Thursday 30 April 2015

How Not to Interpret Data ...

... Or why Harry Cole is an idiot. Here's a graph of mentions per minute on Twitter from the lovely folks at Digital Contact.

As you can see from the graph, mentions by David Cameron far outstrip those of Ed Miliband. This leads Harry Cole, chamber pot carrier-in-chief of the Guido Fawkes rabble to exclaim:

Indeed. Except there are two things wrong with his learned observation.

Firstly, mentions aren't positive mentions. Had I been tweeting throughout tonight's apecial Question Time, I would have been mouthing off about Dave more than Ed or Nick. I imagine the army of lefties that have made Twitter their home did exactly that.

The second point - if you examine the time you see the worm pick up at one minute past eight before entering a sharp decline at 20:35. That's the time period Dave was on the television screen. Of course he's going to get more mentions than his nemesis when he's on. 

What this graph leaves unanswered is whether Harry Cole was wearing his stupid or his dishonest hat tonight. Knowing his appalling reputation round and about the Westminster Village, I think he had on both.

Wednesday 29 April 2015


A Frost/Nixon for our age? No, but the media reaction to Russell Brand's encounter with Ed Miliband is out of all proportion to what was said. The actual content of the interview is pretty innocuous, at least from the standpoint of grizzled lefties and hardened politicos. Yet where Brand's core audience are concerned, the teens to the mid-30 somethings who tend not to pay politics anywhere near as much mind as the likes of you and I, it's a different story. That is why Ed was absolutely right to seek him out and take whatever ra-ra-revolutionary verbiage cum cheeky banter on offer, and once again the expectations of the commentariat were confounded. The worst they could fault him for was dropping his tees and gees which, all told, is a bit pathetic.

This was the right move for another reason. For the first time in this campaign, a major media commentator - for that is what Brand is these days - has asked questions about issues that would never trouble the prompt sheets of your Paxos and Brillos. Class. Ownership. Capital. Change. The whole point of voting. The legitimacy of mainstream politics. These are matters absolutely crucial for understanding 21st century Britain, for getting to grips with the forces that structure and condition our politics and political debate. While it's right professional interviewers should scrutinise the details of party programmes, no one is interested in the bigger picture, of understanding how we as citizens can hope to change things with our individual votes when power is concentrated in huge, unaccountable private institutions? If Brand isn't going to ask these questions, then who will? Andrew Marr? Kay Burley? Ed Miliband, for his part, made the case for linking voting to wider project of progressive change, of tentatively stepping beyond the remit of representative politics. He rightly made the point that change can be slow, but that government is one avenue that can assist. Ed would have done well to have added that if none of this matters, then why are the Tories, their overseas fellow travellers, and their helpful friends in the city are pulling out all the stops to win - including today's helpfully out riding for what professional political comment thinks:
But I can’t understand why leftwing feminists have not come out in their droves to condemn Miliband for going anywhere near Russell Brand. By his own admission he has slept with more than 1000 women, including prostitutes. I find that man abhorrent and I think it is such a bad idea for a politician to have anything to do with him. It was unbearable to watch Miliband (who might not be 100% my cup of tea in lots of ways, and some of his ideas are bonkers, but he is a genuine supporter of women and I’m sure he would put his hand on his heart and say he is a feminist) be lectured by Brand on the uselessness of the female vote. The suffragettes would have hung, drawn and quartered Brand.
I'd take Allsopp's whinging more seriously if she gave a fig about what's happening to women less fortunate than her under the Tories. She has every right to criticise Brand for his sexism of course, which plenty of feminists have done before it became politically convenient to do so, but Allsopp's voice has been curiously silent during the destruction of women's shelters, the closure of children's centres, cuts to the public sector and social security, and the increase in low paid insecure work - all of which affect women disproportionately. And as she does so, at least Brand is making amends for past behaviour. Solidarity around the Kurdish struggle against Islamic State and, in particular, the leading combat roles taken by feminist comrades in that fight; and of course supporting the women of the New Era estate in their victory over an unscrupulous property developer. Actions speak louder than words, Kirstie.

Allsopp's remarks condenses the rubbish that gets written about Brand. People on the right and the centre left lecture him about his behaviour and his views, but for many of them politics is something they write about in the office. They don't give their free time to 'doing stuff', they don't weigh in and use whatever pull they might have to effect change. Politics is something others do. They observe and record, and that for them is enough. Brand doesn't fit into that mold and, in his own way, despite his wonkish aspect neither does the Labour leader. Yet he gets the big interviews, the book deals, the Question Time slots, the column acreage. His productions are anarchic, he plays fast and loose with the dialectic of serious vs unserious. Why use one word when seven will do is Brand's favoured approach. But ultimately, what Brand exemplifies is fear. Comedians are public figures, and Brand as Britain's current king of the pile is a working class boy done good who's muscling in on their turf. If hundreds of thousands can hang on this upstart's words, so other proletarian and semi-lumpen voices might also reach places polite, established debate cannot touch.

Tuesday 28 April 2015

SWP Statement on the IS List

Here's a blast from the past. 20 years back when the Internet was a shiny new thing for some and a rumour for others, there was a rumpus over online goings ons. Long forgotten now, the International Socialist List was established to specifically discuss the politics, the history and, let's be truthful, the gossip of and about the IS tradition and its leading section, the Socialist Workers Party. Known then, as now, for not having the most liberal of internal regimes, when the Central Committee got wind of the list's existence they issued the missive below. Make of it what you will.

Why publish this very old news now? When I was putting together my short chapter on the recent political history of British Trotskyism for this fine tome, in the plethora of end notes accompanying the piece I had lost track of this document. It seemed to have disappeared from the internet - the old link had been operative in 2005 and not since. So for scholars and people interested in such things, here's the document for all to view for what could be the rest of time.

Many thanks to @EddieTruman for digging it out of his files.


For some time a number of members of various organisations belonging to the IS Tendency have been linked together on the internet through what is known as the IS-List. This arrangement seems to have been the result of a private initiative by comrades in various countries. As far as we can tell the leaderships of their organisations were not consulted; certainly no reference was made to the SWP Central Committee. The justification for this arrangement has been that it is a useful way of sharing information among comrades in different countries.

In fact, very little hard information is sent out through the IS-List, and what there is usually banal or irrelevant (e.g. a message sent out by a British comrade announcing to the world that John Major had resigned as leader of the Conservative Party). Much of the content of the messages consists in trivialities and gossip about the internal affairs of various groups. Many of the keenest participants are inactive members of their groups; some are involved in oppositional factions.

Moreover, communications are carried out on the IS-List without consideration for the most basic question of security. We have in recent years taken steps to tighten up security, particularly with respect to comrades' carrying around names and addresses on them when engaged in political activity, and to their use of the telephone. But users of the IS-List seem to subscribe to the fantasy that communication via the internet is fundamentally more secure than that on the telephone. This is, to say the least, an extremely naive attitude. One leading SWP advocate of the IS-List has already shown by his extremely irresponsible use of a comrade's name on e-mail that he cannot be trusted with comrades' security. This kind of attitude could seriously endanger our sister organisations operating under illegal conditions.

The highly dubious nature of the IS-List was confirmed by its users' reaction to the meeting at Marxism 95 on the internet. One comrade who dared to challenge the media-promoted mania for the internet that seems to have affected some on the left was subjected to repeated, scurrilous attack, both at the meeting and on the list. The leaderships of the SWP and of other groups were accused of 'technophobia' and a desire to suppress debate.

The Central Committee has decided that members of the SWP should not use the IS-List. This is not intended as a blanket ban on comrades' communicating by e-mail, though when doing so they should respect elementary considerations of security.

Our reasons taking this decision have nothing to do with any alleged fear of technological innovation. On the contrary: we are currently discussing arrangements which will allow our sister papers to get quick access to Socialist Worker on the internet. But we do not make a fetish of new technology. In particular, any sensible socialist should not fall for the immense hyping of the internet by papers like the Guardian, or for the postmodernist arguments that the net represents a radical democratisation of society. Access to the internet, as to any technology, is determined by capitalist relations of production. It is therefore highly unequal, and conditioned by the bosses' domination of the economy and the state.

Our reasons for specifically banning SWP members from participating in the IS-List are as follows:

1. Security: The internet is not a secure form of communication. Most comrades have access to the internet through their job. Their employers will therefore be able to read their messages. There is, in any case, no way of protecting communication via the internet from surveillance by the state. Moreover, though each new subscriber to the IS-List must be proposed by a current one, there seems to be no mechanism for removing people who leave an IS group from the list. As it is, some of the most enthusiastic British defenders of the IS-List after Marxism 95 are not registered members of the SWP. Hostile left organisations can therefore easily penetrate the list and take part in discussions that do not concern them.

2. Democratic Discussion and Accountability: Only a small minority of our members have access to the internet. This reflects the fact that internet users are, in general, concentrated in universities and in upper-echelon white-collar jobs. Consequently discussions take place on the IS-List from which most comrades are excluded. Moreover, the international character of the list makes its users even less accountable. The IS Tendency is not an international organisation but a current composed of independent organisations who share the same politics. We therefore lack the means to make the list accountable to the organisations making up the Tendency. Political debate is essential in a healthy revolutionary organisation. But that debate takes place through the party branches and at national meetings and conferences, where all comrades can participate directly or through their elected delegates. Irresponsible gossip by a self-selected and relatively privileged clique is no substitute for discussion in a democratic centralist organisation.

3. A Diversion: It is clear that some comrades, particularly in other countries, have exaggerated political expectations of the internet. They do not understand that building our organisations depends above all on the face-to-face discussion involved in selling the paper and recruiting new members. The technological novelties of the internet, the world-wide-web, etc., seem to offer a short-cut, a substitute for the hard work involved in party-building. It is particularly alarming that members of some of our weakest groups are keen participants in the IS-List. It is a matter for the leaderships of other IS organisations to decide their attitude to the IS-List, but members of the SWP should do nothing to encourage these illusions.

Accordingly, members of the SWP are instructed not to use the IS-List. They are, of course, free to communicate by e-mail and to use the internet in other ways, but they should take the same care with security, particularly with comrades' names and addresses, as they should when talking on the telephone. Comrades who disagree with this decision are free to argue for its reversal in the pre-conference discussion period that is forthcoming, but they are still bound by our decision. Any failure to observe it will be subject to disciplinary action.

Central Committee

2 August 1995

Monday 27 April 2015

Scottish Labour, Again

You're in a secure military facility and there's an intercontinental ballistic missile, inbound. The anti-missile batteries have fired and missed. Electronic counter measures cannot dissuade it from its course. You glance helplessly at the blip on the radar getting closer and closer, hoping the blast doors are thick enough, that the concrete bunker is buried deep enough to ride out the devastating attack about to be wrought. At worst, you're vaporised. At best, you pop the hatch to emerge into a blackened and blighted landscape.

That doomed stronghold is Scottish Labour, and that man fretting in the bunker is Willie Bain - quite possibly the last Labour MP left standing, if today's TNS poll is anything to go by. It's astonishing stuff. The realignment of British politics from the emergence of Labour to supplanting the Liberals as one of the two main contenders took a generation. The same is happening right now in Canada, which has seen both its main parties - the Tories and the Liberals - displaced by challengers. Again, same time frame. In Scotland however, time has sped up. What takes decades to accomplish has flipped in the course of a single Parliament. Such tends to happen when masses of politicised people enter the stage and find existing modes of political expression wanting.

What is happening in Scotland was a long time coming. The referendum was the precipitating factor, and the election of Jim Murphy has so far seen Labour's position deteriorate further, despite tacking left and taking activism seriously. Yet no one, not the SNP, not Labour, not the professional commentariat, nor the academics saw any of this coming. It has been a huge collective failure for anyone whose business is the reading of political tea leaves.

In hindsight, it seemed so obvious. The warning signs were there. Not just the long-term trends and the decrepitude of Labour's organisation. You didn't need to be a sociologist and sink a shaft into the earth of Scottish society to observe the wobbly mantle under Labour's position. Just watching the comings and goings of Holyrood was enough. In 2007, the SNP won 47 seats on the basis of 32.9% and 31% of constituency and list votes respectively, forming a minority administration. Four years later, they defied Parliamentary convention by winning an increased share after a term in government. Their vote for both sections rose to 45.4% and 44% respectively. Labour managed 31.7% and 26.3%. Yet with the weakness of Scottish Labour exposed absolutely nothing was done. It was business as usual. The SNP was allowed to rhetorically annex Labourist politics while Labour opposed them from the right. To underline the complacency, politics watchers across the spectrum grew complacent. "Those canny Scots", many thought, "they want a SNP government in Edinburgh to look out for Scottish interests but when it comes to Westminster elections, Labour will be returned to keep the Tories out". And, for a while, the polls bore that out.

It was rubbish though. Polls are snapshots, not predictors, and political comment paid no attention to the evidence filling their senses. As a rule, if large numbers of voters return challenger parties in second order elections, and do so again, something is shifting. Once voters of one party switch to another, then vote for them subsequently, the chance they will stay with their new home is much, much greater. We experienced in Stoke with the rise of the BNP across several local elections. The LibDems for a time managed a similar trick nationally by building up its base in local government. And UKIP have followed a similar strategy these last couple of years. We had a clear indicator of the calamity to befall Scottish Labour, and no one spotted it.

Is Willie Bain going to be the last man left standing? We will find out in 10 days time, but it's not looking pretty. When the retention of just 10 Scottish seats would be a good result for Labour, that underlines how unmitigated the disaster is. Coverage of Scottish result declarations are all set to be snuff movies for the politically interested. And as Labour activists in England and Wales sit down to celebrate Tory and LibDem scalps, the catastrophe up north will finally be driven home.

Sunday 26 April 2015

15 Years of the UK Left Network

Blimey, time really flies doesn't it? It's hard to believe 15 years have passed when an earnest 20-something with views tending to the ultra-left filled out a few online forms and set up a discussion list. But this wasn't just any old discussion list, this was the UK Left Network, a forum that came to be as ugly as its clunky initials - UKLN - suggest. It was quite an important forum too, though no one at the time realised it. It brought together a lot of Britain-based leftists and the odd sectarian in a digital space that was then still quite new and novel. There are many more things that could be written about the list, but I don't have to because the list was revisited by the blog on the occasion of its 10th anniversary and given a right good going over. This is helpfully reproduced below, with a few changes. The UKLN now is pretty much defunct but remains preserved should anyone find it of interest in the future. Given its 40-year rule, perhaps we can look forward to a Revolutionary History special in a quarter of a century's time. Still, if you missed the UKLN at its height - be thankful; participation was a guarantee to put casually interested would-be leftists off socialism for life. Despite that, tonight I'll be toasting the UKLN and the souls it carried - I hope you can join me.

How did that happen? Is it really ten years since a cpgb-supporting supermarket worker sat down in front of a university computer, loaded up and launched the UK Left Network discussion list onto an unsuspecting and uncaring world? Yep, it really is.

As with all things on the left, the UKLN (clunky looking initials if there ever were any) was the result of a split. The far left is not noted for harmonious relations between its constituent groups and rival activists, and this was as much the case among the few late 90s internet-traveling Trots as it is today. After graduating from uni in 1998 I spent a year on the dole unsuccessfully trying to land low paying casualised work to fund my first Master's. With a head full of ultra-left Weekly Worker-leaning politics and a heart pumped up with rage, I was drawn into the seamy world of internet Trotskyism.

Back then Yahoo had a pseudo-bulletin board platform called Yahoo Clubs. As you might expect the interface was primitive and very limited. You could post short pieces (probably about 250 words all told) in the clubs you were signed up to. After shillying about the then biggest left clubs on Yahoo - Red Square and Internet Promotion of Socialism - I fell in with a Californian comrade called Adina Storm who ran a small and not terribly active club called Commielove. What initially united us was our disappointment with the moderating team of Red Square who had allowed an anti-communist troll of alleged Cuban descent to mess up what was a promising leftist community. Adina and I decided Commielove would become a "safe space" for lefts to debate among ourselves, so she made me co-founder and very quickly - a few months - the club became the largest left forum on Yahoo with several hundred members and a respectable posting rate of between 100-200ish posts a month.

But like all tales of Trotskyist organisation, a serpent soon crashed the revolutionary garden. As the club grew Adina moved to London after being in touch with the International Marxist Tendency. Like the Northites/SEPtics of WSWS, the IMT back then were quick to realise the openings the internet offered revolutionary politics and had built an impressive and comprehensive website. You would often find youthful Grantites popping up in clubs, ONElist/Egroup discussion lists and the like to preach the gospel according to Old Ted. For whatever reason my fellow founder was drawn to their brand of Trotskyism and ended up moving to Brussels to help renovate an office/communal flat(!) for the IMT's Belgian section. Over a drawn out period we began to fall out. As a self-identified cpgb I was always of the opinion (still am) that differences between socialists should, where possible, be discussed openly. The tradition of the IMT has a rather different attitude. They may not be Scientologists, but Ted Grant doesn't do a bad job as their L. Ron Hubbard and Alan Woods manages a fair turn as chief operating thetan. Over a period of time Adina co-opted a few Grantites onto the Founders' committee and gradually discussion became more and more "guided", despite my open protests and public criticisms. I knew enough was enough when they intervened to try and stop an interesting discussion between an AWL comrade and a supporter of the Maoists in the Philippines on the role of the peasantry in socialist revolution. It was arbitrarily announced that henceforth "Stalinists" (i.e. anyone not subscribing to a Trotskyist critique of Soviet-type societies) would be banned. I publicly registered my opposition and the ban thankfully didn't happen, but I knew the writing was on the wall.

At the same time as all this, I was a member of an Egroup discussion list called the Cyber Communist Party. It was much smaller and basically consisted of the two "members" of the semi-comedic, semi-spartoid American Generic Trotskyist League (40% Off), and a few others including Ian Donovan and Owen Jones of Ian Donovan and Owen Jones fame. The debates were very much of the 'my position is more revolutionary than yours', but to my eyes it demonstrated the potential for something not too dissimilar based in a UK context. I remember canvassing the opinion of other Britain-based lefties I'd met via the CCP and Commielove, and on 26th April, 2000, the UK Left Network was born.

The legend that greets you when visiting the UKLN's corner of the internet is more or less unchanged from the day I wrote it. It reads:
This is a forum where communists, socialists, and other left-wingers who either live in the UK, or are interested in UK politics can meet and discuss. This forum recognises that no one left group has the monopoly on the truth, and that Marxism will only be developed if we are able to discuss our differences openly, and not behind the backs of our class. Comrades from all traditions, of any organisation or none, are welcome.
And the first post of the ensuing 111,191 reads:
Greetings Comrades

Welcome to the UK Left Network, a place which hopefully will come to be an important resource not only for leftists in the UK, but comrades internationally who have an interest in UK affairs. All solidarity info is welcome regardless of country, and every member can feel free to promote their organisations and publications.

Though I loath to set down 'rules', there are but a few to be kept in mind and almost go without saying;

1) Racist, sexist, and homophobic comments will not be tolerated and will result in instant expulsion.
2) No platform for fascists. These filth have no place here.
3) No flames. Debate should focus on political issues and not the alleged personal habits of any particular member and the like.

And that's all there is to it. I look forward to all future discussions.
Comradely Greetings
Phil Hamilton

List Moderator
It wasn't long before number three was torn asunder by the development of the list. I think it was a bit of trolling by a Stalin salutin' scribbler who went by the nom de plume of James Tait that led to the UKLN's first bad-tempered exchange (our James, naughty man that he was, sent the predominantly Trotskyist membership into apoplectic rage by suggesting a then recently-deceased former high ranking Stasi agent was a working class hero). That more or less set the tone for the list. To say I was out of my moderating depth was an understatement. Trotskyist clashed against Stalinist. Left nationalists faced down "Brits". Former CPGB'ers rose against contemporary cpgb'ers. SA supporters rounded on SP members. And toward the end of the UKLN's "golden period", comrade turned against comrade as the SSP/Solidarity split played itself out on the list.

The UKLN was a bear pit and no mistaking. It was my fault for letting it get that way and being afraid of consistently rooting out the trolls. Part of the reason for that was by the end of 2000 I had finally joined the cpgb, but was concerned with being seen to be scrupulously neutral. That wasn't easy considering most of the disputes on the list at the time were often about what the Weekly Worker had said or done. But balance was something I managed to my own satisfaction and eventually - after about three years(!) - the list settled down into a gentle equilibrium. Most trollers had slunk off to pastures new and comrades who were once the bitterest of internet foes found a grudging respect for each other, which then became genuine affection. The moderating team moved at about this time from being just me to including well-respected Exeter anti-fascist Dave Parks; "celebrity" cpgb catch from the SP, Harry 'H' Paterson; Mick Hall now of Organized Rage and SSP activist Jim Carroll.

As internet forums go, the UKLN was pretty rough and I do occasionally wonder if it ever put casual subscribers off socialism for life. But despite this, the UKLN has proven to be important for the far left for two reasons. First, it showed the far left off warts and all (mainly the warts). Apart from the incessant polemic (often with unpleasantness running at an order of magnitude higher than the most fractious Socialist Unity threads), one UKLN experience has always stuck in my mind as a clear demonstration of the far left's faults. Back on September 11th, 2001 I broke the news on the list about the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Over the coming hours, days, and weeks the disorientation and shock of this event was felt in a slew of anti-imperialist 'the bastards deserved it' polemic (one contributor went as far to call for "One, Two, Many New Yorks"). Conspiracy theoroids began turning up ("the jets were clearly holograms, and not very good ones at that"); and in our collective confusion debate turned away from the necessity to build a new anti-war movement against an attack on Afghanistan to ... the class character of the USSR. So yes, the UKLN was a petri dish that concentrated all of the British left's problems.

But more importantly was the overlooked role the UKLN played in bringing the far left into contact with one another. While members of Trotskyism's 57 varieties have always been welcome on the list (as have the few Stalinist fossils knocking about), from day one the biggest contingent of members and regular contributors were the non-aligned. Whereas in the past refugees from left groups might drift into the Labour party, trade unionism or back into private life, the UKLN meant former members could still do that - but keep their connection with the goings-ons in the far left. This might not seem a big deal now but before the UKLN there wasn't really a dedicated internet space Brit-based Trots and troublemakers could go to. To prove it, the UKLN casts a long (but often forgotten) shadow over the left's online community today. All the following bloggers are UKLN alumni and have at some stage actively contributed to the list. There might be a few surprises:

A Very Public Sociologist
Dave Osler
Harry Paterson
Harry's Place (Yes, founder Harry Hatchet and Brett Lock!)
Inveresk Street Ingrate
Islamophobia Watch
Labour of Love
Madam Miaow
Martin Wicks
Organized Rage
Owen Jones
Ragged Trousered Philanthropist
Random Pottins
Socialist Unity
Tendance Coatesy
The Daily (Maybe)
The Rotten Elements
Tony Greenstein
Union Futures

Apologies if I've missed anyone off.

There are a couple of mysteries around the UKLN that have never really been cleared up. One was the almost total absence of SWP contributors. That is apart from Geoff Collier from Leeds, who'd rarely engage in debate but often pop up with a snarky comment or two. Contrast that with SP/CWI members who were all over the list like a rash. Was the SWP's mid-90s ban on members participating in discussion lists the reason why they never showed up to the party?

Another was the irony that despite the UKLN name, there was a very Scottish flavour to the list. Comrades from the SSP were always frequent contributors, despite being formally committed to the break up of the UK state! I never understood why the Scottish left were over-represented - was it because they were largely free of the dead hand of sect discipline?

Here are some other UKLN facts:

* Dave Nellist was an avid follower of the list, despite only ever contributing the once.
* The UKLN was targeted by the forerunners of RedWatch and the bizarre (but definitely white supremacist) National Anarchist "movement", who used to take posts and email addresses and publicise them on far right lists and websites.
* Comrades from the UKLN exposed moves by two Green Party members to set up friendly debates with Troy Southgate of the aforementioned NA grouplet.
* Bad tempered exchanges probably contributed to Harry Steele/Hatchet (Simon Evans) setting up Harry's Place. I remember banning him for persistent trolling against the cpgb. When he finally set up HP in 2002 I remember looking over his blog and thinking "this will never catch on".
* The term 'UK Left' often bandied about on blogs and forums is derived from the UKLN.
* From the start there was a rare consensus around the need to fight the BNP politically rather than rely on 'dont vote Nazi'-style campaigning.
* I was a cpgb from late 2000 to early 2003. While it is true the UKLN remained independent from party direction (at one point I banned Ian Donovan, then also a cpgb member, for rudeness), discussion of its goings on were often a topic in the internal 'E-Caucus' party list (incidentally, it never had more than 32 members and mostly hovered around the 27-8 mark).
* All of the key developments in British politics, world affairs, and of course, the far left, received ample comment from 2000-2007. Therefore the UKLN, for all its faults, serves as an historical archive for what a group of (mostly) rank and file revolutionary socialists were thinking and saying during that period.

During its height list traffic used to be upwards of 1,000 posts a month. Having your inbox cluttered with 100+ UKLN messages over the period of a day weren't unknown. But now the UKLN is a shadow of its former self. These last six months traffic hasn't even passed the 200 posts a month mark. One reason for this is the supplanting of Yahoo Groups (Yahoo annexed Egroups in 2000) by blogging and Facebook (the UKLN is far from being the only political discussion list to have declined in this manner). And I'd like to think another is there are more opportunities for left wing activism now than when the list started out.

What future for the UKLN? Who knows? Though unlikely one should never rule out a UKLN renaissance - political predictions are notoriously unreliable. But should the list forever now bump along at a hundred or so posts a month, it more than fulfilled its purpose. It did bring together socialists from wide ranging backgrounds and through the heat of polemic nurtured and facilitated networks between comrades that weren't there before. In its own way it contributed to the shape of online socialist activism today. If that is the list's sole positive contribution, then the UKLN should be saluted.

Saturday 25 April 2015

Lenin and Hitler vs Grant Shapps

When you're dealing with the broad sweep of history, of the collective efforts of billions of people as they produce, consume, go to war, and compelled to struggle among themselves for scarce resources, what role for the individual personality? For the majority of us, the point is moot. The vast majority of us will have our latter day three score years and ten, and fade into the background noise of the human story, though the digital footprint we leave behind will probably endure long after our immediate circle of family, friends, and acquaintances have shuffled off too. Some, however, will have names and personalities that live on long after their deaths because of their contributions to their fields of endeavour, or are forever associated with historical events posterity labels pivotal. History isn't a procession of great men - and it's nearly always men - who bend the course of social development to their will, but it sometimes appears that way.

Let's look at a famous example from the Marxist canon, depending where you sit on the Trot/Tankie spectrum. In his masterful The History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky pauses his gripping narrative to consider what would have happened had a brick fallen on Lenin's head in between February and October, and comes to the conclusion that the seizure of power by the Soviets would not have occurred. Writing some 30 years later in his equally superlative biography of Trotsky, Isaac Deutscher takes Trotters to task for this observation. Here, the founder of the red army is taken to task for lapsing into idealism and, inadvertently, contributing to the cult of the personality Stalin created around Lenin as a foundation stone for his own legitimacy. Deutscher rightly observes that historical processes are the tectonics of millions upon millions of people moving simultaneously. Lenin did not create the conditions for the revolution, and in all likelihood the momentum of grievance would have made it without him.

Trotsky was more right than Deutscher, however. While it is true that Lenin was frequently in a minority on the Bolshevik central committee over the question of immediate socialist revolution, he had to wage a protracted political struggle to win them and the wider membership over to his famous April Theses. It's reasonable to assume that on the level of myriad micro social interactions and transactions, the figure of Lenin was absolutely crucial - as this otherwise silly right wing counterfactual also concludes. This however wasn't the basis of Trotsky's argument, though it was important. What was was Lenin being more than just Lenin as an individual. He was the figurehead for a real mass revolutionary movement in Russian society, a condensation that was made possible over many years of factional struggle, dissemination of writings and Bolshevik propaganda, and who - with his programme - was able to pull growing numbers of radicalised peasants and proletarians into the orbit of his party. Lenin was just a man, but effectively he was also a social movement, a figure that was the collective property of millions. This collectivity invested a great deal in him, so that his premature death would have constituted a major defeat for that movement.

Let us consider someone who's Lenin's polar opposite: Adolf Hitler. As the subject of more counterfactuals than practically any other historical figure, Hitler is taken as a 'great man' upon which the pivot of history hinged. If only he'd launched Barbarossa earlier. If only he listened to his generals more. If only he hadn't embarked on the industrial extermination of Europe's Jews. If only von Stauffenberg's bomb had got him. However, like Lenin, Hitler sat atop and was the collective property of a social movement. As Nazi Germany started collapsing under a shower of allied bombs and military defeat, the solidity of German society - which in 1944-45 was losing around 300,000 people a month - was maintained by the fuhrer cult. Support for the Nazis even as they were visiting ruin on themselves remained because of the legitimacy initially secured through the attraction of mass support, and then a ceaseless let up in regime propaganda around Hitler's superhuman qualities. In a society denuded of ideological resources save those sanctified by the Nazis, Hitler was less a projection of fear and more a source of hope for beleaguered Germans. Hence his movement had raised him up to the point where his whims and moods was not just life and death for millions of people, but determined the course of history.

The characters of each men say a little something about the movements they personified too. Lenin, by all accounts, was single-minded in his pursuit of socialist revolution. Everything about him was subordinated to that goal. He also, again it is generally agreed, did not have a trace of egoism - he resisted the personality cult, for example. Written into his character were the revolutionary aspirations of Russia's growing proletariat, of a class excluded from what passed for official politics and was ruthlessly suppressed; despite the fact he wasn't drawn from that class himself. Hitler's personality too was suited to the movement that made him. His prejudices, his sense of entitled victimhood, his nationalism, his taste for the high life, these were qualities that commended him to the petit bourgeois, the middle class, and the declassed elements of Depression-era Germany.

What then could these two possibly have in common with the Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps, a man destined to be nothing more than a footnote in this country's political history? Hitler and Lenin are names indelibly linked with the human story. Shapps is a man liable to be forgotten way before he retires from Parliament. Well, this is because what Lenin and Hitler say about their movements, so Shapps sheds light on today's Tory party.

I have had a correspondence acquaintance with Shapps. Back in the day I wrote to him in his then capacity as housing minister. Under his watch Shapps scrapped a particular house building scheme - the name escapes me (it was not Building Homes for the Future) - that saw a nice return to the Treasury for every pound the taxpayer put in. Using the clipped, precise language one uses to address civil servants writing on behalf of their Whitehall masters, I invited him to explain to the constituent for whom the letter was written why he had withdrawn funding from an initiative that was a net contributor to UK finances. The reply that came was the kind of stupidity we've come to expect from the Tories. "We've got to get the deficit down" and, um, that was that. Points not acknowledged, let alone answered. While this was common among Tory ministers - IBS over at the DWP being a particularly egregious example - some did at least try and address the points put. From that point on, I've filed Shapps under D for Dumb.

It could have been for 'dishonest' too because he stands out among the cabinet as the shabbiest of Dave's gang of chancers. Take the claims about Shapps manipulating his own Wikipedia entry and making alterations to others, all to the greater glory of, um, Shapps. The denials were issued like clockwork, but are hardly believable. While small beer politically speaking, if you're prepared to be so dishonest over the little things then you can hardly be trusted with the big. but it's not just Shapps's political habits and lying, sorry, "over-firmly denying" his business activities while a front rank Tory politician, but his business activities themselves. Shapps has long been a laughing stock over his Michael Green alter ego (and lying about it too) and the peddling of get-rich-quick schemes. There's also the small matter of dodgy internet marketing, which encouraged his customers to plagiarise others' content. Shapps business is not only morally dubious from the standpoint of online ethics, it's entirely socially useless.

Appropriate, you might say, that such a man can rise without a trace within the latter day Tory party. As the political home of high finance and low pay, of spivvery and huckstering, of stupidity and decadence, that a man who distinguishes himself as a serial fibber and had made millions from digital snake oil should find himself in charge of the party machine is no accident. As it decomposes and frays, as the more forward looking and astute representatives of capital give it a wide berth, so its more lumpen elements come forward.

Hitler and Lenin were condensed and embodied their rising movements. As the Tory party degrades and decomposes on its slow slope to oblivion, it too will find itself represented by people best suited to reflect its decrepitude.

Friday 24 April 2015

Of #Milifandom

It's my party and I'll be late if I want to. News of the unexpected #Milifandom around comrade number one, Ed "Milibae" are chip wrappers humming in the nation's bins alongside tea bags and gravy-speckled LibDem leaflets, but a conspiracy hatched by campaigning and a dud internet connection has blocked yours truly from commenting. Until now.

1. How short political comment's memory is. The rise of Miliband fandom, and its entirely confected and useless Tory countershove, the "Cameronettes", are not without precedent. Recall last November when, for the best part of a month, #webacked and #CameronMustGo topped trending topics like a boss. Then, it was plots and rumours of plots against Ed Miliband that, again, emerged spontaneously from pissed off Labour people and used the collective power of Twitter to challenge the media common sense. The same is here too. Except this time, against some of the most scurrilous attacks ever mounted on a mainstream politician, young women and teenage girls have led a fightback in their own inimitable fashion.

2. This is 2015, not 1992. The lesson the Tories and their media friends won't learn is that the media landscape has changed irrevocably. The right wing press still have a mass audience, but it's shrinking. As they drop anywhere between five and ten per cent year on year, their reach and influence shrinks. Even worse for them, social media is more demanding and often more rewarding for many of its younger readerships. The diet of propaganda masquerading as news that once addressed its audiences more directly are now effectively filtered/stymied by one's social media networks. Sun editorial ranting about Ed Miliband in increasingly desperate tones? When one pops onto social media, one is likely to at least note the trends, status updates, tweets, etc. offering alternative viewpoints. There is no reason why social media should challenge dominant narratives - anyone venturing into poverty porn-related chatter can tell you that. However, when something goes viral in response to a Tory attack - as Miliband fandom has - the more likely it will impinge on a reader's extended networks, become a talking point, and offers access to opinions the right wing press are unsuccessfully trying to crowd out. The more egregious the smear, the stronger the backwash.

3. I haven't been on t'internets too much these last couple of days, but I am surprised the fangirling around Ed Miliband hasn't brought forth a ripple of snarks. What's going on here is a double subversion/appropriation of the leader's image by intellects both warm and sympathetic. Yes, it is ridiculous to photoshop Ed's face onto ripped, muscular bodies but at the same time, in each case, the juxtaposition serves to underline his quiet strength. Instead of the tired Wallace comparisons gifted us by our unimaginative press, the choice of bodies are about a can-do attitude. Some might even say "hell yes". It's a laugh, but if you like this is a more authentic Ed because the images are the results of grassroots collaboration and sharing. They're not the contrived offspring of party press'ers or beleaguered editors getting the hairdrier treatment from their overseas gaffer. These, just like what came before, are reclamations of the Labour leader. The affectionate joshing is proprietorship, identification, and a flowery, soft-focus middle finger to Labour's enemies.

Tuesday 21 April 2015

The Tory Party's Tartan Trauma

There's not much left the Tories can do to turn the polls in their favour. Attacking Ed Miliband personally hasn't worked, and the more it's done the more credible he appears. Neither has spraying around the cash in what, at best, can only be described as a series of fiscally incontinent pledges. With the momentum appearing to cohere around Labour, and the party in front on the key indicators health, immigration, education, and social security, you can see the desperation emanating from Dave and co's TV appearances. Patriotism, as Samuel Johnson exclaimed, is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Lo and behold, it's that our Tory friends now turn to in lieu of anything else.

The thing is, their attack lines of the last few days, the 'coalition of chaos' nonsense, of a lefty party being propped up by an even leftier party isn't even new. Back in early March, which seems like a foreign country already, Dave was mouthing off about a Labour/SNP deal. "You could end up with an alliance between the people who want to bankrupt Britain and the people who want to break up Britain", says the man waving £25bn worth of unfunded promises. However, the Tories think they're on to a winner this time. After spending time with focus groups (which is a problematic method for finding out what "real people" think), they've come to the conclusion that sufficient numbers of voters would be concerned if the SNP were to use their leverage to fleece the English taxpayer. If you put it to your focus groups in those terms, it's hardly shock, horror.

There is something to this though. Nationalism by its very nature is divisive. Our friend Nicola Sturgeon, for example, might hold to a nice civic nationalism in which anyone identifying as a Scot is welcome (in itself, not different from the contemporary recasting of British nationalism) but it still creates an in group and out group that pays no respect to the class underpinnings of social democratic/labourist politics, which the SNP have adopted with no small success. As the Scottish independence party, its 'other' is the multinational state that lays claim to majority of these isles. That implicitly means the majority shareholder of that construct: England. It's a politics whose vision of the good society is contingent on separating from us down in the warmer climes. Unsurprisingly, it feeds the deeply anxious beast that is English nationalism. The very idea of the SNP extracting special favours for Scottish budgets at the English taxpayers' expense is something the Tories are banking on. They talk up the SNP to stoke a resentful Englishness - never minding that they're imperilling the very union they profess to love. The main question, however, is will it get traction?

Undoubtedly it will get some sort of an echo. Those tending toward UKIP might be tempted. Voters who were in the habit of giving electoral time to the BNP by way of a protest too. Also layers of people who don't pay close attention to politics, but occasionally pick up a bit of messaging. Among those who have been softened up by years of propaganda against benefits cheats and immigrants, it addresses the interplay between hard-done-to taxpayer and workers-as-martyrs. It will niggle and nag at people, snap at their thoughts, and make them think twice about voting Labour or supporting UKIP. Is that really the case though? So far, painting Ed Miliband as the dolewaller's champion hasn't worked, nor have the dire warnings of economic catastrophe. Also, if you want to get into the scaremongering business, Labour has a much bigger weapon in the Tory record on the NHS than the blues have with constitutional jiggery pokery.

Nevertheless, to their credit the SNP and Labour both moved to quash this attack before Dave reheated it this week. In the leaders' debates Nicola Sturgeon has somewhat successfully detoxified English expectations of what the SNP are about. And for his part, Ed Miliband continues to rule out a coalition - it looks like his favoured approach, assuming Labour forms a minority administration, will be to forge his own policy agenda and dare the other parties to vote it down. There's no way, for example, the SNP would not support those recognisably social democratic aspects of Labour's programme, nor would the Tories say no to Trident replacement. Also, if the Tories want to play the narrow nationalist card they could lose as much as they gain. Their esteemed lordships Norman Tebbit and Micheal Forsyth are of this opinion, and it cedes crucial 'one nation' ground to Ed Miliband too - a point not lost on the Labour leader. And if they really want to throw in the nationalist card, UKIP can beat them at that game every time.

In all, there are not many more places the Tories can go. As Labour runs with the NHS this week and living standards the next, as their village idiot is embroiled in another scandal, time is running out for the Tories. And if they lose, their appalling campaign merely prefaces the death agonies to come.

Monday 20 April 2015

In Defence of Jim Jepps

Thatcher once noted that when opponents resort to personal attacks, it signals their inability to argue the politics. What then to make of the concerted attack on my friend and comrade Jim Jepps by the Fawkes rabble, The Mail, and the Daily Mirror. Jim is very much away from the limelight, quietly plugging away at his own activist projects and not courting the media at all. And yet he's become fair game in the desperate attempts by idiot journalism to smear his partner, the Green Party leader Natalie Bennett.

Let's be clear here. I am a Labour party person. I am firmly of the belief that the overwhelming majority of Greens would have more influence were they in the same party as me. Their recent Green surge, if repeated in Labour, would make it more likely that policies we share in common - such as a basic income for all, a more generous minimum wage, and an end to austerity - would make it onto the agenda. To win Greens over, Labour has to offer something positive and not overly rely on it's us or the Tories. Politics itself, however, is about the clash of interests and pursuit of well-remunerated, powerful positions. It's a dirty business and won't change as long as our society is underpinned by social conflict. That, however, does not mean we should resign ourselves to bathing in swill if we wade into the public arena. Nothing turns people off politics more than needless abuse and attacks by association. In this case, for Labour supporters to use/endorse methods favoured by the poltroons of The Mail and Guido only legitimates similar tactics deployed against our own side. It opens us up to charges of hypocrisy too.

Of the posts that must have taken an enterprising Mirror hack all of half an hour to find are no biggie. That's right. Musing aloud about the ethics of sexual relationships between teachers and 17 year old students and rape fantasies is totally unremarkable. Especially when many of the journos and the readers they titillate and scandalise rarely get exercised by the existence of teacher/pupil role play and violent pornography always a few mouse clicks away. And there's this:
It seems to me that the sex offenders register is a sledgehammer to crack a nut sometimes. When you have a teacher who kissed a 17-year-old placed on the same register as Gary Glitter it does make you wonder how useful the list is, no matter how creepy that teacher might be.
What is this loony libertarian shit? Such are the cynical depths to which our supposedly left-wing press stoop to that apparently, ordinary people - who just happen to be the significant other of a public figure - are not permitted to ask probing questions about the nature of sexuality and the official discourse on sex crimes. This while The Mirror pores over the bikini-clad bodies of female celebrities, while the Daily Mail happily ogles under age teenage bodies, while the Fawkes rabble plays host to rape threats and grotesque woman-hating, you can be forgiven for thinking that they should get their own households in order before drawing attention to others.

The attack on Jim Jepps as a way of getting at Natalie Bennett is pathetic and bang out of order. Jim is one of the kindest, most decent, hardest working, and supportive socialists I've had the pleasure to meet. So fuck you, Mirror Group Newspapers. I'd rather have one comrade like Jim in my corner than any number of cowardly, phone-fiddling Mirror hacks.

Sunday 19 April 2015

Ashiva - Sunrise

No time for blogging this evening. Dissertations to mark, pots to wash, litter trays to clean. The blog, however, is my canvas to deface as I see fit and here for your perusal is a genuine hidden gem. Ashiva's Sunrise is a great poppy trance track that troubled MTV Dance viewers circa 2004, and promptly disappeared - save for a vapid cover much later by the awful Angel City. Yours truly never fully forgot it. And you can see why, this is a proper summery song and should be played very loud indeed.

Saturday 18 April 2015

The Moral Vacuity of Katie Hopkins

Four years ago, I wrote about the functions of bigotry in the mass media, and the ever charming Melanie Phillips was my case study. Then, somewhat counter-intuitively, The Daily Mail made use of Mel to get the lefties in and boost their clicks per second average. Every idiocy that tripped off her keyboard was then, in the infant days of social media, pounced upon and shared by the angry, which in turn help push those page views through the roof. This now is 2015, things are more settled now. Our audiences are sophisticated and savvy. The media bigots have had their day, or have they?

Bidding for the title of vile personage of the year is the execrable Katie Hopkins, a woman so toxic that Sellafield wouldn't touch her. The now notorious article, Rescue Boats? I'd use gunships to stop migrants in your snore-away currant bun is probably the most disgusting, stupid, stone-hearted and cretinous piece published by the Murdoch press this century. It's no exaggeration to say you'd find a more compassion toward refugees fleeing violence in Libya and Syria in the BNP rag, Freedom. Advocating the shooting up rafts full of helpless people, leaving kids to drown, and that's before you start likening human beings to cockroaches. Now there's an expression without any historical baggage at all.

Unlike other right wing celebrities, such as Clarkson, Hopkins doesn't have a fan base as such. There won't be anyone tweeting death threats on her behalf as she cowers in the basement while the outrage howls overhead. Everyone hates her, and that's the basis of her celebrity. Beginning in The Apprentice as the contestant everyone detested, she has only been able to maintain her fame since - and therefore her income - by becoming ever more objectionable. She's by means not the only one. However, there does come a point when one cannot go any further before getting into really dodgy territory. Hopkins has made a career mocking the unemployed, the disabled, the overweight, the mentally ill. The only way is even further down into the black hole of racism and xenophobia.

The thing with Hopkins is it's (mostly) an act. To have made a lucrative career out of booting the voiceless and powerless demands a cunning of a certain kind. She has a rabble rouser's nous for issues that, framed in a certain way, would appeal to the most backward and bigoted. Politics-wise she's no different to the hardened Tories who spend their retirements propping up the bar at the precious few Conservative Clubs still trading. A little bit racist, perhaps; but not a dickheaded blood-and-soil fascist. And yet here we are. The ability to sit there and pen something so incredibly offensive that you don't even take it seriously yourself, that takes a special kind of cynicism and one only possible after all traces of humanity have been liposuctioned out. What Hopkins has done by sharing her ghastly pearls with us is to bare a void where a person should be.

When you exercise your right to speak freely, you have to accept the consequences. When I write critical things about the Tories or my erstwhile comrades I don't expect speaking invites to come from those directions. Similarly with Hopkins. The point is not to ban her or get her prosecuted - not that such an action would succeed, except to make another tedious free speech martyr - but to pressure the BBC and ITV studios to ensure This Morning, This Week, Loose Women, and whatever are closed to her. Our society is too indulgent of those who seek to whip up hatred and fear, and its only right the platforms from which their bullshit is promulgated can and should be closed to them.

And that brings me to The Sun, the paper that published Hopkins and stuck her article under a headline of their devising. They too are responsible. They didn't have to ask her to write a provocative column. They didn't have to publish it in this form. And they certainly can't plead the "she's a columnist guv, nothing to do with us" defence given decades-long effluvia flow to have dribbled from its pages. It thoroughly deserves to haunt news agents' store rooms in unread, unopened bundles, and a plunging circulation suggests that happy future might not be too far away. Yet consider their position for a moment. Since Uncle Rupert squirreled away his titles behind a paywall, The Sun's popular cultural relevancy has taken a huge hit. The Telegraph, Mail, Graun, even The Mirror, while also suffering, find their content regularly shared and talked about over social media. The Sun cannot do that, and their ridiculous mini-me - Sun Nation - is lousy with Johnny-come-lately and reeks of the same desperate-to-be-relevant that attends the Desmond press. To be in the national conversation, they have to throw their own dead cat in from time-to-time. Last time it was the will they, won't they over Page 3. This time it was Hopkins. The problem for them, however, is this can only work the once. When they employ her or some other vacuity in human skin to say something outrageous next, The Sun faces the ignominy of getting ignored. It couldn't happen to a nicer bunch.

Friday 17 April 2015

On the Star Wars Episode VII Trailer


Okay, so it's not mahoosively spectacular or anything, but when casting my cynical eye over the trailer earlier I was not expecting the kind of gut reaction that came at me. It was a strange tingly blast of nostalgia, something last felt had when I played an old game for the first time in 20 years or have caught an earful of a song that hasn't troubled me for a long time. There was none of this nonsense when the prequels did the rounds in the early 00s, nor did any occasion the special editions upon their re-release back when your author was t'yoof.

Here's the thing. I'm not a massive Star Wars fan. The parents dragged me to the pictures to watch The Empire Strikes Back as a brattish but excitable kiddy-wink. My brother and I were smothered in the toys, and we even had a, ahem, naughty copy of Return of the Jedi before it came out in British cinemas. The simple goodies vs baddies narrative was just the foil for typical boys, which we were, who couldn't get enough of their militarised toys. Though I could never fathom how the plastic rendering of the Rebel Alliance Snow Speeder was half the size of the Imperial AT-AT when the film showed the latter to be many times bigger. But as I grew up the fictive universe never held its appeal. It was all too simple. And besides, as an advocate for sociological realism in science fiction the idea of a Roman-style republic/empire with slaves, magic, spaceships, and sentient robots is complete hooey.

All that said, come Christmas a sad sack collection of 30-something Stokie comrades shall duly traipse to the nearest big screen for the thrills 'n' spills on offer. And among them I will be.

Thursday 16 April 2015

The Trial of Greville Janner

Is it possible to not be surprised yet be shocked at the same time? If it is, that's what I felt this morning when the news came through that Lord Janner, the former Labour MP for Leicester West would not be charged. Shocked because the testimony and evidence is compelling, not surprised because of the crippled, senile old man Janner has become. The Crown Prosecution Service concluded that it would not be in the public interest to follow through with a prosecution and, as much as I wish it was otherwise, this decision is the right one.

"As a Labour Party member he would say that." Well, no. As someone interested in justice being seen to be done, I am saying that. Anyone following the Janner case will have their opinion about his guilt or otherwise. I certainly have my views, and they're not a million miles away from the sentiment that's been gushing like a torrent on Twitter all afternoon. Yet we still - just - have the right to innocence until proven otherwise, and that applies to those accused of the most disgusting crimes. So where the evidence is concerned, let's just say there is a compelling case to answer. And on this point the CPS agrees.

Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is this. When Thatcher died, the truth was the woman who inspired admiration and hatred in equal measure had been killed by her dementia many years previously. All that was left was a flailing body scarcely aware of the passage of the day, let alone knowledge of who she once was. The same goes for Janner too. I haven't got access to his medical records, and neither has anyone else. Though one fully expects the CPS have, and took the trouble to examine them thoroughly. I think we can be reasonably confident that Janner's legal team haven't pulled an Ernest Saunders, who secured an early release from prison after being diagnosed with senile dementia, only to make a remarkable recovery after several months of freedom. Though, of course, the concealment of these records from public view are likely to fuel the notion this is the establishment covering for one of their own.

Ultimately, the question comes down to this. Ideally, should Janner have his day in court? Most certainly, and it is appalling that allegations made previously were brushed under the carpet and ignored. But what justice can possibly seen to be done by putting a dribbling invalid on the stand who is incapable of answering the charges and following proceedings? We do not hold trials in abstentia for defendants who no longer possess the capacity to understand what's happening to them, which is the only possible "equitable" solution under these circumstances.

It is awful that Janner's accusers can never confront him. But his figure is tainted, his reputation trashed, and trial by media well underway. Justice wasn't done, but Greville Janner has been crucified before the public all the same.

Wednesday 15 April 2015

The Banality of Internet Death Threats

So I was going to write something about this when after Oisin Tymon, the producer attacked by man-child Jeremy Clarkson received death threats on social media for, um, having the temerity to be attacked by man-child Jeremy Clarkson. Fitting then that Top Gear should be at the centre of the latest crop of threats. This time there was a rumour that Clarkson was to be replaced by Sue Perkins. In case you haven't read about it on the news, here's what she has to say.

There are some sad sacks out there. It's so ubiquitous, however, that it's more than just a few inadequates raging against the world. True, there is a specific gender component to this behaviour, but something else is happening in conjunction with this too.

Recently BBC journalists have been complaining about mobs of cybernats trolling, abusing, and threatening their social media accounts for asking pretty innocuous questions of Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. Anyone who's vaguely left will, at some point, have attracted a few unhinged UKIP-types. Top Gear viewers, One Direction fans, all have a reputation for - how shall we say - having a forthright tweeting style. Death threats are ten-a-penny. If these are the nuclear option of social media comment, then the world is a toasted, radioactive desert many times over. While much less rabid, I do encounter some of the same behaviours (intolerance, quickness to anger, eager to dish out abuse) among Labour supporters on t'internet too. All tend to hold in common a recent(ish) arrival to the joys of web-based political knockabout.

This, I think, is key. Social media is a great leveller. Preceding forms: pamphlets, journals, newspapers, film, radio, TV, these have been run and controlled by someone else. In all essentials they do not require an audience input beyond purchasing them and/or tuning in. Social media, particularly Twitter, gives everyone their own megaphone and earpiece. Suddenly, people who'd never dream of having an audience find themselves with one. And more importantly, no matter how many millions a celebrity Twitter user may have, an illusion of immediacy is generated - they can be tweeted at and, sometimes, they may condescend to answer. Even a backwoods blogging oik like me has had responses back from luminaries such as Vince Cable and have, though heavens know why, been blocked by Toby Young. Suddenly, the wealthy, the powerful, and everyone's pet hate figures are but a few keystrokes away.

Historically speaking, this is a tremendous novelty. We should therefore not be at all surprised that large numbers of people behave in ways they wouldn't think to in real life. Everything we see - the ubiquitous death threats, the animosity, the trolling, these are symptoms of masses of numbers of people taking up a new technology there is no real precedent for. I'm tempted to say its symptomatic of our unfamiliarity and immaturity with it, mixed with the myriad frustrations and ceaseless collapse of all that is taken for granted and inviolate.

What that means is the tone of social media is likely to change over the coming decades. As presentation of the self is supplemented by a social media footprint of one, two, many platforms the less likely most people will want their output associated with idiocy of the kind experienced by Sue Perkins et al, especially as it's well on the way to not being socially acceptable. Furthermore, after a while, abuse will become so passé as social media becomes another banal aspect of everyday life. None of this excuses it, or minimises the misery and discomfort some feel when they're on the receiving end of it, but as time presses on it will eventually get better. The ubiquity of the internet death threat has long lost its potency, and its shelf life is now quite limited.

Tuesday 14 April 2015

The Mystery of the Unfunded Tory Pledges

If you're the tiny section of this blog's readership contemplating voting Conservative, be aware that you're voting for communism! Yes, we've had the £8bn NHS pledge, the policy of freezing rail fares, the promise of 30 hours a week childcare, and now the Tories are threatening to expropriate housing associations and pass them on at a huge discount to tenants. Yes, just when the election couldn't get more Fortean it takes yet another weird turn. Step back and consider the scene for a moment. Yesterday Ed Miliband took to the podium and gave an authoritative presentation setting out Labour's priorities, with full costings. Prudence and sound finance, which includes the requisite deficit pledges, are to be the bedrock of a policy agenda significantly to the left of any government since Jim Callaghan left office. By way of contrast, the Tories have contracted a bout of fiscal incontinence. £25bn worth of unfunded pledges? No problem! We'll just say the money will be found as and when it's needed. Verily, their policy slate is the unwholesome offspring of Milton Friedman and Labour's 1983 manifesto. Bonkers.

Dave was his usual slick self as he launched their manifesto. Picking up on the thrust of Labour's recent pronouncements, this was about seizing ownership of security from the opposition. Perhaps unexpectedly they played on their "success" fighting terrorism by listing the number of hate preachers kept out of Britain, the success of foiling plots - which handily cannot be addressed in detail due to security concerns, and standing up to ISIS and their ilk. However, one line that seemed to have missed the eager eyes of the assembled press pack is allowing the police to circumvent the Crown Prosecution Service and make decisions about to prosecute. Complementing "Beria" May, Dave laid on thick the security theme - the Tories had a stable economy, a plan for the deficit, "sensible savings", tax cuts, a guaranteed public spending surplus by 2018 all underpinned by, of course, that long-term economic plan. To be fair, there were elements of an industrial strategy here. Osborne's talk of the "northern powerhouse", road building, high speed rail, the spread of technical colleges and a splurge on apprenticeships, the Tories have belatedly woken up to the state having a role in shepherding the economy.

Then there were the eye-catching policies. To take the first 30 hours of the minimum wage earners out of tax is merely their raising of the basic threshold, repackaged. Much more interesting was the pledge of 30 hours free childcare. We don't know the details yet, but it's unlikely to be available to parents who do not work full-time. Nevertheless it is very attractive and would make a massive difference to anyone who pays through the nose for nursery care. I'm surprised the Tories haven't made more of it. But the big headline grabber was, of course, their right-to-buy pledge. This is incredibly stupid for all kinds of reasons. Even right wing journos like Julia Hartly-Brewer dub it "economically illiterate and morally wrong". However, it's clear what the Tories are trying to do. In their typical dumb way, because right-to-buy was popular among council tenants back in the 80s, the hope is that enough people renting housing association homes will vote Tory as a means of getting themselves on the housing ladder. It was a transparent move by Thatcher to try and social engineer a bloc of working class Tory voters. It made little difference. The bulk of tenants who became home owners took the opportunity but didn't change their voting habits. Then again, the Tories are desperate for something - anything - to turn their electoral fortunes around. Except this time, their clever-clever logic might bite them on the bum. There are a layer of usually loyal Tory voters attracted to the party because of their (undeserved) reputation for careful economics and "responsible" approach to public spending. Policies like this nonsense put their key reputational asset into question.

Then what are the Tories playing at? Is it hidden genius? Is it panic? Is it cluelessness? It's worse than all three, it's pure cynicism. Dave and Osborne know a majority government eludes them. They've seen the scenarios, they know that the permutations of Labour-led coalitions or Labour minorities are against the Conservatives perhaps ever forming a government again - at least under First Past the Post. So they're throwing everything out there. It doesn't matter that their spending splurge is almost entirely uncosted. The Tory hope is that a largely uninformed public will pick up on the NHS, tax cuts, and right-to-buy pledges, won't be party to the "wonkish" conversation of politicos and journalists, and come election day shall unthinkingly place their cross in the Conservative box. If that is their hope, they can expect to have it dashed.

Monday 13 April 2015

On the Far Left's General Election Campaign

As well as being a pretty weird general election, 2015's will see a record number of far left candidates standing. As if to underline the peculiarity of the campaign, even anarchists are standing. So let's have a bit of a burrow into the lists and see what it says about the far left party family.

No one in a revolutionary socialist or anarchist outfit now would say women's rights and the question of gender are distractions from the hard graft of knuckling down and prosecuting the class struggle. At least aloud, or for public consumption. As self-declared representatives of the most class conscious sections of the British proletariat, they're the best fighters for women's liberation. The implementation of their programmes would strike a permanent and irreversible blow for equitable gender relations. We're a long way off from that happy day, however. So how do women fair as a percentage of far left candidates? I make it 52 out of the 223 listed so far. That's 23.3%. For TUSC specifically of 131 seats contested women are standing in 34 of them, or 25.9%. What to say about this. The LibDems say that just 26% of their candidates are women. Annoyingly, comparable figures for the Tories and Labour are hard to come by (I don't have the inclination to run through every single constituency). But of interest 29 for the former and 54 for the latter have been selected for the parties' top 100 winnable seats. Among all party selections done up until last November - including incumbents - it was 73-27 men-women. Of new candidates, Labour had selected 39% women, the Tories 31%, LibDems 30%, Greens 37%, and UKIP 12%.

Pretty poor for the far left as a whole to be outdone on women's representation by all bar UKIP, and to be less representative than the field of candidates as a whole. However, the far left should be cut a bit of slack, but only a little. They can only stand the activists they have on the books, and in the Socialist Party's case - who've provided the bulk of TUSC candidates - the party comprises one quarter to one third women. To be fair, during my membership they did encourage women to come to the fore and its leading body, the executive committee, had a slight female majority. Still, the same searching questions about why more women aren't involved have to be asked.

The second thing I want to look at is how much the election campaign is a party building opportunity. We know that far left candidates generally get pretty poor results - see last year's European election and 2010's outing, for example. To try and build a head of steam behind your campaigns, you require consistent electoral activity in a given area and a long-term strategic plan. Can we see evidence of that here? Last time, the far left contested 120 seats with 135 candidates. Have they built on this? Well, 92 of our candidates are standing in seats that were previously contested, which is 41%. This doesn't look too good but do remember that TUSC has massively upped its electoral game. 53 were contested in 2010, 26 of which were under TUSC's banner (I've included here the four Socialist Alternative candidates). Quite why the 17 that previously had TUSC haven't been so visited this time is a mystery. Also, only 15 candidates are standing in the same seat as 2010, ten of which are TUSC. Sitting MPs aside, I expect the proportion in the bigger parties is about the same or even lower. However, when you're in the business of building a radical alternative consistency and continuity between elections is important provided the candidate has been working the seat hard in the meantime.

All this begs the question of why. I doubt the CPB, SEP, CL, and WRP central committees sat down to determine their general election intervention believing a general breakthrough lies just over the horizon. Sure, like the SPGB, AGS, Workers' Party, SSP, and Class War, it's an opportunity to get the organisation and your work known. You're taking advantage of a wider interest in politics than is hitherto the case. But is it worth it? Taking 2010 as our benchmark, polling scores were more often beneath one per cent than not. However, the far left tend not to measure success in terms of votes scored - as anyone familiar with post-election write ups by those concerned will tell you. It's about the breadth of the message, of the leaflets distributed, papers solds, contacts made, and recruits who've signed up. There is also the experience of taking part in the campaign itself. To be involved and live in the micro universe of a campaign can be a gratifying experience, even if you don't win. It's an occasion of forming close ties, of working together collectively around a clearly definable common objective, of deepening one's relationship with the group. It's the stuff fond memories are made of. Or can be, provided it's not deeply dysfunctional and characterised by fraying friendships. So for a small party, it's a bonding experience, of toughening up collective discipline and identity. But it's a risk. For newer recruits the poor result can be an occasion for disillusion and burnout.

TUSC is qualitatively different. While the general election is an occasion for party building on the Socialist Party's part (and, to a lesser extent, the SWP's), the objective is to work TUSC up into an electoral force that will be taken seriously over the longer term. It's their contribution toward the new workers' party they believe is a necessity since Labour stopped conforming to what they think such a party should look like. Implicitly, TUSC exists to show an electoral life for leftist class politics outside Labour is possible. However, there are a number of problems.

As we know, the Green Party has grown massively since last summer, a growth reflected in its spread of candidates. TUSC's challenge, however, is not a result of organic growth. As far as I can tell, the SP is roughly the same size it was five years ago and the SWP, of course, are much diminished. Nor has there been an upsurge of active opposition to never-ending austerity that can power TUSC's 100% no cuts message. Why then such an effort which, lest we forget, is also supported by about 600 local council candidates?

There are two things going on here. SP cadre are keen to flag up how much more advanced TUSC is compared to UKIP after the first five years of its existence, while accidentally on purpose forgetting the last 25 years of the SP standing against Labour under a variety of labels. TUSC appears to be a project that has stalled. The 2010 results were down on its predecessor's 2005 efforts, including in its Coventry and Lewisham "strongholds". Since then local election results have given little cheer, even if they had a councillor elected last year ... on an independent ticket. As growth eludes TUSC, voluntarism has stepped into the breach. By pulling out all the stops and standing absolutely everywhere they can reflect back a sense of dynamism to their members, that this project might actually be going somewhere. The second issue is their friends in the RMT. As the sleeping partner in the TUSC initiative, it remains a source of acute embarrassment that barely any of its 72,000 members are aware of what TUSC is, let alone that their union is an affiliate. Even the much-missed Bob Crow studiously avoided all mention of the coalition of which he was a founder on his Question Time appearances. And now the RMT has Mick Cash, a Labour Party member at the helm, it's reasonable to suppose the union's support is living on borrowed time. In this context, to try and keep them on board, running a large campaign is about showing the RMT that another party is possible. It won't deliver the votes, but the SP must be hoping that the sheer size of the "biggest post-war left electoral challenge" will squeeze out a respectable - by far left standards - result. Because without the RMT, not only does TUSC go the way of the dodo,their perspectives suffer ignominious collapse and a good chunk of their membership will be profoundly demoralised.

But can TUSC and the other comrades standing in the election expect a continuation of poor results? Thanks to the rise of social media, the traditional press and TV matter less this time than has ever hitherto the case. They may be locked out of the leaders' debates but they can, to a degree, bypass them. There is also the general mood too. If by some dark miracle the Tories scrape their way into power again, it won't be because of a resigned acceptance of the need for more austerity. It's not uniform, it's complex and contradictory, but the much hallowed centre ground has moved left on a number of key issues. And also the far right has disappeared up its own backside. However, with established "anti-establishment" parties in the shape of UKIP and the Greens, and with the latter fielding its own anti-austerity message, it's hard to see how TUSC and family can hope to poll anything other than derisory votes in the absence of name recognition, consistent work, and in competition with more viable alternatives to mainstream politics.