Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Tony Blair and the Collapse of Centrist Politics

Tony and Blair. Two words conjoined guaranteed to draw a sigh of disapproval from, well, nearly everybody. And I regret to record that when it comes to daft things said to the press, he's been at it again. In his interview with the paper of Fleet Street's highest profile editor, Blair doesn't say a great deal. It's all a bit "blah blah New Labour was fine blah blah Corbyn evil blah". Specifically he claims New Labour wasn't neoliberal, and the the Labour Party is in a worse place than was the case with Michael Foot in charge and Militant running around.

What interests me is the sense that Blair finds Labour's positioning terrible. As someone long wedded to the delusion of technocratic politics and buoyed by the Macron myth, Blair doesn't think a left wing politics in government is possible. He says, "If you’ve got limited time and resources, is nationalisation the priority? If you’ve got £8 billion a year to spend on education, is abolishing rather than reforming tuition fees the right way, or is early years education, particularly for poorer families?" Note that even now, despite a career in front line politics wedded to, yes, a variant of neoliberal politics, Blair cannot bring himself to criticise the putative actions of a Corbyn government politically. It remains couched in terms of "what works", which justified his love-in with PFIs, light touch regulation, and the other nostrums of neoliberal policy and governance we've come to know well.

Then after more chit chat, the interview moves on to Blair's cherished talisman/get out of jail card, the centre ground. He notes that the populist surge is down to the collapse of the "generational promise", the expectation that each generation will do better than its predecessor. There is certainly an an element of truth here, and he recognises centrism has to do better than "trust us, we're the sensibles", though this idea fails to capture the roots of right wing populism. Nevertheless, the place generational promise can be renewed is, yes, in the political centre. He goes on to say with a Labour Party captured by the "hard left" and a Tory Party stained and deranged by Brexit, the centre is frozen out and will find an expression in some way.

He is right, but he is oh so wrong. While there is a mass radicalisation of hundreds of thousands switching on to socialist politics in a way not seen for decades, there are many others who are not but are drawn to Labour simply because the remade party is articulating their interests. Not only are we in tune with the outlook of a rising generation of workers, it is the only one taking their concerns seriously. As former universities minister David Willetts put it, " ... the aspirations of these people – they don’t want a Marxist revolution; they’re not voting for a massive transformation of British society – what they’re wanting, actually, I would argue, is classic Tory aspirations. It’s a property-owning democracy." This presents Corbynism a limit and a challenge if it is to be a truly transformative moment in British politics, though it is assisted - at Willetts's own admission - by a Tory party locked into the older vote. But yes, ultimately these are the aspirations Blairist centrism tried and more or less monopolised before the stock market crash wrecked everything. What Blair doesn't get and cannot compute is the party had to move left to capture them. Pale left-leaning centrism doesn't cut it.

Ultimately, Blair's discombobulation is because his comfort zone doesn't exist any more. Since the war, Parliamentary politics have been dominated by the two big parties, with a cameo of varying duration and influence by the Liberal Democrats and their predecessors. And while there were significant political differences between them there was a continuity of outlooks, of taken for granted assumptions about how the world works and the way government should be run. Before 1979 the Keynesian/welfarist consensus sure a shared approach that was established by the celebrated 1945 Labour administration. After 1979 and particularly following the defeat on the labour movement in the 80s and the shock loss of the 1992 election, it was the Tory-Thatcherite consensus. To all intents and purposes, the three parties were (competing) wings of the same bourgeois party. They protected property rights, they protected profits, they protected the wage relation. With one exception. Labour's politics were on this terrain, but as a party of the labour movement, of the expression of organised proletarians - people who have to sell their ability to labour to earn a living - it was always vulnerable to pressure from below that could potentially threaten the cosy bourgeois consensus. The opening of the 2015 leadership contest and Corbyn's candidacy realised this latent potential. The take over of the Labour Party is the eruption of interests pushed to the margins of official politics, the sorts of interests bourgeois politics want at best want to accommodate and pacify, at worst defeat. That is until they inevitably well up again at another time. What Corbynism means is, as far as ruling class politics go, the party is lost to them. Beyond a few hold outs in the PLP and in town halls, it has put in stark terms the political vulnerability of capital. It's like the red mole clawing its way out of the concrete tomb Thatcherism had imprisoned it in.

Blair and his elite support are paid up members of the ruling class party, albeit the one now utterly marginalised in a Labour Party which, for the first time in its history, is seeing proletarian politics asserted. The dogmatism and bewilderment that has greeted this shattering event, its pathetic expression in the shallow alphabet soup of pro-EU hashtags, the yearning for Macron, the tiresome shenanigans and bad faith briefing, and the totally clueless response of the Tories are the entirely understandable consequence of a politics in crisis, and one not knowing where it's going to end. To nab a line from The Manifesto, for Blairist centrism "all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind." And faced with the real state of things, they recoil, invent new fantasies and caress new fetishes - anything but face up to the brute historic fact of their bankruptcy.

Unfortunately, there is a market for advertising one's irrelevance. Blair's niche is less a challenge to Corbynism - he has proven singularly incapable of doing that. But he does offer that most powerful of salves: nostalgia. And I'm quite happy for Blair to pop up every few months with his sage words for the dwindling faithful to lap up. It means he and his are leaving the field clear for us to remake Labour politics in our image and in our interests.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Against Outsourcing

Love him or loathe him, John McTernan is a useful fella because he's one of the few commentators the Labour right have got who plainly, and sometimes bluntly, states their collective position on an issue. No shilly-shallying, no fudging. That doesn't mean he's right, as his latest piece in outsourcing demonstrates. What John demonstrates is the managerial/technocratic approach to politics as opposed to, um, a political approach to politics. Que? Let's look at his argument.

For John, there are three great things about outsourcing to companies like Carillion. Private companies can deliver public services well, the risk of failure is privatised, and public services are delivered cheaply. It doesn't really matter if these companies fail because contracts can be transferred over, shareholder value is lost and we lose a cadre of suits - big deal. As for jobs lost, while this is "disruptive" John points out we are seeing the tightest labour market since the 1970s, the implication being there are opportunities enough out there. The wider point is when you set it against other big government departments that don't practice outsourcing on a huge scale (he cites the Home Office and the bungling of Universal Credit), you have multiple inefficiencies and failure. Contracting out introduces accountability into the system.

In its contact with reality, John's argument falls to bits. The claim Private Finance Initiative schemes - the sort Carillion were heavily involved with - are cheaper and better quality is simply not true. According to the National Audit Office, schools and hospitals built using PFI schemes are more expensive than if the state borrowed the cash and built it itself. On accountability, well one might suggest there is a better way to keep companies (and state institutions) honest than market signals, and blatant conflicts of interest. And as for the privatisation of risk, what risk? When the state is a guaranteed customer, where is the risk? Again, as with so many claims made for market efficiencies, they're not based on fact. Indeed, they're refuted by fact. Instead it's supposition, the idea that profit making makes enterprises lean and efficient is stated as if its true, a piece of hocus pocus no amount of corporate failure seems able to dispel.

More dangerous, however, is the politics. John treats outsourcing like a management exercise, but it is not. When anything is outsourced to a private provider, they take up the contract because they're in the business of making profits. And this usually means cutting costs. Often, this involves taking on new staff on worse pay and conditions (despite TUPE), skimping on the service provided, using cheaper and shoddier materials, and increasing the casualisation of labour. For example, before my mum retired she was a home help for the county council. In the last couple of years the way she and other workers went about their tasks changed. Out went time to sit with and talk to pensioners receiving the help, and in came the well known (and well reviled) telephone check-in system. As soon as the job was done, she'd ring the number, walk to and ring in at the next client. Meanwhile, the care was partly outsourced to a private provider. The remaining staff were still employed by the council, but new starters were taken on by the company at minimum wage, which was much less than what mum received.

For John and the outsourcing cheerleaders, this is fine and dandy. Money saved, yes? No. Lower wages for the new staff meant higher rates of top up via the benefits system. The imposition of clock tyranny brought with it micro management by the providers, which meant higher staff turnover and a diminution of the care ethic. No time to chat to the clients, who were often house-bound elderly people who otherwise see someone once in a blue moon, meant they too were alienated from the care and suffered the consequences of increased loneliness - something the government now pays lip service to. This doesn't save money. For a few thousand here, a few thousand there off the council's care bill we find costs displaced onto social security and, given the rise of mental health problems among the elderly, is no doubt a contributor to the (manufactured) strain on the NHS.

And what about the political costs? Outsourcing is absolutely corrosive of the social solidarities the Labour Party depends on. If you're an old person receiving poor quality care from a young woman on the minimum wage, are you likely to feel sympathy with their difficulties? If you're a young woman shuttling from grumbling pensioner to grumbling pensioner for pittance pay, are you going to pay any mind to problems affecting the elderly? It's all very unlikely, isn't it? And neither are going to thank the Labour council ultimately responsible for this state of affairs. Now imagine this writ large. What do you suppose outsourcing has done to our communities? Think about the declining quality of jobs, the casualisation that means Britons have to work longer, on average, than our European counterparts. Think about the atomisation, the fraying of communal bonds at work and in the community decades of these practices are responsible for. That is why, rightly, trade unions and the left are opposed to outsourcing, because it makes life harder and damages our interests, which makes selling our politics that much harder.

It should be basic labour movement politics, really. If there is anyone who lays claim to the left and lays claim to the Labour Party while advocating this nonsense, you would be wise to think "with friends like these ...".

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Tory Cynicism: A Stoke-on-Trent Case Study

On Twitter a few weeks back, Cllr Dan Jellyman, cabinet cloak room attendant on Stoke-on-Trent City Council invited me to sign a petition pushed by fellow Tory councillor and MP for Stoke South, Jack Brereton. The issue concerns the hourly train service that runs from Crewe to Derby. This also happens to be the train I have the pleasure of commuting to work on nearly every day. The problem with the service is not punctuality (which is nearly always good) but the quality of the stock. More often than not the heating is broken or doesn't work properly, and leaky windows are a persistent annoyance - we're talking torrents here, not the odd drop. However, by far the most egregious problem are the number of carriages. 80% of the time we make do with a single coach. If you can visualise a carriage trundling along the railway you have accurately captured what the service is. Sometimes it's not too bad, but at rush hour it is and if Uttoxeter races are on and the company - East Midlands Trains - have forgot to lay on extra, you're talking dangerous overcrowding.

I'm sure any MP would want to see something done if this was the case in their constituency. As a new honourable member, Jack has taken up an issue the hundreds of people who use the route every day are annoyed about. Nevertheless I turned down Cllr Jellyman's request I lend my signature to Jack's petition, and that wasn't because it was being pushed by a Tory MP. It's because things are about to change.

Derby train station has started a long overdue remodelling of the lines running in and out. Presently there are bottle necks at both ends that limits the station to the entrance of two trains at each end at any given time, which is a bit of a pain when you consider there are six platforms. It can mean a delay to one service often has major knock-on effect on others, and as far as my train is concerned about half the time we have to pull up and wait outside the station for another service to clear the points. By the end of the summer this will be cleared, meaning a cut down in delays as trains no longer have to criss-cross the lines. Also, according to a number of rail workers of my acquaintance, the Crewe-Derby service is due a revamp with extra rolling stock added to it, and the roll out for this is scheduled for around the time the Derby work is completed.

Which brings us back to Jack's petition. He's had coverage on local radio and the local press, and has got the backing of Chris Grayling. Yet it's all a complete waste of time because the extra carriages he is petitioning for are happening anyway.

This begs a couple of questions. Is Jack ignorant of the changes to the service, which is worrying considering his old portfolio at the City Council covered transport. Or are we talking about a cynical stunt in which a song and dance now can be built up into a famous victory party later when the rolling stock is increased? Are we seeing ignorance or cynicism? I'll leave you to be the judge.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

The Conservative Party's Eugenics Problem

To find one leading Conservative mouthing off about eugenics is unfortunate, the incidence of others indicates something else. We know about Toby Young, the self-styled "Toadmeister" and his hanging around with Nazis and paedophile apologists at a eugenics conference. He was joined this week by Ben Bradley, the Tories' new youth supremo for ill-advised blog posts advocating vasectomies for the unemployed. Speaking of the young, the semi-official Tory youth movement got it in the neck during the summer for private chats that featured "gassing chavs" among the banter, and during his mayoralty Boris Johnson (who else?) got himself in hot water by pinning inequality on IQ levels. There's more. Newly-minted minister Suella Fernandez and fellow MP John Penrose are opposed to the EU Charter of Rights because, among other things, it disallows eugenics.

If that hasn't sated your appetite, there is this:
A high and rising proportion of children are being born to mothers least fitted to bring children into the world.... Some are of low intelligence, most of low educational attainment. They are unlikely to be able to give children the stable emotional background, the consistent combination of love and firmness…. They are producing problem children…. The balance of our human stock, is threatened ...
This was from Keith Joseph's infamous 'Our human stock is threatened' speech, the very same Keith Joseph who was a key influence on and confidant of one Margaret Thatcher - you might have heard of her. Whether there is a relationship between this and the social Darwinist policies the Tories unleashed in the 1980s (a decade in which Joseph continued to lobby for his views, albeit more discreetly) I'll leave others to ponder on. But the point remains, go back through the history of the Tory party and you will find a current, albeit one that becomes more submerged with time, of advocacy of and sympathy with eugenics. Why?

Let us be clear. There are eugenics and there are eugenics. In his reviled but revealing musings on the subject, Tony Young makes the case for "progressive eugenics", a number of biomedical technologies that should be made available to poor would-be parents to engineer their children, in utero, with intellectual and physiological advantages to compensate them for a disadvantaged start in life. It's nonsensical, but Young fits in a long-standing and deeply embedded tradition of eugenics that works to facilitate the reproduction of fit human beings. Naturally, and for good reason, in as far as the term has a popular understanding it is associated with the policies of Nazi Germany, the death camps, and its crank but murderous preoccupation with racial hygiene. But the Nazis were far from the only enthusiastic advocates for the prevention of the spread (and elimination) of the "unfit"; it was a policy followed up in several Western countries after the war with forced sterilisation of the mentally ill, and people with complex and special needs.

Neither of these are acceptable, but eugenics has deep cultural roots and, I'd argue, inseparable from how states govern. The cultivation of the body, the exercise of its physical and intellectual capacities and elevating this as a standard to aspire to goes back to Rome and ancient Greece. The rediscovery of these as virtues dates from the Renaissance to the early modern period. As absolutist and modern states emerged from the wreckage of feudalism, as workers were forced off the land and into waged labour authorities were faced with two problems. There was the question of how to manage populations and maintain public order in large urban concentrations, and how to ensure they were fit enough to supply Europe's endless wars the requisite cannon fodder and provide able-bodied labour power to work the land and then the factories. It's around this time classifications were made and gained force as the centuries wore on: the dividing up of populations into hierarchies by ethnicities and races, the divisions between the deserving and the feckless, of the normal and the mad, and the moral from the immoral. Apparatuses were in motion classifying and labelling populations, while the authorities were able to make use of them as means of managing them, and dividing them according to this problematic.

After two world wars, the problem of management remained the same. As Clare Hanson in her 2013 book, Eugenics, Literature, and Culture in Post-war Britain makes plain, eugenics found a quiet second wind as the new welfarist order was built. Social security as shaped by bourgeois experts and implemented by a Labour Party scarred by the collective memory of the Depression and war was an opportunity to put eugenicist policies into practice. The tripartite education system, for example, was explicitly designed to select for nascent bourgeois qualities among working class kids and socially separate them out during their secondary schooling. The big shift in the alliance between eugenics and the welfare state for Hanson came with the election of Thatcher and the subsequent imposition of market fundamentalism. Here eugenics didn't disappear, but were effectively de-collectivised and privatised. The state was, at least officially, not overtly concerned with population management - this responsibility was devolved to a proliferation of governances of the self. Yet, of course, the state was very interested in the collective fate of the nation as it aided and abetted new divisions between the deserving and undeserving poor, promulgated Victorian values, made hay with the AIDS epidemic, demonised immigrants, and so on. There was a fit population of upright citizens, and there was another Britain of the undesirables and the underclass.

Interestingly, after Thatcher had gone and her legacy limped on in John Major's enfeebled government, the baton was picked up by New Labour. While pursuing economic policies that remained within the Thatcherite mold, Blairism did rebuild the public realm and make significant inroads into child and pensioner poverty, as well as tackle the Tory left overs of crumbling hospitals and schools (though in such a way that Blairism wrecked the party), but the eugenics streak came to the surface. Sure Start, for example, has made a real difference to millions of parents. However its design was about inculcating parental virtues as well as offering child care facilities. They were (and are) instruments for the moral improvement of the working class, defined and devised entirely from above. Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime saw a ramping up of authoritarian discipline in schools, and a web of measures linking children's behaviour to an array of sanctions that could be enforced against their parents. Social security deepened Thatcherite logics with the introduction of welfare-to-work schemes that, again, didn't lead to real jobs but "morally improved" the feckless workless according to norms that once ruled the workhouse. The nearest New Labour came to openly touting eugenics was the proposal to fight "social exclusion" by identifying "at risk" babies before they were born. The fag end of Blair's time was about "troubled families" and broken relationships, completely divorced from his government's social policy that, unconsciously, was corrosive of social solidarities.

This brings us up to date. The Tories' embrace of austerity has meant defunding New Labour's hands-on approach, and has abandoned their liberal eugenics for something more sinister: eugenics by indifference. The cuts to adult social care, the underfunding of the NHS, the bedroom tax, cuts to council tax benefit, the explosion of JSA sanctions, the stubborn insistence on the work capability assessment has, as we know, led to at least 120,000 excess deaths during their period of office. These are the most vulnerable, the most infirm, the most precarious people. In other words, this is eugenics as social murder, a dying off of what Ebenezer Scrooge called the "surplus population": people who cannot work and/or live lifestyles that attract moralistic sneers from the very class that oversees this system. The horror is only acknowledged by the Tories in one way, as the (justified) consequence of failures of individual responsibility. They made the wrong choices and they have to take responsibility for them. The victims and survivors of Tory austerity are unpeople who deserve no sympathy, no recognition of their humanity and if they are to be noted at all, it's as butts of eugenics fantasies spoken aloud.

Eugenics then as a self-styled science of human improvement is inseparable from management, from governance and from government. It is a body of knowledge that ranges across human knowledge that informs policy, popular culture, and research trajectories in the biological sciences. But it is not and has never been separate from power, of the management of populations by governments and state institutions. Eugenics, whether "positive" or negative, is an outlook, a distorted view of the way of the social world as it appears from above, from the summit of governing elites and ruling classes. Eugenics so informs the Tories not because they are empty of other ideas, which they are, but because it's a fundamental part of their make up. As the preferred party of government, as the defender of privilege, as the champion of minority interests against those of the overwhelming majority, eugenics as a tool of control and a technology of discipline is organic to their political project. The likes of Toby Young, Boris Johnson and Ben Bradley are not aberrations. They are spokespeople of an attitude, an idea, a sensibility that is inseparable from Toryism.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Labour NEC Fallout

It's a new year, so I started thinking "you know what, I'm not going to do internal Labour polemic any more. I'll stick to analysing the Tories, trying to make sense of our strange political conjuncture, and write more theory stuff." And I was determined to stand by this, until the whingeing started afresh about the left's clean sweep of the three new members' seats on the National Executive Committee. And another bout of bellyaching came today with the removal of Ann Black from the chair of the disputes sub-committee and her replacement by Christine Shawcroft.

Taking each in turn, an unnamed centrist MP popped up in The Times threatening the inauguration of an independent bloc of former Labour MPs, if mandatory reselection goes through and they are deselected. After all, this is why they fear Jon Lansman, a long-time proponent of the measure. Quite rightly, this entitled moaning puts a question mark over their loyalty to the Labour Party anyway: if they cannot hold a privileged position awarded by the party then they're not interested. But it's more telling than even that. Already groups of MPs have thrown in the towel. Despite having the respect the office confers (and, yes, there are a disturbing amount of Labour members in awe of Parliamentary office holders) and the resources they bring, they do not have the stomach for a fight. It's almost as if a cohort of MPs who, through chicanery of one sort or another, had their seats virtually gifted to them, have spent undistinguished careers going with the flow of media opinion and haven't had to risk their necks fighting for their politics have discovered that, um, politics is not for them. If they do not have enough confidence in their views to organise for them, they have no business being Labour MPs. It really is as simple as that, especially when the membership have demonstrated time and again they want to see a different kind of politics away from the paternalist managerialism of old. The irony is that most of those who do live in fear of their constituency parties would probably get reselected anyway if they put a bit of effort in, but I'm not about to encourage them.

And the Ann Black story. Yes, how awful it is that a democratic vote sees the removal of a sitting chair and their replacement by another. There is no point beating about the bush, Ann was removed because of her previous record. Readers may recall that despite happily receiving votes on the basis of left wing slates over the years, when it came down to the crunch she went along with the attempts to stitch up the 2016 leadership contest against Jeremy Corbyn. She supported the retrospective imposition of a cut off date for the contest, she voted to whack up supporters' fees and put participation beyond the reach of interested people on low and precarious incomes, and she agreed with limiting registration to an incredibly tight window. With friends like this, who needs enemies? And there is the wider point as well. As chair of the disputes committee she is ultimately responsible for the dragging out of suspensions, and that does nothing for the confidence members are supposed to have in the party's processes and procedures. No, I'm sorry, the left put Ann in position and it is entirely right she was voted out as an obstacle to the remaking of the party. After all, it's what the members voted for.

If you dipped into social media this afternoon, you'll have sampled the faux outrage by now. All this underlines the complete inability, two-and-a-half years after the fact to understand what has happened to the Labour Party. There is no reflection on how the right hollowed out the Labour Party, no reflection on why their politics motivate no one beyond a narrow circle of Westminster watchers, no reflection on why they were easily shoved aside in a democratic contest, and still no reflection why Jeremy Corbyn defied their expectations and did better than their worst nightmares. Until they have come up with answers for these, they cannot make sense of their current predicament. The moaning and the bad faith speak of a lack, of an intellectual collapse that forecloses the possibility of their coming back. So while it is embarrassing and damaging to the party to see them snarking and making fools of themselves, it helps keep them irrelevant - and that is nothing but a good thing.

Correction: Ann Black did not support the retrospective application of a cut off dating back six months, and instead suggested a week - this proposal fell at the fateful NEC meeting in question. She did, however, back the fee hike.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

The Problem with Tories and Social Media

After Chris Grayling's trouble-free reign as Tory party chair - a first for him - new boy Brandon Lewis graced the Sunday papers and Andrew Marr with his message of hope. Hope, that is, if you're a Tory activist. Since it was recently revealed that numbers were far worse than any Labour activist rooted for, the pressure is on our hotel-bothering chair to stymie the decline and start matching the overwhelming human resources the Tories' opponents can bring to bear.

The first yank of the turn around wheel involves sorting out the social media strategy, so reports the Sunday Telegraph. Here Lewis enthuses about a toolkit that will deliver unto the Conservative faithful the flashy graphics, sharp videos, and trend-friendly gifs that Labour's team have down pat. It's about pumping up the thinning grassroots with Tory achievements, like the EU card charges ban the Tories have tried appropriating for their own, and building a groundswell of excitement for groundbreaking digital initiatives, such as "The Moggcast". Yes, it truly has come to this.

I'm old enough to remember when the Tories received plaudits for their social media strategy. As recently as 2015, while Labour piddled about on Twitter and was daft enough to spend cash money promoting itself on it, the Tories purchased targeted advertising on Facebook aimed at key demographics in the key marginals. Married to then genius and now laughing stock Jim Messina and his number crunching, the Tories were able to post the right messages through enough of the right doors to help them get their unexpected and thoroughly undeserved majority. However, as with most things their victory held the seeds of a coming collapse. None of this was organic; it was all driven from the centre and was top down like the rest of the campaign - the media grid, the message discipline, the reviled Road Trip 2015. That summer saw Labour's 2017 efforts come together in embryo in Jeremy Corbyn's leadership campaign - a directed campaign by social media savvy activists close to the future leader married to a spontaneous up welling across digital networks that conferred messages, enthusiasm, and generated not a few memes themselves. They fed each other, prefiguring what happened last June.

The problem the Tories have got is the same feat is not possible because, well, there aren't any Tories. Okay, as a veteran of an outfit that thought once having 8,000 members was something to boast about I am perhaps being a touch disingenuous when it comes to the 70,000 the Tories can muster. But here, when you glance on the lesser spotted beast that is Tory Twitter you can see some of the problems. Over the course of this Sunday, four tweets on the party's main feed were about policy-related issues and politics ding-dongs, and nine prattled on about Labour "abuse". Bear in mind we're not yet a week from Toby Young's resignation for, well, being Toby Young. Just as Stalin's acolytes had the annoying habit of emulating his turgid prose, so the Tories, the party of free thinking individualism, is equally slavish in its borg-like fidelity to the direction of CCHQ. The tendency for their MPs to groupthink aloud is well known, but for the ordinary members? Here we have Support Amber, a self-described grassroots account that, guess what, goes heavy on the same messaging with a few cheap points about Iran and Venezuela thrown in. There is also Joe Rich, a North Staffs Tory activist whose feed routinely zeroes in on the same kind of personalist "exposes" - even to the extent of retweeting himself two or three times. These are not exceptional. They are typical.

Way, way back in a previous political life, I noted how the purview of left wing commentary is much wider than the right's, and what was true a decade ago still applies. There are monomaniacs across all political traditions, but among the ecosystem of the social media left you will find critique, debate, and policy alongside testimony of what it's like to be at the sharp end of Tory Britain, as well as wider engagement with trends in science and popular culture, for instance. In sum the online left are closer to the people and more in tune with them (and, crucially, the the rising generation of working class people) than odd balls obsessing over Jared O'Mara, or putative remarks by John McDonnell about the blessed Thatcher that millions of people would happily endorse. The preponderance of this on Tory Twitter speaks to the party's increasing social estrangement, and is symptomatic of its dependence on a declining electoral alliance.

What the Tories need are politics that intersect with and speak to millions of under 50s for whom they are an anathema, and their fixation on personalities signals nothing other than this gaping, yawning lack. With no sign of change, of a detour toward the lives and aspirations of voters aggrieved under the set up they've presided over, the hopes the Tories have in their trumpeted social media strategy are doomed to be forlorn.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Our Snowflake Press

Ah diddums, the Daily Mail is no longer to be sold by Virgin Trains. Please note that sentence. Sold, not banned. Yet going from a range of right wing rent-a-quoters, you'd think Branson were forcibly pressing Mail readers into clearing up the storm damage to his Caribbean island. According to Nigel Farage, "Banning things because you don’t like them solves nothing." And right you are, Nige. So your party's call to ban the burka then, was that just "bantz"? Did you not really mean it? Or was that the pathetic opportunism and hypocrisy that comes as freely to you as breathing does to the rest of us?

I really don't see a problem here, so I'm short on sympathy for the Mail's "plight". In the market place of ideas, if someone is interested in the wares of a journal, paper, comic or whatever they can go seek them out. Virgin might not stock The Mail any longer, but there's a good chance the paper shop across the road from the station does. No, what this is really about isn't the loss of a handful of sales but something more precious: legitimacy.

As the welcome resignation of Toby Young from the government's preposterous Office for Students shows, something of a corner is being turned. The spread of social media and the rude intrusion of hundreds of thousands into mainstream comment means several things. That Twitter, for instance, has something of a levelling effect. If you're on social media, every columnist's attempt to stir up hate will have blow back. The ignorance one could once proudly parade without dissent leaking into the paper's pages is found out time and time again. And the association of these poltroons with nudge, nudge racism, and wink, wink sexism and homophobia doesn't look edgy or challenging in our increasingly socially liberal world. It looks outmoded, backward, bigoted, and the promulgation of these idiocies are now attracting significant social costs.

This is a problem for The Mail and the hard right press because their power derives from the influence they are perceived to command over their readers. Hence the recent bout of petty Brexit stunts. Meanwhile, as the circulation plummets their toxic reputation wards off future readers, and every time someone refuses to stock them, or a company withdraws their advertising so the aura of repulsion surrounding the paper strengthens. And no readers means no power, and that slope towards extinction by the right gets a little bit steeper that little bit quicker.

Monday, 8 January 2018

The Last Days of the Conservative Party?

I love it when a Tory shambles comes together. Watching Theresa May's ridiculous cabinet reshuffle unfold on Twitter provided for some wry amusement in-between marking papers. Chris Grayling as party chair, and then 27 seconds later he was dumped for Brandon Lewis. The awful Jeremy Hunt, fresh from the NHS debacle, said no to a move to business and ended up coming out of it with social care added to his portfolio. Or, depending on who you believe, Greg Clark said no to his sacking at BIS, and that meant a fudge for Hunt. Just when the people of Staffordshire Moorlands thought they couldn't see their MP any less, Karen Bradley is moved from culture to Northern Ireland. Sajid Javid stays where he is, but gets a new name for his brief. And there is Justine Greening. May wanted to move her to the DWP and she said no and so quit, ostensibly strengthening the relatively sensible, centrist-bordering awkwards ensconced on the back benches.

To coin a phrase, nothing has changed, nothing has changed. At least in the grand scheme of things. The most odious and despicable of this government went untouched, and remains as much a miserable mess of dysfunction this evening as it was yesterday. The permanent instability on which the government is poised teeters a little, but not threateningly so. Of more interest, and more pertinent to the party's survival, comes the news the Tories have fewer than 70,000 members, at least according to the chair for the Campaign for Conservative Democracy. Putting that in context, that's half-a-million fewer than Labour, almost half the size of the SNP, smaller than the Liberal Democrats and about where the Greens were at the height of their pre-Corbyn surge.

Does this matter? Labour as the party of the 21st century working class needs numbers to represent. Its politics depend on collective mobilisation and the aggregation of the collective interests of millions of people. The Tories, as an elite party, do not. Labour needs big numbers to be able to spend big on campaigning. The Tories do not. With nearly 600,000 members Labour performed the sharpest turn around in political fortunes in modern times, and yet with a smaller, more decrepit operation the Tories managed to form the largest party. Do they even need a political organisation?

In one sense, they don't. It's much easier to be a politician on the right because your political messages and assumptions about the world are transmitted by your powerful media allies. It is, after all, less difficult to blame than explain. Yes, not having members can be a pain. But as long as people can still be found to stand in elections (the Tories fielded more by-election candidates last year than any other party), delivery people can be bought and campaigning outsourced to call centres. So if you were a Conservative, you might find the collapse of the party embarrassing but it doesn't mean curtains. And indeed, it doesn't. But it presents the Tories some severe difficulties that are going to harm their prospects in the long run.

The lack of bodies for instance. By-elections are one thing, but actual elections another. Regardless of membership, there will always be people prepared to vote Conservative. Just as capitalism creates its own gravediggers, it summons squads of cheerleaders too. The problem is if there aren't Tory candidates to vote for, where are those votes going to go? This isn't an abstract question. In Stoke the BNP was able to build its vote support base in wards the Tories couldn't find anyone to stand in. If the mainstream right collapses, so the hard right and far right might fill the gap. The BNP, UKIP, there might yet be a twilight of unlife flickering through their stiffening corpses, and with it the prospect - again - of a semi-viable alternative on the Conservatives' right. And we all know what drastic measures were taken to deal with them last time.

The second problem goes to the heart of their difficulties. Over the last five or so years, this blog has documented the decline of the Tories, and the relationship between this, their decadence, and a certain autonomy from the interests the Tories have traditionally represented, which contributes to their extreme short-termism. The member collapse hasn't affected the transmission belt of anonymous donations via their not-dodgy-at-all dining clubs for spectrum of ruling class riff raff - hedge fund managers, nondoms, "naturalised" oligarchs, ad nauseum - and privileged access for big business and the old media are still there. But two things are wrong. While a small section of British capital has always, for whatever reason, supported Labour, in the 90s and up to the crash New Labour were the go-to party. This cracked the permanent hegemony the Tories had over business, and so just as voters have tended to become more mercenary and choosy about who to support so a large section of formerly Conservative-loyal business has as well. In the grand scheme, it means whole sections of British capital are not regularly and directly feeding their interests into their party.

The second is the absence of a mass base. Parties are expressions of interests, their organisation aggregating the experiences of and articulating policies that speak to masses of voters. Labour's job is to encourage as many of them into active political participation as possible. The Tories are a-okay with them being passive observers and four-yearly ballot scratchers. Minus a mass base feeding in to the associations (even if they are disproportionately petit bourgeois-types, managers and self-styled socially mobile working class people), the party is cut off from and no longer knows how to talk to ordinary people who might be sympathetic to Conservative values. Indeed, as Tim Bale's recent party members' survey shows, Tory activists are out of step with the values motivating other parties, which tend to be more in line with the ever growing cultural trend to social liberalism. There is every danger of the party becoming a sect, and if it cannot represent the interests of capital effectively then capital will start looking elsewhere. Those lovely centrists, for instance, the touchy feely types who are all loved up as far as capital is concerned suddenly start looking like a more attractive proposition versus the growing animus toward the system itself. Ultimately, the utility of the Tories lies in their command of millions of votes, which is jeopardised by their increasing social isolation thanks to the fast diminishing membership.

Can the Tories sort themselves out? One would be foolish to bet against the most successful political party in the democratic world, but it is hard to see how they can turn the situation around and look like an attractive proposition now they're inextricably invested in a political deadlock that puts them fundamentally at odds with a rising generation of voters. Too much to hope I know, but it might just be that we're in the final days of the Conservative Party as we understand it.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Jay Hardway - Scio

Haven't got time for a post tonight because marking and Spiral's on in a bit. Here for your listening pleasure then is one of the fine slices of 2017 that made the cut of last year's top tunes list. Enjoy!