Wednesday 30 November 2016

The SNP's Blather About Blair

Tony Blair's politics are awful. But, after a 2.6 million word consideration of his conduct in the lead up to the Iraq War, I'm confident in the belief he's not a war criminal. However, some disagree and remain bent on bringing him to justice. The latest episode in this long-running drama was the motion put to the Commons earlier today by the SNP demanding yet another investigation. This was hung on the infamous note passed to George W Bush (relieved he won't now go down as the worst president in US history) saying "we will be with you, whatever". I can't see what purpose raking over all this for the fourth time would achieve, and think it's better left to the court of public opinion. And, as we know, their verdict is such that Blair remains a cult figure to fewer than 4.5% of the present Labour Party membership.

Well, actually, I can see a reason for some people wanting to go there yet again. As readers know, the motion was heavily defeated by Conservative and Labour votes. This came after a spat between the PLP majority and the leader's office over the appropriate response to the motion. The PLP wanted a three line whip to vote against, while Jeremy was equivocal and consented to a single line whip ... and making himself scarce in the process. However, contrary to what Stop the War think, this was no principled move by Alex Salmond and co. It was a political trap you could see from the Moon.

The PLP were right to oppose the motion, though for the wrong reasons. A defence of past votes cast in favour of the Iraq bloodbath, a residual loyalty to a fattening albatross around the old establishment's neck, some of the calculations undoubtedly were self-serving and arse-covering. Yet some might have spotted the wider politics too. In case anyone forgot Labour's summer of anything-but-love, the divisions haven't gone away. Instead, the emphatic backing of the party membership have imposed a truce on the PLP, though differences persist about what an accommodation with Corbynism involves. Yet that settlement, however imperfect it is, could fall apart if one of its fissures - in this case, differing attitudes to the Iraq War and His Blairness - is wrenched open further. Which is exactly what the SNP were trying to do. It's what any party opposed to Labour would try and do.

Herein lies the logic of Salmond's trap. The PLP would vote against the motion, confirming to former Scottish Labour voters that they remain the same old same old who made common cause with the Tories to keep the UK together and squash the progressive aspirations of the Scottish people. Had Corbyn been bounced into going along with it, that would have discomfited his leftist support base. And if he didn't and somehow avoided the vote, which he eventually did, he looks like a hostage to the PLP and boosts the demonstrably untrue ineffective opposition rubbish. In all, it suits the SNP for Labour to stay down and divided for as long as possible - they know their support in the medium and long-term might go back to Labour if it gets its act together and the SNP falls victim to a sudden shift in political fortune. If we draw one conclusion from 2016, it's that stranger things do happen.

A win-win for the SNP, then. Labour members are moaning about the PLP again, and Jezza made to look a bit rubbish. There was, however, an alternative. And that would have been for the leader to, um, have led. As a trap so obvious it made George Osborne's past stratagems look like Napoleonic masterstrokes, Jeremy should have attacked it as such, criticised the SNP for wasting Parliamentary time with petty point scoring, and voted down the motion on that basis. He should have trusted the good will the majority of party members have toward him as well as the utter non-issue it is among the wider electorate. This wouldn't have meant or been read by anyone that he'd gone soft on Blair and his legacy, but merely underlined the SNP's posturing. The lesson to take home is play the Parliamentary game, which is often irrelevant and mind numbing, or otherwise it will play you - and the consequences, unfortunately, are anything but trivial.

Tuesday 29 November 2016

Brexiters Less Likely to Change Underwear Daily

Many props to Mike Smithson for spotting this and letting folks know about it. A case of correlation and not causation? I park it here without comment and for your information.

Monday 28 November 2016

Paul Nuttall and Working Class Voters

Who's that knight on a white charger? Why, it's none other than Paul Nuttall, Eddie Hitler look-a-like and the latest leader of our purple friends in the United Kingdom Independence Party. His election by a landslide suggests a desire on the part of the party's much-reduced membership (of which, 15,500 out of 33k cast a ballot) to put the recent period of fracas and farce behind it. But more significantly, and unlike the hapless Diane James, Tory-in-exile Suzanne Evans, and homosexual donkey anecdote man, Nuttall is the man with a plan. To put the UKIP jigsaw together again (his words), they're going to go all out and concentrate on the northern working class Labour seats. It's a "big open goal" as far as he's concerned, and plenty of the media agree. Despite evidence of a declining brand, there are plenty only too happy to talk up this threat.

On paper, it seems like a winner. The Labour Party is stuffed full of metropolitan luvvies, and practically the entire media (and not a few Labour MPs) have gone out of its way to portray northerners as knuckle scraping racists hostile to such things. The election of Jeremy Corbyn is further grist to the UKIP mill, widening the chasm between the party and its core support. Or so the story goes. The problem for Nuttall's turn to the class and his excitable soi disant critics in liberal opinion is this is nothing at all new. This has been UKIP strategy since 1999, and they doubled down on it after hitting the big time. It has brought them some modest success, and has seen them take a council seat here and there from Labour. But their main accomplishment is to have displaced the other parties as the choice of non-Labour voting sections of the working class in safe Labour areas. This Parliament's Ogmore, Sheffield Brightside, and Oldham by-elections typify this trend. Labour hold on, if not handsomely increase its vote, and UKIP batter everyone else and come a distant second. The bulk of working class voters remain resistant to their garish colours and garish politics, as the ballot box demonstrates.

It follows on that if this was the case under Nigel Farage, why does anyone think Nuttall could do better? It took Farage almost 15 years of friendly press before he became a household name. Despite top billing on this evening's news, Nuttall is far cry from the same recognition. As far as the public at large are concerned, including those who give UKIP a punt, he's as well known to them as second rank shadow cabinet members. He's right up there with Tim Farron and Angus Robertson. Nuttall, as noted previously, is mostly competent in front of the cameras. I say mostly, as he has let his affection for Putin show, but the man is also a charisma-free zone. Farage's strength lay in his gaffer-like relatability for the UKIP target vote of middle aged men. What has Nuttall got? The patronising idiocy that he'd go down well with working class voters because he speaks with a Scouse accent is just that. Another thing worth noting, there are plenty of northern working folk for whom the accent grates too. Marry that to a personal image bound up with fascist bovver boys, and hey presto, UKIP have hit upon a formula no more attractive to working class people than the former Tory voters in the shires.

The further problem Nuttall faces is the resurgent Liberal Democrats. Not the biggest threat to UKIP, one would think. And yet they previously did well out of the collapsing LibDems. As previous owners of the none-of-the-above vote, that persistent brigade of anti-establishment politics voters switched their allegiance to the kippers while Clegg and friends made nice with the Tories. And now, well, by-elections up and down the country are finding that vote is dispersing back to the LibDems and, to a lesser extent, Labour. Politics is a funny old game, and Nuttall hasn't even recognised his party's bleed in this direction, let alone have a strategy for addressing it.

This is not a counsel for complacency, though. UKIP's electoral potential is limited, but as we know their indulgence by the media and politicians in our party and over on the government benches has had calamitous consequences. The way to beat them is not to cleave to their specious arguments and BNP-style scapegoating, but to take them on, street-by-street, and door-by-door. Our job is not to enable the enemies of working people by surrendering political ground to them, otherwise what's the bloody point?

Sunday 27 November 2016

The Candidate by Alex Nunns

In the extraordinarily fluid period it is going through, the sudden rise of Jeremy Corbyn from the obscurity of the back benches to the front rank of British politics is perhaps the most shocking, and for some baffling, turn it has taken in decades. Within the space of a month, socialist ideas were catapulted back into the mainstream and by the end of last summer Labour was won by the left. As readers know, the so-called "deep process" underpinning Corbyn's rise is part of a pattern across the West activating different constituencies behind different political projects. In Labour's case, the new recruits won to the party were representative of the rising class of networked workers. To ensure the party remained a going concern and to avoid the black hole so-called "sensible" politics dragged Scottish Labour into, they had to be won over. But structural change doesn't just happen. Movements here work like a mole, but often requires something that can loosen the soil and allow it to break onto the surface.

In The Candidate by Red Pepper journalist Alex Nunns, we have the story of the summer of 2015, of how the contingent and half-farcical workings of a marginalised group of MPs and activists unleashed a force that revolutionised the Labour Party and has, I would argue, saved it from extinction. The narrative runs at a brisk pace, from the party under Ed Miliband's stewardship to the calamitous 2015 general election, and covering the arm-twisting that had to be done to get Corbyn's name on the leadership ballot through to the wave that deposited him at the top of the party. Everything is extensively referenced so if you weren't part of it you get a real sense of the political and media establishment's horror as it dawned on them Corbyn was going to do it. There are also plenty of interjections and reflections from comrades who were part of the team long before it became fashionable. In fact, it's the storytelling that is the great strength of the book, but it will make for uncomfortable reading for those who backed an Anyone But Corbyn ticket and then supported the botched coup. Nevertheless, if such folks don't wish to wallow in ignorance forever, Alex does a good job in setting out why Corbyn supporters are Corbyn supporters, and why the six-time winner of Parliament's beard of the year was able to win a poll that really mattered.

As you might expect, Alex addresses a number of key controversies that cropped up before and during the leadership campaign. The first is the perennial "elections are won from the centre ground" argument. This fallacy has been visited many times before here, and doesn't warrant repeating. Yet in the aftermath of the general election, this nonsense got an airing in the aspiration talk that quickly coloured explanations for the defeat. The view was that somehow the party wasn't speaking to people who want to do well and get on. This "getting on" was famously defined by former Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander in an utterly abysmal pamphlet as "second home ownership, two cars in the driveway, a nice garden, two foreign holidays a year, and leisure systems in the home such as sound, cinema, and gym equipment." This argument united the early leadership contenders, and was an unsubtle coded attack on the "leftist" election platform Labour put to the electorate.

We know memories are short in politics, and a lot of convenient forgetting happens. Still, it's worth remembering Ed Miliband's programme was so left wing that Theresa May stole it. And secondly, perhaps I need someone to explain to me in a patronising tone what socialism has to do with tightening immigration controls, the avoidance of nationalisation, and more plans to clamp down on social security. What the 2015 manifesto was was incoherent, and our campaign was plagued by mixed messaging while the Tories kept focused on the deficit, the economy, and how Labour was going to shack up with the SNP. Here, Alex suspends the narrative and takes out the scalpels. He, sensibly, questions how aspiration and Labour's lack of concern with it can be at fault when it wasn't on any campaign's radar? It wasn't something anyone reported back on from the doorsteps - and it was certainly not a sentiment I encountered while pounding the streets of (then) swing seat Stafford. He argues it was a baseless conclusion to draw, but was deployed to ensure that the party's politics swung back from Ed's partial break with the policy consensus to the Blairist comfort zone. And that's more or less what we got from the "mainstream" candidates who did battle it out with Jeremy, albeit with slightly different emphases.

Alex also takes on the argument that UKIP ate significantly into Labour's vote because it was too left. Drawing on work done for the British Election Survey, Jane Green and Chris Prosser found that people were actually more likely to vote Labour if it was perceived to be left wing. If it portrays itself as a centre party, it's less likely to attract voters. That appears to fly in the face of experience, particularly when we ponder Tony Blair and the triumph of 1997. But not if you consider what has happened to Scottish Labour, or the Socialists in France, or PASOK and now SYRIZA in Greece, and you might add Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. That is if centre or radical left parties are seen to be abandoning their core values and commitment to social justice and/or socialism and attacking the constituencies that support them, punishment can go beyond bad election results: it can destroy the party. Nevertheless, in the face of inconvenient evidence others went out and found some that supported their arguments. For example, Jon Cruddas popped up with some data claiming that austerity was popular with voters, which is why Labour lost. The basis for such a bold claim was 56% of respondents agreeing to "we must live within our means, so cutting the deficit is the top priority." Deploying leading questions is something social scientists learn to avoid from GCSE onwards as they have a tendency to produce distorted results. Simultaneously, Lord Ashcroft asked a 12,000-strong sample more plainly whether the government should continue with austerity. 54% said no.

What was also important about the would-be leadership contenders' stampede to the right was how far they had misjudged the party mood. The assumption appears to be that because David Miliband carried the party membership in 2010 that rinsing and repeating would have a similar effect. Disastrously so in the case of Liz Kendall. It was a collective failure of listening, of writing off the sceptical voices who always got up in their CLPs to criticise the neglect of the working class or pursuit of policies inimical to labour movement interests. Unfortunately for them, far from being isolated they were merely articulating what a large number of party members think and felt. Under Ed Miliband Alex makes the case that the party membership moved to the left, and was encouraged to stay there as the factions of the Parliamentary Labour Party jostled over the Falkirk affair and generally carried on as if the rest of the party were spectators. It meant that as far as Jeremy Corbyn's success was concerned, it was more or less a foregone conclusion as soon as he got on the ballot paper.

This claim is and will continue to be subject to much debate. I've argued before that Harriet Harman's tax credit debacle had an important role in catalysing support behind the Corbyn campaign, whereas Alex argues Jeremy was in the lead by that stage. The other candidates didn't help themselves. Liz Kendall was all for cutting them, Yvette Cooper more quietly in favour, and Andy Burnham adopted a position that satisfied nobody. Had they read the mood properly, or indeed had they been different candidates entirely then things may have turned out differently.

Continuing in the myth-busting theme, Alex takes on the argument that Corbynism represented a revolt of the middle class, as it it was a performative take over of the Labour Party by people uninterested in changing the world, but keen to shove their leftist identity politics down bamboozled party members' throats. It seemed to me then that this was more a case of Jeremy's opponents bumping into his more annoying supporters on social media and extrapolating from there. As it turned out, this as nothing of the sort. In polling done by YouGov, Alex notes how in the first week of August 2015, 36% of Jez backers were from the AB social grades. This compared to 40% for Andy, 48% for Yvette, and 65% for Liz(!). Across the party as a whole, Jez support comprised 51% of the ABC1s and 57% the C2DEs. If you buy the nonsense that the Labour Party is becoming more middle class, then Jeremy Corbyn's support base is disproportionately working class.

I've just picked out a few of the polemical targets Alex takes aim at. All throughout The Candidate, there are amusing asides and quips at the expense of the Labour right and equally as befuddled journos and commentators. As a history of Corbynism in its initial phase, it's difficult to see how it can ever be surpassed. Stephen Bush calls it a a court biography, but that does not detract from its quality at all. Alex has written a book that any honest treatment of Corbyn and Corbynism has to reckon with. I therefore hope he is thinking about a sequel that picks up from day one of Jeremy's leadership, but as it's still early we'll have to wait quite a while for that one to appear.

Saturday 26 November 2016

Farewell Fidel

As the world wakes up to the passing of the world's best known revolutionary, coal mountains' worth of electronic comment are already pontificating and positioning. Fidel Castro was a goodie because hospitals. Fidel Castro was a baddie because gay repression. Talking points designed not to encourage talking, and think pieces conceived to shut down thinking. Their contributions hymns to Castro's censorious regime, of its declaration against free flowing opinion. Nevertheless, his was a figure that made the we were born into, and as it passes into the pages of history it is fitting that he too should shuffle off this mortal coil.

Many on the left have a soft spot for Cuba and Castro. He was the best known survivor of communism's heroic period, of an underdog ragtag movement that took on the full might of the US-backed Batista dictatorship and won. For the peoples of Latin America during the Cold War, Castro's regime was a fuck you to the greatest military power the world has ever known - and just 90 miles off its coast. He was and is a potent symbol of revolutionary resistance and tenacity. The victory of the July 26th Movement and the survival of the Cuban state over nearly 60 years goes to show there are alternatives to the Western consensus - and that points stands without having to prettify the regime's repressive character and big it up with the education and health stats.

As James notes, there will be those who try and portray Castro's authoritarianism as entirely reactive, that the original sin lies with the United States and its repeated attempts at undermining and overthrowing the J26 Movement almost from the get go. While true, these material circumstances cannot be waved away either. For one, five years prior to the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship the United States instigated a coup in Guatemala. This was then a liberal democracy that had between 1944 and 1954 returned two presidents you would class as Christian Democrats. They presided over governments that were largely middle-of-the-road, politically speaking. Except in 1952 Jacobo Árbenz undertook land reform, which confiscated uncultivated land and handed it to the peasantry. For Eisenhower, this constituted communism and initiated a terrorist campaign that ended in Árbenz's resignation. Thereafter followed a period of instability, characterised by coups and civil wars. Later again in 1973, the US used the democratic freedoms in Chile to undermine and destroy a liberal democracy that had produced the wrong outcome. With a history of interference behind the United States relationship with the countries to its south, which included the Bay of Pigs invasion, assassination attempts, coastal raids on militia outposts, sabotage and not forgetting the economic blockade, authoritarianism appeared to have much to commend it.

Cuban authoritarianism does have a dynamic of its own though, and these were embedded in the characteristics of the struggle led by Castro. His was not a popular uprising in the conventional sense but a guerilla struggle. Che Guevara's Guerilla Warfare distilled the essence of the J26 Movement as a hyper vanguard of committed communist fighters. The group was the nucleus and repository of the lessons of history, and it would be the active agent that would draw the peasantry behind it. Not dissimilar to Mao's approach to revolution. Here, in Cuba, the masses were conceived of as having a spectator role. The opposition to Batista in the cities, the workers' organisations and the Communist Party (which, bizarrely, supported the dictatorship) were marginal to the revolution rolling in off the countryside. The overthrow was accomplished by military struggle, and the command and control model appropriate to that remained. The absorption of the city-dwelling communists, the transformation of the unions into apparatuses of the state, the clamping down on the media were certainly conditioned by the exigencies of a revolutionary changes, but not determined by them. Effectively, a military movement became a military government, and the trappings of a Stalinist state acquired while consolidating the hold on power was an extension of these governing principles to all aspects of society. One cannot distinguish between the command economy and the state that sat atop it, they were and remain mutually interdependent.

Castro has officially been out of power since 2008. Since then, what you might call the Chinese turn has gathered speed. Rapprochement with the US has got underway, though there's every chance progress could be rolled back under Donald Trump. But necessity demands that the regime continues to open up Cuba's economy and, from its point of view, the more difficult task of relaxing authoritarian rule without the whole thing collapsing a la Eastern Europe. There's also the tricky job of ensuring present elites avoiding having to account for the crimes committed since 1959 too. Regardless of what happens, Castro's position in history is secure. He was a revolutionary hero who inspired millions. Cuba threw off American domination and forged its own path, creating health care and education systems among the best in the world. Castro was also a ruthless autocrat whose achievements cannot be separated from the violence and brutality that underpinned his rule.

Friday 25 November 2016

Local Council By-Elections November 2016

Number of Candidates
Total Vote

* There were three by-elections in Scotland
** There were two by-elections in Wales
*** There were no Independent clashes
**** Others this month consisted of the English Democrats (14) and Newcastle First (164)

Overall, 46,104 votes were cast over 26 local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. The Conservatives won 15 contests, Labour eight, LibDems two, and PC one. Labour held two seats with a 500+ safe margin, while the Tories held onto four by a similar margin. In all, six seats changed hands. For comparison with October's results, see here.

What a rum month for Labour. Okay, you can put the large margin between it and the Tories down to the character of seats fought. But two of the three lost were to the Tories. Meanwhile, they picked theirs up from the Greens, Indies, and SNP(!). Politics is in a very weird place, but to have an incumbent government scoop a net gain of five is unprecedented. Well, for at least as long as I've covered by-elections. Whatever, this is a poor performance from Labour. Is it the Corbyn factor? It's too early to tell, however it does appear the reds have been caught a few times by the coming back of the LibDems. So politics realigned to accommodate UKIP and push the LibDems into fourth in England and Wales, Brexit and the collapse of the purples (how else can you describe their continued poor performance?) has put rocket boosters under the yellow team's recovery, and that means sluicing support off Labour too, helping cost them a seat here and there. Can it be contained? Yes, but we need to be clear what our Brexit position is. That we're all sixes and sevens suggests no one has learned the lessons of the last general election.

Wednesday 23 November 2016

Hammond Underwhelms

Compare and contrast. A confident figure seizing the moment and pledging a radical remaking of Britain. Yes, Theresa May looked formidable on the steps of Downing Street in July. She had stolen Labour's 2015 Manifesto and she was going to get away with it. Wind the film forward to November, and her chancellor gets up and lays out a programme that differs from his predecessor's by degree, not kind. And it comes covered in the Prime Minister's ultra-cautious thumb prints.

Let's grab at "call me" Philip Hammond's headline figures. Borrowing is going up by £122bn as he abandoned Osborne's arbitrary budget surplus. Instead, that aim has been kicked into the long grass, like many of May's other "priorities". It's as if Hammond has just heard tell of Alastair Darling's deficit reduction plan from 2010. It also means the debt is set to soar to £1.9tn, partly because of the economic consequences of Brexit (what are those guarantees government will be throwing at big business to keep them in Britain?), and partly because of their uselessness these last six years. Unfortunately for Hammond, the debt-free option that was available to Osborne, of printing money, can't offer a way out as Brexit is getting the blame for inflationary pressures on household goods. An opportunity was squandered for a people's quantitative easing approach as the printing presses shovelled funny money to the banks, which in turn has helped another asset bubble take off.

As the British economy is a tremulous beast prone to tailspin every time someone criticises it, can we soothe the poor dear and take any positives from Hammond's statement? Well, letting fees are gone. You know, one of Labour's policies the Tories had previously decried as communism. Another victory for our ineffective opposition. There's to be a modest splurge on roads, superfast broadband, and 40,000 extra housing units. All welcome, but not enough. The minimum wage (it's not a living wage no matter how much you repeat it) is due for a 30p increase, and there's to be no more savings from social security. That is, at least until after the current planned round of cuts go through.

Unlike Dave and Osborne who would loudly proclaim they were going to do stupid things and went ahead and did them, May and Hammond have gone for the old over-promising and under-delivering trick. Whereas the previous pair's bravado was usually reflected in favourable media coverage, the first batch of hot takes from the hovering commentmongers were luke warm as Hammond plodded his way through, following yet another insipid PMQs performance. This wasn't the statement of a government preparing to go to the country. It's one concerned at keeping policy issues as non-controversial as possible while it muddles its way through Brexit. Politically, it might be just enough for the time being, but for how long?

Monday 21 November 2016

On the Linguistic Innovations of Corbynism

Things were perhaps starting to go alright. Jeremy Corbyn's performance at Prime Minister's Questions has improved markedly, helping cut a more competent figure on Wednesday evening news bulletins. There was a good party conference. The whinging and the wrecking has mostly died away, and here was praise from Stephen Bush in his positive write up of the new behind-the-scenes operation. There's also been a move toward adroit positioning.

And then this happened.

And this.

After taking the piss a bit on the Twitter, the inevitable question from a self-appointed Corbyn defender came: which side are you on? To which my answer was the side of plain English.

To be fair to the media crew, on the occasion of Corbs' speech to the CBI, these statements were aimed at a corporate audience. And as we know, thanks to the years of awful neologisms pouring off the managerial spiel conveyor belt, the suits love this sort of language. Considering Ed Miliband was a past master at it, it's a wonder Labour didn't have the big business vote sewn up at the last election.

Still, it is pretty bloody awful. And to put it out on the social media networks where Corbynism is most numerous and enthusiastic is, well, pretty daft. Seeing people send up statements put out in the leader's name can make comrades confused, and allow some to draw the conclusion that question marks over competence might have some substance behind them.

The leader's office can do better than this. Keep messaging simple, tight, and aligned around core political messages. If it sounds too wonky and makes no sense, then it, to borrow a management phrase, isn't fit for purpose.