Thursday, 22 October 2020

Local Council By-Elections October 2020

The first set of by-elections since March! This month saw 5,601 votes cast over three local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. No council seats changed hands. For comparison with last March's's results, see here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Oct 19


* There were three by-elections in Scotland
** There were no by-elections in Wales
*** There were two sets of Independent clashes this month
**** No Others this month

The first set of by-elections since the beginning of lockdown and ... they reveal precisely nothing. Two of the elections come with Scottish island weirdness. I.e. An oversupply of independent candidates and little party activity, though Labour do deserve a hand for popping its head up in the Orkneys. The one "conventional" by-election was Aberdeenshire, which the SNP successfully defended against a strong Tory challenge. While there are no lessons to be taken, except the parties ought to sort out their organisation in the Orkneys and Outer Hebrides, the good news is November has two more by-elections in store for us, both of which are SNP defences. Thin gruel for local election fans, but it's all that's going at the moment.

1st October
Orkney UA, North Isles, Ind hold

8th October
Eilean Siar UA, Na Hearadh agus Ceann a Deas nan Loch, Ind hold

15th October
Aberdeenshire UA, Ellon and District, SNP hold

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Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Tier and Loathing in Manchester

Critical but unconditional support to Andy Burnham! The Tory treatment of Manchester by forcing the city into Tier Three without engaging with local leaders in good faith, withholding funds to adequately compensate workers and now refusing to deal with the Mayor in future is grotesque. The sticking point saw local leaders ask for £65m because, not unreasonably, forcing workers onto two-thirds of their salary is less generous than furlough and will see them face significant hardship, especially if they're low paid. As for businesses, they too can whistle. The anger this provokes must be allied to clear heads. When the government are coughing up £100bn for an absurdly over-priced mass-testing programme and cash is shovelled to fake companies proffering phantom PPE, there's something other than incompetence going on.

The north/south battle of recent days set up a dyamic in which the government could not be seen to compromise. The continuous thread running back to 1979 is one of authoritarian leadership. Indeed, the flipside of marketising everything is a centralising state. At first tooling up to see off pesky and uppity labour movements, later it moved to tackle alternative bases of authority within the state's institutions by abolition, muzzling, selling them off, or subjecting them to market mechanisms. Councils are one such unreliable arm of the state and different Prime Ministers have enjoyed bashing local government for cheap political points. Boris Johnson's riding roughshod over Manchester is the latest in this inglorious tradition. Unfortunately for him and previous occupants of Number 10 in recent decades, this leads to brittle government. The executive in its overweening arrogance not only dissolves opposition to it within the state system, it centres not just authority but also responsiblity on itself. And once authority is lost, the government and the Prime Minster are held responsible for everything and its position is unrecoverable. Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown, Dave, and May, all lost it by accident or by badly conceived design and the furies came for them. Johnson's barrelling approach to everything is the repetition and reiteration of Number 10's authority. If he is seen to climb down in a big way, such as conceding to Andy Burnham's demands for adequate compensation, or the two-week circuit breaker favoured by SAGE and Keir Starmer, a slippage in Johnson's authority can snowball into an avalanche. Being seen to win is pathetic and reckless, but for Johnson authority is all. On this there can be no compromise.

The second is, naturally, the Tory base are shielded from the hijinks. Nine seats out of Greater Manchester's 27 is nothing for the Tories when there are 71 others to fall back on, even if the 1922 Committee's Graham Brady is among the potential collateral. What does this matter for the coalition of radicalised pensioners elsewhere? Not much. And even, materially speaking, it does not impact much for elderly Tory supporters in the seats directly affected. If there's anything we've learned about the last 10 years in British politics, as long as they're shielded from cuts (or, to be more precise, feel they're shielded) the bulk of older people will merrily vote for the party kicking their children and grandchildren in the teeth. I know this, you know this, and Dominic Cummings knows this.

And by the Tory base, we can't forget our jolly old friend capital. There are no worries on this score. The petty capitals of small-scale landlordism are fine (no one-third rent cut for this most parasitic of strata), and the big interests of finance, property, and the City are absolutely dandy too. Manchester is a provincial backwater compared to the metropolis, and even if Sadiq Khan has to be stitched up as per Andy Burnham, their operations are unaffected. The speculation, debt payments, rents, and transaction fees will flow Covid or no. The only possible blip is if the Burnham-led opposition spills out of Greater Manchester and ignites generalised regionalist grievances across the north of England and the Midlands, and Labour show a deftness of foot so far lacking in its interventions to position itself as the vehicle for that opposition.

This brings us back to the authority question. For Johnson, there cannot ever be a King in the North nor anywhere else in England. If stomping on councils and metro mayors is what it takes, his blighted government are going to do it. Yet here is the problem. Authoritarians cannot live by authoritarian means alone forever, and the more he blunders about smiting all and sundry, the higher the well of resentment fills. Manchester is the latest victim. Might it be the tipping point?

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Monday, 19 October 2020

A Conservative Case for Trade Unions

A Conservative arguing for trade unions? Have we tripped into an alternative timeline? No, we have not, it's just the latest missive from the try hard would-be hegemonisers over at CapX thinking out loud about trade unionism and how it might save their failing system.

Drawing on recent pieces from boring American writers, John Lloyd writes about how neoliberals of the left and right have attacked trade unions and undermined them by unpicking the post-1945 consensus. Quite, which is a reason why Blair was a bad 'un, even if you box out the calamity of Iraq and price in all those PFIs. This undermining of union power has left workers unable to organise effectively, which has seen the productivity gains of the last 40 years accumulate in the hands of the wealthy as living standards have stagnated and, as I'm writing, are going backwards. And, to dust off the frightful phrase, there is the social capital argument. The experience of active trade unionism forces workers together into collaborative relationships, and writ large across a given employer, multiplies social contacts. The workforce become more cohesive, less atomised, and the broad consequence is the building of social trust. Cynicism does not have to be the default.

Not much to disagree with here, but to make it past the Tory filters there must be a sting in the argument, yes? Sort of. Despite highlighting the point unions are "lobby organisations for the overprotected public sector" and how UK unions have come to rely on state-provided services for its industrial backbone, there's a whistful paen to non-political trade unionism. Oddly, new small militant unions like the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain and the United Voices of the World are talked of in positive terms because, at least as far as Lloyd is concerned, their militancy is grounded in the day-to-day challenge of organising precarious workers and ensuring they get their fair share. If the patchwork of society could be sewn together in like manner, especially among "lower class politics" (his phrase) then extremism can be seen off and atomism overcome. Happy times are here again.

Why is this a conservative case for trade unionism? Because it argues for an ideal-typical trade unionism that is a throwback from where we actually are. In the first place, there is nothing new about these points. Conservative Trade Unionists were a body of some not insignificant clout in the workers' movement during the 1970s and, at its height, organised tens of thousands of Tory trade unionists. None of this should come as a shock. To use a phrase from one of the old beards, trade unionism is the bourgeois politics of the working class. Pay, discipline, safety, hours, bullying, these are the everyday issues faced by union activists, stewards, officers, and branches. In a period of labour movement ascendency, like the 1970s, collective action and the strength of workplace organisation delivered results. Struggle helped worklife get better and made sure it paid more. Depending on the politics of a particular workplace, this could intersect with socialist politics and lead to Labourist or, indeed, revolutionary conclusions. But equally, in the absence of politics collective struggle becomes a means of reconciling trade union activity to the system. The rounds of collective bargaining backed by thr strike threat, or even wildcat strikes over sackings of convenors and stewards, or new working practices at their most militant might have challenged management's right to manage, but did not, by and large, raise wider questions. Even if, as was often the case, stewards and key activists were Trotskyists or from the Communist Party. Trade unionism in the post-war period might have made socialists out of hundreds of thousands, but its success ensured millions more were not politicised. This system of institutionalised class struggle worked for them.

This non-political trade unionism tended toward Labourism: trade union stuff is up to the workers, but leave the wider politics of labour to the professionals. But Tory trade unionism had the same root: the union was a place of knowing one's station in life, of guaranteeing community at work while promoting contentment with how things were. Too much militancy was disruptive and threatened workers' security and livelihoods, and this from the standpoint of the CTU was their mission: to preserve and, unsurprisingly, conserve. When Thatcher began her assaults on the labour movement, the bulk of the CTU were unperturbed: the workers' movement had become "unreasonable" and "irresponsible" and needed the state to bring it into line. The layer of conservative trade unionists and working class Tory supporters generally saw it as harsh but necessary medicine, and some were happy seeing the "disruptive" miners getting a good hiding. This famously included one Patrick McLoughlin, a working miner (then a Tory councillor, later a grandee) who denounced the strike from the floor at 1984 Tory conference. If trade unionism had steered away from politics and kept the extremists from power in the movement, none of this might have happened.

Some far-sighted right wing thinkers are alive to the importance of class struggle to their system, and not just in terms of workers having enough wages to avoid crises of underconsumption, as per the present. An active, trade unionised work force is a pain in the arse for management, but it forces them to innovate to intensify exploitation and replace workers with machines, thereby retaining control over work and boosting productivity. It's a creative tension perspective, and without it productivity stalls, low paid jobs proliferate, and we end up with something looking not unlike the British economy of the last decade. The Tory fantasy of quiescent, non-political trade unionism in the 21st century is a fever dream of a cap-doffing working class who'll happily work with them to grease the wheels and, ultimately, do themselves out of their jobs. As was the ultimate fate of so many CTU supporters in the 1980s and 90s.

A multitudinous mass of good workers who'll do their duty, shop til they drop, and inculcate a new class culture of deference, communitarianism, and perhaps a bit of "suspicion toward outsiders". Lloyd says this conception of trade unionism is "humanist", not political. He could not be more wrong. Sectional to its core the whole argument is sodden with bourgeois assumptions and the sense of a misty-eyed reactionary pining for a better yesterday. A conservative case for trade unions certainly, and one a million miles away from ours.

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Coronavirus Vs Capitalism

Here's a discussion between Aaron Bastani and Grace Blakeley about her forthcoming book on capitalism after Coronavirus.

Writing will resume soonish.

Friday, 16 October 2020

Jakwob feat. Jetta - Electrify

No blogging tonight because Cliff Richard's Summer Holiday sidetracked me. Yes, it's true. One should be exposed to the full fruit of human endeavour, even if it's musty, mouldy, and reeks just a bit. Now left trying to exorcise the stain Bachelor Boy and the rest of Cliff's classic oeuvre have seared on my soul. What better way than this beastie, which just missed out on last decade's top 100.

Thursday, 15 October 2020

Why Did Labour Abstain on the Spycops Bill?

And the latest reading of the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill cleared the House of Commons. 313 voted for it, 98 against. Hold the front page, something's amiss. Lots of votes from honourable members are missing. The bulk of the opposition in fact. 200 MPs abstained, including most of the Labour Party under orders from Keir Starmer himself, while 34 did the principled thing and opposed - several resigning their front bench positions in the process. A New Leadership indeed.

The government's bill is a crappy, authoritarian piece of work. As Shami Chakrabarti rightly notes, the bill gives licence to undercover agents, be they coppers, spooks, armed forces personnel or from food standards and Gambling Commission, to commit crimes in the discharge of their duties. What could possibly go wrong? It's not like policing, for example, hasn't been hit by allegations of the most disgusting abuse committed by spycops. Naturally, the right are happy to handover power without accountability and shows Boris Johnson's fulsome praise for British freedoms to be piffle, but Labour? What can possibly be gained by enforcing abstention?

Writing for LabourList, Conor McGinn has had a stab. He suggests undercover work has disrupted so many terror plots, but requires a clear legal framework with appropriate safeguards to prevent abuses now and in the future. Okay, and does the bill accomplish this? No. Conor notes how the bill says state agents would be subject to the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights. Okay, but the Tories are explicitly committed to rolling back the HRA and wriggling out of ECHR commitments. Second, how have these already curbed abuses and ensured undercover rule breakers were brought to book? As matters stand the rules are tissue thin now, and even this is too much as far as the Tories are concerned.

The second argument is even more specious. Conor suggests if the bill falls either the security services would be prvented from operating, or would operate without any oversight, which are terrible outcomes. Evidently, the leader's forensic skills aren't catching. Had the bill fallen, Johnson would have been forced to compromise with the opposition to try and get something through as, um, the history of government defeats over the last four decades suggest.

The rest of Conor's piece is overlong waffle suggesting he and Keir Starmer will take no lectures on spook abuses thanks to their records around Orgreave, blacklisting, Northern Ireland, and others. Clearly the leader and the shadow security minister do because nowhere does this piece explain how abstaining on the bill helps these issues come to a resolution. If anything, Conor's piece reads like something defending it.

Then we come to the final paragraph, and the cat jumps out of the proverbial. He writes, "... we have to deal with the legislation this government brings forward, and do so in a way that shows we are a responsible government-in-waiting." And there you have it. Keir and friends have determined opposing this bill would make them look soft on security issues, which contributed to Labour's toxicity among voters who went over to the Tories last year. Okay, if that's the case why not follow the logic of Conor's argument and critically support the legislation? Well, no, because this would weaken Keir's standing among the swathe of recently-won LibDem voters. As for existing Labour supporters, who cares? They have nowhere to go.

Let's see where this gets you. Labour supporters and liberals expecting Keir Starmer to take human rights matters seriously are pissed off. And those who thought Jeremy Corbyn was soft aren't about to conclude Keir is any better by parking 160-something backsides on the fence. Nor is this going to make Tory attacks any easier to fend off. "Refusing to support our security services" does not distinguish between outright opposition or abstention, unless Keir thinks Johnson's jousts are about to assume a gentlemanly aspect and he'll order his spinners to respect the nuanced difference. Literally no one is going to notice the so-called careful calibration of the abstention in the real world. Clever, clever politics becomes stupid, stupid and no one is satisfied.

Why then? Who is Keir trying to appease or, at the very least, impress with his reasonable, responisble government-ready opposition? The only ones left are the Tory papers. Carrying on his charm the press round, offering measured, process criticisms of the bill over tout court rejection, and the mandatory, effusive praise for the "vital tool" of the security services is telling them his criticisms come from a place of fundamental loyalty to the system, not outright opposition a la Corbyn and Corbynism. In return, the hope is they'll continue going easy on him, ensuring the next election is a more benign environment for Labour than the last four contests.

If this is the game, the leader, his office, and all the people he listens to are more naive about the character of British politics than I feared.

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Wednesday, 14 October 2020

The Tory Uses of Scottish Nationalism

In ordinary times, the latest poll on Scottish independence from Ipsos MORI would have sent shock rippling through the Westminster body politic. 58% say yes, and 42% no - the highest support ever recorded for separation. It's not difficult to understand how. As with Brexit, so with Coronavirus, the Tories in London have treated Scotland and Wales with contempt. And while Scotland's record with the disease under the SNP have a less than stellar record, Nicola Sturgeon has proven more adroit than Boris Johnson in the handling of the crisis. For one, you don't get the impression she's chill with sacrificing people for rent payments. Under these circumstances, and with Labour nowhere in Scotland why would anyone want to stay shackled to England and its awful, self-destructive habit of voting in the Tories?

This isn't about for or against independence, but rather how the Tories might play the issue. We know one a key factor that sunk Ed Miliband in 2015 was Dave's success in associating Labour with the SNP and Alex Salmond. As an infamous tweet had it, the choice was stability and strong government with the Tories, or chaos with Ed Miliband. The, we were led to believe, was thanks to an inevitable Labour-led government propped up by an independence-at-any-cost SNP, as opposed to the painful mess and pile of bodies we actually got. It worked, though. Alongside media-confected horseshit about Labour's leader, on the doors the idea the SNP were going to scrap nuclear weapons and head off on their merry way cut through. Never mind how Labour literally burned its electoral support and organisation to keep Scotland in the union in 2014.

Fast forward to Tory strategy in the 2020s and, unfortunately, we're about to see a rinse and repeat. With Brexit on its last legs, the Tories are casting around for a substitute capable of gluing their coalition together. Culture war, raving about trans rights, and declaring war on universities are all runners and riders. Not there's a competition. All these and more are getting purporsed in the central office war room for lobbing at Keir Starmer's front bench, but none of them, either by themselves or in conjunction with others, are enough to replace Brexit as the great divider.

The prospect of Scottish independence, however, is.

Nothing would suit the Tories more than shaping politics as defenders of the UK versus the evil Sturgeon, which means banging the drum for SNP sponging off the English taxpayer, and how Labour will happily throw down the red carpet for separatist demands should Keir enter Number 10. Helping matters from the Tory point of view is the behaviour of the Welsh Government. Having taken the crisis more seriously and proven more effective than either London or Edinburgh, its threat to deploy plod to intercept cross-border traffic from disease-blasted England is sensible from an epidemiological standpoint, but politically it's grist waiting to be used by the Tories for their nationalist mill.

Might it work? We saw last year how Tory members were prepared to see the union sacrificed (as well as their own party) if it meant saving their precious Brexit. Refusing Scotland a constitutional referendum, which Labour is more likely to concede, sets up a polarising dynamic ahead of the next election. To this all the problems of Brexit can be reduced to unpatriotic parties working to break up the UK, and everything else - like the Tories' awful handling of Coronavirus and the multiplying problems around housing, crap wages, unemployment, rising hate crime, and crumbling public services - can get smothered by a Union Jack-branded fire blanket.

Forewarned is forearmed, so they say. Labour and the wider labour movement know how the Tories have played old people's identity politics for the last five years, and rode the dynamics back into office on three occasions. There is a realisation out there the party has to come up with counters to Tory strategy, but so far, so little sign. One thing's for sure. Pinning one's hopes on managerialism and "competence" won't cut it, and is about the worst way of approaching polarised politics when one side is cohered by narrow nationalism.

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Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Crocodile Tiers

143 more deaths reported in the last 24 hours and infections powering to rates not seen since last April. The government's failure is extracting a grim blood price once again. Though, disappointingly, recent polling shows the government are getting away with it. Their successful depoliticisation of the crisis continues apace, they are winning the necropolitics. This, despite mounting criticism of track and trace failures, corrupt contracts handed to Tory cronies, and now the new tiering system for local lockdowns.

Needless to say, the three alert levels have attracted plenty of comment on the social media platforms of choice. The highest level involves working from home, avoiding inessential travel, some help from local authorities and, of course, the miserable successor to dishy Rishi's furlough scheme. Eyebrows were raised when it came to the exceptions: schools, universities, and pubs ... serving food. A curious mix and no mistaking.

The Tory approach to the Coronavirus crisis was characterised at the outset by complacency and then incoherence. Not because they are uniquely incompetent, though Boris Johnson certainly is, but thanks to the contradictory interests pressing in on them. Just because the R number is galloping like an Ascot winner doesn't mean the Tories are about to change tack and, indeed, they have not.

On schools, there is some earnest handwringing about the consequences lockdowns have for pupils. The point about mental health and missing out on learning are well founded and backed by evidence. This begs the question if private schools have mitigated the impacts of closure for their pupils why the government hasn't provided extra resources to facilitate greater coverage of at-home tuition in state schools. Yes, children are largely spared the debilitating consequences of Covid-19, but they're as effective at spreading the disease as any adult. Refusing to countenance the closure of schools leaves a gaping hole in any lockdown. Why the dogmatic insistence, then? A balance of harms in which Covid infection is a lesser evil to the damage done to education? I'm not buying it. Over the summer it was crystal how opening the schools was a necessary step to get workers back into the workplace. In other words, the determination to restore labour discipline was front and centre. The same applies here. Keeping the kids in school even if workers stay off or work from home is vital for a rapid shifting down of restrictions. If children aren't at home, it's easier to get employees back in. Putting it simply, the health of class relations come first.

It's the same when we're looking at the situation in universities. In many places they're driving infections, not because students are irresponsible but thanks to the givernment's stupid decision to kickstart Covid's second wave by compelling a million young people to move around the country into communal residences and badly ventilated classrooms. SAGE advised shifting to online teaching to mitigate infections, but the Tories felt differently. They still feel differently. Again, it's not because they particularly care for students' education or even the health of universities themselves, which they think are manufacturers of anti-Tory voters. It's because of their coalition of voters. Providing accommodation to students is a significant slice of their landlord base, and property speculators aplenty have investments tied up in new halls of residences. The Tories are protecting their constituents. And this applies with the new tier. Not matter what happens, the universities will stay open. The health of rent payments come first.

And then we have the most egregious and transparently favours-rendered aspect of the top tier rules: pubs serving food can remain open as the virus runs rampant. If there are ways of interpreting this other than a thank you to Wetherspoon's Tim Martin, I've yet to see it. Unless a pie with a pint has mysterious anti-covid properties a glass sans accompanying noms lacks. Just prior to the EU referendum, Martin turned his pubs into Tory madrassas for old men. They sat round all day imbibing the rightwing propaganda etched onto the beermats and filling out the company literature, occasionally joined by the old windbag on a tour of his pubs. Martin contibuted to a coherence and firming up of the Tory vote, and allowing his business to carry on operating unhindered is their thank you. Sure, some other pubs are going to benefit, but the stupid food rule is going to drive many others to the wall. The health of close Tory allies come first.

It's frustrating. The politics of the Tories' coronavirus management are there to be seen, called out, and criticised. And yet in Keir Starmer's most forceful intervention yet, he still keeps away from the politics. A so-called circuit break lockdown is sensible, but won't work if it leaves holes-a-gaping on schools, colleges, and universities. And it won't chip away at the Tories unless Labour pushes the envelope and tries steering the politics of the crisis to issues where it's strong: support for beleagured businesses, attacking corruption, properly funding public services, and pushing its post-covid plan. The Tories, after all, are feeling confident enough to encroach on Labour's turf. Time to switch it up or have them switch us off.

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Sunday, 11 October 2020

The Tories' Northern Discomfort

At the beginning of this year, the Tories were musing aloud about the new seats won from the Labour Party. What does this mean for the parliamentary discipline as a bunch of also rans and paper candidates who were never meant to win did? How can the party respond to constituents on the sharp end of their social security system, their landlordism, and their running down of the health service? This is a matter of some concern. Dave and Osborne's hammering of public services made life more difficult in Labour seats in the 2010s. Repeating the same would threaten the chance of a majority Tory government in 2024, so goes the wisdom.

This is the context for the appearance of a new Tory faction, the provisionally-titled Northern Research Group. Comprised of new entrant red wall MPs and led by Rossendale and Darwen's Jake Berry, its very existence suggests some Tories aren't about to take their leader's promises to level up the north at face value. You just have to look at the government's northern discomfort over its inconsistent application of Coronavirus quarantine measures and the ire this is drawing from local authority leaders irrespective of party affiliation. Time will tell if they are Hi-NRG and cause the government headaches down the road. Perhaps they might be able to provide answers for the question vexing Tory strategists: how can the party keep hold of these seats?

There have emerged three broad and overlapping schools of thought, which have jostled for space in the crowded and conflicted Tory imaginary since the election. The first is the most complacent: do nothing. Or, to be more precise, carry on carrying on. As one influential Tory argued in January, cracking down on social security is actually popular among the working class folk of their new seats so why stop? As for the stuff about transport infrastructure and dying town centres, who cares? Let them continue to rot. I suppose there is logic to these arguments: if social decay proved no barrier to the Tories winning depressed seats in 2019, who's to say they'll drag on efforts in 2024?

Then we have the culture war stuff, which several NRGies are keen on. Once Brexit is over, the Tories need fresh unifying hogwash to keep their coalition of voters excitable and pliant. Fulminating about handfuls of refugees in the Channel, or an armada of Spanish trawlers invading British waters like it's 1588, or giving students and luvvies a slap will do the job. Give them something to unite against, populist style.

Last of all, and the least likely outcome is the Prime Minister delivering on his promises. At virtual party conference, Johnson talked a good blue Jerusalem, a post-Brexit Britain as a green powerhouse. His was a vision of post-industrial areas thrumming to the sound of wind turbine and electric vehicle manufacture, while the rest of the country is carpeted with woodland. Who could possibly quibble at such a vision? Certainly not the left, from whom it was unceremoniously half-inched - including the 'green industrial revolution' slogan. Presumably new industry, new jobs, and with it new housing will cement the Tories in position for at least another two terms, after which the fate of the party is someone else's problem.

Ideally for the Tories, a combination of all three would do the business. This is certainly how the Prime Minister would like Boris Island to pan out - flash industry, cultural authoritarianism, and open season on (racialised) scapegoats. The biggest obstacle to realising this isn't the Labour Party, who one day might offer something more than managerial and process criticisms, but the Tory party itself. The incompetence shown throughout the Coronavirus crisis results not from generalised uselessness (which isn't to say cluelessness is entirely absent), but from balancing the conflicting pressures and interests from their elite and mass base. Build homes, but run the risk of depressing property prices and shrinking the renting pool. Open up the economy to get commerce flowing again, but place its elderly support in harm's way. Offer support to workers to get them through the Coronavirus crisis, but undermine the disciplinary effects of mass joblessness. Theoretically, nothing is preventing Johnson from ploughing through and delivering on his promises for the north. He has an almost unassailable majority and the prestige of winning behind him. And yet if he can't get a handle on Covid-19 with all the advantages he has, there's no reason to believe a post-pandemic programme is going to be any easier to deliver.

As things stand the new Northern Research Group are in for a busy, if panicky time. The government is going to flounder and fall short, and there will be real political pain. The question then is where are our plucky defenders of the north are going to be. Holding Johnson's feet to the fire of his pledges, or meekly shuffling to wherever the chief whip herds them. Thanks to the miserable record of Tory rebellions in recent years, we can hazard a good guess at what the answer will turn out to be.

Saturday, 10 October 2020

Why do the Tories Hate the Arts?

Not all of the arts, obviously. Recalling the time when Sir George Young said "The homeless? Aren’t they the people you step over when you came out of the opera?", the arts are consumed and enjoyed by Tories too. Indeed, it is a component of ruling class reproduction. Art helps cohere our social betters around cultural practices typically not open to nor easily accessible by the uncultured hoi polloi. Secondarily it offers a living to the offspring of bourgeois dynasties if the family business isn't their bag. Big names open doors as a matter of right, while the unconnected and anonymous are cut out. This exclusion has tightened up these last 20 years as living standards have stagnated and social mobility has slowed to a crawl. If anything, the Coronavirus crisis is exacerbating poor state of affairs.

Earlier in the year, dishy Rishi received criticism for leaving many cultural workers outside the scope of the furlough scheme because large numbers working in the arts are self-employed contractors living from gig to gig. With no employer or steady income, the system the Tories set up was blind to people in these positions. As the government initially refused to do anything, the Arts Council raided its reserves and stumped up £160m in emergency funding. They were able to distribute over £100m in grants before the government announced a £1.5bn package in July, but it was clear Arts council support was a drop in the ocean. In April, 42% of creative businesses had an income of zero, for instance. The later round of funding, which responded to some concerns, offered grants of up to £3m to arts organisations - though not before some went to the wall. Furthermore, of this package only £2m was set aside for freelancers. Some cracks were papered over as yawning chasms were eft unfilled.

And soon we come to the end of furlough. Those organisations able to avail themselves of the scheme are looking at a huge wave of lay offs at the end of the month, something Sunak's slimmed down successor scheme is primed to do little about. For instance, his announcement in late September to partially subsidise wages only counts if an employee can work at least a third of their hours, which are covered by the employer, and both they and the government will cover the unworked hours. At a stroke, live venues will be destroyed because workers can't work and firms can't cover their wages. Only if they're situated in a place where additional local Coronavirus restrictions are in force does something like the old system come into play. In short, the Tories are precipitating cultural desertification.

Why? As Tim Burgess points out, you would think the economic numbers the arts and creative industries do would have the Tories as their biggest cheerleaders. Almost 300,000 jobs in music, performance, and the visual arts and a turnover of £5bn. Creative industries themselves were worth £101.5bn in 2019, with export earnings of £13.2bn in 2016. Post-Brexit Britain needs those monies, no?

There's a rule of thumb when talking about Tory policymaking and statecraft. If one of their governments makes a poor decision but rectifies on the basis of evidence and representations by the people affected, then fair enough. But if they keep making harmful choices, or do/don't do something in defiance of the evidence, then something else is happening. We're talking about the interests the Tories represent. In recent days, we've seen how the chancellor's Covid strategy is guided by ideology, which coincidentally maps onto several overlapping and contradictory interests and stakes the Tories express. This is no less true with the arts.

For one thing, there's basic prejudice. As Dominic Cummings reminded us on a Zoom conference with Sam Mendes, he said "the fucking ballerinas can get to the back of the queue." We see it too with Gavin Williamson's preoccupation with "low quality courses" in universities, which always happen to be the arts and humanities. This animus comes from a suspicion art is idling and indolent, which is fine if mummy and daddy are picking up the tab, but not so if below stairs people are having a go. Why should they have the privilege of going from gig to gig, or from show to show when there are strawberries to be picked and potatoes to be plucked? The Tories have long wanted to shake down the labour market to force people into low paying but necessary jobs, and refusing adequate support is one way of doing it.

An economistic explanation is far from the totality of the matter. Old Adorno was onto something when he talked about the liberatory potentials of high art, but this is a property common to the creative process. Creating something, a piece of music, a poem, designing a game, abutts the possible and expands its horizon, transforming the author in the process. This taking place on a mass basis is utterly crucial for 21st century capitalism, but is corrosive of the political settlement the Tories defend. For them, artistic production is the preserve of the (preferably bourgeois) few, and are content for the many to be passive consumers of mass culture. The prospect of millions raising their cultural horizons can, and does, popularise an antipathy to the stultifying and boring character of work. It raises the prospect of mass critique and, as we're on a Frankfurt tip, the possibilty of mass refusal a la Marcuse. Furthermore, creativity on a mass scale is inherently collaborative and spurns the proprietory and atomism of the governance forms the Tories have inculcated and interpellated for the last 40 years.

The Tories hate the arts because they fear the arts. It's a gut feeling, but their instincts are correct. The arts are critical and unpredictable, refuses the containment of boxes to be ticked, and can raise our collective gaze from what is to what might be. Art comments on and strains the disciplinary limits of their system, and offers a reflective means for perceiving ourselves and our societies. Sensibilities unsuited for a vision of Britain in which workers are drones, and endless wage labour is the best the many can ever hope for. Limiting art, cutting us off from it, reifying it is inseparable from a managerial problematic for the preservation of their settlement. This is why the Tories hate the arts, and why they're supremely relaxed to see the country's artistic and creative infrastructure die. It's never a matter of economics and numbers. It's always about the class politics.