Friday 31 October 2014

Local Council By-Elections October 2014

Number of candidates
Total vote
+/- Seats
Plaid Cymru**

* There were two by-elections in Scotland.
** There were two by-elections in Wales.
*** There was one independent clash with four candidates contesting the one seat.
**** Others in this month;s contests were Justice (10), OMRLP (27) EngDem (5), Derwentside Ind (655), Canvey Island Ind (323)

Overall, 54,949 votes were cast over 33 local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. For comparison see September's results here.

Well, the LibDem renaissance didn't last. Though to be fair, October has been all about UKIP again. Its  issues are no longer just tugging the Tories away from the electoral ground they need to occupy to win next year, they're dominating the media in ways a challenger party never had done. For example, had UKIP won yesterday's PCC by-election in South Yorkshire, it would be all over the news, no? But they didn't so it hardly figures.

There's more to these very good results for the kippers than just wall-to-wall Farage on my telly box. It helps explain the relatively poor showing for Labour too. 13 of the seats up for grabs were and remained Tory seats while only seven were the preserve of the red team. Yes, it's our old friend regional variation. However, even when this has occurred in the past Labour have managed to win out on averages, which they haven't done this time. Plus this is in the context of a very good showing from UKIP and more modest performances from the Greens and LibDems. Is Labour's dip in support here reflective of the sliding share regularly reported by the polling companies? We shall have to see.

Lastly, this month has been very busy in terms of seats won and lost. The table only accounts for four net gains and losses, but actually some 11 changed hands. 

Thursday 30 October 2014

Sociology and Management Speak

Step change. Across the piece. A suite of options. Front-loaded. Back-filled. Game-changer. A few phrases from the managerialist's lexicon. Funny old language. Funny old culture. Quite rightly, these freakish deviations from the anglophone norm action antipathy and mockery in equal measure. Anyone peppering their speech with 'matrices of opportunity' and 'not fit for purpose' are sniggered at and lampooned. Their use does not inspire confidence among stakeholders managers must reach out to. The language does not offer bespoke solutions to the credibility deficit authority faces. Then why does this peculiar sub-dialect exist? How is it acquired? 

At the foundation of sociology is the banal (but stubbornly surprising to some) finding that the individual beings that populate human societies mutually constitute each other as social beings. I would not be me without you, and you would not be you without me, ad infinitum. Each and every encounter is both an interaction and a world building activity. Our social activity recreates and regenerates social norms and queues, but at the same time our behaviour as social beings are conditioned by the conduct we reproduce. Thus social order is maintained by the mundane practices of the everyday. As Bourdieu pithily put it, we're structures structuring structure.

What's this got to do with anything? In a small 1978 article Bourdieu wrote on 'The Linguistic Market', he argued forms of speech could be understood as the marrying of two of his concepts - a (linguistic) habitus and a (linguistic) market. For those not conversant with Bourdieu,
Subjects are active and knowing agents endowed with practical sense, that is, an acquired system of preferences, of principles of vision and division (what is usually called taste), and also a system of durable cognitive structures (which are essentially the product of the internalisation of objective structures) and of schemes of action which orient the perception of the situation and the appropriate response. The habitus is this kind of practical sense for which is to be done in a given situation – what is called in sport a “feel” for the game, which is inscribed in the present state of play. (Practical Reason 1998, p.25)
Habitus then is practical sense/reason, a series of dispositions one picks up and continues to pick up consciously and unconsciously. There is always choice here, but free will is everywhere and always conditioned by our habitus and the conditions. We make our own history, but not under circumstances of our choosing said someone, once. And those circumstances include our accumulated habits of life. It follows then that Bourdieu's linguistic habitus "is the product of social conditions and is not a simple production of utterances but the production of utterances adapted to a 'situation' or, rather, adapted to a market or field." (Sociology in Question 1993, p.78)

What constitutes this linguistic market? In Bourdieu's scheme, the organisation of social space is stretched across a series of interlacing fields. A field is an analytical model that can be applied to a range of phenomena to make sense of the stakes, power struggles, and the trajectories of participants. Your workplace can be understood as a field. Political blogging can be understood as a field. And so are the modes of speech, the particular vernaculars and private languages appropriate to certain fields. Medical science has a specialist vocabulary that serves to distinguish professionals from quacks. Sociology has its own verbose technical language that all have to deploy effectively if one is to be taken seriously as a scholar, and so on (more here).

A linguistic market then is abstract and concrete. Performative competence means a capacity to align one's linguistic habitus with the rarefied rules of the game. Thus a mastery of a private, specialist language can convey a special kind of power that legitimises the speaker to particular participants in a field.

Yet, as we have seen, management jargon does not do this. We have an alignment of a linguistic habitus, of someone who can talk about strategic staircases and back office functions while effecting a serious manner, with an appropriate linguistic market (the workplace meeting) and yet it does not appear to have the effect Bourdieu's model suggests it might. If it did, surely no one would be leaving the meeting eager to see who won buzzword bingo.

That misses the point. This isn't a model of domination, but rather a model of distinction. In management/staff meetings the cascades and the low hanging fruit are linguistic strategies that distinguish between the manageriat and the staff. If any of the latter break out in a rash of touching bases and key performance indicators, that says something about their desired trajectory. They are verbally signalling their acceptance of management talk and are fishing for admittance via a virtuoso display of linguistic verisimilitude. It also underlines the separation of managers as a specialist cadre with certain authority. And, of course, because our habitus is constantly enriched only semi-consciously us "normals" might find the language creeping into our everyday. Before you know it you're in the pub asking if anyone wants a round going forward.

Wednesday 29 October 2014

The Monstrosity of Management Speak

I'm writing a wee piece about the sociology of management speak, which should arrive tomorrow. To help me out, I asked Facebook folk if they could give me some examples. A few came in but chief among them all was this, this ... abomination. I don't know if thanks is the right word, but props to @gareth_snell nonetheless. 
I can sense the synergy of your post but you probably ought to drill down into the real nuts 'n' bolts of the issue to pick the low hanging fruit. Once you've done that, we can touch base offline and reassess your strategic staircase to ensure that you're reaching maximum exposure because the contents of your idea cloud really need to be cascaded down, perhaps through a thought shower, into the wider workplace. Once complete we can action a stakeholder engagement session to really push the envelope and explore some proper out-of-the-box thinking that can ultimately lead to a win-win situation.
Somebody shoot me.

Tuesday 28 October 2014

The SWP and Uniting the Left

I was looking at my watch the other day and I remember thinking "it's been a while since the Socialist Workers Party issued a 'unite the left' call." And whaddya know, they'd already done it. My lefty trainspotting isn't what it used to be.*

From time to time the SWP like to go on unity binges. In 2009 when the RMT/Socialist Party/Communist Party electoral vehicle No2EU contested the European elections after the SWP had been specifically excluded from participating, they duly produced an open letter to the left in which they proclaimed "Unity is not a luxury. It is a necessity." The problem for the SWP, of course, is this not long followed their stupid wrecking of Respect and the embarrassing adventurism of the Left List. And their turn to founding Respect came off the back of dumping the Socialist Alliance - a vehicle that, at least for a time, united the principal organisations of Trotskyism for the first time since the 1940s. Far be it for me to suggest that if you're going to do the talk, you should also be doing the walk.

And here we are again. Five years on from the last one the new call for unity is, well, a bit thin. As always, workers are straining at the leash - if only more strikes were called, austerity would be stopped in its tracks. All possible on paper, a little harder to pull off in practice. A concerted effort against racism and scapegoating is needed too. Who can disagree? Then comes the thumping conclusion: the non-Labour left "has to get its act together", it's "too fragmented and inward-looking" when what is needed is "a stronger left" to focus anger and provide political direction. Fair enough.

The problem is, who'd want anything to do with the SWP? Remember, this is an organisation that covered up rape allegations, then performed a ham-fisted and cack-handed investigation-by-committee stuffed full of the accused's mates before letting him off. Meanwhile, the survivors who bravely made the complaints were harassed Scientology-style, and reports of a very unhealthy regime provided the necessary cultish background. Surely any leftist allying themselves with such a disgusting shower would find themselves very quickly sharing the unity of the political graveyard.

But the new unity move fits in with the SWP's record of bandwagon chasing. As reported in the latest Party Notes, their Unite the Resistance front group holds its November conference on the 15th. "The conference could play a serious role in helping to pull together a national network involving some of the best fighters" it concludes. And the interesting but by no means unproblematic politicisation of many hundreds of thousands in Scotland is a movement just begging the benefit of the SWP's leadership. But, as ever, rather than trying to win new people over politically - an especially tough task now everyone can Google the organisation serenading them - the SWP will go for their tried and tested formula: of being the "best builders", the most hyper of active advocates. The naive and the gullible might get swooped up and scooped up by the SWP's unity rhetoric, but it will pass. Sooner or later another bandwagon will roll into town, another opportunity for the remaining members to collectively forget the awful stuff their organisation has done.

Left unity amongst self-described revolutionaries, whether around a political project looking to challenge Labour in elections or knitting together left-dominated campaigns against austerity and closure has proved at times fleeting, at times partial. Partly because the political economy and collective identity formers of the organisations involved necessarily set them at loggerheads. Yet there is already a left unity project that exists. It's called the labour movement. Building that, recruiting to that is the most fruitful thing any of us could be doing.

*Yes, I know about the earth-shattering decision of Socialist Appeal to abandon Scottish Labour for the bright lights and big city of a rejuvenated Scottish Socialist Party - more on that soon, maybe.

Monday 27 October 2014

The Great High Speed White Elephant

High Speed Rail 2 is a massive white elephant, a £50bn boondoggle of a project as out of time as it is over priced. Yet, despite this I am a little sore that the bid Stoke-on-Trent put forward for a station got dismissed out of hand. Were it on the basis of a competition in which its projections got weighed up against those of a rival's and found wanting, then fair enough. That didn't happen, and what we have been left with - the 'Crewe hub' - is the worst of all possible worlds.

I've never been sold on the economic benefits HS2 will bring. Sure, construction, engineering, and railway jobs will get created - though for the former as the line's first phase begins works from London towards Birmingham, this particular project won't be helping regional rebalancing in the build phase. Then there are the claims made for it. For instance, Cheshire East leader Michael Jones says:
The Crewe HS2 Superhub will produce 64,000 jobs and boost the North West’s economic output by £3.5bn per annum. It will act as a major gateway for the region, energising the northern powerhouse ... Overall, we believe that HS2 will unlock development sites throughout Cheshire and North Staffordshire for new offices, factories, warehouses shops and new homes.
Colour me sceptical. Slashing 20 minutes from the train journey to the capital from Crewe, and Manchester (and eventually) Liverpool will do all this. Or so we're told. The problem is there is absolutely no evidence it will produce anything like these benefits. This 2009 comparative analysis of high speed rail in Europe concludes, not entirely surprisingly, by noting "The economic appraisal of new lines has to look carefully to the deviated and generated traffic, the time savings, any additional benefit, and the users’ willingness to pay ... There are socially profitable projects, and others which are not." Helpful.

Then there is this (undated) piss and wind. For example, marshalling a great deal of expert criticism of HS2, Mike Geddes demonstrates that not only are the vast majority of jobs to be created temporary (for the duration of the construction) but that each new occupation comes at the cost of approximately £350,000.

Thirdly, as many, many people before me have pointed out a railway track is two-way. What's to say making it easier to get to London will not primarily benefit London, thereby exacerbating regional economic imbalances?

On the Stoke bid for a station, the economics of the decision to go for Crewe appear less than those for the Potteries. The city, Newcastle-under-Lyme, and Kidsgrove form a contiguous urban area of around 325,000 people - that's bigger than Nottingham. It has two universities, multiple colleges, arguably remains the world centre for ceramics manufacture and an economy and - incredibly - has something of a thriving tourist industry. The area would benefit tremendously from regeneration and it is unlikely its manufacturing businesses would disappear down the high speed rail track. The land for the station exists a stone's throw from the city centre and has the advantage of cheap and, at present, plentiful brownfield sites for exiled Londoners who decide to strike north. Furthermore, the route through Stoke would shave off a little bit of extra time and between £2.8bn and £5bn off the final bill. A much larger population as well would, you might expect, see any economic benefits outstrip those accruing to Crewe, which is approximately four times smaller.

And while Crewe is being magnanimous in victory and talking up the benefits HS2 there will bring Stoke, it's likely to damage the city. Firstly, the existing service from Manchester to Euston via Stoke will simply disappear. Whereas various services now run about three every hour to London, we'll be lucky if we see three trains a day. It means people wishing to head down the track will have to travel further afield to get the fast train, negating any benefits supposedly accruing from speed. Effectively, 320,000 people are being told that a reduction in service and a longer journey to Crewe will somehow spark off an economic renaissance of North Staffordshire. What a joke.

One does not like to by cynical, but when the stronger case for Stoke is simply dismissed without a serious review of the numbers, you have to ask if something else is going on. And sure enough, whereas the four seats comprising Stoke-Newcastle-Kidsgrove are Labour and unlikely to switch in 2015, Crewe and Nantwich is a Tory marginal facing a very strong challenge. Are the Tories really desperate enough to forego significant construction savings to keep hold of a swing seat? We live in times where the Prime Minister is happy to jeopardise Britain's relationship to the EU just to see off UKIP, so the answer is yes.

But the biggest problem is HS2 is a massive waste of money. To rejuvenate British capitalism in the 21st century, to give it an edge versus its competitors that £50bn can be much better spent. Wiring up every single home and business to the very latest in superfast broadband technology, sinking cash into cheap renewables, investing heavily in education - including abolishing tuition fees - would offer real tangible economic benefits and improve the quality of people's lives. HS2 may be expensive, but all it shows off is the poverty of Britain's ambitions.

Sunday 26 October 2014

Russell Brand, Narcissist and Comrade?

I've always had a soft spot for Russell Brand. Like many recovering Big Brother fans, I first encountered him on E4's E-Forum, a side programme to Big Brother's Little Brother, which in turn was an adjunct to the main event. But there was something about Brand that made him stand out even in those days. Was it his larking about? His knowing jokes about himself and celebrity? The casual peppering of monologue with Nietzschean observations and obscure social theory references? Yes, probably. Since then his cheeky-chappery has taken off. Hollywood films and megastar celebrity ex-wives and ex-partners later, this last year Brand has been on a journey of self-reinvention. While always a lefty of some sort, since his successful one issue take-over of the New Statesman, Brand has been using the platform he has to rally support for protest actions and campaigns. He has, of course, taken part in a few himself. And now his has a new book to sell, Revolution. Should we then take him seriously?

Of course. But that isn't necessarily the same as taking his views seriously. As Sunny notes, his views aren't as much intellectually lightweight as anti-intellectual. Chris Dillow agrees, pointing out that Brand thrives because our landscape is an "intellectual desert". The unsigned author on us vs th3m makes another telling point:
The overall impression is of a man on the ultimate ego trip. Success as a comedian is no longer enough to satisfy him, he needs to make a real impact on the world. The question of whether he really has anything to offer, besides a charismatic stage presence and a verbose vocabulary, hasn’t even occurred to him. He refuses to consider properly the consequences of his flippant statements, but is entitled enough to assume everyone should listen anyway.
Others, both on the left and the right have taken him to task for his incoherence. All true, but I think the bigger point is getting missed.

Brand appears to be someone for whom the blinkers are coming off. The veil has fallen and the ugly unpleasantries of 21st century capitalism stand before him unadorned. And like many others who've undergone similar experiences, Brand is responding by precociously picking up on fashionable radical ideas and thinkers. The difference is he's doing this publicly, when most radicalisations - which are a messy, uncertain process - go unremarked and unnoticed. This is why Brand's ideas and "programme", if it can be called that, are so muddled. Criticising Westminster and spiralling inequality sits with hints of September 11th conspiraloonery and paeans to self-transformation/revolution of the heart nonsense. For old hacks with fully-rounded out views, like you and me, this is presents itself as naive and, thanks to Brand's profile, potentially problematic.

Yet this is not the finished product. Brand is on a trajectory. And most significantly, he does not hang round with the tin foil hat brigade. He helps the E15 mums. Works with the Fire Brigades Union. And unlike much of the left who've piled in to criticise him, he's rattled tins and raised awareness about the Kurdish comrades fighting ISIS in Kobane. In case you hadn't noticed, these radical causes are working class causes. The more he engages with labour movement activity, be it community campaigns, unions, or solidarity work the more this will discipline his views.

Does this matter? Yes it does. There are few celebrities with his platform who are engaging with reality-based left politics. Instead of dismissing him or constructing Chinese walls of bad tempered polemic and denunciation, anyone serious about socialist change should be encouraging him to get more involved in the labour movement - and urging his supporters and fans to do the same.

Brand's revolution is a long way off, I doubt it will ever see the day. But he can offer our movement and our ideas a much greater audience. He's holding out a hand of friendship only fools would turn down.

Saturday 25 October 2014

Saturday Interview: Sarah Brown

Sarah Brown is a trade unionist and Liberal Democrat activist from Kimberley, near Nottingham. Formerly a parish councillor, blogger and active Labour Party member, she left and joined the LibDems 18 months ago. You can follow Sarah on Twitter here

Why did you start blogging?

Well around 2010, I now post occasionally on anything from politics to makeup.

What was your best blogging experience?

I posted about being a curvy lady and not being ashamed of my body. Funnily enough my boobs got more attention than the post where I announced I had defected from Labour to the Lib Dems!

Have you any blogging advice for new starters?

Ask a real blogger!

And why did you stop blogging?

Time and inspiration lacking!

Do you find social media useful for activist-y things?

Yes to an extent, it's good for mobilising, but I think direct action is more effective.

What are you reading at the moment?

The Hunger Games - it's a kids book but very well written.

What was the last film you saw?

I'm watching The Magicians right now. Although Made in Dagenham is my favourite film :)

Do you have a favourite novel?

Will you judge me if I say Bridget Jones's Diary? No? Well it's that.

Can you name a work of non-fiction which has had a major influence on how you think about the world?


How many political organisations have you been a member of?

The Labour Party, Unison and the Lib Dems. I'm still a Lib Dem and a member of Unison.

Can you name an idea or an issue on which you've changed your mind?

Ha! My political viewpoint. I used to be a Labour member and very active with it, but yeah, I was becoming more and more disillusioned with the party. I felt like there was a clique and an "in crowd" I would never be a part of. I was starting to despair of the influence of Progress and felt the party had lost its way. I joined the Lib Dems as I felt the party more matched my views and I wanted to be part of a truly democratic pArty.

What set of ideas do you think it most important to disseminate?

That everyone has a right to live life free from excessive intervention from the state.

What set of ideas do you think it most important to combat?

The idea that immigration is a bad thing and all immigrants are scum. Seriously if you took everything that wasn't British out of your house there would be very little left! I'm a big fan of open borders and I hope UKIP stop winning parliamentary seats

Who are your political heroes?

Heroes? Hmm, can I bring myself to describe a politician as a hero? I'm sorry no, I do like a lot of political people on a personal level but I wouldn't call them heroes.

How about political villains?

Farage (ewwwww)

What do you think is the most pressing political task of the day?

I think that's a tricky one, but I would love to see a more gender balanced parliament.

What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world?


What would be your most important piece of advice about life?

Live the life you want not the one you think others expect.

What is your favourite song?

I don't have one.

Do you have a favourite video game?

Pokemon ...

What do you consider the most important personal quality in others?


What personal fault in others do you most dislike?

People who talk too much.

What, if anything, do you worry about?

Nothing much.

And any pet peeves?

People who eat with their mouths open.

What piece of advice would you give to your much younger self?

Wear clothes that make you happy, don't hide yourself away and don't care what other people think of you.

What do you like doing in your spare time?

Singing, knitting, crochet and being outside.

What is your most treasured possession?

My clarinet

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

Profiteroles and S Club 7's music.

What talent would you most like to have?

I would like to be able to dance!

If you could have one (more or less realistic) wish come true - apart from getting loads of money - what would you wish for?

A cure for depression. It holds me back.

Speaking of cash, how, if at all, would you change your life were you suddenly to win or inherit an enormously large sum of money?

I would have a nice house to live in and not have to work. I would bake a lot and make lots of pretty things :)

If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be?

Hmm, William Shakespeare, Richard from Pointless and Dawn French

How are trade unionists typically perceived in the LibDems? Do LD trade unionists work together as a group?

The Lib Dems have a group called the association of Lib Dem Trade Unionists. There are lots of trade unionists in the Lib Dems, branch secretaries, activists, reps and members. I guess trade unionists are perceived as the loveable lefties. In fact I had more grief in the Labour Party for being a trade unionist!

And has joining the LibDems affected your relationship with other labour movement activists?

Yes. Some no longer feel they can associate with me, others have had it confirmed just how "right wing" I really am. But in the most part not really. When I was still a rep not one person asked my political persuasion before I represented them. They just wanted to know I was on their side, which I was. It's heart warming that now after a year of not being a rep I still have members call and ask me to represent them.

Next year, do you think the LibDems will be part of a new/renewed coalition?

I think so yes. No one believes Ed Miliband has what it takes to become Prime Minister and the Tories? Well I think the UKIP effect will stop them forming a majority government. The Lib Dems have learned a lot in this Parliament and are growing into an effective government party.