Monday, 30 January 2017

The Tories and the Special Relationship

Stoke-on-Trent might be the centre of the political universe, but that isn't to say tumultuous events don't take place outwith the gilded city limits. And while by-election fever and an altogether unpleasant illness have gripped me, Donald Trump marked his first week in the Oval Office by unleashing a hurricane-level shit storm. His "temporary" travel ban on people born in seven Muslim countries where Trump happens to have no business interests drew near unanimous condemnation. And yet he found backing from Boris Johnson in the Commons this afternoon. The foreign secretary said this isn't as bad as his pledges on the campaign trail and that means his bark is worse than his bite, and so we should be thankful. Just how we should thank racists for firebombing one Mosque as opposed to two, or the EDL for beating up an Asian kid instead of tearing up a town centre. May is no better. Her craven performance as the first overseas courtier to meet the new president was, remarkably, regarded as something of a coup across the official commentariat and established media. How fast things change. Dismissing Trump's travel ban merely as a "matter for the Americans" speaks for the moral vacuity at the heart of her project.

The right's counter argument invokes that misused and knackered old beast, the "special relationship". The Churchill bust is back, Trump went out of his way to woo "his Maggie", he promised the UK would be at "the front of the queue" for a trade deal post-Brexit, and he even allowed the Prime Minister to take his dainty hand and guide him down a wee incline. We must therefore seize this moment and stay as close to this well-disposed president as possible. To utter the slightest criticism puts his Anglophilia at risk. None of this should come as any surprise, the Tories are well practiced at sucking up to worse people than Trump. The legacy of appeasement runs deep.

The Tory understanding of the special relationship comes from the overdue sunset on the British empire. As anyone conversant with any half-decent analysis of global geopolitics will tell you, Churchill (himself half-American) worked to get the United States involved in the war against Nazi Germany and then to step up to the plate as the guardian of the liberal capitalist order. Exhausted, as Britain withdrew from its colonies the US became the anti-communist bulwark old Winston always wanted it to be. Never mind that it subverted democracies, destroyed popular movements, and installed and supported dictators wherever it saw fit, little Britain was there by its side, sharing intelligence and providing fig leafs. Britain may have its own bomb and advanced military capabilities, but in a world inhabited first by the Soviet Union, and now a resurgent China it only "punches above its weight" by virtue of its being the herald for United States interests. They can never really admit it, but the Tories know well this is the case. Hence why they weren't fans of Obama nor Hillary Clinton who, for their part, viewed the special relationship with some distaste. Why not hang around with interesting folks like Angela Merkel's Germany instead of a ceremonial hangover as obscure and puzzling as parliamentary protocols are to most normal people. It's also why the Tories had no problem with Blair getting his thing on with Dubya. He understood Britain's proper place, and that was in America's lap. And why almost every single Conservative MP happily walked through the lobby in support of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq.

The character of the special relationship May has planned for Britain post-Brexit will see America and Britain become even closer. Already we have one of the most open economies in the world. Open for businesses from anywhere to swoop in and make a killing on the property market, take advantage of our anti-worker legislation to lock millions into poorly paid, insecure employment, and snap up strategic industries without even a shrug of the government's shoulders. A trade deal with Trump's America would exacerbate the situation. As we export more than what we import from the US, because their economy is over six times the size of our own, and as we'll be desperate for a deal if May follows through with her wrexit promise, Britain is going to be in a weak negotiating position. And that means two things, because this was what the Americans were pressing for under the aborted TTIP negotiations under Trump's liberal hero predecessor. A diminution of food standards so the Americans can freely sell all kinds of hormone injected meat and dairy without labelling, and opening more of the state up to private capital - including the NHS. A handshake greased with the slick of billions of tax monies heading for the coffers of American insurance companies. All presided over by secret corporate courts in which businesses can sue the government if they take action that threatens profitable returns on investments. Talk about sovereignty. Talking about taking back control.

That isn't to say the special relationship is a fiction, it is real. American culture is global culture, and because of the shared language Britain binges on their cultural produce like no other. But it is not a one-way street. British cultural exports and talent find ready audiences over there as well. The numbers of British actors, directors and producers, and video game developers that participate in the shaping of how America sees itself is surprising. And that's without acknowledging the roots burrowed under the ocean bed that link the two nations to the point where an understanding of the national character of each is impossible without reference to the other. And like all relationships, there's some give and some take. When Obama came to London and said no special favours for the UK post-Brexit, that didn't scare leave-minded voters - it motivated them to say up yours, a bloody sod you then. It firmed up the Brexit camp because, despite the special relationship, the then president was totally uninterested in the give. When May has gone through years of the weekly humiliation of soft soaping, white washing, and spinning for Trump, when her appeasement starts costing Britain friends and trade, and when finally she goes cap in hand to the White House for a trade deal, May will be doing the giving and Trump the taking. And all in full public view. The special relationship is tilting toward appeasement, how long before it becomes supplication?

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Local Council By-Elections January 2017

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Jan 16




* There was one by-election in Scotland
** No by-elections in Wales this month
*** No independent challenges this month, so no clashes
**** Others were Scottish Libertarian (53 votes)

Overall, 6,364 votes were cast over four local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. The Conservatives won one contest, LibDems two, and SNP one. For comparison with December's results, see here.

January is always a rubbish month for by-election anoraks because there are precious few contests. With just four taking place, no inferences can be drawn - with the partial exception of the LibDem bandwagon trundling through town. Eight are confirmed so far for February, so let the good times roll.

I almost forgot, there's a couple of changes to the recording of results. First off, TUSC are now banished to the Other column. If they can't be bothered to stand in elections any more, I can't be bothered to award them a dedicated box. Secondly, I have replaced the month-by-month changes to party vote averages in favour of a comparison with the same month a year ago. Hopefully this will allow folks to appreciate results in the context of the recent past.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Inside Stoke Central's Selection Meeting

Equality House, the base for North Staffordshire's Racial Equality Council is not an easy place to find. Tucked away down Raymond Street on the outskirts of Hanley, it's a road unknown to Stoke taxi drivers and SatNav alike. And yet 129 voting members managed to track it down on a cold Wednesday night for Stoke Central Labour Party's selection meeting, following in the footsteps of 71 people who made the same journey seven years before.

CLP chair Terry Crowe and Regional Director George Sinnott outlined the process for the meeting. Each of the three shortlisted candidates would give a strictly-timed 10 minute statement followed by 20 minutes of questions. To ensure parity and avoid planted questions that may favour one candidate over the others, the members who were called by the chair in the first round would be required to ask them in the second and third. Meanwhile, lots were drawn in the anteroom to determine the running order. It came up Allison Gardner, Trudie McGuinness, and Gareth Snell.

Beginning her pitch, Allison put paid to misunderstandings and rumours that had done the rounds (including one I genuinely got wrong). She voted and supported Jeremy Corbyn in 2015, and stood by him last summer by voting for him again. She also said that while she wasn't from North Staffs, it has given her the time of her life. As a councillor for Chesterton, she knew about the concerns that drive people to support UKIP, and also has a record of uniting people from different backgrounds as she has campaigned to save Bradwell Hospital from closure. In fact, the reason why she wanted to be a MP was to eyeball Jeremy Hunt. As a scientist who teaches on Keele University's foundation programme, Allison is committed to high tech development and a mixed economy that can deliver it. This also meant fighting to protect ceramics to preserve the local economy and identity and working for the best Brexit for the city.

And then came the questions. She was asked about her attitude to academies (generally unhappy and disliked the big academy chains), what she would have done had she been in the PLP last summer (was furious with their behaviour as it missed the moment the Tories were on their knees, and she thought Corbyn is doing okay), about whether she would not go to the Daily Mail to criticise the party and keep misgivings private (yes, she believes in discipline), how she would work with disengaged young people like the thousands of students in the constituency (draw on her experience as a teacher and go where they are via stalls, pint and politics events, and so on), what key economic policy would make Brexit work for Stoke (continued and uninterrupted single market access), how to accomplish the funding of integrating health and social care (more tax on the rich), how she would take on Nuttall (expose his fakery, NHS lies, opposition to workers' rights), how she would work to stop the transfer of HMRC jobs from Stoke (oppose and and offer local services and local offices - technology means there is no need to centralise), views on bus nationalisation (bring into national or cooperative ownership), how she would contribute to party unity (being good and decent, honest and not manipulative), and on the increase in homelessness (this is a concern of mine, the homeless are our people).

Next came Trudie. She began by noting that Stoke is the centre of the universe, which is a claim I live my life by. She was born in the city, is proud of it and will fight for the education, housing and health of our city. She was also outraged that Paul Nuttall thought he could come here and exploit the concerns of locals. He is trying to make Stoke all about Brexit, when it is much more than that. She then switched to her time in Staffordshire Moorlands Labour's parliamentary candidate. Often asked why she was bothering as Labour didn't have a chance of winning, she said it mattered - she's a fighter and campaigner who will always fight for the underdog and our people. Taking this experience, Trudie's campaign would be full throttle against UKIP and she was determined to make Stoke not the capital of Brexit, but the capital of Labour uniting and crushing Nuttall's party. As someone who works in and is passionate about education, she would relish the chance to take him on at a hustings - he isn't someone who inspires intimidation and fear, but a determination to beat him.

Onto the questions, while she was initially open-minded about academies experience suggests they have reduced the quality of education, and no benefit whatsoever has accrued from removing local authority control. On last summer's attempted coup, she believed it came at absolutely the wrong time, but could understand why Labour MPs backed it. Trudie voted Owen Smith because she was concerned there was no progress under Jeremy. But now, the issue is closed and there's an opportunity for Labour to write a new story. On disagreements, she believed there is nothing more depressing and dispiriting than the idea of going to Westminster to pick fights with colleagues - the enemy are the Tories and UKIP. On the young, her experience in education means interacting and engaging with the young is something she's used to doing. She had already spoken to local colleges about sorting out voter registration. On Brexit and economic policy, she believed in protecting the customs union as she was especially concerned about the impact tariffs could have on the city. The integration of health and social care depends on tax, and this is especially true in Stoke where health issues are (historically) work-related and now compounded by poverty. On facing Nuttall it would be taking him to task on his opportunism, on contrasting his desire to break up and privatise the NHS with someone who truly cares. On keeping HMRC jobs, Trudie noted about a third of all Stoke's employment is in the public sector, so she would fight to keep them and draw on her own experience of fighting with union colleagues against cuts. On the buses, she favours nationalisation and reintegration. Disappearing services are causing blockages in our national economies. When she lived in Leek, there were regular routes to Sheffield and Derby but they have gone, and this is a recipe for isolating communities. On party unity, Trudie had built and led teams for years and believes that honesty, dialogue and listening builds trust and unity. And lastly, on rough sleepers she argued that we should never forget the most vulnerable. Without that compassion, Labour is nothing.

Lastly was Gareth. After two excellent pitches, he had a tough act to follow. But he did. He started off by noting that the by-election wasn't something we wanted, but it is one we have to win. He said he'd lived in the Potteries for 13 years where he met his wife, and his daughter was born in UHNS - now Royal Stoke. And like any true North Staffs person, she loves oatcakes. Therefore their past, present and future were rooted here. He also can't bear the idea of Nuttall representing Stoke in parliament. This is a battle of ideals and we can reassert ourselves as the party of working people. Stopping UKIP here will go a long way to stopping them nationally by demonstrating Labour is the vehicle for progressive social change. He noted how he'd fought UKIP on many occasions, the last time being his winning a local council by-election and taking a seat from them in an 80/20 Brexit-voting ward a few weeks after the referendum. That goes to show that Brexit doesn't mean UKIP, therefore we can beat and crush Nuttall.

On the questions, Gareth said academies should come back under local education authority control. Their existence offers no accountability and does not allow for sensible planning of school places in a given locality - it's in the gift of for-profit academy chains. On the coup, it is now incumbent for Labour to get behind Corbyn and unify. Labour is a family and should be united in facing outward with no public commentary of internal matters. Elaborating on the question about fostering party unity, he suggested disagreements are for rooms like the one the local party was meeting in but face outwards to the public. On engaging young people, he recounted his experience with Keele Labour Club which worked at remedying the disenfranchisement of students by talking about what students wanted to talk about. There is an opportunity to work with Staffs University students down the road, and use similar approaches to reach out to other young people. On Brexit and economic policy, safeguarding and protecting local heritage through the back stamping campaign and ensuring free access to the single market is the best way of protecting Stoke. On health and social care, these cuts were offloaded by government onto councils which set them up for government criticism for not coping as they forced cuts on local authority budgets. Funding has to be sustainable, and this can only come from general taxation - this means taxing the rich and cracking down on tax dodging. On facing Nuttall, we should not lump UKIP and the Tories together and make it easier for the latter to vote for the former if they're perceived as a Tory home from home. It also means not talking up Nuttall as a leading politician but as a serial election loser and a carpetbagger. But this was going to be a door-to-door dogfight and we're going to have to work at turning out traditional non-voters too. Lastly, due to time, on the HMRC jobs move we have to shout about the benefits of access to the same services wherever we live. But on dealing with the issue to hand, he would ask the PCS what service he could lend - battles are won by organised workers and not politicians.

And with that, the pitches came to an end. After an unavoidably long voting process, after which about half drifted home (it was late) and the nail biting finish of the final vote tally, Gareth Snell was announced as Stoke Central CLP's choice to contend the by-election.

So just to squash a few claims doing the rounds. First off, Gareth is not a Blairite. Anyone can see from the summary above that opposition to academies, taxing the rich and arguing change is contingent to organised workers acting is hardly congruent with the vapidities of third way "thinking". Nor was it a stitch up. Keith Vaz didn't get on the blower to order constituency members to support a favoured candidate, nor did the union machinery churn out recommendations that especially favoured him. He was endorsed by a prominent local Unison activist, but the regional Unite recommendation was awarded to Trudie, for instance. It's almost as if some people want to believe it was a fix, and are prepared to spin any old bullshit to support their claims. If you want stich-ups, I'll give you stitch-ups.

I've known Gareth for a long time and he will be an excellent candidate and make a great MP. He understands the labour movement, has solid values and politics, and preternatural eye for detail that any obfuscating Tory minister will come to dread. If I was Nuttall, I'd be packing my bags already.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Thoughts on the Stoke Central Shortlist

You've seen the shortlist for Labour's Stoke-on-Trent Central selection meeting tomorrow evening. One of the four people on that list is going to be our candidate and spearhead our effort to drive Paul Nuttall and UKIP out of Stoke-on-Trent once and for all. It's a high stakes election for both parties. Who we choose is extremely important.

Firstly, let me register my displeasure about two things. I had previously argued that if Labour wants to win, the party needs to select someone who either lives in Stoke, is from Stoke, or has very strong links to Stoke. While three of the four certainly qualify, it is very disappointing that the NEC, in its infinite wisdom, could not bring itself to include candidates from the city. There were three such folks on the long list, so what's it going to take? A guaranteed shortlist slot for at least one Stokie in future city Parliamentary selections? People might think this is a parochial point, but when none of Stoke Central's MPs have been Stokies it matters. It blunts our attacks on Parachutist Paul, for one.

Then there is the question of political balance. I would say Trudie McGuinness is on the centre left of the party. Gareth Snell on the soft left, and ditto (as much as I can tell) for Allison Gardner and Stephen Hitchin. However, none of them voted for Jeremy Corbyn during the second leadership contest. That's fine, I have no problem with that. Many of my Labour friends didn't either. But to put a shortlist that doesn't contain a single supporter to a constituency party that voted by 10-to-1 to nominate his leadership campaign is bad politics. Whoever gets the nomination is going to have to overcome the feeling, however unjustified it might be, that they're a political imposition from outside. Just like last time.

That said, I can speak for the strong links two of the candidates have with Stoke-on-Trent. Trudie is from nearby Biddulph, and Stoke is effectively her home town. When she was a kid her weekends were spent cluttering up the streets of Hanley. There may have been occasions years later where that familiarity extended to discotheques and other delights of what we now call the "night time economy" during which she worked at the Leek Road campus of Staffs University. She was Labour's candidate in Staffordshire Moorlands in 2015, and regularly turned out for campaigning sessions in Stoke long before all thought occurred of Tristram's V&A adventure. She worked the two by-elections of the 2011-15 council, for instance and is also Labour candidate for Cannock later this year.

Gareth, unlike Nuttall, has really, actually lived in Shelton in the city. Now a resident of Silverdale where he sits as a councillor who beat UKIP in a Brexit voting ward, along with me he used to work for the present Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds. He knows well the problems and challenges facing the city, and many of them are shared with his home ward. Gareth has also pounded the streets in Stoke many, many times. He did more work for Labour the 2012 and 2013 council by-elections than most officers of the party and city councillors.

Neither Trudie or Gareth hail from the city. One from Biddulph, the other from Suffolk, their birthplaces lie elsewhere. But both were made in Stoke-on-Trent.

It might be that Allison and Stephen have equally strong campaign records and familiarity with the Pearl of North Staffordshire, but I cannot speak to them. That's something for Stoke Central's members to hear about and assess when they make their pitches tomorrow evening.

Speaking of pitches, let's nip a rumour that has been doing the rounds in the bud. These are febrile times where everyone has their own truths and "alternative facts". And so, unsurprisingly, claims are already being made that the shortlist is a stitch up. Obviously, they don't know what real fixing looks like. But this time, there is "evidence". This afternoon, while the interviews were taking place, a volunteer delivered a selection leaflet to six councillors and members of the CLP. Because this was well before the shortlist had been determined, let alone released, and the candidate in question did make the final cut, the roar of conspiracy and stitching has gone up. "How come they had preferential access to the membership list?" goes one line of complaint. "The leaflets prove it was a foregone conclusion" goes another.

Both claims are rubbish. What we have is a case of an overenthusiastic volunteer delivering material to publicly available councillors' addresses and a couple of members whose houses they knew anyway. That is all. Having a batch of leaflets ready for an extremely tight selection battle is preparation, not something sinister. No conspiracy. No nefarious master plot to subvert Stoke Central, again. No lizard people. Members concerned about these claims should take them with a pinch of salt and go tomorrow to the selection meeting knowing everyone on the shortlist has, and will continue to act in good faith.

Stephen Hitchin has withdrawn from the Stoke-on-Trent selection battle citing the need to concentrate on his career and his family.

Stoke-on-Trent Central Labour Shortlist

After interviews that were conducted with a panel from the NEC, the Labour shortlist for Stoke-on-Trent Central is:

Cllr Dr Allison Gardner
Cllr Dr Stephen Hitchin
Trudie McGuinness
Cllr Gareth Snell

A very interesting list to say the least, and surprising too.

Maybe more later.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Stoke-on-Trent Central Labour Long List

Details about the long list for Stoke-on-Trent Central's Labour candidacy started to emerge in dribs and drabs at tea time this evening. The applicants who've made it this far have received an invitation to attend a shortlisting interview with a panel of Labour's National Executive Committee in London tomorrow. In all, the NEC received 41 applications for the vacancy.

Without further ado, the long listed are ...

Cllr Sam Corcoran
Cllr Dr Allison Gardner
Cllr Olwen Hamer
Cllr Dr Stephen Hitchin
Sonia Klein
Trudie McGuinness
Mark Meredith
Cllr Michael Payne
Cllr Gareth Snell
Cllr Mike Stubbs
David Williams

This is an exceptionally strong long list. I know some of these folks very well and am confident they will do an excellent job.

For your information Sam Corcoran is a councillor in nearby Sandbach in Cheshire, Allison Gardner is chair of Newcastle-under-Lyme CLP and a councillor for Chesterton, Olwen Hamer is a councillor on Stoke-on-Trent City Council and has worked for as well been a workplace representative for Unison. Stephen Hitchen is a councillor in Chesterfield, and Sonia Klein stood for Labour in Ilford North in 2010 and worked for Left Foot Forward. Trudie McGuinness is the Labour candidate for Cannock on Staffs County Council and ran as Labour's candidate in Staffordshire Moorlands in 2015. Mark Meredith was the former directly-elected mayor for Stoke-on-Trent between 2005 and 2009, and sat again as a councillor between 2011 and 2015. Michael Payne is Deputy Council Leader on Gedling Borough Council, Gareth Snell is a councillor in Newcastle-under-Lyme and works for Unison. Mike Stubbs also represents Labour in the borough where he sits for Talke, and David Williams stood for Labour in the 2015 local elections in Stoke and works for the YMCA.

This is a very difficult field to whittle down, but I trust the NEC panel will draw up a shortlist of strong candidates for us to select from.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Paul Nuttall in Stoke

A scene replaying itself night after night in drinking establishments across the land. A man, in late middle age, sat alone nursing a pint. He wears a creased suit and a defeated expression, and staring into the drink his mind races with what might have been. This was the London Road Ale House on Friday evening, and the gentleman concerned was Mick Harold, the chair of the local UKIP branch. When Tristram Hunt announced his resignation, Harold must surely have thought he was in with a shout of taking the seat. His party, he came second in 2015 after years of hard work and financial sacrifice. With a low turn out, with Jeremy Corbyn in the leader's office, with a government paralysed by indecision and dithering, and the media hype machine bigging up UKIP, there, right there, was his chance to hit the big time. And it was taken from him without so much as a thank you.

Pausing only to disentangle himself from a parachute, the moment UKIP leader Paul Nuttall appeared at the North Staffs Hotel for Friday night's selection meeting, it was all over for anyone else's ambitions. And to make sure, the NEC were in the back pocket to overrule the branch's decision had it not gone the right way. After all, they couldn't well pulp all the 'Paul Nuttall for Stoke-on-Trent Central' leaflets his goons brought with them ready for Saturday morning leafleting.

Contrary to my useless prediction and warnings about the localist flavour of this by-election, they decided to go for the big name. In as much Nuttall can be regarded as an A-lister. That said, and to be fair to the purples their leader was in a sticky wicket. He won the party leadership on the promise of targeting Labour seats though, historically, like all right-populist and fascist outfits they do best among small business and middle class voters. Their mistake. Nuttall therefore would have looked pathetic and frit to not follow through the logic of his position, despite having no prior association with Stoke. However, the UKIP leader has mined his past for appropriate biographical links. Sandwiched betwixt playing professionally for Tranmere Rovers and being there at Hillsborough lies the claim, revealed on the West Midlands segment of The Sunday Politics, that he lived in Shelton a short time as a student. Yeah, in much the same way I "lived in Liverpool" during Labour Party conference.

Nuttall's first leaflet goes on about what a great MP he would be. Stoke-on-Trent Central can look forward to "representation it has never had in Parliament before". Whatever you might think of Barnet Stross, Robert Cant, Mark Fisher, and Tristram Hunt they did turn up to the Commons and represent the constituency. Nuttall came 736th out of 756 in terms of attendance at the European Parliament in the 2009-14 session. As the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour, I agree with Nuttall that our constituency can look forward to something novel. Still, doing the business on the green benches is only half of what goes on. Every MP is more than one woman or man, they are a small team of researchers and caseworkers. Here, Nuttall's record promises something exceptional too. Tristram, just like his Labour colleagues Ruth Smeeth in Stoke North and Rob Flello in Stoke South have offices in the constituency that deal with the problems their constituents bring them, and produce the work that makes for strong challenges to government policy. Nuttall's office operation is currently getting looked into by the European Parliament. Despite claiming office expenses and three staff to support his sporadic work in Brussels, no trace of his operation can be found beyond a PO Box. Can Stokies therefore look forward to their correspondence getting filed in the waste paper basket a la the luckless folks of the North West?

His leaflet goes on. He promises to prioritise housing for local people (nudge, nudge, wink, wink), understands the pressure of uncontrolled immigration (so out of control that only 96.3% of Stokies were born in the UK) and calls for the abolition of the bedroom tax. Sounds identical to the platform the BNP took to the electorate during the 2011 council elections. It didn't work then, and Labour is going to make sure this opportunist pitch doesn't work now.

If UKIP are so keen to imitate the BNP, I would ask the local branch to cast their minds back to the 2010 general election. They might recall Alby Walker, then leader of the group in the City Council chamber. He and his not-so-merry band of misfits worked hard and expected to snatch the seat from Labour off the back of Gordon Brown's popularity and media hype. Then Simon Darby, the BNP's deputy leader overruled local aspirations and imposed himself as the party's candidate. Walker resigned, coincidentally discovering that his party was racist along the way. He announced his own independent candidacy and came nowhere. Darby fell short by a country mile too, but still. Walker could look at himself in the mirror. He got steamrollered, but dusted himself down and fought back. Despite dwelling in the fascist gutter for the sake of a modest councillor's allowance, he salvaged some self-respect from the whole affair. I therefore urge that lonely man in the Ale House to think seriously. His dreams are shattered. He'll only ever visit Westminster on a Parliamentary tour. But he doesn't have to be one of the little people, he doesn't have to take a shafting from an uncaring career politician. He can win back his sense of agency with a display of the bulldog spirit. How about it then, Mick? You can't win, but the next pint doesn't have to taste so bitter.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

The Disgrace of Andrew Dobson

On my way into town this morning, I received a text message. "Have you seen today's Sentinel!" The exclamation mark indicated urgency. What could it be? Had Paul Nuttall finally declared for Stoke Central? Had egregious backroom shenanigans made the paper? Has another local MP announced their resignation? It was something much more shocking. When I got to see a copy, the headline read: "University professor's online sex chats with underage girls". That doesn't properly convey the seriousness of the crime: said man was found in possession of some of the most disgusting and abusive imagery as well. What made it shattering was who the conviction was handed down to: Professor Andy Dobson, formerly of Keele University.

For those not familiar with his work, Dobson was, and I suppose still is, the world's leading green political theorist. His main contributions were around the notion of ecological citizenship, that large numbers of people were entering into politics with ecological and environmental concerns in mind, and this conditioned their activity, their modes of organisation and issues of interest, and the construction of their identity. Ecological citizenship had also become diffuse. As the state took on the language and practice of bureaucratically mandated equality, it too encourages moments of ecological citizenship. Engaging in recycling, saving energy, pedalling about or using public transport are green virtues that have integrated themselves into mainstream notions of good citizenship. Dobson wasn't content with allowing the state to become the repository of environmental virtue; the crisis of climate change could not be averted just by leaving out the recycling bin. It required active agency by citizens to change their behaviour and push for green policies. He was therefore an advocate of critical citizenship education in schools. This went beyond conventional understandings restricting citizenship to the sanctioned political process (i.e. the responsibility of voting and perhaps joining a political party). As the environmental crisis pays no attention to constitutional niceties, he argued that citizenship classes must teach students how to organise non-conventionally. In other words, alongside learning about politics and parties, they must cover the nuts and bolts of running a campaign, how to mobilise participants for demonstrations, lobby politicians, organise civil disobedience and so on. Latterly, Dobson was also exploring the the place of listening in political theory. With the decline of dialogue and the reduction of political debate to name calling, outright lying and affected ignorance, a major study in this area could have been as timely as potentially useful.

When I was doing my PhD, I saw and spoke to Dobson almost everyday. He was a popular member of staff and was very well liked by the students. Considering his superstar status, there was none of that arrogant nonsense surrounding his person. And as far as I knew, he had a teaching load no different to his less celebrated colleagues. Dobson is partly responsible for my doctorate, he was the internal examiner of my thesis. And everyone knew "Andy" to be an extremely busy man. When he wasn't discharging academic duties, Dobson gave the local Green Party a lot of time and personally oversaw many of its campaigns in North Staffordshire. He went so far as to write the party's 2010 General Election Manifesto. Always busy, always up to his neck in one project or another. I can remember more than one occasion where postgrad students and lecturers wondered where he got the time from to do all this stuff.

And then, suddenly, it all stopped. I was talking to someone a couple of summers ago, and they told me about Dobson's disappearance. One day he was there, the next he was gone. There was no explanation. His website was wiped of all material, he answered no text messages or emails. The University basically scrubbed him, though no one apart from senior management knew whether he was remained employed or not. The assumption I and many others made was the volume of work had got the better of him and he'd undergone a crisis or mental collapse of some sort. The disappearance and extreme withdrawal from his career and friends a means of trying to find balance. And this was very much the view of one of his friends I saw just before Christmas. Now we know it was because he'd been arrested on sex abuse imagery and internet grooming charges.

I have absolutely no sympathy for Dobson. I feel for his young family, for his friends and colleagues he disgracefully let down. And most of all, the young girls he groomed online. I hope Dobson's predatory behaviour will not leave them with psychological scars and lasting harms. Unfortunately, his sentence - 10 months suspended and 10 years on the Sex Offenders Register - does not reflect the seriousness of the offences he admitted to. His reputation is in tatters, most of his friends and acquaintances will now forever shun him, but he should be thanking his lucky stars. If he hadn't got a brilliant career and wasn't a pillar of the local establishment, if he was a postman from Cross Heath or supermarket worker from Shelton, how likely is it the judge would have proven so forgiving and lenient?

What this means for the future trajectory of his work is unclear. Academia tends not to be like the world of pop, whereby the works of sex offender rockstars are placed on the list of proscribed tracks. When Louis Althusser murdered Hélène Rytmann, his wife, apparently in his sleep, he was remanded to psychiatric custody. There was a tidal wave of shock, but all throughout the early part of the 1980s Althusser's ideas were taken seriously, discussed, critiqued and eventually abandoned as intellectual fashions moved on. What will be the reception to Dobson? Will his ideas and the emerging research programme survive his disgrace? One thing is sure, he himself is done. There is some assistance available to people who have unacceptable desires, as explored a couple of years ago by Channel Four, but Dobson chose not to avail himself of this. Instead he secretly, craftily made the decision to abuse young girls online, and compound that suffered by others by acquiring abusive imagery. We'll never know why he risked everything for a cheap criminal thrill, but he is entirely responsible for his choice.