's worth remembering structural forces are not mechanical. As the outcome of social relationships the actions of condensed collective actors, like parties acting through democratic politics, the media, and the state, can steer such tendencies and lay the grounds for their evaporation, or their reinforcement. One such driver is parties saying one thing and doing another, like "forgetting" pledges made or backtracking on commitments to referendum results, or working against the interests of the people who voted for you in the first place. Ultimately disengagement and, by extension, anti-vaxxers are a political problem and need to be dealt with politically. The latest "policy" falls short of this. Not only is the game Labour playing potentially dangerous, it's doomed not to work.

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Saturday, 14 November 2020

On Labour's NEC Elections Results

There's an interesting analysis from Sienna Rodgers over at LabourList about the results, so what's one more two-penneth? Here are a couple of brief take-homes.

1. Looking at the number of NEC ballots issued, LeftieStats shows party membership has declined by about 57,000 since the leadership election. It's reasonable to presume most of these were from the left. Still, the Grassroots Alliance won a plurality of votes with 37.5% and five seats (but down 19% on 2018's last full elections). Considering they were hoping for four seats, returning five is a good showing. Though had those who resigned stayed, the left would have done even better. Unfortunately, what wasn't good news was the turnout. At 27.4% it wasn't fantastic, but doesn't appear too disastrous - the worst in recent years was 2017's contest, which could barely muster more than a fifth of the membership. However, there is cause for leftwing concern. The low turnout three years ago can be put down to a mix of triumphalism following the election, an expanded membership not properly engaging, and despondency among the Labour right. In 2020, the low rate could represent a layer of left members disengaging and perhaps running their membership out. Completely understandable thanks to what's on offer, but something that has a bearing on the internal struggle from now on.

2. Perhaps the left might have done even better if the Grassroots Alliance hadn't included Ann Henderson on the slate. Given questions over her record and associations with Jennifer James and Pete Willsman in the CLPD, obvious liabilities should not be touched with a barge pole let alone be promoted by the left for internal elections. This is not a question of "purity". It is reasonable to expect candidates representing socialist class politics be entirely comfortable with our actually-existing class in all its diversity. Wanting to have a "debate" about trans people is entirely inappropriate and, while there is a generalised assault on a misunderstood and powerless minority by the Tories and sundry media liberals, utterly unconscionable. Indulging this nonsense undermines the labour movement's solidarity with its trans members, and we wouldn't stand for it if any other minority was involved. It's pretty damning how some more centrist figures understand this better then some so-called leftists. Unsurprisingly, the only Grassroots Alliance candidate not elected was ... Ann Henderson. Perhaps if the people who make decisions about slates were more serious about power and struggle, they wouldn't consider offering candidates with a divisive background. As this contest has shown affecting a tone deafness and brushing concerns under the carpet won't work, because the wider grassroots left won't stand for it. Let this be a lesson.

Thursday, 12 November 2020

Who Will Speak for the Dead?

Thursday 12th November, 563 dead. Wednesday 11th November, 595 dead. Tuesday 10th November, 532 dead. Every one of these deaths is on the Tories. It's this hideous, ichor-soaked government who've shurgged their shoulders over the repeated, blatant failures of Test and Trace. It was they who resisted calls for an earlier lockdown, which might have saved many of the lives lost. It was also this government who prematurely opened everything up, with workplaces and retail approaching some degree of normality. And lest we forget it was the Tories who bribed people back into pubs, bars, and restaurants. It might have helped stimulate the economy into reporting 15.5% in GDP growth in the last quarter, but a blood price was extracted. Yet, as we have recently noted, the government have proven themselves successful in one endeavour: of shirking blame for this awful state of affairs. Folks can talk about their news management, the collusion of establishment journalism, and clever, clever micropolitical strategies working away to depoliticise their crisis, but above all there's one ingredient making all this possible: HM's official Opposition. It's one thing for the Tories to stay quiet about the dead, but Labour?

Consider Keir Starmer's Coronavirus record. His approach to the government has seen Labour, um, shadow the government in most aspects. He quickly grasped calling for a two-week "circuit breaker" during half-term was epidemiologically sensible and politically doable. Not too much damage to kids' schooling, and a quick points win - especially when the Tories would be forced to act by rising infections and hospital admissions, all without straying too far from the government's strategy and remaining entirely faithful to SAGE recommendations. Apart from this, at times Keir has proven even more zealous about opening everything to some level of normality. 30 seconds into the leader's shoes he was demanding a timetable for an exit strategy, and there was the embarrassment of notifying the government that he expected the schools to open on time and sod clinical realities. Where Keir has ventured into criticism, it's been process and details, and the famous focus on incompetence. These are necessary criticisms, but not the be-all and end-all of opposition in the age of Covid.

Limiting criticism to Tory cluelessness is ridiculous for two reasons. It lets whoever succeeds Johnson off for his smorgasbord of sin and foregrounds Conservative reinvention - surely a chief lesson of the 2019 general election no one ever talks about. And second, it's simply not true. Appointing cronies and manifesting incoherence is not a case of Johnson being rubbish, it's systematic, a part-consequence of competing pressures. In other words, it's political. This leads us to asking a similar question about Labour's pitiful opposition. Keir's managerialism is more than a personal quirk, of the UK's leading lawyer seamlessly transitioning into the front rank of British politics without disturbing a single, brylcreemed strand nor any ingrained habits of mind. It's deliberate, and sits within the Labourist tradition.

Consider the latest intervention by way of an illustration. Looking aghast at Number 10's staffing shenanigans, Keir has condemned the affair as "pathetic". Or, to quote him more fully, "We're in the middle of a pandemic, we're all worried about our health and our families, we're all worried about our jobs, and this lot are squabbling behind the door of number ten. It's pathetic. Pull yourselves together, focus on the job in hand." The important part is my emphasis. When Keir confronts Johnson at Prime Minister's Questions, he affects the aspect of an exasperated teacher reprimanding a lazy schoolboy and threatening to send his parents a cause for concern letter. He offers less a critique and more a backhanded form of encouragement to get this right. The pull-your-socks-up discourse makes sense in a pandemic, and meshes seamlessly into Keir's comfort zone of Tory incompetence, but ultimately he's rushing to their rescue. When he says he wants them to do well, he genuinely means it.

The chief beneficiary of Keir's "opposition" to the Tories is the principle of state authority. This is why he, and Labour politicians generally, steer clear of structural criticism or taking the Tories to task for corruption and cronyism. It's either about being "mistaken" and having the wrong ideas, or not being up to the job. Talking about interests and the rootedness of the Tories in Britain's broken political economy raises awkward questions, including the wider legitimacy of the state - with all its laws and ideologies. This must be protected at all costs, not because of deep seated parliamentary cretinism, but because Labourism is fundamentally statist. Labourist politics relies on mass passivity, it's an elite project where the masses vote in the politicians, and they make the changes by passing legislation. This basic assumption, this ontology of establishment politics is responsible for commonalities between the parties and why, when all is said and done, MPs across from one another get on, go to gigs, strike up friendships, and wax lyrically about shared values and having more in common. Keir is not only doing Labourism by not encroaching on state authority, he's actually protecting it by overlooking the criminality and overt sectionalism of the Tories. Any honest politics would join the dots, but the only truth that matters here is the power he might enjoy in Number 10.

Who then is going to speak for the dead? Not asking serious questions about 50,000 deceased persons is as much a structural feature of Starmerist politics as recklessness is of the contemporary Conservative scene. Whoever ends up speaking for the lives lost, it's not likely to be Labour's front bench.

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Wednesday, 11 November 2020

The Grotesqueries of the Hacks

Look at the appalling state of British journalism. This evening the lobby hacks and chief political correspondents are getting excited by rumblings in Number 10. Earlier today Laura Kuenssberg was tweeting breathlessly about the rumoured promotion of long-time Johnson lackey, Lee Cain, from head spinner to Number 10 Chief of Staff. A move reportedly opposed by, um, Carrie Symonds. Tonight, Cain announced his resignation following suggestions the Prime Minister had instead forced him out. Kuenssberg's clueless counterpart across the great televisual divide, ITV's Robert Peston witters on Twitter concerning rumours Dominic Cummings is about to jump ship in solidarity with Cain. "It's 50/50!", according to Tom Newton Dunn, quoting a Number 10 "insider" not at all likely to be Cummings himself.

This is the real meat and gravy of politics for our establishment hangers ons. Watching their twee output, you could be forgiven for thinking political power isn't about power. If politics is showbiz for ugly people, they typify the dominant strand of establishment political journalism: current affairs as Heat magazine, or more fittingly Hello thanks to the gallons of sycophancy they gush over their subjects and sources. What makes this all the more sickening is today, according to the ever-shifting definitions of Covid victims, the number of dead passed the grim milestone of 50,000. For the last 24 hour reporting period, some 595 people - lives as complex and feeling as your own - were snuffed out. The government are making strenuous efforts to deny culpability for their disaster, but it's not like the smiley, happy people of the pro-Johnson press pack are about to make matters difficult for them.

Some folks might put this high drama about low politics down to another Cummings masterstroke. But one should not attribute superpowers to him. He has not fetched a dead moggy from the Croydon cat killer's chest freezer and flung it to the cooing mob, this is a genuine power struggle in the Johnson project. Perhaps Cummings is feeling the pressure a wee bit. The holiday hunger debacle had Dom's inky thumb prints all over it, and even the pit ponies of the political press were forced to neigh in a faintly critical tone. One more idiotic move and his reputation as the sinister svengali is done. With one of his chums heading out the door, why not cut his losses and enjoy cashing in on the notoriety for the next few years? It must be tempting.

It doesn't really matter though. Whether Cummings stays or goes, the same rotten crew with the same rotten politics are carrying on handing rotten contracts out to rotten private providers. It's a national emegency, don't you know, so nothing to see here. And accompanying it all is the soundtrack of a reportage and commentary that elucidates nothing, and greases the wheels of mystification and befuddlement most people find bemusing about the politics shit circus. It's almost as if there's mutually beneficial collusion between the crew inside Downing Street and the tight-knit posse standing outside in front of the cameras.

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Labour's Backpedalling on Schools

What a lovely, gushing interview with Wes Streeting. No hard questions allowed, instead the shadow schools minister spends time talking about his background, why he's passionate about ensuring state school pupils aren't left behind, and has a pop at the Tories about their school dinners fiasco. Nothing objectionable or problematic, apart from two comments.

The National Education Service, which was variously trailed under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, is now in the bin. A "slogan" according to the Graun write up of the interview. And then there was this, which is worth quoting in its entirety:

"In my constituency I’ve got local authority schools, free schools, academies, I’ve got a grammar school, I’ve got independent schools that aren’t far away – and the interesting thing is, whether I am walking into a local authority school or a free school or an academy, the name above the door matters less than what goes on inside the building. I think we would all agree that we wouldn’t start from here if we were designing an education system but this is where we are, and we have to make the system work."

Let's look at these two points. As the holder of the shadow schools brief, I suppose the previous leadership's life-long education service wasn't of much interest. Readers will recall this was a proposal to open up adult education and ease access to colleges and universities so people could drop in and out of education throughout their lives. This isn't some frippery or the promise of a semi-permanent life as a students' union barfly, but an essential complement to how labour markets are likely to develop over the next half-century. We know advances in robotics and artificial intelligence are going to put a lot of jobs under pressure, and the development of new industries are not likely to generate new occupations in anywhere near the same numbers as previous waves of technological innovation. The aim of the education service was to catch people put into this position of skills obsolescence and allow them, at no costs to themselves, to retrain. A good common sense policy nor one spilling over with the radical potential to overthrow capitalism, so we can only speculate why Wes simply dismissed it. Perhaps the decommodification element with the removal of tuition fees, something latter day Blairites remained wedded to, had something to do with it.

And then the idea of the schooling mix. This whole "all schools must be good schools" stuff is not peculiar to Wes Streeting. Angela Rayner has said as much in the past, but pretending it doesn't matter is itself is dogmatic and, for the Labour Party, utterly mistaken. Again there might be an element of Blairist revanchism here for Wes, who is fundamentally wedded to this sort of politics. The "mix" in school provision began under Thatcher, carried on by John Major, and was enthusiastically taken up by Tony Blair. As far as the Tories were concerned, their restructuring of education was far from the pragmatic "what works" philosophy New Labour occasionally toyed with, but a project to break the strength of the teaching unions, smash teachers' professional autonomy, gut schools of local democratic input and accountability to parents, and centralise the curriculum under state control. This isn't to say the old system was perfect or was without its share of failures, but the Tory approach was a policy offensive aimed at two groups - teachers and local authorities - who stood in the way of their efforts to centralise the state and transform state education into uncritical vocational fodder.

Trying to make this "work" is to carry on with a system that pushes teachers into quitting with stupid workloads, ensures more resources go to "better" schools, allows academy chains - completely without account - to make changes to the curricula and determine disciplinary policies while "chief executives" pocket huge salaries, gives free schools the right to take on anyone who fancies themselves a teacher without qualifications, and, of course, union busting. The issue of "quality" in education is inseparable from these issues, unless one is gormless enough to trust grades as a simple reflection of what is and what isn't a good school experience.

What Wes is in danger of doing here, and I'm sure he's conscious of it, is opposing the producer to the consumer interest - a stubborn characteristic of New Labour theory. Usually associated with His Tonyness's efforts at "public sector reform", this starts out with the assumption workers are lazy and strive to make the service they're employed by amenable to them and their interest, all at the expense of the "consumer" - the hard working taxpayer. We last saw these arguments aired by Jeremy Hunt during his confected dispute with junior doctors over weekend working. Needless to say, opposing producers and consumers is irresponsible politics for any Labour politician. By attacking workers, or being seen to be fine with unjust and dysfunctional systems letting down kids in school and driving teachers from the profession, Labour figures who do so are attacking the party's base and, ultimately, making fighting an election more difficult in the future. This basic fact of political physics shouldn't need explaining, but it does frequently and repeatedly to those who fancy themselves election winning professionals.

Unfortunately, as if confirmation was needed, Wes's interview is another dog whistle to the right wing press and politics opinion formers that the drift away from the platform Keir Starmer was elected on continues.

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