Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Tribalism and the Progressive Alliance

As promised, let's talk about the so-called progressive alliance, that Labour, the LibDems, Greens, SNP, and Plaid should come to a non-aggression arrangement to maximise the anti-Conservative vote in upcoming by-elections and the next general election (now most unlikely to be next year). This means unpicking 'tribalism'.

Let's start off with a question. Though it has happened at local level on a number of occasions, most Labour people from all wings of the party would react with horror about cutting a deal with the Tories. Why? It isn't a matter of them being "not us". Politics is not a game of football where someone is wedded to one side and affects hatred for designated rivals. On the whole, the reaction against the Tories is because of what they do. We see their policies hammer our people and protect the privileged, and more often than not regardless of the damage they wreak on the fabric of social life. We know they represent a set of interests that ultimately aren't the same, and indeed are opposed to the interests of the people our party represents.

Let's bear that in mind when we come to the Liberal Democrats. Tony Blair liked to flatter them by pretending their party lies within the radical tradition, but that is to evacuate any sense of meaning from the term. The LibDems, historically, represented the less backward elements of the same class the Tories do. When they collapsed and were supplanted by Labour in the 1920s, they faded away into electoral obscurity. Yet, philosophically and in terms of its core constituency, they were not qualitatively different from the Tories. The Liberals as were had sharp policy differences with the Conservatives from time to time, but these were of degree and not of kind. And we don't need to play thought experiments or dredge up records in local government. They might have prevented some utterly mad Tory policies while in coalition, but their time with ministerial portfolios saw through cuts to social security, the doubling down of market mechanisms in the public sector (especially in the NHS), and a complete abandonment of their Keynes-lite strategy for getting the British economy moving again. They are hostile to trade unions acting politically and, lest we forget, that nice "lefty" Tim Farron is open to the idea of going in with the Tories again. Lovely.

The SNP and Plaid Cymru, on paper, should be better candidates for a progressive alliance. Leanne Wood is a nice centre left-type with a Trot pedigree to her name. Nicola Sturgeon's closet has no Fourth Internationalist skeletons, alas, but apart from independence you could make a case for the Scottish government being more consistently social democratic than the Labour administrations preceding it. What's more, the SNP had its own Corbyn-style surge long before Corbs lent his name to politics-defining membership surges. In one sense, the SNP is entirely different to what it was before the Scottish referendum. Most of the left are there. Most of the progressive vote are there. And yet, two stubborn political realities remain. Despite approaching the same number of members as the Tories, it has made little difference to the SNP politically. It remains pretty much the same outfit with the same people in charge. Scottish radicalism hasn't remade the party in the same way Corbynism has upended everything in Labour. That, ultimately, has something to do with the character of the SNP as a bourgeois nationalist party. The basic political subject it's trying to organise is the nation, and in capitalist societies the interests of the nation are defined in impeccably bourgeois terms: growing GDP, low inflation rates, balance of payments, the successful competition over markets and so on. True, the SNP offer 'nice' civic, left-tinged nationalism and not the ugly rubbish long associated with Britishness and Englishness in particular, yet it too cannot resist defining itself against the backward, Tory-voting xenophobes south of the border. Nor seeking to exacerbate divisions in Labour, its long time rival and potential future nemesis. Perhaps I'm old fashioned for sticking to the view that nationalism is the passage to division and the domination of politics by unscrupulous scoundrels. What an idle whimsy, eh? The same applies to Plaid as well. While seeking more autonomy for Wales in a federal-style arrangement, which seem entirely sensible to me, for PC it's a step toward independence and ultimately they organise on that basis, albeit much less successfully than their friends in the north. For us, interests and solidarity exits across borders. For the SNP and Plaid, that fundamentally threatens their project.

And the Greens. Of the four parties they are perhaps the best candidates for an alliance with Labour. Our party arose to prosecute the claims and interests of working people in capitalism, and green parties respond to the environmental despoliation that same system has accumulated in slag heaps, rubbish tips, and long-term changes to the climate. Both are potentially and imminently radical because of the adversarial position they have vis conventional economics. Where Labour and the Greens differ is at the level of constituency. Labour is powered by working people generally - historically most of the "traditional" working class and the middle class in the professions and public sector, and now increasingly by the networked worker. The Greens by small business and also sections of the middle class. Unlike the other parties, there is a tension between these constituencies but no fundamental opposition. An alliance that wouldn't lead to political catastrophe a la Italy's Democratic Party is possible here. Thing is, it's completely pointless. The Greens didn't cost Labour the general election. A deal would benefit the Greens - Caroline Lucas would remain unmolested in Brighton - but where's the quid pro quo for the much larger would-be partner?

There's nothing wrong with members from different parties working together where interests are episodically aligned, but a tie up is fraught with serious difficulties. There are significant sections in each, particularly Labour and the SNP who wouldn't countenance such a thing. Sinking differences into an amorphous nice-politics-for-nice-anti-Tory-people formation is a recipe for splits. The second problem is, well, the national card. The Tories proved adept at playing it in 2015 and, unfortunately, it did frighten the horses in too many marginals. A full blown alliance unhappily risks stirring the rank politics of English nationalism and anti-elite populism. Remember, the consequences of its recent outing hasn't been positive. And lastly, an alliance between irreconcilable parties won't fly because of the interests underpinning them. So-called tribalism recognises this truism of politics. No matter how crude its expression, such dumb materialism is more advanced than "enlightened" views stubbornly refusing to understand politics beyond free floating ideas.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Why Renzi Lost the Referendum

As someone who wasn't born into political radicalism (quite the opposite), relics of attitudes and ideas long abandoned sometimes clutter up the synapses. And one of these is a notion I used to hold about politicians. At the risk of making myself red faced, until quite late in the day I believed that climbing the greasy poll, to be a councillor, a Member of Parliament, and a minister you had to have something about you. Some level of intellect, a dash of charisma, the capacity to connect with people and, most helpful of all, nous. And a part of me is disappointed every time an elected representative falls short of these not-so-lofty expectations.

The gentleman who's had my head a-shaking at the start of this week is Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and the referendum he lost on bringing "stability" to government. As readers are aware, Italy's had almost as many different governments as there have been years since the Second World War. Renzi's ruling Democratic Party is the country's primary centre left formation, recently formed from a mishmash of the safely de-communised, social democratised former communist party, the Christian left, the greens and liberals, and a few others. These currents retain their distinct identities for the most part, with the several times diluted ex-PCI as the party's organisational backbone. Renzi for his part is described as half-way technocrat, half-way populist. He hails from a Christian democratic background and made a name for himself butting his head against the PD's leadership. He was also keen to portray himself as a moderniser in much the same vein as a certain someone, and for want of a better phrase has occupied the ground of liberal populism. Frequent targets of his rhetoric were the bankers and, in equal measure, the "privileges" secured by the trade unions (among which was protection from unjustified dismissals). How boringly petit bourgeois and, from the viewpoint of maintaining a healthy centre left, dumb.

After the 2008 crash, Italy's long-term weakness was exposed. GDP growth is anemic, and the country remains a long way off recovery. And you thought Britain's GDP recovery was tardy. Unemployment is falling again, but is dangerously high, contributing its part to the erosion of the established parties and providing the relevant combustibles to our friends in the Liga Nord and Five Star Movement.

As part of a package of measures he believed would pull Italy out of the doldrums, Renzi sought to inject stability into the notoriously fractious political system. Understandably thanks to 20 years under the fascist cosh and the unhappy experience of the Nazi occupation, the post-war constitution fashioned in 1947 balanced the powers of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Presently a vote of no confidence in the upper house can dismiss a government, and herein lies the Italian party system's instability. With the lack of so-called strong government, opponents of the Senate's constitutional rights argue that parties have a very hard time thinking and acting in the long-term, as well as taking on challenging and controversial political projects. Renzi's referendum was about curbing these powers as well as introducing a new electoral system. This would retain PR but give a bonus number of seats to any party crossing the 40% threshold. After much wrangling and horse trading, including a pact with Silvio Berlusconi of all people, the measures cleared both houses but not by the margin deemed necessary by the constitution. Therefore the proposals had to be put to a referendum.

Asking people to vote for a package of reform amounting to less democracy was never going to be an easy sell. Though, constitutionally speaking, Renzi didn't have much of a choice. But then he made the fatal error, and not one you'd expect from a politician proven to have nous enough to thrive in the rough and tumble of Italian politics. He committed a catastrophic mistake that not even Dave, the most politically inept PM of recent times was daft enough to make: by threatening to resign if the vote was lost, Renzi made the referendum all about him.

There is a tendency in politics to simplify things. Policies can be complex and beyond the ken of legislators, let alone a public who cast politics the odd sideways glance outside of election time. Perhaps this was part of Renzi's reasoning. I can't imagine, for instance, that many people were fussed whether the Senate was elected on a region-by-region basis or not. But most people would certainly have had an opinion on the Prime Minister's record, which calls into question Renzi's reasoning. While not polarising or as dismal as the hapless Francois Hollande, yet, those attacks on the centre left's bedrock will have not done him any favours. While the Catholic-rooted Italian Confederation of Workers' Trade Unions backed Renzi, the Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL) - the main target of the earlier labour market reform package - did not and agitated for a no vote. It might not have attracted the publicity of Beppe Grillo's oh-so funny antics, but this is a union that had pulled a million people out onto the streets of Rome to protest the attacks on workers. They were an important factor, a five million strong factor and one typically overlooked by a politician unable to comprehend the political character of the parties they lead. Compounding the foolishness was allowing the populists to, well, consolidate their populism. Personalising the referendum explicitly framed the proposals as an establishment stitch-up designed to give the elites a smoother ride, and granted the awful anti-politics of Five Star permission to gain extra ground. Renzi's best bet at winning was to turn it into a snoozefest rather than a shitfest, and he completely blew it.

Rightly, Italy said no to the changes. But in so doing, another Prime Minister says ciao - though no one should rule out repeat Berlusconi-style come backs for Renzi. And Grillo's movement has grown in strength and legitimacy. A good outcome with a pretty grizzly consequence, and yet another reminder why the centre left are on the retreat.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

French Lessons for the Centre Left

In ordinary times, a French president announcing they wouldn't be seeking re-election is something of a deal. Especially as none have stepped down after a single term in the history of the Fifth Republic. However, as it's 2016 this milestone will go down as but a detail. Still, you can't blame Francois Hollande for throwing in the towel. His approval ratings are among the most abysmal a Western leader has ever accrued and, as a result, the first round of the French presidential election was bound to finish with him in a heap, bruised and humiliated by a hostile electorate. All this matters because Hollande's collapse invites the far right under Marine Le Pen to consolidate their position and make further gains. And there are very serious lessons here for centre left politics everywhere.

Readers with memories and an acquiantance with French politics will recall that Hollande was selected via a primary to be the joint nominee of the Socialists and Radical Left, and beating the unlamented Nicolas Sarkozy in the second round of voting in the 2012 presidential elections. His platform was what we now call Milibandist, though it would be more accurate to note Hollande revealed his policies while the blessed Ed kept his under wraps, all in the hope of under-promising and over-delivering. Le sigh. Hollande favoured the stock items: regulation of finance, including the separation of investment and saving arms of banks, taxing the rich and turning up corporation tax, shrinking class sizes by hiring tens of thousands of teachers, equal rights for same sex partners, the founding of a public investment bank, lowering the retirement age, and targeting the creation of jobs for the young in unemployment black spots. Not a bad centre left offering, all told. Unfortunately, it's often what goes unsaid that can be more significant.

The first was labour market reform, or to put it more explicitly, the attempt to hammer workers conditions to help steady France's way through the consequences of the 2008 crash. On the one hand, Hollande tried to be the friend of the worker by making it easier for them to move jobs. The flipside, however, was a bonfire of employment rights. Getting rid of workers became easier, and it gave companies the right to cut wages and salaries during "tough times". It also shortened the period employees could contest lay offs in the courts. More controversial changes, was to do with pensions. Remember the pledge to lower the retirement age? France had a pensions deficit to contend with, which Hollande chose to plug by mandating an increase in contributions. This policy was successful in uniting France ... against him. Workers took to the streets in opposition, and the package had a torrid time getting through Parliament - especially from his own Socialist Party representatives. Meanwhile, he advanced a series of targeted tax breaks in the hope that French business would take on more workers, but unemployment remained stubborn. There was a certain incoherence to his approach, of helping his progressive vote out and kicking them simultaneously (also copied by Ed Miliband), which in practice meant paralysis and the perception of dithering and incompetence. Hollande got a temporary boost for firm action taken in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings, but the overall political dynamic quickly reasserted itself. Subsequent terrorist outrages have compounded the sense of rudderlessness. Still, despite the litany of failure and sense of doom dogging his presidency, under Hollande France managed to overtake Britain as the world's fifth largest economy.

The reason why Hollande is set to limp off the French political stage is thanks, once again, to the structural blindness of the centre left. In September 2014, his former partner published a memoir that called Hollande's integrity into question. Defending himself, he said his entire political career was guided by a commitment to helping the poor. And this sums up the problem. An ethical commitment to progressive politics is essential, but not sufficient for developing a properly political understanding. And that, at the risk of belabouring a point made countless times here, is politics is always fundamentally about interests. It's crude and impolite to discuss this publicly, but it's true. The right represent, defend, and attack on the behalf of class interests bound up with the status quo. And the left represent the interests of the many that, in the long-term, push beyond the limits of established politics and economics. However, while the left is drawn from and speaks to this huge constituency, it is stymied by its own refusal to see things as they are. It's not that the left are thick and have an imperfect understanding, but because the bulk of them engage in constitutional politics that in their everyday militate against seeing the world in this way. Change comes through committee meetings and resolutions, policy formation and implementation. Everything else is window dressing. And they are conditioned by the stakes of these political systems. The lived reality of voters is erased by the cult of numbers, or replacing the feeling and perception of economic relief by indices measuring GDP, inflation and wage growth. Interest becomes more and more narrowly refined into a bland national interest, expressed in increasing and decreasing metrics assumed to be in congruence with the good life. It's by this process that honest centre left politicians can come to believe liberalising hire and fire is in their constituents' interests, that making them work longer for less pension is something they should accept, because they are the nation and it's in the nation's interests these things should get sorted out.

It's this commonsense that is responsible for the incoherence of Hollande and Ed Miliband. And its consequences spell disaster for social democratic and labour parties. The Socialist presidency, the collapse of PSOE, the evisceration of Scottish Labour, the annihilation of PASOK and now Syriza. Where the centre left see themselves as somehow outside of history, where they substitute the politics of class for the politics of technocracy, they fail. They attack their base and sometimes, the base kills them in return. The right, on the other hand, never forget they're bound to certain class interests and that we live in a class society. If the centre left is to survive the apparent crisis breaking over us, we need to stop thinking woolly thoughts about the nature of our economy and politics and be as hard nosed about it as some are with their factional struggles and policy positioning. The centre left has to think radically about itself and its position. Otherwise the future is one of Francois Hollande-style approval ratings - forever.

Politics After Richmond

Late to the comment party, but whatevs. Zac Goldsmith thoroughly deserved to have his arse handed to him, even if it depended on the Liberal Democrats to get it done. His "independent challenge" to the Conservatives was successfully undermined by his own stupidity. Having the local association back him, making sure the Tory party proper didn't field a candidate, getting all his mates from the Commons to come down and campaign for him and then, the piece de resistance, not ruling out rejoining the Tories, the fool didn't so much as get found out as paraded his cynicism.

The by-election raises lots of questions for labour movement, not least so-called "tribalism" and the feasibility (as well as desirability) of a progressive alliance between centre left opponents of the Tories - which would encompass Labour, the LibDems, Greens, SNP, and Plaid Cymru. But we'll leave that for another time seeing as it won't be going away. There are three take homes from yesterday's results, and they are:

1. No early general election, and by early I mean one next year. What happened on Thursday can only reinforce Theresa May's snail-slow cautiousness. Going early while tempers are fraying over Brexit and with the initiative lying with her opponents appears foolish. Yes, there were special circumstances in Richmond thanks to being one of the country's most pro-Remain constituencies and having a history of substantial LibDem support before Goldsmith took it in 2010, but there was also the huge swing in Witney towards the yellows. And there's LibDem momentum in local by-elections, which also saw them take another council seat off the Tories on Thursday night. If I was looking for excuses to tarry, the idea of the LibDems taking back a good chunk of the seats they lost to the Tories last year cannot be ruled out. And with them goes the majority. May would not stake her future on scooping up more seats from Labour by way of compensation.

2. Sarah Olney's victory definitely breaks UKIP's hold on the protest-party-of-choice franchise. After the last "normal" by-election in Corby, UKIP have consistently come second (or first in the cases of Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless). Witney broke the pattern, and Richmond rubs it in. Not unreasonably, one might assume these are not natural UKIP territory, but neither was Eastleigh where Diane James put the frighteners on the LibDems. What's more, UKIP here stood aside and endorsed Goldsmith. This move that had no discernible impact on the outcome whatsoever, and exactly what you would expect to happen if their vote share was in decline, which it is. Kippers can shrug it off with their claims to be targeting Labour seats but having tried it for years, it remains a case of so far, so patchy.

3. More serious are the issues for Labour. It would be ridiculous to blame Jeremy Corbyn for Labour's lost deposit and vote that came in under the local constituency party membership. Even Tony Blair could only muster 12.6% of the vote in 1997. But it points to a danger as well. Labour have to perform a tricky balancing act. Two thirds of Labour voters may voted Remain back in June, but also two thirds of constituencies held by Labour MPs voted Leave. We cannot be seen to be going around appearing to thwart the public's verdict in the same way the LibDems can, but nor should we try and steal the Prime Minister's rhetoric about making everything a success. Labour must stake out its own Brexit scepticism that explicitly states to our core support that the party wants a deal that protects working class interests, and will scrutinise, criticise, and publicise its own positions to this end. A deal that seeks to foist the costs of Brexit onto our people is not acceptable, and we should clearly say so instead of shilly shallying about. Keir Stamer's 170 questions was a useful stunt and a good start, but we need to convert that from the discourse of the wonks into the language of the people. If we don't, the LibDems will move to monopolise this territory and reap the benefits, with potentially disastrous consequences for us.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Nalin & Kane - Open Your Eyes

Shall return with a double whammy tomorrow. In the interim, plunge back into 1999 ...

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Five Most Popular Posts for November

The five most-read last month were:

1. Race, Class and Donald Trump
2. Marine Le Pen on Andrew Marr
3. The End of Capitalism?
4. Momentum's Double Vision
5. How Likely is a General Election?

Good to see this blog's slightly different take on Donald Trump's unexpected election victory get top of the pops this month. While liberalism retreats into calling his voters racist and thick, just as they did with Brexit voters, Tory voters, Corbyn supporters, and anyone else falling short of their impeccable standards of political hygiene, there is an audience casting around for alternative explanations that go beyond middle class identity politics (and identity thinking). I hope this at least served as an entree. There's a very good chance Trump's win will boost Le Pen's chances in the French presidentials next May, which is not good news. Nor was it for Andrew Marr to get her on his show. Less a grilling and more a few turns on a sun bed, as abysmal politics broadcast journalism goes, we've been provided with a new floor. Well done. We also took a look at the end of capitalism, seeing as apocalypse is in the air, had a foray into Critical Corbyn Studies, and asked whether Theresa May is going to call an election. TL;DR answer? No.

Making the trip to second chance city this month is my review of Alex Nunns' The Candidate. It's an excellent read. If you've been good, it's well worth asking Santa for a copy! Oh yes, it's going to be December too. The month is traditionally a busy time on the blog, what with all that free time to soak up and annual blogging lists to post. NB This blog reaches its 10th (yes, 10th!) birthday on the 8th, so do expect some vainglorious nonsense.


Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The SNP's Blather About Blair

Tony Blair's politics are awful. But, after a 2.6 million word consideration of his conduct in the lead up to the Iraq War, I'm confident in the belief he's not a war criminal. However, some disagree and remain bent on bringing him to justice. The latest episode in this long-running drama was the motion put to the Commons earlier today by the SNP demanding yet another investigation. This was hung on the infamous note passed to George W Bush (relieved he won't now go down as the worst president in US history) saying "we will be with you, whatever". I can't see what purpose raking over all this for the fourth time would achieve, and think it's better left to the court of public opinion. And, as we know, their verdict is such that Blair remains a cult figure to fewer than 4.5% of the present Labour Party membership.

Well, actually, I can see a reason for some people wanting to go there yet again. As readers know, the motion was heavily defeated by Conservative and Labour votes. This came after a spat between the PLP majority and the leader's office over the appropriate response to the motion. The PLP wanted a three line whip to vote against, while Jeremy was equivocal and consented to a single line whip ... and making himself scarce in the process. However, contrary to what Stop the War think, this was no principled move by Alex Salmond and co. It was a political trap you could see from the Moon.

The PLP were right to oppose the motion, though for the wrong reasons. A defence of past votes cast in favour of the Iraq bloodbath, a residual loyalty to a fattening albatross around the old establishment's neck, some of the calculations undoubtedly were self-serving and arse-covering. Yet some might have spotted the wider politics too. In case anyone forgot Labour's summer of anything-but-love, the divisions haven't gone away. Instead, the emphatic backing of the party membership have imposed a truce on the PLP, though differences persist about what an accommodation with Corbynism involves. Yet that settlement, however imperfect it is, could fall apart if one of its fissures - in this case, differing attitudes to the Iraq War and His Blairness - is wrenched open further. Which is exactly what the SNP were trying to do. It's what any party opposed to Labour would try and do.

Herein lies the logic of Salmond's trap. The PLP would vote against the motion, confirming to former Scottish Labour voters that they remain the same old same old who made common cause with the Tories to keep the UK together and squash the progressive aspirations of the Scottish people. Had Corbyn been bounced into going along with it, that would have discomfited his leftist support base. And if he didn't and somehow avoided the vote, which he eventually did, he looks like a hostage to the PLP and boosts the demonstrably untrue ineffective opposition rubbish. In all, it suits the SNP for Labour to stay down and divided for as long as possible - they know their support in the medium and long-term might go back to Labour if it gets its act together and the SNP falls victim to a sudden shift in political fortune. If we draw one conclusion from 2016, it's that stranger things do happen.

A win-win for the SNP, then. Labour members are moaning about the PLP again, and Jezza made to look a bit rubbish. There was, however, an alternative. And that would have been for the leader to, um, have led. As a trap so obvious it made George Osborne's past stratagems look like Napoleonic masterstrokes, Jeremy should have attacked it as such, criticised the SNP for wasting Parliamentary time with petty point scoring, and voted down the motion on that basis. He should have trusted the good will the majority of party members have toward him as well as the utter non-issue it is among the wider electorate. This wouldn't have meant or been read by anyone that he'd gone soft on Blair and his legacy, but merely underlined the SNP's posturing. The lesson to take home is play the Parliamentary game, which is often irrelevant and mind numbing, or otherwise it will play you - and the consequences, unfortunately, are anything but trivial.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Brexiters Less Likely to Change Underwear Daily

Many props to Mike Smithson for spotting this and letting folks know about it. A case of correlation and not causation? I park it here without comment and for your information.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Paul Nuttall and Working Class Voters

Who's that knight on a white charger? Why, it's none other than Paul Nuttall, Eddie Hitler look-a-like and the latest leader of our purple friends in the United Kingdom Independence Party. His election by a landslide suggests a desire on the part of the party's much-reduced membership (of which, 15,500 out of 33k cast a ballot) to put the recent period of fracas and farce behind it. But more significantly, and unlike the hapless Diane James, Tory-in-exile Suzanne Evans, and homosexual donkey anecdote man, Nuttall is the man with a plan. To put the UKIP jigsaw together again (his words), they're going to go all out and concentrate on the northern working class Labour seats. It's a "big open goal" as far as he's concerned, and plenty of the media agree. Despite evidence of a declining brand, there are plenty only too happy to talk up this threat.

On paper, it seems like a winner. The Labour Party is stuffed full of metropolitan luvvies, and practically the entire media (and not a few Labour MPs) have gone out of its way to portray northerners as knuckle scraping racists hostile to such things. The election of Jeremy Corbyn is further grist to the UKIP mill, widening the chasm between the party and its core support. Or so the story goes. The problem for Nuttall's turn to the class and his excitable soi disant critics in liberal opinion is this is nothing at all new. This has been UKIP strategy since 1999, and they doubled down on it after hitting the big time. It has brought them some modest success, and has seen them take a council seat here and there from Labour. But their main accomplishment is to have displaced the other parties as the choice of non-Labour voting sections of the working class in safe Labour areas. This Parliament's Ogmore, Sheffield Brightside, and Oldham by-elections typify this trend. Labour hold on, if not handsomely increase its vote, and UKIP batter everyone else and come a distant second. The bulk of working class voters remain resistant to their garish colours and garish politics, as the ballot box demonstrates.

It follows on that if this was the case under Nigel Farage, why does anyone think Nuttall could do better? It took Farage almost 15 years of friendly press before he became a household name. Despite top billing on this evening's news, Nuttall is far cry from the same recognition. As far as the public at large are concerned, including those who give UKIP a punt, he's as well known to them as second rank shadow cabinet members. He's right up there with Tim Farron and Angus Robertson. Nuttall, as noted previously, is mostly competent in front of the cameras. I say mostly, as he has let his affection for Putin show, but the man is also a charisma-free zone. Farage's strength lay in his gaffer-like relatability for the UKIP target vote of middle aged men. What has Nuttall got? The patronising idiocy that he'd go down well with working class voters because he speaks with a Scouse accent is just that. Another thing worth noting, there are plenty of northern working folk for whom the accent grates too. Marry that to a personal image bound up with fascist bovver boys, and hey presto, UKIP have hit upon a formula no more attractive to working class people than the former Tory voters in the shires.

The further problem Nuttall faces is the resurgent Liberal Democrats. Not the biggest threat to UKIP, one would think. And yet they previously did well out of the collapsing LibDems. As previous owners of the none-of-the-above vote, that persistent brigade of anti-establishment politics voters switched their allegiance to the kippers while Clegg and friends made nice with the Tories. And now, well, by-elections up and down the country are finding that vote is dispersing back to the LibDems and, to a lesser extent, Labour. Politics is a funny old game, and Nuttall hasn't even recognised his party's bleed in this direction, let alone have a strategy for addressing it.

This is not a counsel for complacency, though. UKIP's electoral potential is limited, but as we know their indulgence by the media and politicians in our party and over on the government benches has had calamitous consequences. The way to beat them is not to cleave to their specious arguments and BNP-style scapegoating, but to take them on, street-by-street, and door-by-door. Our job is not to enable the enemies of working people by surrendering political ground to them, otherwise what's the bloody point?

Sunday, 27 November 2016

The Candidate by Alex Nunns

In the extraordinarily fluid period it is going through, the sudden rise of Jeremy Corbyn from the obscurity of the back benches to the front rank of British politics is perhaps the most shocking, and for some baffling, turn it has taken in decades. Within the space of a month, socialist ideas were catapulted back into the mainstream and by the end of last summer Labour was won by the left. As readers know, the so-called "deep process" underpinning Corbyn's rise is part of a pattern across the West activating different constituencies behind different political projects. In Labour's case, the new recruits won to the party were representative of the rising class of networked workers. To ensure the party remained a going concern and to avoid the black hole so-called "sensible" politics dragged Scottish Labour into, they had to be won over. But structural change doesn't just happen. Movements here work like a mole, but often requires something that can loosen the soil and allow it to break onto the surface.

In The Candidate by Red Pepper journalist Alex Nunns, we have the story of the summer of 2015, of how the contingent and half-farcical workings of a marginalised group of MPs and activists unleashed a force that revolutionised the Labour Party and has, I would argue, saved it from extinction. The narrative runs at a brisk pace, from the party under Ed Miliband's stewardship to the calamitous 2015 general election, and covering the arm-twisting that had to be done to get Corbyn's name on the leadership ballot through to the wave that deposited him at the top of the party. Everything is extensively referenced so if you weren't part of it you get a real sense of the political and media establishment's horror as it dawned on them Corbyn was going to do it. There are also plenty of interjections and reflections from comrades who were part of the team long before it became fashionable. In fact, it's the storytelling that is the great strength of the book, but it will make for uncomfortable reading for those who backed an Anyone But Corbyn ticket and then supported the botched coup. Nevertheless, if such folks don't wish to wallow in ignorance forever, Alex does a good job in setting out why Corbyn supporters are Corbyn supporters, and why the six-time winner of Parliament's beard of the year was able to win a poll that really mattered.

As you might expect, Alex addresses a number of key controversies that cropped up before and during the leadership campaign. The first is the perennial "elections are won from the centre ground" argument. This fallacy has been visited many times before here, and doesn't warrant repeating. Yet in the aftermath of the general election, this nonsense got an airing in the aspiration talk that quickly coloured explanations for the defeat. The view was that somehow the party wasn't speaking to people who want to do well and get on. This "getting on" was famously defined by former Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander in an utterly abysmal pamphlet as "second home ownership, two cars in the driveway, a nice garden, two foreign holidays a year, and leisure systems in the home such as sound, cinema, and gym equipment." This argument united the early leadership contenders, and was an unsubtle coded attack on the "leftist" election platform Labour put to the electorate.

We know memories are short in politics, and a lot of convenient forgetting happens. Still, it's worth remembering Ed Miliband's programme was so left wing that Theresa May stole it. And secondly, perhaps I need someone to explain to me in a patronising tone what socialism has to do with tightening immigration controls, the avoidance of nationalisation, and more plans to clamp down on social security. What the 2015 manifesto was was incoherent, and our campaign was plagued by mixed messaging while the Tories kept focused on the deficit, the economy, and how Labour was going to shack up with the SNP. Here, Alex suspends the narrative and takes out the scalpels. He, sensibly, questions how aspiration and Labour's lack of concern with it can be at fault when it wasn't on any campaign's radar? It wasn't something anyone reported back on from the doorsteps - and it was certainly not a sentiment I encountered while pounding the streets of (then) swing seat Stafford. He argues it was a baseless conclusion to draw, but was deployed to ensure that the party's politics swung back from Ed's partial break with the policy consensus to the Blairist comfort zone. And that's more or less what we got from the "mainstream" candidates who did battle it out with Jeremy, albeit with slightly different emphases.

Alex also takes on the argument that UKIP ate significantly into Labour's vote because it was too left. Drawing on work done for the British Election Survey, Jane Green and Chris Prosser found that people were actually more likely to vote Labour if it was perceived to be left wing. If it portrays itself as a centre party, it's less likely to attract voters. That appears to fly in the face of experience, particularly when we ponder Tony Blair and the triumph of 1997. But not if you consider what has happened to Scottish Labour, or the Socialists in France, or PASOK and now SYRIZA in Greece, and you might add Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. That is if centre or radical left parties are seen to be abandoning their core values and commitment to social justice and/or socialism and attacking the constituencies that support them, punishment can go beyond bad election results: it can destroy the party. Nevertheless, in the face of inconvenient evidence others went out and found some that supported their arguments. For example, Jon Cruddas popped up with some data claiming that austerity was popular with voters, which is why Labour lost. The basis for such a bold claim was 56% of respondents agreeing to "we must live within our means, so cutting the deficit is the top priority." Deploying leading questions is something social scientists learn to avoid from GCSE onwards as they have a tendency to produce distorted results. Simultaneously, Lord Ashcroft asked a 12,000-strong sample more plainly whether the government should continue with austerity. 54% said no.

What was also important about the would-be leadership contenders' stampede to the right was how far they had misjudged the party mood. The assumption appears to be that because David Miliband carried the party membership in 2010 that rinsing and repeating would have a similar effect. Disastrously so in the case of Liz Kendall. It was a collective failure of listening, of writing off the sceptical voices who always got up in their CLPs to criticise the neglect of the working class or pursuit of policies inimical to labour movement interests. Unfortunately for them, far from being isolated they were merely articulating what a large number of party members think and felt. Under Ed Miliband Alex makes the case that the party membership moved to the left, and was encouraged to stay there as the factions of the Parliamentary Labour Party jostled over the Falkirk affair and generally carried on as if the rest of the party were spectators. It meant that as far as Jeremy Corbyn's success was concerned, it was more or less a foregone conclusion as soon as he got on the ballot paper.

This claim is and will continue to be subject to much debate. I've argued before that Harriet Harman's tax credit debacle had an important role in catalysing support behind the Corbyn campaign, whereas Alex argues Jeremy was in the lead by that stage. The other candidates didn't help themselves. Liz Kendall was all for cutting them, Yvette Cooper more quietly in favour, and Andy Burnham adopted a position that satisfied nobody. Had they read the mood properly, or indeed had they been different candidates entirely then things may have turned out differently.

Continuing in the myth-busting theme, Alex takes on the argument that Corbynism represented a revolt of the middle class, as it it was a performative take over of the Labour Party by people uninterested in changing the world, but keen to shove their leftist identity politics down bamboozled party members' throats. It seemed to me then that this was more a case of Jeremy's opponents bumping into his more annoying supporters on social media and extrapolating from there. As it turned out, this as nothing of the sort. In polling done by YouGov, Alex notes how in the first week of August 2015, 36% of Jez backers were from the AB social grades. This compared to 40% for Andy, 48% for Yvette, and 65% for Liz(!). Across the party as a whole, Jez support comprised 51% of the ABC1s and 57% the C2DEs. If you buy the nonsense that the Labour Party is becoming more middle class, then Jeremy Corbyn's support base is disproportionately working class.

I've just picked out a few of the polemical targets Alex takes aim at. All throughout The Candidate, there are amusing asides and quips at the expense of the Labour right and equally as befuddled journos and commentators. As a history of Corbynism in its initial phase, it's difficult to see how it can ever be surpassed. Stephen Bush calls it a a court biography, but that does not detract from its quality at all. Alex has written a book that any honest treatment of Corbyn and Corbynism has to reckon with. I therefore hope he is thinking about a sequel that picks up from day one of Jeremy's leadership, but as it's still early we'll have to wait quite a while for that one to appear.