Saturday, 22 April 2017

Back on the Doors in Stoke Central

Here we are again. The dust has barely settled on the by-election, Gareth Snell has been our MP for just two months and the Prime Minister pitches us into another battle for votes. Thanks for that. At last night's hastily rebadged constituency meeting, assembled members discussed the campaign to come. And, for obvious reasons, there's a big difference versus what went before. Our famous victory back in February was something of an unsubtle affair. UKIP and the Tories found themselves up against the steam roller of the Labour Party machine and they were flattened - in the kippers' case, to the degree of breaking them permanently. Coming into this election, Stoke Central Labour still has weight of numbers, but for the small matter of elections taking place everywhere else, the CLP has gone a little bit Kim Jong with Jucheist self-reliance, albeit with Stoke characteristics.

We campaigned hard in the Winter. The Spring finds us campaigning smart. Without giving too much away, loose lips and all that, what we lack in activist bodies is to be made up by targeted campaigning. We know where our voters are. We know where the kippers and Tories live. And with fresh contact data covering 65% of the constituency's electors, we are poised to run the most sophisticated operation in Stoke Labour's history. With a majority of just 2,600 however, we fall under Labour's internal definitions a "marginal", and so nothing can be left to chance. If you fancy helping and there isn't a key marginal nearby, let me know at the usual.

For all of this talk of technology, the first campaign session today was proper old school. No targeting, no doorstep apps. Just a team of smiley, weirdly energised volunteers, Gareth, and Shadow Minister for Education Angela Rayner. We were out and about in Cllr Andy Platt's patch in Boothen and Oakhill ward. Yours truly was stuck with the board, which had the happy advantage of giving me oversight of the results. The first thing to note is that Labour were by far the strongest party coming through from the returns. We found one life-long Liberal Democrat, but there was no sense in this part of the ward they were cutting through as per the impressions given off by social media. Second, most of the Labour vote found was quite enthusiastic. I say most as there were some grumbles about bins and the like. But there was a young woman who proudly declared her support, and a couple who begged us not to tell our councillor comrade they voted for UKIP during the by-election but were definitely returning home for the general election. While you might have expected a bit of politics fatigue on the doors - remember, during the by-election they may have received as many as 40 pieces of literature - there didn't seem to be much. What was concerning, however, were the number of non-voters. These tended to come in two categories. Itinerant EU workers passing through who aren't eligible to vote in parliamentary elections, and long-term non-voters of which there are always too many. Also of interest was everyone we spoke to today were people who didn't get caught by our previous dragnet of the constituency.

You can't really conclude much from one session of three that took place simultaneously, except to say we didn't find any shifts in support (apart from the UKIP couple melting back towards us). And asking the other teams, their results were fairly similar to ours. Enough then to come away with a feeling of cautious optimism while the polls continually cast a doom-laden shadow.

Labour Party Campaign Strategy

A few remarks to complement yesterday's consideration of Tory strategy.

1. Labour is massively behind in the polls. Whether you think they're wrong or not (I don't believe they are), they have material effects on campaigns and election outcomes. Some countries limit their use in the lead up to voting for a reason. We're at a disadvantage, and we're perceived to be at a disadvantage. On top of that, Jeremy Corbyn is viewed negatively by the public at large. The polls show it. Reception on the doors show it. Why that is has a number of roots and is something for after the campaign's conclusion, not now.

2. With the tide of public opinion against it and facing up to the worst press our party can ever expect to receive, Labour has wisely gone for a split campaign. In effect, Labour is going to be running 229 local campaigns defending seats the party holds, and a smattering of other locally-focused efforts where the candidate lost in 2015 but the margins are tight, and who-knows-what elsewhere. From perceived necessity, Jeremy is being filed away for the election by local campaign committees and the emphasis on x Labour person standing up for their area vs the Tories is on the cards. In other words, turning a national election into local elections is the pathway to safety. Good if you're an MP with a strong local record and profile, not if you've spent your time in Westminster "socialising" at Strangers and doing precious little else.

3. With the odds stacked against him, this is the Corbyn moment par excellence. Earlier in the year we were promised Trumpian-stylee populism, and now we have it. The Corbyn campaign launched on Thursday with a very clear us vs them message, meaning that already the party has a level of clarity we struggled to achieve in 2015. Will this make a difference? We shall see, but what it can do is a) motivate large swathes of the party's membership to hit the campaign trail, b) hope to draw the disaffected in its train, and c) force the Tories to respond. By putting the big issues upfront early and framing them, it makes the attacks and smears to come look cowardly and desperate, and it gives us an issue base from which to immediately rebut Tory policy.

4. This is what Jeremy is good at. His leadership campaigns from the last two summers were master classes. The task for his team and our movement is to repeat it on steroids. When the leader is up there addressing crowds, even when he's taking hostile questions from the press, he looks impressive. If there is hope for Labour, it lies in the ability of this campaign to get voters to take a second look at what he's doing and what his message is. It also conveys a simple truism: Jeremy is comfortable in public talking to and engaging with people. Theresa May, like a typical authoritarian, is terrified of them.

5. The local campaigns and the national effort don't have to be at cross purposes. Here in Stoke, part of our messaging is going to be around making Brexit work for our people - just as it was during the by-election. Likewise, messages around 'A Brexit that works for all' are starting to come out, and before the election was called work was being done in understanding what progressive policies could be adopted whose implementation would have been prevented by continued EU membership - a much more imaginative approach than Tory hopes for free trade deals with far off lands. As Labour is facing a LibDem threat in some Remain-voting seats, and have been pinned as incoherent on this issue by our opponents, unanimity on what a Labour-negotiated Brexit is essential.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Tory Party Campaign Strategy

And they're off! This is less a two-horse race of LibDem leaflet fame, and more a thorough bred tearing up the track as the knackered and no-hopers settle into a canter. At least that's how the Conservatives and their helpful friends in the press and broadcast media see it. And, understandably, they want to maintain that ridiculous lead. A stumble here, a distraction there, in these volatile political times who can say with any confidence that the Labour horse won't put on unexpected speed and take a surprise victory? One for Arthur could become One in Theresa's Eye, if they're not careful.

The Tories know this. They become their sharpest and most self-aware when an election is in play. The return of Lynton Crosby to the fold, now "Sir" in recognition of the scurrilous campaign he ran in 2015, provides advance notice of what to expect. Smears of leading Labour figures, the ceaseless opposition of Labour chaos to Tory stability, scapegoating and fear-mongering over immigrants, nonsense about public spending, and, latterly, the need for a strong hand to see down the dastardly Eurocrats in the Brexit negotiations. A recipe for the worst in living memory, the only saving grace this general election has is its tight timescale. And so, as far as electoral politics go, the Tory task is a simple one. Maintain the coalition corralled by 2015's fear and loathing, scoop up the returning UKIP vote and strike just enough of a One Nation pose to grab disaffected Labour, and job done. The LibDems might take back a few seats that fell to the Tories, but the sacrifice will be worth the pick ups they expect elsewhere.

We'll see these attacks when they arrive, but foremost in CCHQ's mind is ensuring the wheels don't career off the wagon. This is difficult when their best card is their biggest weakness. Theresa May, in some respects, is the perfect candidate. Throughout the Dave/Osborne years, she was an absent presence, a shadowy figure who sat at the Home Office and let the toffs get on with fronting up the government. Where she did court controversy, as with the racist van wheeze, liberal public opinion got indignant but it enhanced her standing with the withering Tory grassroots and she emerged unscathed. Her coronation after the joke of last year's Conservative leadership contest meant she evaded scrutiny of her record and the policy platform she favoured, and so when she took to the podium outside 10 Downing Street and delivered her Ed Miliband speech, for most people it was the first time they'd properly seen her. And so an address that few, in the abstract, could disagree with, a politician feted as a "grown-up", and a country in the biggest hole its has ever dug for itself, May presented as a figure that all kinds of hope could be projected onto. This was also a very favourable contrast to Jeremy Corbyn's person, who through a mix of missteps, internal sabotage and the worst coverage a Labour leader has ever attracted, was (and is) cast as a figure who epitomises the crisis of politics.

At her introduction as the new Prime Minister, May was therefore something of a Tony Blair figure, and it's no accident that she's running a 1997-style campaign. By that, I mean while the Tories are ahead in the polls by the sorts of margins New Labour commanded, they are hypersensitive to anything that could go wrong. With Blair, that was mostly at the level of policy, which was why anything smacking of "old" Labour - trade unions, the 's' word - were expunged from the campaign lexicon. It's different with the Tories this time, as May doubles up as their biggest weakness. Anyone knows that at Prime Minister's Questions, more often than not she is left looking robotic, dithery, shifty, and unable to think on her feet. If points scored at the weekly ding-dong translated into points on opinion polls, Labour would walk the election. However, it is a minority pursuit and so the confected assumption of May's competence and maturity remains untroubled. Tory objective number one is to maintain that standing, therefore no leaders' debates. It's not that they fear Jeremy Corbyn would be able to turn it around on the basis of a couple of set piece events, but that she would stand utterly exposed as hapless. If, after all, she can't beat the Labour leader in a debate, how can she negotiate a decent Brexit deal with hard nosed folks across the Channel? It also explains the difference between the style of the two emerging campaigns. While Jez held a rally (of course) and took awkward questions, May helicoptered to a golf club the other end of the country for the softest of launches with tame Tory councillors and assorted lickspittles. No journos, no members of the public. Crosby's nightmare is to have her cornered and expected to answer questions where "we're spending record amounts" won't do as an answer. Their strategy has to be based around keeping her away from the public. There is nothing to be gained from engaging with them, and possibly a few losses as well.

You don't have to be a genius to see how this could store up problems for May. By neglecting the media and allowing more coverage of the opposition parties, that can feed into her stability vs chaos pitch - especially if a leadership debate goes ahead without her. They will also be banking on the idea that the more the public see of Jeremy Corbyn, the less they'll like him. It's a gamble, though, especially in these politically febrile times. The flip side of this is the media will start running 'where's May' pieces. Already, they're chafing at the PM's studied non-engagement. The point will come when the campaign has to decide whether this silence is damaging, and they'll try neutralising it in a couple of ways. One would be a Q&A with "the public", which they haven't ruled out - though I would imagine May would have difficulties if her interlocutors are allowed follow up questions. And the second will be Crosby's dead cat. When the press is jam full of complaining and moaning, expect them to push hard on the IRA or Islamist stuff. They won't have any new material, the old stuff dredged up by two Labour leadership campaigns will do the job well enough. And when that happens, Labour has to be ready with a counter of its own.

Another interesting side strategy is expectation management. In stories "leaked" to the press this morning, punters are being fed the derisory nonsense that opinion polls in the key marginals could be out by as much as 15%, and so every vote counts. Utter nonsense, of course, but rational - from their point of view - nonsense. Assuming the Tories win, doing so without speaking to the public is bad enough, but on a turnout significantly below standard numbers stores up legitimacy problems for the future. That might not matter if the majority is a thumping tally, but it certainly will for a Prime Minister determined to prevent Scotland breaking away. If May wants to pose as Britain's authentic voice, she'd better have a strong vote backing her up.

A public facing campaign without the public. This is what we can expect from the Tories and, unless something major happens, it should see them through. More's the pity.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Theresa May's Surprise General Election

Ask me this morning if there would be a general election, and I'd have said no. The stars were aligned against it, and yet here we are, stumbling about with our gast well and truly flabbered. Her shock announcement caught everyone on the hop, and Westminster and its echo chamber are gripped by elation and despair. Elation for the Tories who think they're going to storm to a huge majority, and for the LibDems who expect to regain a lot of the seats it lost, and despair for Labour. Tom Blenkinsop, for instance, has already announced he won't be defending his Middlesbrough South seat.

Already, the reasons for calling it have been churned through. The slim majority making her vulnerable to persistent awkwards opposing her domestic agenda and Brexit, the uncertainty whether Tory electoral fraud allegations might result in a slew of by-elections, and the ridiculous poll leads different companies are chalking up for the Tories, when you lay them out like that it makes you wonder why we didn't see it coming. After spending months chuntering about not facing an effective opposition, today she moans about Westminster being too divided and offering too much opposition, singling Labour out in particular for threatening to vote against her deal. Pathetic, really.

Clearly May thinks she's going to win. She has reasoned that any seats the Tories stand to lose to the Liberal Democrats will be made up from others taken from Labour. It's difficult to see how she could be wrong, but this is politics we're talking about and it lately has had the tendency to throw up a few surprises. Optimism, however, has to be grounded otherwise it's merely a polite term for delusion. With the political weather against Labour, are there opportunities to turn it around?

There is the naked opportunism of May's move allied to politics fatigue. As a rule, electorates do not favour overt self-serving though, given the state of polling, any backwash from people who'd change their mind on this basis is going to be negligible, unfortunately. Since last June, her personal ratings have been better than that of the her party's. Because of her super serious I'm-a-grown-up image, I think she'll get away with it. Yet it might not be as straightforward as the thinks. Many Labour MPs in vulnerable seats have spent time digging in. Their campaigns are going to be very local emphasising their community leadership creds and the like. Easy to do if you were already a constituency-focused MP, less so if you're a phantom who manifests only when a general election seance summons you. Thirdly, May's one-nationism makes her vulnerable when she's pursuing a sectional path. I agree with Theo Bertram, Labour should play hardball. It's too late now to do the dirty digging, but it's not like the government haven't handed its opponents plenty of ammunition. The Tories are going to go big with the IRA stuff? Fine. We should go big with their rape clause, and keep doing it. Having a good programme, and Labour has a good programme, doesn't mean eschewing sharp, shocking messages. The Tories don't hold back, after all, and we can expect a few dead cats if things start going awry.

Then there are events. Trump in Syria, Trump and North Korea, if these bubble over into a something much more serious, they could hurt May. Remember the Iraq debacle continues to cast a long shadow over British interventionism, as Dave found to his cost. It wouldn't be wise to rule out the consequences of the French presidential elections either. If Jean-Luc Mélenchon surges through to the second round, that straight away undermines the media's Labour unelectability thesis. Most people won't notice then, but if the outcome is a Mélenchon or Le Pen presidency then there will be consequences for our general election, particularly around Brexit - what with the left favouring a reformed EU, the far right leaving it. In this eventuality, a sense of growing crisis on the continent can't not have an impact.

And that brings us back to Brexit. The first two-thirds of May's premiership saw her wriggle and avoid saying what it was, beyond empty platitudes. Political necessity has decreed this untenable and we're getting a sense of it in dribs and drabs. However, she cannot get through the next six weeks merely repeating "red, white, and blue Brexit" and "we're going to get the best Brexit deal" nonsense. This presents an opportunity for her divided opposition. For a number of reasons, a progressive alliance is a non-starter, not least because the LibDems cannot be trusted. However, there is some room for a wee bit of cooperation between them, Labour, the Greens and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists. All the parties want as soft a Brexit as possible, so there is no reason why they cannot arrive at a common position. With Remainers more motivated to turn out, as council and Parliamentary by-elections have demonstrated this last year, there is a possibility tactical voting on this basis could thwart May's ambitions and stop them in their tracks. A people's Brexit sounds facile, but something like that to oppose May's corporate Brexit could work.

Labour are in for a very tough time, and things look grim. Yet it doesn't have to be a cakewalk for the Conservatives. They can be denied their majority, they can be beaten, but not without an incredible effort and smart strategy. It's going to be a rough six weeks.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Chuka and Dan: Jeremy Corbyn's Heirs?

Jeremy Corbyn has saved the Labour Party. A seemingly counter-intuitive claim considering the awful polling and depressing personal ratings he's attracted, but nevertheless it is true. The first and most obvious sign are the huge numbers that have joined up. After years of decline followed by years of stagnation, the activist pool has swelled and the party has a broader range to draw from when it comes to electing lay officials, choosing council candidates, and selecting future Labour MPs. As I've said many times already, there are future ministers and perhaps even a Prime Minister who joined our party because of Jeremy Corbyn. The second is the policy legacy that he's managed to bed down in just 18 months. Without even a year under his belt, Owen Smith (remember him?) felt moved to challenge him on a Corbynism-without-Corbyn platform. And now, despite the usual malcontents having a moan and getting their name in the papers, would-be leaders have moved onto this terrain as well. That's if the big pitches recently made in the New Statesman by Chuka Umunna and Dan Jarvis are anything to go by.

Readers will recall Chuka's aborted leadership campaign in 2015 before he went on to back Liz Kendall for the job. And Dan, well, no one properly knew where he stood until recently. Not that it mattered for some media and PLP folks who think Dan's "compelling backstory" would alone be enough to capture the party leadership and take Labour back into Number 10. Thankfully, there are good reasons to believe he's not succumbed to the hype others have trailed about his person.

Both essays aren't too dissimilar in terms of what a Chuka-led or Dan-led Labour Party might look. If you're someone who, like me, believes the route to Labour's long-term success involves it being self-ware of its place in society, that it is the condensation of a range of varied but broadly common interests flowing from that position, and the party should stand up for and prosecute those interests, then there are things to commend their pitches for.

The core of Chuka's essay is what he calls the 'foundational economy'. This is a fairly vague concept denoting "the services, production and social goods that sustain all our daily lives." This does not fall into the old dichotomies of public and private (or third sector, if you insist on bolting that on). What it does encompass is "transport, child care and adult care, health, education, utilities, broadband, social benefits, and the low productivity, low wage sectors of retail, hospitality, food processing and supermarkets". In other words, it's that part of the economy whose output is the reproduction of Britain's social infrastructure. For example, in my old pit village take the school, the post office, the local grocers' stores and newsagent, the pubs and Miners' Welfare, the bus routes connecting us to Derby and other local towns. This mix of small business and publicly owned services during the course of their day-to-day activity reproduced and were dependent upon the social relationships they drew together. From this you derive a sense of identity, of place and locality that helps you feel secure and rooted. This is basically shading into Anthony Giddens's conceptualisation of the routines that gird social life, of ontological security. During the 1980s, the destruction and selling off of nationalised industry as well as the collapse of manufacturing dealt this foundational economy a blow. Where full employment was replaced by mass unemployment, the social fabric suffered. Then New Labour came along and its vision of regenerating the economy was about rebuilding public infrastructure (albeit through the dread Private Finance Initiative) and trying to crowd in business investment in urban centres. This approach informs most regeneration strategies now, and one that, Chuka notes, excludes the peripheries of major cities - I would suggest these peripheries are your medium-sized cities, towns, suburbs, villages and rural areas in general. The consequence of this is Labour is seen as the party of the city, and might go a bit of the way to explain why it doesn't do so well everywhere else. Therefore, future industrial strategies have to be foundational and social. It must strengthen the reciprocity that makes for strong, cohesive societies and strengthens the sense of security people feel.

Dan's contribution is more focused on the problem of Brexit and the seemingly bumpy one Theresa May, at least rhetorically, is taking us toward. After making a number of standard Labourist criticisms of her reckless approach, Dan channels Will Hutton's celebrated The State We're In and makes the case for a proper joined up industrial strategy and one that, this time, won't shy away from tackling Britain's persistent problems. Here, there is an emphasis on what you might call the "good state", the idea that government has a duty to do industrial activism. This is key to his notion of 'civic capitalism', of subordinating the economy to the public interest. Of course, this might be as every bit as slippery as the national interest, but in the context of his essay it's clear - a social democratic one-nationism in that will provide industrial leadership to help generate the jobs of the future, drive innovation, meet the challenge of the coming wave of automation, strip out British capitalism's long-term weakness for short-termism, breaking up concentrations of and spreading asset ownership, and strengthening workers' rights, including reserved positions on company boards. While the language is more technocratic and checklist than Chuka's piece, Dan argues that civic capitalism must go beyond economics. It means taking education seriously and investing more, of reversing the tendency to centralisation and devolving power and responsibility downwards - this includes federalism and participatory budgeting. In short, a programme of national renewal. If this sounds familiar, you would be right. It's a beefed-up version of Ed Miliband's pitch prior to 2015, and what the Prime Minister "borrowed" just before she entered Downing Street.

What interests me is both agree on the main weaknesses of New Labour, that it didn't pay the interests of the people it was supposed to represent and stick up for much mind. For example, during the Blair/Brown period Dan writes that the government used "public procurement budgets to pump tens of billions of pounds into opaque PFI deals and outsourcing contracts, some of which have worked, but many of which have delivered dubious results and lower wages for workers". He goes onto argue that it too was trapped in short-termist, markets good/public bad thinking, and this is at the root of Labour's legacy problems. If anything, Chuka is less sparing:
Labour’s historic role is to be the party of the national labour interest. Our purpose is to represent working people and to redress the imbalance of power between capital and labour. And we provide protection for those who cannot work or support themselves. We have lost this role. Reciprocity was once at the heart of the relationship between the Labour Party and working people. In return for their support, our obligation was to use the power of government to protect and further their interests. This mutual sense of obligation has broken down.
This is the first time I have seen a mainstream Labour figure state what Labour is about in blunt terms. This is indeed a a million miles from the Liz Kendall pitch Chuka supported just under two years ago. The question is, do they mean it or are we looking at Owen Smith-style cynicism?

I usually believe someone until they give me cause not to believe them. There are two political realities that anyone with Labour leadership ambitions need to face up to. First, the reasons why the Labour membership went for Jeremy Corbyn have not gone away. The bulk of them wanted to see a return to "proper" Labourist politics. This wasn't old-style Bennism, though such nostalgia did have its pull among the coalition of support Jeremy mobilised, but a sense that Labour should be standing up against the Tories. It should not equivocate on matters of fundamental principle (and interest) and seek to appease the press and public opinion on cuts to social security, bashing immigrants, and the matter of the austerity agenda. It means recognising many members cling to Jeremy despite the polling not because they're cultists, but because they're worried that when he goes the same old crap critiqued by Chuka and Dan will come back. As there are plenty of former ministers around who did oversee policies and stirred rhetoric detrimental to the interests of our coalition of voters, such concern is entirely justified and especially so when they're arrayed against the present leadership. Therefore, from the point of view of winning a leadership campaign programmes like the ones offered here are a necessity. No one wants to be a four-and-a-half per center. The second reality is wider politics. The Tories are as sectional and awful as they ever were, but part of May's appeal is that she doesn't appear that way. Her One Nationism is a hostage to fortune as she could come unstuck on attacks on the disabled, the defunding of schools and the NHS, and the special favours the Tories will confer on big business if her "red, white, and blue" Brexit fails. The goodwill she has could quite easily evaporate if opposed by a programme and a party that means it. A renewed Blairism is therefore impossible. A Labour manifesto offering light touch regulation, more privatisation and marketisation (under the guise of "public sector reform"), and vague promises to manage thing better and fairer than the Tories is a non-starter. What's happened to the Socialists in France and Labour in the Netherlands, and the centre left elsewhere, should serve as salutary warnings. Do they mean it? They have to mean it or they won't go anywhere.

Imagine, a Labour government that comes to power conscious that it represents the interests of the overwhelming majority of people and is prepared to see them through. This is Jeremy Corbyn's legacy. If, as the polls indicate that's not going to happen under his leadership, it's increasingly likely his successor will implement it. They have no choice.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, and Tabloid Economics

Trolls sometimes get their comeuppance. While the bigoted and the dishonest continue to rant and rave from the platforms provided them by Britain's most poisonous media outfits, it seems one can go too far. That's if Kelvin MacKenzie's suspension from The Sun is anything to go by.

As far as I can tell, MacKenzie's done nothing qualitatively worse than your average Melanie Phillips or Rod Liddle nudge-nudge-racism piece. Readers will also recall his appalling attack on Channel Four News's Fatima Manji in the pages of the paper, and no action was forthcoming. Though to make a cheap jibe at Liverpool's expense given his and The Sun's previous here underlines an arrogance that comes with the belief of being untouchable. Anyhow, it is now a matter for the police. Which is just as well because it's not MacKenzie's unreadable boilerplate that interests me: it's his suspension.

Yes, who'd have thunk it? The most terrible enfant terrible of 1980s journalism, the man whose editorship powered the currant bun to its soaraway success and made tabloid reporting synonymous with scapegoating, jingoism, racism, smearing, and dumb-downed tittle-tattle. Yes, that Kelvin MacKenzie, hung out to dry by the paper he made. First things first, as large numbers of people have asked, why did MacKenzie's piece appear in the first place when his column must have gone through gates kept by sub editors, legal, and the editor's office? Surely it wouldn't have taken much to spike it? I'd wager that didn't happen because it's Kelvin MacKenzie. He's a legend and comes with as much swagger as he has history and status. The editorial office might prefer to have someone else take up his slot, but there's always Uncle Rupert to worry about. No longer as hands on as he was during MacKenzie's day, nevertheless senior hacks, senior legal, and senior executives have to work towards the fuhrer so everything's a-okay in case a call comes through from New York. MacKenzie got leeway, and arguably his comfortable berth in Friday's paper, because of his association with the Dirty Digger.

Why hasn't MacKenzie's friendship with the proprietor got him off this time? Perhaps the suspension is for show, but equally it could be a consequence of moves within The Sun and News UK. Like most of Britain's newspapers, it's at something of a crossroads. Present daily circulation is around the 1.6m mark, having lost 1.4m readers since 2010. Yet since dropping Murdoch's pay wall, traffic to its family of websites has doubled. As of January this year, the paper is claiming around 25 million page views per month, putting it slightly ahead of The Mirror (though they dispute this) and trailing The Mail and the BBC. Online is obviously where the audiences are, and The Sun have tried all kinds of stratagems to get the punters in. It's invested heavily in Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, and is trying to work out how to turn growing audience numbers into pound signs. After all, with The Mail's huge global audience of over 200m/month, that translates into ad revenue of £23m per quarter. Not a lot, really. Since The Sun came out from behind the wall, it's searching for other ways to make online pay - such as its dedicated betting platform and other paid-for services ancillary to normal newspapery content.

Emerging into a mature market, The Sun's strategy is an interesting one. Whether it turns a buck, however, remains to be seen, especially as profits in the internet age are overly dependent on cornering a market. For this strategy to be a success, The Sun is trying to carve its own niche. The Daily Mail model, which relies on piling up audiences for ad revenue, accomplishes this via notoriously voyeuristic celebrity coverage, and to a lesser extent providing hyper partisan right wing coverage and comment that brings in the "right old fascists" of which MacKenzie once opined, and outraged liberals and lefties aghast at their latest outrage. Those markets are more or less sewn up. The paper could provide a straight up copy, but it would lose. The second problem is The Sun needs to bring in young audiences to replace the oldies still buying physical copy. While it still casts around for a strategy that can capture them (as per above, their approach to social media is making a good fist of it), revenues depend on not upsetting the apple cart.

Which is what MacKenzie's column does. Everyone knows The Mail is an appalling outfit, but it's not dependent on the editorial line for the audiences generated by stalking celebrities. The Sun, which does not have that luxury, must chase younger internet users. As social attitudes surveys consistently show, the younger you are the more likely you are tolerant of racial/ethnic difference, immigrants, non-heterosexual sexualities, and so on. With a rising, more cosmopolitan generation The Sun cannot blast them with the halitosis of racism and hope to be a success.

As I said, the suspension might mean nothing beyond cynical damage limitation. MacKenzie could be returned to his inglorious perch and his comments long forgotten by the time he gets another invite onto Question Time and the like. But that the higher ups felt the need to do this when they might have shrugged it off is interesting, and only makes sense in the context of internet tabloid economics.

Friday, 14 April 2017

The Sociology of the Camel Toe Knickers

Just when you thought you'd seen it all, along comes the latest in must-wear apparel: the camel toe knickers. I'm sure discerning women of whatever age will never be seen in anything else. This product is available on Amazon (though not presently in the UK - I've checked), but of interest their opposite number, the "Smooth Groove" which prevents the effect these knickers set out to advertise are yours for 22 quid. Given the incredible amount of time and effort most societies put into the observation, critique, and sanctioning of women's appearance and how bodies should be stylised and carried, what does the emergence of such a product have to say about the politics of gender and women's sexuality? Quite a bit.

Books shelves groan under the weight of titles and journals that have spilled ink on tracking, critiquing, and theorising the relationship between gender and sex. This blog periodically comments on it too. If there is a consensus, it is that the relationship between Western societies and what human beings have in their underwear is a fraught and ambiguous one. Fraught because, in recent centuries, clocking what a newborn baby had between their legs has an inescapable bearing on, well, everything. On your life chances, your upbringing, your relationships to virtually everyone you'll ever meet, the consequences of that classification of biological characteristics is so deep, thoroughgoing and fundamental that it appears taken-for-granted, natural and, until very recently, immutable. And ambiguous because the practices of femininity and masculinity Western cultures map onto them are contradictory and changeable internally, and interdependent and mutually constitutive of each other.

Unsurprisingly, just as the biological markers of sex are taken as the determination of gender, so the place genitalia occupy in received and conventional modes of gendered performance differ. With men, the jolly old meat and two veg is more out there. The cult of the penis casts a shadow over what it is and what it means to be a man, and particularly so (ironically) with straight men. It's the figurative seat of masculinity because it's the near-absolute focus of sex. Where it goes, what you do with it, how long for, and the number of women (or men) it comes into contact with all contribute to one's sense of self as a man. Small wonder dick pics are a oft-encountered hazard on dating sites for women. What do you look like? Dick pic. How do you like spending your free time? Dick pic. I've just joined, hello! Dick pic. If it doesn't measure up, so to speak, or is dysfunctional, not being able to perform in the bedroom (however one defines performance) can lead to/be a source of anxiety and, in some cases, exaggerated compensatory behaviours. Hence, even though men tend not to get it out and wave it around in front of other guys, willies are repositories of masculine performance and the locus of manly display.

The politics of the vagina are different. Traditionally, hegemonic notions of femininity were not about the genitals. In fact, it could be interpreted as a flight from them. The romantic ideologies of toys, magazines and films aimed at girls, through the practices of becoming a woman as filtered through make up, dressing, shopping, to the inculcation of care as the key feminine virtue, the apparatus of normative discourse and institutions on the surface almost position the ownership of a vagina as a secondary characteristic. Almost. In fact, it exercised an absent presence. It asserts itself as the unmentionable and, as such, it too was suffused with angst. The uneasy relationship between the refinement of femininity and an organ that bleeds, of poise and - for many - regular pain and discomfort. Of womanhood and cleanliness on the one hand, and the potential site of infection and illness on the other. And of femininity absolutely actively avoiding the pleasures of possession. Sex was a duty, the vulva a site for male pleasure, not one's own. This was how sex was framed in the feminine complex, and woe betide any girl or woman who eschewed its coy prescriptions.

Time waits for no woman, and what were private parts have now become public parts. The successes of the feminist movement almost entirely destroyed the feminine denial of sexual pleasure, whether at the hands of a partner or, ahem, yourself. Women's body autonomy, still a battleground in the ceaseless wars over sexed bodies, has enshrined the right to say no in the law and the right to say yes, yes, yes in popular culture. The right to have sex and the right to have good sex has, since the 1960s, become an increasingly important facet of the feminine. But like so many other achievements of progressive social movements, it has been incorporated into dominant flows of power and subjection, and has undergone commodification and repackaging. The acceptance of sex within hegemonic femininity coincides with the explosion of sexual anxiety. Just as men have performance worries, large numbers of women fret about their climax. The stress of premature orgasm for men finds its obverse in orgasm (forever) delayed in women.

With the convergence of genital angst around matters of sex, the vulva has come out from the trousers, the skirts, the undergarments, and the knickers and is newly visible. Women's bodies have gradually become more exposed as hemlines have headed upwards, sleeves retreated, and necklines have plunged, so the revealed skin plays hosts to zones patrolled by magazine columnists, celebrity watchers, and the wandering eyes of men ... and women. The passage of the swimming costume to swimwear, allied to hegemonic femininity's century-long war on body hair has allowed for new anxieties and new territories for the manufacturers of razors, depilatory cream, and the professional waxer. Perhaps this would have always happened, but porn has had a hand in pushing the visibility of the vagina too. First the easy availability of video cassette recorders and then the internet, its ease of access has had a number of consequences for sexuality as a whole. That visibility has also staked out even more territory for the aesthetics of the pubis. The variously stylised and displayed vaginas viewed by millions of men have generated new vectors of pressure on women's bodies. It's not just the glossies telling women they need to engage in this or that style of downstairs topiary, large numbers of women are managing men's expectations and preferences. And that is not all. As the vagina is ubiquitous, so hegemonic femininity itself has appropriated and decreed particular looks and shapes. Lo and behold, a burgeoning industry for the surgical alteration of a non-problem has bloomed into existence.

As femininity has shifted to accommodate and inculcate a genital sexuality for women, so men's bodies have come under the purview of waist down aesthetics. North America has always had a preoccupation with the utterly unnecessary practice of male circumcision simply because (they believe) it offers a better look. All those heaving vaginas in porn aren't always unaccompanied, and so, what you might describe as "male grooming", has become annexed by hegemonic masculinity as a permitted option and femininity also. As part of the changed sexual habitus of women, they too are now encouraged to develop the sorts of preferences men have for their genitalia. Waxed, shaved, styled, trimmed, untamed, tattooed, pierced, men, especially younger men, are increasingly encouraged and pressured into rocking a particular look.

This is where we return to the camel toe knickers. Most women aren't about to grace their smalls drawer with a pair. Yet had the vagina not been repositioned as the repository of women's sexual pleasure, if the mons pubis wasn't a zone of surveillance and a battlefield fought over by journalists, beauticians and surgeons, if its display and maintenance wasn't assiduously policed by culture and, consequently, presentations of the gendered self, then such a product would be unthinkable. Whether it's a progressive or regressive development I'll leave others to judge, but as well as producing a bulge of a particular dimension and shape, it says a great deal about where women's sexuality is today.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Herbert Marcuse on Happiness

I think I'm pretty happy playing through 1994's Phantasy Star IV for Sega's MegaDrive, but if Herbert Marcuse was still around he probably wouldn't concur.
Disposal over material goods is never entirely the work of human industry and wisdom. For it is subject to the role of contingency. The individual who places his highest goal, happiness, in these goods makes himself the slave of men and things. He surrenders his freedom. Wealth and well-being do not come or persist due to his autonomous decision but rather through the changeable fortune of opaque circumstances. Man thus subjects his existence to a purpose situated outside him. Of itself, such an external purpose can vitiate and enslave men only if the material conditions of life are poorly ordered ... if their reproduction is regulated through the anarchy of opposing social interests. In this order the preservation of the common existence is incompatible with individual happiness and freedom. Insofar as philosophy is concerned with man's happiness - and the theory of classical antiquity held it to be the highest good - it cannot find it in the established material organisations of life. That is why it must transcend this order's facticity. (Negations 1972, p.89)
More on Marcuse here.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

For the McDonnell Amendment

It's getting to the time of year that Constituency Labour Parties are selecting their delegates for party conference. This time both the right and left of the party are scrambling members for the monthly meeting because there's something substantial on the table for when we meet in Brighton in September: the McDonnell Amendment. For readers not au fait with party jargon, this rule change for how the party selects its leader is very important. To qualify for a place on the ballot paper for a leadership contest, a candidate must now acquire the nominations of at least 15% of the parliamentary and European parliamentary party. Under the shadow chancellor's proposals, this would be reduced to five per cent. The right have set their face against, while the left are mobilising for it. In this case, the left are right and the right are wrong. Indeed, I would go so far to say that the party as a whole - all of its wings - would benefit if the amendment passes.

In an article from last August, Caroline Flint makes the case against. She argues that Labour is a party that uses the machinery of government to meet its objectives, has the tricky task of forging an electoral coalition crisscrossing a plurality of interests, and must have a leader who commands the support of the parliamentary team. The latter point is, ultimately, the litmus test for exercising confidence in the country as a whole. The role the PLP and its European counterparts have in acting as a gatekeeper - not her phrase - is balanced by the responsibility it carries as the main public face of the party. As she notes, politics is "a team game", a "collective effort". I therefore wonder if Caroline was one of the precious few Progress-affiliated MPs who tried reigning in the moaners and the whingers straight after Jeremy Corbyn won the the first Labour leadership contest in 2015?

No matter. There are two important features of the PLP, a strength and a weakness that cannot be separated from one another. The first is their collective proximity to mainstream public opinion. Taken as a whole, their positions on the NHS (keep it free), immigration (more controls), defence (replace Trident and support Our Troops), and the economy (growth and fairness) correlates roughly with the bulk of the electorate. Every time a poll drops from YouGov or whatever listing voters' priorities and fears, MPs can feel their views are shared by millions of people "out there". This then is a key resource MPs draw upon to legitmate themselves as representatives of constituencies rather than delegates of constituency parties, and its powerful because it is true. Getting a bellyful on the doorstep or a postbag bulging with complaints about immigrants, for instance, tends to reinforce the view that controls on immigration is a sensible position to take. Being conditions consciousness and all that.

The PLP's weakness is, well, their collective proximity to public opinion. What they think the electorate thinks is framed by the polls and the focus groups, and is subject to further filters. Every window looking out into the wider world is tinted by the preconceptions and hobby horses of the press, broadcast media and Westminster watchers. Effectively, the apparatus of the media is synonymous with public opinion. It washes over them all day every day, and is confirmed when one breaks free and speaks to constituents at surgery and suchlike. Politics here becomes reduced to addressing "very real concerns" and convincing voters that Labour has the means to sort them out. Of course, that is what any party should aspire to do, but also it should try to lead public opinion. Labour is the condensation of the interests of pretty varied groups of working people, a position guaranteed ultimately by the affiliation of the country's largest trade unions. To stand up for those interests in the context of a capitalist society in which a) workers are subordinate to capital, and b) the latter of necessity ceaselessly struggles against the former requires a knowledge of what the Labour Party is, who its natural constituents are (i.e. the vast bulk of the population), and a determination to challenge public opinion. For instance, introducing markets into public services helps break up our electoral coalition. Chasing the tabloid press into the gutter instead of challenging the lies told about immigration undermines the solidarity of our coalition. Promising to get tough with people receiving social security delegitimises the very idea of collective responses to market failure, putting a question mark over what our coalition is supposed to be working toward. And so on. In the topsy turvy world of Westminster, accepting the status quo as immovable and immutable is providing an effective opposition and leadership. Even raising questions about it, let alone vociferously attacking it is lefty indulgence.

There is, however, another link MPs have to the wider public, and that is through the party membership itself. While, as a rule, more left than the electorate (in much the same way the Tories' dwindling rolls are further to the right), they have far greater familiarity and exposure to what ordinary people think and say. The woman at constituency who bangs on about the bedroom tax, she knows people who are having a very tough time because of it. She might even be one of those folks herself. The chap who is concerned about the government's stance on bombing Syria - he works in a warehouse surrounded by blokes just like him, and knows how racist and xenophobic views ramp up when war talk is in the air. The new member concerned about Theresa May's encroachment on internet privacy works three part-time jobs and is struggling to scrape together a deposit for a flat. The old member who is concerned about the party's perceived distaste for the "traditional" working class is, at the same time, fighting for a care package for his wife. And there are those nice, "just-about-managing" middle class-types as well. Too many Labour MPs have little time for the members beyond their ability to deliver leaflets, but our army of unpaid couriers are more in touch with life in 21st century Britain than they because they live it in far less comfortable circumstances. More often than not, their politics are stamped indelibly by their experience. There is that, and the small matter of the members putting MPs there in the first place. There is not one, not a single Labour MP who'd be sat in the Commons without the party label.

And so, ultimately, I support the lowering of the threshold for exactly the same reason why I've always supported mandatory reselection for sitting MPs. If the parliamentary party has to actively work to keep onside members, to build deep roots in their communities to support them and ensure the party heads in the direction they desire, the less likely we are to see Labour actively pursuing policies that harm the universal interest. i.e. That of working people, of anyone compelled to sell their time to an employer in return for a wage or salary. Lowering the threshold means we won't ever have the spectacle again of what are effectively personnel managers (with the politics to match) being serious contenders. MPs who want to lead would have to up their game and pay attention to what Labour was set up to do in the first place. For sure, it's going to take more than nice write ups from your mates in the media.

This isn't a recipe for turning the Labour Party into a pure, permanent leftist opposition. The amendment is about building the rooted politics that has weight in communities across the land, a politics unashamed of its truly representative and transformative role. Socialism is the movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority, after all.

Choose your delegates wisely.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Boris Johnson, Pretend Foreign Secretary

While the words are getting tougher over Trump's bombardment of an air strip that, um, didn't actually take said strip out of action, the usual jockeying among senior government figures here is taking place in the background.

Take the news this morning that Boris Johnson, our most over-hyped but under-powered of politicians has cancelled long scheduled talks with his counterpart, Russian foreign secretary Sergey Lavrov. Apparently Johnson instead prefers to potter around the G7 to come up with a united response, though none of that is stopping Rex Tillerson of Trump Tower from flying to Moscow later this week. Unsurprisingly, Labour, the SNP and LibDems attacked him for his reticence on this Sunday morning's reduced schedule of political programming. On Sophy Ridge, John McDonnell slated him for passing up an opportunity of holding Putin's government to account. Tim Farron accused Johnson of having his diary managed by Washington, and Alex Salmond on Andrew Marr mocked him for not having the full confidence of his boss. No disagreements with those assessments here.

From day one of the Trump era, Theresa May has clung to the feet of the new administration, partly to mitigate the train wreck of Brexit. And so if the Americans want the limelight, May is happy to give it to them. Less an order cabled to Downing Street, and more a 'working towards the Fuhrer'-style approach. When that figure the Prime Minister is working towards is the man destined to be the worst president in American history, it's a concern.

You might also recall how, in an act of pettiness that is quintessentially Tory, how May appointed the "Three Brexiteers" - the hapless Johnson, David Davis, and disgraced former (now serving) minister Liam Fox - to the key Brexit portfolios. There was a great deal of comment about making them "own" the miserable situation they created while the man ultimately responsible enjoys retirement. Yet there were a paucity of views on whether any of them can do actually their jobs. That Johnson has been removed from the equation of a potentially serious crisis in relations with Russia. After all, it's not supposed to be the job of "Handbags" Fallon to issue sternly-worded rebukes to the Kremlin. His lot is to oversee the bean counting at the MoD and attend military parades. Foreign affairs, funnily enough, belong at the Foreign Office. Salmond is right to call Theresa May's faith in Johnson's competence into question.

It wasn't long ago that May was beholden to two deeply average but posh hoorays who treated government like cramming for an exam. She, like pretty much anyone else not dazzled by the buffoon celebrity knows Johnson is cut exactly from the same cloth. Lazy, opportunist, cynical, he is definitely not a man to turn to in a crisis. Yet what is worse is he is a perfect fit for a section of the foreign policy establishment who, for the last 25 years, have grown indolent thanks to not having to face up to a geopolitical challenge to the global supremacy of the United States. Egged on by blowhards nostalgic for the them and us certainties of a cold war, Johnson, like them, has absolutely no interest in understanding the Russian government's point of view. Indeed, while Johnson might not be guilty of this, there are plenty who write on foreign affairs always surprised to learn other states have interests too, and are quite prepared to pursue them as they see fit. Walking in your opponents' shoes, which should be an ABC of of domestic and international politics, is entirely absent not only from the Conservatives, but across the parties here and is the default setting for other western foreign policy establishments. It happens that Johnson offers a distillation of it.

And so May will carry on letting him play foreign secretary as long as no harm is done, which will mean removing him time and again from crisis and near-crisis situations. The question is how long can Johnson survive without the spotlight on him?