Thursday, 15 April 2021

The Lobotomised Taxpayer

All it took was one scrape, and the whole corrupt Tory edifice comes into public view. And the more one digs, the more we find. Corruption sits on top of more corruption. There's nothing other than Tory corruption all the way down. Apocryphally, Labour were supposed to be the ones who had difficulties with money while the Tories got their knickers in a twist about sex. These days, modern Conservatives prefer engorging the figures on their bank balance than accumulating notches on the bedpost.

Scandals of a public procurement character inevitably raise the grinning ghoul of "taxpayers' money" to underline how out of order and egregious the wrongdoing is. After all, it's our money Tory ministers, top civil servants, and their mates are filling their champagne baths with. Here's Angela Rayner using that exact framing. And, ugh, this place has fallen into the same rhetorical trap on occasion too. But it is a phrase the left shouldn't just avoid, but purge from its own agitation and critique its use in everyday politics.

Hold on, isn't this a bit ultra? After all, it does have some power doesn't it? We are all taxpayers to some degree, and so while the Tories - especially our old friend Thatcher - used this as an ideological battering ram (among other things) against social security and state industry, it's a double-edged sword that hands a useful rhetorical weapon over to the Tories' opponents. When deserving recipients are denied money and the likes of Akshata Murthy, Dishy Rishi's billionaire wife sccops up a hundred grand to cover her gym business's furlough bill, then the Tories are setting themselves up for a whole load of political pain. Except, in practice, it has done no such thing. The Conservatives have been in power for 11 years and the wasteful ends to which state money have been put are legion, and yet seldom can one find a taxpayer sweaty about corporate subsidies, dosh splashed on Downing Street press rooms, or wallpapering the flat above Number 10. Perhaps it's not as neutral a weapon as one might think.

How is the taxpayer constructed within the political imaginary? It is a location, if not a subject position, that is purely atomised save the contributions it is compelled to make to the state. Tax is written in the pay slip, it's worked out on the self-assessment forms, it comes on the statement from the council and automatically deducted from one's accounts. It appears extractive. There is nothing reaching out, no other points of connection to anything except the state, a strict sort of verticality lending itself to just two political possibilities: a desire to see the compulsory levy come down, or an entitled view over how their money is spent by councils and governments. View is perhaps the wrong word. Gut feeling is better.

Thatcher's genius lay in reconstituting the permitted political units of her assault on British society along a series of linked but formally independent micro or partial subjectivities - the owner-occupier, the small shareholder, the consumer and, of course, the taxpayer and all, coincidentally, are defined by their relationship to money. None contain within them codes for comprehensive critique nor the impulse to solidarity, except in one sense: the negative sense. In the case of the taxpayer, Thatcher's efforts were aimed at promoting the reduction of the tax bill as the defining criterion of public service, and constructing an electorate for whom saving a few quid here and there matters more than decently funded and functional public services. Actively aided my the most powerful opinion-forming machines in the land and her accelerated break up of working class communities, the atomised taxpayer were pointed to their neighbours, the family down the road, the guys thrown out of work, the single mums, the travellers, a whole pantheon of the undeserving poor in other words and told they were paying for them, their fecklessness and failures, and their laziness and layabout lifestyles. This was your money, and they were taking the piss with what you had earned. As such, the taxpayer position is one easily manipulated by a government and its media allies.

Therefore, the "taxpayer" is fundamentally conservative and conservatising. During their time in office, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's governments were adept at playing the game too. Who can forget John Prescott telling his audience that refuse collectors should not have to pay for the tuition of university students? This is why it cannot be wielded for progressive purposes, despite the countless attempts at doing so. Constituting a taxpayer consciousness requires images and figurs that resonate with everyday life. Travellers, which have been in this government's sights from the beginning, work because not only are they "alien", they are perceived to not be taxpayers themselves, make a mess, disturb "taxpayers" wherever they show up, and everyone has an experience or a story to tell. This is more visceral and real, any scapegoat is more visceral and real than abstract ideas about rich people taking more money than their due. The partialised, lobotomised taxpayer might not like it, but its social approximation is so distant to induce a mild dissatisfaction than red hot steaming resentment.

"The taxpayer" is an entirely right wing construct, is only successfully manipulated by right wing politics, and is inseparable from Thatcher's framing of government spending as a household budget. It's not just the wrong way of looking at politics, it's their way of looking at politics. Our class interests lie in multiplying points of contact and building solidarities along them: privileging the taxpayer, whether by right or (nominally) left wing politicians is a fundamental barrier to that.

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Monday, 12 April 2021

The Waning of Official Ideology

We all like revelations, but my joining millions of others in the great television turn off on the evening of Prince Philip's death probably does not qualify. Terrestrial TV, with the exception of Channel Four, was nothing but a blizzard of propagandistic Persil, of suds and foam on a rapid spin cycle laundering away the Duke's awful reputation. In the simpering tones only Nicholas Witchell can muster, we heard about Phil's keen love for nature, and from a retinue of former toadies about how his frequent racisms and "gaffes" were ice-breaking efforts at humour, of eliciting conversation from poor sods forced to paste on the smiles and play the grateful subject. Indeed, so persitent has this myth become in the short retelling that Boris Johnson saw it fit to repeat some of them in his own Commons eulogy.

This kind of nonsense coming from the state didn't require much forecasting. The declaration of eight days of morning, the injunction BBC presenters are to wear black for the period, Tory efforts to memorialise the Prince with a new royal yacht, the suspension of government business, and the clearing of the parliamentary decks for hours upon hours of tributes. Naturally, all sides of the house - 132 MPs were down to deliver their eulogies - united in a toe curling display of flummery. The Speaker Lindsay Hoyle set the scraping tone, calling the dear departed the "Father of the Nation". Keir Starmer paid his regards to this "source of stability", and Theresa May (remember her?) alighted upon his example of service. Responsibility for the most deliciously idiotic comment fell to Harriet Harman (it had to be a Labour MP), who suggested this pinnacle of the class system was "profoundly countercultural".

Jacob Rees-Mogg outlines the ruling class common sense best by repeating the same paragraph over and over again with a slow building cadence of religious histrionics. The Prince's example was "about service to an institution embodied in an individual who represents the nation." Rees-Mogg talks about the oath before God, the unbreakable sacrament of service, and how the royal couple's vows in the presence of the almighty conferred their relationship with the nation with divine blessings. Just don't talk about the rumours of the 30 affairs that have filled the French press since the weekend. Returning to Mogg's invocations, they're redolent of the ancient sovereignties of the absolute monarchs. Hence the passing of Philip is a diminution of the UK state's official personhood, and only the pageantry of ritual and its impingement on the convenience of its citizenry can the event become the event, a moment where the mortality of the royal person is the foil for the (aspirant) immortality of the institutions that made Philip possible.

What was unexpected, at least to the media managers and opinion formers, the politicians, and the Palace itself was this "event" greeting a vast ocean of apathy and indifference. The live feeds on YouTube of the Commons tributes numbered between just 200-350 watchers, a good chunk of whom will be journos looking for a bit of copy before the printers roll. Meanwhile, the BBC received 100,000 complaints and were forced to pull its online form following a decision from on high. The possibility of a Diana-esque period of popular mourning was anticipated by the powers-that-be, and to their minds it's black armband day out here in real world land. But no.

And so the tributes, the pull-out souvenirs, the schedule cancellations and the speechifying will only succeed in affirming the state for a small number of (mostly powerful) people. Indeed, had the government gone all-in with the full pomp of a state funeral this might have catalysed resentment and opposition, especially when the 127,000 Covid dead are barely acknowledged. We're lucky then that among the Duke's final wishes were instructions for a somewhat modest service not even the Prime Minister will be attending.

The official mourning does say something though the distance between them and us, which is curious considering the political mastery the Tories have demonstrated on the issues of the day. There does seem genuine surprise among ruling circles at the lack of appropriate mass respect, even from the (nominally) reliable forces of social conservatism Tory politics falls back on. Does this matter? The state can do without willing supplicants and scraping subjects as long as indifference doesn't pass over into opposition and the abomination of activism, but it's enough to give the more intelligent bourgeois operators pause. Despite the Deeply Solemn Moment, the shit daily flung at the Windsors' own heretics and renegades, and the thumping Tory majority, explicit fealty to the formal discourses of state is worryingly weak. And how this might be repaired neither the Tories nor the rest of the establishment have a single clue, except hoping that going through the motions enough times, especially when the Queen passes away, will be just good enough.

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Sunday, 11 April 2021

Tory Sleaze and Ruling Class Solidarity

Thrift and making your own way in the world by the sweat of your brow are Tory fairy tales. What goes unsaid every time these fables are trotted out by friendly newspaper columnists and MPs addressing their monthly Conservative association meetings is how "making one's way" plays very differently when one ascends to a certain level. In the case of our old friend Dave, we read about how he's raided his piggy bank of social capital and used his offices with Dishy Rishi and Matt Hancock to open doors for the firm he was employed by (and had substantial holdings in), Greensill Capital. Things are so bad that even Sunday morning's Andrew Marr, which was to be devoted to the official mourning for Prince Philip, had to discuss the scandal at length.

Characteristic of his former sidekick, George Osborne, who used to go to ground as soon as the shit hit the fan, Dave is nowhere to be seen. Instead "friends" and "close sources" to the former prime minister have taken it upon themselves to issue the denials. Well, facts don't care about their lies. That Dave texted the chancellor to get state money into Greensill is indisputable. That Dave introduced Lex Greensill to Hancock at a private drinks, and that one of his companies subsequently won a contract for handling payments for NHS workers is completelt what happened. The Graun quotes a "Hancock ally" as saying, "Matt acted in entirely the correct way – he updated officials on the business that was discussed, as is appropriate." The article notes Greensill's outfit were supplying a free service. Guess that makes everything alright then, as if providing a loss-leading service for nowt is never with a view to securing more lucrative contracts later on.

More delicious are the revelations about Dave's text exchanges with Sunak asking for loans for Greensill. When the story first aired, Dishy Rishi wasn't about to let these claims ruffle his feathers. Through intermediaries, he let the press know he did nothing improper and referred Dave to his team. Seems above board. But when the texts themselves were published, what do we see? A bit of factually accurate sleight of hand. In the exchanges we find less a polite brush off and, well, this: "Hi David, apologies for the delay. I think the proposals in the end did require a change to the Market Notice but I have pushed the team to explore an alternative with the Bank that might work." Does that look like a refusal to you, or an admission Sunak got on the Treasury's case to help out his chum? As Bridget Phillipson of the shadow treasury team rightly notes, Sunak is now on the hook for breaking the Ministerial Code. Not that Boris Johnson will care or do anything about it, but a question mark hanging over the chancellor's integrity won't hurt Labour's chances.

This kind of lobbying and arm-twisting happens all the time in the Tory party. The bonds of ruling class solidarity, the ties that bind, rely on knowing the right people, cultivating them, doing favours and, occasionally, cultivating conspiracies of silence through complicity in dark deeds. See, for example, how the compromising material Jeffrey Epstein accumulated on celebrities and politicians for insurance. But also there's something instructive about the Dave/Greensill affair and how the Conservative Party conducts itself.

In the first place, why enter politics? Most who enter parliament enjoy a nice salary uplift, but this isn't always the case and especially so on the Tory benches. Aspirant business people and successful capitalists also vye for seats and high office. They might tell themselves they're doing it for the right reasons, of wanting to give something back and help people. If this was the case, they'd do less harm attending their local Rotary Club dinner. Regardless of their rubbish justifications, the rewards of office include status, which always means a wider profile and the opening of doors money grubbing alone cannot achieve. And with it, influence. For the egoist being a player on the national stage, having one's leaks splashed over the press, getting invites for the politics shows, and being on first name terms with the ministers of the day is what a lot of politicians (and would-be MPs) crave. And, of course, the further one climbs up the greasy pole the more opportunities for the same.

Here's why there's not really any such thing as a Tory rebel. As one moves in these exalted circles, what happens to politicians after politics comes into view. Osborne and his many lucrative jobs, Dave and his extensive share options, the passage of Tony Blair into the fabulously wealthy. Politics facilitates introductions to other businesses, and in turn what businesses always want is access to politicians because they direct state spending. Lobbying is a fact of life, and politicians are very well placed to make a killing in this field when they've left their parliamentary offices for the final time. And so, though Dave has got himself into seriously choppy waters, his entirely improper attempts at influencing Sunak aren't about to put any Tory MPs off from following suit. Quite the opposite. They know if they toe the line, vote the right way, make sure they serve the interests of the fractions of business they're broadly aligned to, then they can look forward to being looked after in much the same way. Though perhaps they'll show a little more caution and discretion than Dave.

After a lifetime working in defence of his class and the state, Prince Philip appeared to render one last service by passing away when he did. The lobbying revelations vanished and he became the focus of the news, though it hasn't taken long for them to come roaring back. Yet politics has officially shut down. Ministers have taken time off and affairs of state suspended for "mourning". This includes, entirely coincidentally, not being available to answer questions about the scandal. But this final favour might rebound on the Tories' heads. Refusing to rebut, and with the big names and recognisible faces absent until after next Saturday's funeral, the story could spiral and, hopefully, see some of the sleaze finally stick to the Tories. A reminder that there are few things more repugnant than seeing the back scratching of ruling class solidarity open to public display.

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Saturday, 10 April 2021

Friday, 9 April 2021

Rescue for the Sinclair Spectrum

Looking to escape the mawkish coverage of Prince Philip as television enforces compulsory mourning? Why not spend it reflecting on a game that is very far from famous? Indeed, coming after two major megahits, we're slipping down the ZX Spectrum's memory hole to find (perhaps) the most obscure game our occasional featurette has alighted upon. The title in question goes by the innocuous and generic name of Rescue, and it hit Sinclair's rubber-keyed beastie back in 1987 courtesy of Mastertronic.

I remember picking this up in a four-pack of science fiction games from Derby Woolies. If memory serves, the other three titles were the equally obscure strategy game, Invasion (never could work this one out), the terrible isometric shooter Galletron, and the far more interesting giant ant killing simulator, Amaurote. Rescue was by far the most immediately playable and accessible of the lot, and it went on to become one of my brother's favourite games.

The plot was perhaps a bit too detailed for a £1.99 game, but it provided background enough for some arcade action. As the Solar System fell apart following the terrible "Last War", humanity retreated to its enclaves scattered across the moons and planets. Yet out at Pluto some UN scientists developed a stardrive that ... might double up as a nasty weapon. Cue the attention of space pirates and all manner of other nasties. The player's job, having docked with their space station, is rescuing as many scientists as possible, their experiments, and stock up on enough fuel to take off. Two problems. The enemies are also roaming the station, and a 30 minute destruct system has been activated. Yikes.

The action is a flip screen affair. Wander around the map locating where the scientists are, shepherd them back to the ship, and kill the enemies. This, however, was easier said than done. There were eight of our lab-coated chums in all but they can't simply be collected. At any given time one would wake up and start running around. The tricky job was blocking off exits and bumping into the panicking boffin to try and force them in the direction you want them to go. Get them in your ship and they eventually run into one of the suspended animation pods. Do this and another scientist somewhere wakes up and starts running around. And so off you go to find them. If this wasn't bad enough, each has a red test tube next to them we should also be returned to the ship. One of these scientists and their experiments is the star drive and its inventor, but the only way of knowing for sure you have them is collecting all eight. On top of this, you need to acquire wnough fuel to take off. Without it, your ship will crash and the mission ends in failure.

Rescue is very interesting for a couple of reasons. While some would undoubtedly find the herding aspect of the game irritating to the point of hair pulling, you can forget the main mission completely and go about doing your own thing. The scientists can be killed, so there was some satisfaction to be had from hunting and shooting them all yourself. Rooms can also be blocked off preventing the space pirates from entering, and one thing I enjoyed doing was going to the far room in which the screen is separated by a wall and watching a menagerie of baddies move in and kill each other. It was a lesson in how many decent-sized sprites the Speccie could handle on screen (three), and there was something of a kick from teasing the indestructable tanks - a baddy totally impervious to your fire and only offable thanks to detonating one of the bombs lying around. In other words, this was an early example of a sand box game. It was time limited and there wasn't much to the game world, but it allowed the player a much greater degree of freedom within its parameters then most other arcade adventures on the Speccy.

The other interesting aspect was the degrading environment. If the two main entry points for the space pirates aren't blocked off, then the station can be quickly overrun. This is a problem if there are a few tanks about, but also each enemy destroys the environment. Often entering a screen a baddie will be in the process of destroying a door, a crate, a teleportation terminal or, argh, a sleeping scientist! Because enemies are dumb they'll also have a go at setting off a bomb. And when that blows, everything is damaged. Screens blow out, cracks paper the walls. Ammo boxes, first aid kits, crates, all destroyed. Their capacity for destroying the environment adds urgency to the player who wants to complete the game properly. Go after all the scientists, is there going to be enough fuel left? Put a tiger in your tank first and will the pirates have killed a few snoozing savants and wrecked the experiments? Decisions, decisions.

Rescue is a good game, though it only attracted average reviews at the time. No two goes were exactly the same and it offered a limited environment for experimention and rejection of the aims of the game if the player so chose. Indeed, playing about, exploring, trapping tanks and treating them like pets, if anything its sandboxy character of enables you to learn the game, understand its enemies and mechanics, and how goodie boxes do more than refill the health and recharge the laser. Knowing its ins and outs and doing your own thing prepares the player for the actual mission, spells out the challenge it presents, and makes them want to do it as a test of skill and mastery over the environment. As such Rescue deserves to be remembered precisely because of its innovative, partially open-ended game design. Crank up the Speccy emulator and give it a go. It's not like there's going to be much on television.

Thursday, 8 April 2021

Loyalism's Tortured Decline

"Policing is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland", said Matt Hancock after getting quizzed about another night of loyalist violence. The non-too-subtle subtext being this is nothing to do with the government nor its grandstanding and reckless approach to Brexit. For his vanity and the electoral interests of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson at first courted and then betrayed the Democratic Unionist Party and its wish to keep the UK internal market together. And what do you know, since Brexit happened we've seen supermarket shortages and the perception the government in Westminster have washed their hands of all responsibility for the province. The Tories have also made the DUP look like a right bunch of mugs.

This is the background, and knowing there is trouble at the mill Arlene Foster has tried her damnedest to ride the wave of disaffection rippling through unionist communities. Making a big deal of Sinn Fein ministers' attendance at a funeral last year, she made it clear on Wednesday evening how this was more objectionable than torching a bus. Ham fisted and equivocal by the standards of Westminster boilerplate, Foster is actually in a great deal of political trouble. Not only is the Brexit the DUP campaigned for proving damaging to their raison d'etre and making a united Ireland more likely, the most pressing concern are the threats gnawing at Foster's position as First Minister and the DUP's standing.

The latest poll from January reports the surreal result that Sinn Fein is the most popular party in Northern Ireland. The DUP however are now scraping second place with 19%, down nine points on the 2017 elections and one point ahead of the third placed Alliance. They are proving especially threatening as the party emerged from and bites deeply into moderate unionism, despite punting itself as a non-sectarian party. And to the DUP's right, Traditional Unionist Voice has been egging on street opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol and, by extension, the Executive Foster leads. Boxed in and seemingly giving up on tacking toward the moderates, she has decided to ramp up the rhetoric against SF and virtually giving loyalist riots a free pass to bring back the extremists. Unfortunately for her, the DUP's doey-eyed participation in Brexit and having led unionism into the current impasse doesn't bode well for the party's political future.

Yet the predicament the DUP find themselves in isn't entirely their own doing. As per conservatism and Tory Britain generally, loyalism itself is in long-term decline. This year 42% polled in the north said would back a united Ireland, declining slightly from 45% when asked last year. In all, by far the most popular party among the under-44s is Sinn Fein, and by a very healthy majority Northern Ireland voted to Remain. The unionist community split 57/43 to leave, but like elsewhere younger people were most likely to support remaining with the EU. As we also saw recently, the DUP were on the wrong side of Northern Ireland's abortion debate, leaving them saddled with a sectarian social conservatism increasingly at odds not just with younger people's values, but their everyday experience. As the most vocal champions for the union and the UK, the British state could do with better cheerleaders.

Unionism's decline is more than value change and the recomposition of the working class, but an erosion of the sectarian character of the Ulster statelet itself. Active discrimination in housing, jobs, particularly public sector jobs, and policing had been in decline prior to the Good Friday Agreement and has continued since. Politics has a tendency to lag behind economics, and as the material basis for a particular cultural location evaporates so clinging to its identities and rituals can become stronger and, in some instances, extreme among a significant minority, Even as, especially as its wider influence diminishes. Given the alacrity with which the DUP opposed the decriminalisation of abortion, here we have a particular case of trying to uphold the social conservatism unionism identifies with. This is also the root of their embrace of Brexit too. There is no loyalism without the Irish border, and so withdrawing from the European Union, they calculated, would remphasise their difference and distinction from the rapidly secularising republic and secure their continued political relevance. What they weren't expecting was Boris Johnson hanging them out to dry by moving the border into the Irish Sea and, if anything, accelerating their appointment with marginalisation.

The problem is what happens next. If a group feels under threat, thanks to Northern Ireland's history this could step up from property damage and play itself out as attacks and murders. And given loyalism's record of butchery during the Troubles, this everywhere and always means political opponents and ordinary civilians. There is no popular appetite for a return to violence, but this is unlikely to stay the hands of would-be terror gangs. As Ulster unionism comes apart, there's every chance its final chapter could be blood-soaked and violent.

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Whither the Northern Independence Party?

There's a bit of a puzzle with the formation of the newly-minted Northern Independence Party. As the UK state is hopelessly over-centralised and menaced by the SNP in Scotland and, to a lesser extent in Wales by Plaid Cymru, it's curious how NIP-sryle parties haven't formed sooner corresponding to England's stark regional divides. "Ah!" Might exclaim the nerds who follow things like local council by-elections, "don't you know about the North East Party and the Yorkshire Party?" Indeed I do, with three and seven councillors respectively. Regionalist parties are, actually, ten-a-penny. Mebyon Kernow down in Cornwall has been punting for independence for 70 years, and local authorities are littered with independents claiming to put their communities before party politics. My beloved Stoke-on-Trent is no different.

What makes NIP different from these other manifestations of what the pol profs call the centre/periphery cleavage? First off, it's explicitly socially liberal. As NIP's statement of aims makes clear, "We have members from across the LGBTQ+ rainbow and those of many different faiths and none. We will always fight against bigotry of all kinds - including racism, antisemitism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia." And second? It's where the party is from. Most regionalist parties and independent groups usually start life as a split from one of the two big parties, and typically as a result of fallings out in a council chamber. In this sense they are elite projects, albeit local government elites. As such, they tend to be older and have some years of experience behind them. Recall what happened with our unlamented friends Change UK, albeit at a municipal level: their characters are fundamentally the same. NIP, however, is not cut from the same cloth. It has come together out of the debris of Corbynism as a self-organised network of activists appalled with Labour's record since Keir Starmer assumed the leadership. Furthermore, while social liberalism is consciously stressed to jar Westminster-centric accounts of the north as a dessicated racist tundrascape, it reflects the basic common sense of the class cohorts who founded NIP: the immaterial workers and generation left, the backbone and natural base of Corbynism. Neither is it different to the cohorts lining up behind the SNP and an independent Scotland, except obviously the magnitudes of numbers involved are qualitative leaps apart.

But new political movements have to start from somewhere, and this is never from a position of strength. What prospects for NIP then under First Past the Post? As founder Philip Proudfoot says in his interview on Novara Media, electoral success is not the be-all and end-all for the new party. As Nigel Farage via UKIP and the Brexit Party was able to show, the mobilisation of a critical enough mass can impinge on and infuence the direction of the mainstream. True, though NIP will never have the same advantages enjoyed by UKIP in terms of media coverage and handy, five-yearly elections fought under proportional representation. But like these two parties and unlike other left-of-Labour outfits, it does have the possibility of building something out of its regionalist orientation. For one, few can pretend the north of England does well out of the current constitutional set up. Even Tory backbenchers know this and organise accordingly. And so while there isn't a generic northern identity outside of the imaginations of London journos as they head north on gammon safaris, there is an inchoate grievance ready to be drawn on.

One advantage NIP does have is the records of its activists. Having gone through the struggle Corbynism was thrust into and having a baptism of political realities at the font of scabbing by "comrades" and "allies", one would think they're not prey to the delusion of winning Westminster seats any time soon and have a grasp of how difficult making a breakthrough is. With this in mind, where it has enough members in a locality is it going to focus efforts on elections, building support in workplaces, the community organising Labour is foolishly abandoning, and/or the politics of the street? I imagine they will try all to build name recognition and recruit, but ultimately it was the electoral threat UKIP brought to bear that allowed Farage to set up his abode in Dave's head. Going for every local authority contest they can, and contesting seats consistently is the tried and tested method of other small parties.

Hence NIP's contesting of the Hartlepool by-election is quite interesting. The Survation poll for the CWU puts them on two per cent. Not a great score, but more than any of the other parties running apart from Labour and the Tories. Here the circumstances of the contest, particularly Labour's arrogant approach to the selection of Paul Williams and their entitled attitude could be grist to the NIP mill. Having selected the former Labour MP Thelma Walker and with campaigning now underway, including targeted Facebook advertising, we'll see if the party can scoop up any anti-Labour protest votes currently heading in the Tories' direction. And, given NIP's social base, whether it can flush out more votes from the corresponding milieu in the constituency.

The limiting factor for NIP is also its strength, and that is the party's regionalism. What it stands for requires little explanation, and undoubtedly a segment of any electorate it attracts will be on that basis - a bit like how the Greens have a record of winning Tory council seats in Tory areas despite being a socially liberal party with roots in the post-war expansion of immaterial labour. But the problem is, despite billing itself a democratic socialist party, is its efforts are always limited by this and if success comes, sooner or later the class interests of the coalition NIP's trying to build are going to come into conflict with the self-imposed geographic extent of its ambitions. Indeed, as Philip said in his Novara interview about this issue is people in other parts of the country should start their own regionalist rebellion against Westminster or move to the free North after independence. As we have seen in the UK, the nationalism of the mass politicisation in Scotland, even though it has a similar base to Corbynism has ensured its radicalism is boxed in and isolated from the rest of the UK body politic.

That said, the responsibility of NIP's emergence lies squarely with the Labour leadership for dumping on its people. And, I'm afraid to say, the Labour left. Little to no work was done to prepare Corbyn supporters in the event of losing, and since then the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs have not assumed the mantle of leadership. Seeing Jon Trickett tweet about policy, Richard Burgon pushing zero Covid, and Claudia Webbe talking about racism, there is no strategy let alone a good argument forthcoming for staying in the Labour Party. Keir Starmer is disaggregating and dispersing Labour's vote. Who knows, it might be enough to make NIP and similar parties viable, but those who would be leaders of the left are practically standing by, seemingly indifferent as our activists are carried to the four winds.

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Explaining the Hartlepool Poll

Ouch. Contrary to earlier predictions, the Tories are on course to win the Hartlepool by-election. In a Survation poll for th CWU, they reported the Conservatives on 49%, Labour on 42%, the new Northern Independence Party on 2%, and the rest scratting around for one per cent apiece. Accurate constituency polls are harder to pull off than national polls thanks to smaller sample sizes and the difficulties ensuring it is representative, but ultimately it's the headline that matters.

Unfortunately, things look worse as you peer into the details. Boris Johnson has a 49% favourability rating versus just 24% for Keir Starmer. And yet, policy wise, this by-election should be uncontested territory for Labour. 67% want more spending on public services versus 24% who want deficit reduction prioritised, 57% would like to see Royal Mail renationalised, and 69% would like to see free broadband rolled out to all homes and businesses. How can we begin to account for these mind-bending findings? Hartlepool appears to want what Labour offered in 2017 and 2019 and voted for it on those occasions, but are now beguiled by a party offering towns just like them nothing but piss and wind?

There are two factors in play. The first is Boris Johnson himself. Without getting into the full details of how he is escaping accountability for 127,000 dead people, he is rare among politicians, at least as far as many punters are concerned, because he has kept his word and done what he said he would do. He promised to deliver Brexit, and through a series of shenanigans in which he nearly blew up the Tory party and sailed close to the wind of flouting the law, he did just that. On Coronavirus, despite the many failings of his government the handling of the vaccine roll out has gone swimmingly. Nearly everyone over 50 in Hartlepool will now have had at least one jab and some, as I write this, are going to be waiting their turn in the local vaccine centre for the second injection. On the two key issues of the last two years, Johnson has come good and delivered. If you don't follow politics closely and have largely been shielded from the consequences of both, what is there to be angry about?

There are, however, reasons to be dissatisfied with Labour. And these aren't the same reasons why the left aren't happy. In many places that have customarily returned Labour MPs, that they're the opposition doesn't matter. They typify distant, unappealing, and entitled establishment politics among certain layers of voters. For many millions who went Tory, they felt the party's refusal to abide by the decision of the referendum was them rubbing their noses in it, telling them they were thick and wrong and the party wasn't interested in listening. And so, this lack of interest was returned in a lack of votes. And Keir Starmer, despite his very late necessary conversion to respecting Brexit initially epitomised this arrogance by leading the charge for ignoring their referendum decision. Compounding this perception of an arrogant and out-of-touch party were the efforts to which the leader's office went to impose Paul Williams as their choice. The fact he was chosen despite voting against the Brexit decision of his former Stockton South constituents on no less than six occasions. He was and is the worst possible candidate, and the message this sends to the good people of Hartlepool is a contemptuous expectation on Labour's part that the town will vote for any old donkey in a red rosette.

The dynamic of this by-election then is a protest vote, a vote aimed against Labour as opposed to the ruinous government of the day because the party is seen to be tone deaf. Until it starts listening instead of doling out fake platitudes it thinks the ignorant proles want to hear, this won't be the last near-death experience/unnecessary defeat Labour will suffer under Keir Starmer's auspices.

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Sunday, 4 April 2021

One Abysmal Year of Keir

A full year since Labour returned to the mean and elected a man in a nice suit. Looking back at the occasion, this blog met Keir Starmer's election with a bouquet of scepticism. The power grabs and rolling back of internal democracy, a default to the bourgeois common sense of politics, a load of dishonest but politically convenient hand wringing over antisemitism - despite the leak of that report. As I wrote of the left's relationship to the new leadership, "We're going to have to live with someone whose first instinct is to praise the government when they're doing well, and keep quiet when they're not." Prepared? What I was expecting was a leadership not unlike Ed Miliband's, something that at least meant well which the majority of the left could support at a remove. Unfortunately, Dear Keir is yet to touch even this low bar.

In policy terms, he writes in Sunday's Observer about the failings of the Conservatives, and how Labour's "ambition for Britain must match the moment. Not merely fiddling with tax incentives or creating pots of money for towns to scrap over but creating an economy that works for everyone." One might point out this is exactly how Keir has spent his time in the Leader's chair. Attacking the Tories from the right over the minutiae of corporation tax rates, quibbling with the process and details of Coronavirus management, and only going on the offensive when either Marcus Rashford or teaching unions or SAGE have prepared the ground for him, this falls somewhat short of a functioning and effective opposition, let alone anything demonstrating ambition capable of rising to the occasion.

But I'm nothing if not fair, so let us consider some of the arguments in Keir's defence we haven't looked at already. For PoliticsHome, Adam Payne quotes an anonymous (of course) "senior party source" saying the party was in a terrible state when Keir inherited it. The party was near to bankruptcy too, so the story goes. There might have been a time when a journo might have challenged claims made by their interlocutor, but this wasn't one of them. At the end of 2019, the party's statement of accounts published under Keir's leadership show that following the election the party had a tiny surplus. Under previous leaders the party routinely got into multi-million pound debt holes. Another lie then. But there is some truth to the notion Labour wasn't in tip-top shape. The campaign itself was poorly coordinated, and organisation from region down to branch level were riddled with accumulations of dysfunctions. What else might one expect when the Labour right stretched every sinew in their scorched earth struggle against the leadership?

The other argument in the leader's defence, it is said, is something Keir can't do a great deal about. With the pandemic clogging the headlines and everyone's horizon depressed by it, the punters aren't especially interested in what politicians have to say - particularly when they're not in government and have no bearing on the management of the crisis. To all intents and purposes, Labour are whistling in the wind and we're going to have to wait until Coronavirus had faded into the background before the party's offer is noticed. Therefore, coming out with bold policy statements or making loud oppositional noises is a waste of time or looks like point scoring. The moment for a vision for government is ... not yet. Now, this is pretty unconvncing for a couple of reasons. Contrary to what our PLP and shadcab whisperers think, Keir Starmer has had plenty of coverage. And nearly all of it has been soft and supportive. If Keir isn't getting noticed, it's because he's not using these plentiful avenues to say anything memorable or meaningful. Second, it appears Keir's anonymous outriders can only conceive of opposition in two ways, as either shouty and ranty or as "constructive", which always means giving the government a free pass save some minor aspects of policy and positioning. There was a third way, which any assessment of Keir's record needs reminding of, and that's what Jeremy Corbyn accomplished in the dead duck days of his leadership. Contrary to the invented histories circulating for factional advantage, not only was he ahead of the government in calling for proper quarantine strategies, he was constructive because he offered policy solutions to problems, which the Tories promptly took up. This is something Keir has steered clear away from, apart from a ritualistic request that the government extend the Job Retention Scheme or carry on the measly uplift to Universal Credit.

Since his first day in the job, the openings have been there for Keir to carry on in the same vein, but he didn't. Why? One might put it down to a personal failing but in fact it has everything to do with his politics. Despite being weak on opposition, Keir is the most authoritarian (though certainly not authoritative) leader Labour has had since Tony Blair. His politics, such as they are, depend on affirming state authority and particularly government as not just the key but the only institution for getting things done. Keir's opposition to Boris Johnson, when it has manifested, has not gone for the jugular nor offered different ways of doing things because that might undermine the government's authority by creating an alternative to it. Even though he would be this counterpoint, Keir's strategy depends on the restoration and protection of state authority. Talking about policy and attacking the Tories on big picture stuff, or even his reticence to mention scores of thousands of dead, is an attempt to oppose while preserving the authority he seeks to draw on if he enters Number 10. In practice this means anemia. He has let the Tories define the Covid-19 crisis, and as such they're setting about defining the peace. Clever clever games leading to stupid stupid outcomes.

In terms of conventional politics, he's failing. But much more serious than poor parliamentary footsy is the potentially existential crisis the leadership and its right wing cheerleaders are dragging the party into. As this blog has pointed out enough, the main consequence of Jeremy Corbyn's time was the recomposition of the Labour vote. The core Labour supporter is now the immaterial worker, someone whose working life is bounded by the production of care, knowledge, and social relationships - typically, though not exclusively, for the profit of others. On top of this, the way Tory policy works to keep their voter coalition together by shielding older people, retirees particularly, from the (private) consequences of austerity, the fall out of the Brexit mess and the Covid slump, keeping the property market overheated and, indeed, subordinating crisis management to these ends, the Tories are underwriting the long-term decline of their support by raising a generation of anti-Tory voters. Jeremy Corbyn's clear anti-austerity message in 2017, plus the promise of a softer Brexit was able to cohere these emerging interests around Labour while keeping enough of the old core vote on board. As a new political consciousness in the process of emergence, there was a certain softnesss to it but, more importantly, conditionality. For it to solidify and identify with Labour the party needed to act consistently in their interests. Instead, there was more internal warfare and the stoking of Brexit - purposely by the right, including a certain Keir Starmer - as a wedge issue. The result was confusion, a panicky arse covering adoption of the second referendum, and a partial fragmentation of the 2017 coalition as a few hundred thousand defected direct to the Tories, and some two million migrated to the Liberal Democrats, Greens, the nationalist parties, and abstentionism.

The inescapable task of Labour strategy is bringing these people back, holding on to the new core that stuck with Labour in 2019, peeling soft supporters off the Tories, and looking at ways of energising the spontaneously socially liberal and small s socialist layers of younger workers. This is not just crucial for winning elections, but for securing the future of the party itself. According to the wisdom revealed by Claire Ainsley, Keir's policy guru and writer of matters on the new working class, this is what has to be done ... but thinks traditionalist appeals to flags and family would secure them. We have then an explanation for the plastic patriotism and similar embarrassing efforts, but from a position utterly ignorant of the relationship between the materiality of immaterial labour, social liberalism, and the constitution of new class identities. If this wasnt bad enough, something the dim wattage of Labourist thought should recognise - bread and butter issues, and how the Tories stymie them at every turn - is completely off the Starmerist radar too. It's almost as if they're not serious about power.

It gets worse. The loudest cheers for Keir come from the right of the party frothing at the purge of the left. Though, of course, they like to pretend it's a struggle against antisemitism, not least because they lack the arguments to contest the left at the level of ideas and strategy. As was pointed out last June, the problem with driving out the left, whether by adopting right wing positions or by simple diktat, is the party is ridding itself of the very people who were crucial to mobilising voters at the last two general elections. I'm not talking about campaigning, but those who did the unseen and under-the-radar work of converting friends, workmates, and family members into giving Labour a go. Those who, completely unbidden, were an influence in their online and offline networks and helped cohere support around the party. As dreadful as the 2019 result was, there's a reason why, bar 2017, Labour got the highest number of votes it had since 2001 and the greatest number of votes in England since 1997. In other words, Keir Starmer and his host are demobilising the party's support. Now, they might believe they can do a simple trade: putting the backs up of the new core vote in the big cities where Labour MPs sit on huge supermajorities doesn't matter if tacking right wins back support in the so-called Red Wall and soft Tories elsewhere. Completely forgetting immaterial workers are distributed across the land. Winning back the Brexit-supporting Tory switcher snack bar manager at a provincial railway station isn't worth it if the party does so on a prospectus alienating the younger, low paid precarious workers she oversees. Chasing after Tory supporters on a Tory-lite platform is less a matter of digging your own hole, but driving the spade into one's foot.

This is why Keir Starmer is doing abysmally. He's waging class politics alright, the class politics of the other side. As he waxes about our once-in-a-generation opportunity, the possibility of the party carrying on wanes that little bit more. "Starmerism" and its trajectory doesn't just risk Labour becoming less than the sum of its parts, but allowing it to fall apart completely. The polls have consistently shown upticks in Green support and faltering gains for the LibDems. The SNP are poised to sweep all before it, and Plaid Cyrmu is putting in a better showing. And thanks to the worst possible start to the Hartlepool by-election, a new party has a shout of coming from nowhere to take more support off Labour than the Tories. Might Keir be able to turn it around? Possibly, but in politics as with most things the best indicator of future behaviour is past behaviour. He managed to repair Labour's polling position before crashing it, and having disaggregated the party's support he's not about to put it together again without a fundamental strategic rethink. Though, of course, having an impotent and useless party at a remove from the messy business of proper politics suits the Tories and the Labour right alike.

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New Left Media April 2021

More month(?), more new left media. What projects have come to light since early March? Batten down the hatches.

1. Black Woman's Hour (Twitter) (YouTube Channel)

2. Buddies Without Organs (Twitter) (Podcast)

3. Cursed Objects (Twitter) (Instagram) (Podcast)

4. Decolonial Groundings (Twitter) (Blog)

5. Labour Affairs (Magazine)

6. Labour's New Leadership Podcast (Twitter) (Podcast)

7. Samuel K (Twitter) (Viral video)

8. Tempest (Twitter) (Magazine)

9. Under Another Name (Twitter) (Podcast)

10. Unlabour (Twitter) (Blog)

11. What's Left of Philosophy? (Twitter) (Podcast)

If you know of any new(ish) blogs, podcasts, channels, Facebook pages or whatever that haven't featured before then drop me a line via the comments, email, Facebook, or Twitter. Please note I'm looking for new media that has started within the last 12 months. The round up appears hereabouts when there are enough new entrants to justify a post!