Saturday, 25 May 2019

Dubstar - No More Talk

Get out your disco balls.

And also click on this for a piece about Boris Johnson I did for the Indy.

Friday, 24 May 2019

How May Could Have Won

And just like that, everything has changed. In an odd speech that was one part trolling, one part self-mockery, May announced this morning she would begin the process of the new Tory leadership contest on 7th June and remain Prime Minister until it is concluded. And there was the usual guff about leaving the country overflowing with milk and honey, a claim that refuses to stand up even if you squint at it. So May, one of the worst Prime Ministers ever is on her way out the door with the tacky polyester furs of failure draped about her shoulders. Fuckitybye.

Matters could have been quite different. The most recent past tends to colour the appreciation of what went before, and so we forget she was once a formidable opponent who could have locked Labour out of power for a decade or more. And were it not for strategic blunders that opened the door for Corbynism, it would have come to pass. Some locate her errors in the wooden 2017 General Election campaign, widely derided on the right as well as by our own people. Labour supporters will remember it fondly for decades to come - the public meetings without the public, the press conferences without the press, and the party promos without the party, the idiot mantra of strong and stable, the hubris of the dementia tax - oh what a time it was. What a tasty feast of schadenfreude it was. And this undoubtedly did for her. The May we came to know is a product of Corbynism, a failing and flailing Prime Minister brought low by the sweat of our brow, but May was our enabler: the long June lasting from 2017 to the present persisted because she unwittingly opened the door to her demise.

When your opponent is at the height of their powers, put despair away for hubris is the moment the seeds of destruction are cast. May's was much earlier than her fabled walking holiday with dear old Philip: it was not long after she took office. It was a pretty black moment for centre left politics, let alone the Corbyn project. In the aftermath of the greatest domestic political disaster since the Suez Crisis, Labour was courting extinction while the Tories quickly pulled themselves together, and wrapped the leadership contest up in quick time with May's coronation. Brownie points for a show of seriousness. The second sinking moment was her address to the nation from the Downing Street lectern. She channelled the spirit of Milibandism as she promised to wage struggle against injustice and address poverty. Coming after Dave's showy but callous government, from the side eye by which most people view politics she sounded different, serious, a conviction politician. This was one nation Toryism rebooted, audaciously premised on half-inching the ground Labour stood on but was too busy squabbling to prevent the land grab.

It went down a storm. Those who found Dave congenial had their consciences assuaged about supporting the Tories because May wanted to help the poor. There was no red meat for established Tories, but they knew her record from the Home Office well enough to start dreaming of Thatcher 2.0. Remember the embarrassment of Tory backbenchers affectionately referring to May as "mummy"? And a little bit of soft labourism married to authoritarianism and social conservatism, isn't that the heady brew working class voters "in the north" (of course) were supposed to be champing for? Almost immediately the Tories rallied in the polls and for the next nine months or so posted huge leads. In normal times this was the stuff from which hegemony was made, a project in formation for managing the class relationships criss-crossing and underpinning the British state with the advantage tipped permanently toward capital. This situation, which for a moment looked inevitable and viable, didn't work out precisely because we don't live in normal times. Or, rather, because of the particular way May and her, um, "celebrated" advisors Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, decided to approach Brexit.

With Labour indisposed in the summer of 2016, and buoyed by the polling and the fawning press, she made her crucial mistake: after leading the Westminster pack on she announced her interpretation of Brexit was pretty hard. This meant disengaging from EU institutions, an end of free movement for EU citizens, and a renegotiated trading relationship. The upside was a nebulous freedom for the UK to negotiate its own trade deals. In other words, as deals went, this was the most economically disruptive and potentially ruinous basis for an agreement out of the range of possible options. She had made a critical strategic error: by crassly putting the interests of keeping the Tory party together, May believed her coalition would hold. Which turned out to be the case: going hard on Brexit drove UKIP to the abyss, and served as the glue keeping them together (and getting the highest number of Tory votes since 1992), but the cardinal rule of hegemony building was forgotten nor understood. Organising yourselves goes hand-in-hand with disorganising your opponents.

Looking at the disarray Labour was in and then, by early 2017, its persistent lag in the polls you could almost forgive May for thinking a general election would be a good idea. Indeed, no one at the time was warning against one and I can remember sending several "we're fucked" texts as she was making her announcement. But she had set up the conditions for an insurgency. By then, the "burning injustices" speech was obviously just window dressing and whole swathes of Britain were effectively locked out of the awards our supposedly booming economy was generating. It was quite clear May wasn't about to address the problems of housing, of crap wages, of zero prospects, nor the suffering Dave and Osborne took delight in inflicting. What I missed, what we all missed, was a polarisation taking place beneath the surface. Effectively, May had coagulated a coalition of the haves - retirees above all - but by making Brexit its central organising principle it gave the have-nots something to define themselves against. Brexit is an empty signifier that organises not just its supporters, but its opposition. May's hard Brexit annoyed those who were for remain, and also those wanting a sensible, softer Brexit than the one she offered. May allowed it to become a rallying point, a moment of discontent in a complex of discontent the Labour Party was able to organise behind it. It was the catalyst for the real class polarisation to come out into the open and manifest itself in the electoral politics of the land.

You could argue May didn't have any choice but to incorporate Brexit as a wedge issue, but on the contrary she did have a choice. Dave called the referendum to neutralise the threat from UKIP, and May moved to accommodate them to secure the Tory right flank. But with a bit more imagination May could have capitalised on the good will, her (initial) novelty as a (presenting) conviction politician, and the latent desire to overcome the divisions set in train by the referendum by deepening her one nation pitch. She might have, for instance, in the spirit of magnanimity have announced a consensus-building approach to Brexit through a series of public consultations. She might have appealed to disgruntled Labour right wingers by trying to get them on board, while working to marginalise Corbyn even further. This would not have avoided trouble with her backbenchers but they'd have found it harder to behave as they have done thanks to her moral authority as a great unifier. In short, this could have allowed her to redefine a new common ground in politics that excluded the left as well as the fanatics in her own party, and one her party would have benefited from for years to come. A good job for the left that she was not so imaginative, and the Conservative Party interest was interpreted so narrowly.

The price of this failure is visible in the wreckage that daily fills our screens. The party May leaves is broken and disintegrating, and compounding the disaster it appears nearly all of her would-be successors none appreciate the merde it's stuck in and want to repeat her fatal error. Nevertheless, the Tories cannot be trusted to destroy themselves, by themselves. They need a good shove, and another, and another. That's where we come in, and why we must attend to the urgency of repairing our own coalition of support after the EU elections to be ready for whatever happens next.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

The End of Theresa May

Regularly polling fourth, facing electoral catastrophe as its EU vote goes everywhere but blue, its backbenchers in open revolt, and a government in disintegration with the Prime Minister on the verge of resignation ... Yes, unprecedented is an overused word, but that's what we're seeing right now. And savour it for we may never see its like again. When the inept meets the intractable, which is one way of looking at how Theresa May has approached Brexit, there can only be one outcome. In fact, there was only ever going to be one outcome: the Tory party, its venal government of the base, the boorish, and the befuddled was always going to come undone by the very thing it brought into being. The monster to Dave's Frankenstein, it is satisfying, so very satisfying that the referendum he thought would save the Conservative Party not only did for his premiership, it's also sunk that of his successor. And, quite likely, the leadership of the fool daft enough to step into May's shoes.

Of fools, there are plenty. Whoever gets the Tory leadership inherits May's mess, and would in all likelihood try and circumvent it by pledging themselves for a no deal Brexit. We'll see how long that lasts once they're in post, but assuming they'll want to see it through they will have rebellions of their own and parliament to contend with. Plus the sobering fact only about a third of the electorate would back them on Brexit, though supporting no deal does not necessarily translate into Conservative Party votes. But let's stick with May and her final days in Number 10.

A hundred years from now (hello 22nd century watchers!), May is not going to be well-remembered despite her centrality to the Brexit process. There are no achievements to her name, apart from accelerating the demise of her party, and her shortness of tenure and total preoccupation with and miserable handling of our departure from the EU are not about to warrant positive write ups and glowing revisionism decades from now. May is not someone who tried her best for the country. It was first, second, third about keeping the Tories together, surrendering and subordinating everything from the broad economic interests of British capitalism, the reputation of the UK state, its future leverage in EU trade negotiations, and the livelihoods of millions to the narrow, sectional, short-termist view of a favourable headline here and a parliamentary vote there. Seldom has such a pathetic spectacle graced British politics, of so much willingly sacrificed in return for so little.

And what is truly incredible about these dying days is that, to repeat a mantra, nothing had changed. After Jeremy Corbyn pulled the plug on the Brexit talks, May was saying she had an ambitious new deal to offer. Even when the BBC is emboldened enough to write the prime minister's new Brexit deal isn't that new", then you know she's stuck. Lecturing everyone on compromises and the need to make them after thrice failing to clear the Commons on the exact same deal, her new deal was, um, more of the same. She was happy to accept environmental protections and promises on workers' rights, but we had heard this before. What was new was the possibility of a second referendum. i.e. Allowing parliament to have another vote on holding another vote. Which, of course, would not go through unless May whipped for it - and even then the likelihood of passing rates as chancy to say the least. Nevertheless, the very sniff of a confirmatory referendum was too much for many Tory MPs, with dozens of them failing to show for what was likely to be her last Prime Minister's Questions today and the departure of Andrea Leadsom from the cabinet (worry ye not Leadsom fans, she will be back). But it really beggars belief how May thought her deal, totally unchanged save some wording on the non-binding political declaration, was ever going to bring about a different outcome. We live in such times as Change UK and the continuing employment of Chris Grayling as a senior member of cabinet, yet neither of them can touch May.

May in her closing is the same as May in her opening. Unidirectional and unreflective, what was previously extolled as her leadership qualities have become a Brexit-branded albatross around her party's neck. But she did it. Her downfall is thoroughly hers. She could have sought consensus in the Commons, she could have tried spreading the pain sooner, and bound Labour to a more reasonable and far less damaging deal. But no. She played Brexit for party political advantage, and when that backfired spectacularly at the last general election it was a matter of survival. She boxed herself in, closed off her options, and shut down her likelihood of success - with the added bonus that Tory recovery is going to be very difficult indeed. The left didn't design Theresa May, but if we had built a robot Conservative PM programmed to fluff Brexit and plunge her party into its worst crisis for two centuries, it could scarcely do more.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Case Studies in Political Atavism

What do Change UK and the Brexit Party share in common, apart from ego and a celebrated associations with dairy products? They are, in a manner of speaking, throwbacks to ages past. There is something about them that cuts against the grain of 20th century politics, let alone the situation of the 21st.

Despite some political distance between the two, there is no role in either for the rank-and-file. Indeed, there isn't even a rank and file. You can't join Chuka and friends in their slapstick campaign for a second referendum. You can't join Nigel Farage's touting for the most stupid and ruinous of Brexits. You can give money, add yourself to a contact list, and go along to a campaign rally (or not, in CHUKa's case), but all the time you are a bystander. Hand over the dough, freely donate your time, but your input, your talents, your opinions (especially your opinions) are not wanted.

In the Brexit Party, Farage's word is The Word. What the policies are, its candidates, its messaging, the logo, media strategy, he is a one-man executive. Apart from useful idiot, no other status is possible in Farage's party. For CHUKa, party sovereignty lies in the parliamentary grouping. It decides on the policies, sorry, "values", the branding (the branding!), the candidates, and how the monies are spent. For Farage, his one-man set up has the advantage of not having to deal with annoying little people. When you look at UKIP's 25 years, again and again it proved a dysfunctional bawdy house with a moderately successful electoral machine bolted on. Why would Farage willingly put himself through that again? For CHUKa, as far as your Chris Leslies, Gavin Shukers, Joan Ryans, and Angela Smiths, why let members have a say when you, snort, understand things so much better than them? What they share then is a party model - neither aspire to be mass parties, they are resolutely, proudly, cadre parties: unashamed organisations of political elites.

CHUKa and the Brexit Party resemble the old cadre parties that were common before universal suffrage. There were no memberships as such, just semi-formalised networks. As parties they were more caucuses of political elites who cohered around mixtures of ambition and interest. They sorted stuff out behind closed doors, and cycled through government in joke elections only small numbers were eligible to vote in. However, as universal suffrage was won one awkward step at a time, a widening electorate meant the cadre, clientelist party model tipped into crisis. Social democratic and labour parties led the charge, leveraging the collective strength of labour movements and workers against elite networks and the exclusion of a politics from below from nascent parliamentary systems. Number was something bourgeois and aristocratic politicians did not have, and we are many, they are few appeared to spell their political doom.

Unfortunately, politics is never this mechanical. Masses of enfranchised male workers, and later women did not automatically turn to their parties and in many cases preferred the outfits of their masters. The reasons for this are complex, but one contributor was the 'contagion from the left', as Maurice Duverger put it. That is the adoption of methods of mass recruitment by liberal and conservative parties. For example, the Tories before and after the war used to organise village fetes, travel the countryside with mobile cinema to deliver "news", and encourage a mass membership through local association facilities - typically a bar or club, and actively place themselves at the centre of charitable and philanthropic efforts. They promised a social world for social climbers, where one could rub shoulders with one's betters. Membership became a trapping of status and by the early 1950s, almost three million members had bought into it. The Tories didn't just borrow mass politics, they reworked it, innovated, and became masterful practitioners of it.

The direction of travel wasn't all one way. Simultaneously left parties were cut across by a contagion from the right. Despite the mammoth membership, at its heart the Tories retained some important qualities of a cadre party. Up until the 1960s, Tory leaders emerged, Kremlin-style, from the magic circle of parliamentary notables. Most MPs, let alone members, had no say. On the other hand, while a mass party Labour was never synonymous with the term proletarian democracy. Its own oligarchical tendencies were present from the beginning, and the bureaucracy ensured officialdom tended to win out over constituency=based democracy. If anything this accelerated as the electorate started feeling the pressures of fragmentation toward the end of the post-war boom. The importance of the mass media meant a growing requirement for specialists, a centralisation of messaging, and with it a marginalisation of the membership from the democratic powers it did possess. The Blairist model realised this contagion within a mass party - a large membership, at least initially, who were there to leaflet and door knock. I.e. they knew their place, and those who frequented Blair's sofa knew theirs too.

This was not a neutral, technocratic adaptation to new conditions - it was a response to labour movement defeat, and then required two decades of inner party struggle to accomplish it. The result was an exodus of members, reinforced by a dogmatic belief that the path to electoral fortune went through the editorials of the right wing press. It came with significant costs which the Labour right are still paying. It's oft-overlooked, but a similar process happened in the Tories under Thatcher too. Membership imploded as her attacks broke up working class communities and forcibly closed down manufacturing, in the process destroying large amounts of small and medium-sized capital who depended on these communities and these industries for their commercial survival. The associational life of the 1950s, which continued to persist into the 70s, withered away and the dog-eat-dog culture that found favour among young Tories put off older hands. Status was better symbolised by cars, foreign holidays, and the size of your house than a Tory poster in the window. After Thatcher, the Tories tried making sops to their dwindling membership - including giving them a vote on the party leader - but it was too late. Long-term decline had set in.

Establishment politics between the late 1980s and, arguably, saw the tendency to cadreisation win out over decades of development in the opposite direction. This was not without consequence for politics. Turn outs trended downwards, disengagement and apathy were the concerns of the day, and opposition started assuming right-populist forms: UKIP and the "detoxified" BNP. This was post-politics, post-democracy, a time when parliamentarians didn't worry about what people thought because the people were largely absent. And politics felt all the better for it. This pathetic shadow, this impoverished wretch of a polity is what the likes of our centrists look back fondly on, and finds its miserabilism celebrated in cloyingly nostalgic paeans.

Today, politics is sharper, coarser, but alive again. The Scottish referendum catalysed dissent and brought mass politics back to Scotland. The 2015 Labour leadership election concentrated discontent, building the party into the largest in Western Europe, defying expectations in 2017 to land the Tories a bloody nose and pitching them into their worst crisis since the early 19th century. And even the LibDems can now boast about a membership into six figures. Polarised politics, irreverence, new media, new class formations, alienation, all are working to politicise millions of people and fill out the parties again. All parties, that is, save the Tories and those closed to members - our latter day cadre parties.

There are two big problems CHUKa and the Brexit Party have in going against the grain. Without opening themselves, even partially, to the wisdom of crowds they are vulnerable to the ebbs and flows of politics. We see this most spectacularly with our centrist friends and their legion of stupidities, but Farage is potentially weak too. If anything derails him, the project is sunk. And the second problem is longevity. In her Crowds and Party, observing of communist parties Jodi Dean argues that, for all their faults, they preserved the spirit of revolt and egalitarianism one finds in crowds in highly charged political moments. This isn't a problem for CHUKa, as they generated zero enthusiasm. But it is an issue for the Brexit Party. Farage is generating a great deal of support in the context of the EU elections, but where does that go in a month's time? In two month's time? He can hope it will magically persist in the country without direction or focus, but unless Farage finds a way of harnessing it by opening his party to these people then it's ripe for the taking by others who covet it.

In this sense, as atavist throwbacks CHUKa and the Brexit Party can survive for a time. They could initially thrive, as Farage's outfit is doing, for a short period. But ill-suited as they are to 21st century politics, the challenges of contemporary politics will start tearing at them. CHUKa's looking like it's on its last legs already, and Farage is haunted by what next? Their future is the older parties facing them, otherwise they won't have a future at all.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

What Next for Brexit?

A cynic might say talks between the government and Labour were doomed to fail. They certainly didn't look promising. On the one hand you had a Brexit deal most Labour MPs and, were they not whipped against it, a good chunk of Tory MPs could have lived with. That is the position offered by Labour: a customs union with the EU as a basis for negotiating a trade deal and retaining some sort of influence over customs rules. And on the other you had May's withdrawal agreement, which had already been rejected by the Commons on three occasions, the last time on what was to be Brexit day itself. Entering negotiations, knowing there was nothing salvageable from your position, the onus is on you - i.e. Theresa May - to make the move.

What happened during talks between government and opposition are already the subject of conflicting reports, and no doubt different perspectives will get added in the coming years as participants pen their memoirs. May blames Labour for a lack of a "common position", whereas Jeremy Corbyn - rightly - notes there is no stability on the government side, and once May has sailed off into the sunset the next Tory leader won't be under any obligation to stick to her compromise. Given the the politics of the coming contest, this observation is entirely right. But is there any substance to May's charge?

Well there is, but only if you treat politics as an exercise in empiricism of the most stupid and cynical kind. Anyone can look at the Labour benches and see there are differences. There are a tiny number of MPs who'll vote for any kind of Brexit, those who resolutely stick by the whip, those who blow hot and cold on Labour's position depending on what time of day it is, and those who'll press for a second referendum under all circumstances. The Prime Minister expects us to take note and accept this is why the talks came to nothing. It is, naturally, pure nonsense. In fact,we have a very good idea about what happened in the negotiations from the Tories themselves. They attack the intransigence of Keir Starmer for insisting of a confirmatory vote. Well yes, but why was he? Labour's Brexit position is to get a deal on its terms and prevent May's Brexit. Failing that, a general election. And failing that, a second referendum. Not a position designed for the polarity of the EU elections, but one perfectly adequate to the ins and outs of parliamentary horse trading. Because, obviously, May has rejected the customs option, Keir is following through the logic of conference policy and advocating a referendum in response. The digging in of heels is all on May's side, not Corbyn's.

And so, no more talks. Which ever way you look at it, whether as a good faith attempt to see what kind of Brexit could be done, or a bad faith attempt at getting Labour to jointly carry the can, we're now in a new, unstable but simultaneously entirely predictable phase. May has suggested we can now look forward to another series of indicative votes over the coming week or so to determine the will of the Commons. If she doesn't whip this time, the results might prove interesting. Then again, they might just replicate the last series of indicative votes. i.e. We find MPs are against no deal, but are for nothing. In one last, desperate throw May brings back the deal as is, it gets rejected, off she goes and the Tory leadership election is triggered. Then the entire summer sees the Tories talk among themselves, a new leader chosen on the basis of hard/no-deal Brexit and come the autumn more crisis as the new PM tries getting their unhinged position approved. Or, more gravely, they ignore parliament and allow Britain to pass out of the EU by default. Fun times.

If you think the first four months of this year were rough, politically speaking, then hold on to your hats. The worst is yet to come.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Previewing the Tory Leadership Election

It took two years, but it's looking like June will be the end of May after all. Better late than never! As we look forward them to subsequent leadership election, can we hazard a bet or two? We cannot be sure who all the runners and riders are yet or who's going to come out top, but Boris Johnson is already the favourite and if his name goes forward to the membership, he'll probably win. Yet there are hurdles aplenty before he gets there. To his mind and those of his fans, he's still the bumbling, jovial character who unseated Ken Livingstone from the London mayoralty. For others, he's deceitful, lazy, and utterly opportunistic. Or, if you like, a void with floppy hair empty of everything save self-glorification and social advance. And that's just what a significant chunk of the parliamentary Conservative Party think of him. If he doesn't get to the last two who are put to the party membership, then it's anyone's guess who'll come out on top.

Nevertheless, we can suppose a couple of things. Given May's disastrous handling of Brexit, MPs and members alike will want someone who offers "clarity". In Tory land, that means hard Brexit and/or no deal. So any liberal hopes that Justine Greening, Amber Rudd or, be still your beating FBPE heart, Ken Clarke stand a chance, well, snuff that nonsense out right now. Second, the Tories want someone who can piece together their disintegrating coalition, and thirdly someone who can take the fight to Jeremy Corbyn. In this regard, Esther McVey recently burnished working class creds, Liz Truss has positioned herself as the optimistic Tory who's down with the kids because she's heard you can do funky things with computers like send email, and Jeremy Hunt is going hard on the military promising it all the money. To be honest, thanks to the mugging of Gavin Williamson, I'm surprised someone hadn't run with this ball sooner.

We don't know who's going to win, but we can guess at the contest's politics. Each contender will look at the polls, purse their lips and tot up the Tory percentages, the dismal UKIP percentages, and the numbers the Brexit Party are attracting. This offers the path of least resistance, suggesting hard Brexit/no deal is the vote winner that will see Labour off. Indeed, some senior Tories have publicly floated a coalition/pact with Farage to win an election and get Brexit done and dusted.

As argued previously, the Tories have three possible futures. There is the disintegration and splitting of the Tories, which is what we're seeing right now. The MPs are staying put but Conservative Home has spent the last month reporting on the voting intentions of Tory members, and a lot of them are ticking the Brexit Party box. Donors and activists are defecting and deserting, people the party can ill-afford to lose, and the whole shebang is shaking itself apart. If May's statement about the leadership election is reneged on - and who knows with her? - then it's more dissipation, more decomposition.

Alternatively, the Tories could have a thorough clean. Steaming through and getting rid of the horrible old reactionaries and Thatcherites, and relaunching themselves as a moderate, socially liberal centre right party is the direction they need to move in if conservative politics is to be viable over the long-term, but the chances of that happening without assistance from existing centrist outfits is most, most unlikely.

The final option, the one I thought would be their most likely strategy, is to try and build a right-populist coalition by being as Brexity as possible. A recipe for instasuccess, surely? Well, no. One cannot simply walk into Mordor, and one shouldn't automatically count Brexit Party votes into your pile. A lot of them, certainly, but not all. You'd have thought the collapse of UKIP's support in 2017 would have driven this lesson home. Second, May built her general election coalition off the back of the Tories being the party who would deliver Brexit. It was the ideological glue that held the show together. Then, in the swivelled eyes of the leave ultras, she betrayed Brexit with her delays and more delays. Would they trust a Tory again to deliver, even if the new leader is ERG-aligned and/or a (comparative) fresh face? Some would go along with it, but some wouldn't. Third, there are the effects of polarisation. Going all-out on hard Brexit runs the risk of firming up Labour's vote as per 2017, but this time with an added complication. Part of May's original appeal and success was her rhetorical difference from her predecessor. The one nation Tory stuff turned out to be nothing more than flowery words, but it did turn heads at the time. While definitely not a liberal Tory, even a superficial one like Dave, her emollient words about healing the nation and poverty was enough to keep centre-leaning, remain-ish Tory voters on board. A populist strategy dumps all that. They're not going to go Labour any time soon, but enough of them could go LibDem - as per the local elections - to give them serious headaches. And lastly, they could offer Farage something but he's not guaranteed to bite. He is the perfect figure for Brexit grumbles because he is outside the system. He knows full well that once he enters it in some form of governing or deal-making capacity, the lustre wears off. He also knows hanging around with "insiders" reduces his stock too, especially Tory insiders. It all depends what he wants - a nice seat or a berth in the Lords, or continuing his career as an outsider politician with no responsibility beyond meeting his media schedule. Abandoning the latter leaves the road open to someone else, however.

Regardless of Farage's intentions, a Tory populist strategy would only go so far in reassembling its vote. They might think it would be enough for a thumping majority, but as things presently stand its a plan for a voter bloc less substantial than the one put together by May. However, given the alternatives - split and extinction vs detoxification, splits, and partial disintegration, it is my happy responsibility to report they have no easy way out, let alone a convincing strategy for winning a general election.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Laclau on Populism

Populist politics is back in a big way. Nigel Farage's Brexit Party is upsetting the polls based on a very simple premise: Leave won the 2016 EU referendum, and the parliamentary elites are taking your Brexit away from you. Crude, not strictly speaking true, but effective. How do you beat Farage, then? How can the populist surge be pushed back and the Brexit Party made as irrelevant as, say, Change UK? Unfortunately, there's no quick fix - an effective counter to far right populism doesn't begin in the period immediately prior to a set of elections. This we know, or at least should know. We are, after all, talking about the collective wisdom - a term I'm using advisedly - of mainstream politics.

How to get to grips with populism? On Populist Reason by Ernesto Laclau sounds like a good place for, well, precisely the reasons why his most famous work, co-written with Chantal Mouffe, got the brickbats. In their Hegemony and Socialist Strategy they provoked a great deal of controversy by arguing there was no necessary correspondence between class and politics, that socialism and the working class had a historic relationship but one that was contingent. i.e. You could not read off the politics of revolution and communism from the positioning of proletarians as a class who sold their labour power for a living. This was roundly criticised, but they were right in one crucial aspect. Class, class identities, and class politics are not something that should be assumed: it is something to be established and built in the first place. In so far as class politics exists in Laclau and Mouffe's terms, it is an accomplishment. Class struggle isn't just there, it exists only in as far as it is pursued. Hence one reason why the far left tend not to get anywhere is because rather than trying to create a politicised class subject, they assume it already exists and will attract such workers through exemplary activism and ultra correct politics. Class therefore is after the fact, not a priori.

This methodological note is useful for populism because we know the kinds of formations contemporary populisms have thrown up did not exist before the fact. They are not "natural" outgrowths of certain demographics, but are contingent phenomena requiring an explanation. This is the task Laclau sets himself.

What then is specific to populism? Anti-elitism? Vagueness? Irrationalism? Charismatic leaders? Catastrophism? The sovereignty of the people? Laclau observes you find these characteristics in all kinds of political movements to greater or lesser degrees. For instance, Tony Blair is the standard bearer of "normal", "sensible" politics with his centre grounds, technocracy, and (alleged) commitment to "what works". Yet at one time or another, he employed all the populist devices. If those stratagems are what constitutes populism, then clearly it's a label without any utility. Yet there are obvious differences between the Tories and the Brexit Party, between En Marche and the Front National, between the Merkel's Christian Democrats and Alternative für Deutschland. Nigel Farage's politics aren't any different to a great many Tory backbenchers (and why the Brexit Party should not be separated from recomposing the Tory vote), but there's a certain something that makes his enterprise qualitatively different to the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, David Davis, etc. How do we separate out the specific qualities of populism?

Laclau proposes taking what is often assumed exceptional about populism - the stress on vagueness and rhetoric - and turning this supposition on its head. Far from being unique, vagueness, or indeterminacy, and rhetoric are inscribed in the social and are therefore properties of "normal" politics. To tease sense out of this observation, he proposes three basic concepts. First is discourse, which Laclau treats as the overall complex of social relations - what Marxists call totality. Here, actions are what they are and acquire meaning by virtue of their difference with other actions. Second is an interplay between empty signifiers and hegemony. Like relations, identities (individual and group) are differential and therefore have meaning through difference with others. The character of these differences and the sedimenting of identities into partial wholes takes place within a totality, which determines what is and isn't outside. For instance, in liberal democratic politics parties identify each other by their differences, but all are equivalent vs what the system excludes: terrorism, foreign enemies, extremist politics. However, this complex totality is never complete, it can never fully totalise and close off against the outside. Therefore limits require policing, and so one difference within this complex assumes the representation of its incompleteness. Effectively, a particularity assumes the responsibility of universal signification. This is an outcome of struggle, and is therefore a hegemonic operation and results in an empty signifier - a difference among differences that works as a first among equals, and represents the rest. For instance, the Tory stress on the deficit to the exclusion of all else strung together a series of policies and positions while excluding its opposite, which was Miliband social democracy-lite. One policy objective, reducing public spending, overwrote and signified everything else, including the government's political economy. Likewise with the SNP, their one main policy - Scottish independence - simultaneously signifies the rest of their policy agenda and excludes its opponents, the resolutely unionist Westminster parties.

Laclau's third concept is rhetoric. Words matter, in that they have material force. They also distort and slip their meanings. For instance, Cicero noted there are only so many words to name all the things in the world, so they will acquire new meanings and cast off others. For example, an organ is a term for your innards, an institution, and a musical instrument. This matters for Laclau because hegemony operates in more or less the same way. Differences and equivalences proliferate within its boundaries, their dynamism and slippages inscribing and informing hegemony, but never so that their co-option is total. Their excess overflows hegemony's capacity for neat capture, meaning inclusion always goes hand-in-hand with exclusion.

What has this got to do with populism? In this abstract rendering of the political/social, populism produces a particular kind of challenge to it. Beginning with a political demand, some times they are fulfilled (absorbed) by the powers that be, sometimes not. Again, in line with Laclau's approach to discourse each demand differs. If it is granted, it is accepted in a 'differential', or isolated way. However, if it is refused it can combine with other different demands as something that has been knocked back. In this sense, more funding for young people's mental health, calls to scrap fracking, and demanding a fairer voting system, for example, are equivalences by virtue if their rejection. These can combine into a chain of equivalences with each articulator finding common cause with others. Therefore we have an internal barrier - a repeat refusal, leading to antagonism - and an articulation, the linking up of variegated demands. This begets a third moment: the formation and consolidation of equivalential chains in a popular identity, a political subjectivity that is something more than these chains. However, because totalisation is impossible the line between differential, or democratic demands and equivalential (antagonised) demands are unstable, sharp incorporation/non-incorporation slipping into and out of populist chains and turning up in other, non-populist chains. For instance, how UKIP's demand for an EU membership referendum was adopted by the Conservatives.

It follows then that rather than being a movement, in the sense of a species of social movement, populism is a type of political logic, and goes some way to explaining how populism can carry different kinds of politics. Populism is no more right wing than it is left wing. Second, its imprecision and fuzziness is thanks to its chains of equivalences - what's in, what's out (and by extension, who's in, who's out), and lastly a logic constantly subject to the conflict between democratic and equivalential demands.

There is much more to Laclau's argument, including the construction of 'the people' of populism and the naming of equivalential chains in the person of a charismatic leader. But by thinking about populism as a logic, it is possible to start thinking about strategies for disrupting the populism of opponents and, if it's your political bag, constructing a populism conducive to your politics. Let's have a quick think about this in relation to Farage and the Brexit Party. Brexit is the empty signifier. It is an equivalential demand par excellence symbolising the antagonism between the people and the elite because a) the people voted for it and b) the parliamentary machinations since are elite attempts to water it down, frustrate it, and reverse it. As such, every other grievance, unmet demand, and general sense of powerlessness can be thrown into this perfect container, everything that is outside to Westminster can fuel this catch-all grievance engine. The same logic extends to Farage and the people he's selected to run with him. Farage is an outsider in Westminster terms, and while he has not allowed anyone else to challenge his authority, his running mates are outsiders too. The ex-RCP and their Warrington Bomb/porn for paedos peccadilloes, and the sundry Islamophobes find their status cemented every time the media pulls something up from their past to discredit them. This form of populism may well have the effect of mobilising people against them to try and swamp them in the course of an election, but it doesn't disrupt the support they have.

Does Laclau offer any insights? Widening the possibility for the co-option of demands is one. Indeed, what we're likely to see before the next general election is the wholesale adoption of hard Brexit by the Tories, at least for the cameras and papers anyway. But ultimately, getting down and dirty in the guts of populism is what's necessary. We know the logic, but the logic isn't free-floating. It is fed. Elaborating the programme for older voters, who tend to power right populism more than any other demographic, looking at the myriad of unsaid demands and grievances the Brexit chain of equivalence scoops up, challenges us to think about ways of co-opting them and neutralising them. It's a task easier said than done, and one much harder than Laclau's book, but done it must be if we are to detoxify politics and banish the hard right from political efficacy permanently.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Worldmaking after Empire

A great new show in which Alex interviews Adom Getachew about her new book, Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination.

As always, please support Alex's work here. More money = more quality interviews.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Is Politics Melting Down?

Blimey. We have a poll from ComRes putting the Brexit Party on a two-point lead over Labour (27% to 25%), with the Tories coming in fourth at 13%, behind the Liberal Democrats. Another achievement for Theresa May then - first time they have polled in the fourth position in any poll. If that wasn't bad enough, the same polling company put the Tories in third on Westminster voting intention - a position they haven't suffered since the early 1980s when the Social Democratic Party was shiny and new. And then we have Opinium's findings, putting Farage's party on 34%(!), with the Labour and Tory vote combined registering just 32%. Amazing. You look at these extraordinary figures, including those recently given by the gold standard, and the only obvious conclusion to be entertained is that two-party politics are done. Is this really the case?

Some necessary context. As we saw in last week's local elections, the vote share of the main parties were depressed, in large part, because they are second order elections. I.e. The kind of exercise most voters don't see as mattering so much as parliamentary elections, which is why electoral turn out tends to be depressed and votes are more likely to move away from the two-party duopoly. But also because the prospect of the European elections and the rise of the Brexit Party is dominating politics and, effectively, overwrote the concerns and issues that normally come to the fore during local elections. For example, had Farage stood council candidates it is very likely the Tory meltdown would have been even worse.

What does this mean for polling? The same observation applies. European election voting intentions are overwriting Westminster voting intentions because Brexit is the burning issue of the moment. Polls are always, always snapshots of politics in motion, not forecasts. So when the general election comes round different issues will be in play, and the result is not going to be the same.

Those caveats in mind, that still doesn't explain what is going on and what they might mean for a general election further down the road. Well, here's a stab. The first thing they demonstrate is the fragility of the Tory vote and their exposure to Brexit as an issue. In the immediate aftermath of the 2017 general election, it was apparent that Brexit was the ideological glue sticking together the millions of people who voted Conservative. It helped along the UKIP collapse, scooped up the bulk of the Scottish unionist vote, and won over other voters for whom securing Brexit was the main issue. The travails the Tories are suffering now are largely thanks to May's posing of Brexit in the hardest terms, not least the infamous 'no deal is better than a bad deal', which has acquired material force and is one of the handy weapons in the Faragist/ERG arsenal. It was also obvious that if May was seen to backtrack on Brexit her coalition of voters would be put into jeopardy and crumble. And what do you know, that is exactly what has happened.

The question is can these voters be reassembled behind a renewed Tory party behind a new leader? Of course, that depends on who the leader is. Apart from Boris Johnson, who is as polarising a figure as Farage, most would-be leaders aren't known to the general public. It might be possible for someone to emerge who half-inches Farage's populist pitch and makes the Tories the party of Brexit again, but this comes with added difficulties. Any effort aiming to reassemble May's coalition would only build in the same structural defects that got the Conservatives into their present difficulties. That is a coalition in long-term decline thanks to it a) ageing, b) not replacing itself thanks to the breakdown in the conservatising effects of age, and c) held together on pretty flimsy grounds. Furthermore, going down this route by no means guarantees Brexit Party voters are automatically bound to transfer over. To reiterate, there are plenty of people who would vote for Farage without ever countenancing a vote for the Tories. Likewise, any involvement by Farage in a regrouping of establishment right wing politics would put off a bloc of centre-leaning Tory voters. Therefore, regardless of what vote the Brexit Party gets in a couple of weeks' time, electorally speaking the Tories and the eventual successor to May are still in a hole. And it seems none of them know what to do, as Esther McVey helpfully reminds us.

Where does this leave Labour? Whereas the Tory vote is tending toward decomposition, Labour's support is travelling in the direction of recomposition. The fact the Tories repeatedly, egregiously and, crucially, visibly act against the interests of working people mean, unsurprisingly, the younger you are the less likely you're going to vote Conservative. And that age threshold of votes switching to the Tories gets higher and higher with every passing month. When the Tories lock people out of the political system, they're locking themselves out of the voting intentions of growing numbers of voters. Political science isn't rocket science after all, though plenty of politicians are ignorant of its basics. And so, Labour made a splash in 2017 because it opened itself out and struck an inclusive tone by talking about matters establishment politics regard as taboo: class, property, ownership, wealth. Nevertheless, while 40% of the popular vote is good it is a soft vote. The mistake of sundry remain campaigns is the assumption Brexit, or rather staying in the EU, plays the same constitutive/bonding role in its electoral coalition as it does the Tories. That is obviously not the case, seeing as Labour's 2017 coalition came together on the basis of an appeal to interests, and fast forward to today it's holding on to more of its vote than the Tories are managing. In fact, you could go so far to say Labour voters are more sophisticated than those who've chucked their lot in with joke remain parties precisely because they can see beyond Brexit and EU membership and know where their interests lie. But like I said, the vote is soft, so some movement away from Labour - repeating the pattern of all EU elections since 1999 - is inevitable.

That said, the conditions that gave Labour its 2017 election result haven't gone away. The four craps - crap wages, crap jobs, crap housing, and crap prospects are very much with us. The Tories are uninterested and unable to address these issues, and neither is Farage. A billionaire's Brexit is what his game is about. Does that mean we should put our feet up and wait for the sociology to grind out the desired result for us? Absolutely not. There are no iron laws to politics, only tendencies, and tendencies can be thwarted, stymied, and redirected. It means we pay heed to these polls and use them to think about strategy for firming up our vote and winning over new people, regardless of the way they voted in the referendum. What we shouldn't do, and is singly unhelpful, it to look at these polls, get over excited and lose our heads. They sign post the task to be done, not the inevitable result.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

The Allure of Change UK

British politics needs comedic relief, and Change UK are delivering it in spades. From their foundation, CHUKa's short history has been a caper of unforced faults and unintentional laughs. We've had the racism. We've had the racism again. We've got transphobes and Tommy Robinson apologists among its European candidates. We saw the Electoral Commission reject their ballot box logo, which they then muddied by giving themselves two names, neither of which say anything. And more hilarity was served up over a "rebrand" of their Twitter account which saw their accidentally abandoned handle immediately annexed by Brexit Ultras. This wouldn't matter if it didn't have a blue tick and was at the top of Google rankings for 'The Independent Group'. And Thursday night, CHUKa blamed Labour for their failure to stand a unity remain candidate in conjunction with the Greens and LibDems in the upcoming Peterborough by-election. Who'd have Adam and Eve'd it, Farage's outfit looks slick at professional compared to these amateurs.

As Solomon Hughes notes, these missteps can be put down to CHUKa's status as a memberless party (ordinary punters still can't join, only supporter status is available). But I want to ask an entirely different question tangentially related to their incompetence. While the public are largely indifferent to the doings of Chuka, "Iron" Mike Gapes, and pals, why do an ungodly number of leftists find them fascinating? Is it because they're the butt of the best memes, or something else? I think we can put this down to three reasons.

1. Political experimentation. Most people active in politics now weren't around when the SDP split with Labour nor, for that matter, when Militant struck out on its own in the early 90s, and Arthur Scargill left the party to form his mini-Stalinoid personality cult. What happens then when someone splits from Labour to form their own party is destined to be a matter of interest, especially considering how previous departures have never amounted to anything. Is there a chance CHUKa could defy historical precedent and help recast British politics? After all, we have been told ad nauseam that elections are won from the hallowed centre ground and the centre is where most of the people are - is CHUKa about to prove whether this is the case?

2. The end of centrism. Yes, liberalism and centrism in the UK is in sharp decline. Over-represented in the media and in the Parliamentary Labour Party, as a movement of elites, they're marginalised in the Conservative Party, they spectacularly lost the Labour Party, and the Liberal Democrats remain in the doldrums, despite what appear to be spectacular local election gains. What happens when a declining movement, in a fit of pique, tries something new? Might they hit upon something and jump start their brand of politics by forcing centrism to confront matters they usually do not talk about, like crap wages and crap jobs, the environmental crisis, the breakdown of property ownership, and so on. Or perhaps the fun lies in watching them scampering to avoid discussing these important issues.

3. Schadenfreude. It's not just that CHUKa is a collective of some of the most useless politicians to have sat for Labour in recent times, nor that their politics are woefully out of touch and don't fit the demands of the moment. No, what really grates is their entitlement and arrogance. You have Chris Leslie, who was gifted a very nice career by the Labour Party at the tender age of 24. Gapes hasn't held a job outside of the party since the 1970s. Chuka worked for five minutes as a solicitor before getting on the Compass bus and then going full Blairite once comfortably ensconced. Luciana Berger got the Wavertree seat after a distinctly irregular selection process, Ann Coffey couldn't be bothered to turn up to her CLP meetings for four years, Angela Smith used her job to represent the interests of water companies as opposed to constituents, and Joan Ryan cheerleading land theft and murder in Palestine. On and on it goes. These place seekers and non-entities, corporate satraps and warmongers, they epitomise all that is and continues to be objectionable about the Labour Party. The main reason loads of lefties follow them, take pleasure in their stupid mistakes, and cheer loudly come election night when each CHUKa MP loses their seat is because we hunger for a comeuppance that's been a long time in the making. Not just for them, as appalling as these people are, but for the whole rotten edifice of so-called centrist politics. We want to see their noses rubbed in their irrelevance, and we will glory in it.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Why Farage Snubbed Galloway

They might have made a powerful team, George Galloway standing for the Brexit Party in Peterborough, but it is not happening. In a tearful tweet transmitted into the ether, the Gorgeous One announced the withdrawal of his prospective candidacy as Nigel Farage the Brexit Party have instead selected Mike Greene, a local Tory businessman who once appeared on Channel 4's egregiously awful The Secret Millionaire. Galloway writes "I tried to persuade @Nigel_Farage to support my candidacy in #Peterborough to emphasise the broad democratic alliance the campaign must be and balance the candidatures of Ms Widdecombe and Ms Rees-Mogg." Silly George. Farage isn't interested in an alliance, he's interested in another ego vehicle.

Actually, no, that doesn't quite capture it. There is some mileage in the himself personally now argument, but not enough to go the full distance. Yes, sure, when the Brexit Party is organised entirely around Farage's person and he is leader, executive committee, and party secretary rolled into one there is no room for a potential rival. As he was occasionally wont to lament, Farage grew to despise the fact he didn't and couldn't run UKIP as a personal fiefdom. Too many fruitcakes and loons, to paraphrase a former Prime Minister, got in the way. Had Farage consented to Galloway's candidacy, there was always a chance his numero uno position would be usurped. A lesson learned from the defection and subsequent career of Douglas Carswell. While he did not seek the limelight in the same way Farage did and does, the fact he was a parliamentarian and the only one UKIP returned in 2015 as Farage crashed and burned for the seventh time sat uneasy. If Galloway, a man not averse to the media spotlight himself, got the Brexit Party ticket and was successful, it would prove too much for Farage and undermine the one-man sovereignty of his project.

Need we mention the politics? Yes, we must. Farage and Galloway might be populists, and they are both anti-EU, but the basis of their opposition is fundamentally different. Farage's politics, as per his sound-a-likes on the Tory benches, is steeped in imperial nostalgia, the faux affectation of plucky Little Englandism, and a heavy dose of libertarian capitalist politics, his project is a class project of turning the clock back and letting the market rip through what's left of the public sector, above all the NHS, and refounding the UK as a global haven for tax dodgers. Sounds idyllic, no? Galloway's opposition however is consistent with old school Bennism and sees the state as the primary vehicle for enacting socialist policies and suppressing the market, in as much as it needs suppressing. The pooled sovereignty of the EU with its neoliberal policies, unelected bankers dictating to elected politicians what they can and can't do, and its rules on state aid aren't just undemocratic, they are fundamental threats to this prospectus. Here then are two perspectives that don't exactly sit easy with one another.

But what about the presence of leftwingers on the Brexit Party's regional lists? You have Claire Fox and Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, James Heartfield and Stuart Waiton, all former members of the Revolutionary Communist Party and associates of its successor organisations, Spiked Online and the Institute of Ideas. Well, they might have caused a bit of bother for all of five minutes for past support of the IRA, though for some reason their Bosnian genocide denialism is yet to trouble the press, but Farage can handle it. Their leftism has long since drained out, filled now by the void of professional contrarianism and their alibiing of every two-bit racist and demagogic gobshite. This is performative radicalism, and I use that term advisedly, of providing 'saying-the-unsayble' filler for impeccably establishment publications like The Spectator as well as their own unreadable and best-avoided websites. Oh yes, and they are funded by well-known friends of revolutionary socialism, the Koch Brothers.

As unprincipled chancers and opportunists, they can turn out the old phraseology when it suits. Naturally, they're Farage's kind of leftist. He thinks it will hook into the lexity-leave voters and provide left cover for his project, allowing him to present his bunch as a broad coalition when, of course, any difference between the Brexit Party's European candidates are incidental and inessential. And in the mean time they will shut up. Now, say what you like about Galloway, he's no one's lapdog. Having Galloway use the Brexit Party to articulate his Lexit vision would not sit easy with Farage's business backers, or for that matter the voters Farage wants to court - former kippers, 'patriotic' Labour leavers, the disintegrating Tory vote - who might remember Galloway as the fellow who saluted Saddam Hussein, was scathing of British military adventures overseas, and minced about the Big Brother set with Pete Burns in a leotard. For his part, if the European elections and after get ugly and we see Farage strike out on wink, wink, nudge nudge racist territory, as he has before, it's not likely Galloway would keep quiet. Could you imagine him saying nothing as Farage moves on to a calculated bout of Islamophobia?

Two big personalities, two sets of ultimately incompatible politics. This is not the stuff of which a populist project can be made. Anti-EU right and left populisms oppose themselves and their particular renderings of the people to the antagonistic other of Brussels bureaucrats and their Westminster satraps determined to undo the outcome of the 2016 referendum. This, however, is not enough when this common opposition has very different bases, and appeals to different sets of punters. Farage's snub of Galloway might be an ego move, but it helps ensure his right wing project remains viable beyond the end of this month.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Esther McVey and the Working Class

Who would be the next Tory leader? Consider the scene just for a moment. The Brexit Party has taken a bite out of the Conservative Party's electoral coalition which, recently constituted, was in long-term decline anyway. And as last week's local elections established, there are some vulnerabilities where centrist-ish Tory voters are concerned. As if it can't get any worse, most polls are posting good leads for Labour even if, for the moment, the showing for the main parties is depressed by the fragmentary dynamic of imminent EU elections. They're in a pickle then, a very sticky, treacly pickle, and any new leader is going to have their work cut out freeing the party from the morass. Yet there are no shortage of vultures circling the carrion of Theresa May's career willing to try. With one hopeful knocked out of the running, let's focus on someone else who has used her leadership posturing to stake out territory of her own. I am talking about Esther McVey.

Formerly of the GMTV sofa, McVey acquired the sort of bastardy reputation only an association with the DWP brief can confer, both as a bag carrier for Iain Duncan Smith while he was there and again last January when she was made social security supremo, until Brexit pricked at her conscience in ways a bogus work capability assessment never could. Nevertheless, as far as her chances with the Tory membership goes these are both positives. Then again, rivals like Boris Johnson, Sajid Javid, and Dominic Raab possess these shoddy qualities in spades. What then is McVey's shtick, her U to the S to the P?

At the weekend, 'We Tories are the natural party of the working classes' appeared in the Express. The theme of her piece is abandonment. Tory failures on Brexit have detached the party from its base, she says. But not to worry because Labour's abandonment of "traditional working class" voters presents the Tories an opportunity. Leaving aside the Labour's difficulties with "traditional" voters, she argues the Tories could do a job appealing to workers, even low paid workers, because they work hard and "do the right thing". This, apparently, is something Labour does not understand.

Repeating the lazy cliches about a metropolitan elite (has she not seen the people she hangs out with at Westminster), McVey argues that her brand of Toryism, 'Blue Collar Conservatism', really has something to offer. And what might these tasty morsels be? More police on the street to stop criminals thumbing their nose at the law, raiding the overseas aid budget to rectify the issue. She attacks High Speed Rail 2, calling for money to be invested instead in local transport (no objections there), but her main pitch centres on "freedom, responsibility, and choice" - words Labour activists often find cropping up on the doorstep. For McVey, these words are talismans warding off the evils of Corbynist statism with its levelling downwards and removal of incentives for self-improvement. This isn't where most working class voters are, they want social mobility and the Tories are the ones to give it to them!

Even by the standards of May's 2017 pitch to workers, this is pretty abysmal. Unlike McVey, May's then policy brain, Nick Timothy, actually came from a working class background and understood the Tories would have to offer something relatively substantial to catch their notice. This didn't get beyond the philosophical and rhetorical, and the election proved you have to do better than nice words. Where really existing working class people were concerned they went for Labour in droves because it spoke their language. The Tory prospectus for working class voters was zilch.

McVey makes the common Westminster mistake of assuming retirees are typical of workers in general when, in fact, they're not. Pinching Johnny Foreigner to pay for a handful of beat coppers suggests McVey has read too much UKIP material instead of talking to actual wage earners locked out of the property market, and held back by crap wages and, to be truthful, crap jobs. The daily experience of working class life is a better education in Tory rule than any number of Labour Party leaflets. Rhetoric of this kind then might fly with the diminishing electorate of her threadbare party, but like all other Tory offerings McVey's pitch is not about to excite anyone but the Tory faithful, let alone getting anywhere near winning a general election.

Monday, 6 May 2019

Notes on the Local Election Votes

Few things demonstrate the truism that politics is about interests above anything else than the spin put on election results. The outcome of last Thursday's are a case in point. We had the BBC with its screaming headlines of a meltdown of the two main parties, as if losing 80-odd councillors is a tragedy up there with misplacing 1,300 of the blighters. In addition to desperately spinning that Brexit poses Labour the same kind of existential threat it does the Tories, we saw big councillor hauls by the Liberal Democrats and the Greens likened to an eating of the second referendum pudding. If only Jeremy Corbyn would stick the remainer oven on then Labour can look forward to the tasty, sugary treat of a whopping majority. This, of course, would mean overlooking the hundreds of seats gained by independents up and down the country whose views on Brexit on aggregate are usually some way off remainer central - though it hasn't stopped some "learned" folks talking the most clueless rubbish.

Anyone with the slightest ounce of political curiosity, or for that matter, integrity, would look at what happened on Thursday and entertain the possibility we might be seeing more than one thing happening, that more than one thing could be in a state of movement and change. How could it be, for instance, that Stoke's Tories proved immune to any backlash in the so-called capital of Brexit while getting pulverised elsewhere, that the LibDems didn't knock lumps out of Labour, and how Labour made advances in some leave areas and fell back in others. It's almost as if local factors, which are but rumours to most Westminster commentators and Brexit obsessives, were also important. That said some patterns can be discerned amid the swirls and vortices of voting movement. Why votes went all over the place is not magic, despite the overabundance of magical thinking about them.

As Simon Briscoe notes, the LibDem surge looked impressive but the underlying numbers do not show an enthusiastic surge to the yellow party. Taking Chelmsford as his case study, the story is less a matter of LibDems winning and more one of the Tories losing as their voters tended to stay home, observing a collapse in turnout since the last time these seats were contested in 2015. Readers might recall something else coincided with this set of local elections, boosting turn out and, in some areas, delivering more Tory and Labour votes than you would ordinarily expect for council contests.

Then again, there is more going on than Tories staying at home. Sticking with Chelmsford, the LibDems gained 26 seats overall with the Tories losing 31 in total. However, in 2015 the Tories won 10 councillors off the yellow party. In other words, sure some Tory voters abstained, but others switched. This is to be expected. In the last year, the LibDems re-consolidated their "traditional" position as the none-of-the-above party in local council by-elections thanks to the welcome collapse of UKIP. In 2018, they were much more likely to take votes and seats from the Conservatives as opposed to Labour. This also proved true, to a lesser extent, of the Greens as well. Why? Because of the particular way the Tory vote is disintegrating. Long argued here, if the Tories were heading in a populist right direction, then more moderate, softer Tory voters are likely to jump ship not to Labour, but other alternatives. Well, that direction hasn't unveiled itself yet (though the emergence of the Brexit Party as an ostensibly attractive new force is sure to push the Tories to the right) but those "moderate" voters aren't sticking around and are, as predicted, going elsewhere. Disintegration, if the polls are to be believed, is hitting them from both sides, and had the Brexit Party stood council candidates the Tory losses were guaranteed to be even heavier. For now, John Major's 1995 record of 2,000+ losses remains intact.

Nevertheless, as per Stoke the Tories didn't go backwards everywhere. Here, Derby, Swindon, Bolsover, all are places that bucked the national trend and some quite poor Labour wards went Conservative. This isn't something waving your blue passports and equipping Labour activists with Vera Lynn ring tones will fix. It means appreciating how the recomposition of Labour's vote is uneven, and how in some hitherto Labour constituencies community infrastructure has been torn down. The sorts of institutions that worked to reproduce class-based collective identities after retirement have withered, and this is a big problem. Effectively, retirement as a socio-economic status is petit bourgeois. Income is fixed and often low, it can be and often is atomising, and in the active part of retirement you are more likely to follow one's inclinations, money permitting. The collectivism and organisation of work no longer claims its pound of flesh. The spontaneous consciousness of living this way is individual and individualising, and is at odds with any trade union and class consciousness acquired during one's working life. And as social being tends to beget the way we think about our existence, this limits the appeal of leftist politics precisely because the petit bourgeoisification* of retirement meets weaker counter-veiling tendencies from residual working class institutions. This is not a counsel for despair, but a challenge to the labour movement. It's not impossible. Political science isn't rocket science, after all. Labour in Liverpool and Manchester has consistently proven immune to these processes, and Preston council with its model of Corbynist localism retained a comfortable majority, gaining four more seats as the Tory vote wilted. Labour therefore has to merge with and be part of the lifeblood of these communities. It has to be a campaigning presence, but importantly a vehicle for socialisation and community and this isn't a process than can be short circuited, even with an influx of hundreds of members motivated by national politics.

Nevertheless, this serves as a reminder that while politics polarised during and for a good period after the 2017 general election, and the Brexit effect in the locals was weak, in the aftermath of Theresa May's fiasco and on the eve of a EU election contest that rewards protest voting, should we not be surprised to see Westminster voting intention and these elections inflected by the same fragmentary dynamic?

*Definitely need a better word for this process.