Monday, 18 October 2021

Mourning as Tawdry Self-Interest

I can't think of a Member of Parliament less suited to deliver a lecture on decency in public life than Mark Francois, but such is the state of politics in 2021. Speaking in the Commons this afternoon as MPs paid tribute to David Amess, he argued we - as in honourable members - must clampdown on social media thanks to their "toxic" character that sees public figures "systematically vilified". I think the MP for Rayleigh and Wickford forgot he might have an interest to declare.

One thing has united both sides of the House since Amess's murder, and that's shameless opportunism. As noted on Friday, Chris Bryant was first out the gate calling for an end to social media anonymity. Despite there being zero suggestion that back and forth on Twitter and Facebook, our MPs' platforms of choice, have any bearing on this case. But never let a crisis go to waste. If there are opportunities for politicians to hold the public to account as opposed to facilitating the reverse, they'll take it.

Consider Francois's miserable contribution. Having the chutzpah to promote social media curbs as "David's Law", he attacked the CEOs for their "inaction", implying the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey are somehow responsible for what happened to his colleague. He said,
So let’s put, if I may be so presumptuous, David’s law onto the statute book, the essence of which would be that while people in public life must remain open to legitimate criticism, they can no longer be vilified or their families subject to the most horrendous abuse, especially from people who hide behind a cloak of anonymity with the connivance of the social media companies for profit.
Pretty gross, but MPs are pushing at an open door. According to polling data from July, 78% of punters believe anonymous accounts should not be allowed, with either one's identity displayed on a profile or at least disclosed to the operating platform. Unsurprisingly there's a clear age gradient to the numbers, with those least likely to be on or understand social media most enthusiastic about the measure while those using it the most, i.e. the young, are much less keen. Despite them being many more times, and particularly for young women, likely to be on the receiving end of the abuse and anonymous trolling Francois was wailing about.

How serious are MPs about be-kind-online provisions? They've shown no interest in the hate the press stir up. We're not necessarily talking about the hit jobs done on usual suspect leftwing MPs, above all Jeremy Corbyn, for example. But others too who've earned the Tory papers' ire, such as erstwhile Conservative MPs. This, as even the dogs in the street know, is nothing compared to the violent language and hate stirred up against the usual tabloid targets and scapegoats: single mums, black people, the unemployed, Muslims, travellers, refugees, trans people. Entirely coincidentally, according to Jim Waterson the press have negotiated an opt out from the forthcoming Tory Online Harms Bill, ensuring their anonymous contributors to comments aren't governed by the same provisions. Of course they have. And yet with galloping LGBTQ hate crime stats against a backdrop of vilification of trans people and their allies, it's rare to see concerns voiced about the linkage between press hate and violence on the green benches. Particularly on the government's side.

We should have no shame for saying what this is. MPs, including the self-declared "best friend" of the deceased, are using a murder of one of their own to build a head of steam for more authoritarian legislation. If passed it won't curb abuse, most of which comes from easily identifiable accounts anyway, but it will drive marginalised people who have very good reasons to conceal their identities - a point so obvious that even Labour are making it. But what it will do is increase the costs of social media doing business while protecting the press - among the Tories' chief institutional supports - from the same standards. In other words, it's a move designed to attack the free-floating exchange of ideas, opinion, and yes fruity language and sharp irreverence they (rightly) believe is undermining their foundations, and buttress those who buttress them 90% of the time. For all the talk of propriety and respect, there's few things more disrespectful than exploiting a murdered MP for tawdry self-interest.

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Saturday, 16 October 2021

Meet the New Left Challengers ...

... Same as the Old Left Challengers? It was inevitable some of the left were going to decamp from the Labour Party with Keir Starmer's election as leader. But to do what? That was always the interesting question, and now it has a clear answer. Since Corbynism's defeat and the tightening of thumb screws on the left who've remained, several new left parties have come into existence. The best known and attracting the lion's share of media interest is the Northern Independence Party, but it is far from alone. The Breakthrough Party, self-identifying as a youth-led democratic socialist party, stood its first candidate in the Chesham and Amersham by-election. Joining it one would find the Harmony Party, the BLM-linked Take the Initiative Party, and Chris Williamson's Resistance Movement, which happened to hold a festival in Nottingham this Saturday.

Political science ain't rocket science, and you don't need to hold a professorial chair in politics to understand why this is happening. Frustrated hopes, defeat, and the double whammy of an incompetent, right wing Labour leadership with the hapless politics to match call political consequences into being. The main question is whether there's a space for these new parties to make a go of it?

This was the subject of a joint public meeting hosted by NIP, BTP, and our old friends Left Unity. The subject? What the parties are about and what they're going to do. Chaired by Thelma Walker who stood for NIP in Hartlepool, she rightly identified there's a political vaccuum existing on the left, but how's it going to be filled?

The first contribution was from Joe Skeaping of BTP. He argued politics was geared toward older people, and therefore the new party wanted to address youngsters as they're at the sharp end of multiple crises - rents, lack of propery, precarious work, large debts, problems with the police, and the looming spectre of climate disaster. Despite billing itself "youth-led", BTP is not an exclusivist organisation and membership is open to all ages. The new party is a work-on-progress as it builds its policy platform, but already it claims "hundreds of members" and "thousands of supporters". Its immediate focus is on video content to articulate the urgency of the moment and get the party's name out there, but it is more than a Twitter pop-up. It attends demos as a party, has its first elected representative (Samantha Cooper, a town councillor in Bradford) and contested Chesham and Amersham from a standing start. Joe said the party hopes to deepen its electoral work by building support in targeted constituencies, and is planning on having a BTP presence at COP26. In a welcome break from the usual sectarianism, Joe said the party's core focus wasn't just on building Breakthrough but the wider movement too.

Speaking for Left Unity, Kate Hudson said LU was founded in 2013 because Labour had moved too far to the right. In office it embraced neoliberalism, failed to restore trade union rights and renationalise what the Tories sold off to their cronies. LU also saw itself as an expicitly internationalist party and aligned itself with the European radical left, like Greece's Syriza and Podemos in Spain. Before 2015 the party only took modest steps forward, but Corbynism saw most of its membership move into the Labour Party. LU persisted because even if the Corbynist revolution in Labour had become permanent (if only), there would still be need for a radical left party. This is because different perspectives on the left should be valued and Labour's history and policies are problematic. For example, the party of the NHS and the welfare state was, at the same time, the party of the atom bomb, NATO, and the Partition of India. Anti-imperialism needs political expression too. Therefore, it's time to stop hoping Labour will be a useful vehicle and the left should be building something new - though the left outside should be open to cooperation with left the in Labour while remembering we're all on the same side.

The founder of NIP, Philip Proudfoot, went next. He asked what was the future of the left? For starters, it had to ask constitutional questions and offer a vision beyond the UK itself. He roboustly defended why NIP are a separatist party, saying this was because the UK isn't a normal country: it's over-centralised with the sorts of unevenness and inequality one would expect from a state recovering from civil conflict. London parliamentary parties are the root of these disparaties, and so the left needs to take up these centre/periphery grievances lest centrists like Andy Burnham does, who'll only use it to ride to power without substantially addressing the problems. Likewise, there are regional disparities between the working class in different corners of these isands, and therefore requires different political responses. Touching on what has been built so far, Philip said the party has thousands of members all across northern England, is currently establishing branch structures, has (finally) properly registered with the Electoral Commission and is and ready to contest elections.

Coming in at the end, Thelma Walker talked about what the next steps are going to be. She identified an opportunity with existing non-voters, noting the low turnouts at the last three parliamentary by-elections. Many of them don't vote out of apathy, rather its a political passivity born of anger and frustration. What then are they going to do about it? The parties have to engage with those who believe no one's sticking up for them, offer policies that improve their lives, and work to turn them out at election time. The second opportunity is the break up of Britain. The SNP and Green pact in Scotland and could see it replicated across the country as they make a success of devolved administration, while Boris Johnson works at stalling a referendum and Labour cling to the union to preserve its junior position in the Westminster duopoly. When Scotland breaks free, Wales and Northern Ireland will too and this opens opportunities for NIP. But in the immediate term those outside of Labour have to organise and build an alliance on the left. Therefore, it's not just BTP targeting constituencies but all three parties are with an informal agreement to support each other, and avoid clashes.

This place is an old hand when it comes to commenting on the far left, so does this new alliance of new parties stand a chance under First Past the Post? Unike the delusional nonsense and official optimism from the established far left, at the very least none of these parties are pretending the mountains they face are gentle gradients. Philip is fond of using the example of UKIP who were able to sucessfully menace the Tories to achieve its policy objective, despite doing consistently poorly at general election time (at least in seat terms). He said they were able to leverage by-elections and turn them into publicity victories, something the new parties could do too. I'm a bit more sceptical. It wasn't mid-term Westminster contests that powered UKIP, but rather the five yearly cycle of EU elections. Fought on the basis of PR, they pulled in the anti-political establishment protest vote as well as right wing discontent. They ensured its leading figures a platform, Nigel Farage particularly, and gave them an institutional base and resource from which to strike. Additionally, they had sympathetic media on their side. The Daily Express in particular, now the most slavish of Johnson supporting titles, happily amplified UKIP's messaging and therefore ensured they were a constituency of opinion broadcast journalism had to take seriously. For obvious reasons, this is not open to any of our three new parties and so they've got to find their own way to impinge on mainstream politics. Hence where a strong record of activism outside of elections would come in handy, and why they're prioritising them.

As I've argued previously, it's not just that there's a "left space" going unfilled but thanks to Starmer's stupidity, his disassembling of the Corbynist voter coalition is seeing chunks of that support drift away. More might if these parties are able to make a splash. The rising working class are there, not going anywhere, and are only getting larger over time. But the question of treating with others who already inhabit the left-of-Labour space can't be ducked, either. In Batley and Spen, George Galloway performed very credibly, showing there is space for what we might very generously call left populism. But the issue is how does the three-party alliance deal with him, especially given his recent adventures in voting Tory, the crass pro-UK constitional politics, and the downright scabby positions his Workers Party of Britain fan club have on women's equality and LGBTQ issues? Likewise, the Socialist Party's Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition has contested elections for nearly 12 years without any success. If they want to maximise socialist votes, then an understanding should be sought from them.

However, the three-party alliance does have some advantages that TUSC lacks. In the first place, the SP has an antiquated conception of class, which has fed into a strategy that, at best, has seen them tread water for the last decade and left them unable to comprehend Corbynism and its eruption in the Labour Party. Second, the SP is utterly focused on building the SP. There are no other considerations, which has meant TUSC challenges are haphazard, sporadic, and amateurish. There is no consistency in working an area, and because it is less than the sum of its parts there's nothing to build even if TUSC worked a seat over time. NIP, BTP, and LU aren't beholden to this approach and therefore enter the fray without these impediments.

The best indicator of future behaviour is past behaviour, and leftwing splits from and alternatives to Labour have never fared well. It's taken 40 years for the Greens to start looking tricky in some circumstances. Can a renewed LU with NIP and BTP break with electoral history? The smart money would say no, but then again the smart people are set on driving Labour into the ground, taking the votes of millions for granted and others left up for grabs, so who can say? If the parties put their efforts into targeted localities, standing paper candidates far and wide, getting their banners seen on demonstrations, supporting high profile campaigns, and generating their own buzz via social media, there is an outside chance they could do better than any other left challenge of the last 20 years has managed to. But it is a hard road and the odds are stacked against them.

Friday, 15 October 2021

The Use and Abuse of David Amess

Irrespective of politics, the murder of David Amess calls for unreserved condemnation. Like what happened to Jo Cox, violent attacks on MPs as representatives of the meagre and faltering democracy we have in this country demands nothing less. It should then be a moment for pause and reflection about how we conduct our politics, especially while we don't know anything about the suspect's motives. Pondering the security of parliamentarians, yes. Paying tribute to Amess's life and work, yes. Offering thoughts about taking the sting out of politics and how we might realise the earnest promises made five years ago, yes. What this isn't a moment for is exploiting Amess's death and his family's pain for petty politics. And yet.

In the hours since lunch time, there have been three such attempts. The first are your common or garden racists. Upon news that the suspect is apparently Somalian, it doesn't take much for these to connect the murder with Islamism and from their trying to stir up a confected panic against Somalis everywhere, and by extension anyone with brown skin. No opportunity can be passed up to stir the cauldron of race hate.

Then we have the straightforward point scoring. As the motive behind Jo Cox's murder was quickly established and shown to be directly an act of far right terrorism against the backdrop of overheated anti-immigration and anti-liberal rhetoric from the Leave camp, a relationship was obvious. Thomas Mair was enabled and encouraged by the hothouse climate fanned by sundry politicians and press barons. Looking at Twitter shortly afterwards today, trending topics around Amess's murder were absolute cesspits of dishonesty and bad faith. There were rightwingers absolutely desperately trying to draw a chain of causation between what had happened, and Angela Rayner's off script comments at a Labour conference meeting where she branded the Tories scum. Naturally, drawing in all the bile Darren Grimes said "this is exactly why it’s completely unacceptable to describe your political opposition as ‘scum’?" This is the same Grimes who, a couple of years ago, went around saying it was perfectly acceptable to thump MPs who were opposed to Brexit. Just imagine. Crapping all over a politician who'd loyally served the Tory cause in the Commons for 38 years for the sake of right wing identity performance. What a grotesque bunch.

Coming in last is someone ostensibly from our own side. Chris Bryant's tribute to Amess is good, but to use the occasion to peddle his own hobby horse of ending social media anonymity? Such bad taste. Given we don't know whether social media or, for that matter, politics played a role in today's events, this is at best jumping the gun. At worst, opportunistically jumping on an issue to strike while the iron is hot, as it were. Never mind that the majority of social media abuse comes from accounts that are readily identifiable and, in most cases, use their own names it's an utter waste of time anyway. Something Bryant already knows, but he dishonestly carries on, recruiting the memory of a MP who can no longer speak for himself. What a shoddy, shameful effort.

The truth is if politics is at root of David Amess's murder, politicians and their press allies would do well to look at their own rhetoric. When she's not demonising refugees, Priti Patel is talking about pushing them back into the sea and exempting border patrols from prosecution for the subsequent drownings. The Tories dog whistle scrounger sentiments with their Universal Credit cut, the press egg on drivers to run over Insulate Britain protesters, and Boris Johnson himself built his victorious 2019 campaign off the back of labelling his opponents traitors and unpatriotic. All this is done in the service of a polarisation of politics they're happy to feed for as long as they benefit from it. This is the root of the political pathologies we see, and the Tories cheerfully apply more gas to the pressure cooker. For as long as these stark inequalities and antagonisms continue, we'll see more hateful rhetoric and, in all likelihood, a small number of people responding to it.

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Thursday, 14 October 2021

Playing Second Fiddle

Don't blame me, I supported the left candidate. But when Keir Starmer easily romped home in April last year, what was everyone anticipating? At worst, I expected what we're dealing with now. At best, a space for the left to make its presence felt in other ways. For example, some elements of continuity - a rowing back on the radical democratic elements of both manifestos and more managerialism. A briefcase Corbynism, if you like. Albeit with traditional Labour rightism running riot over crime and policing, and foreign policy. Something like a reversion to the Ed Miliband mean of 2010-15 with stronger leftist characteristics reflecting the composition of the party, its renewed constituency, and the platform Starmer stood on.

Subsequent history hasn't turned out like that, and it's to Labour's detriment. Starmer and his goons might think they're playing a clever game, but rather than getting cheered on by millions of voters, as Peter Mandelson recently claimed, poll numbers are stubbornly stuck behind the worst government this country has seen in modern times. Even worse, the coalition of voters we need to reassemble is decomposing and drifting away. Against the ruinous perspective responsible for this, the Labour right's factional obsession that subordinates electoral success to evicting the left, we're starting to see some concern raised by more centrist voices in the party. Neil Kinnock was one, and now he's joined by an even unlikelier voice: John McTernan.

Twitter-travelling comrades will know him well from his regular defences of Tony Blair, criticisms of Corbyn, and statements that at times border on Dan Hodges levels of bad faith, Yet, unlike virtually anyone else on the right of the Labour Party, John shows a keen interest in left wing ideas, publications, and the new wave of socialism Corbynism helped unleash. He is encouraging of those who would otherwise be his political enemies, and has been known to support projects he finds worthwhile. An interesting set of contradictions, particularly for someone who was previously close to His Blairness. And we see this played out in his recent open letter to Sam White, Keir Starmer's new chief of staff.

There are three main points to John's piece. That a leader's office should have a sense of urgency about it, which is a true enough point to make. The only alacrity Starmer has shown is with stitching up the party, while passively commenting on what the Tories are doing. There are many criticism that can be made of Blair, and this place has certainly made most of them, but serious about winning office he certainly was. Hunger, not a countenance of disinterested competence is what might turn heads. Second, John offers a robust defence of the trade unions and how they anchor Labour in the day-to-day realities of working life. That members manage this as well was perhaps an admission too far, but it's rare for someone, particularly with a Blairite pedigree, to publicly argue as positively for trade unionism. To be fair to Starmer, I'm inclined to agree with Andy Beckett. Having a more positive attitude to unions than other recent leaders save Jeremy Corbyn appears to be one of his brightest points in an otherwise dark and gloomy Starmerist firmament.

It's the third argument running in parallel which is the most interesting. John argues for ignoring the froth ("Look beyond the chants of "betrayal" for the substance") and LOTO will find "really thoughtful considerations on working life, crime, environmental justice, and community development." He earlier evokes the model of Joe Biden's victory in the US, where the standard frame has become one of the left in junior partnership with the liberals seeing off Donald Trump. The payback has seen money for infrastructure projects, climate change mitigation, and better Covid support - not quite absorbing "Senator Bernie Sanders’ policy team into his ... [turning] those ideas into deliverable ones rather than distant dreams" in my view, but nevertheless finding something useful to draw on and not treating the left like a whipping boy to be thrashed every time headlines are looking glum. John also makes the point that we need to learn from voters and work out why Labour lost, which means asking serious questions about how the Tories won. Here he invokes the example of Stuart Hall who would "read everything she’d [Margaret Thatcher] written and to listen to everything she’d said. That’s what made him one of the finest analysts of Thatcherism, able to provide an essential guide to Labour in our wilderness years." Indeed, and my own book is an attempt to fill that gap and stimulate more serious thinking and work about the Tories.

John's advice is a rare moment of sanity coming from the Labour right, a recommendation that perhaps sawing off the party's feet isn't a good idea if one wants to gallop first past the post. It's a plea to shift gear into what might have been before it's too late. Unfortunately, it is too late. The window Starmer had to make himself known was passed up at the most crucial time during his leadership, and nothing can make up for this time lost. And, unfortunately, the partnership John recommends is a pipe dream precisely because of what has happened and is still happening. In his observations about Labour Party conference, Paul Mason noted the complete shattering of the party as a shared endeavour. The ascendant right aren't happier than when they pour scorn on or make up lies about the left, and much of the left - while they retain their membership cards - are focusing their energies more usefully on community and street activity, or producing the analyses, policy ideas, and theoretical work John finds beguiling. A US-style junior partnership between right and left is unlikely because too much salt has been ploughed into the soil. The right Starmer listens to want the left gone, the left have better things to do than stump for a bunch of clueless and appalling suits. And the left know the right would rather see the Tories in office than face greater party democracy and leadership of the party by the left.

Ultimately, while John hopes for a reconciliation of sorts and is right to task the leadership with making the first move, it does at best represent the outer limits of what his wing of the party accepts. The right in charge, with the left playing second fiddle as leaflet and canvassing fodder, and the occasional source of interesting policy ideas.

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Wednesday, 13 October 2021

The Erosion of the Tory Party

I've written enough on this topic, so here's someone else having a go. Alex interviews Andy Beckett about whether the difficulties the Tories are presiding over are going to bite chunks out of their support, and why Keir Starmer is playing his cards close to his chest.

As ever, please don't forget to support Alex's work.

Monday, 11 October 2021

The Labour Right's Self-Destructive Turn

It would be fair to say this place isn't the Labour right's biggest cheerleader. From throwing elections to being racist to keeping their nests nice and feathered at the expense of victory, they are by far the most destructive political trend in Britain. Bar the Tories who keep getting a free pass thanks to their preoccupation with internal party shenanigans.

But there are trends among the Labour right who do pull in different directions. There is the naively pragmatic who go along with its prescriptions because they genuinely believe having no principles (or at least, locking them under the stairs with trade unions and Jeremy Corbyn) is the path to victory. In their own way they are serious about winning elections, and are having their hearts presently stirred by Blair and Brown: The New Labour Revolution. Others are more calculating and believe putting the left back in its box is a necessary precondition to turning outwards to win an election. They were enthusiastic fighters against Corbynism, but know there are limits. The left should be confined to steerage, but not at the expense of sinking the whole ship. And last of all are the scorched earth types who are quite prepared to burn it all as long as a few of them can salvage something from the ashes. Labour's problem is Keir Starmer represents the first group, while taking strategic direction and advice from the latter.

How else can one think through the politics of the leadership's latest escapade? Showing more determination to find the culprit who leaked that report than punishing the vile, scabby behaviour it revealed, in its infinite wisdom the legal team have decided it should name the five people it has narrowed the leak down to, but can't determine who among them did the deed. This is in response to action brought by Emilie Oldknow, who already failed in court to force the release of names and paid heavily for the privilege. Why did the party fight the case then but have now conceded to her demand? For purely factional reasons. The hope is hanging blame for the leak on the five opens them not only to action from the aggrieved scabs who were caught bang to rights, but also the party who would look to recoup costs for the huge sums it voluntarily shovelled into their coffers.

The problem? It's extremely unlikely it would stand up. As the five's solicitors, the notorious (for other reasons) Carter Ruck, have noted "The party apparently admits that its case against the individuals is purely circumstantial and inferential, but has failed even to set out that case properly in correspondence, despite its obligations to do so under the relevant Court Protocol." More members' money wasted on a desperate legal gambit for entirely factional reasons, and that doesn't take on board any counter suit the five might take out against these allegations.

There once was a time when Labour fought hard to keep the courts out of its internal affairs. The independence of the party and the movement from the courts reflected its own attempts to establish its own systems of authority and sovereignty, and because when the lawyers came knocking in the past bearing writs determined to regulate, stymie, and arrest the labour movement's growing power. Since 2016, when right winger Michael Foster took the party to court to keep Corbyn off the leadership ballot, the taboo about court action was well and truly broken. Whether it was leftists litigating the NEC's decision to hike up the supporter status price in the same contest (a daft action from the point of view of the law), or Chris Williamson trying to get his suspension overturned, or the right wingers crying about tarnishing their own reputations, or running to the police for spurious reasons, or begging for a statutory body to come and investigate them, no one bats an eyelid as the party's filthy linen is paraded before bewigged representatives of the ruling class. The courts are just another, albeit rarefied arena of struggle. And a key principle or our movement withers to nothingness.

This doesn't explain why, so here's a stab. For a section of the Labour right more comfortable attacking the left than the Tories, pursuing former staffers and taking them to the cleaners confers a personal sense of satisfaction (even if it will cost the party dearly). Rather, it serves as a warning. If anyone dares challenge what is theirs by right, they can expect to be harassed, pursued, ruined, and traduced. The whole process is driven by people whose brains were broken by their near death experience, and believe future extinction threats can only be kept at bay by an over-the-top, vindictive pushback. It won't work, but it might contribute to Labour's election failure in two years' time.

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Sunday, 10 October 2021

Martin Solveig - The Night Out (Madeon Remix)

Back to work tomorrow, but there's no time like the present for a top party tune. And for those who want more, here's another 99 of them.

Saturday, 9 October 2021

The Politics of Condolences

Politics can make anyone hard hearted, but unexpected feelings can manifest when something befalls an opponent or an enemy. I had no time for James Brokenshire, who died from lung cancer on Thursday, but when the news broke I did feel a twinge of something. Perhaps because it was another life, in this case a relatively young one, succumbing to a vile disease. There is his wife and children, who surely didn't deserve to lose a husband and a dad. And there is the loss in and of itself - the ending of a life, of something that never expects to be anything other than always becoming.

Naturally, politicians from all corners of politics paid their tributes. Boris Johnson called him kind and "extraordinarily effective." For Keir Starmer, Brokenshire was "a thoroughly decent man". And "James was unfailingly professional and kind and it was clear that he cared deeply about his work and public service", came from Angela Rayner. All comments were the same. He seemed to get on with a lot of his fellow parliamentarians and was well liked. Florid tributes have long been customary in politics. When Tony Benn and Michael Foot passed away, the Tories were effusive with praise (that didn't stop The Times from retrospectively smearing Foot eight years after his death). Even when Bob Crow died suddenly, the trade unionist's trade unionist and persistent adversary of Johnson's part-time mayoralty and privatisation schemes, nice things were said. The official eulogies flattered in death what they wouldn't countenance in life.

Talking about the Commons previously, for all the cut and thrust of party political rivalry getting business done requires cross-party working. MPs are cooped up in committee meetings and the estate's bars. They spend time in lifts, sound each other out for alliances of interest, and take jollies together via the all-party parliamentary groups. Because there's only 650 of them and they live a hothouse life in a pressure cooker (or, at least they think they do), they share more with each other than their staff and, of course, the constituency members back home. The only ones who come close to appreciating their position while giving them all due respect are the lobby hacks and political correspondents. Not just anyone is allowed to sing a boozy conference duet with Michael Gove, you know. This spirit of all-in-it-together is especially corrosive for Labour politicians, and helps explain why they're more prone to Westminster's pomp than the Tories. And so when news broke about Brokenshire's passing, I have no doubt for Labour MPs that paid tribute it was, in the overwhelming majority of cases, heartfelt and genuine. Just as there were plenty of Tory MPs who were upset by Jo Cox's murder. As she might have put it, they have more in common with each other than what divides them.

This is why no one has pointed out the obvious. In a world where decency is confined to manners and conduct, the fact Brokenshire spent the last 11 years in government making people's lives a misery goes unremarked. In 2010, Brokenshire stood on a manifesto whose programme of public sector cuts killed tens of thousands of people. For every piece of regressive legislation that came along - putting the screw on tenants, restricting legal aid, supporting mass surveillance, backing welfare cuts, giving migrants a tough time, and opposing climate change mitigation - Brokenshire was a loyal Tory foot soldier and voted the wrong way each and every time. And he did so, just like his colleagues, fully aware of that this meant for people on the sharp end. There was never any sympathy, contrition, or doubts about the damage he supported during his time. I imagine he slept soundly every night, untroubled by people driven to despair because of the rent increases, social security cuts, and bullying bosses made possible by the party and government he supported.

James Brokenshire might have been a lovely, personable man who was generous with his time and loved his family. But he was also a fully cognisant, self-aware participant in the worst, most vicious, and deadliest government in living memory. Respectability does not scrub the slate clean as if none of what he did mattered. He helped make life worse for millions of people, and ended some of them prematurely. If you still want to remember him, don't forget what he did either.

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Friday, 8 October 2021

Why Have the Tories Cut Universal Credit?

The Tories' decision to carry on with their Universal Credit cut is devastating. Charlotte spells out the consequences for millions of people. Over a thousand pounds a year, gone. It's savage, and the Tories are hardly brimming with sympathy for those at the sharp end. "It was only temporary" is the smug, stock response, implying that if UC recipients hadn't been preparing themselves for the loss of up to a fifth of their income, they probably had it coming anyway. UC payments can easily be made up by getting a better job, as if the million or so vacancies available aren't predominantly low paid and need UC to subsidise them anyway. And for those who can't work for whatever reason? The Tories are making £500m available to local authorities to help. Accessing that cash is sure not to have gatekeepers like stringent bureaucratic hoops, means testing, and humiliating meetings with advisors lecturing poor people on how best they should spend their money.

The Tories know it's wrong. Rishi Sunak's near silence at the start of the week about what he was doing spoke louder than anything else to come out of Tory conference. They know about the hardship, the mental anguish, the kids going hungry, the cold homes and empty cupboards, and families driven to breaking point. These stories present themselves to them in letters, emails, and constituency surgeries. It's a tide of misery they're doing everything to encourage, and they carry on doing it. Which begs the question: why? It's not like they're naive or mistaken and would come to their senses if someone stuck a Child Poverty Action Group briefing under their nose. Labour MPs reading out constituency correspondence in the Commons, and even lobbying from some green Tory backbenchers won't shift them. Then what? Is it a question of evil? Refusing to confront the consequences of their actions and telling lies to cover up their indifference certainly looks like it. But it goes beyond morality. It's a question of class interest.

As explained previously, there are two kinds of capitalist realism. The first is the "common sense", technocratic sort (not often you see those phrases paired together). This is where most of the Labour, liberal, and centrist establishments are at. British capitalism has to grow, and it works best when there are more people in work with higher wages, large amounts of disposable income, and the government regulates the lot to ensure broadly functional outcomes. If some of these aren't moved by the plight of people having to suck up the UC cut, they are likely to be opposed on grounds that it takes money out of pockets, depresses spending, and retards economic growth. This outlook is pervasive, and its adherents assume the Tories share this view. They cannot understand why the self-described party of business are stamping on the first fizzles of post-lockdown economic recovery. It's puzzling.

The answer lies in the other capitalist realism: the class politics. The Tory mindset does not see a social system in which rising tides float all boats, but a zero sum game of the haves and the have nots. They not only want to keep the haves as the haves, they understand their power and position is preserved at the expense of those without it. The Tory objective, whether it was the patrician Harold Macmillan, the class warrior Margaret Thatcher, or the decrepit, decadent government of Boris Johnson is the preservation of capitalist relations of production. Let's consider another recent example.

No sooner had the Tories brought in the Job Retention Scheme, Rishi Sunak and his allies were musing aloud about cutting it to ribbons. They were terrified by the very idea of millions of people sat at home either "doing nothing" on furlough, or carrying on their work out of sight of the boss. Just imagine workers knocking their spreadsheets on the head to catch some This Morning action with an appropriately distanced Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby. What concerned the Treasury, and Johnson himself, was a relaxation of workplace discipline. The greater autonomy people had about when and how they would do their work, the discovery that life could go on without the beady panopticism of shopfloor/office tyranny and that, on the whole, workers enjoyed spending more time away from work and with their families, pets, and questionable TV viewing habits. The work ethic might be damaged! People won't want to come back! Where does this leave the authority and hold of the employer? Potentially much weaker than it used to be. And so, last summer, the government began campaigning for the return to work, with Sunak making out the office was a fab 'n' groovy place to hang out and not a dive people go to because they are paid to. Johnson started muttering darkly about forcing people back too, while others in his class were hyping the end of the workplace. That a mass return to work would have meant more infections and more deaths were secondary to the health of class relations.

How does this help explain the UC cut? For one, many Tories believe social security is too generous because one can eke out a miserable, straitened existence on it. If it were lower, the wage floor would be lower and bosses could get away with paying less. Meaning a higher rate of exploitation, labour's greater dependence on capital and therefore, more profits. From this twisted mindset the £20 uplift was an unacceptable barrier. Second, because the new UC was more money this increased, albeit marginally, the bargaining power of individual workers. With a tiny bit more to fall back on, employers had to offer more, such as money, flexible working that suited the employee, and guaranteed hours, all of which nibbled at the overweening power of capital in the job market. As a hyper class conscious organisation alert to how the scratch of concession could lead to the gangrene of a confident, collectivising work force, this would not do. And therefore we have the Tories thanking millions of essential workers who spent the pandemic risking their lives on the minimum wage being forced out of pocket. All to precent the well heeled from having to fork out a bit more and negotiate with their workers on a more level playing field.

And this is before you even consider another important factor. With labour shortages across the economy and with few EU workers running to save the government from its self-inflicted wounds, pushing the wage floor back down to pre-pandemic levels does not allow the low paid to leverage their position in a tight labour market. With millions made poorer, the Tories know full well many will accept anything that's going at whatever stingy wage is offered. And from this, somehow the high wage, high skilled economy is going to spontaneously combust into being. Though it won't - it's just rhetoric to try and keep enough gullible voters fooled by the levelling up nonsense on board.

For the Tories, capitalism isn't a dynamic economic powerhouse requiring fearsome skills to manage, but a straightforward pyramid of class rule to be protected. This is what 200 years of modern Conservatism has taught us. They're serious about prosecuting their class interests. It's about time we matched that determination with some of our own.

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Thursday, 7 October 2021

Reacting Against Reaction

Super interesting episode from the Acid Horizon comrades. Proving once again that philosophy is class struggle in theory, along with their guest Greg Sadler they have a butcher's at Nick Land's Fanged Noumena, the work that preceded his turn into what Mark Fisher called 'mad, black Deleuzianism'. Or what we might call fascism with sophist characteristics. This is a good primer for his work, an introduction to NRx thinking more generally, and why for some Land is so appealing.