Wednesday, 20 March 2019

An Authoritarian Without Authority

Brexit is deep in logic denying territory. It's almost as if events are actively gaslighting those paying close attention to them, so let us consider the events of the last few days in an effort to keep hold of our collective sanity.

Over the weekend, May indicated she planned on dragging her deal back to the Commons for the third time. Again, having learned nothing from the fourth and the all-time worst defeats ever inflicted on a government, she thought it would be a simple task to to table it again. There were also indicators from some hard leavers, like Esther McVey, that they were prepared to stomach her deal because it was the nearest to their idea of Brexit they were ever going to get. And the possibility of the DUP changing their minds thanks to more Northern Ireland cash was talked up in an effort to create a buzz, or at least an impression of movement. Why? In the hope of shunting a few Labour MPs in the direction of the deal too.

And then John Bercow happened.

The government protesting against his "ambush" is, as with all things the Tories say about their opponents, completely disingenuous. At the very beginning of the meaningful vote process the Speaker plainly and bluntly stated the government would not be allowed to keep bringing the same deal back after its defeat, as per the rules of the parliamentary rule book, Erskine May, and upheld on several occasions since 1604. In fact, by allowing it to come back a second time you might argue the Speaker has shown considerable leeway and generosity. To get around this, the government have to do more than just find another form of words. They could put forward their deal with Labour's second referendum amendment, or negotiate something different. Instead, they have threatened to refuse Bercow a peerage - the second time this pathetic threat has been aired - and proceeded as the Speaker hadn't ruled on the matter, talking up other obscure parliamentary routes to circumvent the Speaker's authority. Bizarre.

Well, Theresa May might consider Bercow's statement beneath her notice but Donald Tusk certainly didn't. Her letter formally requesting an extension to the Article 50 process to 30th June is, like everything else, subordinate to Tory party management. At this afternoon's Prime Minister's Questions the point was reiterated. The truth of the matter is she fears participating in the European elections for reasons other than their being an utter farce. Her concern is an insurgent force to the Tories' right, be it UKIP or Farage's vanity vehicle, not just taking seats but sticking a great bloody crowbar into her party's widening divisions. Nevertheless, Tusk's reply - Delphic as always - suggested the EU would be receptive at giving this deal more time if there was a plan and a positive vote attached to it. Nothing on what they are prepared to do to avoid no deal, nor ruling out the possibility of someone else coming to them with something else.

And typically of May this bounced right off her tin ear. In her appeal "over the heads" of parliamentarians, she obviously thinks if Farage and, to a lesser extent, Jeremy Corbyn can do the populist thing she might as well have a go. As a number of folks have pointed out, opposing "the people" to parliament is not a good idea, especially when the political mood is febrile and, lest we forget, last time matters were at fever pitch a MP was murdered. Who, apart from the unhinged fools who spend all day every day outside of Westminster shouting "traitor!" at passing MPs or the grizzled loner dreaming of getting their hands on a "traitorous" member is this sort of rhetoric supposed to appeal to? May is past caring. As an authoritarian lacking all authority, there is nothing she won't say, nothing out of bounds if she thinks it will serve her ridiculous ends. Up to and including dog whistling political violence.

The more things change the more they stay the same. In May's mind, her inflexibility and rigidity demonstrates resilience and leadership, when in fact it's a symptom of weakness and an unwillingness to face up to political realities. A deal can be done. Labour's customs union approach, or the similar scheme hawked around by Nick Boles (who, nevertheless, has voted for May's deal twice and probably will do so again) has a greater chance of getting through the Commons - especially if May whipped for it in a 'it's-this-deal-or-remain' scenario. But she isn't about to do that because the tenuous unity just about keeping the Tories together would be torn asunder. Still, she has today allowed a glimpse of her Plan B. Assuming the EU grant an extension, which is likely seeing as the Irish Republic are desperate to avoid a calamitous Brexit, but May's deal is rejected again and again, those are three months in which disgraced minister Liam Fox potters around the world signing continuity trade deals (this week Liechtenstein, next week Andorra?), three more months of Brexit contingency planning, and three more months to sort out side deals on the down low with the EU to keep things going after exit day. She won't get her deal, but she will be the Prime Minister who more or less kept her party together, produced Brexit and, with it, controls on immigration. Damn all the rest - to her own satisfaction she will have delivered her political objectives: the cracked promises she began her blighted premiership with.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

A Devourer of Souls

Twitter is such an innocent-sounding word. Yet in the dystopic social media landscapes of 21st century late capitalism it is a crusher of spirits and devourer of souls. It is an expansive news service, a friendship network, trolling board, and niche fandom simultaneously and ceaselessly packaged in one simple, easy-to-use interface. That makes it ground zero for, well, everything. For folks not plugged into the juggernaut, or those who've never known anything but always-online describing its novelty is difficult. My account marked its first decade on the 10th of this month, and for me and hundreds of millions of others it has transformed how we do the daily politics and the very way we think and react.

What was Twitter like 10 years ago? One should studiously avoid nostalgia, which is often more dangerous than any ideology. But it was different. Size mattered, and it was several orders of magnitude smaller. When I joined there were no hashtags and, consequently, trending topics. The retweet button wasn't invented, threading was far in the future and, yes, there were only 140 characters. It was a platform still finding its feet, as were all of its users. See for yourself with the inane bullshit that was my first day on the platform. However, its use very quickly became apparent. Not long after joining, the G20 rolled in to London for one of its high profile summits. During the days of protest PhD productivity fell as tweets and reports rolled in from on-the-ground participants. Of course, sat behind a computer screen in a dingy office seeing micro blogs roll in didn't feel like you were there in the crowd, but the immediacy of the reporting and its real time updating engaged you in a process of observation and feeding back. Then Ian Tomlinson, a bystander going about his business, was assaulted by the police and died later. The Graun had the footage but it was the collective refusal of the Twitterati to let the story disappear, and ensuring it was put in front of broadcast hacks day on the platform day after day ensured it became a story. Later that year, Twitter was used to get round the gagging order Trafigura slapped on the media to cover for its toxic waste dumping off Cote d'Ivoire. And it became the tool of choice for people protesting against Iranian theocracy, successfully bypassing regime media and getting their messages out - a pool of tactics that helped the Arab Spring along a year later.

The possibility of Twitter being something more than a glorified chatroom helped its profile, and very quickly practically all the Westminster lobby hacks and key MPs were on board. And yet, initially, it appeared to be very much a left-liberal dominated space. The dearth of Tories and the rest led Kerry McCarthy to declare at the 2009 Labour conference that we didn't need the backing of The Sun any more, because we had Twitter. A bit premature perhaps, but already there was an appreciation of how it could body swerve the controls and checks of the establishment media.

Early Twitter was no paradise. There were big fights and bad blood, the red mist descended from time to time and creepy men did their creepy internet thing. But the comparatively small numbers created an illusion of the collapse of social distance and, if anything, expanded the boundaries of Westminster hackery while intensifying the points of contact within it. For a brief period, you could even be feted by the great and the good for compiling a few tweets. But as it evolved, Twitter resembled more the society hosting it. To my mind there were two big changes as we moved into the new decade: the persistent and ubiquitous presence of Justin Bieber trending topics, announcing Twitter was now the plaything of masses of teenagers, and later in 2013 the very public exposure of the platform as a means for harassing and threatening women. This was the first time Twitter - the company - was forced to confront issues of personal security as it blew up in the mainstream media, much to the pleasure of the tabloid press who were now feeling the social media pinch on sales and revenues. This was the moment the block button and report functions were introduced, but here we are six years on and one can still issue rape and death threats with near impunity - as leading women politicians will tell you.

Remember that illusion of a collapse in social distance? More and more people used Twitter as an outlet for their frustrations. Who knew that powerless and voiceless folks would use a social media to directly connect with leading politicians, business people and celebrities and tell them what they think? In Westminster terms, this was most unwelcome. In pre-Twitter days MPs and other media people could insulate themselves from how they were perceived by most. In a constituency surgery, they can move from the occasional ear bashing. On doorsteps one can jog on when faced by an angry punter. The poison pen letter lacks immediacy, and a lackey can ensure the boss never sees it. Twitter took that away. So when sundry Labour MPs started undermining Jeremy Corbyn's leadership by calling into question every decision, briefing against him in the media, and trying their damnedest to obstruct and sabotage they were genuinely shocked to receive "negative feedback". It's a bit like whingeing about getting thrown off a Select Committee because you've resigned from the Labour Party - the very idea their actions would conjure forth repercussions is shocking precisely because far too many of them have spent political lives wrapped in cotton wool.

It wasn't long before informal, intentional groups began emerging out of the froth. There's always been a left Twitter and a right Twitter, but as far as UK politics were concerned we saw the coalescing of the hash tag tribes when the political temperature heated up. UKIP supporters were early adopters, following the media scrum surrounding them between 2013 and 2015. They were trailed by the cybernats who, unsurprisingly enough, were excited into being thanks to the Scottish referendum. The harmless Milifandom was a thing for five minutes, before giving way to the Corbynist Twitter tribe on, um, Twitter. And since the referendum Follow Back Pro Europe did their level best to become the most annoying of the tribes, though they were given a run for their money by the much smaller and not-at-all racist Brexit brigaders. And this is where Twitter is locked. When politics are fraught and there is real polarisation, you can expect it to play out online too.

Given the character of the society in which we live, I suppose this was inevitable for a number of reasons. Twitter, especially politics Twitter, is essential infrastructure now and (mostly) reflects the priorities of bourgeois politics as defined by leading politicians and media gatekeepers. But it is so much more. Like nearly all forms of social media, Twitter has accumulation logics built in. Follower counts, retweets and likes are all proxies for worthiness, of crude measurements of social capital and status. Hundreds of thousands of followers are indicative of wider standing in legacy media, not how good your Twitter game is. Intimately bound with this is the attention economy, of a competition between media products, not least the outpourings of user generated content, between each other and other media all screaming, fighting, demanding attention. As users proliferate, new streaming services come online, more programmes and films are produced, everything, everything is forced into Darwinian combat for eyeballs and time. It's how the political economy works, and by extension those who don't do it for a living are forced into the same game to attract an audience. There is the reactive character of social media, and Twitter in particular - something Richard Seymour has recently written on. That we become participants in the media and its recurrent shit storms. For instance, the anti-semitism wars would not have a sustained presence in mainstream coverage were it not for the constant feeding frenzy as all-comers pile in and react. All analyses, all attempts to try and get to grips with what's happening are drawn into the same inexorable reactive logics, and drives the controversy on and on and on. Of course, the observation capitalist mass cultures valorise reaction over reflection is nothing new. But what is is our consumption by the fray, of analyses ordinarily to spiky for media digestion being fully assimilated into a new political economy of reaction-mass processes. Without wider social change, it's difficult to envisage how this pit can be escaped.

Twitter, like all social media, is more than a simple expression and significant cultivator of neoliberal subjectivity in online spaces. It hooks into the economies of identity production - an increasingly important vector for capital accumulation as well as social control - and by virtue of the networks connects people of like minds, while reinforcing the notion of identity as liberal property rather than as something fluidic that resists and is always surplus to the onslaught of fixed locations that try and pin it down. Hashtag tribes, for example, are enduring and appear fanatical and irrational because their points of fixity deliver rigid cognitive maps largely impervious to nuance, and define themselves in proprietary terms vis a vis binary opposites. Which makes them ideal fuel for the reactive economies of the Twitter feed. However, precisely because there is a surplus of identity, a slippage, the possibility of its overcoming is present through the very same communicative networks that help constitute social media's panoply of neoliberal avatars in the first place. As with all things capitalism touches, the potentials for oppression and liberation are co-present and co-produced, and one aspect of socialist politics is simultaneously a disentanglement and struggle to forge networks into something that challenges capitalist logics.

That, of course, is easier said than done. 10 years on Twitter and I haven't worked it out, despite the mass eruption and rude intrusion of large numbers of people onto the battlefields of British politics - but challenge them we must.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Third Time Lucky?

Writing an "open letter" in the Sunday Telegraph begging your MPs to back your deal is not a good look. Then again, following the worst and the fourth worst defeat for a government in Westminster history, what are you supposed to do? I might suggest coming to an accommodation with the party opposite to reach a consensus on a much softer Brexit would be a start but we can't well have that. If anything Theresa May's letter to "patriotic MPs" is aimed exclusively at her own benches, doubling down on the double whammy her Brexit deal has already suffered. Nothing has changed, but the choice is back me or no Brexit. Is it working?

Despite the Article 50 vote clearing the Commons last Thursday, May wants to give it one more heave - assuming the Speaker allows her unchanged motion to return. Therefore having the likes of Esther McVey make encouraging noises on Sophy Ridge this Sunday morning helps May with her bean counting. As a Brexiteer but not a dyed-in-wool Moggite, she is representative and typical of a layer of Tories who could be swayed by May's messaging. However, as Philip Hammond observed, the deal won't be coming back unless there is clear movement among the Tories and their sometime ally, the DUP. Probed about whether any more money is going to be awarded Northern Ireland, he tried his shifty best to claim we would have to await the outcome of a review into regional spending. You don't need Louise Mensch's esteemed talent for Kremlinology to interpret this as anything other than the admission that more is on the table should the DUP ride to May's rescue. By May's reckoning, if the DUP are in the bag than enough Tory MPs are going to shift. And then her would-be facilitators on the benches opposite could then move in sufficient numbers.

Then again, there is a then again. Because May is utterly absorbed in bringing her party into line (plus ├ža change), she hasn't paid much attention to what's going on on the opposition benches. As it stands, Labour are going to be whipping on a second referendum amendment on the returning motion. That is, Labour will commit to supporting May getting her deal through the Commons if there is a second public vote on it. This move is not without risk, but is preferable to no deal and, indeed, May's deal. The first problem is getting the amendment to pass. As a few mainstream centrist commentators not beholden to the so-called People's Vote campaign have noted, there is no majority in the House for another try. Well, ordinarily, yes. This one though is a bit different. Presumably all the oppositionist parties save the DUP are going to vote for the amendment, notwithstanding some skulduggery from The Independent Group because it's not "their" amendment. But when it comes to Labour itself, its move is in line with party policy, which makes for a handy dilemma for leave-inclined MPs thinking of breaking the whip. Vote against the amendment and expect aggro come reselection time, vote for it and fear the consequences on polling day. If their numbers can be held down and enough Tories come over ... It's very much a long shot, but even outside chances are still a chance.

In no uncertain terms is May about to whip for Labour's amendment, though it's the surest - and perhaps only - way of getting her deal through. For without it, and though the Tory numbers are moving in her direction it's not likely to be enough. If, however, the amendment did get through then we might have the delicious prospect of May whipping against her own government's motion, which widens the schism in her parliamentary ranks. Or goes for it and, um, widens the schisms in her parliamentary ranks.

If the amendment falls, and with it the fresh attempt at passing the deal, or May pulls it, or Bercow disallows it, all eventualities are stacked with serious political pain for the Conservative Party. No deal would be a catastrophe for the country, and the Tories cannot but be blamed as the authors of the disaster. Though some are bound to try pinning it on Jeremy Corbyn. Somehow get the deal through at the third time of asking, then this divided and dysfunctional mob go into negotiating the future relationship for all this to play out again. Strike a deal with Labour, be it over a softer Brexit or a referendum guarantee, and the Tories are going to simply eat themselves. Or, depending on what kind of extension the EU comes back with, more division and rancour as Brexit is menaced by the growing likelihood of a referendum or Article 50's revocation or the prospect, horror of horrors, of a general election. There are no good choices, a habit of May's we've grown accustomed even when there wasn't a dire national emergency, but the fates are closing in and the Tories are caught on all sides.

They say Europe is the issue that does every Tory leader in eventually. This time it's poised to consume the entire party.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Tiesto - Urban Train

Been down to London town for the Media Democracy Festival. And all I came away with were good laughs with comrades, pages of notes for future blog posts and the desire to hear this choon again.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Brexit's Groundhog Day

How many times can you write 'extraordinary' in a short article? Let's have a go. It's extraordinary to see the so-called People's Vote campaign calling on pro-referendum MPs to abstain on, well, another referendum amendment put by former PV darlings The Independent Group. It's extraordinary for eight (eight!) members of the cabinet to vote against the government's position on extending Article 50, these were Alun Cairns, Liam Fox, Chris Grayling, Andrea Leadsom, Penny Mordaunt, Liz Truss and Gavin Williamson. No prizes for accurately forecasting Williamson's company in the no lobby - one can't let Boris Johnson claim the Brexit limelight alone when it comes to the bloodletting of the future Tory party leadership contest. But forgive me, I realise there's one missing from the inglorious roster. Yes, that would be Steve Barclay, the Brexit secretary. He voted against the very extension motion he spoke to in the Commons. Extraordinary.

Believe it or not, the day could have been even more so had a couple of MPs changed their minds. In an audacious bid to grab control of the Brexit process from Theresa May, the government retained its position with a majority of just two. Extraordinary. Had it passed May's deal would well and truly be dead and with it quite possibly the Prime Minister herself, for it's hard to see how she would have gone on with Brexit taken off her. Yet to have dodged a bullet that came this close, will it be enough to give her pause where repeat humiliating defeats have not?

Whatever. We're now in the twilight zone. Parliament has consented to request an extension of Article 50, and far from taking back control the process is temporarily in the EU's hands. Cue much fretting over meetings Nigel Farage has (allegedly) had with Matteo Salvini, and secret backbench Tory delegations to Poland. Funny how these so-called patriots scab on their country's (bourgeois) interests and never have to account for it. Anxieties abound over what concessions the EU are going to demand in return for the extension. There's concern Spain will re-open the question of Gibraltar, that the commission will wrangle again over membership subs to the EU, will only agree to an extension of a set length, and there's the terribly tricky waters of the European elections and resultant shifts in balances of power in the EU. Everywhere you look, uncertainty begets more uncertainty and the nervous breakdown of the British political system continues unabated.

Yet the unexpected could still happen. While we ponder and speculate about an extension to the end of June, or up to a year or whatever, the possibility of May's deal coming back for a third try is amazingly, unbelievably, extraordinarily alive. Supposing the Speaker lets the deal return, which is still up in the air, there is some suggestion of significant movement on the Tory benches. After Wednesday's removal of no deal and Tuesday's drubbing reality has dawned on some ERG-types and Brexiteers that this would be the best Brexit they can get. David Davis, for instance, is supposedly among their number. If the alternative is a softer Brexit a la Labour's and the more reality-based wing of the Tory party, or a second referendum, or an election, or the revoking of Article 50 they're going to go for it. That in itself will shift some, but not enough. However, the very spectacle of a movement might see some of Labour's leaver MPs, reluctant or no, pile in. While it is true they aren't prepared to sacrifice their careers to spare the Prime Minister the blushes of another record defeat, some of them will change their minds if it appears the vote's going to be close. And so the ghastly, tedious vision of her deal coming back after the majority against falls to double figures, and again, and again, time after time, with a minor modification here and a new choice of words, this is not beyond the realms of possibility.


Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Brexit and the ERG

Theresa May loses again. In typical tin-eared fashion she is resolved at giving her now twice defeated deal another go next week. And perhaps, at the 11th hour of the 29th March deadline, an additional try then. The poor old banger she's repeatedly smashed has a few more prangs to go yet before it can be interred at the scrapyard.

This post, however, is not about the Prime Minister. It's about our hard right Brexit friends. Now no deal is off the table (again), there are reports of (some) reluctant supporters from the European Research Group stable coming forward and saying they will now vote for May's deal. Faced with the choice between May's Brexit and the possibility of no Brexit, they've had to wind in their offshore tax haven/Singapore fantasy and choose the road closest to their objective. And besides, there's still a trade deal to do with plenty more opportunities to push things in their direction. After all, that was the advice Michael Gove freely dispensed as he got behind Chequers.

While we're talking about the ERG, here's the latest episode from Politics Theory Other. In this installment, Alex interviews Kojo Karam about the politics of the ERG and like-minded Tory Brexiteers, and makes an interesting and entirely plausible argument that their attitude to the British working class is not a million miles from the colonial administrator mindset. What UK workers need is a touch of the global south here to solve the productivity problem and get our class to knuckle under. Definitely worth a listen.

And, as always, the podcast could do with your support - please donate here.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

End of the Road

Congratulations to Theresa May for setting another record. Losing by 391 votes to 242, her Brexit deal enters the hall of dubious fame which, before she crashed and burned earlier this year, was exclusively occupied by Labour governments. With the fourth worst defeat for a government in British political history under the Tories' belt, was tonight an exercise in futility or were there any politics teaching moments contained therein?

The first, which is worth reiterating, is May continues to subordinate the national interest - which for convenience sake we'll define as what's best for British capitalism from the standpoint of jobs, inward investment, growth etc. - to the problematic of party management. Since her catastrophic failure back in January, she has pantomimed a negotiation process, making promises to hither and thither, found a concern for workers' rights, more (moar!) money for towns and cities ravaged by her government's cuts to local authorities, and all the rest of it. But her idea of Brexit is too hard for, well, anyone with an ounce of political sense and feel for economic realities, and too soft for those who would profit from a chaotic departure from the European Union.

The only Brexit that could potentially command a majority in the Commons is the customs union-based version long pushed by the Labour Party. If May was properly serious about "delivering on the referendum vote" then she would have compromised her red lines and gone with what was achievable when it became clear her preference was not a go-er. Politics is the art of the possible, a dastardly communist once said. But she hasn't because Brexit never really meant Brexit. For May, Brexit meant keeping the Tory party together as a going concern. With Labour lost to Corbynism, the Liberal Democrats down and out and centrist politics out of sorts, the only reliably bourgeois vehicle left are the Tories. Yes, the very same dysfunctional mob responsible for the mess in the first place. As far as May is concerned, she is serving the national interest by pursuing the class interest of keeping their shit together. Any other Brexit, especially Labour's Brexit, brings the possibility of a split into the equation. And we're talking a proper split, not a TInG-style farce.

This is her game, but how do we account for her ineptitude - as Richard Seymour asks? Well, we don't really need an explanation for it. May's personality traits are well known. She's particularly dogmatic and will stick with something. This may have made her appear strong-minded and someone not to be tested during her Home Office years in the mercurial coalition government, but when it required a deftness of touch, like the project of forging a new period of hegemonic dominance, which was within reach once, or an election campaign going off the rails, or managing the Brexit process her one-dimensional character and, yes, incompetence soon manifested. It's hard to comprehend how she thought her playing for time would be perceived as anything other than playing for time. Or that her tough talking at home for the benefit of the right wing press and the thinning party faithful wouldn't be picked up by Brussels negotiators, and likewise her emollient tones with the EU wouldn't set alarm bells ringing back at home. But then again, I guess neither you nor I are criminally incompetent. May's instinct is to protect her party and preserve it, but married to an inflexible politics and rigid approach to getting anything done she has proved the author of her agonies and humiliations. And, if anything, exacerbated the difficulties the Tory party faces.

Now what? Presuming no deal falls in the Commons this Wednesday, and the vote to extend Article 50 is carried, unless the EU intervene and insist the UK government comes back with something else May will trot off to Brussels with the same deal. She will claim it has undergone significant changes invisible to all save her, and here we will be in a month or two's time. The Prime Minister's deal definitively reached the end of the road in January, where it careened into the nearest brick wall. All she's done tonight is backed up her busted old banger and driven it pell-mell back into that very same wall. Unless someone takes the keys away and escorts her from the vehicle, she will try reversing again to give it another go. Please someone, do it. And render a kindness.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

The Tory Politics of Extending Article 50

Blimey O'Reilly, Brexit's back! It never went away, but Theresa May's playing for time effectively meant Brexit went into abeyance. For a brief period, the media and the politics started talking about other things, like Labour's crisis, the knife crime epidemic, and the two minutes hate against Shamima Begum. Even Tory Islamophobia made national headlines for once. This period is past, now. It's the week. The week. The VERY BIG WEEK.

On Tuesday the Prime Minister brings her deal back to the Commons. Her gamble was to waste time while the clock ticked down. She knew the EU were not going to make any changes to the Irish backstop, but what she was banking on were the wobbly nerves of enough Tory and Labour backbenchers to get her deal through. For the Tories, May hoped the fear of their not getting a Brexit at all would encourage them to vote it and hope it can be changed later. After all, it this is good enough for Michael Gove and Chris Grayling, why not others? For the Labour benches, her eggs were in the any deal is better than no deal basket, and given plenty of the party's MPs are not in favour of another referendum nor remaining by the back door, they would line up and save Brexit - and her political bacon while they're at it. Is this going to happen? Well, we're not going to see a result as bad as last time, but the Sunday politics programmes all put the predicted margin of defeat into three figures. In other words, nothing will change because nothing has changed. The deal is all set to fall. Again.

Then comes Wednesday. If May has lost, the Commons gets to vote on whether we should exit without a deal anyway on the 29th, or no. If you're someone who's a touch superstitious, this coincides with my birthday and it is not unknown for very bad things to happen on this otherwise happy occasion. I mean, the possibility of the UK crashing out of the EU without anything in place. What could possibly go wrong? Well, in this case nothing. Only an asteroid impacting on the no lobby would prevent no deal's rejection. And this brings us to the third vote - whether to ask for an extension to Article 50.

The prospect of such has got some Brexiteers very sweaty indeed. The ERG's Steve Baker and Nigel Dodds of the DUP have warned very dire consequences if Brexit is delayed. "It would be a terrible affront to democracy!" they wibble, and would "extend uncertainty" and sap business confidence. Like this pair of cretins care about such things. For Baker and his crackered comrades, a chaotic no deal Brexit is one hundred per cent their game plan. For the DUP, it's the maintenance of an obsolete statelet and an increasingly irrelevant community division to keep them politically afloat that matters above all else. But let's explore their warning anyway and whether there's any substance to it.

First thing's first, delaying Article 50 is not the same as revoking it and so the consequences are different. Going out there to say "we've got to delay this thing" is not the same as scrapping it, which could have serious consequences. For the likes of the ERG the extension worries them because it increases the chance of a second referendum, which Leave are not at all confident in winning. Or it could see May get boxed into a much less disruptive Brexit deal, like the one Nick Boles has been hawking about the Tory backbenches and is even prepared to reach an accord with JCorbz to get. Or May could cave to Labour's customs union-based Brexit. Or even worse, a general election. Or May sticks to her deal and spends three more months with her head in the sand and we end up back where we are now. All pose the ERG project a threat, but this is internal Westminster stuff. How would it play out in the real world?

For punters fed up of hearing about Brexit, even moar Brexit is going to go down like the proverbial cup of cold sick. Wait until they hear about the 20 months of trade deal negotiations we've got to look forward to. But most people would reluctantly accept an extension - you're not about to see the far right riff-raff outside of Westminster find their numbers swollen by angry leavers. The problem is what happens at the level of passive support for the Conservative Party. As explained a number of times, Brexit is the glue sticking its coalition of voters together. When May has wobbled, like when Chequers initially appeared to be a soft Brexit position, the more conditional Tory voters jumped ship to UKIP. Most of them have since drifted back but for the likes of Baker and Rees-Mogg, anything smacking of delay could see them bleed away again. For what worries them above all are the two or three million hard leaving, Tory supporting voters who aren't about to take to the streets but would be permanently estranged from establishment politics, and opt either for the kippers, Farage's latest vehicle, or stay away from the polls. They might be at odds with May's strategy, but like her the ERG need the party and will struggle to preserve it at all costs. Opposing an extension of Article 50 is a barely significant cost set against keeping the Tories in the field as a going concern.

From a technical point of view then, there are very good reasons to extend Article 50. The option of a more positive outcome and more time for no deal planning obviously recommend it, and on that basis alone Labour MPs should vote for its extension. One trusts the other parties, including TInG will do so. But those political difficulties more delay would cause the Tories? Yes, that makes extending it a political must.

Labour's Crisis of Decomposition

The Labour Party is not facing an existential crisis. It has significant challenges, but these are the problems of success. Nevertheless, one part of the Labour Party is facing a different kind of crisis. Since the summer of 2015 what was the Labour mainstream - and particularly the Brownite and Blairite rights - have not put a single foot right. Utterly discombobulated by a leftist challenge that appeared to come from nowhere, their rearguard since has consisted of project fear warnings, sniping and undermining the leadership, threats of splits, one dud coup and miserable leader challenge, and seizing on any difficulty - above all the ongoing anti-semitism scandal and the second referendum - as a means of making factional hay. What all these shenanigans have in common is their episodic and opportunist character, an entirely negative programme of sabotage and, in some cases, outright scabbing. Of course, MPs and activists on this wing of the party have a choice: their opposition could have taken a more positive character, but they haven't. Therefore when you have a whole political wing collectively taking the low road of dishonesty and skulduggery, something else is going on. And in the case of the Labour right, they share a bit more than a common political outlook with the party opposite: a long-term process of decline, decomposition and disintegration.

Again, it's worth revisiting the argument. The problem the Labour right has is their social basis, both in the party and in wider society, is disappearing. From its inception, the party was an alliance between the labour movement and elements of the professional and middle classes. This does not map on to divisions between left and right, indeed left/right divisions cut across this alliance. Each area of the party has had its own zone of competence: the middle class provided MPs (in disproportionate numbers) and dominated Labourism's intellectual life. The trade unions' province was the organisation of the party itself. The political balance has varied over time, but up until 2015 the right enjoyed dominance in the party via the unions, the socialist societies, and as a result the apparatus and parliamentary party.

What then has happened to upset this balance? The undermining of this state of affairs came to a head with the election of Jeremy Corbyn and all that has happened since. The actual crisis itself is much deeper, and goes back decades. In the 1970s the post-war economic model was under severe strain, as per elsewhere and to simplify the argument somewhat, Margaret Thatcher's election in 1979 was a response and a promise to address the problems arising. We know what happened next. In a series of set pieces, the Tories planned and carried out assaults on key sectors of the trade union movement, smashed up Britain's manufacturing base, flogged off strategic national industries to their business backers, introduced markets into the public services and trussed up our movement in the bureaucratic restraints of the anti-trade union laws. The cultural consequences of this was a throwing back of class consciousness, of the virtual erasure of collectivist and socialist ideas from popular and media cultures. And, with time, these defeats worked their way through the party. Fewer organised workplaces meant fewer workers from the shop and office floor made their way into politics at the local and national levels. Membership fell in tandem with the number of trade unionists, and you were more likely to see tumbleweed roll through party meetings than a clutch of new recruits. The result? Unions were still able to make their presence felt bureaucratically, but less so politically. As elements of the middle class right made the case for moving away from class issues and the language of old Labour, those not prepared to go along with it out of expediency were hamstrung by diminishing support, and so the party was able to move to the right and become New Labour precisely because of the weakness of the labour movement itself.

In class terms, New Labour was not only the unparalleled dominance of the right over the party, but also its middle class wing. The parliamentary party was the pre-eminent institution whose supremacy was unchallenged, and within that the diktat of the leader's office was unchallengeable. Elections were the be-all and end-all, and the role for affiliated unions was less one of taking up members' concerns and more trying to dampen down workers' struggles so as not to inconvenience the government. Office was everything, the movement nothing. Unsurprisingly, much of the left didn't stick around as, in some important respects, New Labour was indistinguishable from the Tories. The renovation of public services and building of new hospitals came with hefty helpings of corporate welfare via the Major government's PFI schemes. A combination of targets and internal markets disorganised and bureaucratised the public sector further, conditionality and workfare was extended in social security, the hated Work Capability Assessment was introduced, and there was the small matter of a certain war. All moments, I'm sure you would agree, more shameful than the resignation of a no-mark MP for Liverpool. Of course, there was some good things but on balance New Labour reinforced prevailing class relationships by undermining the security and economic power of the very people who put them into government. Crucially, around the turn of the century trade unionists started turning away from right-labourist politics, and union after union started electing left and leftish leaderships. All of a sudden the old guard who went along with New Labour because of "pragmatism" were no longer available.

Here then we have an irony of New Labour's time in power. A symptom of and response to labour movement weakness, which used government to disorganise and weaken the labour movement further, with the consequence of eroding the right's (and therefore its own) base within the party. Indeed, with the open contempt New Labour had for trade unions and its own party organisation, it's a wonder something like The Independent Group didn't happen sooner. Forget party-within-a-party, a party-without-a-party is the culmination of the Blairist trajectory. Once New Labour left office and Labour reverted to plain old Labour under Ed Miliband, the legacy of a weakened and hollowed out party persisted. Machine politics ruled the day, the pale pink social democracy the party shuffled back to was frit of its own shadow, it was overly managerialist and wonky, and at every half step in a progressive direction the Blairites tried their best to head it off. Therefore, in an election where Labour cleaved to the deficit reduction/austerity agenda as framed by the Tories the majority of Labour's would-be support stayed home.

In its aftermath and before Corbyn entered the fray the post-Miliband tumult was the most miserable set of debates the Labour party had probably ever seen. Labour failed because the manifesto was insufficiently Tory, so went the parliamentary consensus. "Aspiration" was the watchword as identikit leadership pitches emerged, with the most egregious - endorsed by the Blairites, of course - demonstrating an astonishing level of political ignorance about the party and voter bloc Liz Kendall aspired to lead. But one shouldn't be too hard, these were all creatures of circumstances beyond their ken. As Labour withered on the vine, as the distance between it and its natural constituencies widened the generation of politicians who came of age under Blair and Brown accepted their eviscerated surrounds as the accepted and proper way of doing things. They didn't need to struggle politically to get ahead when a patron could fix it for them. This is fine when bureaucratic power has no checks, but fatal when hundreds of thousands of new members flood in to the party and demand better from its politicians.

And so it has proven. Two leadership elections, multiple internal elections, conference decisions, parliamentary selections, the apparat, all of these have moved in to the hands of the left partly because all the Labour right know are the arts of the administrative swerve and the smear. They can't fight politically and don't know how to win people over because they can't. Their collective hopelessness has the same root as their collective helplessness. Their situation is something they have brought upon themselves, and what makes it even more delicious is they revelled in the circumstances that destroyed them. It's no accident that Tom Watson, himself now out of sorts in what was his West Midlands fiefdom and nervously casting glances at the pressure cooker of scandal bubbling under the surface of Sandwell Council, has come up with a prospectus for the right revealing of their weakness. His party-within-the-parliamentary-party, ostensibly aimed at preventing more damage to Labour from defections, has more to do with salvaging the right's position. The more who resign the whip and head over to TInG or sit in welcome anonymity with Ian Austin and friends, the more demoralised and weakened the Labour right becomes. His warnings about splits in the party, the demand of a return shadow cabinet elections, a "calling off" of deselections and no-confidence votes, undoing the present method of electing a leader and wanting to see the return of the electoral college - which gave MP's votes more weight than hundreds of ordinary members - Tom is well aware that in the absence of recruiting a mass of "moderates", a task the right are singly unsuited for, the only way they can begin to come back is by reasserting the PLP's supremacy and insulating it from the rest of the party. In other words, even now as the clock strikes the hour of the weakest the Labour right has ever been since Labour's foundation, all they have is another quick fix to avoid the hard job of convincing people that their way is the best way. And it's a fix with zero chance of getting implemented for as long as the right is swamped by the left.

There then are your two Labour Party crises. The problems of recomposition, of building something new, and the crisis of decomposition, of the right in all its variants fraying, dissipating. We can look at other parts of Europe and see what has happened to social democratic and labour parties where the right remained in charge: electoral failure, destruction, disintegration. The eruption of Corbynism in the Labour Party has seen our party avoid this fate, but it's a fate - a doom - likely to return if the right ever come back. They know nothing and have learned nothing, and will destroy the party given the chance.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Celebrating 3,000 Posts

Another blogging milestone. It's taken almost three-and-a-half years to chalk up another thousand posts, but we made it. 3,000, the big 3,000. Yes, it's enough blog posts which, if laid end to end, would stretch from Land's End to John O'Groats and back. Or fill several hundred Blu Rays. Ridiculous, no?

Here then for your pleasure and mine are the top ten most-read blogs from 4th October, 2015 to the present day.

10. Besmirching Labour's Name (July 2018)
9. Yvette Cooper's Alternative Vision (July 2017)
8. A Terrible Stalinist Purge (March 2018)
7. Why I Voted for Jeremy Corbyn (September 2016)
6. Reluctant Corbynism (August 2016)
5. Toby Young and the Taming of Higher Education (January 2018)
4. Suspend Labour Friends of Israel (May 2018)
3. The Bourgeois Politics of the People's Vote March (October 2018)
2. Guido Fawkes: Troll and Hypocrite (October 2017)
1. Owen Jones and Naive Cynicism (March 2017)

Hardly a shock to find dispatches from Labour's civil war featuring so prominently. The story of these posts are, more or less, the story of Corbynism too. This is a big improvement as last time, lists of things (blogs, musics) ruled the roost. No far left gossip either, thankfully. I guess the old dialectical laws are true: quantity passes over into quality eventually. Nevertheless, there are some highlights you might have missed that you haven't had the chance to check out. So what better time than now?

After Neoliberalism (August 2016)
Beyond Class and Identity Politics (August 2017)
Class Struggle and the Common (August 2017)
Fascism and Economic Anxiety (August 2017)
Jeremy Corbyn and the Working Class (July 2017)
Party Before Country (February 2019)
Racism and Capitalist Exploitation (July 2017)
The Thatcherite Offensive (February 2019)
Theorising Conservative Catastrophe (May 2018)
Whitney Houston: Celebrity and Alienation (September 2017)

What will the next thousand bring, assuming this blog will be around to mark its 4,000th entry? There's only one way of finding out ... and that's by staying tuned.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Labour's Crisis of Recomposition

The Labour Party is in crisis. People are shaking their heads at the state of the anti-semitism wars, with some greeting it as the harbinger of the party's doom. It's a crisis, as Tom Watson put it, of the party's very soul. Well, he's right. And he's wrong. There are in fact two parallel and intertwined crises working their way through the party: a crisis of recomposition for one of its wings, and a crisis of decomposition for the other. Each have different roots, involve different forces, networks and patterns of class forces and fractions in Labour. In this post we look at the first of these crises - the problems of recomposition.

We've talked about the character of Corbynism before, but not for a while so it's good to have a recap. There have been three waves of Corbynism. The first broke over the Labour Party with the 2015 leadership election. The mere glimmer of something different to the received wisdom, married to the permissive voting regime saw new members and supporters flood in to the party to back the Corbyn candidacy. Then in 2016 in the aftermath of Dave, the Cameroons and the continuity Blairists blowing the remain campaign, Corbyn's critics and enemies in the parliamentary party made their move ... and failed utterly. What it did ensure, despite attempts at pricing supporters out of the contest and finding spurious excuses to suspend people from party membership, more people joined the party and ensured Corbyn's leadership was affirmed by an even stronger vote. These two waves of members, who now by far constitute the largest bloc of dues-payers, come in a couple of types. The first, as described in Alex Nunns's excellent book, The Candidate, were networks of activists who were around the labour movement and other campaigns and causes. The second, equally important group were those interested in but otherwise new to politics, or had previously supported Labour but felt driven away by the Blair/Brown years. These tended to be atomised socially but linked up digitally, and effectively entered the party as a mass of individuals. This was both connected to a wider process of political recomposition where a number of constituencies were effectively finding their feet again through political parties, and the growing dominance of network, socialised, affective and immaterial labour among the working class. Labour, via Corbynism, was speaking to this class fraction because Corbynism was, effectively, their eruption into politics. I argued that if this was correct, then to reverse the (then) sliding electoral fortunes of Labour using the latent, but networked strength of this section of our class was the only way forward.

The third wave of Corbynism then was the occasion of the 2017 general election. While Labour didn't win, partly thanks to the best efforts of whingers and wreckers of the previous 18 months, the party came from a low base precisely because it had a programme that spoke to affective and immaterial labour, and it was able to mobilise its mass strength through the digital networks and the social weight of the party itself. Having a party member in practically every social circle, every friendship group, every workplace in England and Wales is the most effective way of countering the same old fear-mongering and divide-and-rule. The third wave then is the 13 million voters - the highest number of votes Labour polled, save in 1997, since 1966. And despite the setbacks since the bulk of this vote has remained loyal, and is likely to do so regardless of what the polls might say.

However, the influx of such a large number of people brought with it its own challenges. The structure of the party is unwelcoming and bewildering to the uninitiated, and too many of its meetings are politics-free zones. As I often tell folks, if you want to avoid politics then go to a Labour Party meeting. This is before you touch on the pains various MPs and local government cliques went to to block and hinder the participation of new members in the party, and the straight up fact that meetings are, on the whole, incredibly boring. Secondly, most Corbyn supporters remain passive - at least from the point of view of voluntary participation. In Stoke Central, despite having more than 500 members on the books, as per pre-membership surge only a small fraction attend constituency meetings, branch meetings and get involved in campaigning. Nowhere near half turned up to the selection meeting for the February 2017 by-election - had more new members done so, it could have changed the outcome. Similarly in the campaigning itself the local party totally relied on outside activists travelling in. Nevertheless, while some new activists have filtered through, in Stoke at least the numbers aren't massive, but where the new members do matter is, obviously, as advocates for Labour outside formalised activism and, much to the chagrin of the Labour right, as members who can be relied on to vote for Corbyn-supporting candidates in internal elections.

We need to think more about integrating these supporters into the wider movement. Momentum proved useful to get people to targeted campaign sessions, and was an absolutely crucial factor in steamrollering the feeble forces of the Tory associations in 2017. But the promise of Momentum as a campaigning vehicle involved in a different kind of politics, be it what the political scientists patronisingly term 'unconventional politics', or in the community politics of re-engagement is yet to be fulfilled - at least as far as I'm aware. Quick wins here would be Momentum getting involved in (but not taking over) existing campaigns, and using their reach to mobilise people who find ordinary party activism intimidating and unrewarding. Also, if we want to move more members away from the 'atomised-but-networked' category, we need to think more seriously about trade unions. One of the paradoxes of Corbynism is its reassertion of class politics has taken place without much of a movement in and through the trade unions. Indeed, while there is no data for this I suspect most Corbyn supporters are not members of unions, despite it being a condition of party membership (there's nothing unique about this - I've interviewed would-be council candidates who weren't either). There is no reason why the party can't do more to promote trade union membership, nor of linking Momentum into initiatives around this. For instance, over the years my local trades council has moved from hidebound bureaucracy to campaigning organisation. Though, crucially, trade union power remains concentrated in the workplace and while getting isolated ones and twos to take out membership is good for the recruitment figures, they still remain atomised despite the connections forged through keyboard and touchscreen. Recruiting and supporting isolated workers has been the focus of many a long-term project and one we're yet to crack, but a more joined-up approach would certainly help integrate some who would otherwise not be.

Party education has always been appalling for a number of historic reasons. And the consequences of this neglect is costing the party dear with the anti-semitic and conspiranoid idiocies circulating about too many self-identified Corbyn supporters online. If you live on Twitter, like the majority of Westminster pundits do, it can easily appear as if the party is infested with troofers, troglodytes, and Israel obsessives. Instead of becoming familiar with socialist analysis, the boosterism and poor content of the likes of The Canary reinforces a black and white view of the world. Politics is not a struggle of interests pitted against one another, but a question of the machinations of bad people determined to get Corbyn/Labour. It has now reached peak absurdity with people like Jon Lansman and Owen Jones cast as pro-Israel plotters against the left. This adjunct of Corbynism is the gift that keeps on giving as far as the Tories and Labour right are concerned, always ready to offer up material that can discredit the left project. Could this be solved by a better and more systematic approach to party education? It could certainly help, but the leadership could do with taking a more active role. While attention has been focused on the so-called alt-left outlets, less has been said about other resources that do push socialist analysis, like New Socialist, Novara Media, the rebooted Tribune and the burgeoning network of good leftist podcasts - and not forgetting the old stuff either, like New Left Review. Of course, these are not for everyone but those with large social media followings, as well as key leadership figures should do more to promote their output. It would also help if there were more party-branded regional educational events as well, along the lines of last year's Derby Transformed and the upcoming Bristol Transformed.

These are difficult challenges to be sure, and each in their own way present issues that, unless addressed, could sink the left in the long-term. We cannot be content with a situation where the majority of Corbyn supporters are spectators who will chuck in a fiver here, and share a social media post there. We cannot leave political participation down to chance without concerted efforts of encouragement, and we cannot let utter bullshit and conspiracy thinking rule the roost. All these are consequences of Labour ballooning in size, of the left defeating and repeatedly defeating the right in the party through the weight of numbers. The left's crisis is one of coping with a mass following that more or less appeared over night, whereas that suffered by the Labour right is thanks to its disintegration and long-term tendency to decomposition. Something we'll deal with in part two.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Chuka Umunna's Honest Politics

Who doesn't like a bit of straight talking and honest politics? In a world weary of spin, the novelty of a politician open about their opinions and, well, striking an authentic note can have considerable appeal. It hasn't done the reception of Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn any harm, after all. Perhaps this is one reason why Chuka, the wannabe leader and spox for Westminster's most dismal project has decided to put his cards on the table. "You see", says Chuka, "I never felt totally comfortable in the Labour Party." Nice of him to come clean now the party is no longer providing him a cushy berth.

Chuka is a typical, if not banal, parliamentarian. The only party he owes time and devotion to is, well, his personal, private self: the Chuka Umunna Party. Once you're then in the Commons interacting with the big wigs and being a Person Who Matters, you can get swallowed by your own legend. And the more careerist and less principled the politician in question is, the more likely such a disposition consumes them. When you look at Chuka's career, it's nowhere near as egregiously offensive as his TInG compadre, Chris Leslie or, for that matter, TInG milk monitor Mike Gapes. But it is indicative of the trajectory of your common-or-garden social climber. He spent a few years swanning about London as a junior lawyer in the early-to-mid 00s before latching on to Compass (remember them?) and using the group to boost his profile. His first appearance on Question Time was way back in 2007, where he was feted then - even before he was selected for Streatham - as a great future hope for Labour. As for the Streatham selection in 2008, unlike Leslie and Luciana Berger's selections, it does appear it was a straight up and fair contest. That is unless he had help getting through to the shortlist as the automatic BME nominee - unlikely given the faction he was then aligned with. Nevertheless, he obviously impressed the selection meeting which went for him 175 to 162 over then Lambeth Council Leader (and now Lambeth MP) Steve Reed. And what happened once Chuka entered the Big House? Compass, any association with the (soft) left, and the politics that got him there was dropped and the rather staid, boring technocrat we know today was born. One can easily suppose he would not have got far at that February meeting 11 years ago were he upfront about his feelings about his fit in the party.

Here then is a cynic, someone who will do and say anything to advance his project of self-advancement. Even the innocuous but weirdly well-publicised links to the UK garage scene have a contrived whiff about them, as one of my comrades found out when he quizzed Chuka about the club nights and DJs he was into back in the day.

Of his not feeling the part, Chuka says it was his background of being mixed raced and having a working class dad and a middle class mum that meant he was out of place in Labour's culture. In the 1970s Labour Party perhaps, but in one of the most diverse and mixed constituency parties in the country in Europe's most cosmopolitan city? If it looks like self-serving nonsense and quacks like self-serving nonsense ... On and on the piece goes, but unwittingly Chuka skewers himself. On immigration, he - rightly - criticises Labour MPs who capitulate to anti-immigration sentiment and instead engage, address, and resolve concerns people might have. How short his memory is. Here is the difficulty. If vanity is your guide as opposed to politics, you become the most twisty of weather vanes. You reactions, your attention seekings are reduced to the demands of the moment regardless of what might have been said and done in the past.

Chuka has described the foundation of TInG a liberating experience. No doubt it is. No members expecting monthly reports, no whips asking you to abide by the manifesto you were elected on, no Electoral Commission scrutinising "party" finances. But deep down, Chuka knows the most liberating aspect of the whole experience, perhaps one he suspects but can't admit to himself yet, is his liberation from the tyranny of relevance.

Institutional Anti-Semitism and Factional Struggle

In recent days, the charge Labour is institutionally anti-semitic has surfaced again. The evidence marshalled are the interventions of Chris Williamson - long a bane for Labour MPs for other reasons. Then there are the idiots posting in Corbyn-aligned Facebook groups, the abuse received by sundry MPs, the odd activist hanging about with David Icke and, of course, the very fact Jeremy Corbyn has long-aligned himself with pro-Palestinian groups and causes. Then again, the charge isn't new. It aired last Summer too. You may recall Pete Willsman - he of "Jewish Trump fanatics" fame - was re-elected to the NEC after a secret recording of these comments were publicised. Because this didn't sink his chances and stopped trendy lefty and centrist hero Eddie Izzard from retaining his seat, ipso facto the party is anti-semitic from top to tail. That the polls opened and most of the voting was done before the comments gained wide currency is a trivial detail we need not bother with.

What then does it mean to say an organisation is institutionally racist? Presumably, it is stating that racism or a particular type of racism is endemic and constitutive of its structure and operation. Here then we can outline three different approaches to the issue. The first is that because capitalism itself is intrinsically racist. When you have exploitation, and seeing exploitation is dependent on managing populations, the stirring up of racist and xenophobic sentiments is a useful means of dividing and conquering, of blocking subaltern classes from ever becoming a threat to the social order. Therefore because racism exists in wider society it is bound to penetrate and permeate its institutions, all institutions. The Labour Party then, with its 540,000 members, is going to reflect the prejudices of its context. This includes anti-semitism, reported incidents of which last year were at an all-time high.

Necessary context then, but also a bit of a cop out. While all institutions are only as good as the society that hosts it, undeniably some are less racist than others. Labour has and continues to have a strong anti-racist record, and of the main parties is much stronger at actively rooting out all forms of racism, including anti-semitism. You then have to take institutional intent into consideration. If any member makes anti-semitic remarks, there is a reporting and complaints process, an investigation, and the application of sanctions with varying degrees of severity if one is found to have a case to answer. It is interesting that attacks on the disciplinary process itself have intensified since Jennie Formby took over, while her predecessor escaped all vitriol over the backlog that built up under his watch. But let's put that to one side. Formally speaking, thanks to the measures put in place over the last few years Labour is an anti-anti-semitic organisation and now has more elaborate definitions and procedures for dealing with this than, arguably, other kinds of racism as well as sexism and homophobia.

Nevertheless, the formal is not the same as the substantive, which brings us on to the third understanding of institutional racism. That is at best the blindness to and at worst the encouragement of racist practices. This is more or less the understanding the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry came to regards the Metropolitan Police, defining it as the "... collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people." Does this fit the Labour Party? Yes. And no.

As I've argued before, there is an historic culture of carelessness in parts of the left vis anti-semitism. A strand of this certainly comes from a more troubling source. The problem, however, is because this is overlaid by factional struggle there is now a blockage, an over-defensiveness and lack of willingness to countenance the very existence of a problem on the part of those who share and push anti-semitic tropes, or promote the work of anti-semites. This, of course, is compounded by the over-amplifying of anti-semitism by the media and the alacrity with which it has been taken up by Corbyn opponents, including hypocrites who floated "rootless cosmopolitan" criticisms of Ed Miliband when it suited just a few years ago. Here's the thing. Just because your opponents take up an issue, some times cynically and in bad faith. and use it to inflict as much damage as they can does not mean the problem is fictitious. Precisely because they can point to Facebook groups full of useful fools, and Twitter accounts with Corbyn-supporting hashtags acting as if the Israel lobby and "Zionists" are the only active force in British politics, this is the stuff that makes the attacks effective and trashes the standing of the party in the eyes of many Jews and the community's allies and friends.

The institutional anti-semitism in the Labour Party is, therefore, somewhat different to the kind you find in other institutions. It is sustained by the battle for the party, a grim battlefront in a zero sum game of entrenched position vs entrenched position. As such, whatever the leadership do, whatever new processes the General Secretary introduces for one side it will never be enough because, as far as many of them concerned, the leadership are politically illegitimate; and for the other it's a sop and capitulation. The resolution of the anti-semitism crisis then is not a matter of compromise - for each side the issue will only go away with the complete crushing and driving out of the party of the other. A situation that can only poison the well further, and guarantee anti-semitism won't honestly and comprehensively be confronted.

Saturday, 2 March 2019

The Far Right, the Left, and Anti-Semitism

Some necessary context for understanding the presence of anti-semitism on the left. This is courtesy of Dave Renton, which he first posted to Facebook.

I'll start with my position and then get on to the detail which will be less familiar to people, i.e. the analysis.

There are more important things happening in global politics even than the electoral fortunes of the British Labour Party. Think of Palestine. This is a country of something like 5 million people, the vast majority of whom are compelled to live as if in an open prison: with inadequate food and water, have the legal status of second class citizens, are deprived of work and, when they protest, shot at by soldiers. In the last decade, there has been an increasing move to boycott Israeli institutions. But Israel's defenders have responded with a propaganda war of their own: including (in the US) attempts to criminalise the advocacy of cultural boycotts, and including a repeated silencing of anyone who speaks up for the Palestinians. Among the many things which are wrong about this attempted silencing is that it works through a series of lies: that Israel's racist despoiling of the Palestinians is somehow race-blind, that Israel's critics are the successors to the interwar fascists ... In that context, if you are any sort of socialist or even a liberal deserving of the name, the only moral starting point must be support for Palestinians, hostility to the occupation, and to the lies used to justify it. But a pro-Palestinian politics can't succeed as if by saying "You call us racists, very well, we will be racists." Every time the movement does that, it makes life easier for the advocates of occupation, imprisonment and genocide.

Now, on to Williamson.

One thing very few people on the left seem willing to admit is that since 2003 the anti-war movement here has been subject to a process of infiltration by currents of opinion, and sometimes organised groups, behaving like the local representatives of the British far right.

In 2003-5, this was mainly about opinions. In particular, there was a current of opinion within the movement, which grew stronger the occupation of Iraq went on, to say that 9/11 was an American inside job. That strand of opinion was assisted, inevitably, by the need for people - who were against the war - to find websites which would give an honest, objective account of what was actually happening in Iraq. This meant disassociating from mainstream media, going to anti-war news sites. In the US a large number of these sites were hosted by the so-called "libertarian" right and saw no reason against promoting conspiracy theories, 9/11 Truth accounts, etc. Movements such as Stop the War did try to keep these sort of opinions out - banning them from our platforms, etc. But this was a matter of silent gatekeeping - the left didn't like to admit we had a problem in a movement we led - we would never say openly that we were worried about X or Y Stop the War group. The only time when the left in Stop the War came out publicly against the right was George Monbiot who in two Guardian pieces tore into the 9/11 Truth movement. In retrospect, that was a sign of the sorts of difficulties the left has been having in 2018-19: not least in the very many people who saw themselves on the left but posted in the Guardian comment threads criticising Monbiot.

By the time of the uprising in Syria, the counter-revolution, and the attempts by the worlds' imperial powers to stake an interest in it, this amorphous opinion strand had begun to acquire an infrastructure. Websites promising an independent take on events in the middle east had been going for 10 years. They were, in some cases, much better read that conventional media. (There were also parts of state media which backed them, notably Russia Today which finds that this kind of politics dovetails with its own).

Like the "conventional" far right, today's anti-war anti-semites have grown through a process of individual activists building up a social media infrastructure which at a certain point they have monetised on YouTube, Patreon, etc, enabling previously isolated individuals to become full-time organisers on behalf of a certain political argument.

Probably most of my friends haven't heard of them but that doesn't meant they haven't been able to achieve an influence much larger than they deserve.

A typical individual is Vanessa Beeley who was at one stage associated with an anti-war group in Frome, but has built up a Twitter following of 40,000 people which she uses to applaud dictators everywhere - Assad, Putin. And to say that the people she dislikes are in the pay of the Jews.

Or Gilad Atzmon, who tours the world promoting the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, saying that Jews should be blamed for the death of Jesus. And tells his followers on the hour why their greatest political enemy is the left.

Or Atzmon's British follower, Cyril Chilson.

[EDITED: Or Scott Nelson who tweets as @SocialistVoice, and who has written that Tesco's and M&S are "Jewish" businesses with "Jewish blood" and uniquely blameworthy for "human rights abuses" and "barbaric war crimes"]

These people aren't just an opinion trend any more, but like the other parts of the far-right they work through a process of mutual boosting and promotion. They are an organised and coherent faction united by a common insistence that the world's difficulties should be blamed on the Jews.

Moreover, while they seem to inhabit what looks like a left-wing space (i.e. opposition to the American wars in Iraq and Syria) their behaviour within that space is consistently not just right-wing but far-right: they oppose popular uprisings (e.g. in Syria), they support dictatorship, they oppose left-wing analyses of poverty and oppression which blame them on class, and argue for a conspiratorial, anti-semitic and racist politics.

You'll notice that I haven't mentioned Williamson.

The point about Williamson is that over the last 12 months he has liked the social media accounts of each of the four people/groups I've just mentioned, used his own social media to boost their profile, and treated them like the allies in a shared political project which he undoubtedly regards them to be. In so far as this part of the far right has a "shield" in official politics, he provides it.

Every time someone points out to Williamson that he is promoting anti-semites he goes through the same cycle of denial, insisting that his allies are good socialists being unfairly targeted for their views on Israel, belated admission, apology, promises not to do it again.

But he always does.

I am sure Williamson thinks of himself as a brave a defender of Corbynism and the Palestinians. But he behaves like someone who is trying to push forward certain current on the right - assisting them in permeating the left, and therefore in choking of the other strands of opinion which aren't willing to compromise with racism.

So, any sensible account of Williamson's proposed suspension has to begin from the deceit of some of the people accusing Labour of anti-semitism, their willingness to play a role as the public advocates of awful crimes, their inability the essential racism of the project they support.

But no principled politics could stop there.