Thursday, 31 March 2016

Conservative Steel Hypocrisy

It's a perfect storm for the Tories. The latest episode in the ongoing crisis in the steel industry caught the government entirely on the hop, with practically the entire cabinet basking in sunnier climes or doing whatever MPs normally do during their Easter break. Scurrying back to London overnight to show the cameras that they're taking the awful news about Port Talbot entirely 110% genuinely seriously, they catch themselves in another bind by straight away ruling out the most sensible policy: the immediate nationalisation of Tata Steel holdings in the UK. Politically, it's like damping down a fire with a litre of paraffin.

The politics of the situation couldn't be more stark. The Tories' strongest gambit has always been their cruel-but-competent line, and it seems enough voters have allowed them to get on with it as long as a) they're not the ones at the sharp end, and b) the Tories appear to have got the engine running smoothly and it's motoring the country in the right direction. This is where things are starting to get tricky.

Their bloody-minded treatment of the junior doctors, the forced u-turn on bashing the disabled, and now their seeming willingness to let 40,000 steel and supported jobs disappear is widening the pool of folk at the sharp end. These are "the strivers", not the skivers. The second is their "vision thing", the much-heralded but entirely vapid "long-term economic plan" is supposedly about Britain's manufacturing renaissance, a rebalanced economy both away from the South East and financial services, and some nonsense about "march of the makers". With all these infrastructure projects in the pipeline and the decision to replace Trident to be taken soon, to have the core base of your manufacturing economy facing shutdown is a headache the Tories could do without, especially when they're singly ill-equipped to deal with it.

There is a cultural/political dimension over the refusal to do for Port Talbot what Labour did for the banks. Part of it is their utter indifference to the fates of the industrial worker. "They do not give a shit", as Paul Mason puts it. And part of it is their deeply skewed, deeply sectional view of how the world works. Taking at face value Tata's claim that Port Talbot is losing just under a million a day (a figure that, rightly, isn't entirely accepted by all concerned), should the government take it on the tax payer could lose up to £350m/year. I say lose, but this money would support tens of thousands of jobs, keep communities viable, prevent many thousands from developing physical and mental health problems, and still churn out a useful product at the end of it. All this is invisible to the Tories, and yet they have zero issue with a £2bn loss for RBS last year, contributing to a colossal £50bn flushed down the proverbial since 2008. What's good for finance isn't good for strategic heavy industry, it seems.

From the Tories' point of view, confronted with China flooding global markets with cheap steel (they have to keep the mills running at the price of severe social dislocation and likely unrest) there is little point having a British steel industry. If steel gets nationalised, then what industry will next ask for a bail out? And what would that do to the chancellors finely-tuned (cough) figures? Well, that's assuming the Tories are spinning a wrong but honestly-held view. The evidence suggests otherwise. It transpires that the Tories have spearheaded efforts to prevent the European Union from doing anything about Chinese steel dumping - in other words, this isn't the headwinds of the global economy mindlessly wrecking all in its wake, the destruction is aided and abetted by our government. Just think about the absurdity of it for a moment: a right wing Conservative government is letting a strategic industry collapse to curry favour with the world's leading communist power. There is profaning the sacred, and then there is this.

The question remains whether they're willing to take another political hit for their intransigence. It's worth noting Jeremy Corbyn was on the ground immediately traipsing around and offering a very clear Labour view - not bad for an "ineffective leader". Meanwhile, all the government can do is dither and mouth platitudes about finding the best solution, which will probably mean throwing subsidies and guarantees at a buyer whereby the profits are privatised and the losses effectively nationalised. Unfortunately for them, coming on top of all their recent difficulties it's hard to see how continued inaction won't inflict considerable political damage to their rapidly re-toxifying brand. It's the least that they deserve.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

What I've Been Reading Recently

It's been a while since I last did one of these, so here's what I've read since late December. Knock yourselves out.

The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus
My Ear At His Heart by Hanif Kureishi
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
Black Juice by Margo Lanagan
State, Power, Socialism by Nicos Poulantzas
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurev
Penguin Lost by Andrey Kurev
Thunderbird by Jack McDevitt
Marx's Theory of Crisis by Simon Clarke
Washington Square by Henry James
Reclaiming the F Word by Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune
The Aspern Papers by Henry James
Feminist Sociology by Sara Delamont
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
The Storm by Vince Cable
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
The Credit Crunch by Graham Turner
Gould's Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan
The Diamond As Big as the Ritz and Other Stories by F Scott Fitzgerald
Essays in Social Theory by Steven Lukes
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

Some proper classics in that there list. What have you been reading?

Monday, 28 March 2016

Is Jeremy Corbyn an Effective Leader?

According to his many detractors inside and out the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn is perceived to be an ineffective opposition leader. Quite apart from his politics, the standard line is he just isn't very good at the business of opposing. As I'm someone who unfashionably believes in the utility of thinking about things critically, it is reasonable to state that assertions (Jeremy's no good) have to be backed up by evidence (here's why Jeremy's no good). So let's have a look.

John Woodcock widely-trailed article sees him take Jeremy to task for 'the list' (the providence of which is not at all fishy) and for flailing last Monday and Wednesday up against the Prime Minister. Not mentioning the welcome exit of IDS and not capitalising on the worst weekend of Dave's time in office condemn Jeremy as "a nice man who is doing his best ... [but] people are being appallingly served by a leadership team who cannot even get its act together properly to stand up for disabled people when they are screwed over by the Tories." To boil John's complaint down further, Jeremy's problem is he's not much of a player when it comes to the Westminster game. Gift horses open their mouths and all the leader can do is stare. Divisions in the Tories aren't exploited, tough questions aren't getting asked, and ministers routinely bat away whatever is asked by the benches opposite.

I would partly accept John's assessment. By not abiding by the established conventions of parliamentary cut and thrust, more often than not Dave runs rings around him (remember, the PM's one undoubted talent is being able to look the part), while Jeremy handles the jibes simply by ignoring them and pressing on with his next question. Frustrating for PLP folks and the wider membership invested in the importance of thumping performances at the dispatch box, and a cause for concern seeing as edited versions are rotated on the evening's news programmes. It's the only bit of parliamentary procedure that finds a mass audience.

Yet this isn't the whole story. Labour has substantive achievements to its credit since Jeremy became leader. The party has forced government u-turns on plans to charge VAT on solar panels, on cuts to policing and short money, have scuppered plans for Sunday trading, secured a backtrack on plans to build a prison in Saudi Arabia, and most significantly inflicted heavy political damage on the Tories over plans to cut disability support and working tax credits. These last two achievements are particularly noteworthy. Cast your mind back to the leadership contest last summer and Harriet Harman's ill-fated decision to direct the PLP to abstain on the vote to cut child tax credits. As I've argued before, it was this more than anything that lit a rocket underneath Jeremy's leadership campaign. By rebelling against the whip, along with 40-odd other MPs, and stating categorically that Labour should be against this sort of thing (which, of course, it should), Jeremy pushed the party beyond five years of conditional wishy-washy to outright opposition against Tory attacks on social security recipients. Changing political debate from a discussion about how to manage cuts to the incomes of the poorest to stark questions of whether they're right or wrong is no mean feat, regardless of your views about Jeremy's politics. And this strong stand then has changed the political weather. The likes of Dan Hodges and friends might think going hard in defence of welfare is political suicide, but it's because of that position the Tories have been forced into its recent difficulties and their name once again drips with toxicity. Do you think the budget fiasco, IDS's resignation, and the government's sort-of pledge to leave social security alone for the remainder of this parliament would have happened had Jeremy not been elected? Looking at all the candidates, including the one I supported, the honest answer has to be no.

So on the one hand, Jeremy isn't that good on the day-to-day niceties of his leadership role. But more broadly speaking, he has chalked up many more successes than his predecessor had achieved in the first six months, and changed the political weather, to the Tories' cost. The real measure of efficacy, however, is in terms of electoral performance - it has always been thus as far as the Labour Party is concerned. As there haven't been any real tests yet (I don't count the excellent Oldham by-election result), those opposed to Jeremy can point to the polls as evidence of his lack of traction, polls that we now know have a tendency to overstate Labour's support. These ... have not been good. However, there has been a shift. YouGov gave Labour a single point lead last week - its first under Jeremy. And others are showing convergence. While I think we should be doing much better than this, the majority of the membership are nevertheless sold on the slow-and-steady leader's approach and see polling movement in our direction as vindication. Who needs triangulation?

Therefore, the fair minded conclusion about Jeremy's efficacy has to be that the jury's still out. I tend toward the sceptical but Jeremy's support have a strong argument at the moment that will ensure talks of coups and plots will remain just that. But that begs another question. For those who think Jeremy is rubbish, what would a better alternative look like? Is it all about the polling numbers and that's it? Do they need to lead rather than follow opinion? Have they got to trounce Dave and whoever his successor is each week in PMQs? Must they have a compelling vision that can reach into the four corners of Britain? The problem is I don't think Jeremy's opponents themselves know. Dan Jarvis has a backstory that many believe recommends him to the country. Angela Eagle has proven herself a deadly effective interrogator of her opposite numbers. Keir Starmer and Yvette Cooper have the brains, and Jess Phillips has her mouth. But what advantages and weaknesses do they have vis a vis Jeremy, what do they stand for, and how would any of them be more effective? Querying the leader's efficacy is one thing, providing an alternative that can convince is something else.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Poulantzas, Althusser, and Ideology

Last time we saw how Poulantzas argued that received Marxist theories of the state tended to fall into one of two traps: the state as the passive slave of "active" economics, as per a mechanical, literal reading of Marx's base and superstructure metaphor. The second is the state as a straightforward expression of certain class interests, which in the case of capitalist societies is everywhere and always the owners of capital, the bourgeoisie. Yet there is an important alternative Poulantzas hasn't mentioned up until this point: the reworking of the Marxist theory of the state proposed by Louis Althusser.

In Althusser's celebrated notes on ideology, the distinction was made between Repressive State Apparatuses and Ideological State Apparatuses. The former (hereafter RSAs and ISAs) refer to those departments of the state that back its authority up with force. They are the "armed bodies of men", as Engels put it, and covers the police, the military, the secret services, the penitential system and, you might argue, paramilitaries. Their primary purpose is to repress. Of course, the size of these apparatuses and their "activism" vis a vis the general populace varies from country to country. In a liberal democracy these institutions are much more in the background, whereas the grotesquery of something like North Korea relies on an overblown repressive apparatus to keep the despotic Kim dynasty in power.

Complementing this for Althusser are a set of apparatuses of a different character. An ISA is an institution that secretes ideology as its primary purpose. These include schools, the media, the family, religious denominations, all forms of popular culture, and so on. While they're not all formally part of the state, they remain a state apparatus because the ideas, values, and normative practices they promote work to sustain bourgeois state power. This is an understanding of ideology shared by Poulantzas, who notes that "ideology does not consist merely in a system of ideas or representations [which is very much the mainstream bourgeois view - PBC]: it also involves a set of material practices, embracing the customs and life-style of the agents and setting like cement in the totality of social (including political and economic) practices." The state also helps organise ideology and deploys it for its purposes "... to legitimise violence and contribute to a consensus of these classes and fractions which are dominated from the point of view of political power." (p.28) What also made Althusser's discussion of ideology important was his attempt to how ideology constituted (interpellated) the members of society as subjects capable of functioning in them.

Poulantzas extends the interpellation argument. As ideologies generate subjectivities, they do so by constraining, manipulating, and consuming human bodies and in so doing the body becomes a political battleground. This positioning of the body comes about via two routes. There are institutions that discipline bodies as agents pass through them - think how RSAs and ISAs alike regiment their charges. And there is a more diffuse 'bodily order' that permeates the cultures of advanced capitalist societies, a set of discourses and ideologies that bend and mould bodies so they're suitable for entry into a variety of apparatuses. This is not an accidental by-product arising spontaneously from the bowels of capitalism either. The disciplinary institutions and their discourses require a cadre of professionals who refine and elaborate these procedures, and it happens that the majority of this milieu are employed by the state. Hence, Poulantzas argued that the state is creative and reproductive of its own authority. The political and cultural consensus is always an accomplishment, and one that is rooted in definite processes and relationships amenable to materialist analysis.

Poulantzas is also adamant that we must not assume that the bodily order and ideology generally is uniform a la the kinds of critique associated with the Frankfurt School. Ideology is always composed of several discourses designed by different apparatuses to be received by certain classes and class fractions. Think about how ideologies surrounding the military address recruits to the ranks and officerdom respectively, position and discipline them differently, and how this in turn differs from the images projected at the public-at-large. Poulantzas is also keen to get away from the simplistic notion that ideology is always a matter of concealment, a conception rooted in perspectives dependent on so-called 'false class consciousness', which in turn is wrongly attributed to Marx. Poulantzas argues that some discourses generated by the apparatus are addressed to dominant classes and their allies and seek to organise their interests. The intention and sometimes the content of these discourses go unconcealed because they have to be quite explicit and tell the truth (or, rather, their truth) to themselves. The pages of the FT, discourses around terror and policing, even arguments within the Tory party often assume this character: all seek to unify a plurality of their class around their interests.

In one respect developing Althusser's views on ideology (which also allows Poulantzas to consider Foucault's approach to discipline later on) pushes them in a more practical direction than the level of rarefied abstraction Althusser's musings suggest. But in going beyond them, he has to also break with the dichotomy between RSAs and ISAs. While a useful way into thinking about the state as an active agent that secures its own material reproduction by churning out ideology and organising the interests it stands for, Althusser's rush to break with instrumentalism and economism completely diminishes the state's roots in the economy, or the very social relations that make the state a bourgeois state. The problem for Althusser is that by boiling RSAs and ISAs down to particular functions, he runs the risk of treating them in an essentialist manner, as expressions of those functions. And if that wasn't bad enough, the evacuation of the economy from his treatment of the state leaves them as free floating institutions tethered only by their functions and not by their place in the constellation of class relationships, founded in an economy that tends to reproduce them. The key task for socialist theory is to map and understand this complexity so it can be changed. And on this score, as far as Poulantzas was concerned Althusser's views were not a helpful contribution.

More Poulantzas here.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Jeremy's List

1. Surely it's a fake. When Paul Staines and his gophers, not noted for accurate intel on matters internal to the Labour Party can pick out glaring mistakes, something doesn't add up. Either the people in Jeremy's office are utterly clueless, or that the list has an air of Grimsby Docks about it.

2. Jeremy says the list didn't originate from his people and he doesn't recognise it. Fair enough. However, if a shit list didn't exist I would, well, be a little bit disappointed. It's elementary politics to identify who your support is, who your enemies are, and the gradation of waverers and opposition in-between. And the use of these kinds of lists are routine for anyone seeking to advance themselves, their slate/clique of comrades and chums, and - shock, horror - factions based around simon-pure socialist principle. Come on, when you have the likes of Jess Phillips saying she'd stab you in the front and repeat hostility from sections of the PLP, keeping a list is a minimum precaution. Politics is always a struggle of interest and power - forget that at your peril.

3. On the Daily Politics, Rachel Reeves said "we've all been working together on that, and a list like this which categorises us in this sort of childish way, I think it is really disappointing." Purrhlease. If being accurately classed as a "hostile" is childish, I wonder what Rachel would make of some of the things her PLP friends have said behind her back over the years. She and the others have to stop the faux hurt. The smart way they could have responded would be to cut the moaning and the "accidentally" sent expletive-ridden tweets and put a brave face on and refuse to be drawn because, you know, concentrating fire on the Tories in their worst week since the election might be more helpful. Alas, it seems no conclusions have been drawn by them from last summer's debacle.

4. As far as the members are concerned, there is a view that some PLP members are more interested in sticking it to Jeremy than the Tories, and the way this dodgy dossier has been seized upon by the usual suspects can only reinforce that impression. Nor has anyone had the wit to ask about the timing. A dead cat at the moment the government have been pushed into heavy concessions, their brand retoxified, and the heir apparent severely compromised? Convenient.

5. That isn't to say all is rosy. Unfortunately, it appears Jeremy has an Ian Lavery problem that warrants a serious response on Ian's part and action from the leader. If it's left to fester, it will become more problematic than nonsense about a list.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

An Acerbic Take on Islamist Terror

An acerbic take on Islamist terror from my friend and comrade Harry Paterson. A useful tonic for anyone forced to fight rearguard actions against bigoted arseholes.

"Why do you always bang on sticking up for fucking Muslims when theres is a terrorist attack in Europe? Cant you care for the poor people killed by mentalist Muslim terrorists? Haven’t you got no shame? Don’t you even care? Just tasteless shoving youre politics down peoples throats? Have some fucking repsct.”

"Because people like you offer no comment at all regarding any terrorists attacks, anywhere, that *don’t* involve Muslims. Because you don’t give a shit for the victims. Every terrorist atrocity is only ever an opportunity for you to screech your Islamophobia, racism and hatred of brown people. Because this isn’t about terrorism, is it? Still less about the latest round of poor sods slaughtered. No. It’s about *your* prejudices, *your* hatreds and *your* bigotries and the restricting of all our freedoms because you let both the terrorists and the government win by buying into this rancid bullshit. You’re a disease. I’m the antidote."

Monday, 21 March 2016

Is George Osborne Finished?

They seek him here, they seek him there. Those lobby hacks seek him everywhere. Is he in heaven or is he in hell? That demned elusive ... Chancellor of the Exchequer. Okay, so my reworked rhyme lifted from the Scarlet Pimpernel doesn't work. But neither do Osborne's sums, so all is balanced in the world. Well, what a torrid few days for the Tories - and not in a good way. To be sure, when Nicky Morgan was wheeled out on Thursday to announce on Question Time that the planned cut to Personal Independence Payments wasn't happening, it was obvious the government was in deep trouble. It's not everyday a government rows back on a key budget pledge announced by the Chancellor in the House. But then the real damage was wrought after the odious IDS carpet bombed Downing Street before his deserved departure for the back benches.

After the most unseemly weekend of blue-on-blue actions since the great Europe fall-outs of the early/mid-90s (coincidentally, IDS had a hand in that too), the disarray shows no sign of abating. Osborne has been holed up (hiding) in his bunker behind the curtains of Number 11 all day, even to the extent of skipping the Commons. Instead poor old David Gauke, Osborne's number three in the Treasury, had to carry the shit can instead. Some say Jeremy Corbyn does not provide an "effective opposition", so what does it say about a chancellor who refuses to face even him?

As ludicrous as it was, I can understand the Where's Osbo? game the chancellor is playing. He knows the fall out from the budget and the IDS air strike has badly damaged his position, even to the degree of sundry Tories taking to the Sunday papers to cast doubt on his leadership ambitions - including a kite flying op from supine allies to test the head winds in a hypothetical world where Osborne no longer makes the political weather. He had to go to ground until the row blew away. This is damaging short term, but in his memory are Dave's Dave's debate-dodging antics. At his most slippery, Dave did everything to avoid a one-on-one with the supposedly useless Ed Miliband. Farcical fun for a few weeks, but in the grand scheme of things it meant nothing. It was as significant to the outcome of the election as a game of Whist in Strangers Bar. Osborne is hoping history will repeat twice, and we know what that means: farce.

Making his debut at the dispatch box as the new DWP face, Stephen Crabb - more on him later this week - performed a panicky about face. In trying to salvage the Dave/Osbo project, he announced no more cuts to the social security budget for the remainder of the Parliament. Welcome stuff. Desperate stuff. No sooner had the announcement sunk in, the Treasury intervened to say there were no further plans to cut the budget. An answer in other words that is something less than a promise not to come back for the disabled, and a statement that reeks of so-called "factual accuracy". In other words, so rattled are the government that they can't even perform a u-turn properly.

If 2012 was an omnishambles, then this is a catastrophe. Is the worst over? Osborne has weathered the weekend. The disability cuts have gone away and the government have moved so they won't be caught out on this again. Yet there remains a £4bn problem. The PIPs may no longer be cut, but the government remains committed to their programme of tax cuts for the middle class and those who bathe in used fifties. Where is the money going to come from? They could not make the tax cuts - after all, who's calling for them? I note some noises are being made about adopting Labour's 2015 manifesto and a start made whittling down the bribes they've paid to older voters. If that's where the Tories want to go then the plot has truly been lost.

Can the chancellor come back from this and get the George Osborne Leadership Project back on track? Unfortunately, the answer has to be yes. As much as they're knocking lumps out of each other presently, Osborne remains the best bet for continuity Cameroon. Apart from his compulsion to go out of the way to kick the vulnerable, he is by far the best known Tory from the "modern" wing of the party, has sufficient sense to not put personal ambition before the common interests of British big business - unlike Johnson - and from that same perspective, appears to be doing an okay job at the Treasury. There is no one else. Therefore, if Osborne does crash and burn, it won't be for want of backers among the party establishment.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Driver for the PlayStation

Sony's PlayStation made its mark as  the first "proper" adult video games system, and was marketed to the late teen/twenty something demographic. As such Sony was concerned to build up a roster of hundreds of edgey games that would go down well and sell more systems. Likewise, since the furore around the home versions of Mortal Kombat in 1993, software houses knew blood and sleaze shifted units too. The most notorious franchise of the so-called mature turn is undoubtedly the Grand Theft Auto series, but early on - in 1999 - its hegemony was challenged by Driver. As readers (likely) know, GTA set the bar in amoral video gaming. Cast as a gangster, one could pull off jobs for a variety of gangs and mobsters, while shooting up the police, carjacking, and mowing down pedestrians. However, despite its notoriety GTA looked primitive. You had a God's eye view on graphics more redolent of the previous generation, despite the eye-popping (and annoying) scaling effects employed. Driver on the other hand looked like a proper modern title. It took the same gameplay elements but placed them in semi-realistic three-dimensional cities. For a time, it was the most technically impressive game anywhere.

Driver was the brainchild of Reflections Interactive, who made a name for themselves with 1989's Shadow of the Beast, and previously Destruction Derby, also for the PlayStation. Like its predecessors, Driver was technically accomplished and ambitious in scope. Reflections aimed to provide a series of missions over four huge - by the standards of the day - cityscapes that one could also free roam around. And they pulled it off. Located here are renderings of Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. I can't comment on how accurate the road layout it (some sacrifice of detail is inevitable), but all the landmarks you'd expect to see are there. Though while it must be noted that Miami looks a bit sparse, this is made up by the detail on the subsequent levels.

Reflections' previous titles were better known as tech demos than solid gaming experiences. That is not the case with Driver. The game play is quite simple. You drive from A to B avoiding the cops, traffic, and other roadside hazards to deliver a car, pick someone up or drop them off, and occasionally chasing down ne'er-do-wells and trashing their rides. Each mission is a variation on this theme, and sometimes gets mixed up a bit. Instructed to pick up some bad 'uns, you can find the cops in wait and then cue some rip-roaring mayhem as you tear across town trying to shake them loose. Considering it's a PS1 title, the roads are fair packed with Sunday drivers guaranteed to get in the way.

Matters aren't perfect, however. The controls can be a touch twitchy and take some getting used to. Some of the missions are up against super tight time limits. And the cops, ugh. The police patrol the city at semi-random intervals, and have a tendency to come at you all sirens blazing if they see your motor make the most minor of highway infractions. Okay, weaving in and out of traffic at 80mph isn't smart, but there are plenty of frustrating moments when you're slowly squeaking by the cops and they go medieval because you press the accelerator a bit too much. The cops also go properly insane too. As your 'felony' bar fills up, the more aggressive and suicidal they become. Barrelling down the free way at top speeds only to have a copper in the wrong lane determined to smash you head on. Yes, it's the thing evasive driving is made of. And those times you've escaped a death-defying chase only to have the cops certainly turn up again five yards from the objective. Frustrating isn't the word.

The other big annoyance is the tutorial mode. Commonplace by the late 90s, they are designed to familiarise gamers with the controls in a safe space where you won't get totalled by the baddies and your honour impugned. Not here, unfortunately. Before you can play the game the player has to put themselves through a time trial in an underground car park. You're required to pull off a series of relatively straightforward stunts, like lapping, 360 turns, handbrake turns, weaving in and out of the pillars. It's easier said than done. Imagine buying this for £40 back in the day and being forced to spend a couple of hours stuck in a tedious obstacle course when all you want to do is play the game everyone's been raving about. When we acquired it shortly after its release, we tried, failed, and promptly forgot about it for 17 years, give a month or two.

All that said, Driver is a fun, superlative product. It might not be that well remembered today (despite having sequels relatively recently), but it was the wave of the future - not least showing GTA the direction it was due to go in from the third game onwards. But the thing that tickles me most about the game is its edgy creds, which are entirely faux. You can ride around and smash up cop cars if you wish, but the thing is, according to the plot you're not really a bad ass. Turns out you're a copper in deep cover determined to find out what the crims are up to, and this means undertaking driving jobs for them. Interesting that Reflections obviously felt going down the amoral GTA route was something best avoided, even if the game's gangster glamour ends up entirely affected and faux within the game world. What we're left with then is a homage to the car chase movies of the 70s and 80s - it's a shame they fought shy of the cheese when they could have embraced it.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Momentum Vs Workers Power

I recommend reading the comments before this post. It is premised on a mistake.

After the the outing of Gerry Downing as a useful idiot for our party's enemies, the race is on to find more specimens of the outrageous, the unhinged, and the anti-semitic. None of it has to do with the disinterested pursuit of a story, of course, and everything to do with inculcating guilt-by-association in the minds of the public, and is why Labour should not make a comfortable home for people of this ilk.

The latest attempt to stoke a panic about far left idiocy was driven into the back woods last night by the unlamented departure of Iain Duncan Smith. What is the story I speak of? This one. Scooping on it yesterday, The Times reported that Momentum in Lambeth were planning to picket a fundraiser for a local councillor running for the assembly in this May's GLA elections. What is that there Momentum like, eh?

Obviously, I wouldn't be writing if all I was going to add was further incredulity. There is a little more than meets the eye to this matter. Firstly, as with all things there's a political context that has been swept under the carpet. As the most seasoned Momentum watchers will note, its branches aren't in the habit of picketing Labour Party representatives. Saying idiotic things to them on Twitter, yes. Standing outside with banners and asking people to respect your picket line, no. What's going on then? It turns out that the picket was an item in any other business brought to the meeting's attention by one Stuart King. Stuart isn't a Labour Party member, but holds the treasurer's position in Lambeth Momentum. And he was raising it, apparently, on behalf of the local anti-cuts campaign against the closure and reconfiguration of services by Labour-run Lambeth Council. It has attracted some celebrity support and library workers have walked out twice over the proposed cuts. Florence Eshalomi in her capacity as a Lambeth councillor previously headed up the authority's Cooperative Libraries Commission, which was meant to save the borough's libraries. Hence rather than just being another councillor abiding by the group whip, it is reasonable to assume that the cuts and reconfiguration going through are associated with plans she had previously put her name to. As such, it is entirely reasonable that an anti-cuts group might want to protest outside a semi-public political event being put on for Florence's benefit.

A case of the party establishment decrying a perfectly legitimate attempt to hold a local politician to account for her voting record? There's a little bit more of a stroll down the rabbit hole to go. Stuart King, of course, isn't a name unknown to far left circles in London. He is a contributor to Red Flag, the self-styled "voice of Labour's revolutionary change." Looking at some of the by-lines in this earnest and august publication, we have household names - in lefty trainspotter homes at least - like Dave Stockton, Jeremy Dewar, and Bernie McAdam. In other words, it's the organisation-formerly-known-as-Workers-Power.

Workers Power were an orthodox Trotskyist split from the International Socialists in the mid-70s, and subsequently evolved away from the "innovations" Tony Cliff brought to his brand of Trotskyism in favour of the screed laid down by the Old Man himself. As a "fighting propaganda group" whose membership never got far beyond 50 activists in Britain, it managed to build itself its own petty international organisation and ... that was about it. There was little to mark WP out in the sect marketplace. The Sparts and International Bolshevik Tendency had the minuscule head-banging market wrapped up, the SWP was the home of mindless activism, and the Socialist Party were effectively the refuge for Labourism-in-exile. The only feathers WP had to its bow was a pitch slightly to the left of the larger organisations whom they regarded as "centrist" (opportunistically caught between the poles of reform and revolution), and a tendency to turn up to meetings and propose ranty, ultra-left motions and actions. You can take the, um, organisation out of the organisation ("we're only a newspaper, guv"), but Stuart's attempt to get his local Momentum branch to go to war against a local councillor shows all the finesse that kept WP on the margins of British sect life is still with its successor groupuscule.

So let's be clear about this. It is not Momentum who are campaigning against a putative London Assembly member and sitting councillor, but a cranky Trotskyist group as part of an anti-cuts campaign they've latched onto. Obviously, it is a very difficult political situation when groups of workers and a Labour-run local authority are in dispute, but resolving that situation within and between different wings of the labour movement requires tact and talking, none of which is aided by a pointless Trot outfit trying to flog a newspaper or two off the back of it. Unfortunately, for as long as non-members of the Labour Party can hold office in Momentum this kind of nonsense will keep happening. If Trotskyists want to picket councillors and sell their unreadble guff outside meetings, that's a matter for them. But allowing any adherent of a Trot group a directing role could choke the positive potential Momentum has - and present opportunities to those who'd like to see it strangled.

Friday, 18 March 2016

On Iain Duncan Smith's Resignation

When you're the head of a department that has meted out cruel and inhumane treatment to disabled people, when you've sat in the Commons and nodded through cut after sanction regime after tightened eligibility criteria, at what point do you say enough and call time over your complicity in these proceedings? Does one draw a veil over the old ministerial career by claiming principle and love for the charges you've spent six years abusing, or stick the boot in to cause maximum political damage?

Iain Duncan Smith, the so-called quiet man who's done catastrophic harm to the position of disabled people in this country, has elected to do both. Uncharacteristically, an attempt to fund tax cuts for the well off by taking monies from payments to disabled people has gone down like a cup of cold sick. Which is interesting, considering their previous attacks have gone by with nary a murmur from outside the ranks of disability campaigners, the left, and the labour movement.

Okay, so let's look at IDS's "good reason" for resigning - the statement he's put out himself.
I am unable to watch passively whilst certain policies are enacted in order to meet the fiscal self-imposed restraints that I believe are more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest.
Blimey, IDS is lining up with John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn! Almost.

He goes on ...
Too often my team and I have been pressured in the immediate run up to a budget or fiscal event to deliver yet more reductions to the working-age benefit bill. There has been too much emphasis on money-saving exercises and not enough awareness from the Treasury, in particular, that the government's vision of a new welfare-to-work system could not be repeatedly salami-sliced.
To understand where IDS is coming from, one has to step inside his head. It's scary, so come walk with me. Having previously corresponded with his ministerial office on dozens of occasions, I got the sense that IDS was acting out of ideological zeal. All of his letters would come back extolling the virtues of work, and ironic considering that IDS's prescription for others is something he's never really availed himself of. No matter. Work was the route out of poverty. Work was the route to self-respect. Work was the route to good health and mental well being - views typical of someone for whom low-paid drudgery is but a rumour. And IDS knew this better than the medical establishment and disabled people themselves. If only they could be liberated from their can't-do mindset, hundreds of thousands drawing down disability support could become fully productive citizens. It is a sick joke when you think about the fates of some unfortunate ESA recipients, but IDS absolutely, genuinely believed he was designing a social security system that would "save lives".

IDS has sat uneasily (to a degree) in Dave's cabinet. He is an ideologue who takes his twisted principles seriously. Dave and Osborne are a touch more mercurial. They are wedded to broken Tory economics, but are quite willing to ditch principle for expediency. In Wednesday's budget, Osborne was interested in shoring up a Middle England constituency ahead of the EU referendum as well as making a play for succeeding Dave. As he was prepared to give nice middle class people like me another tax cut and have disabled people pay for it, this clearly was too much for IDS. Just so Osborne was prepared - again - to throw IDS's life work under a bus, so the Quiet Man has finally returned the favour.

What about the real reason? A little bit has to do with Europe, innit? Exit is another of IDS's cracked priorities, and again must be frustrated that a number of ambitious Tories - not least the Mekon-like Sajid Javid and other heir-presumptive Theresa May - have dumped principles for position. By strengthening Osborne's association with attacks on disabled people, he's calculated that the chancellor will not pass the work capability assessment for Tory leader and the way be open to someone who's either a bit more ideological, or will allow him space for his continued misadventures in social security. If only there was an unprincipled, opportunist celebrity chancer in the running for the leadership who fits the bill.

To be sure, IDS's resignation is the biggest blow yet to Dave's leadership and the his hopes of keeping the Number 10 sofa warm for Osborne. Long may this internal warfare continue.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

George Osborne and Political Risk

And so the Tories' self-described political genius got up to deliver his budget speech this afternoon, he probably knew his announcement about added tax on sugary drinks would attract disproportionate coverage. It's more likely to be an audience question on tomorrow's Question Time than the hammering disabled people have taken, which of course was not part of Osborne's calculations at all. Apart from that it was an interesting budget. It was one part decadent, just like last summer's statement, because it still does not address Britain's underlying economic weakness, and one part gamble - just like winter's - because it could bite them on the arse in the long-run.

Strivers vs the skivers is the most risible nonsense, but it's proven fertile for Tory divide-and-rule politics and we find that playing through here. He wouldn't dare label the disabled as skivers, but the Tories' robbing of hundreds of thousands of £30/week (and more in some cases) is more contemptuous than any rhetoric. Meanwhile, preferring not to dwell on this, Osborne unveiled a budget self-consciously tipped toward "the workers". So, yet again, Middle England can look forward to another tax cut next April as the basic rate threshold is raised by another 500 quid. Nearly everyone will benefit, except those who earn so little that they are already out of tax. The threshold for the top rate also goes up, giving the better off even more of a cut (much easier to do it that way then fiddle with politically problematic income tax rates). There's the new saving wheeze for the under forties which offer effective interest rates of 25 per cent(!).

And how about the unexpected business rate cut for the smallest of small businesses? Unexpected because you'd have thought that if Osborne truly gave one about their fate then surely action would have come already. This kind of cut is certainly something Labour would have supported, and I believe was in the last manifesto (someone call the lawyers). It will certainly remind small business that their traditional party does listen from time to time - a message that won't hurt as we enter into EU referendum season. But the big problem here is how it's going to be paid for. Okay, so a pledge for a bigger crackdown on tax avoidance and evasion by altering rules about what big businesses can and can't do with their balance sheets upset some, but there's no indication those monies will cover the cut. Business rates, as readers may or may not know, are a major revenue stream for local authorities. If the government declares a cut and doesn't compensate the councils, many of those small businesses will pay less as some of their customers - public sector workers based in local government - see their jobs disappear to pay for it.

As a piece of political theatre, today's budget may prove attractive to those looking askance at these matters. If you work, why shouldn't you pay less tax? If you're having a hard time scraping money together for a deposit, why shouldn't the government throw something into your kitty? If you have a small business, why shouldn't the government give you a break? But there are two big problems with Osborne's statement. Despite announcements around infrastructure, a number of which were pre-announced anyway, there is nothing in today's package that can get British capitalism properly moving again. Private investment is static because prospects for decent returns remains low, which is why property and financial alchemy continue to do well. They help drive the GDP figures and turn in a flattering picture of economic performance, but in reality they're symptomatic of economic weakness. And Britain remains horrendously exposed to any global economic shocks, simply because Osborne and the Tories have done nothing to rebalance and diversify the economy. Well done.

The second is more politically problematic for Osborne. Various commentators have pointed out a £55bn gap in the chancellor's figures and announced, and the tens of billions in extra borrowing his spending plans require. Also, Osborne's own fiscal rules mean the elimination of the deficit before the next general election. This effectively means backloading a further round of austerity to 2019-20. Conventional political wisdom about such things entails getting the painful stuff done early in a Parliament and share out the goodies the rest of the time. In 2020, we're going to have a lead up to an election characterised by more cuts, most likely at the expense of the voiceless and powerless as per, followed by tax bribes and magic money trees galore. The tawdriness is enough to make me wince four years out. But it is a massive risk for Osborne and the Tories. They can look at the polls now and think they're fine and dandy, but the winds can change. Osborne has been lucky so far, but the risks will eventually find him out.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Jorn van Deynhoven - Headliner

The flu has left me too bollocksed to write anything substantial, so have this instead.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

John McDonnell's Very Political Economics

What have they been putting in John McDonnell's coffee? According to some, John's embrace of fiscal responsibility, tight spending, and deficit reduction is a surrender to "the capitalist parasites". And proving you cannot please some people no matter what you say, there have been criticisms from the right of the party arguing that his economics are the same kind that were rejected last year and in 2010.

I don't know if the memory-loss associated with politics is a recent thing brought by social media churn, or is something deeply structural. But there wasn't a great deal John said in his speech on Friday that hadn't already been trailed previously. A good deal of this was mentioned in his first conference address as shadow chancellor. As the Tories have successfully managed to identify economic competency with the project of deficit reduction in the minds of a plurality of the electorate, John's speech then - and now - signals his willingness to fight them on their own turf. In this he's aided by the self-described "political genius" George Osborne's inability to meet his own targets, and absurd, dogmatic desire to pull public spending out of the economy, which will only thwart his ambition in the long run.

As John has maintained all along, austerity is a choice. He is not offering the Darling plan with its author's claim of "worse cuts than Thatcher". It's the beginning of an economic plan, a long-term one if you will, that marries a radical agenda to a recognisably orthodox policy framework. So while pledging a business environment more benign for cooperatives, as well as "the right to own", John is also committing Labour to a programme that says the public debt should be lower at the end of a Parliament than the beginning of one. This is the 'Fiscal Credibility Rule', which has proven beyond Osborne seeing as borrowing and the debt has spiralled ever-upwards on his watch.

Those criticising this position from the right are indulging in the kind of comfort politics the left are often accused of. Firstly, there is a difference between John's position and that of Balls/Miliband. John's is consistent and systematic, whereas our plans going into the general election were confused and contradictory. It's all very well making arguments about Tory cuts and how they damage the economy, but when you're proposing cuts of your very own it does look as if you haven't a clue what you're talking about, as well as hypocritical. Secondly, and despite the myths spun by Jon Cruddas, we didn't win last year because we were "too anti-austerity" but rather that we were not seen to be offering a credible position on the economy and deficit - a subtle but crucial distinction. You'll remember the manifesto was fully costed and had been raked over by all manner of wonks. You'll also remember that, bizarrely, the Tories promised to spray money everywhere without a clue about where those funds were going to come. Voters made a certain choice in sufficient numbers, and we are where we are now. But again, it wasn't because Labour had a platform that was anti-austerity. And lastly, supposing John or whoever succeeds him unveils a set of rules that do include commitments to cuts and privatisation, a la Liz Kendall's leadership programme, is that going to catch the attention of the floating voter-types we need to win back? Absolutely not.

What John has done is adapt his political economy to the cut and thrust of politics. He hasn't subordinated it, however, in the way Osborne subordinates economic necessity to the needs of Tory party management. However, the problems remain the same - a lack of investment by business, a reluctance of banks to lend, falling productivity, widening balance of payments, and chronic underemployment. Osborne can pretend none of these things matter as the buying and selling of financial flimflam and the housing price boom can fool those who want to be fooled that everything is going fine, but it isn't. John and his team's task is to go beyond iPad rhetoric and come up with compelling and convincing policies that can pull Britain out of its entrenched structural sclerocity.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

The History of Ocean Software

People under a certain age won't have heard of them, but there was once a time when Ocean was the premiere software house in the UK. Cutting their teeth on the Sinclair, Commodore, and Amstrad machines and having their name associated with some truly classic titles, for a short while in the late 80s and early 90s they were poised to conquer the world. Alas, that didn't come to pass.

In the documentary below, @kimjustice takes her scalpel to this forgotten episode of the British video game industry, while visiting some of the games that made Ocean their name. Enjoy!

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Expelling Gerry Downing

I don't recall the last time a micro-sect guru appeared on the BBC's lunch time politics programme to have his views in a seldom-read publication picked over, but it has finally happened. Of course, this does not signal Andrew Neil's conversion to lefty trainspotting, but rather the fact that Gerry Downing has some "forthright views" that were deemed acceptable to allow his admittance to Labour Party membership, before media pressure - and an attack by Dave in the House at yesterday's PMQs - saw his expulsion.

As Trotskyism goes, there is a spectrum that runs from an uncompromising fundamentalism through to revolutionary Keynesians. Gerry's Socialist Fight has always been on the headbanging side of things, and his views haven't moved on at all since he was a regular contributor to the UK Left Network discussion list. But does revolutionary socialism have a place in the Labour Party?

Yes and no. The party has always been a broad church, and to varying degrees revolutionary socialism is a minority pursuit that has always had a place in it. I can think of a number of self-described Marxists holding to the perspective of revolutionary change who've held lay positions in the party and served as councillors, and continue to do so. This is a world of difference from entryists who are part of the party to build their own organisations. Militant had some success in this regard because it presented its politics as not a million miles from the established Labour left. There's little doubt Socialist Fight would ever repeat that because their politics are so mind-bendingly demented. Yet in either case, no organisation should expect to build its own party (or rather, sect) at the expense of another while ensconced in the latter's structures.

These aren't the grounds for Gerry's exclusion, however. Germane here are his comments about Islamic State, the September 11th attacks, and Israel. Of the former two, Gerry is very much an advocate of the most foolish of anti-imperialisms, of putting a plus wherever the US State Department places a minus. The rationale goes all the way back to Trotsky's comments on a hypothetical war between a democratic Britain and a fascist Brazil. As one of the leading imperial powers of the day, from the standpoint of revolutionary politics it was preferable for Britain to lose because victory for Brazil could stir up national liberation struggles in the colonies, as well as weaken one of the chief props of world capitalism. While that had a certain logic to it, Trotsky's argument was time-limited. Applying this position to US involvement in the Syrian civil war is ludicrous, especially as victory for Islamic State would mean tens of millions coming under a regime of the most blackest reaction. Gerry may think US "imperialism" is the greatest threat in the world today, but it's not for people living in IS territory - nor for that matter those cowering under Russian air strikes.

There is an absurd aspect to this as well. Gerry offers IS not political support, but military support. What on Earth does that mean? Not a lot, actually. Jihadis from around the world have provided IS military support by travelling to its territories and taking up arms. I'm not aware of Trotskyists putting together their brigades and putting themselves at the disposal of IS - though there is plenty of evidence of latter day heirs of the International Brigades fighting with the Kurdish YPG. Military support is something super orthodox Trots bang on about, but is something they never follow through with.

And there is Israel, or the "Jewish Question" as Gerry likes to put it. As it happens, I think successive Israeli governments have proven to be grubby, racist, and perpetrators of war crimes in the occupied territories. See, one can be critical of Israel without dog-whistling borderline anti-semitism. Unfortunately for him, Gerry goes far beyond this. In talking of moneyed Jews exerting influence over Western polities, he is treading on dodgy ground indeed. As it happens, Israel does have its supporters - several of them very wealthy - and it does exert a pressure on politics, but Gerry acts as if this is unique and improper. In truth, most countries do exactly the same. The British Council is active in Israel, as are the various equivalents for all of the Western powers. Do they lobby Israeli governments directly and indirectly? Of course they do. While Gerry argues that his claims of "Zionist influence" are the result of a materialist analysis, his hard anti-imperialism cannot acknowledge that his observations are utterly banal.

Banal, but damaging. The problem for Labour is this. Every orthodox Trot in the party with views similar to Gerry's are going to be hunted down and held up to scrutiny, because of Jeremy's record as a seasoned anti-war campaigner. During the Labour leadership contest, several past associations of the leader came to light, and these included conspiracy nuts, anti-semites, and representatives of Hamas and Hezbollah. There are sections of the Tories, the press and, yes, in our own party, who want to associate Jeremy with the sorts of views Gerry Dowling has. And for every Gerry turned up, the more damage is done to his leadership and the party in the eyes of the wider electorate.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

The Slow Death of the Tory Party

After months of tedious Labour infighting, the moment for its long hoped-for eclipse by Tory party divisions has finally arrived. So-called blue-on-blue action is doing a good job of exposing Tory idiocy on all sides of the referendum debate. Ministers - particularly those on the leave side - are wonderfully showing up their stupidity. And last but not least the bumbling, amiable mask Boris Johnson has hidden behind for too long has slipped and the face of an unprincipled chancer is daily in the press and politics programmes.

Unfortunately, I don't believe this will be enough to rip the Tory party apart, even if matters get pretty fierce and it falls to playground name-calling. Thankfully, there are other shenanigans afoot that might put the long-term health of the party Conservatives in jeopardy.

Last week, the Telegraph commented on "secret plans" by Dave to reorganise the party. Under these measures, he was hoping to wind up nine out of ten local Tory associations and centralise the membership in sub-regional blocks. Association chairs will have less local clout, giving up powers to CCHQ, and campaigning was to be concentrated in a staff of full-timers appointed by and beholden to the centre. The reasons why are pretty obvious. For one, Dave knows some of the parliamentary party are going along with Leave because of pressure from the "mad, swivel-eyed loons" in the constituency associations. And, as we know, that's where real political sovereignty lies in the Westminster system. Secondly, mindful of what happened to the Labour Party, it's plausible to them for the party elite to try and prevent the same thing from occurring - not that it will ever see a Corbyn-style surge. Specifically, and more immediately, there is the thwarting of Johnson's ambitions and shoring up the fort for Osborne.

Alas, there's been a partial row back on the plans. Associations under 200 members will be merged with their neighbour(s) and it will go ahead where there is a desire for it to happen. In reality, a large number of associations operate in this way already, particularly in urban areas where some are down to single digits. It's also worth noting here a chunk of the membership is entirely fictitious. If you're a member of your local association boozer, and there are a surprising few knocking about, you're classified as a party member too. Yet despite the step back it still represents a power grab by central office. Marginalising them and directing activism from the centre has the added benefit - from their point of view - of making the full-time apparatus more influential and important to those wanting to make their way up the greasy pole.

I welcome these reforms and hope the Tory party board don't water them down further. The problem with the Tories is they are locked in a death spiral. The membership keeps falling and precious few activists are coming through. This can be offset by money, by gerrymanders, by friendly media, and by engineering situations more favourable to their politics. But they cannot fight shy of this forever. Dave must hope that a more disciplined outfit will prove attractive to Blair-esque small business, middle class, and professional people who'd find the unreconstructed rightwingery of the associations a massive turn off. Sadly for him, it's groundless.

As we know from the experience of the Labour Party under Blair and Brown, one driver of the diminishing membership was the ever more remote relationship between leading MPs and the members. Unless you were doggedly Labour, and/or had the political understanding that participating in the party and working for its electoral victory is always preferable to the alternative, there was very little to incentivise paying over the subs, attending the meetings, and doing party work. Whatever you might think of Jeremy Corbyn, his election has reversed that trend and all the crude insults and calls for deselection for truculent MPs are expressions of a support reasserting itself after feeling neglected. Dave's proposals promise to send his party in the other direction. With the influence of associations curbed, and with it the patronage senior lay committees can dole out, unless one is either a careerist or a super hardcore Tory why would you join a party that takes your money and gives precious little back? To head Johnson off at the pass, the Tories' famous short-termism and decadence sees Dave forward a plan that can hasten their decline. Good.

There is, however, a cloud to this silver lining. The Tory party isn't some free floating signifier without a referent. It is the collective expression of a section of British business and their allies and exists to pursue their interests while pretending to govern for everyone. It also has a wider constituency of millions who will always passively support them come election time. The problem is if the Tories die, those interests and those votes will find expression in some way. It could be through a Blair mk II Labour Party (stranger things have happened), a rejuvenated but rightward-facing Liberal Democrats, or via a recomposition of the right into something even less pleasant than the Tories and its ugly UKIP offspring. Whatever happens, when defeat eventually comes for the Conservatives we need to have a movement and a Labour Party strong and astute enough to ensure that however long their current period of government goes on for, it will be their last.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Understanding Roma in the Criminal Justice System

Does the English criminal justice system discriminate against the Roma? Well, of course it does, would be the right-on answer. Haven't years of experience with the police, the courts, the prisons shown us that the whole thing is institutionally, irredeemably racist? As with most things once you scratch the happy official reality and dig a bit deeper than most radical critiques one finds a messy, complex situation that requires nuance and a bit of tact to address. At the first University of Derby Sociology Research Seminar Series last Wednesday, Phil Henry took us on a guide of this difficult terrain in his paper, 'Deviance and difference, stereotypes and stigma: pathogising Roma within the criminal justice system in the UK, what evidence do we have?'.

As well as being a member of the Sociology department, Phil doubles up as the director of the university's Multi Faith Centre where he and his colleagues are engaged in several outreach projects, and that includes supporting young people from the (primarily Slovak) cohort of Roma who arrived in Derby after 2004. His way in to exploring how this community is disadvantaged and has its young people up before the courts in disproportionate numbers proceeds via some elementary and widely-applied sociological concepts. Is it the case that a moral panic surrounds the Roma which stigmatises and labels them, in turn compounding the magnitude of the panic and driving a criminal justice response, or is something else happening?

Drawing on the classic study by Stanley Cohen, a moral panic is an exaggerated social action attributable to a social group that is amplified (if not stoked by) the media and certain political concerns. Each panic seeks to construct a folk devil on which a panic can ultimately be hung, re-hung, and hung again for good measure. Longtime readers/observers of the right wing press in this country will certainly have an idea of which groups have received this treatment over the years.

In many ways, the Roma are the perfect set of folk devils, which is fed by centuries of antipathy toward Gypsies and travellers. The Roma also bring with them associations formed in Eastern Europe and reinforced by non-Roma migrant workers who've also settled here. These tend to be associated with littering, overcrowding, loitering in public, anti-social behaviour, lack of parental supervision, and petty crime. Phil also observed that Roma, or at least those living in Derby, tend to live in relative isolation marked both by very close proximity and communal living. 3,500 (approximately) are clustered in three wards in the south of the city. Furthermore, some community practices such as kids having a freer reign, and more problematic ones such as marriage-at-16 tend to reinforce separation from the host society.

Erving Goffman's Stigma, is useful for thinking through some of these issues. Goffman understands stigma as a socially attributed status disqualifying people caught up in it from full acceptance. In the UK context, Phil noted that certain cultural mores might contribute to stigmatisation in the eyes of the host community. Firstly, however, it was important to note the Roma do not see themselves as stigmatised. Most important are "internal" dynamics of shame and honour, and anything belonging to the outside is just that - they pay second fiddle to what you might call their own specific forms of symbolic and social capital. It followed that tensions between these structures and the conventions and law of the wider society are bound to happen. As Phil illustrated by anecdote, Roma youth tend not to take encounters with the police too seriously as here they tend to get cautioned and locked up, whereas back in Slovakia beatings and getting threatened with guns is the normal run of things. Either way, whether policing is violent or not, what matters most are the cultural codes of the Roma.

Hence from their point of view, boisterous behaviour on street corners and petty crime is normal behaviour whereas it can be viewed as threatening by others, and therefore brings forth a criminal justice response. Developing strategies to tackle the over-representation of young Roma in offending and re-offending rates means understanding the culture and, crucially, not turning a blind eye to practices that transgresses the law but develops a strategy that can discourage, promote integration, and not come over as crudely assimilationist and bureaucratic. To this end, informed by this analysis Phil and the MFC have been working with the office of Derbyshire's Police and Crime Commissioner. Together they have provided outreach workers and mentoring to provide activities that take folks off the streets - in full consultation with the Roma themselves, and to work with young offenders. There is always two-way consultation to let the authorities know about any issues as well.

Going from the pilot work done so far, it appears to have had some positive results. First time offending and reoffending rates are well down - of 17 young offenders who received mentoring, only one ended up back in the criminal justice system. Of course, there may be other factors in play not controlled for by the study and intervention. For instance, Derby these days is growing quickly and providing greater numbers of job opportunities than other similar-sized cities, particularly outside of the south east. It is possible that a more benign economic environment could be having an impact coincident with the study, though that caveat seems to be stretching credulity a touch.

By way of a tentative sociological conclusion, Phil argued that the fieldwork showed that the Roma weren't disadvantaged and targeted by law enforcement because of the mainstream labelling them deviant and stigmatic, but rather lay in the tensions between their internal values systems and wider British society. While moral panics a media stigmatisation are damaging, it's not a simple case of doing away with negative portrayals of Roma and everything will be alright - as I hope my rendering of Phil's paper has demonstrated.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Retro Collect Video Game Market, Doncaster

Doncaster. Famous for the race course, Ed Miliband, and, um, that's it. Not that I'm particularly bothered. It was the idea of tooling up on digital artifacts of a certain vintage that drew comrade @alexdawson1978 and I to the West Riding of Yorkshire this day for the Retro Collect Video Game Market.

Despite my status as an inveterate video game hunter, I had never been to a proper games market like this one. Car boot sales and one of North Staffordshire's seven (you heard that right) retro stockists are my preferred trawling grounds, so I didn't know what to expect. Would it be packed? Are the games going to be overpriced? Will there be anything decent? 

Rammed it most certainly was. We turned up a little later than we hoped thanks to the supplied post code directing the satnav to the back end of beyond. Cheers for that, promo people. And the queue to get in the market was the longest I've seen since The Nemesis opened at Alton Towers. Thankfully it moved very quickly, and before we knew it we were in. However, as packed as it was, for someone used to deftly moving in and out of crowds with the occasional strategic elbow, I managed to see everything I wanted.

On the price front, there was little evidence of a market premium getting slapped on most titles. Okay, there were some very dodgy pricing decisions. The odd tenner here and there for games with a street value of three quid (I'm looking at you Rage Racer), and 95 notes for A Link to the Past is excessive. But for the most part, cramming so many stockists together disciplined the price range, and often came in under the kinds of sums demanded by Stoke's finest retro emporiums.

How about the stock? There was a lot of good stuff, nay, great stuff going. Unfortunately, as my games don't have much space available to them I had to make some careful decisions. Being a semi-serious collector of sorts, I tend toward complete games. I won't buy boxed games without instructions, for instance. I'll also pick up Nintendo stuff (NES, SNES, Game Boy) as cartridge-only, but not MegaDrive, Master System, or original PlayStation - unless it's a super good bargain, like the four quid I paid for Gunstar Heroes 18 months back. I'll also avoid stuff that has had a rough existence - my nose turned up a few times at games with sun damage and snapped off hangers. And why oh why is it that every copy of the Master System's Double Dragon always comes with water damage? Bizarre.

Without further ado, here are my acquisitions:

F-1 Race for the GameBoy was released back in the day with the handheld's four player adapter. It's a port of an ancient Famicom title, and was very well received at the time thanks to the endless multiplayer fun that could be had. For 99p it would have been sinful not to have picked it up.

G-Loc Air Battle for the MegaDrive is a conversion of Sega's (then) spectacular sequel (of sorts) to the canonical Afterburner. I'd been looking to pick it up for a while, but for some reason was always overpriced in local stockists. Acquired for a song, I look forward to being as rubbish at this as I am with its illustrious predecessor.

Heroes of the Lance is an adaptation of a (once) relatively well-known Advanced Dungeons and Dragons licence to the Master System. To be honest, catching it on one of the stalls was the first time I've seen it since, well, forever. I can only vaguely remember seeing it back in the day so as something of a rarity I took a punt on it. Alas, the consensus is it's rubbish but we'll have a go nonetheless.

Kung Fu for the NES is the much-loved conversion of one of my favourite beat 'em ups from the mid-80s. Back then I used to cane this game something rotten on my mate's Amstrad, so I'm glad my jolly old Nintendo and Retron5 are set to deliver a stiff nostalgia fix.

Metal Slug X for the PlayStation is a beastie I've wanted since finding out a version was available on the PS1. For the uninitiated, Metal Slug is a franchise of comically violent 2D scrollers that cleaned up the arcades in the mid/late 1990s. I'd have been into it at the time if I wasn't otherwise engaged in book bingeing and boozing.

Starflight for the MegaDrive is a game I've held a candle for since 1991. I can still remember opening the pages of Mean Machines issue 12 and seeing the glowing review for this space trading/exploration game. I'm not sure why I never got it when the chance presented itself. Well, then it cost £39.99, which is about £800 in 2016 money, and I got it today for £13, so it had better be worth a quarter century of waiting.

Lastly, I bagged a boxed and complete version of Super Mario Bros 2 for the NES. It's a game that probably needs no introduction, SM2 remains the only classic Mario title from the NES/SNES days I haven't played in any depth (the legacy of being a teenage MegaDrive owner, you see).

Sooner or later, I'm sure there will be more words said about each of these. Just got to find the time to play them inbetween everything else.

From a chin-stroking perspective, Brother A and I expected the market to be packed with gentlemen of a certain age, and we were right. But interestingly, there were a few younger folk there. Some were probably seeking games from their own childhoods, and stockists were smart enough to bring along plenty of PS1, PS2, and original XBox titles, but plenty helped themselves to 8- and 16-bit goodies. I also espied one bloke buying his five/six year old a MegaDrive, though I strongly suspect it wasn't really for him.

As I've argued before, nostalgia has mutated and occupies a niche in the eternal present. Before the internet became what it is today, there was a certain cut off from the past. Prior to YouTube and SoundCloud, songs, shows, and games of yesteryear had to be experienced directly via old records, old games, and old video tapes - not withstanding the issuing of occasional nostalgic compilation CDs. Investing in old cultural detritus was for fringe people gathering at fringe events. For the bulk of folk, reminiscing the old stuff was the closest they got. Now, it is immediately available. If I want to play something like RoboCop on the Spectrum, 30 seconds with a search engine is all it takes. But this accessibility, and commentary from sundry YouTube commentators* is driving a surge in retro game collecting, and is encouraging some to pick up where their interest tailed off years ago. When I was a kid, I wanted a NES and SNES but my limited means kept me to the MegaDrive. Now those means are a little more expansive, and I can indulge the pash I guillotined for the dubious pleasures university offered.

Overall, the market was a great experience and had both of us thinking that something similar in Stoke could do well. Watch this space ...

* Almost forgot to mention I met Gemma of Juicy Game Reviews/TheGebs24 fame today, as you do.