Thursday 31 January 2019

The Market Mess in Higher Education

It was inevitable. The Times splashed with the "naming and shaming" of universities who've doled out unconditional offers like confetti. We learn that some institutions are making "up to 84%" of their offers without any strings, and topping out at 117,000 over the sector this last year. The Office for Students aren't happy, because they claim it takes pressure off students to do well in their A-Levels and liken such offers to pressure selling. The Universities of Suffolk, St John York, and Bolton are the worst offenders, but are going to carry on with the practice until the OfS says otherwise.

Why should anyone be surprised or scandalised that this is happening? Higher education has long been a market place in which university grapples with university for students. And when the pool is shrinking, as it is presently thanks to the diminishing number of 18 year olds (this is set to grow again in a few years' time) and international students steering clear because of Brexit and May's hostile environment, competition is fierce. Also, higher education is integral to the reproduction of class. Like life, competition between universities isn't a battle of equals. The top universities trade on their reputation and networks, and can afford to be choosy thanks to the huge grants they get through research projects, archives and, in some cases, government endowments. When times take a lean turn, all they need do is drop their tariff points and the punters flood in. This means institutions lower down the pecking order have to resort to other methods to get bums on seats, and issuing unconditional offers is one that comes easy to hand.

It's curious. Neoliberals of of the left and right presuppose that the market is the most efficient allocative mechanism that exists, and it drives up standards, produces value for money, and helps churn out the the most rounded human beings. As markets are the most efficient means for organising complexity, the state and outside institutions should keep their hands to themselves. And yet, time and again, we see perverse consequences and outright failure. One of the more obvious unforeseen consequences in the higher education context is what has happened to tuition fees. When the Tory/LibDem Coalition tripled tuition fees to a maximum of £9,000/year they believed different institutions would offer a range of fees, completely oblivious to the fact that in the class-bound realities of HE, a cheap degree would equate to a second class degree in the eyes of employers. Lo and behold there was little variation and now almost all, if not all, charge the maximum fee. Indeed, the very existence of the Office of Students as a hands-on regulator is an admission that markets cannot be relied on for service provision and requires an overseer to, um, ensure institutions don't respond to market signals.

Unfortunately, unconditional offers is but a minor ailment bedevilling the system. Large numbers of universities face going to the wall as they've played the capital markets or taken out huge loans to build fancy campuses to get the students in. And when they don't turn up? Bail outs for now, but closures can't be ruled out in the future. There is then the morality of lumping young people with massive debts before their adult lives have barely begun, and the massive pressure this places on them - as anyone working in HE will tell you, incidences of reported mental ill-health by students are galloping. And this is without talking about strains on staff, the culture of overwork, the burgeoning of bureaucracy and there in the background, the ever present threat of privatisation. The whole system is unstable and unsustainable, and it won't be long before it faces a serious crisis.

Tuesday 29 January 2019

Lurching Towards No Deal

When Dave was in charge, Oliver Letwin was one of his key people. He was kept away from the cameras for a number of good reasons, but as a strategic brain he was essential to the Dave set up. So his contribution to the Commons this afternoon was always going to be interesting. Sidelined by May like the other Cameroons, he chose the occasion to nip back with this warning: "If things go wrong with No Deal, it will not be Opposition blamed, - it will be us, our party, not forgiven for many years ... will be first time when we have consciously taken a risk on behalf of nation ... and terrible things happen to real people".

Unfortunately for Letwin, the Tories under Theresa May are proving as short-termist and blinkered as his old gaffer. And after tonight's events in the Commons, they've gone and doubled down on that. Firstly, after Labour's and the SNP's amendments were seen off, Yvette Cooper's amendment which was to annex to parliament the power to request an extension of Article 50 got voted down. You might recall this was the very same piece of putative legislation that had Amber Rudd and David Gauke giving interviews that May could face the resignation of up to 40 ministers if they weren't granted a free vote. May didn't cave, they did. Nevertheless some usual suspect Tories did rebel. It's just a shame 14 honourable members on the Labour benches saved the government's bacon and put us on course to a hard Brexit. A round of applause if you please for Ian Austin, Kevin Barron, Ronnie Campbell, Rosie Cooper, Jim Fitzpatrick, Caroline Flint, Roger Godsiff, Stephen Hepburn, Kate Hoey, John Mann, Dennis Skinner, Laura Smith, Gareth Snell, and Graham Stringer.

In what will no doubt go down in history as the stupidest vote ever to have passed the chamber, Graham Brady's amendment got the nod by 317 to 301. Because the government chose to back this, May's position will now see her return to Brussels to renegotiate the Irish backstop. As was reported earlier this evening, Donald Tusk got her on the blower to say the EU are not interested in revisiting the agreed position, making these meetings entirely pointless. On the surface, May is positioning herself as a believer in magic. She thinks a new "mandate" from parliament means the EU will be forced to renegotiate - because it worked so well for Greece. But underneath, May knows very well nothing has changed, to repeat a well-worn phrase. Unlike the Brexiteers who think the EU are going to cave because Britain, May is knows that fruitless meetings in Brussels pisses away more time. And with no deal imminent, the chance of her deal passing inexorably increases while retaining the support of the hard Brexit right.

And so we're a step closer to a no deal Brexit and all the damage such a disaster would entail. Yes, this is a calamity cooked up by the Tories in response to a split in the Tories, and hopefully its consequences will damn them for the rest of this century. But let's not forget those enablers too, without whom none of this would be possible.

Monday 28 January 2019

Mourning Conservative Values

Conservative values is an oxymoronic phrase for many readers, but there are millions of people who adhere to them. After all, the Tories cannot be the most successful electoral party in the world if all they offered was fear and thin gruel. Faith, family, flag are the favourite nostrums, to which we can add conservation, self-reliance, individual liberty, loyalty, unionism and community. Yes, yes, we know there is a disjuncture between Tory theory and Tory practice, as recently exemplified by one of its more liberal and sensible rising stars, but a mass purchase they still have.

Nevertheless, when you do one thing and say another you're going to get found out, and that is as true of political parties as it is people. When this happens a re-evaluation by some is inevitable. This is why I find Matthew D'Ancona's cry of despair in The Graun so interesting. The cause of his anguish? Theresa May's Tories, of course!

Casting an eye over the ugly scene, he confesses repulsion at Mark Francois's crude Germanophobia, the party's small-minded obsession with car crashing Brexit for the sake of tighter immigration controls, and the feeble and pathetic efforts of backbenchers at striking a waxwork Churchill. And what worries him more is the party's lurch into populism. While true that cancelling Brexit could have consequences, Brexiteers are talking up "treachery" and, as we know, insinuating a no deal martial law. What grotesqueries.

To this Matthew opposes a true blue conservatism. Whereas our Brexiteers are guilty of putting ideology before all else, proper Toryism is the dispensing of ideology, of approaching the world pragmatically and meeting it where it is. This is what Thatcher did, what Portillo called for when his Prime Ministerial destiny was snuffed out by 1997 general election, and was the basis of Dave's socially liberal modernisation project. Instead the Tories are now at the brink of a historic disaster precisely because this centrepiece of conservative thought has been abandoned. As he concludes, "the Conservative party is morphing into something I find alien and repellent. Like a listing galleon, holed below the waterline, it sails away stubbornly; dragging the nation towards a storm of unknown adversity, peril and pain."

A tempting response is diddums, but this kind of thinking typifies the attitude of a large number of what you might describe, with some inaccuracy, moderate Tory voters. As per centrism being out of sorts in the Labour Party since 2015, their sense of loss and estrangement is replicated on the other side among a layer of (sociologically similar) people mourning the loss of the Tory party they thought had become theirs. Yes, Dave oversaw unpleasant things like the bedroom tax and clamped down on welfare spending but everyone had to do their bit. And besides, at least he got gay marriage through, had a strong friendship with Barack Obama and totally looked the part on the world stage. You know, he was the sort of Tory that didn't make one queasy about voting Tory.

Dave was their Mr Sheen, flying about his dusty old party and shining umpteen things clean. It dazzled everyone who wanted to be taken in, and the glare was enough so none too many looked closely at the polished turd. With his presentational flare, people with short memories and a shallow feel for politics could be allowed to forget this was the party of class war, of crushing the working class movement, subverting democracy, and imposing an economic model that blew up in 2008. Hugging huskies and being all socially liberal helped ensure the vile bigotry, xenophobia and racism of the most malignant force in British politics was deftly swept under the rug. Then Dave fucked up, and in came Theresa May. Okay, she was a bit harsh on immigrants but she said nice words about tackling poverty and a social conscience. And then she went and defined Brexit in unacceptably hard terms, pulled up the rug and wafted about all the poison Dave stowed there. The Tories reveal themselves as backward, mean-spirited, small, and so unforgivably yesterday.

In truth the Tories in the early part of this decade were as backward and sectional as they proved under May. It's just that Dave was a better salesman, and they had a semblance of unity. They were not pragmatic, and definitely never eschewed ideology. They were the traditional party of the ruling class, and their primary objective - which the Liberal Democrats went along with - was to make working people and the poor pay for their economic crisis, and remorselessly grind labour beneath the heel of capital until there was little left other than motes of dust. This is what the Tory values Matthew and his ilk cry about mean in practice - a comfortable existence for people like him, an element (or illusion) of privileged access, and misery and struggle for those no one cares about.

Ultimately, happily, the problem the Tories have are much more serious than its social liberal veneer fluttering down the street with so many other discards. Brexit runs through the party like a gangrenous sore and it is totally split to the point of utter dysfunction. The support in the country, while substantial, literally diminishes by the day and there's no new constituency that can pick up the Tory standard and remake the party. To be sure the traditional party of the British ruling class is looking down the barrel of a gun. It has no answers, offers no leadership, and barely comes together as a coherent political force. Is it the Tories' distance from Tory values that bothers Matthew and friends, their exposure as a scam, or do they know in their bones that their party is in its death throes and they're getting their mourning in early?

Sunday 27 January 2019

Paul Mason on Journalism and Fake News

As readers should know by now, Politics Theory Other is essential listening. To mark the beginning of Red Hacks, a new PTO series hosted by Joana Ramiro, I'm reposting her interview with Paul Mason. In this Paul elaborates on his theory of the collapse of establishment journalism and locates fake news in a battery of elite strategies aimed at securing certain sectional bourgeois interests. An excellent and thought-provoking contribution.

Saturday 26 January 2019

Heidi Allen's Poverty Porn Tour

"I've absolutely had enough" says Heidi Allen of the Conservative Party's vindictive attitude to social security. Unlike her reptilian colleagues on the government benches, since entering the Commons she has talked about poverty and how the system her party has presided over makes the situation of the poorest and most vulnerable worse. Though not to the point of voting against the very legislation that tightens the screws, as many an incredulous observer have "fed back" to her via social media.

Here, Allen is exhibiting a patter of behaviour we find common among Tory MPs. They might note the increasing numbers of homeless people, the clogging up of Accident and Emergencies, the crappy state of the roads and a thousand and one other problems and infrastructural ills. And duly they get up in the chamber, or fire off a missive to the local rag saying how awful x, y, z is, but show a lack of comprehension or, more commonly, an absence of interest in why these are the case. Young people locked out of home ownership? It's just one of those things, a consequence of nothing in particular that happens for no rhyme nor reason. You could put it down to the abysmal political level of Tory MPs not possessing a a sociological imagination, but when what would normally be regarded as an individual attribute is a group characteristic, something is going on. The cognitive disconnect between Tory perception of their actions and their consequences in terms of the hardship and misery they dish out is a property of power, a by-product of the social distance between the point of decision and context of implementation, and of the indifference and sometimes gleeful cruelty this inculcates.

Tories might be in denial about their actions having consequences, but they know they really are responsible. Which is why among Tories, Allen is so unusual. You can talk the talk, as Theresa May used to, but to place yourself in close proximity to the consequences of the policies you personally have voted for is not done. A grinagog photo op down the food bank is one thing, quite another to speak with service users about why they're there and how Tory changes to income support have made life harder. For Allen, this must be an uncomfortable experience, and deservedly so. She knows and is beginning to confront what is her responsibility, but as far as Toryism is concerned her overt involvement and press work on poverty, her public displays of frustration and grief puts the rest of the party on the hook. When the cracks of British society can no longer be covered by the ideological paper of the strivers vs the skivers, Allen's concern with what the Tories have traditionally regarded as the undeserving poor is not helpful.

What to make of Allen's poverty porn tour? She herself is determined to blow the lid off what's happening and force her party to confront what they've done, and hopefully change their minds. I'm sure all readers have a view about the likelihood of her efforts succeeding, but Allen's motives appear sincere. Either that or she is an exceptional actor, we do at least get to measure her sincerity when she has future opportunities to vote on social security legislation. If you take the more cynical view and think about it as a profile raising exercise or leadership bid, then this coupled with her hanging around with a motley crew of Cameroons second vote'ers from the Labour benches is going to endear her to no one. But as far as the long-term health of the Conservative Party is concerned, as this place has long argued, Allen's trajectory is where the rest must tread.

Before she blotted her copy book with the parliamentary Tory party, I had Allen down as a future leader. A sign post as opposed to a weathervane, perhaps she will end up serving as a leader without ever being the leader. Cast your mind back again to the immediate aftermath of the referendum and the ease by which Theresa May assumed the Tory crown. She said warm, conciliatory words and affected her "grown up" approach to politics vs the reckless and light-minded record of her predecessor. She banged the one nation drum as well and talked about a country that worked for everyone. Rhetorically at least this was a break from Dave's two-nation Toryism and was well received, translating into an extensive poll lead over a Labour Party at war with itself. The moment swiftly passed as May returned to type, but her instincts were correct: the Tory party is in a a state of decomposition, and unless it reaches out to new constituencies the break down of the conservatising effects of age will do for them.

The Tory problem is there are no rising constituencies in the party. There are a smattering of relatively young and socially liberal Tories sat in the Commons, and nearly all of them post-date 2010, but they're there largely because Dave and the apparatus championed and put them there. They are atypical and do not reflect the declining membership, either demographically or politically, nor do they the Tory vote. If there's no base for a new wave of modernisation, then a defanged, moderate, one nation, and socially responsible Tory party is a pipe dream. And for as long as the Tories carry on pursuing a sectional strategy of holding together their declining coalition, the harder it will be when the day of decision comes and they can no longer win elections by trying to turn out their natural constituencies. Heidi Allen offers the Tories a sustainable future, but they won't take it and, effectively, can't take it.

The best Allen's poverty tour can hope for then is more publicity reaching more people, particularly Tory voters, and perhaps some votes down the line where Tory MPs might actually rebel on behalf of their long-suffering constituents. But don't hold your breath.

Wednesday 23 January 2019

Can the Tories Win a General Election?

Politics is weird. After surviving her no confidence vote last week by the skin of her teeth, and with a general election seemingly off the agenda for the foreseeable everyone's gone election crayzay. More than one report over the weekend talked about preparations being made by CCHQ for a snap contest, and Tory MPs and commentators have mused aloud about its possibility. If that wasn't peculiar enough, it was The Sun who published the most interesting piece about the Conservative Party's plans. I know, reading this rotten rag for its politics coverage proved worthwhile for once.

In an entertaining report by Tom Newton-Dunn, it's panic stations in the thinning ranks of the Tories. Internal polling, not cited of course, suggests a minority Labour government in the event of another general election and the party is ill-prepared to fight a gruelling battle in the marginal seats. They haven't got the people, their membership is demoralised, and their data mostly dates from the 2015 general election. Of course, reports like this make it less likely for Tory MPs to support a general election should May be forced into calling one, but one cannot but cite its most delicious line. Quoting an (obviously) unnamed "senior minister", he moaned how once solid streets in their constituency have become toxic territory. "If you knock on a door and they have books on their shelves, you can be pretty sure these days they’re not voting Tory."

They're in a rum do, and a general election probably isn't going to happen. But in the event of one at the end of February how likely is it the Tories are going to do as bad as The Sun reports? Let's think through this. Out of the gates, the Tories have three in-built advantages. The print media are mostly in their corner, and their talking points have the tendency to dominate the broadcast media agenda - regardless of rules about balance in the immediate run up to polling day. Second, while print's influence is waning it is consumed disproportionately by older people, and these still remain more likely to turn out and vote, which cancels out the lead Labour has in younger age cohorts. Lastly, the Tories are the party of Brexit. This is the ideological glue holding together their declining bloc of voters. As May has shown zero interest in other approaches to Brexit, the Tories are singularly ill-suited to appealing beyond their existing voter group, and so like 2017 it's going to be a turnout game - though the time is rapidly coming when this is no longer a viable strategy and they're going to have to think about winning the active support of swing voters and younger people.

That's for the future, this is now. What else can we expect? With a prospectus that can hardly be described as positive, the Tories will resort to type and scaremonger. It's what they do. More evil Corbyn and John McDonnell, more Labour in the pockets of the Scottish nationalists, more tax and spend, scrapping nukes, abolishing the army, smashing the monarchy and nationalising your iPad. Frightening the horses has proved effective time and again, and the Tories are past masters at using fear to cow a segment of the electorate into voting for them. And while this played out in 2017, it wasn't enough to push them over the line like it did with Dave two years earlier. However, one lesson they have drawn from that debacle was their failure to put the frighteners on about the economy - a mistake they're unlikely to repeat twice in succession. Nevertheless, this isn't a foregone conclusion. May would frame it as the Brexit election, and so concentrating on that could muddy her warnings about economic collapse, violent revolution and gunpoint expropriation. The second difficulty was how super savvy Labour proved to be in driving the agenda last time: the agenda could easily be wrestled from her again and the election become about what kind of life people should be living. On wages, housing, security, the NHS, and so on, let's just say there's a reason why the Tories prefer peddling night terrors over and above the scrutiny of their record.

Stacked against the Tories is the power of social media. It's not just readers of books they need to worry about. If the Tories are going all out on Leave, they need to know "their people" are infrequently online and, it would stand to reason, less able to be mobilised by digital networks. As 2017 demonstrated, Labour was able to significantly close down the Tory media advantage by leveraging its mass membership as an electoral factor in sharing material with eyeballs that normally look askance or evade contact with matters politic. More important was the party's social density. As mentioned here many, many times there are very few people in the country whose social circle is untouched by a Labour Party member. A physical party presence, of knowing someone who can answer questions about the party, its policies, and offer a flesh and blood view in opposition to whatever's coming out of the TV, papers or radio is priceless. And there's the small matter of activism. Labour moaners might whinge about not seeing hundreds of Corbyn supporters at CLP meetings and ward leafleting sessions, but when the chips are down they will turn out in massive numbers again. To this the Tories have no answer.

Still, the Tories have the luxury of facing a divided opposition, and one that might become even more divided. Unlike last time, it would be difficult for the Labour Party to nod sitting MPs and 2017 candidates through as automatic selections. It is unconscionable how dead weights like Chris Leslie shouldn't face a full selection meeting. In the event of the old Blairites decanted out of the party, the prospect of a new centrist formation cannot be ruled out and with it the possibility of leeching Labour votes. Then again, more likely is it would sink without a trace thanks to lack of time to build a name and, well, its protagonists are guaranteed to bring zero charisma and even fewer recruits to proceedings. The Tories might hope the LibDems going hard remain in their campaign will also divert Labour votes - because it worked so well in 2017. However, this could just as easily attract Tory remainers suspicious of/horrified by left wing Labour. And as for the SNP, they're going to be emphasising Brexit and remain more than independence on this occasion, which poses those Scottish Tory seats a threat.

In sum, it's a mixed picture. The Tories aren't in a good place, but thanks to their institutional support and inertia as the so-called natural party of government they could do better than The Sun suggests. But if they want to go for it, they have to go sooner rather than later. The longer they wait, the more difficult remaining the largest party, let alone retaking a majority, becomes.

Tuesday 22 January 2019

Love Unlimited Orchestra - Love's Theme

Not feeling the writing tonight. Instead, let's go back to the old school. Enjoy!

Monday 21 January 2019

The Cameroons Bite Back

It's not true that Theresa May's latest performance in the Commons was entirely pointless. As we saw at the end of last week, she was properly stuck with no pain-free exit in sight. But for once she has made a decision. We know what her game is, what she plans to do to get over her historic defeat. What that might be? Brace yourselves, hold on to your hats, take a seat because she's resolved ... to do nothing.

Having spent a period in her much-publicised "listening mode" with delegations of MPs, today with the centrist party-in-waiting of Chris Leslie, Heidi Allen, Soubz, Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, and Sarah Wollaston, May's revealed Plan B looks suspiciously like Plan A. Taking the sting out of her stupidly vindictive immigration policy, she has dumped settlement fees for EU residents here in the UK - which would curry favour with some - and has gone on to say the door for talks remained open. And then deploying her signature move of self-owning doublethink, May said she was sticking to her red lines and heading back to Brussels to seek changes to the Irish backstop.

Her game plan is political theatre, albeit of the most predictable, wooden, and time-wasting kind. The ERG, the DUP, the Brexiteers on the back benches and in the cabinet, she has decided the way to get her vote through is by pandering to them. Though even the dogs in the street know the EU aren't going to agree to any changes to the Irish backstop, despite Poland publicly breaking ranks today and suggesting this measure should be limited to five years. Clearly, May plans on scuttling back and forth between London and Brussels for utterly fruitless talks while the clock winds down, hoping the tyranny of those inexorable hands will wring out enough Brexit votes to get her deal through the Commons a second time. And by total coincidence, building on his pre-Christmas "capitulation", Jacob Rees-Mogg was in the Mail on Sunday yesterday suggesting if it came down to May's deal or no Brexit, he and his rancid comrades would sign on the dotted line.

A reckless move to be sure, as it seems impossible to contemplate that May could win the DUP and, basically, the non-payroll vote to back her before crashing out the EU. Though one should never underestimate the Tory capacity for a collapse into cretinism when the chips are down. Nevertheless, May is proceeding how she's always proceeded. This is less about getting a deal done, and more about preserving the Conservative Party. Going to the right May has reasoned that keeping the bulk of the MPs, what's left of the membership, and declining coalition of voters is her priority, and this is the best way of maintaining it. Your Dominic Grieves and your Soubz, they're not going to cause too much bother and if they should walk, which is doubtful, at least the bulk of Toryism is preserved to fight another day.

At least that was the lay of the land this afternoon. It seems since her Commons appearance that the beleaguered and abused Cameroon remnants are contriving to give the Prime Minister a cracking headache. Yvette Cooper is putting forward a bill in which Parliament takes over the Brexit process should May prove unable to get her deal approved by the end of February, chiefly by seeking a suspension of Article 50 until the end of the year. Coincidentally, it's backed by three lieutenants of the Dave ancien regime - Oliver Letwin, Nick Boles, and Nicky Morgan, who've been manoeuvring on this for quite some time. Labour are putting down further amendments committing Parliament to find the time to explore either a Norway-stylee or customs union Brexit, or an additional referendum. What makes this even more delicious is the normally-loyal Amber Rudd has piled in to "suggest" around 40 MPs on the payroll vote could go walkies unless May allows for a free vote on the Cooper amendment, which is dues to hit the Commons next week. Again, remembering there's not really such a thing as a Tory rebel (several Tory "insurgents" have ruled out voting for Labour's amendment), that Rudd felt compelled to speak out five minutes after returning to the cabinet is a warning to May that ignoring the Tory centrists is not without cost either and might leave her at the mercy of a Brexiteer rump should ministers walk off the job. The other problem for May is on present arithmetic, it could well pass. Even if Rudd's warnings come to nought, there are enough remain Tories thinking along these lines to defeat the government.

Extending Article 50 is not without its risks, but the responsibility for this situation should be laid at the doorway of Downing Street. From the point of view of the negotiations, May wasted crucial time calling a general election, appointing decadent, stupid and lazy politicians as Brexit ministers and the foreign secretary, signing a deal covering Northern Ireland and EU citizens before rhetorically reneging on them in public, hiding her Brexit plan under a bushel before an essay crisis meeting in Chequers over summer, sucking up to the Brexiteers while dumping on Tories with one foot in the business realities of bourgeois Britain, and now carrying on doing the same despite a historic humiliation at the hands of the Commons. May has attracted praise for "doing her best", but her best's overriding concern is the party interest, the preserving of the Tories. And if that means inflicting severe damage on the UK's social and economic fabric, then that's a price she's happy for us to pay.

Sunday 20 January 2019

Anti-Corbynism and Brexit

"This story is not true. The figures are completely made up." A wise rule of thumb for every story to feature in The Mail, but today's splash that Labour are haemorrhaging members come amid media assurances that the party is hopelessly split and faces untold damage unless Jeremy Corbyn "gets off the fence". When you've heard the same line from multiple pundits and papers supposedly at ideological odds with one another, you might be forgiven for thinking there's a machine somewhere mindlessly churning out the same talking points with a minimum of human supervision.

At any one time, there are multiple shenanigans and struggles configuring British politics. And one persistent strand is anti-Corbynism. There are sections of the bourgeois mainstream whose overriding concern is the derailing, discrediting, and the destruction of this most inconvenient of insurgencies. They encompass all the parties, bits of the state, business, a range of campaigns, celebrity, the media, academia, and will use whatever comes to hand. This is not a conspiracy, though these networks will necessarily collaborate, plan, swap notes. Most of their bile is generated spontaneously from whatever motivates their hostility to the Corbyn project. Whether the secret state, or indeed states, have a hand in these machinations, it cannot be reduced to spooks. Anti-Corbynism is inseparable from the class relations of establishment privilege and power, arises organically from them, and therefore will always possess something of a loose, decentralised and undisciplined character.

Over the course of the last 12 months, the hostiles have learned that potentially the most effective way of stuffing Corbynism into the backrooms and sparsely-attended fringe meetings is by trying to drive a wedge between the leader and his support. They have realised banging on about anti-semitism is good for bad headlines, but the overriding consequence is a demobilisation of the right's own base in the party (though it doesn't stop some from carrying on). Ditto for Corbyn's litany of sins against the establishment common sense in foreign affairs. They do think they have struck a rich seam after years of casting around: Britain's relation to the European Union. The sociological basis of the bulk of Labour's 2017 vote, not least its new activist base is a rising class who've suffered political marginalisation for decades. However, this class of immaterial labourers, whose ranks range from the low paid to the handsomely remunerated tend to be conscious of the economic dislocation Brexit means and broadly identify with the social liberal/liberal internationalist cloak the EU wraps itself in. And so, as it's largely the old New Labour establishment leading continuity remain, Brexit and the issue of a second referendum is being employed to drive a wedge between the Corbyn faithful and, well, Corbyn.

This report for The Graun typifies the tendency. Young people out in city centres on a Saturday getting signatures petitioning Corbyn to call for a second referendum. Being something of a veteran when it comes to running petitions, surely they'd be better off collecting signatures against someone who can actually do something about it like, I don't know, the Prime Minister? Nevertheless, it's catnip for anti-Corbynism. "I'm going to vote for the Greens!" comes the refrain. And it's the same hard remain talking points as well. "Get off the fence!" and "Corbyn wants an election, but it’ll be one where we have the choice between a Tory Brexit deal and some magical unicorn Brexit deal promised by Labour." And the usual "the majority of Labour members want a referendum!". Would that be those same Labour members who are content to give Corbyn and Keir Starmer the space to carry on as they have been doing?

I'm sure it's accidental how the article neglected to mention these were campaigns run by Our Future Our Choice, an organisation with some interesting friends and who have a record of running pointed anti-Labour anti-Brexit campaigns. But while this is a relatively gentle addition to the mood music, The Mail's spread about imminent meltdown is its amplification. Anonymous briefings from "insiders" who suggesting membership is plummeting like a stone, and that this has blown a £6m hole in party coffers - this is the fearless kind of journalism we enjoy. "It's because of Jeremy's stance on Brexit" warbles our unnamed and probably non-existent source. We can afford to take this with a pinch of salt because unlike the Tories, Labour membership isn't a trade secret. If there was a big drop social media and the party's gossip circuits would be alive with chatter from secretaries and CLP habitu├ęs about mass resignations or, at the very least, mass non-renewal. And yet ... tumbleweed. The Sun decided to have a go as well, but the only one that could find willing to go on the record was noted champion of the grass roots, Chris Leslie. This would be the same Chris Leslie whose own constituency party passed a no confidence motion in him, noting his "disloyalty and deceit". It's interesting, the right wing tabloids are decrying Labour as an incompetent shit show who are simultaneously inept and useless, but will nevertheless expropriate the expropriators with lethal Bolshevist efficiency.

To muddy matters even further, ramping up the perception Labour is in a whirlwind of crisis, we learn (again, from The Graun) that apparently Labour would lose votes if it backed another referendum. Apparently, this poll found that Labour would gain nine per cent of Tory voters but lose 11% of existing Labour voters, virtually guaranteeing the party would lose. Apparently over a third of LibDems voters and Green voters would switch, but given how squeezed they are in the polls it's reasonable to assume not many more can transfer from the absolute cores they were driven down to in 2017. Also, one point the article misses is what it might do to the Tory vote. May's gamble was her belief that being the party of Brexit would carry the majority of the kippers, which it did, as well as swathes of Labour leavers in the north. She didn't partly thanks to Labour's adroit positioning on Brexit. Should we get another election, and chatter about one is increasing despite the no confidence vote falling, thanks to differential turn out the Tories will position themselves as the custodians of Brexit and if this ground is ceded, as opposed to Labour adopting a soft Brexit position again, May will get her desired result. If you think Tory "centrists" are somehow going to prevent this by launching a new party or whatever, prepare yourself for disappointment.

There's the state of play this weekend. Labour is in crisis, Labour's members are deserting, Corbyn is a massive millstone, etc. Meanwhile, calm heads will note support for a second referendum among the wider electorate is pathetically low, there is no route through Parliament for one, and Labour have posted modest leads in all the polls bar YouGov's outliers. Far from Labour being caught between a rock and a hard place, it's Theresa May who is stuck but refusing to abandon her Brexit position. There's the home of the real crisis, the black hole in which all sense is crushed to an infinitesimally dense point. And the one threatening to drag us all down with it.

New Left Blogs January 2019

Once again, it's been a while since I last did one of these. But I'm always happy to welcome new left blogs/pod casts and other contributions to the socialist firmament. Here's what the fates have supplied me these last couple of months:

1. Samantha Asumadu (Twitter)

2, Stats for Lefties (Twitter)

3. The Social Review (Twitter)

4. Wendy Liu (Twitter)

If you know of any new(ish) blogs that haven't featured before then drop me a line via the comments, email, Facebook, or Twitter. Please note I'm looking for blogs that have started within the last 12 months or thereabouts. The new blog round up appears when I have enough new blogs to justify a post!

Thursday 17 January 2019

Theresa May's Big Crunch

Crunch time is coming, and contrary to the headlines and the bellyaching it's Theresa May, not Jeremy Corbyn who's caught in a vice. As forecast days ago, May has gone cap in hand to each and everyone, asking all corners of the Commons to come forward to try and make her Brexit deal work. And from all points of the map they came, a self-selected pick 'n' mix of Liberal Democrats, backbench Tories, nationalists, loyalists, and Labour people filed in and filed out of meetings with the PM and/or her henchmen. For the Greens, Caroline Lucas criticised May for introducing this listening exercise at the 11th hour, and then not budging on her fabled red lines. Likewise, Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn more or less declared their meeting a waste of time because she won't take them off the table. A farce in other words, and one Jeremy Corbyn is wise to stay away from.

Examining the logic of Theresa May's position, the PM says she cannot take no deal off the table and that it constitutes an impossible condition for talks. May argues that only two ways exist to avoid a no deal scenario: back her deal, or back out of Brexit. It's almost as if her deal hasn't gone down to the humiliation of a sitting government's worst ever defeat and doesn't know the meaning of the word 'negotiation'. The problem for May is behind the scenes, her chancellor has done the ring around of key businesses and, um, has promised to take no deal off the table. Could it be the Tory leadership are saying one thing for public consumption, positioning Jeremy Corbyn as a target for the flak guns for his intransigence, and hypocritically whispering assurances to their well-heeled mates in private? I'll leave you to make your mind up.

Nevertheless, it's not just the Greens and a pair of undistinguished suits from Labour's past that have been wasting their time speaking to the Prime Minister. Looking as pleased as punch, David Davis, Steve Baker, and a useless entourage of the European Research Group smiled for the cameras before and after their meeting. As Boris Johnson wasn't present, the contents of the occasion did not immediately light up the phone of the Telegraph's chief political reporter, but according to Davis, the PM was in a listening mood as she politely heard their concerns. Yet as May hasn't changed her mind and is unwilling to offer concessions to her left, it is impossible to see how she can move and offer the hard Brexiteers something - no matter how conciliatory the poise.

Let's look at this in a little bit more depth. The position of the ERG and sundry Brexiteers is unchanged. While their flavour of Brexit might differ in some respects, they are resolutely against a customs union. It's more complex than a pathetic fancy of a swashbuckling Britain led by a new generation of Tory gentlemen signing trade deals here, there, and everywhere, but it's a Boys' Own desire they cannot quite shake. And it's a matter of coincidence it aligns with the hedge fund and disaster capitalist interests that have an intimate and constitutive relationship with the ERG faction. Secondly, as we've heard ad nauseum they're opposed to the Northern Irish backstop. This, for readers who can't be blamed for tuning out the finer details of the Brexit process, is the guarantee that the north will remain in a customs union with the Republic and, therefore, the EU in the event of the EU/UK not securing a trade deal and settling the future relationship after the transition/implementation period has expired. This is due to last 21 months from our putative exit from the EU on 29th March. Hence, as May rightly points out, her deal and her backstop is an insurance policy and probably isn't going to happen - though there are plenty of idiot bankbenchers, including Boris Johnson, who want a deal sorted as quickly as possible and are opposed to the transition lasting any length of time.

That's for another time. As far at the EU are concerned, the backstop is insurance for the economy of the Irish Republic. As the EU member state more dependent on the UK economy than any other, effectively remaining in an economic union with the north protects if from the worst of a no-trade-deal scenario, though barriers to trade with the British mainland would prove onerous. The EU are insisting on this, and as May refuses to accept a customs union for the whole of the British Isles, we have a fudge in which Northern Ireland might be placed outside of the UK, economically speaking. Here's why the DUP can hardly be described as fans (though they're happy for the North to remain separate from the rest of the UK for other reasons), and ditto for other Tories for whom the constitution of their state is sacrosanct - as long as it continues to defend their interests.

Houston, we have a problem. Because May caved to the right on no customs union, we have a compromise where the EU will only accept this if Northern Ireland remains in the customs union as insurance. Which is unacceptable to the Brexiteers. What May giveth with one hand the ERG try and take with the other. If May, however, was to accept an all-Britain customs union as insurance and the basis for a Brexit deal, which is Labour's position, then the Irish backstop will go away. What's not going to happen is May disappearing the backstop after tea and tiffin in Number 10, no matter the smiles, or how courteous and charming the ERG's ambassadors. The EU won't accept it, and it cannot get through the Commons. Therefore an ERG Brexit deal is foreclosed, and the route to one lies through a customs deal Brexit, be it something bespoke like Labour's or the Norway option, which is attracting attention on the Tory and Labour backbenches. Unfortunately for May, as Steve Baker made clear earlier today, a customs union means a split in the party - though it is worth remembering there's really no such thing as a Tory rebel, as last night's no confidence vote reminds us.

There then is Theresa May's big crunch. If no deal is to be avoided and the Tory party once again fulfils its historical vocation as the vehicle for Britain's business interests, it takes the sensible route and suffers a permanent schism with its wrecking tendency. If it no deals, the party underlines its isolation from the rising generation of voters, suffers a split with its more moderate figures and, crucially, makes the decisive break with the bulk of British business and bourgeois interests. A painful couple of months for Theresa May and the Tory faithful then, but an agonising fate so richly and justly deserved.

Tuesday 15 January 2019

After the Biggest Defeat Ever

"The risk of a disorderly Brexit has increased" mused Jean-Claude Juncker. A fair assessment after Theresa May suffered the biggest Commons defeat by a government in, well, ever. Certainly something to keep the constitution nerds and Trivial Pursuit fans happy for centuries, and useful fodder for Labour's next general election campaign. Of course, there is zero sympathy for the Prime Minister round these parts. She has consistently misread the politics, has subordinated the needs of what bourgeois politicians call the 'national interest' to those of managing the Conservative Party, and from the outset brushed aside the concerns of others. Well, until some provided a fig leaf.

May's thumping 432/202 defeat is nothing less than catastrophic for her premiership and the capacity of the Tory party to govern. She might muddle through the vote of no confidence, in fact it is quite likely, but the margin of failure was much greater than any backbench Tory feared, or Labour bencher dared. Its consequences are scouring deep scars in the Conservative psyche and for some sections of the so-called natural party of government, there is little but numb shock. It couldn't happen to a nicer bunch ... Nevertheless, while May is batting away the resignation demands it's difficult to see how she can go on. As we've noted plenty of times, May has been in a historically unique situation in which her weakness affords her a strange sort of strength vis a vis the other factions and petty leadership contenders in her party. As they cancel each other out, she had autonomy and wriggle room. But tonight her opponents came together and collectively thwarted the raison d'etre of her premiership. Largely because she forgot that getting the deal through parliament meant getting it through parliament, not just her backbenchers.

Now what? In her brief speech following the defeat, May said the government would reach out and was now "listening". An approach, wiser heads suggested, that she should have adopted since she gave away the Tory majority. This, it seems, is the only sensible approach left assuming there isn't a general election. It would mean turning a tin ear to the hard Brexiteers of Jacob Rees-Mogg's ERG and your Boris Johnsons, and staking out where the majority of the Commons is at. And that would be in the direction more congenial to Labour's position, with its six tests, including the maintenance of a customs union, or the Norway-style option getting traction on the Tory benches. However, it's difficult to see how May could possibly facilitate such a process considering her obsession with immigration and her maniacal interpretation of Brexit in its light. The second difficulty concerns the electoral interests of the Tory party more generally. If we interpret the national interest in terms of getting a deal, how can this party be trusted to deliver a Brexit at odds with the membership, and its coalition of voters? In short, it can't.

Want more problems, because Brexit's got them! Assuming somehow the Tory party is able to overcome these insurmountable difficulties and act as a clearing house of ideas and amendments, these have to be packaged up and negotiated with Brussels. True, more reasoned heads than May and her awful coterie are surely going to be in the driving seat but the EU can say no, or maybe, or whatever. And then there's getting it all through in time for exit day, which is looking shakier by the hour. Revoking Article 50 is the sensible option with a view to starting the clock again, but that is not without consequences. And so, the mess reigns, but May's defeat has opened up new possibilities for something else, which was absolutely closed before her historic loss.

Monday 14 January 2019

The Far Right and Thwarting Brexit

I thought the morning had a darker aspect about it than usual, and lo it turned out Theresa May was in town. No walkabout down Stoke's pearly avenues, it was Wades Ceramics that was the entirety of her itinerary. And her purpose was to push her Brexit deal in what has variously been dubbed the capital of Brexit, and she laboured her point. Either her vote passes tomorrow evening, or we face a no deal Brexit or no Brexit at all. Well, if the UK's membership of the European Union was a technical matter I'd be a-okay with that. But it isn't. Brexit cannot be wished away, and the clock cannot be dialled back to 23rd June, 2016. Still, the idea that Brexit might not happen or, to be more precise, the consequences of it not happening is interesting, because it has the potential of becoming a very serious political crisis.

It suits Theresa May and her lackeys, like the doomed incompetent Chris Grayling, to talk up no Brexit in blood curdling terms because, well, scaremongering is the Tory thing to do. And they don't have any politics left beyond trite soundbites to defend their position anyway. Still, one shouldn't too readily dismiss some of the concerns they raise simply because they raised them. To be sure, casting aside a democratic decision is a serious, if not foolhardy business, even if the argument for doing so is couched in the sophism of more democracy, in the form of another referendum.

Let's set Grayling's observation that thwarting Brexit could prove a spur for the far right in more credible terms. The foundation of our febrile politics is a malaise, and this used to get the establishment hand wringing a decade ago. Long-time readers will remember the moral panic every time the BNP got themselves a councillor, and the applause a succession of New Labour politicians would bask in from sundry editorials as they stated "unthinkable" thoughts about refugees, and talked up the tough treatment of immigrants. Yet no matter how far right leading politicians were prepared to go, they only sanctified and legitimated the BNP's xenophobic bile. A bit of liberal do-gooding here and there about how nasty the BNP were was more than drowned out by the racist sentiments articulated by the press and mainstream Labour. What we now call and is openly described as a 'hostile environment' was the fertile soil that nourished the BNP and, to a similar extent, UKIP, and this culminated in the BNP returning two Members of the European Parliament in 2009.

Success ultimately did for the BNP, they couldn't keep it together. And political fortunes turned against them shortly after Nick Griffin's infamous Question Time appearance. The Tories were looking dead certs to win the 2010 general election, and as Labour collapsed into Brownite decline and recrimination the populist sheen rubbed off the BNP. In Stoke, once described as the jewel in the BNP's crown by Griffin, at the 2010 local elections half of their councillors were lost and come 2011 they were wiped from the council chamber completely. Entirely welcome, but the same deep alienation from official politics didn't go anywhere. With the BNP a busted flush across the country, the anti-politics slack was picked up by UKIP, especially after 2013. Nigel Farage himself spoke about how the party was doing politics a favour by picking up former BNP voters and effectively domesticating them. Yes, but it was enough to put the frighteners on the Tories. In 2014 UKIP won the largest plurality of votes in the European elections and sent to Brussels the largest contingent of MEPs, and in 2015 they polled well over four million votes. At every step of the way, like his predecessors in government, Dave did not take on the xenophobic right: he cleaved to them. And we all live with the consequences of this now.

The problem is there is a mass base for reactionary politics as cultivated by previous generations of politicians and nurtured by a press at the peak of its influence. Cowards and liars have rode it to prominence, and others have tried compromising with it - seldom has it been challenged. The question then for anyone interested in progressive politics is to directly confront and win over its more amenable fringes, while demobilising and politically dispersing the rest. Well over a decade of appeasement has caused the present damage, given us Brexit, caused a surge in hate crime, and seen regular but small mobilisations of the far right. By accepting Brexit but marrying it to a popular programme of the new class politics, Labour was largely able to see off the reactionary bloc in its heartland seats in 2017 while a lot of that vote transferred to the Tories as custodians of Brexit. If then the Tories are seen to be responsible for thwarting it, that poses a big problem for their voter coalition - and an opportunity for the far right.

Unfortunately, many of the people who poured scorn on Grayling's warning at the weekend are the sorts who've spent the last two-and-a-half years telling everyone who'll listen that Leave voters were thick and racist, that the referendum should be rerun/pulled because it was "advisory", and they were manipulated by Russians. In other words, exactly the sorts of people least capable of understanding how reactionary politics can have mass appeal, and therefore the most clueless when it comes to taking it on. It might only be social media knockabout, but remainy/centrist rhetoric aligns with everything the far right have previously said about the liberal establishment, and could prove a boon to mobilising reactionary support in the context of a second referendum or Brexit's cancellation.

There are a couple of other things worth thinking about. Building reactionary support might not trouble the electoral calculus of the main parties. It's hard to see how even UKIP can make a comeback without its best known figures attached to the project. But the price would be paid in even more hate crime, more far right mobilisations, more Tommy Robinson, and other awful political pathologies. Other forms of political violence can't be ruled out either. We saw how Brexit's toxic rhetoric culminated in a fascist murdering Jo Cox, and it could quite easily happen again. Now, none of this is about giving an imaginary far right a veto on how we go about politics now, as some of the self-same clueless centrists put it over the weekend, but it is about recognising that political actions have political consequences. If you are seen to trample on a democratic decision you don't like, don't act all surprised if you end up stirring anti-democratic political forces. If you strike an elitist pose, don't be shocked if right-wing populism finds itself a big audience again. Because in Stoke-on-Trent and many other places like it, the BNP and UKIP may have been and gone but the slab of reaction is there, latent, abiding, and ready to mobilise if it is antagonised and enabled.

Thursday 10 January 2019

John Mann's Red Wash

"Desperate Theresa May caves in on workers' rights to save Brexit deal". Well done The Mirror for getting the scoop, but what does it mean? Since losing her majority, May's approach to Brexit has proceeded more with an eye to Tory party management than actually getting her deal through the Commons. Then, during last Autumn's party conference season the penny belatedly dropped and the PM realised that intransigent opposition from the government benches meant she needed Labour MPs onside. Since then, nothing. And now at the 11th hour, we learn she's been having chats with John Mann, Caroline Flint and others about accepting an amendment on the protection of workers' rights.

The amendment seeks to fix existing EU workers' protections in British law, and would also give MPs a future vote should the EU decide to enhance employee rights in the future. Justifying his amendment, Mann argues that it makes May's deal more attractive to Labour MPs by improving on the vague sentiments expressed in the original deal text. Flint went on to say that she hoped the amendment would be backed by the front bench. Unfortunately for the "20 MPs" who are prepared to back the Mann/Flint amendment the likelihood of that support forthcoming is up there with a Simon Danczuk comeback.

John McDonnell and Angela Rayner have piled in, branding its acceptance by the Prime Minister as a cynical act of self-interest, adding that the Tories can't be trusted on workers' rights. This is more than the usual argy-bargy of parliamentary rhetoric. We should not forget that May has proven more underhanded and happy to lie than even her predecessor, her ruling out of a general election before calling one and pulling the meaningful vote on her deal the day before it was originally due to take place should set the alarm bells screaming "she's not to be trusted!". Likewise as Tim Roache of the GMB observes, if she really cared about workers' rights then there were ample opportunities to get trade unions around the table. Also, it's pretty meaningless. EU workers' protections have meant little as the Tories and, disgracefully, New Labour took Britain to the bottom of the league for employee rights in Western Europe. Workers in Germany and France still enjoy greater rights at work, despite us all (for the moment) being part of the EU. And for her part, while May is hardly the workers' friend she has not pledged to scrap protections or anything like that - this being a hobby horse of the hard right of her party - so accepting the Mann/Flint amendment comes at zero political cost to her.

What John Mann and co. are doing then is providing red wash for May's deal. Assuming she loses the vote next week, when she returns to the Commons with her Plan B it will, in all likelihood, be in the form of a cross-party appeal for further amendments. Clearly this is what both Mann and Flint expect as both have framed their intervention around workers' rights as the beginning of a process that incorporates more of Labour's red lines. And from May's point of view, the more new amendments are bolted to her deal, the more the clock ticks down to exit day, the more likely sundry Labour MPs are going to back it to prevent the disaster of no deal.

No Labour MP should have anything to do with getting May's deal through. While all Brexit options aren't good, some are less harmful than others. Contrary to efforts aimed at muddying the waters, Labour's position is clear and straightforward: a deal based on a customs union with single market access. This softest of soft Brexits guarantees continuity for EU residents as well as established trading relationships, and delivers on the 2017 manifesto. A position, you'll remember, that was able to bridge the gap between Labour remain and Labour leave constituencies when everyone else was predicting electoral catastrophe. By going along with May's deal, Mann and friends are advocating a harder Brexit than what could be achieved. They have forgotten, whether purposely or not, that the biggest danger to our people - their constituents - is the continuation of the Tories in power, and are on a course that would keep May and the rest of them in government. Such a position for a Labour MP is unforgivable, and makes their future as Labour MPs untenable.

Tuesday 8 January 2019

Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste

Actual fascists and Nazis calling Anna Soubry a fascist and a Nazi. You've got to admire the chutzpah of some people, even when they're the bottom feeders of British political life. Of course, letting fascists hang around the gates of Parliament intimidating all and sundry is unacceptable. Other noted targets have been Owen Jones and Dawn Foster. I don't know, it's almost as if these self-appointed knuckle-dragging guardians of Brexit have a problem with women and gay men in public life. And lest we forget, these goons do have deadly form. As was heavily trailed in the media earlier, John Bercow has written to the Met commissioner to ask that policing outside Westminster be a bit more robust and, for their part, the fuzz are looking into the footage to see if any charges can be brought.

Nevertheless, the discussion on this lunch time's Politics Live was revealing as far as mainstream responses were concerned. The ever-execrable Isabel Oakeshott likened the activity of fascists outside Parliament as the same as the protests that occasionally greeted Nigel Farage at his public appearances. Jo Coburn went on to quote John McDonnell when, years ago, he called for direct action against coalition ministers wherever they went. Forgive me Jo, but there is a world of difference between protesting cuts with placards and the like and screaming in the face of women, all the while recorded for narcissistic posterity.

And we know who's to blame for this, right? It's that there social media, of course! The place where criticisms of politicians and journalist are always 'attacks' and 'abuse'. It never has anything to do with the kinds of rhetoric these self-same standards of probity indulge. Think about the last 20 years. Who has done more to incubate racist tensions and scrounger discourse than politicians and journalists? The divide-and-rule politics both sets of elite actors cultivated did more than win elections or boost circulation, it poisoned the well. All the division and spite Brexit unleashed did not drop from the sky, it has built up over years. Emboldened fascists are just one toxic shock of our contemporary malaise.

We know what the end goal is. Legislation aimed at social media in some way, for instance the banning of anonymous accounts and/or the attachment of a real identity to each so complaints can be made and users face "accountability". And our fascist friends are useful idiots for the desire, of some, to curb protest. After all it would be a shame to let a crisis, even a small one like this, go to waste.

Weak Bonapartism

It's worthwhile thinking about the concepts that emerge from the analysis of politics, particularly when it is fraught and strained as per, well, now. And, after all, if commentators are doing their job properly they should be thinking about how to describe and explain what's going on. First up is weak Bonapartism, which is something used here loads of times to describe the situation in the Tory party and the position of Theresa May. It describes how her weakness vis the rest of the party paradoxically gives her room for manoeuvre and strength.

Bonapartism as a concept has a lengthy history among the grey beards. Coined by Marx himself in the articles collected in The Class Struggles in France, Bonapartism refers to the politics in France between the failed revolution of 1848 and 1850, when universal suffrage was abolished. This culminated in 1852 with the founding of the ill-fated Second Empire. Without getting bogged down into the historical detail, Louis Bonaparte (later Napoleon III), the nephew of the original Napoleon, was elected President in 1848. Having been shook by a failed plebeian revolt and thanks to fractiousness between the remnants of the aristocracy and different sections of the rising bourgeoisie, Marx argued the struggle of classes and class fractions had balanced out. The popular masses were no longer willing to be ruled in the old way, but were not capable of exercising power themselves, and likewise the ruling class were disorganised. Into the vacuum the state stepped and assumed political independence from landed interests and industrial capital. It became less a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie, as per The Manifesto, and more an organised power for stamping the authority of a single man. The state was strong, the contending classes were weak, and so state authority prevailed. Nevertheless, as Trotsky later observed it was still a bourgeois state because it preserved prevailing class relations and, later on, used government to drive economic development and participate in the European scramble for global markets and colonies.

There have been various adaptations of Marx's concept since. Most controversially in Marxist circles, Trotsky used it in his analysis of Stalinism. In a series of articles written in the 1930s, and most famously in his semi-holy screed (for some), The Revolution Betrayed, he argued what the Soviet Union had become following the October Revolution and its subsequent international isolation an example of 'proletarian Bonapartism'. Again, sparing the details, Trotsky argued that following the revolution and civil war the Russian working class were devastated, the country lay in ruins, and the party had effectively fused with the state as the only organised power in the land. Because the workers and peasants were ruined so were the chances of socialist democracy. And so the organs of direct democracy withered, followed by internal democratic norms in the party itself and the bureaucracy assumed power. However, because capitalism wasn't restored and, indeed, the power of the apparatus flowed from its command over a post-capitalist economy, this dictatorship over the proletariat nevertheless protected the nationalised property bequeathed by the revolution. Hence Stalin's Bonapartism was progressive and marked a gain over what existed previously.

Trotsky also employed Bonapartism in his analysis of fascism in Germany as overlapping categories. Here, fascism started as a mass movement of petit bourgeois reaction against a rising workers' movement, which propelled it to power. Once there, the Nazis turned the organs of the state against their political enemies without and, eventually, within their own movement. And once it was tamed/absorbed into the state it more or less settled into something akin to Bonapartism. Whether he'd have changed this assessment had he lived beyond the early years of the Second World War is a matter of speculation.

In the post-war period there were a number of permutations of Bonapartism. The expansion of Stalinism to Eastern Europe and South East Asia proved/disproved Trotsky's concept, depending on your view of the Soviet Union. For some Trotskyists, the coming to power of De Gaulle in 1958 and the founding of the Fifth Republic was a moment pregnant with Bonapartist dangers. With decolonisation often the only organised body in newly independent states was the military, and often found themselves in situations analogous to, but not as fortuitous as that of Napoleon III, and more recently the army played a Bonapartist role in Egypt's Arab Spring.

Bonapartism then has a pedigree of unpicking the relationship between classes and the state in rapidly moving historic movements and processes. What use could it have for understanding the predicament of Theresa May?

In what you might call the long June since May lost her majority at the 2017 general election, the Tory party has been in a state of stable instability, or permanent disarray. The membership are drifting away or dying, and at the top of the party May's shattered authority is beset by rival factions and ambitious individuals. I guess we've become habituated to it, but we should remember that the spectacle of cabinet members thinking aloud about Brexit is unprecedented and a symptom of May's weakness. Yet thanks to the disunity of the Tories, the awful mess May has on her plate, and leadership contenders balancing one another out, paradoxically the Prime Minister is safe from challenge. After all, if you were an ambitious MP and fancied a bite at Number 10, would you make your move now when Brexit is up in the air and there is still the drawn out process of a trade deal to come? Likewise, would you want it while the party is in the midst of tumult and you're unable to exercise your authority over it? No, and so May abides.

This is where the perverse character of weak Bonapartism is brought out. The central authority is weak, but none of May's would-be rivals have the strength to see her off and replace her. This gives May considerable strength and autonomy, something she only really cottoned on to over the summer. When the details of her Chequers Deal was made public, the likes of David Davis and Boris Johnson could have made a move. But they didn't, preferring to resign and grandstand from the back benches. May also realised that there was no need to appease the hard Brexiteers either, and that if they were able to force a no confidence vote in her leadership she would see them off - a calculation that proved correct. However, weak Bonapartism is an anomalous situation and one that, for May, can't less forever. Should her deal fall at next week's vote, what then? Will she soldier on, knowing no one's about to usurp her (indeed, under party rules this cannot happen until next December), apply for an Article 50 extension, which is the talk coming out of Brussels today, or throw in the towel - assuming she survives Labour's no-confidence vote?

And of weak Bonapartism itself, if May goes in short order her successor will be prey to the same pressures. But weak Bonapartism is so out of the ordinary that I can't think of any other examples or situations where it applies. Any suggestions?

Sunday 6 January 2019

Aaron Bastani vs Smug Centrism

Full solidarity to Novara Media's Aaron Bastani. In the last fortnight he was piled on by the last people you'd want to turn your back to. Jolyon QC did some digging into Novara's funding, because the concept of a small media operation funded by donations and powered by volunteers is alien to him. Others, whose concern with anti-semitism coincided with it becoming something to attack the left with, tried smearing Aaron as a racist because of a jokey tweet sent years ago. Most egregiously Jeremy Duns (who?) wrote a clueless and tedious blog post questioning the validity of Aaron's PhD. Apparently, it was a "farce" that his thesis - on the dynamics of political communication in social movements - brings academia into disrepute because Aaron was a participant in the movement studied and, um, he didn't cite a New Statesman article from 2011 by Laurie Penny. Affecting authority on a topic one doesn't know about is chancy because the incontinent spraying of your opinions across the internet can make you look like an idiot. Except if you're plugged into the feeds of liberal Twitter, who will make you feel important and wrap you in the embrace of a centrist smug-in.

There is so much going on here I don't know where to begin. The attitude of these pitiful people and - I use this term generously - their political praxis cannot be separated out from the morbidity of liberalism. And this is not just a British thing. Here, centrism in its liberal and managerial/technocratic variants were rejected by mainstream voters of the left and right in 2017. In the United States Hillary Clinton was handily seen off by the tangerine Antichrist, and in France the God King of centrist politics is beset by a coalition of suburban citizens, just to give two examples. But let's not forget what liberalism is. It's much more than ideas in a short book, or a smattering of politicians and journalists. It is a movement.

We've talked about this before. Liberalism is a bourgeois social movement, a semi-coherent body of big business actors, the aforementioned politicians and journalists, bits and pieces of the UK state, and a mass base comprised mainly of the 'educated' middle class and small business people. It has a political party, our friends the Liberal Democrats, but the movement also has among its ranks MPs, Lords, representatives on devolved bodies, and councillors and members across the two main parties, plus odds and sods in the SNP and Plaid Cymru. Philosophically, it believes ideas drive action, and this action is the prerogative of our elected representatives. Collective action is possible, but through lobbying, petitioning and, as a less resort, peaceful demonstration. Liberal democracy is both the best and only system for reconciling the different competing pressures of any given society and, of course, the primary political unit is the individual. There should be no unfair or undue institutional or attitudinal impairments to the free exercise of their will, their desires, and their right to political participation. From our point of view, liberalism is fundamentally bourgeois because of its stress on the individual and suspicion of collectives, its privileging of representative democracy and the push-me-pull-you of parliamentary politicking, defence of the market and fundamental blindness to structural inequality and social conflict coincides with and apologises for the operation of capital.

Liberalism/centrism as a ruling class movement is in crisis. In Britain and the US, for the first time in a long time it is completely excluded from government. Trump surrounds himself with hard right ideologues and sycophants, and despite the permanent display of Tory weakness Theresa May is bulldozing ahead with her Brexit plan. Its crisis, however, cannot be reduced to this alone as there have been plenty of occasions previously where liberalism was locked out of government. What's different is a collapse in its mass purchase. In the US, it fought the Sanders insurgency in the Democrats with dirty tricks, and then moved on to Trump by, basically, ceding him political ground by fighting an almost entirely negative, narcissistic and technocratic campaign. Liberalism/centrism tried doing the same in the Labour Party against the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, and has continued on this basis in its opposition to the left ever since. But few, if any, are biting. Out of sorts in the Tories and Labour, and with the LibDems a pathetic shadow of what it once was they can feel an ill wind, and it's blowing in the direction of marginalisation and irrelevance.

This is the necessary context for understanding its political bankruptcy. Every significant political event of the last few years confounds their world view. Why the likes of Trump or Bolsonaro were victorious, or why Brexit was affirmed in a referendum the liberal establishment lined up against could not possibly have anything to do with them and their record. No, it had to be the Russians, or illegal spending, or the groupthink effects of social media. After all, their ideas are the most modern, most obvious. And this certitude has only got stronger the more reality flies in the face of their expectations. It used to be that liberals defined themselves on a left-right spectrum equidistant from each. Now it's a triangle - left and right are the slopes and the centre is the pinnacle from which they look down on both. In fact, the reverse is the case. The slopes are upwards and they're stuck in a hole. Their put downs to a resurgent left are really attempts to climb out of their pit by dragging the left down, and the more they flail helplessly the more vicious and shrill their attacks become.

And so back to the attempted monstering of Aaron Bastani. He and the comrades variously associated with Novara - Ash Sarkar, James Butler, Michael Walker, Eleanor Penny - and other outriders for Corbynism, like Grace Blakeley and Alex Nunns, not only frequently get into the media but are proven adept and articulate performers. For established liberals, it's more than a matter of simply disagreeing with them, they are competitors. Writing essays and appearing on Novara's own shows is one thing, but taking up seats on Politics Live, This Week, Newsnight and Question Time as advocates for the new left means fewer gigs for them and their like-minded mates. How to put them back in the box? Challenging their politics only gives them legitimacy as commentators, as equals with wrong ideas. But in the world of the attention economy, where commentator bankability depends on media appearances, Corbynism presents as much as an existential threat to them as it does their liberal allies and friends in the Labour Party. And so the skulduggery, the insinuation and snarking, the smears and slanders, and the borderline doxxing is about refusing legitimacy, of an attempt to discredit by exposing Aaron as someone completely beyond the pale. And if they're successful, what is the consequence? They have acted as gatekeeper, determining what is and isn't acceptable to be broadcast and discussed in mainstream outlets and made the media world that little bit more secure for themselves.