Friday 30 November 2012

Top Five Most Popular Posts for November

The most read posts of the month were:

1. Is there Bias on BBC Question Time?
2. Class and Political Values
3. UKIP's Foster Care "Scandal"
4. Thoughts on the Media and Child Abuse
5. 10 Years of Harry's Place

The undisputed winner, of course, was the BBC Question Time post. I lost count of the retweets by sundry Twitter celebs this nugget got. It was carried by the New Statesman's website, received a plug in the Graun's G2, and I was subject to a searching "expose" by the nutty Biased BBC blog. Proof, as if it were needed, that the hard right have a difficult time handling facts.

And lastly, if there was a post I think is deserving of a little more love from this month, it's Can Conservatives Win Again?

Thursday 29 November 2012

The Leveson Report

Million pound fines. Full transparency of behind-the-scenes meetings between the press and politicians. A "conscience clause" for journalists. Lowering the cap on media ownership. Tough, new independent regulation of the press. Lord Justice Leveson has produced a report (summary here, in full here) whose key findings and recommendations few would disagree on. In fact, in his statement earlier in the Commons, Dave was at pains to express his agreement with everything Leveson had to say. All, that is, except for the means of implementing it.

While it is bad form to second guess the motives of politicians, it is funny that things have a habit of becoming a point of principle if it means seriously challenging the interests one is, or was, close to. Like many Tory frontbenchers and government outriders for the 'no statute' position in the days leading up to publication, Dave is refusing to back up regulation of the press by legislation. Apparently, it would be "too complex", it would be a lever by which future unscrupulous politicians could force censorship on the press and, of course, a regulatory body backed by statute would end 300 years of free speech and turn Britain overnight into a Stalinist hellhole, like the brutal dictatorships of Ireland and Denmark.

And so Dave will be immediately meeting with the other party leaders to look at ways of getting the press to sign up to his preferred "independent, self-regulating authority" (a non-sequitor if there ever was one). Sadly for Dave, his attempt to kick this embarrassing and uncomfortable episode into the long grass is unlikely to succeed. EdM's reply in the House (statement) makes it clear that Labour is for the full implementation of Leveson's recommendations. Interestingly, Cleggy has retrieved his spine from down the back of the Coalition sofa and backs an independent regulatory body underpinned by statute. With Labour and the LibDems, sundry Tories, and the small parties arrayed against Dave, if EdM forces a vote he could well be hit with a double whammy of a split party and Coalition, and a humiliating defeat at the hands of his increasingly prime ministerial-looking opponent.

As a whole, Leveson did not go far enough. While welcome, the disgusting behaviour of the press is not an outcome of poisonous newsrooms nor an amoral culture that afflicts journalism. They are symptoms of a deeper morbidity - the concentration of media ownership. As the press have become increasingly beholden to the profit-taking proclivities of their respective barons, business models have emphasised downsizing and churnalism. It's easier, and cheaper, to print made up scare stories about that week's folk devil, or regurgitate celebrity gossip pulled from the internet. The press, except on very rare occasions, will not invest time in long-term investigations of the rich and the powerful because, according to their model, easy cash can me made from littering your paper with that Friday's wardrobe malfunctions. It is also no coincidence that press standards have been on the slide since the effective breaking of union power in the newsroom.

Leveson does very little to tackle this root cause, merely proposing a lowering of the cap on how many titles a press baron or corporate entity can own. Media plurality and the freedom of the press, that very thing many a right-wing scribbler has bleated about, can only truly be served if ownership blocs are broken up. Structures of ownership have to be changed too - employee-owned trusts and cooperative employee/reader models should also be introduced. It is not enough to leave it to the market.

But still, there is consolation for Dave and his chumrades. While Leveson makes general criticisms of the closeness that politicians have allowed develop between themselves and the press over the last 30 years, he exonerates the PM and his clueless sidekick, Jeremy Hunt from any wrongdoing. They feel it's a vindication from accusations of impropriety. I suspect it's good politics on Leveson's part, ensuring his recommendations are the big story of the day, not finger-pointing.

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Hitler, Charisma, and Leadership

The classical German sociologist Max Weber famously wrote about charismatic leadership and authority. Of it, he noted charisma derived from the leader's personality, which in turn inspired their followers to internalise self-discipline and duty. But in a dialectic of mutual exchange, the leader is under constant pressure to affirm their worthiness by performing deeds. Support therefore is conditional on the delivery of promises. You could be forgiven for thinking he was writing of Hitler, had Weber not died three years before the Nazis attracted national attention. Nevertheless, despite bequeathing sociology the basic conceptual tools for unpacking how charismatic leadership works, the way Hitler bewitched Germany and led it willingly into the abyss continues to fascinate, appall and mystify in equal measure. Therefore the BBC series, The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler serves as an interesting entry into unravelling the riddle.

Hitler's story of his rise to power and cataclysmic fall is well-known and certainly doesn't need repeating by me at any length. Dark Charisma's first episode deals with the rise of the Nazis, the second on the consolidation of power and how Hitler's charismatic leadership persuaded the overwhelming bulk of Germans to assent to a war of conquest, and finally what happened when things went wrong and Germany was crushed between the vice of the Allied and Soviet armies.

The early part of Hitler's career, between joining the far right movement in Munich as an army spy in 1919, to the renewed upturn in the Nazis fortunes during the Depression, Hitler and the Nazis established the cornerstones of his leadership. Firstly, there was Hitler the person. Here we had a man with a dead emotional life, a burning hatred of his self-defined enemies, an inability to make friends, iron-certain self-belief, overweening ambition bordering on the delusional, inflexibility, intolerance, and a knack for rabble-rousing. Upon joining the far right German Workers' Party, Hitler very quickly made a splash in Munich's nationalist scene. He possessed a simple message that explained Germany's defeat in the Great War, provided a scapegoat, and condensed the sorts of qualities the Kaiser and his underlings lacked. This was his mission, and his inability to brook other views was not a weakness, but a strength.

After the fiasco of the Beer Hall putsch, Hitler's views were recorded in all their rambling posterity by his dutiful lapdog, Rudolf Hess, and later published as Mein Kampf. Anyone who's actually read the dreary tome will know it as an incoherent and seemingly endless monologue about blood and soil, foreign affairs, reminiscences, Social Darwinism, the Jews, the Slavs, lebensraum, and the manifest destiny of the German people. Mein Kampf reads like a series of fanatical sense impressions. There is no justification or argumentation supporting the beliefs - they are held by Hitler to be self-evidently true. Here we have the authoritative articulation of his vision, albeit one that was left deliberately vague and unclouded by the petty detail of policy.

Following his release from prison, Hitler worked on himself as an agitator and public speaker. He had a number of photographs taken to study and perfect his oratorical mannerisms (example) and took on board a number of manipulative interpersonal tricks. He was said to have trained his gaze to look at someone directly for longer than is normal. Many a German described it as if he was looking straight through you and deep into your soul. He used flattery and simple confidences, and was adept at having his immediate circle compete among themselves for his favour. These personal cues combined with a carefully crafted public performance allowed Hitler and the Nazis to project a figure into which all manner of hopes and desires could be poured, while simultaneously (and contradictory) offering stability and certainty. This was the foundation of Hitler's connection to the population at large.

The foundation stones of Hitler's charismatic leadership - mission and strength, vision and appeal were all in place before the Depression hit. Small wonder that the narratives and solutions offered by the Nazis were received sympathetically by millions of people groaning under the weight of hyperinflation and unemployment. But this was not enough in and of itself. Charismatic leadership requires popular deeds. With the economy and politics in chaos, attempts by the mainstream right to cut a deal with Hitler and have him as part of a governing coalition were rejected by him. His refusal to get drawn into intrigue underlined his integrity, and in holding out for the chancellorship the faith of his followers was awarded when the machinations of von Papen handed Hitler the keys to state power.

Over the space of the next couple of years, the Nazis used the state to cement Hitler's charismatic leadership. In the first few months he abolished all other political parties. He ruthlessly cut out the "unruly" SA, which in reality saw real and imagined rivals in the Nazi movement physically liquidated. You had the myth-making factory of Goebbels' propaganda ministry cranked into production. Cinemas were full of Leni Riefenstahl's paean to fascist totalitarianism, The Triumph of the Will. The indoctrination of the young began in earnest in the schools and the Hitler Youth movement. And Hitler's claims to providence were given religious cover by the Deutsche Christian Movement - the national socialist wing of the protestant church.

Hitler said he would take power. He would clear out the other parties. He would put the German economy on an even keel. He would bring stability. And, above all, restore the nation's pride in itself. All of these Hitler achieved, as the Nazi propaganda reels never ceased showing. But as we know, this was not enough for Hitler. The problem he faced was persuading a seemingly content populace to risk everything on an aggressive war of expansion.

Hitler's first big gamble (bizarrely, not covered in the documentary) was the reoccupation of the west bank of the Ruhr - a zone demilitarised under the Versailles Treaty. This emboldened him two years later to march into Austria without so much as a shot fired. Instead of resistance, the Wehrmacht were greeted with ecstatic crowds. Hundreds of thousands turned out to see the Fuhrer visit Linz and Vienna. The tanks soon rolled into the Sudetenland and then what is now the Czech Republic occupied and Slovakia set up as a puppet state. At each step, the Hitler myth, his charisma grew as his vision and certainty were seemingly confirmed by events.

Initially Nazi Germany's 'peaceful' conquests were cloaked in the language of liberal internationalism, of self-determination of peoples and as revisions of an unfair, unjust peace treaty. Who could possibly disagree? And to his inner circle, Hitler's personality was as, if not more, mesmerising. He would typically spend long periods alone to brood on a decision. This reinforced the view that his inner conviction had been divinely cultivated as time and again his choices proved correct. To a degree, this distance Hitler kept from his cronies fed into the projection of his leadership - the day to day particulars of Nazi administration was not the Fuhrer's province. His person floated above the cares and concerns of ordinary Germans. "If only Hitler knew" was a refrain that greased the wheels of what was actually a creaky and often chaotic administration, and helped keep the whole thing going.

Through these series of foreign policy triumphs, Hitler was able to soft-pedal the inexorable slide to war not as conquest but as restitution. Restoring the Danzig corridor to the Reich was presented in exactly the same way, as a question of "fairness". Hence the invasion of Poland wasn't a war of aggression and Britain and France's declaration of war was an unjust defence of the status quo.

The apparent ease with which Poland was crushed, and then in turn how quickly Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium and France fell to the Wehrmacht confirmed the faith millions had placed in Hitler. The belief in Hitler's leader cult was confirmed in the glory of easy and almost unbelievable victories.

But what happens to a charismatic leadership when the dialectic between faith and deeds break down? Up until the Winter of 1941, the Nazis and their allies appeared to be winning. Hitler's empire stretched from the Pyrenees to the suburbs of Moscow. All was driven before the Nazi juggernaut. But the Wehrmacht suffered its first serious reverse as Red Army reservists from Siberia took the offensive and drove the Germans back. Hitler ordered his troops to stand firm and fight to the last bullet - against the advice of his generals. By chance, this prevented a complete rout. The Germans were battered but nowhere were they broken. Again, Hitler was proved right.

However, this was less a question of military cunning and more an expression of the inflexibility of his personality. As the fortunes of war turned, again and again Hitler turned to the stock order of 'stand and fight'. Precarious situations turned into unmitigated military disasters in Stalingrad, later in Kursk, Belarus and Northern France. The inflexibility that was an asset as the Nazis rose to power and the 3rd Reich began its conquests had become a millstone around Germany's neck.

As the lands contracted, the gulf between the vision and the promises on the one hand, and the reality of around the clock bombing and defeat became apparent to the most fanatical. The dialectic of faith and delivery was increasingly substituted by the fairy tales of propaganda and Gestapo's knock-on-the-door. Belief in Hitler gave way to despair and fear of the future.

Come the end of the 3rd Reich in a bunker beneath bombed-out Berlin, and with the Red Army closing in, Hitler's final testament showed exactly the same personality traits and deluded self-belief as Mein Kampf. The documentary concludes that while the basic elements of what made Hitler a success were still present, the structure of perceptions around him had literally been snuffed out by unparalleled destruction.

Unfortunately, while Dark Charisma is at pains to demonstrate there was nothing mystical about Hitler's appeal, it does skip over some necessary detail. I'm sure some readers would have been outraged that the disunity between social democrats and communists were glossed over. Some liberties can never be avoided but for an introductory piece the account offered of Hitler's charisma between the debacle at Stalingrad and the battle for Berlin falls short - and this is surprising considering the script consultant was Ian Kershaw, author of the definitive two volume biography of Hitler, and the masterful The End: Hitler's Germany 1944-45.

As we saw earlier, despite having a clear racist vision of a new German empire and standing for a set of unambiguous principles, Hitler's charisma was the deposit of hope and aspiration. But in a society denuded of all other ideological resources, and strained by internal terror within and military defeat without (Kershaw estimated from July '44 to the end that Germany's dead were piling up at around 330,000 every month), Hitler's leadership became something else - a crutch. For millions of Germans the dialectic had broken down into a talisman that they clung too. The leadership cult remained because there was nothing else, and, strangely, was strengthened by it. Pathetic hopes that Germany had something in the bag, that somehow everything would come good if it hung on long enough wasn't just something spewed out of Goebbel's ministry - it was an attitude, a way of making sense of the awful everyday that had been inculcated down the years. How else to explain situations, described in Kershaw's book, of "traitors" being summarily executed in German towns scant hours before the arrival of British or American troops?

The person of Hitler was more than 'just Hitler', it was a social force in and of itself. It was a movement, a key organising principle of a society, but one in which a single individual had stamped his will more so than any before or since - except perhaps for the dictatorships of Stalin, Mao, and the North Korean monarchy. Hitler was the focal point of the 3rd Reich and Nazism. Without him as a figurehead for the social forces drawn in his leadership train, collapse was inevitable. And because of that, because of how deeply rooted Hitler's person was in German society, by the latter part of the war the only way of crushing Nazism was town by town. The Second World War was of a savagery we can barely conceive of today. But ultimately, it was absolutely necessary regardless of the motives of the powers ranged against Hitler.

Despite Dark Charisma's flaws, the show offers a way into a properly materialist way of understanding Hitler's appeal.

Tuesday 27 November 2012

10 Years of Harry's Place

According to their archive, yesterday marked the 10th anniversary of the - take your pick - celebrated/notorious Harry's Place. Whatever you think of the line it pushes, Harry's Place has played its important part in the evolution of British political blogging - even if only to inspire opponents to take to the field against it.

But before writing about Harry's Place proper, I have a confession to make. Just as Spike Milligan spoke about his part in Hitler's downfall, I played a similarly minor, supporting role in the circumstances surrounding the foundation of Harry's Place.

10 years ago found me moderating the well-loved UK Left Network discussion list. I was also a paper member of and keyboard warrior for the cpgb/Weekly Worker. For the 18 months or so before the foundation of HP, the list would tear itself apart in convulsion after convulsion. At the heart of many a storm was a mysterious journo styling himself as 'Harry Steele', which was a providential name from the internecine squabbles of British communism. 'Harry' took umbrage at the peculiar sect he believed was hijacking the original Communist Party of Great Britain's good name. Or maybe he didn't and was only in it for the lulz. No one was ever really able to tell.

Anyway, at that time political debate was usually conducted solely within the tired frames common to us all as "revolutionaries" of one stripe or another. It was a matter of trading colourful insults, point-scoring, and defending the integrity of one's sect or particular interpretation of Trotskyism (and, in a few cases, Stalinism). Because Harry was quite good at trolling cpgb and Socialist Alliance supporters, I was understandably keen at getting shot of him - and managed to ban him on three or four occasions.

Shortly after the last time I booted him, 'Harry' set up a short-lived Weekly Worker spoof blog by the name of Sectarian Worker. It was very funny and brilliantly lampooned the pomposity of toy town bolshevism (very much like today's Proletarian Democracy, in fact). However, I do remember one day clicking the link through to something called 'Harry's Place'. It wasn't funny like SW, it was just Harry under another nom de plume scratching out a few opinions. I clearly remember thinking at the time that this "blogging" thing would never catch on. But I have occasionally mused since that if I'd moderated the UKLN with a rod of iron instead of a soggy breadstick, and had stamped on the sterile sectarian culture instead of fostering it, who knows if things would have turned out differently?

As one of the first UK-based political blogs, Harry's Place has always occupied something of a strange space in the online world. Probably because of the author's love affair with all things American, HP has long been an explicitly Antlanticist blog, with one leg on the East Coast and another in London. This is reflected in its collective political stance, if you can call it that. HP feels more like a US Democrat than a Labourist blog, though it does tend to support the latter come election time.

It was this strange space that is probably responsible for HP later becoming one of the few places on the liberal-left you could find supporters for Bush and Blair's invasion of Iraq. HP contributors and others were, in their opinion, appalled by what they saw as left apologism for Islamist terror and "anti-imperialist" dictators. Chief among the "stoppers" were George Galloway, the SWP, and anyone they regarded as useful idiots for totalitarianism among the liberal commentariat. HP also played a role in the promulgation of the so-called Euston Manifesto, a group for whom democracy and human rights was under threat by a de facto political alliance between the (revolutionary) Western left and Middle Eastern Islamic fundamentalism.

Over time, its conditional support for the War on Terror was displaced by a critical, but unconditional defence of Israel. As this Socialist Unity piece from last year demonstrates, HP's contributors were not afraid of fighting dirty. And at least on one occasion the site has been on the receiving end of a writ for their "muscular style".

Their coverage of Israel and Palestine has frequently crossed the line into apologism for the Israeli state's activities, in my opinion. On occasion, I've found their "anti-Islamism" distasteful and bordering on the Islamophobic. Both of these characteristics of HP have earned undying animosity from some quarters, and placed the site on the 'beyond the pale' list for many. But despite this, HP have made one very positive contribution: the calling out of anti-semitism.

While I think HP is all too willing to brand critics of Israel as anti-semites, the flip-side of this is their unceasing attacks on what their sometimes friends in the Alliance for Workers' Liberty call 'left anti-semitism'. This is the lazy, careless, and idiotic use of phrases, arguments, and deeds that are or could be construed as anti-semitic. For example, this, this, this and this. While HP is extremely critical and hostile towards left opponents of Israeli policies (and especially those who would like to see Israel disestablished), it absolutely underlines the need for those active in Palestinian solidarity campaigns to ensure anti-semitism has no place in their movement. 

So, there you have it. That's Harry's Place. Often hysterical. Frequently annoying. Always irascible. And fomenting outrage since 2002. Here's to another 10 years.

Sunday 25 November 2012

Is there Bias on BBC Question Time?

Is the BBC in thrall to the liberal establishment? Do right-wingers take to the telly in disproportionate numbers? Does it really deserve its Tory epithet, 'Buggers Broadcasting Communism'? Or is the BBC getting it about right in striking an impartial balance? Whichever way you look at it, these are not a set of questions likely to be settled by a single blog post.

But one place you might want to look for evidence of  BBC bias is its flagship politics programme, Question Time. More specifically, if there is a leaning to the left or the right, this could be clarified by the political affiliations and loyalties of its guests.

Below are the top ten recurring guests by category since 4th December, 2008 - the date from which consistent and complete evidence of panelists are easily available. This gives us just shy of four years worth of data. Please note I have excluded Question Time's annual forays to Northern Ireland from the figures.

As of Thursday 22nd November, 362 individuals have occupied 704 panel slots. For those interested in gender and political participation, only 98 guests have been women. These between them have occupied 235 slots.

The most frequently-featured guests by party are:

Ken Clarke (10)
Theresa May (8)
Sayeeda Warsi (7)
Iain Duncan Smith (6)
Liam Fox (6)

Caroline Flint (10)
Peter Hain (8)
Diane Abbott (7)
Andy Burnham (7)
Alan Johnson (7)

Liberal Democrats
Vince Cable (12)
Chris Huhne (7)
Shirley Williams (7)
Paddy Ashdown (6) Menzies Campbell (6) Charles Kennedy (6) Simon Hughes (6) Jo Swinson (6) Sarah Teather (6)

Nigel Farage (11)
Caroline Lucas (8)
Nicola Sturgeon (7)
Elfyn Llwyd (5)
George Galloway (4) Alex Salmond (4) Leanne Wood (4)

The overall top five looks like this:

Vince Cable (12)
Nigel Farage (11)
Ken Clarke (10)
Caroline Flint (10)
Peter Hain (8) Caroline Lucas (8) Theresa May (8)

In total, there have been 47 Conservative politicians occupying 137 slots (of whom 16 were women taking 41 slots), 51 Labour with 148 slots (17 women taking 51 slots), 31 LibDems with 109 slots (9 women and 33 slots), and 18 Other taking 57 slots (7 women and 25 slots).

A slight advantage for Labour perhaps, but hardly indicative of a systematic political bias - and even less so if you strip out the Question Time dedicated to the Labour leadership election in 2010.

Matters are skewed when you introduce other categories of guests. We have trade unionists (7 occupying 9 slots), business people (23 and 32 slots), celebrities (31 and 46 slots), campaigners and wonks (4 taking 11 slots), 'other' (authors, scientists, clergy, retired military, etc. - 23 taking 29 slots), and by far the largest category, journalists (61 occupying 127 slots (21 women and 42 slots)).

Would you like to see who the five most frequently-featured journalists are?

Kelvin MacKenzie (8)
Melanie Phillips (6)
Janet Street Porter (6)
Mehdi Hasan (5)
Peter Hitchens (5)
Douglas Murray (5)

Balance-wise the right outweigh the left here, but that could be a freak of the figures, right? No. Of the 61 journalists, 40 could be described as explicitly political writers. 27 are of the right, and 13 are liberal/left. Rightwing journalists took 64 slots, and the liberal/left 31. For whatever reason, not only are hacks overrepresented on the Question Time panel, but Tory-leaning journalists outnumber their liberal and Labour-leaning contributors by over two to one.

The balance is not addressed by the other category of guests. Of the 31 celebs, 18 have definite views that align one way or the other. Six are on the right, and 12 of the liberal/left. The former had 13 slots, and the latter 16.

There are other questions that need to be asked. The predominance of business people over trade union voices came as no surprise at all. But come on, leading trade unionists combined have been on less than Nigel Farage! In case anyone needs reminding, trade unions are the largest voluntary organisations in civil society with a combined membership of some six million. Farage is the leader of a party whose supporters can fit into my living room. And if that wasn't bad enough, his odious minion Paul Nutall has been on twice too. So why are UKIP way overrepresented on the panel and a mass movement of millions virtually ignored?

Question Time is the most-watched political programme in these islands. An appearance on the panel sacralises you as a commentator or as a politician/political party of serious standing. You become part of the BBC's construction of 'official Britain', of the country's image it contrives to reflect. So in this media-saturated age, questions of gender and political underrepresentation are important.

Being the sad geek that I am, I shall revisit this in a year's time (provided the blog's still going) to see if there's been any evidence of a shift.

In the mean time, feel free to join me in the traditional Thursday night tweet-a-long.

Saturday 24 November 2012

UKIP's Foster Care "Scandal"

There's a stench in the air, the stench of opportunism. Rotherham Borough Council's decision to remove foster kids from a couple on the grounds they are UKIP members has caused something of a stir this morning. Farage has been dribbling his outrage over the airwaves, describing it as "typical of the bigotry you get from the Labour Party and Labour-controlled councils." Gove has now waded in and said there will be an investigation on top of one hastily announced by the Borough Council itself.

You could be forgiven for thinking there's a by-election on.

Let's get the established facts out of the way first. The children, who are from BME backgrounds, were apparently removed because the head of the council's Children and Young People's Services, Joyce Thacker, felt obligated *by the law* to ensure their cultural and "ethnic needs" were met. While not believing UKIP are a racist party, their forthright views on immigration and multiculturalism were suspect enough for her to take action.

While it would be tempting to read this through the filter of authoritarian do-gooding - a view UKIP are certainly pushing - the decision taken by Thacker and her department has to be seen in the context we find ourselves.

These last ten years there has been a drip-drip of high profile child protection scandals. Baby P. Victoria Climbie. Khyra Ishaq. Each of these appalling cases showed up frightening failings in social services departments, which prompted press attacks on the social work profession generally and changes to the law. And, in case you hadn't noticed, there is a particularly febrile atmosphere in Britain right now thanks to Jimmy Savile's exposure as a serial child sex offender and the subsequent fall out.

It was a case of Rotherham CYPS being damned if they did act. And damned if they didn't. Surely it is right and proper for the inquiries to now take their course. After all, most people pontificating on this now aren't child care professionals, least of all Gove, Farage, and the permanently outraged of Twitterland.

Friday 23 November 2012

Respect Yourself Leaflet

Cheers to LabourList for reproducing this "unofficial" Respect leaflet from the Rotherham by-election.

As election literature goes, it's not quite as bad as the worst election leaflet ever, but it's pretty close!

I don't think I've ever since such a naked display of communalism in British politics. It makes you wonder if, prior to their split, it was perhaps *the SWP* who anchored the project in reality. Bizarre.

Thursday 22 November 2012

Is there a Funding Gap in Higher Education?

Another November, another student anti-fees protest. Sadly, it attracted neither the numbers nor the media interest of times passed. The awful weather did its part to dampen turn out (and the marchers). The heavy policing of previous demonstrations wouldn't have helped, nor that the LibDem-supported Tory fee regime is now an accomplished fact. It is, after all, harder to undo something than stop it in the first place.

But there is something incredibly confusing about the changes this government has made to tuition fees. Under the previous regime, you paid upfront directly to your place of study. While the government continued to subsidise the major proportion of course costs, monies from the student at least went to the institution. As some folk say of the Thatcher years, you might not have liked it, but you knew where you stood.

As everyone knows, universities can now charge up to £9,000/year tuition. As per the incompetence we've come to expect, this government thought only a small minority would levy the full whack. Little did they realise that the price of a degree would reflect on the status of the university, and so all with pretensions of being a top tier institution had no choice but to list courses at maximum prices. Those the next step down could not risk their prestige and future market positions by undercutting them too far either, and so you have many New Universities charging in excess of £7,500. This unpleasant surprise wasn't the first time the Tories had designed a policy with scant knowledge of what they were legislating for, and it won't the last either.

One welcome change the government did was to adopt the student loan repayment scheme for fee payments, and put in a higher earnings threshold from which repayment installments kick in. This, however, is where the problem begins.

The government are monomaniacal about clearing the deficit, despite only managing to cut it by 2%. So while it is used to justify every single cut, they make such a hash of it that hidden costs and unforeseen consequences gobble up a huge proportion of the savings. This stupidity shows itself up here. The government are cutting the contribution taxpayers' cash makes to universities from £6.6bn last year to £3.7bn by 2014-15. The total share of university funding from the public purse will fall to around 15%, the lowest since the *1890s*.

The funding gap will be made up by tuition fee payments. According to the same Telegraph article, this will account for around the 47% of university funding by the next general election. BIS suggest the sector's income as a whole will rise by 10%.

The problem, as I see it, is that the government has made a fatal assumption. Previous tuition fee payments went directly into the system. Under the new arrangements, the taxpayer will lend universities the fees, which the government will later ask back when a graduate is earning over £21k. However, the graduate job market isn't in rude health, nor is there any guarantee that sufficient numbers will be earning over the threshold for repayments to start. The economy could pick up between now and 2015, but we will need strong, sustained growth to provide the requisite numbers of sufficiently remunerated graduate jobs. Without that, a gap will very quickly open between what the government puts in and what repayments it receives. And there very quickly goes its spending targets for HE.

I'm no education policy wonk, but surely a government underling has spotted this problem. It could be the Tories have cooked the books so it merely looks like public funding will fall over time. Or that non-repayment has been factored in, and the figures above are based on the percentage of instalments likely to make their way back to the exchequer.

Am I being dumb and missing something obvious? I don't know. Do you?

Photo credit: Marc Fairhurst

Wednesday 21 November 2012

British Trotskyism after the Cold War

Followers of A Very Public Sociologist 1.0 may recall something by the name of A Reflexive and Value-Added Analysis of Contemporary Trotskyist Activism in Britain. This was my PhD thesis, which I completed just shy of three years ago. Since then it has gathered dust on Keele Library's shelves and basically bummed its way around the shabby furnishings of my house. So it's about time the work I laboured on for four years got a bit of an airing.

For those unfamiliar with previous postings on the subject, my research basically involved interviewing individual Socialist Party and Socialist Workers' Party activists about their lives, how and why they got involved with their respective parties, and have remained committed during a time that wasn't exactly bountiful for any kind of socialist politics (the final interviews took place in summer 2007). These were then analysed in relation to key theoretical contributions to social movement scholarship, and I then developed value-added constructs to make sense of processes around political recruitment and commitment.

Sadly, the meat of this analysis will have to wait to be worked up for publication in a seldom-read sociology journal, or perhaps a book if I can ever find the time to sort it out. But a little bit will soon be available. One chapter was given over to the key features of the Militant/SP and International Socialism/SWP tradition and their political history since the final collapse of the Revolutionary Communist Party (1944-49). A lot of this will be rewritten for a collection of essays on Trotskyism since 1956 due to be published soon, and this is what my contribution will look like:
Marching Separately, Seldom Together: The Political History of the Two Principal Trends of British Trotskyism, 1956 – 2012

The Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party and their antecedent organisations have, since 1956, proved to be the most durable and high profile of all of Britain’s Trotskyist tendencies. This paper is concerned with providing a political history of their development within the context of the changing fortunes of the British labour movement and the significant reconfiguration undergone by British capitalism. It will argue that both organisations’ history can be divided into ‘open’ and ‘closed’ periods of work that were/are conditioned by the traditional vanguardist political practice of Trotskyism and the changing political opportunities open to the two traditions.
Left watchers, nerds, and trainspotters will know there are a small amount of journalistic and scholarly books out there (John Callaghan's two books, and the hatchet pieces by Michael Crick and Blake Baker spring to mind), but none are what you would describe as up-to-date. Therefore my piece will focus on how the two organisations have developed since the Cold War. Unfortunately, a certain violence will be done to the convoluted roots of shifts in strategy, fallings out, and splits because of the tight word count - so apologies to the nitpickers in advance!

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Dave's Speech to the CBI

Anyone playing Dave bingo with yesterday's CBI speech would be pleased with the full house they got by the end of it.

"1 million more private sector employees" and "the deficit down by a quarter" received a repeat airing, despite both getting a comprehensive debunking.

"Choice" and "competition" in schools get a mention. Less planning and policy direction from the centre will, somehow, provide for the sorts of skills employers are crying out for. It's almost as if the last 30 years of business-facing education didn't happen.

"Tackling red tape" reverses the legal requirement to take into consideration the effects new policy will have on society's poorest, most vulnerable, and most at risk.

"Tough decisions" was there to make up the numbers too.

As ever, Dave showed absolutely no understanding of the real economic difficulties facing Britain, let alone how to go about addressing them. Telling your ministers to have a growth mindset and, embarrassingly, referring to your government as a "Growth Cabinet" will not make up for gaping policy deficiencies and an excruciating record on the economy.

It was as you pretty much have come to expect from the front bench: a desperate package of spin and wishful thinking. 

Half-way through the Parliament, the Coalition are looking more tired than Blair or Brown ever did.

Monday 19 November 2012

One Nation and Europe

EdM's One Nation in Europe speech today at the CBI conference formally marks an interesting shift in Labour Party positioning on the EU. I say interesting because for too long Labour has ceded this political ground to the right. Defending the EU as is may have attraction for some, but having little to nothing to say about wasteful spending (the Strasbourg-Brussels merry-go-round, anyone?), questionable subsidies, and the democratic void that lies at the heart of the European project is no way to defend the EU from those who would like to see British withdrawal to the margins.

EdM's speech begins by locating the roots of Euro-Scepticism in the ongoing generational shift. For a brief period when Britain was lobbying to be allowed into the European Community, the EEC personified a liberal internationalism, of Western Europe putting aside centuries of bloodshed and transcending national antagonisms (that it was, among other things, a creature of Cold War exigency can be left for another time). But this gloss has well and truly worn off, and its legitimacy is imperilled by powerful centrifugal forces.

Right now, though not every EU member state is signed up to it, the union is identified with the Euro, which in turn is linked inextricably with unceasing economic crisis. Years of negative press about the Eurocrat gravy train and French farming subsidies have taken their toll. And, not least, the largest wave of immigration modern Britain has ever seen, our media has indelibly associated EU membership with open borders, foreign criminals, and increased competition for jobs. Rather than fighting shy of the material basis of Euro-Secpticism, EdM believes it needs tackling by arguing a new case for Europe.

The first point of defence is an old point: the inextricable links between Britain and the continental economy. The dependence on the markets next door go without saying, and EdM is clear those relationships are absolutely crucial to the One Nation economy he wants, not least because it's Britain's place within the single market that attracts overseas capital, particularly from the IT and advanced manufacturing sectors.

The second of EdM's arguments are about Britain's place on the world stage. He says collaboration across the EU allows for greater successes in combatting terrorism and crime, and addressing climate change. There is also the expansionary dynamic, part and parcel of which is a civilising tendency that combines economic cooperation with liberal democracy and the rule of law. Candidate states' rights to the market come with the responsibility of undertaking political reform.

So much for the grounds for staying in the EU. But what solution to the siren calls of the right?

It's the economy, stupid.

The EU's greatest failure is the driving of austerity throughout Europe. Therefore the uses of its budget has to be fundamentally rethought. With 1.5% of the EU's economy comprising of agriculture, yet consuming 40% of tax payers' cash, there is a clear argument for the redeployment of resources to infrastructural projects in key growth sectors. Hence why the centre left should not automatically nod through budget increases. And who can disagree with looking how money is spent and deploying it more effectively?

Then turning to what it might be like if the UK was to leave the EU, he quite rightly points out that while Britain could participate in the single market like Switzerland and Norway do, resources would have to be expended on lobbying member states for changes that could benefit British economic interests. It would also mean the exclusion of Britain from global trade negotiations where the EU sits as a powerful bloc alongside the USA and China. The only unique selling points Britain would have for international investors would be low grade manufacturing and a safe haven for tax dodgers, should the exiteers get their way.

On the question of an in/out referendum, EdM is against one for pragmatic, economic considerations. A drawn out campaign in all likelihood would put investors off Britain until its mind was made up - a point even the saner elements of the Tories seem to acknowledge. EdM also offers a pragmatic approach to the repatriation-of-powers rhetoric Dave has occasionally indulged, though all his absurd Little Britain posturing on the EU's stage has actually damaged the national interests he claims to be protecting.

EdM's speech strikes that curious passive-assertive tone peculiar to his policy-lite statements on Labour's direction-of-travel. If you were being ungenerous, you could accuse him of opportunism. One, because it provides political cover for Labour's voting with the Tory Europhobic right against increases to the EU budget. And two, it allows EdM to pick his battles on Europe in the future. By critiquing spending in this way, he has staked out a territory for himself that Dave will have to pass through in his attempts to placate his lunatic fringe.

But there's more to it than positioning inside the Westminster bubble. More widely, EdM has signalled an opening for Labour thinkers to recast the relationship between Britain and the EU. It is an opportunity to look at how the EU can be positively reformed. I for one would like to see moves to greater democracy and transparency - the EU began and has continued as an elite project, but now requires popular input if its present legitimacy crisis is to be positively resolved. I also think pushing a review along the lines of zero budgeting as advocated by Stella Creasy and the folk associated with In the Black Labour can go some way to undermine popular notions of EU waste. Though I would measure worth not by narrowly-defined costs but by Public Value.

All this is more than a chin-stroking exercise for policy wonks and bloggers. EdM is serious about the One Nation schtick. It is his vision-thing; a hodge-podge of Disraeli, Blue Labourism, the post-war social monarchy, Wilson's white heat of technology and Blairism at its most dynamic, forward thinking, and multicultural. While there is certainly room in its tent for trade unionism and left leaning, redistributive predistributive policies, it is ultimately a vision in the process of becoming, of working out how to address core and swing voter alike. By effortlessly annexing One Nationism from an increasingly sectional Tory party, EdM has a new base from which to cleave into the soft Conservative vote - those who took Dave's liberal Toryism at face value, the traditional true blues who feel a sense of patrician obligation to those unfortunate enough to be at the bottom, and those attracted to the Tories out of unease over the EU, immigration, and so on.

It is therefore not without accident that EdM's first One Nationist pronouncement was on an issue on which the right is strong and the centre left is weak. Do not be too surprised if over the coming months we see further interventions on matters Tories, UKIP'ers, and others on the decomposing right believe is their property.

Sunday 18 November 2012

OutRun for the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis

If you were a car-mad boy growing up in the 80s, chances are you quite fancied a Ferrari Testarossa. Alas, unless you were stinking rich, you would never see one outside of car shows or American telly. That is, unless, you regularly frequented an amusement arcade.

In 1986, Sega's OutRun made a massive splash in the coin-op racing scene. The sit-down cabinet's faux-Ferrari modelling stood out. But the "realistic" hydraulic features that shook you about with every twist and turn in the road was only part of the appeal. Using Sega's pioneering 'super scaler' technology (debuting a year earlier in Space Harrier and Hang-On), OutRun was faster, smoother and better-looking than any other  arcade racer by a country mile. And like the Testarossa itself, the handling was a dream.

With a smash of this magnitude, OutRun was converted to virtually every home computer and console out there - the Spectrum, the Commodore 64, and PC Engine, for example. Alas, Nintendo had to wait for a version until after Sega had exited the console hardware market.

OutRun first made its way to a Sega console in 1987 when the Master System got its very respectable conversion. It found a home on each of Sega's subsequent machines, but it was probably the Mega Drive version that proved the best-selling and most widely played.

Released in the European region in Autumn 1991, the Mega Drive's was as faithful a conversion as the hardware allowed. You race your Testarossa against the clock across five different landscapes. As you reach the end of the stage, you have to choose between a fork in the road. The left path is easier, the right path more challenging. This makes for some variation and the possibility of setting personal bests over multiple tracks. There are also five endings in total, which add a scintilla of re-playability.

The other key innovation that put OutRun in pole position at the time were the musical options. The arcade offered three tunes to choose from: Splash Wave, Passing Breeze, and Magical Sound shower. The Mega Drive version goes one better and offers an additional ditty, Step On Beat. The three original BGM compositions rank among some of the most memorable early video game music ever. I didn't go into any trendy bars along Miami's Coconut Grove in 1983, but I'm pretty certain their in-house bands would have sounded something like them.

And that's OutRun in a nutshell. By the standards of today the gameplay is, if course, completely dated and superficial. The problem with Mega Drive OutRun is that it really wasn't up to scratch upon its release. Coming out three years after the Mega Drive's Japanese debut and five years out from the arcade, it was simple, bland, easy, and lacked in the lastability department. This was a problem shared by the franchise's various iterations. Other Sega arcade conversions that preceded it, such as Super Monaco GP and Super Hang-on beefed up the cartridges by adding optional career modes that provided additional levels of play. It's a mystery why Sega didn't do that here - a rush-release to up the software library pre-Christmas? Whatever the case, I paid a fiver for my complete Mega Drive copy about six months ago. I would have felt very cheesed off if I had forked out £39.99 for it in 1991.

As an average racer that attracted mediocre reviews in the magazines of the day, why does OutRun remain one of the better loved Mega Drive games? There is the nostalgia for the arcade, of course - and Sega's 16 bit conversion was the closest a home system had come to the original at the time. The music too is a passable interpretation (though my personal favourite remains the C64's rendition).

But there was more than that behind its success. What OutRun did, and was perhaps the first video game to do, was sell a lifestyle. Despite being designed and published by a Japanese company who based all the tracks on European landscapes, and starring the top-line product of an Italian luxury sports car manufacturer; OutRun has always struck me as a very American video game.

In the early-mid 80s, American car culture had a big in with popular culture. Tom Selleck was tearing around sun-kissed Hawaiian beaches in his Ferrari 308. The Hoff and KITT were fighting crime and bringing wrong 'uns to justice, and the General Lee was doing repeated stunt jumps over Hazzard County's many creeks. These in turn rested on a flurry of mid 70s-mid 80s American films based around cars and chases.

In American culture, the car has both been a status symbol and a passport to (masculine) individual independence. The road itself is a highway to a better place, and promises opportunity. But more than this, it is the journey down that road that matters: the freedom and adrenaline rush that comes from pushing 200mph in defiance of convention and traffic regulations is a very individual experience. OutRun wraps all this in a stylish package by adding the Testarossa and a glamorous blonde travelling companion. Also, it is more than a coincidence that for a European landscape, the game's starting level is suggestive more of Magnum PI than the Spanish Riviera.

If you like, OutRun is an aspirational video game. It does not matter that a micro fraction of a percentage of young men and boys who played the game would go on to own a prestigious sports car, let alone a Testarossa. It drew together and embodied then-current popular cultural themes around cars, individuality, the outlaw, and conspicuous consumption. In short, OutRun was more than an arcade simulation of fast driving. It was cool.

Friday 16 November 2012

Police and Crime Commissioner Shambles

Words don't exist in the English language that adequately describe the mess the government made of the Police and Crime Commissioner elections. For a flagship policy, I cannot think of anything the Tories have done that quite matches the amateurishness that has accompanied its implementation. The national leaflet that was supposed to go out explaining the policy and powers of a PCC was not delivered to large swathes of Stoke-on-Trent (and, I presume, the country). The usual mechanisms supporting elections, like Royal Mail-delivered mail shots and party election broadcasts were not used. And calling the elections smack bang in the middle of November was unbelievable stupidity from the stupid party. In fact, the only way this shambles makes any sort of sense is if you ask whether Dave wanted his centrepiece reform to fail.

Well, if the Tories set out to treat this exercise as a very public inquiry into how low a vote can go when you starve it of publicity and hold it at the beginning of winter, the results are in. And what a farce they reveal.

In Northamptonshire, there was little evidence of a Corby by-election bounce with a PCC contest turnout of 19.5%. The same was true of Greater Manchester and South Wales policing areas, with only 13.6% and 14.7% of voters turning out. Or, thinking about it, perhaps these results have benefited from a by-election bounce!

It's not the case Tory areas saw a turnout edge over Labour areas either. Tory Essex, Hertfordshire and North Yorkshire racked up massive returns of 12.8%, 14.1%, and 13.2%. But there were a couple of strange results, again, thanks to the turnout. Dyfed Powys saw the closest straight Tory/Labour fight go to the blue corner with 50.86% of the vote (turnout 16.9%). In Suffolk, Labour *won* the popular vote on first preferences, but after distribution it went to the Tories again. But most remarkably, Bedfordshire went to Labour's Olly Martins on a 17.7% turnout. Could repercussions from Nadine's antipodean antics be to blame?

It's difficult to say. In fact, because of the feeble levels of participation it is very hard to read anything into the results at all. Except for two things. The election of 12 independent candidates off the back of 22.4% of the popular vote is worth pausing for thought. Certainly, there is something about the character of these elections that favours independents in ways few other contests do. If you are rich enough to clamber over the outer ditch of the £5,000 deposit and then scale the wall of recruiting to and resourcing a campaign over a police area, the message that policing should not be left to the politicians goes down well. It rubs along nicely with the myth that British policing is "non-political" and that an independent would keep it that way. It also taps into the widespread anti-politics and anti-party sentiment that now has sunk deep roots in British political culture. Far from writing independent success off as a flash in the pan, their results should be taken as a wake up call by parties in general and Labour particularly. When we talk about "reconnecting" and "reengagement", we have to mean it if we want to reverse this trend.

The second is the meaning of the turnout. This was not your standard 'I can't be arsed' second order election, it was something more. Large numbers did not receive literature of any kind, be it party political or otherwise. Quite rightly, as the parties hadn't bothered to address them they, in turn, weren't going to support them. Matters were not helped by the government's ghost PCC leaflet either. There were also large numbers of active boycotters - more than I have seen in any other campaign. When was the last time you say thousands of spoiled ballot papers? Again, this wasn't the common 'you're all the same' refrain, it was a deep disagreement with the PCC position. Partly because of "non-political" arguments, but mainly due to the immense waste of money the whole exercise represents in a period of supposedly-necessary austerity. It didn't wash with the people, and the majority chose not to dignify it with their endorsement.

All this brings me nicely to Staffordshire. Despite the Herculean labours of our candidate Joy Garner and those of her county-wide campaign team, the lessons and experiences of the above apply here. As I am a gentleman, it's not above me to congratulate Cllr Matthew Ellis on his win. But with the lowest PCC turn out in the country (11.6%) and the support of 6% of eligible voters across the county, our new Staffordshire Police and Crime Commissioner is literally a man without a mandate.

Needless to say, Labour will be scrutinising him very closely and that also means you, dear reader, won't be seeing the back end of him any time soon.

1,000 Posts

I can't Adam and Eve it. This post is literally the thousandth entry on this here blog! Now, that's a lot of bullshit.

So, by way of a celebration I've delved into the archives and dug out the ten most popular A Very Public Sociologist posts of all time. OF ALL TIME. What lucky people you are.

In reverse order, they are:

10. Top 100 Tweeting Bloggers 2010
9. Chris Bambery Resigns from SWP!
8. Melanie Phillips: Marketing Bigotry
7. Top 100 Worst Blogs Poll
6. Top 100 Dance Songs of the 90s
5. The UK's 100 Worst Political Blogs
4. Top 100 Dance Songs of the 00s
3. Raoul Moat, Gazza, and the Media Circus
2. Tommy Sheridan on Trial
1. The Perfect Vagina

Folks certainly like their lists!

Thanks for everyone's comments on and offline about this place and what gets posted here. Time, motivation and energy permitting, I hope it won't be another six years before the blog passes the 2,000 milestone.