Friday, 31 August 2018

Local Council By-Elections August 2018

This month saw 20,964 votes cast over 14 local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Four council seats changed hands in total. For comparison with July's results, see here.

Party
Number of Candidates
Total Vote
%
+/- 
July
+/- Aug 17
Average/
Contest
+/-
Seats
Conservative
           14
 6,931
    33.1%
  -3.1%
      -5.4%
    495
    -1
Labour
           13
 6,203
    30.0%
  -1.6%
    -10.9%
    477
    -1
LibDem
           11
 5,145
    25.0%
+10.0%
    +11.9%
    468
   +1
UKIP
            3
    298
     1.4%
 +0.0%
      -1.6%
     99
     0
Green
            5
    427
     2.0%
  -0.6%
      -0.9%
     85
     0
SNP
            0
   
   
 
     0
PC**
            1
    73
     0.3%
 -2.0%
     +0.3%
     73
     0
Ind***
            7
 1,887
     9.0%
 +2.0%
     +7.1%
    270
   +1
Other****
            0
 
    
     
   
     0

* There were no by-elections in Scotland
** There was one by-election in Wales
*** There was one independent clash this month
**** No Others stood this month

August is often a boring month for by-elections. People jet off, have the kids during the school holidays and on the whole even less bothered about turning up for a local election. And the August of 2018 was no break from the norm. The overall vote of the main parties is a bit depressed while the Liberal Democrats hit the heights - in percentage terms - not seen for a very long time. If only local elections were real life, eh fellas?

And so Conservatives and Labour are down one councillor apiece, and the LibDems and Indies are up one. Amazing. Further down the division there's no sign of the UKIP revival, but if it's real it will take a couple more months to filter through in terms of more seats being contested. Apart from that, there's not much else to say. Hopefully September will prove to be a more interesting time in which yours truly can blush with pride as I write about a clutch of Labour gains.


2nd August
Fylde BC, Ansdell Con hold
Kings Lynn and West Norfolk BC, Snettisham Con hold
Peterborough UA, Orton Longueville Con hold

9th August
Cornwall UA, Newquay Treviglas Con gain from LDem

16th August
Bury MB, East Lab hold
Neath Port Talbot UA, Gwynfi Ind gain from Lab
North Yorkshire CC, Knaresborough LDem gain from Con

23rd August
Cornwall UA, Bude LDem hold
East Hertfordsahire DC, Watton-at-Stone LDem gain from Con
Knowsley MB, Halewood South Lab hold
North Warwickshire BC, Newton Regis & Warton Con hold
Rushcliffe BC, Gotham Con hold
Wirral MB, Bromborough Lab hold

30th August
Sevenoaks DC, Farningham, Horton Kirby & South Darenth Con hold

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Frank Field: An Anti-Eulogy

An ignominious end to an ignominious career. Like many Labour Party members, when I heard the news it was less a question of why and more one of "why did it take him so long?". And now we know. He was looking for an excuse, a "principled" reason for his departure that has absolutely nothing at all to do with the challenges to his erratic behaviour by his constituency party, culminating in the near-unanimous no confidence vote in him by the good party members of Birkenhead. Voting to save Theresa May's skin was too much even for these long-suffering comrades.

Often, Jeremy Corbyn supporters liken their opponents, particularly right wing Labour MPs, to Tories. But in Field's case the characterisation suits him more than most. Field is from the same sort of background as me, and one that too many labour movement people have a hard time getting their heads around: the Tory-voting working class. According to the potted biographies you can find knocking about online, Field was a Tory party member when he was a youngster. To his credit, and unlike the Prime Minister, Field was shown the door because he opposed apartheid in South Africa. Joining Labour he then subsequently embarked on a career in local government and in campaigns around poverty and low pay until entering the big house in 1979. This is work he continued once in Parliament, and folks who've served their time will recall that he was Blair's first social security minister charged with "thinking the unthinkable". Alas the dog's breakfast he served up proved too unpalatable even for Saint Tony.

The political problem with Field is he never outgrew the patricianism that is the true mark of the Tory. Readers may recall his voluntary stint as "poverty tsar" for Dave's Coalition government. During his time chumming up with the Tories (and scabbing on the party), he advocated stripping young men of all social security support if they "refused" jobs, believing it would "build character". This is no different to the Thatcherite critique of social security, which argued that a basic floor provided by welfare removes incentives to work and is responsible for locking people into cycles of poverty. In this topsy turvy world, it's not low pay and unemployment that causes poverty, but the relief for low pay and unemployment! Somewhat patronisingly, he felt one way of overcoming alienation among white working class people was the promotion of citizenship ceremonies. Problem families should be housed in metal containers. A proponent of national service, a stirrer of anti-immigration sentiment, and a true apostle of Westminster arrogance. Not the most awful Parliamentary record then, but one any Labour politician worth their salt should be ashamed of.

And yet Field, like the equally gruesome John Mann, are representative of a particular layer of the working class. A declining section to be sure, considering the recomposition of class politics, but one that has and always has had input into the Labour Party. To refer to it as socially conservative is to miss the mark: socially authoritarian is perhaps a more accurate description. That is a certain cut and dried morality growing out of the experience of being working class. One in which if I have to work, so should everyone else, if we have to put ourselves out woe betide those who laze about in bed. If someone's misbehaving or out of line, a clip round the ear 'ole will do. If someone falls foul of the law, more often than not they brought it upon themselves. This is a morality that prefers short, sharp, and possibly violent solutions to complex problems, and one that is often thin on sympathy because everyone has a bad lot. It's this authoritarianism, a negative working class politics glorying in all that is depressing and dehumanising about life as a wage earner that stains Field's politics. It is to Field's disgrace that he never once tried to break with this miserable outlook but sought to reinforce it whenever he got the chance by pretending its spurious authenticity.

While Field is no loss to the Labour Party, his resignation underlines one thing: how weak the Labour right have become. Rather than stand and fight, the flounce is the hot new move among Parliamentary elites. Jamie Reed, self-styled "Red Leader" of the "Rebel Alliance" packed himself off for a PR gig at Sellafield. Tristram Hunt went to the V&A. The 2017 general election saw unlamented no marks like Michael Dugher and Tom Blenkinsop vanish, and John Woodcock, and now Frank Field have thrown in the towel. Apparently Mike Gapes is thinking about resigning in exactly the same manner as too. None of them have the stomach for political struggle because they haven't a clue. Faced with masses of new members with their own ideas and expecting MPs to account for their activities, they do not know how to manage, let alone win them over politically. Hence the bleating about anti-semitism, about "bullying", and the rest. There is no project uniting them, despite the overhyped centrist party silliness, and so just like the party members wedded to this obsolete and anti-working class politics dribble away, so do the MPs broadly representative of this trend.

Adios then to Frank Field. May we never see his like and those that would follow him ever again.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Lexit Re-Loaded with Costas Lapavitsas

This discussion on Novara Media's TyskySour is well worth a listen regardless of your position on Brexit.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

A Song and Dance about Brexit

Sometimes, you've got to marvel at Theresa May. As she visits South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya to drum up post-Brexit trade agreements (and signing an agreement to preserve existing EU trade arrangements should the UK crash and burn without a deal), she can't help looking the fool. No, not the impromptu awful dancing, which nevertheless impressed some, nor her super awkward interview with Michael Crick. It's the dogged persistence, her insistence in the face of stark reality that Britain is on course to get a good Brexit deal.

Let's enjoy a brief precis of what's happened these last couple of months. We had the all-singing, all-dancing Chequers deal. Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, by trying to please everyone she pleased nobody. Brexiteers were spitting feathers, it gave Boris Johnson the excuse he needed to jump ship, and remainers were far from impressed. Meanwhile, despite sending the cabinet to trot around Europe to plead special treatment, her plan didn't survive contact with the enemy. Sorry, our European partners. Not that taxpayers' cash and jet fuel had to be expended to find this out. Brussels has been pretty upfront about why May's plan wouldn't fly, not least because it threatens the integrity of the EU itself. As the Daily Express fulminates, how dare Johnny Foreigner put their interests before a deal with the UK. Don't they know we invented trade?

Things are far from happy in the cabinet either. Thanks to Labour's summer of scabbing, media attention has been diverted elsewhere. Were it not for this, perhaps more holiday hay would have been had with Philip Hammond's warnings that no deal means trade takes a hit (like, duh) and public borrowing could shoot up by some £80bn. I have little time for Hammond and his works, but even the Tories have to deal with the truth occasionally. Unfortunately, Theresa May is not interested in acknowledging the real state of play. At least publicly. Trapped in the strong and stable silliness of her own making, and haunted by the lady who was not for turning, May must pretend control over her fractious cabinet and act as if Chequers is a going concern, even though it's last night's chip wrappers. And so rather than demonstrate flexibility, she is pantomiming the whole my way or the highway routine. Which is why we have her approvingly quoting the head of the WTO, who said the talks "won't be a walk in the park, but won't be end of the world either". That might go down well with right wing editors, but they're not the ones in line to pay the costs of Brexit.

And so, here we are. Two months away from the final round of crunch Brexit talks, seven from the UK's departure from the EU, and there is no sense of progress, no sense May - who is now heading up the negotiations - has a clue about what's she's doing. Hold on to your hats. There's no point making like the PM and dancing around the point. Tory idiocy and complacency is making sure it's going to get worse, and all without the hope of it getting better.

Monday, 27 August 2018

Come to Derby Transformed

All the best politics events are in London, aren't they? WRONG. Well known activists, journalists, and trade unionists have been brought together by Chris Williamson's office for a day of discussion and debate in Derby city centre. Derby Transformed is taking place Saturday 1st September at St Peter's Church. The event is free but ticketed. Solidarity prices, of course, apply. You can book yourselves in here and see the day's programme here (you'll need to be logged into Facebook to see it).

There are sessions on trade union history, men and #metoo, media bias, challenges for the Midlands, Corbynomics, Corbynism and conspiracy, why Jeremy Corbyn is a marmite politician, how to combat the rising tide of racism, drugs, local government, and transforming Derby and beyond. There is plenty of time for discussion and no doubt a few will veer off piste, as it were.

Guests include Paul Mason | Grace Blakely | Ash Sarkar | Alex Nunns | Liam Young | Maya Goodfellow | Richard Seymour | Cheryl Pidgeon | Chris Williamson | Margaret Beckett | Lisa Eldret | Emily Owen | Cecile Wright | Simon Hannah | Phil Burton-Cartledge | Nikki Dancey | Sarah Russell | Wendy Liu | Tom Mills | Mathew Brown | Nahella Ashraf | Lauren Mitchell | Steve Battlemuch | Anne Western | Greg Marshall | Ann Pettifor | Vox Feminarum + many more, including workshops led by local activists!

After a hard day's debate, comrades are invited to the Maypole in the evening for a pub quiz hosted by the good folks of Novara Media.

Do come along. And if you see me, say hello!

Sunday, 26 August 2018

How the LibDems Can Rise Again

Is he going to? Isn't he going to? In true Liberal Democrat style, when it comes to the fate of his leadership Vince Cable is clinging to that fence. According to reports Uncle Vince wants to push radical reforms through his party before his departure date comes around. And what, pray tell are these? There's opening up party leadership to non-Parliamentarians, which might be seen as a brave attempt to break out of the bounded universe of Westminster. Or the belated realisation the LibDems haven't got many MPs, their total could easily fall at the next electoral outing and this could potentially include their leader. And there's the copying of Labour's supporter status who too would be allowed to vote in leadership elections. Whether there's anything they can say to inspire a wider electorate is another matter.

If you're getting de ja vu, it's because both of these were trailed earlier in the summer. Unfortunately for the LibDems, we've had another silly season of scabbing in the Labour Party and when the press took a breather, they decided to quickly visit the Tories' racism problem before resuming normal service and renewing the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn. The yellow party were lost in the noise. And this points to a wider problem. With just 12 MPs, and a fall in their vote in absolute terms in 2017 (despite a net gain of four MPs), the party is just not relevant. Even the £77k/year talkers of a good split in the Labour Party don't factor in the LibDems as part of their calculations, and neither do the establishment commentators providing their efforts with publicity.

Yet, theoretically, this should be a good time for the LibDems, no? We're told by Blair and sundry punditry that the centre ground is huge and has been vacated by Tories and Labour. If this was so, then why aren't we seeing the existing centrist party delivering the goods? Its membership is at an all-time peak, it is the only main party to have set its face against Brexit, and the LibDems were politically hegemonic at the recent Remain demo in London. The LibDems' problem is more or less identical to its brethren in Labour, and those contemplating a similar move in the Tories: there isn't much of a constituency for their wares.

The political story of the post-war period was one of weak polarisation. By that I mean, for the most part, there was a great deal of consensus between the two main parties on the fundamentals but politics manifested itself in large votes for the those parties. Partly because of the farce of First Past the Post, but also it more or less corresponded to Britain's class make up. This came under sustained challenge from the 1980s onwards where the two-party duopoly faced, in order, the SDP/Liberal Alliance, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the SNP. The combined Tory/Labour vote share unevenly declined between 1979 and 2015, before politics repolarised in 2017, but this time around qualitatively different programmes. Yet this wasn't inevitable. For large numbers of people throughout the 90s and 00s, that nice Mr Tony Blair put off progressive-minded voters aplenty with his wars and his market monomania. Allied to their pavement politics approach, which saw them effectively having the doorsteps to themselves as many a Tory association and CLP more or less give up door knocking, and not without some skill the LibDems were able to cultivate a sizeable, socially progressive constituency. The late Charles Kennedy was a friendly, welcoming sort and seemed comfortable with the shallow left liberalism his party was then articulating. Nick Clegg never was equally at ease with the positioning, but at the time he took over conventional centrist wisdom was that young(ish), smooth-talking besuited personnel managers were the passport to electoral success.

What happened next is an important lesson for all political parties. Having assembled a left-centre electoral coalition that could be relied on to return 50-odd seats at an election, Clegg threw it all away. Getting into bed with the Tories was bad enough, especially when the price for a ministry or two was a doubling down on the sorts of policies millions of LibDem voters were opposed to. But to then publicly junk the pivot of the previous election campaign - the much famed pledge to scrap tuition fees - in favour of tripling them was mindbogglingly stupid. At a stroke, their reputation as the party of students was on the scrapheap, the polling tanked, and their betrayal has left an indelible stain on their political character. They, justifiably, collapsed and the toxicity hasn't gone away. Who knows how long the half life will be, but the radioactivity is far from dissipated. The rehabilitation under Tim Farron went totally off beam when he became mired in controversy around same sex relationships, stalling their come back, and with Vince in charge the party has become the political equivalent of tumbleweed rolling through a one horse town. Toxicity plus uninspiring leadership isn't the stuff of a LibDem comeback, and so instead they cling to Remain and the alphabet soup of pro-EU hashtags in the hope better times will come.

A pathetic spectacle to be sure. Nevertheless, there is a way forward for them, but it all depends on the choices they make. They could join in the scurrilous attacks on the Labour Party and, if their record is anything to go by, they probably will. The problem is concentrating fire on Labour prevents them from capitalising on where they are enjoying some electoral success, and that is at the Tories' expense. The Conservatives are consistently bleeding a trickle of council seats to the LibDems, certainly more so than Labour. There certainly is a layer of their vote receptive to what the party has to say, and this in itself is nothing new. If we go back to the halcyon days of Paddy Ashdown, it was by primarily going after the Tories that they consolidated a strong base that later allowed them to thrive in the New Labour years. It seems to me their answer is to go after the centre-leaning socially liberal Tory voters who are squeamish about Corbyn in a repetition of the de facto anti-Tory alliance of the 1990s. It's a long game to be sure, but what's the alternative? Shilly-shallying with has beens and never-weres from the two main parties in the hope they'll break the mould? Please.

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Labour Democracy Roadshow in Stoke

On Thursday night, the Chris Williamson Democracy Roadshow rolled into sunny Stoke-on-Trent and pitched up at the Florence Sports and Social Club. Of course, yours truly couldn't pass the opportunity up and went along to hear what Chris had to say. Also speaking was Chris Spence, the secretary of Newcastle under Lyme CLP, and Heather Mendick from Hackney South.

Kicking off proceedings we heard first from Mark McDonald. Labour's PPC for Stoke South. As the topic of the meeting was democracy in the Labour Party, he led off with an anecdote of his own. Recalling running for a senior lay party position, he was called to a meeting by his opponent. Sitting at opposite ends of a boardroom table at his union's head office, Mark was asked directly what he thought he was doing and why. It was as if, as an ordinary member, he had no right to stand for election. He was also bluntly told he was going to lose even though a single ballot had not yet been cast. Mark's opponent said there are members and unions voting in this contest, and he'd spoken to all the other affiliated general secretaries. They had all agreed they weren't going to vote, leaving just him to cast his union's bloc vote to vote for himself and thereby guaranteeing him the position.

In the past, we've talked about dodgy practices, but what to do about them? This was the theme of Chris Williamson's talk. He argued that far from stoking tensions and damaging the party, as per Barry Sheerman, democracy holds leaders to account. If there was proper democracy in Labour we would not have seen the Iraq War nor the kinds of policies that allowed Tony Blair to boast that Britain had the most restrictive labour laws in Western Europe. These mistakes wouldn't have happened if Labour MPs had to pay attention to Labour members. What party democracy offers then is a way for the party to reflect the thinking and the interests of the electorate because, despite what MPs might tell themselves, members are better informed and closer to the people Labour has to win over than our esteemed politicians. Chris also - rightly - argued that not once did Jeremy Corbyn vote against the party as a backbencher. Rather he voted with the party against the direction New Labour imposed on the party. What we have now then is a fruit of the democratisation that has already happened - Labour's common sense socialism reflects where the public are politically, on the economy, on housing, on austerity, on the utilities, and so on, and is why we did so unexpectedly well in 2017.

On what a democratised party should look like, Chris took aim at the National Policy Forum which he branded "not fit". This was brought in by Blair as a sop to member-led policy formation, leaving conference to be "hero worshipping nonsense" with its cosy chats and Good Morning Britain sofas. Not only should policy making be returned to conference, there is real potential for digital democracy and we need to think about how to utilise it. Chris also spoke in favour of directly-elected Labour Group leaders to ensure councils are closer to the public, and of course when it comes to mandatory reselection members are perfectly entitled to determine who should be their local party's candidate. After all, even the secretary of Jeremy Corbyn's allotment association has to submit to periodic re-election. But democratising accountability of Labour MPs helps ensure the party selects people who are resilient and are not going to oppose the transformative programme the party is elected on. Labour, after all, is not just about getting elected, we're trying to change the course of history, and finishing with a flourish, Chris said "... and you are the history makers, comrades!".

It was then the other Chris's turn to speak. He too spoke about his experience with party democracy as someone who was interested in and now sits on the party's regional board in the West Midlands. He started with his first 12 months in the party and found it strange how no one explained to him how things worked. New members were either expected to 'just know' or be left in the dark. And so it was when he got wind of the regional board's existence. He asked around and various party worthies said it wasn't worth bothering with, it was just an administrative body, etc. This evasiveness made him check further and found it was, potentially, a way of holding representatives and party officials to account. However, in the WestMids there were no elections, its membership was picked by the regional office and was supposedly open only to Labour Group leaders. Small wonder then that there is a Birmingham CLP that has been in special measures for 26 years and serious allegations of corruption are doing the rounds. Without any kind of accountability, this sort of thing is bound to happen sooner or later. Chris also talked about his struggle to get hold of the rules for the regional board (which are separate from and don't get a mention in the Party rule book), and that reading them - just like the party rules - are vague, contradictory and deliberately open to interpretation. Part and parcel of the Democracy Review is the need to put these rules on a proper footing.

In her contribution, Heather said she had been out of the party for 16 years before returning when Jeremy stood for the leadership. The first thing she did was get involved in a Corbyn phone bank, and she found it a transformative experience. It was welcoming, friendly, convivial, bottom-up and it a place where activists learned from each other. She contrasted this with her first CLP meeting, which she described as negative and exclusive. Initially then Heather preferred working through Hackney Momentum simply because it was much more inclusive, but through that comrades found confidence and solidarity to stick out the meetings. By attending and organising, the left won all the executive positions at the June 2017 AGM. Heather said being secretary is an unrewarding task, but she has strived to knock the unwelcome edges off the meetings. The constituency regularly uses PowerPoints to explain what's going on, as well as videos and tries keeping foreboding jargon to a minimum. She also noted that the one thing a right winger hates the most is a leftie who knows the rule book. In sum, while leftwingers in position and on executives are important we need a movement - a Labour MP can only ever be as good as the people behind them.

In the questions, we had queries about the period of special measures, the absence of women from meetings (including this one) and how this is as much a democracy as it is a gender issue, the networks of nepotism and protectionism near the top of the party that tie together elite cliques, the indifference/hostility toward new members, how CLPs should be the pinnacle of party democracy, how regional officials were there to look after the MPs and were largely uninterested in councillors, let alone ordinary party members, and how we engage new members. Some of these involved relatively small things (an annual physical letter to members, an effort to speak to new members at meetings), to what's being done at higher levels. Chris Williamson, for example, noted a special counsel had been brought in by the party to look at the rules.

Summing up, Chris said the party's ongoing Democracy Review shouldn't be seen as a one-off but rather the beginning of a process, a first step. Again, finishing with a nice line, he said a "new world isn't just possible, it is in touching distance." Indeed it is. While there was nothing at all controversial said by Chris, Chris and Heather, a few years ago such a criticism of how the party is organised wouldn't be heard at any but the rarest of left wing CLPs, and certainly not in the WestMids region. To feel the rumblings of democracy throughout the party, to have people running scared of a bit more democracy here, a bit more accountability there is a very useful pointer to those on board with the wider project, and those who are not. Of course, more democracy doesn't mean the end of Labour's broad church - but it does number the days of privilege and unaccountable power. No wonder the old guard are running scared.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

The Power by Naomi Alderman

22 years ago, Thursday mornings almost always meant a hangover. And yet, somehow, I was able to drag my minging carcass to the class room for a two-hour session on Comparative Social Transformations. Don't let the dry title fool you as our lecturer, Alan Sillitoe (no, not the Alan Sillitoe) took us through a bit of classical sociology, the collapse of the post-war consensus, the debates around East-West convergence and Japanisation, post-industrialism, postmodernism (mind blown - at the time), and gender relations. Regarding the latter, I remember something of a debate in which all sections of the class, well, those of us who actually used to speak in tutorials, coming to a rare moment of consensus vs our learned instructor. Discussing the emergence of the sexual division of labour in prehistory and then the subordination of women to men, he asked why and how we thought this had happened. Remembering our Engels and our Firestone, in our incoherent, semi-inebriated fashion various theories about the emergence of private property were offered, but the chief means of effecting this, of how women were made the first oppressed class on which all other class structures were subsequently erected, was strength: the brute fact that men tend to be larger, stronger, and more physically imposing than women. This was how women were reduced to property and chattel, and were kept there. Over time elaborate social codes and customs justified and naturalised these relations of power, but ultimately, in the last instance, male physicality and the threat of violence polices and enforces gendered inequality. The prevalence of domestic violence by men against women, as well as other incidences of sexual and physical violence, controlling behaviour, emotional manipulation and gaslighting, the pimping and trafficking of women, the mutilation of women and girls, and the threats of male violence remain absolutely central here, in the 21st century, to the second class status of women.

What if patriarchal relationships disappeared overnight? Or, instead of the gradual change we have seen over the last century, what happens if men's "advantage" of possessing greater physical strength vanishes and passes to women? This is the premise of Naomi Alderman's The Power in which young women spontaneously develop the eponymous power, an ability to generate electricity to the point of discharging bolts from their hands. This is thanks to the evolutionary development of a web of muscle - the skein - that grows at puberty between the collar bones in the upper chest. It is a power latent in nearly all women - older women can be "activated" by younger women - and is also something men, apart from an infinitesimal minority, do not have. What would be the consequences of such a sudden and decisive upsetting of the social-physical order of men's and women's bodies? Spoilers: nothing good.

Occasioning the change, we follow the action through three key viewpoint characters. There are a couple of others, but these three are the most decisive. We have Allie, a runaway who killed her abuser when her power manifested, Roxy - the daughter of Cockney crime family, and Tunde, a Nigerian kid whose early videos of the emergent phenomenon go viral and out of which he's able to build a media career. Allie washes up at a convent where she secretly starts developing her powers and eventually takes it over, Styling herself as Mother Eve and egged on by her ever-present internal voice, she starts preaching that the power is a sign from God and one in which She is now emphasising the female side of her character. And so she becomes the locus of a new female-centered matriarchal religion. Meanwhile, Roxy uses her power to kill a rival crime boss who murdered her mum before hooking up with Allie and forming an alliance of mutual convenience. Roxy's firm has a sideline in drug synthesising and smuggling, and it's not before long they're producing their own gak that strengthens the power of its users. But for me, Tunde is the most interesting character because it's through him we most clearly see the change in the new gender order. He starts off as the usual cocky, know-it-all boy and before long he's a grizzled globe-trotter, reporting on the world's most testy flashpoints. He gets caught up in demonstrations of newly empowered women, and in terror attacks by militant men's groups. But then, while covering a confrontation between women and the authorities in India, he barely escapes rape at the hands of a woman. And from then on, his ride through the novel gets progressively rougher.

At the beginning, abusers and all those who profit from violence against women get their just desserts. We're on the streets with Saudi women as this most disgusting of patriarchies is humbled and overthrown. East European women, repeatedly raped while being "softened up" for trafficking to the West, acquire their power and are easily able to dispose of their guards. Summary justice and vengeance, unfortunately, gives way to a darker turn. We closely follow this in Bessapara, a new country founded by women in Moldova that quickly gets bogged down in a drawn out war with its north, where remnants of the House of Saud are hiding. Initially Bessapara was founded to explore new ways of living, and so to have the cutting edge of the new face down the reactionary, patriarchal violence of the old was a nice touch. However, the dream quickly descends into a nightmare. After a series of military reversals, which Bessapara's president blames on traitorous men, a number of "emergency measures" come in. These include an internal passport system in which men have to carry papers signed by a nominated woman guardian, the banning of men from driving, from most jobs, and so on. In other words, a mirror image of its Saudi nemesis in which the poles of oppression are reversed. Tunde is on the scene and we tour a countryside in which men are scared of helping him out, of encountering the tortured and sexually abused bodies of young men, of male sacrifice, and later an attack on a refugee camp. If you don't think a rape scene of a man by a woman can't be brutal and disturbing, Alderman will disabuse you of that notion.

One interesting touch as you make your way through the book are sketches of items from archaeological digs. At first they seem relatively innocuous. Some images of a holy mother, a glove with wires designed to project the power, a device for training young girls in its use. All are suggestive of perhaps the power manifesting itself previously and pre-industrial peoples making use of its rare manifestation. And then we come to figurines of a male sex worker and a rock painting of male genital mutilation - a procedure in which the power is used to render a man impotent and only capable of (painful) arousal through the power's application. Accompanying each is a historical commentary and it quickly becomes apparent that the occasion of the power sees the destruction of human civilisation and that our events are being narrated from the perspective of 5,000 years in the future. Our violent history of patriarchy has been supplanted by a different, but equally violent unfolding of matriarchy.

As a thought experiment, The Power is fascinating and compelling. The narrative is pacey and keeps the pages turning, and it's all set of literary immortality. The TV boxed set, I understand, is in the works. It is a novel that is very now as the basis of patriarchy is diminishing, and we're seeing the growth and spread of toxic masculinities as a result. It takes hold of the anxieties and neuroses of frightened, anxious patriarchy and ups the voltage. One way The Power can be read is as an exaggeration and lampooning of these fears. Alternatively, and more persuasively in my view, it does draw attention to the mundane, physical means by which patriarchal violence (whether actual or potential) is exerted. Tunde and his transformation from a confident, naive kid to a young man who actively avoids eye contact with women in the street is brilliantly realised. Here Alderman confronts the reader, particularly her male readers, with the threat many women have and do experience on a daily basis but is largely invisible to them. And I would also suggest The Power is a meditation on 'the event'. Western culture generally, not just left wing politics, believes in the redemptive power of a key moment - the Godly apocalypse, the revolution, the singularity. Organising your belief system around an event can lead to the postponement of contemporary problems until after it has taken place. For instance, it wasn't a long time ago when revolutionary politics, when it did address matters of gender, race and sexuality, tended not to take them seriously and relegated them to the never-never after the glorious day had come and gone. Social change, including progressive social change, is more complex and piecemeal than a moment in which the slate is wiped clean and there is a before and an after. In The Power the sudden imposition of the radical event does not so much change gendered relations but preserves them through reversal, and leads to a doubling down of the same old crap. Alderman's novel is therefore a critique of the event, of the notion that something is going to come along from the outside and wave its little wand to make everything better. The power of The Power is the challenge it issues: that it doesn't have to be like this, and we have it in ourselves to change it.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Sunday, 19 August 2018

On the "Magic Grandpa"

I see John Rentoul has peered into the crystal ball and has predicted that a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party would not do as well in the next election compared to 2017. Does he have a point or will his forecasts, just like those for last year's general election, prove as useless as Mystic Meg's? Let's examine his reasoning.

There are three strings to John's bow. In reverse order, the Tories will not be led by Theresa May, the press are going to subject Labour's manifesto to greater scrutiny, but most importantly - and the main angle of the piece - Corbyn isn't the "magic grandpa" we thought him to be. John concedes that Labour ran a brilliant campaign and what the Blairites thought was an albatross (i.e. Corbyn) turned out to be a secret weapon. His affable, friendly, no-frills style encouraged voters to take another look and that's what they saw. The terrorist-loving ogre of Tory propaganda fame was nowhere to be seen. He was refreshing. However, the surprise factor won't be there next time. Jeremy Corbyn's presence is familiar, he's not the great unknown. And most damaging, at least according to John, is that Corbyn has become tetchy. The Labour leader is no longer endearing. More roll eye interviews, more visible shows of annoyance and his personality will sink Labour's campaign before it has started.

Now, looking ahead to the next election is interesting. Things will be different and worth considering in more depth in due course. But please. Is John's take what passes for cutting analysis in bourgeois politics? Evgeny Lebedev actually pays for these banalities? I mean, even if you think about it in the ridiculous terms John sets himself his argument falls apart. If Corbyn is more sour puss than Bagpuss, that's not going to change the minds of those who aren't going to vote Labour. And for those who are it's more evidence of the appalling treatment he gets from the media. This is something even floating voters of the self-defined centre have woken up to, at least if the theatrics of the Follow Back Pro Europe folks on Twitter are anything to go by. In short, people outside the hallowed halls of Westminster aren't thick and they are media savvy, and are increasingly so as older people pass on and younger, heavily mediatised folks enter the electoral fray. Indeed, you might say they have more of a clue than those who use the papers and the TV studios to push their politics. Including well remunerated, professional commentators.

Many things will impact on the result of the next election, but Corbyn getting short with a reporter for asking another stupid question won't be one of them.