Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Besmirching Labour's Name

"When she speaks out about antisemitism, people should listen and act rather than condemn her." So says Luciana Berger of Margaret Hodge who, you will recall, called Jeremy Corbyn a "fucking anti-semite and a racist" in the Commons last night. She was careful to say these words in the chamber and does not have the guts to repeat them outside of it. Because she knows they are not true and are, in fact, defamatory. Rightly action is due to be taken against Hodge under PLP rules and there are grounds for a complaint of bringing the party into disrepute as well. I am also of the view this was a stunt, a put up job to drive anti-semitism up the news agenda while the media are, for the moment, more interested in Tory divisions. If any of this has to do with the resumption of Labour lead in the polls is something for readers to judge.

At the centre of the dispute is the Labour Party's definition of anti-semitism and its refusal to adopt wholesale the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's working definition. And the party is right not to do so for two very good reasons. It counts "Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor" as an example of anti-semitic behaviour, as well as "Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation." While the definition notes that "overall context" matters, having seen how cheerleaders of successive Israeli governments have worked to characterise and discredit opposition to its actions, such would no doubt be used to try and close down legitimate and justified criticism.

For example, thanks to conquest and colonisation Israeli Jews are a fact of life, and like any other national grouping are entitled to the right of self-determination. However, that does not for one single moment hide the fact that Israel was founded as and remains a colonial project defined explicitly in ethno-nationalist terms (a self-designation almost uniquely shared with Japan). Israel discriminates against its minority Arab citizens, illegally annexes occupied land, steals water resources and, under the guise of self-defence, pursues military incursions against its neighbours, up to and including massacres of unarmed protesters. It is a racist state because it is formally racist, and its actions are racist. The exercise of national self-determination does not give any nation carte blanche to ride roughshod over the rights of others, be it Israel, the US, China or whoever. Claiming that your nation possesses such a right because your neighbours are inferior and barbarous is the very epitome of racist politics.

Neither is there any question of holding Israel to a higher standard than other liberal democracies. The United States is regularly berated, and rightfully so, for its "police actions", extra-judicial killings and meddling in other countries' affairs. French secularism and its particular model of republican citizenship is also criticised and attacked for the exclusion and marginalisation of migrants of North African descent, providing politicians scapegoats aplenty. And then there is the UK, which once faced an insurgency that came very near to wiping out the Thatcher government in the 1984 Brighton bombing. This last example is an instructive one because for all the brutalities and injustices of the low intensity war in Ireland, the British state did not flatten the Bogside with bombing runs and heavy artillery, it did not bulldoze houses belonging to the families of IRA volunteers, systematically assassinate leading figures in the provisionals and Sinn Fein, deploy white phosphorous, nor launch shock-and-awe punitive expeditions over the border. Criticising Israel for its incessant attacks on Gaza is not holding them to a higher standard, but a matter of taking it to task for violating the standards expected from a democratic country as a matter of course.

These are not anti-semitic arguments. Nowhere can the whiff of anti-Jewish racism be found. But what the IHRA definition does is discourage critical investigation along these lines for fear of getting tarred with the anti-semitism brush, and/or attracting the attentions of self-styled custodians of Israel in Labour Party circles. And you know who agrees with this? Chuka Umunna, who this week branded Labour "institutionally racist", Keir Starmer went on Andrew Marr a couple of weeks ago and said the IHRA definition should be adopted in full, and Anna Turley, today amplifying and cheering on Hodge. I pick these three because they sat on the Home Affairs Committee reporting on anti-semitism in the UK. This cross-party group concluded that it "broadly accepts" the IHRA definition but with "additional caveats". What might these be? The report notes it's not anti-semitic, in and of itself, to criticise Israel, to hold it to the same standards expected of liberal democracies, nor to take a particular interest in its activities. As Labour's position is similarly caveated, are our "comrades" saying their report with their name on it is racist and therefore is an example of institutional anti-semitism? As they haven't explained themselves we are forced to conclude it's factional hypocrisy guiding their words instead of principled anti-racism.

Like most of you, I'm sick of this. The party is not without its problems, but I'm sick of the endless stream of dishonesty, of the purposeful besmirching of Labour's name, part and parcel of scorched earth shenanigans as the right are democratically ejected from their positions of influence. This is not about Israel. It's not even really about Jews and anti-semitism. It is about stopping Corbyn, of taking the party back to where it trod water before 2015, of making it once again a timid and loyal opposition to the Tories but one where, at least, they ruled the roost.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Appeasing the Brexiteers

Astonishing scenes. Last night the government scraped a victory by three votes on its customs bill. It was able to do so because thanks to the votes of our friends the Labour-in-name-onlys - Frank Field, Kate Hoey, and Graham Stringer - and the absence from Parliament of Uncle Vince Cable and Tim Farron. Clearly they had priorities more pressing than derailing Theresa May's ridiculous and incoherent Brexit plan.

Well, thanks to May's acceptance of Jacob Rees-Mogg's four wrecking amendments to her customs plan, she has - at least at first glance - made her own negotiating position even more uncertain and tied herself in knots by accepting the Brexiteers' views into law. It's madness. Madness. What on earth was she thinking?

There are two points that can help explain the seemingly inexplicable. What we are seeing is short-term Tory party management in extremis. Plenty of people have commented about how the Prime Minister is living from day-to-day, and here we are. By accepting the Mogglodytes' amendments she was able to get the 60-or so votes they hold behind the government's position. As we have seen, Tory remainers could only muster 11 votes in opposition so from that point of view, the government's overall position lived to fight another day. Had Mogg and co. set their face against the remainers would not have been enough and it might have proved curtains for May.

The second point is that voting the Brexiteers' amendments into law doesn't actually matter. Nothing has changed, to coin a phrase. When Dominic Raab is packed off to negotiations with Brussels and May's plans dissolve in first contact with the European Union's position, whatever is eventually arrived at - and it's looking like Britain is heading more to a Norway-style destination - this will mean more government legislation, and therefore anything put down to placate the Brexiteers now will necessarily get repealed later. One assumes the European Research Group have the wit to realise this too, and so their mobilisations are all about showing May what headaches they can cause her down the line.

And here we are. A Brexit position evolving not from speaking to the EU but from arguments amongst the Tory party, and a set of incompatible and contradictory negotiating lines that will be rejected out-of-hand. Unfortunately, the longer this shilly-shallying goes on the more likely the UK will crash out of the EU, a crash that will hit our people the hardest.

Monday, 16 July 2018

808 State - Pacific State

Theresa May undertakes a wrecking operation are her Brexit position, making it even less likely to fly with the EU. She then announces government plans to close Parliament early to prevent any more political embarrassment. And then our mate Donald Trump says he believes Vladimir Putin over the FBI on matters relating to Russian influence on the US election. What a day.

Unfortunately, I'm cream crackered and not in position to write anything tonight. Bah. Still, for occasions such as these there are top tunes aplenty to serenade you with. Here's one.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

No Labour Exit from Brexit

If you have recently woke during the night to the sound of piercing screams and pleas for mercy, you just might have caught the final agonies of Tory hopes on winning the next general election. As their vote is coming unstuck thanks to their incoherent mess of a Brexit, which at first glance appears to be a soft one, does it mean anything as far as Labour's support is concerned?

As you will have seen in the polls, the marginal Tory lead has vanished. Two points, four points, five points, it's very difficult to see how they could possibly win these voters back with Theresa May still at the helm. And there's room for further movement. Nigel Farage is still doing the Smashie and Nicey on LBC, but should his threat to return to front line politics be made good, Farage's dubious charisma could be relied on to chip off a few more percentage points. To be sure, the Brexit mess is of the Tories' doing and they're being made to own it, but might their fall out impact Labour's own coalition of voters?

It would be marginal at best, because the dynamics of Brexit, its meaning and attachments play out differently among Conservative and Labour supporters. As I've written more times than I can remember, the Tory coalition up until last week was an agglomeration of constituencies in decline. Retirees, Scottish unionists, the know-it-all petit bourgeois Facebook bore, older workers in dying jobs. They are also disproportionately male and white, Are Labour sceptical at best, with many who've never voted Labour and have become habitually anti-Labour, and there are refugees from UKIP's implosion - what centrist politicians used to euphemistically call "real concerns" and "strong and sincerely-held views". This constituency is breaking down because it is literally expiring. Thanks to the realities of working class life of the rising generations, they tend toward social liberalism and are therefore at odds with the callous conservatism of May and her minions, and the conservatising effects of ageing have broken down. Being conditions consciousness, so if you can't accumulate property, you're much less likely to start thinking like a Tory voter. Nevertheless, for those who have invested themselves in May's Tories Brexit is an ideological glue that keeps the coalition together. If you have large numbers of people who feel like strangers in a strange land, they will grasp for symbols and totems of stability, like beloved institutions and national identity. Brexit here is an act of national self-assertion, of taking Britain back to a time when immigrants were few and far between, you could get a job from the school gate, there was no touchy-feely namby-pamby nonsense and, crucially, Britain was fully independent and could make its own way.

The flipside of Brexit, remain, just doesn't work this way in Labour's coalition even though approximately two-thirds of its support did vote to stay in the EU. While it is true, as a number of polls have shown, that a majority of supporters (and members) would either like to remain or at the very least have a referendum on the final deal, it is not a deal breaker. Over the last couple of years the party has been consistent in its view, sensibly in my opinion, that the referendum outcome has to be observed. And despite the best efforts of the Liberal Democrats, a paddling of Jolyons, and His Blairness those voters have kept with Labour while the LibDems remain stuck in the polls. This is because Labour voters are attracted to the party thanks to its policy platform. Forget the idiocies about the cult of personality, Jeremy Corbyn is an attractor. His politics speak to people. It's not rocket science. If you're going to talk about poverty, frustrated aspirations, social justice, investment not cuts, and so on when these were out of bounds as far as official politics were concerned you have the tinder of an insurgency. The point is for Labour remain supporters, on the whole the party and its policies come before their attachment to remain.

It works slightly differently with Labour leave voters, the majority of whom tend to be older workers and retirees. Because Labour has accepted the referendum result, they were open to hearing what the party had to say because they in turn had been listened to. They might be quite sceptical of Corbyn and not be fully on board with the social liberalism of the younger generations, but they can see that the new left Labour Party has reoccupied the sort of political ground familiar to them. Had Labour abandoned Brexit, as some strategic geniuses have suggested it should, the result would not have been an influx of millions of enthusiastic remain voters (where from?) and double-digit point leads over the Tories. It would have been read as dumping on the wishes of Labour leave voters, and our enemies would cast themselves as the custodians of Brexit. In other words, I'd be writing and you'd be reading about the disintegration of the Labour vote instead of chewing popcorn and happily watching the Tories gut themselves.

This isn't to say Labour should carry on as if it's all in the bag. Complacency is counter-revolutionary. We should actively reach out to the relatively small but progressive-minded remain constituency, keep our people on board by hammering the Tories on living standards and public services, and pitch toward disgruntled Tory voters by criticising the messy and unworkable position May has come up with, and opposing it with our emphasis on rebuilding the country after a wasted decade. It's triangulation, but not as Blair knew it.

Let's be clear again, and this point cannot be underlined enough, we are in this position, of Labour having the advantage over the Tories because they've spent the last two years coming up with a pig's ear of a position while we have kept up the pressure and respected the referendum result. It wouldn't have been possible had we, to borrow the hackneyed phrase, opted to exit from Brexit.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

On Saboteurs and Sabotage

Ever got in a fight with one hand tied behind your back? Well, that was the situation Labour faced during last year's general election, if The Times is to be believed. To hype a bit of interest in what otherwise sounds like a snoring boring slice of Blairist nostalgia, ex-spinner Tom Baldwin made this observation by way of "Shippers":
Corbyn's aides sometimes demanded big spending on Facebook advertising for pet projects that southsiders [Labour HQ staff} regarded as a waste of money," Baldwin writes.

He quotes an official explaining: "They wanted us to spend a fortune on some schemes like the one they had to encourage voter registration, but we only had to spend about £5,000 to make sure Jeremy's people, some journalists and bloggers saw it was there on Facebook.

And if it was there for them, they thought it must be there for everyone. It wasn't. That's how targeted ads can work."

The Sunday Times has verified the existence of the deception operation with two Labour sources familiar with the Facebook adverts.
Is it true? Well, Let's examine the context. During the campaign, national ran a dreary, steady-as-she-goes campaign. It saw resources directed into safe seats at the expense of marginals, of favours done for candidates approved by Labour officialdom, of Southside changing the locks to prevent Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell from entering the building, of leaking information, like electoral projections to Labour Uncut during the campaign and, it also turns out, to Barack Obama as well. It's worth noting that in a fit of liberal heroics he duly passed the leaks on to the Tories. Seeing allegations of social media shenanigans in the context of the apparat's behaviour since Jeremy Corbyn was elected, it shames the Labour Party that the story cannot simply be dismissed a book puff fodder.

I've met plenty of so-called insiders who fancy themselves as witchfinder generals, of folks who like to think they know where all the bodies are buried, and not a few for whom shifting political realities is an occasion to indulge their John Golding cosplay perversions, as opposed to getting a radical Labour government elected. Spending campaign monies to get one over on the Leader's office, and later chuckling about it with Progress and Labour First neophytes over drinks at conference is entirely believable. I can easily imagine the people who did it, as would anyone who's had more than a passing acquaintance with luminaries of the ancien regime. As Labour is now committed to straight talking, these people are no better than scabs. And in the spirit of honest politics, they should be permanently excluded from the party.

Remember, this culture doesn't exist because of a few bad apples. You find it rife in any organisation in which bureaucratic sinecure is zealously guarded, where power is hoarded, and accountability is from the top down and not the bottom up. Since Blairism eviscerated the party, the apparat grew more remote from the membership. The abuses of power and the dirt tricks used to maintain it are much more egregious than even the trade union lash ups that used to get done to run the party before Blair's time. It's a systemic problem, and when you have these issues you must address root causes.

Thankfully there is a way of digging out this choking, chummy culture: and that is more democracy. Mandatory reselection, more of a say over Labour leadership nominations, and local ballots on Labour council group leaders cannot be separated out from a thorough democratisation of the party. Abuse of delegate places to CLPs and Local Campaign Forums, where a delegate-based system still operates, has to be sorted out. There is also a strong case for more member scrutiny of decisions made by officials, and the strict subordination of regional directors to regional boards (and not the other way round, which was the case in the West Midlands for many years) are a couple of measures that immediately spring to mind. But why not the election of some officials, too? If it's good enough for the trade union movement ...

More democracy, however, is not an optional extra, it is necessary. If our political programme is about fundamental social change, our project cannot rely on the election of enlightened MPs. Mass democracy can only come about through the democratic organisation of ourselves, of the overwhelming mass of people, around our political objectives. The shenanigans culture, the saboteurs and backroom braggarts, they need sweeping away not just because they're unpleasant, but because they present a blockage to the transformation of Labour into an instrument that can help our class take power. They should either get with us, or get out.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Donald Trump Protests: What's the Point?

Is there a point? Among those for whom Donald Trump is a pretty repulsive figure, then the answer is obvious. Simultaneously for the minority who don't think antagonising Trump, a man with a notoriously fragile ego along with a dainty set of hands, is a good idea then no, there shouldn't be any protesting. If you don't respect the man then at least respect the office, so goes the argument. And then there are the somewheres-in-the-middle who greet his "working" visit to the UK with indifference, or can't see any point in taking to the streets. Well, the protesters are right and the naysayers, whether they instinctively recoil from extra-parliamentary politics or go by the world-weary cynicism of the sofa, are wrong.

Protesting against Donald Trump sends a message. One of the predicted consequences of Trump's presidency is the attempt to normalise the abnormal. All capitalist societies (and all class societies, for that matter) are based on conflict. This means at any one time, tensions are in friction, classes and fractions of classes face off, and pathologies of violence, physical and symbolic, tear at, rip up, rework, and reweave the social fabric. Trump's presidency is an attractor and condenser of backward and declining forces who were/are attracted to him because he offers a simple analysis that makes sense of their own predicament, and whose political obscenities mark him out as someone and something different to what went before. If he refuses to abide by the etiquette of polite liberal society, if that makes him an outcast and a renegade then perhaps he will follow through with all the other outrageous, anti-globalist, anti-immigrant postures he's taken up.

A cynical strategy for Trump and those who hitched a ride on his bandwagon, but the consequences have been appalling. Every single racist arsehole in the US has been empowered by the example set by the bigot-in-chief. Racist attacks are up. Racist police violence continues virtually unchecked, despite the hard, necessary work done by Black Lives Matter. We've had children separated from their parents at the border and thrown into cages. Misogyny festers, making celebrities out of non-entities like Jordan Peterson, and spawning truly pathetic movements of entitled and embittered masculinity, like the incels, and worryingly giving fascism a leg-up. Protesting against Trump in the UK says to those back home that none of this is normal and should not be accepted. It shows people who are really in the thick of it, be it organising against the cops Trump champions, fighting the sexual violence Trump treats as a joke, and working to build unions in the firms Trump and his billionaire cronies own that they're not alone, that along with the comrades they have there that large masses of people overseas agree with them, refuse to accept the normalisation of racism and misogyny, and will take to the streets to make their opposition heard. They don't call them demonstrations for nothing.

Second, marches can be fun, but people as a rule don't go on them because they're a good larf. They attend to demonstrate their strength of feeling about an issue, but they also have an extremely important secondary effect: they help pull a movement together. Thousands of people are due to take to the streets and, in the shadow of the Trump balloon sailing above, make new connections, come into contact with new ideas, deepen their political understanding of the world and forge new friendships, while feeling a sense of solidarity with like-minded others. For not a few who get involved and for whom this is their first demonstration, it can be a life-changing experience. The march may only wind from A to B and hear the same roster of speakers who normally adorn leftwing demos in London (assuming the Met unban the mobile stage), but all this does not do justice to what cannot be seen: the spadework of movement building.

But why protest against Trump when worse people, like Erdogan, sundry Saudi princes, and Xi Jinping tend not to be greeted in the same way? So ask the self-appointed protest police, like Piers Morgan, whenever a leftist demonstration is organised. Let me put the case to them as patronisingly as possible. You see, when you have a movement and a politics that is somewhat marginalised in society in terms of numbers, media coverage, and general awareness of what it stands for, it has to use what meagre resources it has to make as big a splash as possible. That way it can win over new people and push the political envelope more towards the left. Trump, for example, is almost universally known in the UK as the American president. How many people have heard of Erdogan or Xi by way of comparison? Just because all the stops aren't pulled out for them and others does not mean the left are okay with them. Let's just repeat that, it does not mean the left is okay with them. It's only by building movements off the opportunities afforded us can we ensure that people worse than Trump can get a testy reception in the future, hopefully to the point where turnouts are so large they are deterred from visiting again. There endeth the lesson.

Why protest against Donald Trump? There's every bloody point.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

The Tories in Crisis

England lost. Ho hum. Why not console yourself with my talking incoherently about Boris Johnson, Brexit, and the long-term decline of the Tory party - among other things? Brought to you courtesy of the PoliticsTheoryOther podcast. Follow it on Twitter, check out their Patreon page and don't forget to give them a like on the old Facebook page.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

It's Coming Home!

What a summer 1996 was. It had the tunes, it had the footy. Well, you know what, this summer's going to be even better. No time for a proper post tonight for tomorrow we make history!

Monday, 9 July 2018

Boris Johnson: A Depreciation

In characteristic style, Boris Johnson made the Brexit crisis engulfing the Conservative Party all about him. From ostentatiously gesticulating at Chequers and dubbing the plan a "turd", to stumping for Theresa May in a speech backing the cabinet's deal with itself, and then plunging the knife into his boss's back half hour before she addressed Parliament on the government's position, he showed himself to be the cowardly, treacherous self-centred chump he always was.

Speaking to Channel 4 News, Emily Thornberry said Johnson was the worst foreign secretary ever to have taken office. That's a fair assessment. In the last two years, he's rubbed EU politicians up the wrong way. You know, the sort of people the government should be charming to get a half-decent Brexit deal. He's embarrassed the country by constantly winging it, which in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe condemned her to more years in an Iranian jail. And he destroyed what little credibility he had by scuttling off to a tete tete in Afghanistan to avoid the Heathrow vote. Readers will recall Johnson had previously pledged to lie down in front of the bulldozers to prevent it. In short, he's not just the worst foreign secretary we've had in recent times (no doubt Jeremy Hunt will give him a run for his money), he is quite possibly the worst Parliamentarian this century. The man is a poltroon, a deeply deceitful and dishonest chancer, a cynic who grasped at every network, every connection made at Eton and Oxford, and managed to bulldoze himself into plum spots at The Times, The Telegraph, and The Spectator before being given a Tory seat and various stints on BBC programming. There are many millions with more guts, more nous, commitment, and seriousness than Boris Johnson but because they weren't born with his connections or afforded the same advantages, we instead have to suffer lazy mediocrities like him.

If Johnson was a one off, you could put him down to being the one that wriggled through the net, a freak of circumstance that someone with such low ability could climb so high. However, he is not an isolated character. In his temperament, aversion to work, and political outlook there isn't a great deal separating him from his great rival. In fact, look around the Tory cabinet. If this is the best and the brightest the Conservative Party have to offer, one must shudder at the state of the back benches. Idiocy, spitefulness, bigotry, arrogance, cluelessness, these are words that jump to mind when considering the least worst Tory members.

None of this is an accident. It's an entirely understandable consequence of the crisis the Tory party are in. When Thatcherism tore through the political landscape of the 1980s, it wasn't just working class communities and trade unions she laid waste to. The small businesses and manufacturing capital that served and were tied up with the old class relationships got rent asunder. Her right to buy policies, the privatisation of the most profitable parts of the nationalised economy, cheap credit and tax breaks designed to create new constituencies of Tory voters were enough to secure her a majority in 1987, and John Major one in 1992, but it did not bed down a lasting affiliation. These constituencies were, like good Thatcherites, mercenary and when Blair offered them a better deal in 1997 that's where many of them ended up.

Where was their gratitude? Thatcher did not and could not reassert the role the Tories played throughout the earlier part of the century. Just as Labour and the unions socialised millions of people into politics, the Tories did the same. In the late 19th and early 20th century, in large parts of the country their party organised communities, particularly in rural Britain, around village fetes, country fairs, as well as doing the bread and butter stuff. In many more well to do areas the party was the lynchpin of what you might call associational life. A vehicle for paternal do-goodery towards the below stairs classes with charity work, philanthropy, and so on. Such, in want for a better phrase, Tory collectivism was taken to the knackers' yard by Thatcher. Out went a condescending responsibility for the poor, and in came the the bootstraps fetish. Associational life, whereby a Tory activist would combine party activities with charitable commitments became rarer and rarer. It's almost like the membership retreated from the rest of the society, and as they diminished so did the party infrastructure. The Tory Association bars shut down, with a few exceptions, charity work and Toryism were increasing antipodes, not twins, and the party shrank, its political footprint entirely reliant on megabucks donors and their press wing.

New blood doesn't course through the Tory veins in sufficient numbers. What exists are a dwindling band of ageing MPs and councillors, with a small smattering of careerists, and a wing now in the process of decamping from the party over what they see as the betrayal of Brexit. This situation is nothing new, it's been the reality of Tory party life for well over a quarter of a century. Without the refresh it's the well-connected dross who elbow their way to the front. Their underwhelming presence and inability to move with political realities is a symptom, a consequence of earlier Tory success. To win her third term, to defeat the labour movement Thatcher had to set in motion the slow burn destruction of her party. Johnson, Dave and the rest are all creatures of this decomposing party, their political sense impaired and skewed by necrosis. The good news is the Tories are not about to and cannot throw up another Churchill, Disraeli or, for that matter, Thatcher, but the repulsive striplings we see before us are damaging enough. The career of Johnson reminds us of this, he typifies all that is useless, fatuous and decadent. Do right thinking people everywhere need any more encouragement to put the Tory party down for good?

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Is the Tory Vote Melting Down?

One of the more comedic aspects to have come from the Tory government's negotiations with itself was the statement Theresa May released shortly after her soft Brexit was revealed. It's really worth quoting in full:
During the EU referendum campaign collective responsibility on EU policy was temporarily suspended. As we developed our policy on Brexit I have allowed cabinet colleagues to express their individual views. Agreement on this proposal marks the point where that is no longer the case and collective responsibility is now fully restored.
You see everything that has happened since last June, all the secret briefings and not so subtle leadership positioning wasn't a symptom of crisis, it was our very strong and very stable leader allowing a thousand flowers to bloom. And, you know what, two days on and the line appears to be holding. Yes, Boris Johnson couldn't resist an "anonymous" leak to the press, dubbing May's plan "a turd". Still, it's a turd he's going to have to polish, which is something we can all look forward to. Bearing this in mind it was interesting to see his sometime confederate Michael Gove assume the mantle of the new loyalism on Andrew Marr. A remarkable about turn to be sure, his assumption of soft Brexit newspeak wasn't without some uncharacteristic testiness. Marr was accused of asking a "fake question", and he implied his leaver friends and comrades were not being realistic if they failed to back the plan. That's sure to win people around. And later on James Cleverly, one of the most misnamed men in politics, put a loyal, if workmanlike spin on the plan on The Sunday Politics.

The upper echelons are all sorted, but as for the rest of the party and the leave-supporting Tory voters? That's an entirely different kettle of fish. Hardly scientific, a snap poll on Conservative Home finds three-in-five party members disagree with May's deal, half as many support it and some ten per cent are in the don't know category. Like I said, hardly scientific. A slightly more robust poll, from before the deal was announced, by Arron Banks's Westmonster found 52% of leave voters think it's a sell out with, again, half as many in support. How about more anecdotal evidence? Check out the comments on the always-ridiculous Conservative Woman blog, the howls of despair on this Andrea Leadsom thread, the palpable disappointment with Gove and, last but not least, reports of no confidence letters going in to the 1922 Committee. Deary me.

This obviously spells difficulty as far as the maintenance of Theresa May's coalition of voters goes. Remember May's achievement - and it was an achievement - she was able to appeal to 42% of the voting public, some 13.6m people, a total in recent times bettered only by Margaret Thatcher in 1987 and John Major in 1992. She came unstuck because Labour managed 13m votes and, had the election taken place a week later, would have polled even higher than the Tories. May's coalition was based on appealing to the old and retired, corralling them with some traditional fear-mongering, and positioning as the custodian of a hard Brexit. In its own terms, it was successful and her party managed to maximise their vote. The pretty solid eight, nine, ten per cent UKIP were polling between the referendum in 2016 and the defeat in the Stoke Central by-election upped sticks and disproportionately flocked to the Tories. These, if you like, are your hardcore leavers, folks who identify with Brexit and anti-EU stuff for all kinds of reasons. The problem May has got is while she can wave her piece of paper in the knowledge most people aren't closely following the negotiations, this core are. Whether they'll flood back to the dessicated husk UKIP has become, vent on the internet and abstain or something else remains to be seen but a good chunk of these people are lost to the Tories.

We will have to see what happens in the Commons this week and how long the "restored" cabinet responsibility lasts. The first problem Tory Brexiteers have got is their no-confidence vote. There is probably enough of them to trigger a ballot, but May would win it easily. Everyone knows it would inflict serious damage on the party at a time it's supposed to be wrestling with a national crisis. And none of the would-be leadership factions have the strength to consolidate after her defenestration, so they will stay out - except perhaps the stupid boy. If they get their vote but can't shift the party's stance, Jacob Rees-Mogg and his vile clique are up the proverbial without so much as a Latinate witticism. If the polling movement away from the Tories proves to be large, Farage finds it irresistible to return and UKIP rises from its pauper's grave the fragile unity of the parliamentary party could be put into question.

In many ways, as far as the Tory party are concerned we're back to square one, a position in which the last three years effectively didn't happen. How ironic that winning the kippers over was Dave's raison d'etre for calling a referendum, and because of said referendum the Tories are losing them again. It's almost as if the whole thing is a farce.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

A Chequered Brexit

Sitting across from Theresa May during their cabinet away day at Chequers, our leading Brexiteers - Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, David Davis, Andrea Leadsom and Liam Fox, and tactical leavers like Jeremy Hunt and Gavin Williamson were exposed to something they're unaccustomed to: the harsh consequences of their political posturing. In the footage taken from a distance, we could see Johnson waving his hands, as if mere gesticulation would make call forth his post-Brexit fantasy into being. Reality appears to have then stalked the corridors of the Prime Minister's country retreat, mugging the Brexiteers one-by-one. Yes, we're on for a soft Brexit but that doesn't mean the position she has come up with is any good. It is, as per the custom and practice of Theresa May, a fudge.

What we have here is what May has dubbed a 'facilitated customs arrangement'. This is not the same as staying in the customs union or being part of one, nor is it a customs alignment. One has to envy her admirable capacity for linguistic contortion, but it does mean these things. The deal posits a common rule book in which the EU and the UK agree on standards for trade between it and the UK area, and where we would collect tariffs on the EU's behalf on goods coming through UK ports from outside the EU. This allows for the continuance of frictionless trade, at least on paper. However, and much to the anger of hard Brexiteers, because the UK is no longer a member of the EU we have no say over these common rules. Just as sundry remainers warned, the UK has ended up as a rule-taking satellite of Brussels. And that also means the European Court of Justice, another bĂȘte noire of the right, still exercises something of a legal jurisdiction over the UK. Now, it is true all of this is subject to a final say by Parliament, its formal sovereignty is explicitly referred to by May, but in practice the choice before it is choose this deal (or a permutation thereof), or Wrexit.

You might agree or disagree, but this at least seems simple and straightforward, right? Wrong. The issue is this recipe for frictionless trade refers only to goods. While welcome news for the supply chains that have outgrown the borders of EU member states, this does not pertain to services. As one of the four freedoms of the EU (movement of goods, services, capital, and people) respecting the status quo on goods while looking for something more bespoke on services isn't likely to float the EU's boat. Remember, Brexit was sold on putting up barriers between us and them, which is certainly how Michel Barnier and Donald Tusk have interpreted matters. This will be a definite area of tension when negotiations resume.

Where things might not get as hot and bothered as everyone's expecting is on free movement around the EU. The headlines say this will come to an end, but in practice? According to the BBC write up, we can instead look forward to a "mobility framework" which would facilitate travel, study and work. No visas, no border checks, no nonsense. In all likelihood this is another fudge which will more or less support the status quo. For instance, EU citizens coming here will be expected to have a job or student place and have no or very restricted access to social security, whereas those already domiciled in the UK retain existing rights and protections. The former is very close to how many member states already interpret freedom of movement, so here the Tories can tick the rhetoric box without having to get into a row about it. Anything less than this and the EU will expect the government to return to the drawing board.

From the point of view of hard Brexit, this is the worst of all worlds, the coming to life of their dread Brexit in name only. How then has May managed to herd her mutinous cabinet Brexiteers behind a position that is an obvious selling out of the kippery voters she annexed in 2017? After all, when it comes to factional balance nothing has changed. Reports that quitting ministers would have to take the walk of shame down the Chequers drive way and a cab back to London was the kind of petty theatre we expect from the Tories, but to keep them on side has to be a touch more substantial. Until the Times and Telegraph splash their insider accounts of the meeting tomorrow and over the coming week, we can think about the politics. For some, getting Brexit through at any price shows the deed has been accomplished and whatever deal is struck in October can be later massaged and subject to permanent negotiation. Others might be happy to go along with a soft Brexit and see it fail in due course, providing them ample opportunities for grand standing and pitching leadership election campaign tents. Third, a group of them must know there is a possibility the EU won't go along with this, no deal will be struck, and the no deal hard Brexit scenario they covet comes into being next March. And, lastly, forced to confront the politics of the situation as they are as opposed to what they want them to be, the Brexiteers are entirely disarmed. They've had two years to come up with something, and all we've had is wind. They have no alternative to Brexit in name only.

Interestingly, this incoherent but soft Brexit has upset some remainers too because it's not Brexity enough. But what of the EU, are they bound to reject this? From a game theory point of view, time is on their side and they can keep on knocking it back until the UK either accedes to their demands or goes no deal. We are in a weak position because Theresa May put us in one. She did not have to trigger Article 50 in March last year, and she didn't have to tread carefully around her party so it's only now the government have a negotiating position to take to Brussels. Then again, the EU have taken Brexit far more seriously (indeed, Japan famously did more contingency planning for it than the UK did), and appear to be alive to the consequences of no deal. As sundry Leave politicians observed during the referendum, there are jobs and businesses in the EU dependent on uninterrupted trade with us. It is in the interests of the biggest nations, chiefly France and Germany thanks to their geographic proximity, that the economic damage be limited. For this reason, and because there are other pressing problems, Brexit needs to be put to bed quickly and with a minimum of fuss. Therefore, a line-by-line negotiation designed to iron out the contradictions (and the idiocies) seems likelier than a flat out rejection.

Earlier in the week, we discussed a hard road to a soft Brexit. After all the drama, tantrums, backbiting, positioning, and more than a fair share of national humiliation, we've got the logical culmination of so many competing factions and ambitions: a soft Brexit in which the slogan of taking back control is rendered meaningless. What next? It must surely put severe strain on the Tories' declining electoral coalition. Could this mean the end of the electoral logjam and an opening of a new period of fluidity in establishment politics?

Thursday, 5 July 2018

The Peculiar Politics of the NHS

Happy birthday the NHS. Yet, why are we doing this? Social media was replete with patients and medical staff toasting our most beloved of institutions good health, various folks were chiming in with stories about how much the NHS meant to them, how it helped them and their loved ones out, and what have you. And this week there's been more than enough programming celebrating the NHS, including Celebrities on the NHS Frontline. Yet compare this to 10 years ago. On the 5th July we had this documentary on the birth of the NHS, followed a day later by a Panorama looking at creeping privatisation. 20 years ago there was nothing on, at least as far as the BBC was concerned. Why the celebration of all things NHS now?

It's down to the peculiar way the NHS has become politicised. Of course, it was always politicised and always will be for as long as it exists. Here, amidst Tory Britain is an institution whose basic modus operandi is the antithesis of their twisted values. Free at the point of need is a principle successive governments, Thatcherite Tory and neoliberal Labour, have rolled back where other public services and social security support are concerned but here, at the NHS, they've only so far succeeded at nibbling away at it. Instead, what the Tories have accomplished is the effective scrapping of the NHS as an entity and its replacment with a taxpayer-guaranteed market in which public, private and third sector organisations compete for tenders to deliver medical services.

Despite living in an uncaring, dog-eat-dog world in which government and institutions tell us, "you're on your own", the stock of the NHS as something that does care, as an institution populated by workers who choose public service for selfless reasons has risen as marketisation, managerialism and atomism have disaggregated and broken up the old solidarities of the past. Coincidence? At a political conjuncture where uncertainty and precarity bestride the economic landscape, the NHS is a backstop, a layer of certainty knowing that if you have an accident or fall ill, something will be there to pick you up and try to put you back together again. This inchoate and seldom-articulated sense is something the Tories, and the architects of NHS marketisation under Labour, can never hope to understand for as long as their private health plans are up to date.

This is the foundation of its peculiar politicisation. In his gloomy prognosis for the future of capitalism, Wolfgang Streeck notes a widespread desire to ground a world that appears to be running away from us. The politics of nostalgia, the resonance of the Leave's campaign demand to Take Back Control were able to harness a popular malaise of unease and anxiety. If this can find political expression in opposition to liberal elites and right wing populism, there are non-party political outlets for it too. One of which has been the renaissance of the royals in recent years: it's permanent, stands above the fray of politics and the everyday grind, and is a marker for stability. The only other institution of the British state that occupies a similar place is the NHS. However, unlike the royals there is an awareness of a sense of threat surrounding it. Occasionally some right wing pundit gets airtime to call for its abolition, but it's less the efforts of professional propagandists but the experience people have of the NHS. The budget keeps going up, raising anxieties around affordability, which the Tory press do their damnedest to talk up. And there are the waiting times for operations, the over-subscription and closure of A&Es, the reduction of beds, ambulance services, and the closure of wards and hospitals. It might have stood for 70 years, but the sense of danger and peril around the NHS helps rally its support.

Yet, there is another spin off that resists easy explanation. It might be threatened, but the NHS as a political issue has never been a magic bullet for Labour. To illustrate, the NHS had the customary awful winter typical to Tory governments, yet it barely moved the polls. Considering older people are more likely to support Conservative, and are disproportionately users of the NHS, how can this circle be squared? Successfully, so far at least, and abetted by the Tory party's media wing, it's been displaced upon greedy doctors, indolent appointment-dodging patients, health tourists, bogus and trendy treatments, and staff who can't speak English. Groups who, in the right wing imaginary, easily map onto the folk devils it populates liberal Britain with. Because this is visible and tangible, and the real problems - marketisation - confusing and abstract, individual experience of older, Tory voters and its generalisation has so far not been accomplished. When, if it does, then the Tories could find themselves in severe difficulties.

It goes without saying the NHS needs to be fought for. Its marketisation already constitutes a major defeat, and its complete liquidation would have profound political consequences. Yet, by defending it the NHS should also be an object of critique. The markets are only one dimension, the other is its bureaucratisation, its secrecy and managerial cultures, the professional turf wars and bizarre hierarchy of fields of medicine. The biggest barrier to the defence of the NHS is its positioning as a service vis a vis us as passive service users who'll use it as and when, of it being a producer and patients interpellated as consumers. Time and again, if people, in this case staff, patients and potential patients, of which we are all, can participate in it in some way, the NHS can be further integrated into social life, transforming it in the process, eroding the bureaucracies that have held it back, and chasing out markets and replacing them with medicine and patient care produced in common. This is how you give people a stake in any institution, by opening it to their participation. That is the dream, an NHS allowed to outgrow itself to the point it is no longer an especial institution, reified, deified, and standing apart from everything else.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Democracy Beyond Liberal Democracy

The end of last week saw some leaks coming from Labour's Democracy Review. The two top-liners were proposals to reduce the leadership nomination threshold further to five per cent of the parliamentary party, and for Labour group leaders on local councils to be selected by ballots of the membership. Cue howls of outrage. And, emboldened by the recent pro-EU march, and the latest wrongdoing from the Leave campaign to surface, so louder have the calls become to put Brexit back in the box and pretend the referendum didn't happen. I can understand both positions, but they are wrong. In the piece below, which first appeared on openDemocracy, I argue that the new politics of class and democracy are not ships that pass in the night, but have fates that are intertwined.

In addressing the discussion advanced by Michael J. Sandel and welcomed by Jon Cruddas, we should begin with what is dying and what is vital about liberal democracy and progressive politics. In my view, both arguments are partly on the right track. The crises of progressive politics and liberal democracy cannot be thought through in splendid isolation from the long tail of the crisis in capitalism.

That liberal democracies have so far proven to be the most endurable governance norm for advanced capitalist states doesn't mean this arrangement of politics and economics is without tension, nor that we cannot improve upon it. The rise of authoritarian capitalisms, the threats to democracy in eastern Europe, and the challenge populist politics pose to the so-called mature democracies suggest that there's still some way to go before, as Francis Fukuyama put it, history comes to an end.

More democracy not less

Nevertheless, addressing the crisis demands thinking about its positive resolution. In other words, I'm interested in saving liberal democracy to improve and go beyond it. You answer challenges to democracy by offering more democracy, not less. If empowering people to take charge of their lives is more than a feel-good phrase, or a strap line for corporate social responsibility, we need a politics that is serious about it. This necessarily is a politics aimed at the anarchy of the market and tyranny of the workplace, a politics of mass participation, and a politics that dispenses with managerialism. This also requires an honest reckoning with the establishment politics of the near past, their consequences, and how they have helped usher in the oft bewildering and counter-intuitive politics we see now.

The record of New Labour offers many a lesson in this regard. Consider the third way, a largely after-the-fact justification of the policy orientation pursued by Tony Blair (and Bill Clinton). So-called because of its apparent equidistant positioning between the free market brutalism of Thatcherism, and the alleged inefficiencies of welfare state capitalism with its strong trade unions, price controls and state running of industry, it presented itself as a new politics. For Anthony Giddens, the sociologist whose writing on the third way model was highly influential, the old solidarities were receding and the class politics of the 1970s and 1980s were giving way to, what he termed, the “life politics” of the 1990s and beyond. This was his shorthand, not just for the emergence of a mass identity politics, but also the new concerns for the self, for consumerism and self-actualisation. The fixation on aspiration, famously defined by former Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander in a 2008 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" was less an extrapolation of a social fact, and more the breathless hyping of consumerist individualism. The obvious means of realising this particular kind of aspiration was through the market, which Giddens demanded that the left become comfortable with. Small wonder that the "economic efficiency" accompanying pledges of "social justice" was, in practice, more deregulation, cuts and privatisation, and, crucially, the extension of individual but not collective rights in the workplace; changes always driven by administrative fiat from above.

Disastrous consequences

The consequences of third way economic policy on society at large were far reaching. In the first place, and despite the rebuilding of the public realm (albeit in a market friendly way), subordination to the market helped undermine what Giddens calls “ontological security”, a term he uses to describe people’s sense of belonging and attachment to their surroundings. In practice, more markets meant more insecurity and the atomisation of a section of Labour's base. Ironically, this weakened the organised labour movement further and with it the old trade union right, a crucial part of Blair's in-party coalition, which contributed to the hollowing out of the party, and eventually led to its rapid take over by the left.

Where New Labour went, many centre-left parties followed and suffered even more disastrous consequences. The problem with progressive politics, defined by Sandel and Cruddas as the parties of liberalism and the old social democratic and labourist left (excluding Corbynism, and continental left populists like Podemos) is not that they were "technocratic" and didn't have a convincing story of nation and place to tell, it was that this is a secondary feature of their collapse.

When Parti Socialiste in France, PASOK in Greece, the German Social Democrats, Partito Democratico in Italy, Labour in Scotland, and the Labour Party in the Netherlands have administered or been seen to associate themselves with the kinds of policies and parties that crash the living standards of their core constituencies, the problem of and responsibility for the catastrophic loss of electoral support rests with the authors of these positions. Attacking workers' rights and making it easier to fire people, cutting public sector jobs, privatising state assets, enforcing new conditionalities on social security, these policies elicit resistance and, if they are written into law, disillusionment and demoralisation. The result is the dispersal of core parts of the electoral coalition centre-left parties need to win elections and survive.

Bewildered centre-left

It is a measure of the bewilderment of the centre-left that few convincing explanations have been advanced from this quarter to explain why Labour did well at the 2017 general election not just among the young, but according to polling in its immediate aftermath, in all occupational groups under the age of 54. Youthquake explanations can't explain the rise in support among those of us who'd struggle to be described as young people. Equally unconvincing is the remain vote explanation because, a year on from the election, Labour are still polling around the 40% mark while the avidly pro-EU parties, except for the SNP, are virtually nowhere. As I have argued in my contribution to The Corbyn Effect, a collection of essays edited by Mark Perryman, we have to think about the long-term changes to capitalism in the West that predate the 2008 crash but that the crisis, with the agency of governments of left and right, have helped accelerate; chief among them, the growing predominance of immaterial labour.

In Cruddas's openDemocracy piece, and more obviously in his New Statesman and Fabian essays, he takes aim at the new, "post-capitalist" left and assimilates immaterial labour to knowledge work, suggesting that an emphasis on this more or less abandons working class people. This completely misunderstands the character and scope of immaterial labour. Commenting on the relationship between state and economy in post-war Italy, the activist and author Antonio Negri argued that more and more workers were drawn into employment outside of the "classical" wage labour contract between private employer and worker, and into the circuits of social reproduction or what, to borrow a phrase, you might call the foundational economies of capitalism. The business of production and profit would be a lean, episodic affair were it not for dependable education systems, the health and welfare systems, physical and legal infrastructures, and so on. These do not produce materials, but intangibles. Reducing immaterial labour to knowledge completely overlooks how capitalism has encroached on all aspects of our everyday lives from data to care and relationships.

As we moved into the 1980s, immaterial labour became an important source of value production too. Research and the creative industries are the "sexy" end of immaterial labour, but they are a minority. Office work, call centre work, shop assistants, couriers, care work, hospitality, the bulk of the jobs in what we classify the service sector are organised around immaterial labour, the production of intangibles. Employment here depends on our capacities to perform socially. When I worked in a supermarket, for example, my ability to scan shopping in a speedy manner was secondary to the sociable, ever-smiling, ever-pleasant manner shopworkers were expected to put on. Job adverts list the skills and experience they seek, but most crucial is whether the candidate meets the person specification.

Exploiting the commons

In Negri’s more recent collaborations with Michael Hardt, they argue that the social world, or commons, is what capital increasingly exploits. Instead of extracting value by not paying the worker the full value of what is produced as per the classical Marxist approach, accumulation proceeds through capturing value. Unlike exploitation hidden behind the wage relation as per Marx in Capital, this is more easily visible: zero-hours contracts, flexi-working, bogus self-employment, even well remunerated consultants can see the revenue generated by their labour and how much goes to the app or employer. Capitalism here finds itself in a new bind. Immaterial labour is socially cooperative, drawing on the competencies, knowledges and innovation of the social commons, but too often the capital dependent on it undermines this cooperation by individuating and atomising its employees, denying them rights and expecting them to get by on episodic and insecure work.

Why is this relevant to our current discussion? Firstly, immaterial labour is obviously vital to capitalism. Arguably, it always has been. However, now the social commons is a strategic vector of capital accumulation. This will have direct consequences on our politics. It's in this context that we should see Jeremy Corbyn's championing of a lifelong education system, and the recognition of the import of critical thinking, soft skills, and collaborative working by Conservative MP Lee Rowley in the recent Centre for Policy Studies collection, New Blue.

Secondly, younger people are more likely to be employed as socialised or networked workers, and those who are not stand a greater chance of being older. Thirdly, the growth of immaterial labour does not mean any section of the working class is obsolete. Manual work and the people it employs are transformed by immaterial labour. Not just in terms of the integration of computer-assisted design and automation, but by the socialised and networked life outside of work. The world sits in most people's handbags and pockets. It resides in the laptops, televisions, games consoles at home. The new communication technologies have facilitated new ways of forging relationships, new identities, new thinking and, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal reminds us, new ways of influencing and being influenced.

Fourthly, increased opportunities for sociality, networking and cooperation have fostered, despite the persistent media panics about identity politics, more tolerance. The advance of social liberalism accompanies the rise of the socialised worker. The clash of values often talked up as something separate to and cutting against class by sundry political science academics actually underlines the salience of class politics. The so-called age divide is a class cohort effect. It also implies social conservatism is in long-term decline, and the rise of right populism, hipster fascism, new misogynies are symptoms of its gradual and steady displacement.

Finally, the importance of the immaterial – ironically – reinstates the necessity of a material politics. Contrary to Cruddas’s critique of the post-capitalist left, emphasising how class has changed is not a flight from it but a forceful restatement of class politics. Capitalism has changed, work has changed, but class remains central. With precarious working the norm, the increased likelihood of having several careers over one’s life, the disadvantaged position young people have in the benefits system, the huge debts hanging around the necks of graduates, the lack of job opportunities generally, and the housing shortage, in the case of Britain – these not only raise significant policy questions, but they throw into sharp relief the apparent inability of capitalism to deliver. A Trotskyist might be left thinking who would have thought home ownership would become a transitional demand?

Democratising Labour

The challenge of democratic politics is about making itself relevant to this long-term shift. We need a new coalition, but ultimately it has to be driven from below. Never before in history are so many people educated, skilled, competent, tolerant, and connected. They are fast learners and can break the mould of establishment politics when motivated to do so – in Britain the incredible surge the SNP saw, followed by Labour in England and Wales, is still redefining politics. Knowledge of the rules, of how politics and institutions work, are not the preserve of elites (whether they themselves properly understand it is another matter), but can be grasped and used by the masses. Political skills, organising skills, these are competencies millions of people have, and millions more are capable of acquiring.

The pressure for democratisation in Labour, along with the irreverence towards sitting MPs is not because of the manipulation of members by committee-room lefties, but speaks of a growing awareness and confidence about what must be done to make Labour an agent of political and social transformation. Treating people as voters, as passive consumers of politics, is a recipe for turning them off, deactivating them. There are plenty of parliamentary elites who would not mind this, because they're the big shots again. But it also means nice manifestos, launches and relaunches of policies, wrapping one's party in the flag – all this would be ignored, seen as inauthentic, and feed back into political indifference. Democratic politics are more than occasional elections.

'm not someone who often quotes Tony Blair, and even less sees him as a useful source of political wisdom. Yet he did capture something in the old New Labour slogan of forward, not back, and in his 2015 musings about the future as the only "comfort zone" for progressive politics. We must indeed press onwards. The rejuvenation of democratic politics can only pass through more democracy, of loosening politics up so it becomes less about manoeuvring and position, of ending its exalted position as something separate to and apart from an increasingly connected and savvy populace, and letting them – us – take control. Only then can politics proper begin.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Luciana Berger and Social Media Abuse

When you're a MP and a woman you will, on the whole, get a great deal more shit than your male colleagues. This applies regardless of what party you represent, and on what side of the factional divides your cookie crumbles. The latest manifestation of this unwelcome fact of political life comes from Luciana Berger, who complains about being the subject of a pile-on. The occasion was her whereabouts concerning this weekend's NHS march. I.e. Why she wasn't on the demo. As you can see from her thread, she was engaged on NHS-related activity all week, including some casework, and rounded off with a plea for civility.

Yes, of course people should endeavour to engage politely, patiently explain (to coin a phrase), and intervene politically with an eye to persuasion. Do I fall short of this? Nearly every day. Sarcasm, sharp language, piss-taking and so on does have a place in politics, but the art of good argument is knowing when to do it, to understand when a more persuasive tone is more effective, or when a barb can have greater impact. I don't think establishment politics has a great deal to commend it, but watching and learning how our Parliamentary orators, whether good, middling or rubbish, employ different styles and stratagems to address, destabilise and subvert opponents while rallying one's own side is one of the genuinely useful things you can take away from keeping an eye on the chamber.

It's easy to see why politics never leaves up to the standards of seminar room ethics, and that's because it's not jolly old bantz. Politics is struggle, politics is the clash of opposing interests. It is only about ideas in so far as they articulate and map onto positions that exist in wider society, and they ebb and flow according to the strength or otherwise of constellations and assemblages of social relationships. Politics is structurally abusive because it is war, albeit by other, more peaceful means. Once you understand that, you understand why so many people online are rude. It's not rocket science.

Keeping this in mind can help explain why Luciana has come in for so many pointed demands that she account for her absence on Saturday. In addition to the sexism noted above, a great deal has to do with social media as a leveller. Were Twitter around 20 years ago, the leading lights of the Blair government would have received the same brickbats, and women ministers a greater amount than most. Yet irreverence toward politics and MPs are hardly new, but what is are the easy means with which our representatives can be served with "feedback". Social media makes visible what was previously shouted at the telly, it offers a simulacrum of empowerment, of being heard. And this is now a fact of political life that's never going to go away.

The second is reaction to posturing on the part of MPs, and of Labour MPs in recent times. It wasn't that long ago when the only MPs who would turn out for rallies and marches for labour movement causes, for measures that defend the position of working class people, are those who currently lead the Labour Party. The small, guilty shuffle to the left under Ed Miliband and then the left turn and consequent renovation of the party under Jeremy Corbyn has still seen most Labour MPs stay away from the mobilisations of working people. It doesn't take genius reasoning to note the link between demos and marches they do turn out for, like the Pro-EU demo and the rally against anti-semitism in Labour, and the factional leverage they hope to recuperate. As Luciana was one of the MPs to have resigned from the shadow cabinet during the failed coup, and has hardly been effusive in her support for the Labour leader since, you can understand why she might have had more than her fair share of angry tweets. Please note, this isn't to excuse but to explain. I haven't checked, but I'd imagine other noted Blairists, like our mates Chris Leslie, Mike Gapes, Wes Streeting, et al have received similar "correspondence" too.

Hence measures to try and police social media, in the name of curbing "abuse" are doomed to fail. It does nothing to address what politics is and, in fact, tries to force it into a straitjacket of faux respect. This can only serve to try and obscure its character, a transparently ideological and self-serving move that would prove impossible to pull off and discredit politics even more. And second, just because the politicians can't see it doesn't mean it's not there. Social media is an outlet, a way of letting politicised anger out in a non-violent way. Anything that might try and button that up just allows that frustration to build, and who knows what awful turn it might then take?

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Hard Road to a Soft Brexit

Michael Gove lost his famous cool, you say? Took hold of Theresa May's custom plan and, with all the menace of a rabbit with a carrot, ripped it up did he? Aaah, bless his cotton socks. Well, no wonder he was peeved. As the most prominent Brexiteer in the cabinet after the noted self-publicist, you can understand why he might be miffed. However badly Johnson behaves, May just laughs it off and emits panicky signals that she's caving to his demands but Gove, well, who cares? According to the BBC, Gove was uncharacteristically aggro because he believes a customs arrangement (May's preferred position) would be too bureaucratic and disadvantage Britain's economic position. Well Govey, have I got news for you. These are the realities of the process you helped set in train, the painful and uncomfortable bump that was always waiting when your pathetic flight of nationalist fancy eventually connected with the terra firma of politics.

Meanwhile, The Times reports that May has finally found her mojo. About bloody time. Like Fabius the Delayer she has run scared of the hard Brexiteers in the cabinet and the wider party, and has sought to do so by being non-committal here, and fudging and obfuscating there. Unlike the famed Roman general, however, while he whittled down his enemies through the avoidance of a decisive clash her evasive moves have only emboldened the Brexiteers. Think, for instance, how we have got into a situation where Gavin Williamson, or Pike as they like to call him in the Treasury, even feels like he can openly brief against the PM. Still, you cannot delay forever. As "Shippers" notes in his write up of the cabinet's psychodramas, May has realised that she can face down the Johnsons, the Mogglodytes and the rest because, well, numbers are on her side. The Brexiteers lack the bodies to bring her down. It's amazing how long it's taken May and the Tory scribblers in the press wing of the party to have concluded thus. And with ambitions to succeed her hither and thither ("Shippers" reveals that 20 MPs are preparing leadership bids to succeed her), there's a very good chance they would all cancel one another out anyway should a coup come forward. And besides, she can count on the self-preservation instincts of Tory MPs to stay in so Jeremy Corbyn can be kept out

Contrary to what you might read in the press or from ostensible Labour supporters, the party's position on Brexit is clear. According to Keir Stamer, who is something of an authority on these matters, a customs deal of some description and single market alignment, again of some description, should be the UK's basic negotiating position. Contrast this with the shambles of the Brexit negotiations which, to remind sundry centrists, the Tories happen to be running, we see prevarication, posturing, and the floating of unconvincing threats to walk away from talks. You might be forgiven for asking "what talks?" as it turns out self-styled hard bastard David Davies has had all of four hours worth of meetings with Michel Barnier this year. And then we have the Tories' official position which is, um, well, you tell me. Two years after the referendum they are still squabbling among themselves about what this should be. Perhaps the reason Davis has barely sat down with Barnier is because there is nothing to negotiate about. So much for these being the easiest talks in history. Needless to say, this is the responsibility of May. She had the opportunity at the height of her powers to confront the divisions in her party, but didn't. In a weakened position following last year's election, she nevertheless could have done so then - the balance of forces were no different to today - but didn't. Truly a mockery of the strong and stable slogan she ran on.

And now, after everything it looks like the Tories are adopting a variation of Labour's position. After all the time wasting and shilly-shallying, "Shippers" notes that May is seeking a Norway-style arrangement with the EU. According to the forthcoming white paper, it will say the UK doesn't want to be in the customs union, single market or be beholden to the European Court of Justice judgements. Yet, to be Norway-stylee means keeping the four freedoms - the free movement of goods, capital, services and people. The Tories would quite like to retain goods, capital and services but want to dump immigration, and yet what we know (and have always known) is this is politically impermissible as far as the EU are concerned. If the UK can have three of the four freedoms, what's to stop some of the others, like Italy, the Netherlands and so on from demanding the same? May is stupid if she thinks frictionless trade is compatible with border patrols. With little time left on the clock, how does May hope to negotiate these immovable obstacles?

Back in December, the Tories and the Remain-honking centre showered plaudits on May for seemingly resolving the Irish border issue by signing the UK up to the customs union in all but name. Rather than building on this, she has let Brexit drift with the tide of Tory factionalism and petty leadership ambition, while occasionally talking tough, resurrecting "no deal is better than a bad deal" idiocies, dropping hints about walk outs and giving the impression she's on for a hard Brexit. And yet, just like the border deal, it's appearing the same short-termism, complacency and indecision has boxed her into a corner where a variation on the Norway option, i.e. a soft Brexit, is the only viable option. While this is good news as far as the livelihoods and the living standards of millions of people are concerned, it's bad news for the Tories. She can face down the hard Brexiteers, but that doesn't mean they can't cause her and their party a great deal of damage. Go and grab some popcorn, the infighting is just starting to warm up.