Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Keir Starmer's Unity Mongering

He's bringing sexy back. Well, maybe not but Keir Starmer wants to see the return of Alastair Campbell to the Labour Party. This brings back memories from early in the campaign in which Keir said he would not rest until everyone who left the party over anti-semitism were back in the fold. We know that's coded repartee for the right wing departee, such as Change UK and other miserable toerags, as per the Tory-supporting John Mann and Ian Austin. The question is with a commanding lead, as suggested by the latest YouGov why Keir wants to reach out to these dreadful relics, especially when the core of his support stood by Jeremy Corbyn and feel anything but a frisson of warmth when their names are uttered.

It's all about burnishing them unity creds. Having scooped up Labour First, Paul Mason, Sadiq Khan, Momentum's Laura Parker, and, whisper it, His Blairness, demonstrating this desire more isn't going to hurt his chances. Campbell stomped off like a stroppy three-year-old back in the summer, but reaching out shows Keir to be the better man, of someone putting aside past grievances and showing the party is once again welcoming to his sort. It's a conciliatory move that builds on similar from John McDonnell, who was keen to head off another bout of infighting just as the parliamentary shilly-shallying over Brexit and the general election ratcheted up. Of course, Keir is more credible when it comes to this because of his remainy remainism, and a practical demonstration of his centrism for wanting to bang up benefits cheats on 10-year stretches.

This seems to me to have two consequences, whether anticipated or fortuitous happenstances. The first is neutralising trouble from the Labour right. Known now for the scabs they always were, this self-same section of the right were the ones who provided the press briefings and stirred the pot during the Ed Miliband years and, before him, likewise undermined Gordon Brown. As most of these hitched their tiny wagon to the Jess Phillips farce and, defeated, meekly boarded the Lisa Nandy express, inviting back their lost kin draws a line under the previous regime and the clock starts ticking anew. Perhaps one or two of them will get jobs too, and I'm sure they'll repay their gratitude with a steady stream of leaks from the shadow cabinet to their favourite journalists. There are still others for whom Keir will never feature on their Christmas card list because he served in Corbyn's leadership team, and will prove as petulant tomorrow as they were yesterday. You can try mollifying them, but its going to be a complete waste of time - as Keir will find out when the EHRC report drops, they will use it (and anything) for scorched earth factional advantage. They are not going to stop until the left are put back in the box, and anything looking remotely Corbynist is purged from the policy platform.

While we're paddling in centrist waters, the second moment in play here is affecting an ambition old Tonty long nurtured: the unification of the Labour and Liberal traditions (in Blairspeak, two moments of the "radical tradition"). The new membership surge Labour has experienced contains not a few who, over the last few years, decamped from the party and shacked up in the Liberal Democrats before returning to the fold to get their man the top job. And if the members flow, perhaps so will those voters lost to the yellow party in December. It's also going to make the LibDems much more constructive in their approach to Labour - RIP Jo Swinson nonsense. This is handy because the way the Tories are looking to tilt their electoral system even more in their favour, like it or not Labour is going to have to come to some sort of arrangement with the LibDems and Greens ahead of the next election - assuming the Tories' position isn't totally destroyed by an as yet unanticipated cataclysm. Keir's unity pitch then is not just aimed at those in Labour sick of infighting, but those outside wanting to see some sort of unified opposition to Boris Johnson. And it could work.

Nevertheless, Keir is helped by neither of his opponents wishing to contest his unity pitch. Lisa Nandy is more interested in being this contest's "truth-teller". Ironic considering her habitual mischaracterisation of the positions of others. And Rebecca Long-Bailey's campaign, which has much to recommend it, has gone hard on policy and, consequently and despite her best efforts, allowed her challenge to be seen coming from one wing of the party as opposed to Keir's floaty ascendance above the fray. Indeed, if one was even more cynical, Keir's courting of Campbell and friends is about consolidating control and diluting the left by contriving a situation where the resignation letters pile up making his particular unity more unifying via (self) exclusion. A recipe for winning an election, perhaps, but not one that bodes well for the social and political change we need to see.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Why I'm Voting for Rebecca Long-Bailey

Despite the recent guest posts making the case for the three leadership candidates, it will come as no surprise to readers that I'm supporting Rebecca Long-Bailey. But let's start off with a conciliatory tone. The truth of the matter is whoever wins the contest, they could win a general election in 2024, which is why I find the overwrought concerns about electability based on what happened in December a bit puzzling. The power of the right wing press as a means of cohering older voters will have declined five years hence. Brexit as an issue will be dead and buried (well, we'll see), the polarisation we see around class cohort lines expressed as a generational war is not disappearing anywhere fast, and with the consequences of decades of climate inaction becoming increasingly obvious, all three Labour contenders are electable. Which is why this leadership contest is so important.

As far as I'm concerned, Lisa Nandy is a non-starter. There's the equivocation over backing workers against bullying bosses - you know, one of the reasons why the labour movement was set up in the first place. Her slippery approach to political commitments, like simultaneously arguing for and against the abolition of tuition fees. The "friends" who have gathered around her campaign, among whom number the very worst of Labour MPs, recent past and present. And then there is the small matter of habitual dishonesty. To face a liar with an inveterate fibber of our own is just stirring up trouble. This is a real shame, because Lisa is not without commendable qualities. During the campaign she has occasionally offered thoughtful positions, such as this on BBC reform and refloating the notion of the foundational economy. And she's undoubtedly an accomplished media performer. Her supporters are right to laud her interview with Andrew Neil - she breezed through it. Nevertheless, a Lisa Nandy-led Labour Party would be a huge step backward. On party democracy, on understanding the relationship between it and the wider labour movement (and movements beyond that), hers is a recipe for insulating Labour from the currents in society that nourish it, look to it, and expect it to act in their interests. The shiftiness of her campaign and her unease with politics outside of Westminster is a brew from which a new, grey managerialism can emerge. One that could be enough to win an election, but not face up to the challenges that cannot be ducked.

And as we're talking about elections, we have the frontrunner who is, apparently, uniquely electable. What exactly this "electable" is supposed to consist of I'm waiting for an answer except, of all Labour's recent leaders, Keir Starmer resembles Tony Blair the most in coiffure and style. When we examine some of the reasons, two others immediately crop up: an ability to be the unity candidate or, if you're feeling ungenerous, the all-things-to-all-people pick. Corbyn supporters love him, as do the soft left, as do the less unhinged members of the Labour right. With a membership weary of almost five years of non-stop internal warfare, you can understand why his appeal, well, appeals. The second strand is continuity remainism. As well as not pushing for mandatory reselection when he was at the peak of his powers, Jeremy Corbyn's second big mistake was not using his authority to push hard for an acceptance of a (soft) Brexit in Labour's ranks. Instead, remain ran riot - abetted by the likes of Keir, Tom Watson and, I'm afraid, other senior shadcab members on the left like John McDonnell and Diane Abbott. The cultivation of remainism means there's now a ready constituency for the ploughman-in-chief, and they can project whatever they want on to him, whether it's a (sensible) close post-Brexit relationship with the EU to the completely daft desire to campaign to rejoin. Unfortunately, both these impulses are inherently conservative - rather than forge something new, for many Keir promises to wind the clock back to pre-referendum times. Rather than consolidate the Corbyn revolution, for many Keir offers a respite from having to fight new and unpleasant battles, even if ultimately it means folding everything in on itself. The policy platform Keir offers appears superficially attractive, but one question his advocates have failed to answer is if he was so radical, why as Director of Public Prosecutions did he advocate for banging up those convicted of benefit fraud for 10 years? Or getting in the way into queries about the activities of undercover cops in protest movements? Or announcing MI5 and MI6 agents will have no case to answer if they were found to be involved in extraordinary rendition or torture during the Iraq War? The appalling errors made during the John Worboys case? The ludicrous attempt at prosecuting someone who joked about blowing up an airport on Twitter? There is no explanation for any of these unnecessary or baffling decisions, and given how lukewarm Keir has showed himself on matters democratic inside the party, there are not sufficient grounds to believe his position taking in this election is sincere or will resist pressures coming from the right. Perhaps this is where Keir's really stood politically all these years. But then why is he happy to talk about stuff from decades ago, including past Trottery, and not what's happened between the years of 2008 and 2013? Such reticence does not bode well for the coming years for Labour, in or out of office.

And there is Rebecca Long-Bailey. Variously criticised for not announcing until late in the day, punting controversial pitches, getting attacked for Stalinist/Vatican influences, and not, it seems, suddenly emerging from nowhere and repeating an inspiring insurgency as if it was the summer of 2015 all over again. All while simultaneously getting ruled out for being continuity Corbyn. There are fair and there are unfair criticisms, and it's clear to tell which from which. But there are three very good reasons to support her candidacy. The first, on the terrain of conventional politics, is charisma. She might not be a sharp as Lisa Nandy in an interview, or have the Blairish eminence conferred upon Keir Starmer, but RLB is more relatable than both. She comes across as warm, funny, but competent and on top of her brief. And as we have years before the election, she doesn't need to be over-polished from the off. There is room for her to grow into the role of leader, and having been tempered in the ridiculous failed coup of 2016 and the vicious infighting since she has the requisite ruthlessness Corbyn lacked. A RLB-led Labour Party won't have its energy sapped because the scorched earth tendency in the parliamentary party will find themselves squashed - if they don't recuse themselves first. And also, while the Tories and their friends will try pinning the continuity Corbyn tag on her it's much more difficult to do. Some comrades might not like her positioning on nuclear weapons, the royalty, and anti-semitism but she's moved quickly to stop these lines of attack from being amplified. It won't stop them of course, but this and a distinct lack of a Corbyn-style baggage caravan might prevent such stories running away and running amok.

The second, which we haven't seen enough of, is thinking about the leadership pitches in terms of class politics. Alone among the candidates, RLB understands not just the party's relationship to the labour movement, but the wider relationship it must have with the emergent new working class. Nowhere does she demonstrate this better than in her taking up mandatory reselection. If the party is to grow more and become embedded in the lives and communities of our class again, the barriers of entry and participation have to be lowered and its role as organiser, educator, articulator, and servant emphasised. This road begins with the thoroughgoing democratisation of the party, the subordination of the parliamentary party and council groups to the membership, the devolution of policy making. The effective de-institutionalisation of Labour as an instrument that stands over our people and condescends to its electorate every so often - the model favoured by the Blairite die-hards and implicit to the pitches of Lisa and Keir - has to be the aim, a party that is the movement of movements that understands politics to be much more than Westminster, and be a means of capturing all aspects of life in its rich molecularity so we can collectively swarm over and swarm out opponents. This isn't just a nice way of organising. To quote Keir Starmer's wonkish mantra, we have to model the behaviour we wish to see. The party then is a microcosm of the kind of society we're working towards, and RLB pre-empts this much better than either of her opponents.

And there is the programme. No ifs, no buts, the climate emergency has to be front and centre. RLB and her support have said enough times she was the one who literally wrote the Green New Deal - now sensibly restyled as the Green Industrial Revolution - and Lisa and Keir both have tried annexing it to their pitches. But the GIR is not some stand alone piece of work, it was embedded in Labour's 2019 programme for renationalising and democratising the utilities and public transport, increasing the economic footprint of the state, renovating public services, and tackling poverty, insecurity and low pay, building enough houses to meet demand, and so much more. Again, this propsectus is not good because ideological reasons but because it meets the requirements of Labour's base: the desire for a good, unhurried, and fulfilling life and a habitable planet to enjoy. RLB's vision builds on the currents of hope Corbynism stirred up, and provides a means of realising them.

As I said atop this post, this election isn't about picking an election winner. All three candidates are capable of winning in 2024 and having the pleasure of seeing off Boris Johnson. But it is about who is most likely to win, and what they do once they get there. I'm sure Lisa or Keir would prove to be perfectly competent leaders and Prime Ministers in their own terms, but their programmes fall short of what needs to be done and don't think about politics outside of vote-catching. This means the pair of them are unlikely to bed down the possibility not just of future Labour victories but throw away the possibility of the party's utter dominance of the 21st century. This does not apply to Rebecca Long-Bailey. She wins the Labour leadership, we all win. And when she takes Number 10, we all go through the door with her. Why should we and all those our party speaks for settle for anything less?

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Lisa Nandy for Labour Leader

In the final guest post in this mini-series on the Labour leadership contest, Andy Newman - a GMB activist and best known as chief contributor to the Socialist Unity blog - makes the case for backing Lisa Nandy.

The Labour Party last won a general election in 2005, and in December 2019 was comprehensively defeated by a Conservative Party that had proven itself unable to govern, and was lurching from crisis to crisis. The very credibility of our party to pose as a potential election winning force is now in question.

However, while there has clearly been a protracted secular decline of Labour’s vote since 1997, we must not allow a lazy narrative to ignore the anomaly of the 2017 election, where although we did not win, Labour’s vote pushed north of 40%, and where the party did electrify and enthuse a significant proportion of the voting public. I was a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017, and the second of those elections was much more positive. So what changed between 2017 and 2019?

There is of course a factor that a soufflĂ© doesn’t rise twice, and the insurgent anti-establishment nature of Corbyn’s appeal to some voters had a limited shelf life, and the longer Corbyn was leader, the more apparent became the gap of language, aspiration and experience between his supporters and traditional labour voters. This is not a phenomenon unique to the UK, and last year the Australian Labor Party suffered a debilitating loss, as it proved unable to bridge the gap between its big city supporters, often graduates with fairly liberal and green views, and its working class voters in places like Queensland.

In 2017, our party supported Brexit on the basis of respecting the referendum result, which neutralised a highly divisive issue. The subsequent drift by the party towards remain had two components. Firstly immersing the party in parliamentary games and Westminster Bubble shenanigans, which angered Labour leave voters and made Labour seem utterly part of the establishment. Keir Starmer was largely responsible for this, though he was not alone. The second aspect was a complacency that Theresa May’s struggles in parliament were damaging the Conservative Party so much, that Labour just had to wait it out. This strategy is associated with Len McCluskey and colonised the party’s leadership, including Rebecca Long-Bailey. Both of these developments demobilised the party from the type of active campaigning in towns and communities we needed.

Alone of the current leadership candidates, Lisa Nandy correctly argued that Labour should have continued to respect the referendum result, and that we should have shown leadership in promoting our own type of Brexit, consistent with our Labour values, and forcing Theresa May to back us. This was good judgement, that would have put us in a much stronger position in the general election.

Another thing that changed between 2017 and 2019 was a further retreat by the Corbyn supporting left towards into a self-referential bubble. Ever since Corbyn was elected it was clear that his support was not connected with an increase of activism in social movements or trade unionism, that would have engaged with ordinary voters. But this weakness was partly concealed by the accident of the 2016 leadership challenge, which forced Corbyn himself, and Momentum, into an outward looking campaign, albeit an electoral one.

The constitutional endowment of the Labour Party is based upon two strong institutional components, the Parliamentary Labour Party and the affiliated trade unions. The membership in the constituencies holds a weaker hand, in terms of its institutional weight, though obviously democratic participation of the membership is vital for the health of the party. As a mass electoral party, the most effective way of moving opinion within the party is to shift opinion in the outside world, among the voters. Unfortunately, a large part of the energy by Corbyn’s supporters has been squandered on internal battles within the party, where, for example, constituency delegates have stood up at Conference to attack the trade unions, and huge effort has been spent in pushing to deselect MPs. The result has been a party seemingly more at ease with infighting than in seeking to become elected as a Labour government. Long-Bailey’s commitment to “Open Selections” is a mistake. There is already a perfectly adequate mechanism for local parties and trade unions to remove a sitting MP, through the trigger process, and the fact that it is rarely used is because most Labour MPs are doing a decent job. Parties that do have “open selections”, such as the SNP and LibDems, are no more likely to replace their sitting MPs than Labour, suggesting that the issue is being raised as a signal of support for constituency parties to exercise discipline over the PLP, which would be a recipe for protracted civil war in the party, and unelectability.

The issue of “electability” is a constant theme of Keir Starmer’s supporters, and there does seem to be an implicit suggestion that because of all the candidates he most looks like Hugh Grant in Love Actually, then he would be taken more seriously. However, Keir’s pitch is very much that he would be the best performer at the dispatch box. So what? Voters don’t care about PMQs, and given the size of the Conservative majority, as soon as this leadership contest finishes there will be almost no media coverage of what Labour does in parliament. What Keir Starmer offers is a return to the safe territory where Labour’s vote has been in long term slide and from where we don’t win. Once embarked in that direction, caution and conservatism will gradually dilute policy away from the transformative agenda that we need.

Rebecca Long-Bailey offers a more radical policy proposition, but there are three weaknesses. Firstly, paradoxically her base of support seems narrower rather than broader than Corbyn’s. Secondly, her emphasis on open selections suggests that she would have an uneasy relationship with the PLP. And thirdly, although she is a northern woman, her policy pitch seems divorced from the concerns of those traditional Labour voters that we lost to the Conservatives in 2019.

A strategic weakness of Corbynism was to overestimate the social and electoral weight of left liberal voters in big cities, and of younger voters who for conjunctural reasons feel insecure due to precarious jobs and accommodation. These factors are certainly relevant, but inequality of wealth and power in Britain is not just generational, but also predicated upon class and geography. Small towns, especially that have been deindustrialised or in coastal communities, feel forgotten and ignored, and many voters there feel that Labour no longer speaks for them or understands them.

Focus groups and voter feedback show that Lisa Nandy is liked by those voters we lost, she is promising a turn towards campaigning rather than focusing everything on Westminster, and she will deliver stability to the party. Furthermore, if you agree that the worst outcome would be a Keir Starmer victory, then it is more likely that Lisa could beat him on second preferences than Becky could.

Friday, 21 February 2020

Rebecca Long-Bailey for Labour Leader

In the latest guest post in this mini-series, Naomi Waltham-Smith (@auralflaneur on Twitter) makes the case for backing Rebecca Long-Bailey. Naomi is an Associate Professor at the University of Warwick and a member in Keir Starmer’s Holborn and St Pancras constituency.

The case for Rebecca Long-Bailey rests upon the three Es or what I want somewhat cheekily to describe as an up-to-date alternative to that traditional training ground for the ruling class, PPE, and one more fit for the global grand challenges we face today: Political Education, Environment, Economics. Together these add up to a clear, decisive response to the most urgent and intractable obstacle facing centre-left parties today: the crisis of democracy. Of the three candidates, only Rebecca has a cogent analysis of the backlash against the market-liberal consensus found across rich democracies today (see the excellent work by Jonathan Hopkin and Mark Blyth on this) and, crucially, a compelling narrative about how to forge a return to politics from a place of anti-political disaffection.

After 40 years of Thatcherite deference to the market and entrepreneurial subjectivation, we need an economic and political revolution on the same scale as 1979 to give back power to those who justifiably feel they have lost control over their own lives. This is how you knock down “Get Brexit Done,” and not, as Keir Starmer has suggested, by calling into question the credulity of Tory switchers and, by implication, their appetite for change and empowerment. This anger, difficult to assuage, will need to be channelled, as Rebecca acknowledges and as the more insurgent Corbyn of 2017 did, but it is Bernie who is giving the future Labour leader a masterclass in this.

When Rebecca spoke enthusiastically about wanting to see members debating economics, it was music to my ears and not only because, as a lecturer, I have skin in the game. After a bruising defeat in which Jeremy’s leadership was seen as a significant factor, much of the debate in this leadership campaign has centred on the issue of electability. We are witnessing the forceful re-emergence of the false choice between principle and power. In 2012 Stuart Hall bemoaned that “the left has no sense of politics being educative, of politics changing the way people see things.” Laura Pidcock was right to argue recently that the ambition of politics ought not be to adapt your principles to what is popular but “to make popular your principles.” If Labour doesn’t, it will cede the ground to the right—with disastrous consequences.

To galvanise the electorate around a socialist vision, popular political education — not simply for but organised by the grassroots — will be essential. Lisa Nandy’s positioning as the candidate who’s listening came spectacularly unstuck in her interview with Andrew Neil: “I’ll empower you but only to do what I judge to be empowering.” Rebecca, by contrast, recognises that there’s no point in listening without making room for debate and disagreement, and without ensuring that there is equality when it comes to the power of voices heard. This is why one should not fall into the trap of assuming (as figures on the left including Andrew Fisher and Laura Parker have done) that the apparent policy convergence around the 2017 manifesto means that there’s little to choose between the candidates. On democratisation, Rebecca is the only candidate unafraid to give members a say in selecting candidates and in policy-making. When Keir and Lisa argue against open selections and in favour of empowering councillors instead of members, the electorate will see this for what it is: holding onto the reins of power by meting it out to the lower rungs of middle management (who can be easily managed) out of fear that unleashing the power of grassroots might shake things up — and they’ll vote again for the Eton-educated racist who is promising to do just that in their name.

Keir makes the same mistake on political education by reducing it to a training “college” for the next generation of councillors, MSPs, AMs, and MPs. Of course, we need to foster more working class talent and break down the obstacles to holding office (as the Ashcroft report confirms, the perception is that too many Labour councils, mired in inertia, are not on the side of the people they were elected to serve), but a top-down approach flies in the face of this ambition. The rhetoric of accreditation also capitulates to the profoundly undemocratic marketisation that is eroding education in this country and its capacity to be a vehicle for social change. Trickle-down education doesn’t work any more effectively than its economic counterpart. Rebecca’s vision for democratised political self-education is about restoring a deliberative, agonistic dimension to public debate, responding directly to calls more direct forms of democracy as faith in institutions has crumbled. One cannot hope to beat a right populist with moral paternalism.

This belief in the mobilising power of political education underpins Rebecca’s strengths on environmental and economic issues. There is no doubt that, as one of the authors of Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution, Rebecca far outstrips the other candidates in her commitment to rapid decarbonisation, ecological restoration, and climate justice, as well as to the industrial strategy and extension of democratic public ownership required to achieve these goals. The climate emergency is the single most urgent issue facing the world today and, as Labour for a Green New Deal’s scorecard confirms, Rebecca is head and shoulders above the pack on this. Nothing more really needs to be said, except that communicating this urgency and the power of her proposals to make a real difference remains a challenge. It wasn’t just that the 2019 campaign failed to put the GIR front and centre, as Rebecca has rightly observed. As Alex Wood points out, if the GIR is to bridge the cleavages in the coalition Labour needs to build, its potential must grasped by all its elements for it to make good on its promise to promote a new socialist common sense and this will be most resilient if communities are able to cultivate for themselves an understanding of how the just transition will materially benefit them. Again, Rebecca understands that the GIR needs to be embedded in collective, democratic struggles for power and for a reinvigorated, socialist notion of the good life, rather than emanating from a moralistic injunction to do the right thing.

To defeat the Tories, education in economics is also solely needed to wean the electorate off old wives’ tales now engrained as common sense. The tide is already turning against austerity — which is why an anti-austerity platform isn’t going to cut it against Johnson’s gestures towards greater state interventionism and investment — but there are lingering misconceptions around affordability and credibility. In 2019, Labour undoubtedly got its messaging wrong, but it also failed to tackle the false, yet widespread, analogy between state and household finances and the zero-sum conception of the economy. Similarly, a recent survey showed that, while voters want fairer taxes, the myth of the deserving rich persists in the national psyche. Bernie is challenging this by teaching the American electorate about the labour theory of value! Only when Labour’s potential voters can articulate for themselves the measure of their exploitation will the movement from below needed to propel Labour to victory below take off. Rebecca gets this.

To take on Johnsonomics at a time when the hegemony of neoliberalism is wobbling and offer compelling alternatives to his economic nationalism will require rigour, agility, and a willingness to listening to the most forward-thinking economists. Rebecca hasn’t got the attack lines on this quite right yet, but she alone among the candidates has demonstrated the intellectual curiosity and aptitude for learning about economic policy needed for this task. She’s enquiring enough to revive the Economic Advisory Committee convened by John McDonnell, but not every member and certainly not every potential Labour voter is going to read Ann Pettifor or Marianna Mazzucato, so grassroots self-education will be key.

It may be that Keir should be taken at his word, but the case for Rebecca doesn’t depend on distrusting him. Without the big vision and analysis, defending the policy platform of 2017 or even 2019 won’t be enough. Nor will competence. Bland talk of unity effectively dilutes politics into the technocratic management against which electorates are rebelling. Rebecca’s imagination and capacity to grow can reignite collective politics when it’s most needed.

Thursday, 20 February 2020

Tiesto, Mabel - God is a Dancer

You either like the Tiesto of old with his slew of early trance classics, or the Tiesto of the last decade who went and did loads of mainstream EDM. Rare are those who pay his two periods equal mind. I certainly wasn't one of them, not because he was a sell out or some such nonsense but simply because I didn't think his newer stuff was up to much. But now I'm happy to take that back. If last year's top ten of 2019 wasn't cancelled by the best of the 2010s, Tiesto's collab with Mabel would have made it. In lieu of blogging tonight, crank this up instead.

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Keir Starmer for Labour Leader

This is the first of three guest posts by comrades on the left putting the case for their choice for party leader. The author, Cllr Susan Press (@susanp80 on Twitter) has been on the left of the Labour Party for decades, and sets out why she's backing Keir Starmer.

Somewhere out there in a parallel universe Labour is getting set for its first General Election with Jeremy Corbyn as Leader. The past five years have been tough and it took time to win over the PLP and general public but after a narrow escape from leaving the EU with a close referendum in 2016 the polls suggest it’s finally “Time For Real Change’, to use the 2020 election slogan. What a relief it will be to see Prime Minister Cameron finally depart after 10 years of austerity.

Nice fantasy but it didn’t happen did it ?

If I am entirely honest with you I am not sure that I ever thought it would.

Long before the thrills of Glastonbury and Seven Nation Army, I would chair modestly attended Conference fringe meetings with what would now be regarded as a stellar line-up. Corbyn, McDonnell, McCluskey, Owen Jones, and the marvellous Tony Benn. How proud was I to be a bit player in this determined fight back against Blair and New Labour. I still am and always will be.

But in those days the idea of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Leader would have been met with looks of astonishment from all of us small band of Labour lefties. Here was someone who had devoted his life to the most unfashionable and difficult causes. We used to jokingly refer to him as the ‘ alternative Foreign Secretary” as he was always on the way to or back from Palestine or South America. You never met anyone with less ego or less interested in personal political aggrandisement. And then the world turned upside down.

Years before in 2006 my first encounter with Jeremy Corbyn was at a Labour Briefing pre-Conference curry in Manchester. At the time John McDonnell had just announced he would be standing for the leadership when Blair resigned. Despite our 100 per cent support for this brave attempt to overturn the status quo – which ultimately failed when the now Shadow Chancellor couldn’t get the nominations for the ballot against Brown - Jeremy agreed with me that sadly it was highly unlikely it would ever be the case in the foreseeable future that a left candidate could win. The rest is well-documented history. How it was basically Buggins turn in the Campaign Group and the debate needed broadening. How Jeremy got on the ballot with a minute to spare. And how in a heroic campaign he defied 100-1 odds to become Labour Leader.

But for Brexit I still believe things could have been very different. But amid the horrors of the early hours of December 13 I also thought at least on a human scale that I was glad Jeremy Corbyn would not have to endure much more personal abuse. Four years of media hatchet jobs had done their work big style.

Day after day voters would tell us in my marginal constituency that they had always been Labour but wouldn’t vote for Corbyn as PM. It was heartbreaking. Whatever had saved us from annihilation in 2017 it sure as hell wasn’t going to save us now.

It is hard to part company with comrades on the left but the truth is it was crystal clear we were heading for catastrophe and we didn’t have an oven-ready candidate experienced enough to replace Jeremy. Had the result not been such a disaster, there was a lingering if unlikely hope that John McDonnell (who had actually wanted to be Leader and would have commanded support still) might be persuaded to stand. But that ship sailed with Johnson’s 80-seat majority.

These days I am not just a Labour Left activist. As a councillor for the past six years I represent a ward in West Yorkshire with two food banks and a lot of deprivation. But there are also people who are doing OK, people who didn’t vote for us last time or even vote at all. We need all of them on board to stand any chance at all of clawing back ground – let alone forming a government.

Does the PLP bear any responsibility for this? Sure they do. However the turn the Party as a whole took after the so-called chicken coup by MPs didn’t just lose us support. It spawned a bunker mentality and understandable determination to protect the leadership from the top right down to the grassroots. It got toxic. Very. Any criticism of Corbyn and you were a Tory. Anti-semitism was an invention (trust me as a member of the NCC, it wasn’t). Any concerns about election prospects were dismissed on an increasingly hysterical social media amid the cries of ‘bring it on’ and JC4PM. To be frank a lot of it was delusional. And as much to blame as Brexit for what followed.

So here we are with another leadership campaign. But it is not 2015. What made that campaign so amazing was its message of hope and authenticity from someone who had spent his life in the labour movement. Someone who didn’t have to keep saying the s-word as everyone knew he was a socialist and always had been. We wanted a fundamental shift in the Labour Party after years of watering down our values and we were right even if it went wrong in the end. Hindsight is easy and luck wasn’t on our side as neither was the media but that has always been the case even if this time it was unprecedentedly vile. A lot of mistakes were also made by the LOTO office according to those closer to the coal face and all that will no doubt be revealed in due course. However there has been a game-changing shift. Which may help us in the difficult years ahead.

Not one of the leadership candidates could in all honesty be described as on the right of the Party. And whatever silliness is being said about ‘ true’ and ‘proper’ socialists, after 40 years on the left of the Party I am not buying the line there is only one candidate we can vote for. Truth is there is not a batsqueak policy-wise between them.

So like that well-known Blairite Paul Mason I am voting for Keir Starmer - the candidate who has best chance of inspiring trust and convincing the unconvinced to come home to Labour. Who can cope with the pressure and take Johnson apart at the dispatch box and hold him to account when Brexit unravels. And, with no disrespect to the others, someone with a much longer track-record of standing up for human rights and social justice.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Dear Change UK, a Belated Love Letter

Dear Change UK,

A year has flown since you came into my life. You were a mould-breaking gun slinger of centrism, fresh as a daisy and pregnant with mucho newness and changeable changeness. And I was, and still am, a no-mark politics nerd blogging from the back streets of Stoke-on-Trent. As your star ascended, you didn't cast a glance in my direction. And when your brilliance faded, affecting nothing but indifference among those minded to vote in the EU elections, I still kept the faith. You never amounted to much, but I was a loyal fan and you provided good fodder for half a dozen blog posts. For that, accept this love note as a demonstration of my gratitude.

Unlike those who use today, the anniversary of your foundation to rub salt into the wounds of your demise, or josh about on Twitter with phrases like "Chuka who?" and allusions to funny tinges, I want to celebrate you in the best way by recalling your accomplishments. For while you might feel bitter about the hostile environs you were born into, and how once sympathetic journalists no longer return your calls, you have made three important contributions to British politics.

The first is no political party can spontaneously come into being. You, dear Change UK, were ill-served by your parentage. Your founding MPs didn't know the first thing about organising, having either had their seats engineered for them by old fixers who had done the requisite moving and a shaking for them, or spent so long on the back benches marking time, drawing salaries, and leaving their constituency parties to seed - until the tidal wave of Corbynism rolled in and put them on notice. Nor were you helped by defections from the Tories, all three of whom, Sarah Wollaston, Heidi Allen, and Anna Soubry, were similarly assisted by the party apparat earlier in their careers. Because they had everything done for them, from their point of view politics was a heavily mediatised world. Building support for parties were neither the fulcrum of articulating or representing interests, but an exercise in smart marketing - just like jolly old Macron, across the Channel. Build it and they will come, but this ain't no Field of Dreams. And thanks to their absence of basic organising nous, you had to suffer the indignity of two name changes, an ultra-bland logo after the original was rejected by the Electoral Commission, and your being forced into a broken party model. Sadly for your fate, you were hobbled from birth.

The second lesson, much to your disadvantage, was the absence of a political space for you. Your founders misread the polls that consistently returned huge majorities of voters who self-defined as inhabiting the centre without interrogating what this means. A sign of millions upon millions hankering after a centrist hero, or those same millions don't know (nor care) what professional politicians understand by 'the centre', and so interpret it according to their common sense? There are plenty of slightly racist Tory voters who think their politics are in the centre, simply because they might also agree with nationalising the privatised utilities. Or because low level bigotry is, to them, commonsensical. If that wasn't bad enough, you were launched while another self-defined and properly-established centre party was a going concern, and who managed to gobble up the lion's share of remain votes during your first - and only - electoral outing. Who knew being accepted as the authentic third party in British politics, and the one most closely associated with pro-EU arguments would prove an insurmountable obstacle to a half-formed party whose best known members were strangers outside the thin layer of Westminster watchers? What you were to prove was the impossibility of a centrism independent of the fringes of the two main parties, and the Liberal Democrats. And thanks to your example, the idea another bunch of MPs might try and emulate your singular example is poppycock and deserves taking seriously by precisely no one.

And last of all, your best achievement, and one I am raising a toast to you for, is your conveyance of some of the worst Labour MPs of the 2017-19 parliament out of politics. Whether they lied about the party, repeatedly scabbed on collective efforts, briefed against the membership to the press, made stupid and self-serving arguments, or later became a laughing stock, it is an unalloyed good that none of these people sit in parliament any longer. It's almost as if they created you and treated you cruelly, and you wreaked upon them vengeance by terminating their careers. One hopes, in time, the Tory party will prove as effective in immolating the Commons careers of its own MPs.

There we have it. Change UK. The Independent Group. The Independent Group for Change. You made my heart sing during an otherwise dark year in politics, and it pains me to know history will forever counter-pose your farce to the old SDP's tragedy, a cautionary tale of knowing what not to do. Yet for me, and a peculiar band of leftists, you did more than render a service and off some terrible MPs. We feel genuine adoration, one that has shades of pity, but adoration nonetheless. You scorned our affections but we will never spurn the admiration we have for you. And so tonight I light a candle, knowing it will be a very long time before we see your like again and that just perhaps, those who plotted your emergence but were too cowardly to join the ride have learned some lessons. Especially about the fragility of MPs without a proper party to support them, and how no one is bigger than the collective.

Yours with tenderness,


Monday, 17 February 2020

The Tory Obsession with Eugenics

If you've stayed away from politics Twitter these last few days, I envy you. But it might also mean you've missed the excitement, if that's the right word, about the latest Dominic Cummings appointment. For his "celebrated" advert inviting (self-defined) iconoclasts, visionaries, and weirdos to apply for top positions in the government has, unsurprisingly, yielded up a eugenicist. Andrew Sabisky has, among other things, said black people have low IQs and has advocated "enforced contraception" to prevent the emergence of a permanent "underclass". Sounds like a right charmer. Or just the sort of random racist you encounter during a light skim of a Guido Fawkes comments box.

What then is it about Sabisky that Cummings finds so beguiling? They're obviously like-minded. One of the subterranean strands of conspiracy thinking is the idea scientific and education establishments exclude certain ideas and approaches because they're professionally and politically inconvenient. A bastardised TS Kuhn or a hobbled Foucault might offer this an intellectually respectable gloss, given the linkages (and in the latter's case) the fusion between power and knowledge, but what this operation also does is confer on excluded knowledges a glamorous, subversive quality. Anti-vaxxers, chemtrail enthusiasts, occultists, homeopathists, all pretend to some sort of secret knowledge that has been persecuted and repressed by the authorities, rather than their rejection for being complete bullshit. And so the same applies to eugenics. In Cummings's war on expertise and professionalism, the fact science and education are against it is enough to commend any old "edgy" hokum to him.

And consider the figure of Sabisky himself. In this 2016 profile, we find a tedious dullard who has latched onto a few bits and bobs from eugenics that confirms his prejudices. And someone who fancies himself a galaxy-level master brain because he reckons he can predict politics. Give it up, mate. It's a probabilistic game. I wonder if his predictive powers extended to his departure?

Just a bad apple then, one of Cummings's eccentricities attracting the ear and the ire of the media and politics chatter because it was a prominent appointment? Well, no. Sticking up for Sabisky's appointment on the spurious grounds of free speech was Toby Young. Readers will recall he has an interest to declare on matters eugenic. And also in recent days, we've had the patron saint of atheism, Richard Dawkins, stick up for the crank assumptions underpinning eugenics. We can expect, like clockwork, the scribblers in The Spectator and Brendan O'Neill to come out in Sabisky's defence, another innocent victim of the evils of wokeism. Meanwhile, the pearl clutching decents look aghast at the horrors they've enabled.

Because the Tories won a huge majority, this has two consequences for their self-perception. A sense of invulnerability, which means Boris Johnson can more or less act as he pleases. The second is a boost in confidence for every two-bit racist and promulgator of right wing bullshit. In the case of eugenics, it's curious how we're it's coming out (again) in the wake of the Windrush scandal and last week's deportations to Jamaica. The unthinkable is already happening to wide indifference, so why not let the more objectionable right wing ideas flourish as well, up to and including a say over the running of the government?

In its broad sense, eugenics is the science (sic) of human improvement and therefore all social sciences and managerial discourses are eugenic. Labour, for instance, with its long Fabian tradition and Margaret Thatcher's free market crusade were projects about improving human beings physically, mentally, culturally, of reshaping people around a set of moral precepts determined a priori by folks like The Webbs or Sir Keith Joseph - pick your elite according to political preference. Evidently, as Britain's most successful political party the Tories are interested in any and all biopolitical tools for managing populations. Thatcher didn't break up the huge workplaces of the nationalised industries simply because they were "uneconomical", after all. However, this eugenics was characterised by their focus on social engineering, not the quackery of racial segregation and selective breeding.

It's understandable the 'weak' eugenics of population management appeals to the Tories, especially as many of their leading figures are anticipating a period of hegemony. But why does the biologism keep cropping up? It's embedded in the conceit, the stories they tell themselves to explain their advantage and privilege. If you're from an old moneyed family, how can they have kept their prosperity down the centuries if it wasn't for their being more cunning, crafty, industrious, and cleverer than the common herd? And if you're possessed of humble origins, but ascend the ladder of success it says something about your preternatural abilities that allowed you to rise above. It's interesting that Sabisky and Toby Young, both of whom are mediocrities from privileged backgrounds, should find these arguments beguiling. Eugenics in its broad and narrow terms finds ready support in the Tory firmament because it reflects back to them their distorted assumptions about the world. They are its rightful rulers, and provides one way of looking at how everything works from above.

Therefore, it might be the case not all Tories are eugenicists. But eugenics is an essential and inescapable component of Toryism.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Caroline Flack and Social Murder

To read about the circumstances surrounding the sad passing of Love Island's Caroline Flack is to learn it was entirely avoidable. Flack was dropped by ITV from the show and its spin off, After Sun once the story emerged that she had been involved in and charged with assaulting her partner. She was banned from any contact with him prior to the trial next month, despite his opposition to the CPS decision to proceed. By any token, Flack was a troubled woman who needed help and support. But instead, she suffered the usual gossip, character assassination, and vilification from the gutter snipes of the tabloid sewer. Take The Sun as a particularly egregious example. As a number of people on Twitter have pointed out, Rupert's minions have spent their Saturday afternoons busily deleting what they've written about her. These deletions include a story from Friday reporting how a "jokey" Caroline Flack-themed Valentine's card had gone on sale. Imagine if you were her, getting trolled day after day by the country's best selling newspaper and one of its biggest celebrity news sites. It wouldn't do your mental health much good either.

And then you have the disgusting hypocrisy of self-identified friends. Consider Dan Wootton, who's spent his afternoon tweeting out his horror at what has happened to Flack. Quick to blame ITV for their shabby treatment of her, quick to tweet about how she had lost everything, and quick to retweet support from Boy George blaming this on "others" who enjoy their pound of flesh, and the Brexit Party's David Bull who's pinning it on social media. Wootton has protested his "complete loyalty" to Flack and talked about their "regular contact", but this isnt any old Sun hack. He's a columnist and the paper's executive editor. Or to put it another way, this vile shit of a human being was making her troubles worse by giving stories the go ahead that only could only have contributed to her misery. And if you want the measure of the man, just scroll down his Twitter feed. Literally the last thing he put out before tweeting a broken heart emoji was something by Julia Hartley-Brewer mocking Jameela Jamil's experience of mental illness.

I expect this won't trouble his conscience too much. He comes from a press culture that saw nothing wrong with hacking the phone of a murdered teenager, after all. But creatures like Wootton and the content he decides on preceded him, and will no doubt post-date him now his buddies are secure in Number 10. Moving into the impersonal, as we noted on the occasion Peaches Geldof passed away prematurely, celebrity is individually and collectively experienced. The media creates a simulated collapse of social distance where it is possible to have a relationship of sorts with a pantheon of celebrities. Complete strangers appear close and distant simultaneously, and with the coming of social media this effect is both amplified and shortened further. Not only do celebrities now enjoy a means of communicating directly with fans, they are also forced to endure "feedback" - some of it adulatory, a lot of it abusive. And especially so if celebrities are women, are of colour, are disabled, or are lesbians or gay men. And none of this takes place in a vacuum. You don't need tabloid press coverage to be an arsehole online, but when stories are dredged up about foibles and failings, relationships and affairs, selfishness and revenge porn at the behest of these papers, and then get the first dabs on the stories, decide the edit and the consistency with which they are reported on/revisited, and so a monster is fed. Their coverage sets the tone and determines the contours of the feedback a celebrity is likely to receive.

Writing in the 1840s, Fred Engels noted how substandard housing, poor food and sanitation, overcrowded districts, and dangerous working conditions contributed to the premature deaths of thousands. The builder responsible for the housing, the authorities responsible for the built environment, the shopkeepers and bakers responsible for adulterated food and worst, and the employers whose wages barely covered the necessaries while forcing people to work in the shadow of permanent injury or death, these were not accidents of fate. It was in their gift to do something about an infrastructure that conspired to send workers to early graves, and yet they didn't. As Engels puts it, if these authorities and business people "knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual ...".

This is the situation we're in when it comes to our mental health crisis. Leaving aside the wider issues of the relationship between it and social media, in the narrow case of celebrity, the opinion formers - the gossip columnists, paps, and editors who shape showbiz coverage - know they are constantly heaping on the stress and misery, making public what should stay private, and helping drive people to drink, drugs, and despair. And, on occasion, someone takes their life. Like Caroline Flack and two previous Love Island contestants, Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis. When this happens the media sometimes shakes off its convenient short-sightedness and accepts culpability - as we saw following the axing of Jeremy Kyle. But mostly it's brushed away with the sort of touching tribute they would never have printed while the person in question was still alive. Celebrity coverage therefore is structurally harmful, and yet it carries on as it does, grinding out the money and conferring profile to commentators and editors who determine its comings and goings. When tragedy strikes repeatedly, we can only conclude social murder is still very much with us - updated and thriving in a set of media practices utterly toxic to the mental health of its subjects. And like their 19th century forebears, those in charge don't give a damn about the people they destroy.

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Saturday, 15 February 2020

Emily Thornberry: What was the Point?

"Our leadership debate isn’t going to be as interesting, passionate or fun without Emily Thornberry. She brought so much to this debate. She’s a true fighter, a tough opponent, and a good friend", so says Lisa Nandy. I suppose she has to be nice or, to put it in the wonkish vernacular of Keir Starmer "model the behaviour" we'd like to see in the party. Yeah, Emily is a good laugh. She can be charming and sounds like a jolly companion for an evening of gin tasting, but I don't see why we have to fool ourselves. Emily's leadership bid was completely pointless and possibly, from her point of view, damaging.

Falling short of the required CLP nominations threshold by two, she took to Twitter to thank her supporters, her team, and made the standard warm unity noises. The only clue it gives for her motivations is a desire to "widen the debate." But widen it to what purpose exactly? Back in 2010 and 2015 there was a clear rationale in this direction for letting Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn onto the ballot paper. In 2019, you could make a similar argument for accepting Ian Murray onto the ballot paper, despite the craven, obsolete politics. The "debate" isn't a fun exercise in interesting discussions but about the vision and strategy required to take Labour back into government. What did Emily bring?

According to her website, she's been a campaigner and an effective performer in the Commons, which meant she was the right sort of person to lead Labour's comeback. This is certainly true - of the field she was by far the most experienced parliamentarian. And she is good at the despatch box, if Westminster theatre is your thing. Yet none of this tells us where she stood. Looking at her answers to questions, we get bits and bobs on campaign technology, on anti-semitism, on experiences and resources, and the most perfunctory of analyses on why Labour lost the general election (it was because we offered too many policies). That answer might suit the dwindling Progress groupies, but kinda overlooks the main reasons. Perhaps there was an element of avoiding a mea culpa here as, during the election campaign and long before, she was quite happy to carry on making the case for a second referendum and is partly responsible for the switch Boris Johnson exploited with alacrity.

On the one occasion Emily did venture into offering a political position during this contest, it was a disaster. Speaking at the Bristol hustings earlier this month, she was all for seizing empty properties from landlords to help resolve the housing crisis. Good stuff. But alongside this she has her frankly horrible social housing scheme whereby young people wanting a council property would be put into a lottery to get one, but then be kicked out when they reached the age of 30. "More radical than Jeremy Corbyn", indeed.

When it comes down to it, the lack of a pitch - which the other three candidates have - failed completely to differentiate her from the crowd. Relying just on character or the opinion that "I'd be rather good at being leader" isn't going to impress anyone thinking about how Labour can retool and win back lost ground. Sad to say, as much as a laugh Emily is, conveying the message that the main thing wrong with Corbynism was its being led by Jeremy Corbyn as opposed to Emily Thornberry was a hiding to nothing. For this reason, there was nothing to gain from "widening the debate" and allowing her the opportunity to rob Liz Kendall of her record for the lowest vote in a Labour leadership election.

Has her leadership bid improved her chances for a big job in the next shadow cabinet? Very low. If Keir gets it, then I can see her shuffled into a less showy, more minor role. He will want to appoint some MPs keen on returning to front line action after their self-imposed exile toward the rear of the opposition benches. And, unfortunately for her, Emily proved herself to be a loose cannon - something I can't imagine the frontrunner wanting to deal with as he's busy establishing himself in the public eye. As for Rebecca Long-Bailey, despite the threats by the usual moaners, she is likely to have a greater pool of people to pick from than Jeremy did as some, especially on the soft left (and no doubt encouraged by her appointing Lisa to something). Again, the indiscipline and hard remainism counts against Emily here and therefore I'd expect RLB won't be too keen either. You see, here is her big mistake. If the motive for making a leadership bid was the acquisition of a new, or maintenance of her senior position afterwards, you've got to show you bring something to the table. With her baggage, and her poor showing at the nomination stage all Emily has accomplished is a demonstration of her dispensability. No following, no weight, sadly she might just have done the next stage of her career in.

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