Thursday 28 February 2019

Deleuze and Sociology

A book review of Nick Fox and Pam Alldred's Sociology and the New Materialism appeared with no fanfare last year on the Sociological Review website. Mainly because I'd completely forgot it was due to be published. My bad.

Fox and Alldred open their primer on the resurgence of materialist thinking in the social sciences by observing its clustering around three key insights: that the world is unfixed and relational, that the natural and the cultural inhabit the same plane of materiality, and that the animate and inanimate (living and non-living matter) have agency. As you can find similar observations in Engels (Timpanaro 1975), just what is new about the new materialism? The answer appears to be a restatement of theoretical anti-humanism. That is a shift in analytical focus from individuals and subjects to networks of relations and “assemblages of animate and inanimate affect” (p.4), a recognition that the social is produced in multiple ways, which include the avenues of desire and emotion, and lastly an emphatic dethroning of the human as the fulcrum of analysis vis a vis the environment. Anyone versed in developments around poststructuralist philosophy will be familiar with these themes, but what is ‘new’, perhaps, is their application to fields of burgeoning sociological interest.

To do some violence to the specificities of their contributions, there are four key inspirations of the new materialism, as far as Fox and Alldred are concerned. The first is the work of Bruno Latour and his embedding of agency in networks and assemblages of the human and the non-human. These condense into social aggregations which, in turn, comprise what sociology would traditionally regard as macro-level phenomena, such as institutions and nations. The how of this assembly should be the concern of social scientific analysis. Second is the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari and their strong emphasis upon a monist materialism; the notion that everything exists and becomes on the same ontological plane, and that the status of everything depends on its relationship with everything else. Assemblages are, therefore, everywhere. Because of this, the third contribution comes from Karen Barad. As participants in the assemblages composing the world, researchers are always situated and the research assemblages we set into motion can never be neutral. They are discriminating, imbricated with meaning, and endowed with the power to construct knowledge. Science therefore is as socially produced as any other assemblage. Lastly we come to the posthuman, nomadic philosophy of Rosi Braidotti. Here, bodies are lived and irreducibly material, each of which are dense confluences of social forces. They are participants in, products of, and subjects within assemblages.

Why does this matter for sociology? By adopting what might be described as an ontological turn, the focus of this materialist sociology is social production as opposed to social construction. This is not an insignificant distinction. Instead of the essence/appearance approach to critique that dominated anglophone radical thought up until the 1990s, emphasising the production of the social allows for a more dynamic and finely grained approach concerning capacities, interactions, affectivity, and the properties of self-organisation of entities determined by and given material weight by their relationality. It acknowledges the web of assemblages that make up the social and offers a means of unpicking it without resorting to pre-given forms and identities. Rather these, such as woman, neoliberalism, the nation, and so on are matters to be explained in materialist terms. They are outcomes, characteristics, figurations of assemblages that shift, are contaminated and change shape as they ceaselessly come into contact and cannot help but fraternise with other assemblages.

There is a political, or rather a micropolitical caveat that Fox and Alldred make. Drawing on Deleuze and Guarrari, they note assemblages can never be totalising. As an assemblage specifies itself, be it a set of ideas, a subculture, or a methodological procedure, it gives off affects that tend to structure itself in a particular direction. This process of territorialisation is partial, and is permanently prevented from a complete organisation (aggregation) of sets of bodies and relations. This can be by the disaggregating, or deterritorialising affects given off by other assemblages. Or by singular affects, how the specification and territorialising process does not always aggregate its bodies but produces in them their own dynamics, or lines of flight, that may orient them beyond the organising force of the assemblage. For example, the social life of a strict religious sect is at permanent war with all the other assemblages comprising the world as they impinge on, enter into and disrupt the space it has territorialised and struggles to reterritorialise. Conflict therefore is ontological, a permanent and inescapable clash, as Fox and Alldred note, between specification and generalisation on the one hand, and aggregation and disaggregation on the other.

Fox and Alldred then go on to offer brief overviews of the contributions the new materialism has made with chapters arranged around the environment, creativity, sexuality, emotions, health, research design and methodology, policy, and social structure and stratification. Each are easy to follow, and provide clearly written examples that demonstrate the new approach. This also goes beyond theorising with the inclusion of a number of empirical studies, not least other works by Fox and Alldred, and in so doing they go some way to addressing the scepticism a large number of social science practitioners have toward the theoretical fashions of the last 30 years.

The chapter on social structure and stratification is a good place for such sceptics to begin. Drawing on Latour, Fox and Alldred note that a concern with the assemblage leaves no room for traditionalist sociological concerns with structures and systems, nor space for organicist metaphors. For instance, within an assemblage the swapping out one of its bodies for another changes the collective interactions and capacities of the assemblage, which in turn starts transforming and rearranging the powers of the new body. Similarly a body that assumes certain attributes within one assemblage might well take on others in another, but we cannot suppose or predict what these are without observing it. Secondly, an assemblage is more than the sum of its parts – the relations within it emerge as the assemblage comes together, hence as social scientists we must pay attention to events. Thirdly, power and resistance are properties of the assemblage: they are relational, contingent, dynamic and highly unstable. Given the macro-level focus of much sociology, what does this mean? For example, on institutions and “class structures”, their stability over time is located “in the affectivity of myriad repetitions and habituations of individual work events over time and space. These are continually made present within event-assemblages through aggregative memories and experiences, and continually reinforced by every further act of working” (p.60). And on social divisions and stratification, they note these “are products of implicit or explicit aggregations that deny difference and shoe horn dissimilar bodies and collectivities into arbitrary categories” (p.67).

Nevertheless, Sociology and the New Materialism could almost be read as if it was actively fighting shy of accomplished aggregations and their affects vis a vis world-wrapping assemblages, as if the political can only ever be the micropolitical. For example, Marxist invocations of capital or neoliberalism, or feminist references to patriarchy do not necessarily have to disassemble the assemblage behind each and every category summoned to assist analysis. It is reasonable, for instance, to look at the ways capital and markets deterritorialise and reterritorialise the genome (Haraway 1997) without having to specify the content, bodies, tendencies, and antagonistic relations that compose said capital and markets. That work has already been done, not least in Marx’s Capital. This is where Deleuze and Guattari’s celebrated designations of molecularity and molarity would have been a useful terminological addition to the book, given Fox and Alldred explain well the conflicting movements within assemblages, talking about molar (relatively fixed and exclusionary) entities would be less a matter of ignoring their composition and more a strategy of bracketing them. Secondly, despite naming Latour, Deleuze and Guattari, Barad, and Braidotti early on as key inspirations, the majority of the theoretical heavy lifting done here is by Deleuze and Guattari. While not a problem in and of itself seeing as the social sciences have not yet embraced their work to the extent of Foucault’s, it does mean the other thinkers are somewhat overshadowed. Braidotti’s ontology of sexual difference (Braidotti 1994), for example, is a sophisticated reassembling of Deleuzian materialism as it pertains to gender and sexuality and could easily have been covered in more depth.

This said, Fox and Alldred deserve to be congratulated for this book. For scholars and students put off by the foreboding reputation of Deleuze and Guattari and their novel vocabulary, this book explains clearly the logic of their positions, its break with established traditions in sociology, and does an excellent job of demonstrating its utility for empirical study. It therefore comes highly recommended to those contemplating an encounter with the authors of Anti-Oedipus, and is student-friendly to boot.

Wednesday 27 February 2019

Anti-Semitism, Transmisogyny and the Nazi Imaginary

The title of this excellent installment of Politics Theory Other certainly deserves a wide audience. In this interview, Joni-Alizah Cohen looks at the role the value form plays in the constitution of anti-semitic and transmisogynist tropes with the Nazis as her case study. An original and interesting approach useful to understanding how they operate today.

As ever, any support you can give is much appreciated.

Monday 25 February 2019

The Labour Politics of a Second Referendum

Politics is weird. At party conference last September, Labour passed a motion committing it to a second referendum in the event of Parliament rejecting Theresa May's Brexit deal, and if, for its part, it couldn't force a general election. Well, here we are in February 2019. May, you will recall, has suffered the largest defeat in parliamentary history, and lost a further vote endorsing her Brexit strategy on 15th February. Unfortunately, she survived her post-disaster vote of no confidence and has played for time ever since. Now thanks to the founding of The Independent Group, she is a bit more secure as TInG have said they would back her should another no confidence vote come up. So much for the supposed social democratic politics, as Tom Watson would have it, of its ex-Labour component. This brings us to where we are. With no route to an election and the disaster of a no deal Brexit looming, pushing a second vote comes into play.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. As Gary Gibbon noted in his Channel 4 News report, Jeremy Corbyn's statement was hardly a full-throated declaration of intent but more of a reluctant, going-through-the-motions in line with conference policy. As this Graun report, um, reports, about 25 Labour MPs could rebel against Labour's backing the second referendum amendment, and the likes of Stephen Kinnock warn this could prove a divisive and costly mistake. Unfortunately, given everything written here these last couple of years, I'm inclined to agree. If socialism is, among other things, the democratisation of the state and social life, then setting aside the outcome of a mass democratic exercise is not a place any socialist wants to be, or should be in.

What's going on? As the Graun piece notes, Keir Starmer and Tom Watson pushed this move to forestall future defections to the TInG on the fringe. This is understandable where Tom is concerned. Contrary to arguments made during his recent media appearances, it's not the Labour Party that's in a serious crisis, it's the Labour right who are. Never in the party's history has it endured reduced circumstances like these vis a vis the left in the unions, the membership, and the apparatus. Its remaining power base in the PLP has suffered because of the defection of former favoured sons, and was set to shrink further in the event of others scuttling over to the TInG bench. It appears the leadership have been spooked by what this might do to Labour's vote in the marginals and so have consented to the Watson/Starmer push.

Then again, politics watchers know a second referendum isn't going to get through the Commons. Or could it?. Even if the Cameroons finally make good their promises to rebel will it be enough? Assuming the 25 Labour MPs unhappy with the new position break the whip then, well, it's going to be very tight. Who knows, with any luck perhaps a few of them will do an Ian Austin flounce. Still, it seems likely the leadership feel a vote isn't going to be won but they've nevertheless shown willing - a point the BBC's chief political correspondent concurs with.

Should we worry about Labour leavers though? Well, yes. Of course we should. After all, the condition for winning an unexpected number of these voters back from UKIP in the 2017 General Election was Labour's acceptance of the referendum result. If you like, we were granted permission to be listened to. That said, a couple of other calculations come into consideration. First, May's Brexit can very clearly and unambiguously be dubbed a Tory Brexit, which isn't an argument too difficult to sustain. Just look at the litany of disasters and the grim forecasts coming from business. Still, as far as May is concerned as long as the Tory party is preserved it will all prove worth it. More fool her, this just hands other parties plenty of ammunition. The second involves the character of Labour leave voters. Just as the primary concern of Labour remainers wasn't the referendum's outcome but the 2017 policy platform, it seems the leadership are backing on a shift among Labour leavers. Accepting the referendum result might have got Labour a hearing in the first place, but after two years Brexit fatigue is setting in and the consequences are becoming more apparent. Perhaps now the way one voted has become secondary to other concerns. And third, for the rising generation of voters coming of age then Labour can now say that, at the end of it all, it did what it could to prevent a Tory Brexit.

All said and done, it is a risky move. Not just because of the difficulties it poses Labour's own coalition, but because of the firming up effect it could have on the Tory vote. Remember, Brexit is the glue binding them together. So we're in a tense moment, a situation that could sound the death knell of Jeremy Corbyn's chances of occupying Number 10. Or be the making of it.

Sunday 24 February 2019

Thoughts on The Independent Group

On Friday night, Alex Doherty of the ever-excellent Politics Theory Other podcast and, um, me settled down to have a chat about TInG, the Labour right and politics more generally. This sesh was very much a case of thinking aloud!

As ever, Politics Theory Other needs your listens and your support. Please give Alex a follow on the Twitter, and while you're at it the podcast too. And if you have a few quid to spare, please consider supporting the show.

Chris Leslie and Elitist Politics

In her Newsnight interview with Kirsty Wark, Anna Soubry batted away questions about the politics of the newly-minted Independent Group by saying this was "something new". As this could not pertain to the tired return of warmed over Blairism (with a full-throated shout out for George Osborne, in Soubz's case), it must be something specific to TIG itself. Plenty of people have noted this is not a political party but a corporate entity owned by Gemini A, a company owned by TInG nobody and anti-gay bigot, Gavin Shuker. Normally it's the height of Commons manners to be discreet about one's relationship to a private company, so I suppose that's new.

Another innovation came in George Eaton's interview with Chris Leslie. Amid the guff and nonsense, none of which we haven't seen before, this wee gem was put forward in response to being quizzed on party leadership: "Everybody has genuflected to membership, but that membership is a tiny fraction of the public at large ... MPs have to, by the nature of our constitution, have confidence in their leader." Therefore MPs should have the final say on who gets to be the leader of their party. Can you imagine his envy when Andrea Leadsom withdrew her ill-fated 2016 leadership bid when it became clear Theresa May had the backing of most Conservative MPs? It's not entirely surprising then how ordinary people cannot join Leslie's outfit - though their money is good enough.

But I want to focus a little on Leslie himself. The notion that social being conditions consciousness should be a banal truism when it comes to the analysis of politics, but it's not. And this is for good reasons where mainstream commentary is concerned. Rather than parties being the means by which interests are articulated and represented, they are free-floating coalitions of ideas. MPs sat in Westminster with their salaries, status and a cushion of office bods who do the donkey work for them can subscribe to this fiction, this illusio (as Bourdieu put it) of the political field because most of them are from similar backgrounds, have a similar outlook, the same salaries, conditions of work, respect for parliamentary conventions, and so on. For them, this is politics. The constituency association or party, having to deal with beastly members' meetings, committing to local council election efforts, that's not proper politics: it's a distraction.

Leslie's contempt for members' participation in the affairs of their party makes sense in this context. But additionally, he's something of a special case. Like his equally useless compadre, Mike Gapes, the Labour Party has provided him a good living virtually all his adult life. Fresh from his Masters degree at Leeds University he moved into a political research job in 1996 before getting selected for Shipley in 1997 at the tender age of 24. There he was a loyal MP and something of a Gordon Brown protege until getting dumped out of office at the 2005 general election by noted Tory misogynist Philip Davies. He was then gifted the directorship of the New Local Government Network following his defenestration, and headed Brown's leadership campaign from behind the scenes. He was then selected to fight Nottingham East in 2010 and has sat in Parliament ever since.

It's worth focusing in on that Nottingham East selection. Long-term readers might remember shortly after joining Labour in February 2010, the seat in which I live, Stoke Central, was subjected to a stitch-up. The NEC (in reality, the then regional director) drew up a shortlist comprised of Tristram Hunt and two no-hopers and trusted the local membership to select the right candidate. Alas, local party members in Nottingham East weren't even afforded that luxury. The then sitting MP, John Heppell, resigned late before the general election and so the selection of a replacement came under the purview of the NEC's Special Selection Panel. A long list was drawn up and was put to the five-person panel and, what do you know, Leslie was awarded the seat for services rendered. To understand why Nottingham East no confidenced him and have loudly complained about his neglect of the constituency, the circumstances of his imposition on the CLP is the necessary context to take into consideration. For a large chunk of the membership, the legitimacy of his claim to the seat has always been suspect and contested.

Leslie then epitomises the trends Peter Mair wrote about in Ruling the Void, of a party elite distant from and indifferent to what's happening in the real world. And we can see why. For most of Leslie's political career, elites at the top of parties have used bureaucracy, dirty tricks and all manner of manipulation to keep themselves in place and insulated from outside pressures. For the likes of Leslie, ordinary people getting involved in politics, having a say, expecting politicians to answer their questions and, ultimately, being accountable to them is as much an aberration as it is an abomination. This is politics as less an elite and more an elitist activity, one they shouldn't be ashamed of, and why it is no accident The Independent Group was set up as project for MPs only. Not that this should unduly worry anyone. As they will find out soon enough, if they can't be bothered to orient themselves to a mass constituency outside of Westminster, then people outside of their bubble, even those who might be favourably disposed to them, aren't going to be bothered with them either.

Friday 22 February 2019

Tuesday 19 February 2019

On Centrist Party Polling

How well can we expect a new centrist party opposed to Brexit do? Survation are out of the starting blocks with something of an answer. In their standard poll published on 18th February, the Tories are on 40% (up two since 30th January), Labour 36% (down three) and the Liberal Democrats 10% (up one). However, given acres of talk about a new centrist party, in advance of the flounce they asked punters if, well, they’d give a new party a punt. The result puts the Tories on 39%, Labour 34% and LibDems on 6%. Centrism can boast of 8%, which isn’t bad for a new party.

How to explain these figures politically? Contrary to what you might read on Twitter, polling isn't a Tory conspiracy. Not even YouGov. The bread and butter of polling companies is the selling of market research because, well, companies need accurate information about the habits of the customers they hope to sell to. If a polling company consistently gets elections wrong, say, by greater than the margin of error then clients are going to start looking elsewhere. Hence the panic that greeted the 2015 and 2017 general election results. And I’m sure readers will recall it was Survation who called the last election right, which is why we should take their findings seriously.

We have to remember is what a poll is. It’s not a prediction. It’s a snapshot of opinion at a point in time. How then are the Tories, who are falling apart and making the most incredible hash of Brexit, motoring ahead? You can put some of it down to the polarisation of British politics, which I’ve written about too many times to link to. But there is a chunk of personal support for Theresa May. Believe it or not, a significant proportion of the electorate advance her a great deal of sympathy – and this includes Labour voters. As far as they see it, she’s been left a right mess and has battled her way through the crafty moves of Brussels’ bureaucrats and the childish behaviour of her backbenchers. Whether she’s played her dud hand well or poorly, the fact she’s stuck it out and not thrown in the towel at the merest sign of adversity – unlike some – commends her to many people. Secondly, some are quite prepared to accept she’s arguing the UK’s corner so it's our patriotic duty to get behind her. See, for example, how backing “our boys” won out over anti-war sentiment once the tanks started rolling in to Iraq. A similar sentiment applies. This, of course, poses the Tories some unique problems after Brexit – whether we leave on 29th March a some point afterwards. She is their best asset and there isn’t a single Tory who can fill her boots. Not Johnson, nor Javid, nor Rudd, and certainly not Gove, Leadsom and Williamson.

On the centrist anti-Brexit party, there’s no reason for undue concern. Repeat polling of voters find most like to locate themselves in the political centre, irrespective of their political views and party preferences. Those so disposed to novelty will look closely at The Independent Group or its eventual successor in the context of an election to find out more, and I doubt a platform of privatising public services and moar markets is going to set their worlds alight. But what about that pesky eight per cent? Well, here's where the snapshot comes in. We don't know when the next general election is going to be, but it's unlikely to happen while May remains Tory leader. What's even less likely is a snap contest getting called prior to Brexit day. Which means the point is moot. The next election will be the first after the UK has left the European Union, and so the dynamic of Brexit changes from should/shouldn't to what shape it's going to take over the medium to long-term. TIG or the LibDems are, of course, free to campaign on re-entry to the EU, but an electorate heartily sick of it aren't going to bite in large numbers. In all likelihood the big question concerning the EU is going to be what the relationship should be. The Tories want the kind of arrangement granting them their holy grails of economically useless but politically useful trade deals, of Britain rising once again as a great commercial power. Pathetic stuff. Labour, as per its customs deal approach to Brexit, would see the party negotiate a much closer relationship to Europe to mitigate the damage already being done. Like the last election, pro-Europeans will have a choice: they can vote for a prospectus enabling more detachment and increasing irrelevance, or a close, friendly relationship with the world's largest trading bloc seeking to preserve as much continuity as possible. Who knows, perhaps in a decade or two it might lead to the UK's re-admittance. If your synapses aren't totally burned out by FBPE memes, the choice is obvious.

This is why no one should get in too much of a lather about TIG or the electoral impact of a centrist party. You can't forge a new politics on the basis of the old, discredited politics. You can't stop Brexit if it has already happened. And you can't offer anything if you're not in a position to do anything. Like I said, Survation's poll is a snapshot in time. And it's a window in time just about to close.

Monday 18 February 2019

Is The Independent Group a Wind-Up?

Is The Independent Group a wind up? We'll pass over Luciana Berger fluffing her lines and introducing herself as the Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree at the launch. TIG is incorporated as a private company to get around donation reporting rules for political parties. This move, which is without precedent as far as the party affiliation of sitting parliamentarians is concerned, is about preventing scrutiny of their finances. And this is one eschewed even by Farage's new party, an outfit and a project that has serious questions to answer about past finances. Not the best way then to break the mould of the old politics.

Fancy another? TIG is owned (sorry, "supported") by a shell company going by the name of Gemini A (website registered in Panama [edit: see comments]). Looks suspect, yes? It gets better. Not only is the business address a Wetherspoon's in Altrincham, a curious choice for an explicitly anti-Brexit "party", said pub trades under The Unicorn. You couldn't make it up.

They also thought it would be a good idea to poach a Tory, and so approached Ruth Davidson to be their leader. Having a sense of self-preservation and half a brain, she turned down their kind offer. But still, Soubz is there waiting in the wings. She's already removed all mention of being a Tory MP from her Twitter bio in preparation for the jump.

And it would be remiss to forget Angela Smith's appearance on Politics Live where she did a racism. Lest we forget.

But you know what truly damns this clowns' car of an ego vehicle? It's the total lack of seriousness. They have learned nothing, nothing since 2015. Like the ill-fated Corbyn coup, no ground has been prepared in the wider party. This is a gaggle of minor-to-anonymous parliamentary personages with no backing apart from shy rich people and naff celebrities. They didn't try and win over other party members, let alone appeal to those who have left Labour. No work was done to reach out to the affiliated organisations or to try and get councillors on board. In other words, the most basic organising, the 101 of launching a new party, has been set aside. Why? Incompetence is part of the story, but it's in equal part the arrogance that comes with launching an elite political project. The truth is you, me, the little people don't matter. Politics is a plaything for MPs, Lords and Ladies, and the money bags who can buy their way in. Us? We're just voting fodder at best, and the people who politics is done to the rest of the time. We don't understand, we don't get it, and we definitely should have no role to play in a political party above the station of envelope stuffing and leafleting.

This is what their split is about. It's no accident this comes after three of them got no confidence votes by the constituency parties, that similar moves were being made by another, and that Chuka Umunna's local party voted to move away from delegate-based to all-member meetings. Democracy is only okay if it leaves them unchallenged and gifts them a job for life. 

Let's be honest. The Labour Party is well rid.

Sunday 17 February 2019

New Left Blogs February 2019

Is something in the water? It's been quite a while since we saw new pluggage for new blogs two months on the trot. It's a trend I hope continues! Enough from me, here are the sites that came my way this last month.

1. LeftGreen70 (Twitter)

2. Luis

3. Soma: Optimistic Politics

4. Steve Cooke (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!

Saturday 16 February 2019

Decomposing Liberals

Nick Cohen cuts a pathetic figure and his latest rant reads much like his last rant. And the one before that. And the one before that. But after his pitiful wittering on about personality cults, the agonies of the deepest, darkest reds hiding under Labour Party beds and the hounding, the hounding of MPs by legions of far left attack dogs, the thousand word torture finally culminates there in a wee nugget of political interest.

Responding to the persistent rumours of the imminent arrival of a new centrist party, he rather fancies its chances. Behold,
The media and, more seriously for its supporters, the Corbyn Labour party do not understand the fury at Brexit that is raging through liberal Britain. It is white-hot and capable of immense destruction ... Likewise, Corbyn believes he can renege on his referendum promise without Remain voters making him pay. For all the world they sound like Scottish Labour politicians circa 2005, taking their voters for granted and guffawing at the notion that the SNP could ever sweep through the Labour heartlands.
Blimey. He goes on to say "Volcanic pro-European fury" threatens to up end the political system and destroy the old certainties, including the two-party iron law of Westminster politics. It goes without saying that Cohen's record of insight and clue is as rubbish as other scribblers in the dying centrist, liberal tradition, but an ignominious back catalogue of mistakes is no guarantee he will always be wrong. Broken clocks are right twice a day, and political realities might even sometimes impinge on the dismal consciousness of a Spectator columnist.

On the dinner party circuit and among the dwindling band of Labour MPs who give him the time of day, there is anger all right. And it has certainly proved capable of mobilising a hefty march or two. But it's not enough to take an impression from the inside of the bubble surrounding your life and simply assuming it's the case everywhere and for everyone else. Yes, many remain supporters are appalled by the Theresa May's antics and the smug complacency of the Tory ultras. No doubt many wish the clock could be turned back. Still, there is a world of difference between wanting something and accepting you can't have it. Assorted commentators tend to forget this when puzzling over polling that suggests a majority of Labour members want a second referendum, but are also happy to support Jeremy Corbyn's handling of the Brexit crisis. The truth of the matter is only a minority of remain voters are obsessed with and frame their politics around a remain prospectus. Brexit is intangible to most people, the damage the Tories have inflicted and are inflicting now is not.

Bold claims, so where's my evidence? Well, Labour might have slipped a touch in a few polls but its electoral coalition is more or less holding together. Despite desperate attempts to talk up apparent membership losses by the Labour right and their media friends, there doesn't appear much evidence of this. And our friends the Liberal Democrats are hardly surging. Nor is there a clamour for a new centre party because, if there was, our bold, brave heroes would have struck out for themselves long ago and success would be theirs.

We know this, Cohen knows this, the centrists know this, and the organised forces of liberalism know this. Yet are we on the cusp of a liberal storm surge of SNP-style proportions? If we use that experience, the moment suggests not. The collapse of Westminster politics in 2015 was not a bolt from the blue. The SNP skilfully built a reputation for steady-as-she-goes government since taking charge in 2007. They have avoided major political calamities that are routine for establishment politics elsewhere in Britain, and successfully opposed themselves to Westminster with a semi-populist civic nationalism with liberal characteristics. As such they had something different to offer by the time the Scottish independence referendum swung around, enabling them to hegemonise long-bubbling discontent with London rule and returning all but three of Scotland's MPs in 2015. The signs were there if you chose to look at them. Think about the UKIP experience too. They didn't explode from nowhere in 2013 as the Tories tussled over equal marriage. Their rise was a combination of consistent, modest success in European elections and being indulged by the mainstream media. And even Corbynism, which presents as an overnight phenomenon, was nothing of the sort. The exclusion not just of the left but the denigration of and lack of interest in what the Tories were doing to with their cuts, their social security cruelties, their hostile environments, and their assertion of market fundamentalism was building up a huge constituency who burst into mainstream politics via the twin eruptions of the 2015 leadership election and the 2017 general election.

This is not the case with liberalism. They don't have the numbers to break the mould, nor do they have the politics appropriate to the moment. Unlike Corbynism, unlike UKIP (as was) and the SNP, which are examples of political recomposition, angry liberalism is undergoing decomposition. The Liberal Democrats are marginal and barely relevant, so irrelevant in fact that their existence is oft overlooked by partisans of a new party. The liberally-remain centre of the Tories is routinely ignored by May's dilly-dallying with the Brexiteers, even though they're better represented on the payroll than the ultras, and Labour centrism is little more than one long sulk by MPs not used to and finding objectionable the idea of members wanting a say in how their party is run. As I've argued before, liberalism/centrism is a movement, a ruling class movement, but one that has historically (at least where the 20th century is concerned) subordinate to conservatism and politically demolished and partly absorbed by Labourism. 2010-15 was its last great hurrah - the LibDems were in government, liberal-leaning Dave and Osborne ran the Tories, and the beloved Ed Miliband was from centrism land and the legion of equivocations were thanks to the politics from there. And all that has gone. Liberalism is, effectively, a gaggle of generals without an army, a clutch of representatives without a party. The base has either slunk away, or is huddling around the LibDems for warmth. And, unhappily for them, the slice of the remain-voting population for whom remain is the deepest, overriding concern tend to be ... the same groups of voters already disposed toward liberalism.

It could make a come back some point down the line. In fact, I'd go so far as to say liberalism's long term future is a conservative one. That is to say a liberal-dominated, statist centre right party along the lines of Angela Merkel's CDU is the only way the Tories can secure their future over the long-term - it's certainly going to find successive elections more difficult sticking with the play book of contests past. Here then is an opportunity for liberalism. But that's a long way off. It's falling apart, has been turfed out and marginalised in the two main parties, and finds its media bastions under siege from newcomers and beset by social media.

Ridiculous pieces like Nick Cohen's are ten-a-penny, but are no less part - an aspect of the journalistic record - of the decomposition of liberalism. He and his petty oeuvre are one note of an elite choir screaming their existential doom as they feel the chill embrace of night gathering about them. The point is not far off when their chief representatives will no longer be seen, and their wonky speeches and desperate pleas resonating barely enough for a historical footnote.

Come to the Media Democracy Festival

Saturday 16th March. Doing much? If there's nothing penned in and you're in or can get yourself down London town, why not come to the 2019 Media Democracy Festival? Here's the blurb.

"The Media Democracy Festival brings together media democracy campaigners, journalists, researchers and citizens to take part in discussions on a range of issues from challenging bias to confronting Islamophobia and from how we can take on the tech platforms to producing a media manifesto for the next election. It has a fantastic range of speakers and workshops throughout the day.

The Media Democracy Festival is about imagining a media that informs, represents, and empowers us, and planning how we get there.

This year the festival is growing so that more people can attend. Our aim is to build a diverse and powerful movement for Media Democracy in the UK.

Speakers: Ash Sarkar, Owen Jones, Dawn Foster, Clive Lewis MP, Maya Goodfellow, Faiza Shaheen, Tom Mills, Kate Osamor MP, Anamik Saha, Grace Blakeley, Natalie Fenton, Matt Zarb-Cousin, David Wearing, Rachel O'Neill, Clare Hymer, Asad Rehman, Dalia Gebrial, Eleanor Penny, Hicham Yezza, Dan Hind, Michael Walker, Liz Fekete, Nathan Schneider, Juliet Jacques, Des Freedman, Layla-Roxanne Hill, Narzanin Massoumi, Helen Belcher, Sarah O'Connell, Sophie Varlow, Justin Schlosberg, Marijam Didžgalvytė, Jack Frayne-Reid, Jonathon Shafi, Yohann Koshy, Vanessa Baird, Nick Mahony, Aurelian Mondon, Joss Hands, Teun Gautier, Patrick Chalmers, John Vidal, Riley Quinn.

Join us on 16 March and be part of building a democratic media."

You can join in the discussion on Facebook here and grab your tickets here. A number of tickets are available for unwaged/students, standard tickets go for a fiver and the solidarity price is £8. I understand there will be an after festival party in the evening ... And if that's not incentive enough, yours truly has a ticket booked and will be going along.

Hope to see you in a month's time!

Tuesday 12 February 2019

Crash Course in Irish Politics

At a loose end? Know little to nothing about Irish politics? Then this utterly brilliant episode of TyskySour from Novara Media is the one for you. Here, Michael Walker is in conversation with Sinn Fein's Chris Hazzard and the New Left Review's Dan Finn. They address the position of Northern Ireland in relation to Brexit, whether it's hastening the day for a united Ireland, the shenanigans and permutations of the statelet's politics and much, much else besides. I can't recommend this enough.

As always, Novara could do with helping out so please consider donating here.

Monday 11 February 2019

Party Before Country

What is the "national interest"? In everyday thinking, the world is composed of different nations. These compete with each other for markets, resources, prestige and, occasionally, territory. To serve a national interest is to maximise a nation's share of all these things. But this is pure ideology, or to use another commonsensical expression, total bunkum. A nation, as Benedict Anderson had it, is an imagined community. A shared history, language, and cultural touchstones are the stuff by which nations are thought and they supposedly bind us together in common endeavours. Surely then the national interest is merely the aggregation of what's best for the majority of people who happen to be a given nationality, right? It's not. The social context of all nations is an international system underpinned by the globalised capitalist mode of production, an irreducibly extractive and exploitative economic system that sees a tiny minority pile up vast quantities of unearned wealth. The state's job is to manage this state of affairs, meaning each nation is scarred by a writhing, angry class divide between those who own capital and those who don't. The state, however, is sovereign. As far as official society is concerned, what it says goes. Therefore the nation and the national interest is explicitly identified with those of the state, and the state's interest is indissociable from the interests of "its" capitalism. The national interest is therefore the common bourgeois interest.

Forgive the long preamble, but understanding this is important if we are to properly understand Theresa May's approach to Brexit. A month ago, her Brexit deal was shown the door by a record-setting Commons vote. And so she changed tack. From her my-way-or-no-way strategy prior to the vote, she put her best listening face forward and declared she was open to suggestions. In they came, from demented Brexiteers to continuity remainers in search of an escape from the impasse. Making the choice between a soft Brexit deal that was in the national interest as per the definition above, or going with the unworkable plan junking the Irish backstop and comprehensively rejected by the EU, keeping the bulk of her party together ... she chose the latter. Then heading off to Brussels she discombobulated her backbenchers by simultaneously ruling out and ruling in the Irish backstop. Bizarre. This chicanery was upset by Jeremy Corbyn's letter to the Prime Minister, which outlined Labour's red lines for supporting her deal. You'll recall this annoyed the remainers here, mainly because Guy Verhofstadt and Donald Tusk were very welcoming of the proposals. Not least because its desire for a continued customs union with the EU is the least disruptive Brexit there is. Then Sunday night May's reply to Corbyn winged its way to the leader's office. She rejected the customs union because the UK should be free to strike its own trade deals (again, for reasons to do with Tory posturing more than anything else), but made cooing noises about more talks, etc. If running the clock down is how you get your deal through the Commons, then you would do exactly as May has done this last fortnight.

Then there's the the suggestion tonight that May is reconciled to a no deal Brexit, because the politics of it make her and the Tory party look good. Well, it keeps the party together anyway. Paul Waugh quoting an anonymous source reports "She’s been told – ‘You need to understand prime minister, it’s very simple maths – the ERG [European Research Group] will fuck you, fuck the Conservative party and they will throw themselves over a cliff. Your Remainer colleagues will not’. It’s who’s got the biggest balls." However, one shouldn't overstate the foolhardiness of the ERG, they don't want to be the ones to crash the Tory party and open the door to Corbynism.

May's perception of the immediate interests of the Conservative Party have guided her Brexit strategy and shenanigans since. In this respect, she is no different to her predecessor. The question is when the national interest, the collective capitalist interest, is so obviously ill-served by a no deal Brexit and a sensible arrangement eminently do-able, why is she willing for British capital to take a battering so the Tory party doesn't? Again, it comes down to the priority of class politics over economic order politics. One of the crises besetting the Tory party is its disarticulation from business-at-large, and the growing hegemony of the most reckless, short-termist and decadent sections of British capital. A no deal Brexit is sure to compound this further. But, as May knows, doing a deal with Corbyn could completely wreck the Tory party and a split between the Tory mainstream and its enfeebled centre right on the one hand, and its hard right on the other could keep them out of government for, well, forever. Her class instinct pushes her toward preserving the Tories at all costs because the party has traditionally been the political vehicle and articulator of those interests. Casting about the political landscape now, alternatives to the right are a joke, liberalism/centrism are effectively political elites without a party, and the Labour Party are going to nationalise your wine cellar. Or to put it another way, in the absence of a political formation for bourgeois interests May's overwhelming priority is to preserve the Tories, as battered and knackered they are. How they can recover and reverse their long-term decline is not her concern - that's the problem for a future leader. Therefore the profit margins of British capital are a price worth paying if the Tory party, the chosen organ of bourgeois rule, survives.

This shows in extremis the class character of the national interest, of "putting the country first". For May the fate of her class is inextricably bound up with the Tories, and so as far as she's concerned she is pursuing the national interest. But her no deal nonsense will mean more than a few companies going into the red, it means severe limits on international trade, rising prices, businesses going to the wall and with it burgeoning unemployment. Still, she and the cracked Tory elite won't have to pony up the cost for saving their party - they've volunteered us for that.

Sunday 10 February 2019

Introducing The Brexit Party

What's that coming over the hill, is it a monster? No, it's Nigel Farage's newest vanity vehicle, The Brexit Party. Launched on Friday and causing a media flap for all of five minutes, Farage has warned it fully intends to contest the European elections in the event of Article 50 being extended. "I sincerely hope that this prospect is recognised by both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party as a threat", he says. The new party is registered with the Electoral Commission, and has attracted support from Stephen Woolfe (remember him?) and former UKIP leader in Wales, Nathan Gill. And Farage is claiming 15,000 people have signed up in the first 24 hours.

"Signed up" here is an interesting phrase, because the new party possesses the most most rudimentary of websites. As you can't even join, anyone "signing up" is presumably added to a mailing list. And, in truth, it looks a bit half-arsed and disjointed. I guess Arron Banks wasn't able to dip into his magic pockets to produce the moolah for a professional-looking job on this occasion. And if you read around TBP's origins the unserious, hedging-our-bets impression is reinforced. Catherine Blaiklock, one of Farage's lackeys, has put in the hard yards of doing the paper work and getting the registration sorted out. But she says she won't run it without him on board, but if he's there then she'll happily do all the "donkey work". Also, note Farage's equivocation. TBP will only contest if Brexit is delayed, and those are the circumstances under which he'll lead it. I can understand his reticence. His gig at LBC pulls in the dough with a minimum of effort exerted, so why tour the draughty community centres and share beers with pub bore gammon unless one absolutely has to?

Let us suppose TBP with its alleged million quids' worth of donations are able to get its act together, and Farage does properly come on board, how can we expect the party to fare? The first thing to consider is its main competition, UKIP. Under the leadership of Gerard Batten the party's best known figures have jumped ship, suffering even a defection to the SDP, a political feat no leader has accomplished since the 1980s. And it's not difficult to see why. The door is now open to the very dregs of political life, including ranting YouTube incels and fascists. This has the potential to permanently cripple UKIP as a political force because, funnily enough, recent electoral history has shown that lots of people don't like unambiguously racist parties. That said, not many people pay attention to the minutiae of politics and therefore know Farage has cut ties with the purple people bleaters. I mean, there are plenty of people in Stoke who still think Labour run the council when it hasn't for four years. Unless Farage absolutely canes his switch of allegiances in the broadcast media and can get the right wing press to provide him free publicity then UKIP might limp on.

But here is the wider issue. The circumstances that gave rise to UKIP do not pertain any more. That party's slide into irrelevance began well before it took its far right turn, and this was for two reasons. Theresa May's strategy was interested in soaking up the kippers' support by positioning the Tories as the Brexit party. Despite the hash she's making of it, this is where the Tory party is and helps explain why their support hasn't collapsed. And, as a smaller party with shallow roots, as media attention focused on Corbynism, Brexit, and divisions in the two main parties, the lack of publicity has proven as effective as covering its face with a pillow. The party's not there encroaching on people's awareness, and so it's (deservedly) slipped beneath notice.

This has consequences for Farage and TBP too. A new populist party on the fringes is, yawn, old hat where our excitable media are concerned. It looked fresh and exciting five or six years ago, but right wing demagoguery is ten-a-penny these days. And that's just on the Tory back benches. What incentive is there to offer them coverage? Farage does have a following and, among other things, personifies Brexit to friend and foe. As such he could mobilise the old faithful. In the age of social media, this retinue of the crackered and knackered might theoretically overcome the block on publicity as per Labour at the last general election, but when the defining feature of this cohort of voters is lack of engagement with online then a repeat of Jeremy Corbyn's stellar performance is not terribly likely. It is also worth bearing in mind that while UKIP did very well out of media appearances, the other leg of their political canter was boosted by activism. Kippers did stalls, they went door-to-door leafleting, haphazardly canvassed and stood in council and parliamentary by-elections, and local elections. This bloodied the troops and got them used to political work. Farage's new outfit is seemingly poised to do none of this, hoping that a wave of (non-existent) media interest will carry them to success.

Nevertheless, there are opportunities for them. The first are events. If Article 50 is delayed, or Brexit is perceived as insufficiently Brexity among the 10 per cent or so of voters obsessing over it, then Farage could find a media opening and strike a chord with these people. If somehow we end up staying in the EU this becomes a dead cert. The second is the advantage of the name. 'The Brexit Party' requires nothing in the way of explanation - just compare this with the litany of stupid names coming forward for the putative but present/absent new centre party. However, success can breed the circumstances for defeat. With a huge new left and an angry remain activist base that Farage never had to face before, should TBP start getting traction the impetus for counter-movement mobilisation grows. This is more than just waving lollypops in Farage's face outside of a public meeting, it means motivating voters. And as UKIP have done well in past European elections thanks to depressed turnouts, they might not find they have the field all their own way.

If Farage was hoping for a bit of plain sailing, of reliving the glory days of 2013 to 2016 where he was feted and the political world opened up to him like a delicate flower, he's going to get disabused of the nostalgics very quickly. Half-arsed and half-baked and with very little in The Brexit Party's favour, it's difficult to fancy their chances.

The Politics of Tory Time Wasting

Of Rory Stewart, my significant other often says he doesn't look like a politician. He looks like an actor playing a politician. It's not just our Rory, though. Consider the Prime Minister. On Friday she tweeted "I'm clear that I am going to deliver Brexit, I'm going to deliver it on time, that's what I'm going to do for the British public - I'll be negotiating hard in the coming days to do just that." We know this is a load of rubbish. EU heroes Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker and Guy Verhofstadt have more or less intimated that May is just pantomiming politics and is wasting everyone's time. Which, of course, is the point. There is a clock ticking away and the chance she'll be able to get her deal through the Commons increases in proportion to our proximity to the cliff edge of a no-deal Brexit.

Playing for time and conveying an impression of feverish activity where there is none isn't a skill unique to politicians, but where our friends the Conservatives are concerned it has undergone something of a mutation. We need not expend any more time on Theresa May's woeful efforts, so let us clamber into the time machine and head back to the happy years of the pre-Brexit days. Approximately three years ago Dave went to Brussels to renegotiate the UK's membership of the European Union. People in the know then, as now, cast aspersions on his efforts to secure significant exceptions from the responsibilities of EU membership. And he came home with very little. The reward was small beer - to secure the Tory party right flank against a UKIP who polled very well in 2015 - but he put the house on it anyway. Nevertheless, the idea he'd achieved a meaningful change to the UK's obligations were risible and didn't wash, despite the efforts of the best spinners in the business. It nevertheless allowed Dave to look busy. A great deal of effort expended for something that, had it all gone according to plan, wouldn't have mattered much.

This characterises the modus operandi of the European Research Group and, appropriately enough, professional wastemen like Boris Johnson. Effectively, their vision of Britain post-Brexit is a big job of make-work for them. For tedious patricians like Rees-Mogg, it's more than an opportunity for his hedge fund to do well. The whole shit show is an affords a chance for the Tories to restore the leadership function of their class, of restoring their place in an ideological firmament that dethroned them throughout the course of the 20th century (forgetting Thatcher herself made her contribution). By tearing up all the agreements with the EU and, with it, all the trade deals with other states, such as Japan, South Korea and Canada - though the Faroe Islands are in the bag - Tories can globe trot and, in the full glare of publicity, sign up the trade deals they previously dumped. You can see it now, Mogg jetting off to exotic locales and bringing back with him an army transport full of pineapples. The disgraced Liam Fox loaded up with gadgetry to accompany his piece of paper with Japan's signature on it, and Boris Johnson messing with his hair and declaring a new era of cooperation as the Australian and New Zealand deals are sorted. To them, this is their Empire 2.0, their chance to play the great white hero swashbuckling across the globe and securing British interests. And their hope is it will play well at home. In their minds they're providing leadership to a country where it's sorely lacking and their reward will be seats and high office in perpetuity.

Meanwhile, in the scheme of the real world this is just displacement activity. A politics of wasting time to alibi the Tory party's absence on the big questions, like rebuilding Britain's economy, tackling the problems of the NHS, the underfunding of schools and early years, the lack of interest in the care crisis, and the looming, glooming threat of climate change. Even worse from the Tory point of view their obsession with jet setting sabotages further the strained relationship between the party and its constituency of voters because they're not addressing their concerns either, making the likelihood they'll get to act out these dismal neo-imperial fantasies somewhat more remote. Good.

It's a symptom of the awful state the Tories are in that a well worn political tactic has become elevated to the raison d'etre of a not insubstantial section of the party. All the more reason why our politics should work actively toward breaking them up so they never get the chance to form a government again.

Saturday 9 February 2019

Filling the Void

It's a funny old game. The problem with politics these days, at least for some, is there's too much of it. Just ask Brenda. But it wasn't very long ago, less than half a decade in fact, that the best political brains and some MPs were worried there was too little. From approximately the late 1990s, large numbers of political scientists fretted about the erosion of liberal democracy because people were becoming disengaged. And parties didn't help as they pursued concerns that appeared to matter to parliamentary elites and few others, while showing scant interest in the job of representing the constituencies their parties were set up to support.

Peter Mair's book Ruling the Void is probably the best summary of these kinds of arguments. Long in gestation, it was incomplete at the time of his sudden passing in 2011 and therefore - as the foreword explains - is a bit disjointed. This doesn't matter much in the main part of the book, but the final chapter on the European Union seems a bit shoehorned - though the argument Mair makes do have an important bearing concerns the malaise (as was) of politics.

Mair sums up the problem thus:
The age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, the have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form. (p.1)
He suggests we're in a state of non-sovereignty (or what others term post-democracy) characterised by an indifference to and a lack of interest in democratic politics. This was exacerbated by the anti-politics rhetoric of opportunist politicians and partisan media, the conscious attempt to wrestle decision making away from democratic decision-making and putting them in the hands of technocrats, and the view governmental authority was eroding thanks to the powerful currents of globalisation. For Mair this found reflection in the technical and academic literature with arguments stating that democracy was inimical to long-term planning and expert decisions, balanced by a growing literature interested in the substance and meaning of democracy.

As a political scientist, Mair is very careful to state what politics are in decline. The 'sub-politics' of Beck, or what Giddens termed as 'life politics' and today we call identity politics wasn't necessarily in crisis but institutional politics certainly were. But for Mair, disengagement was double-sided. Electorates were losing interest in politicians, and politicians in electorates. The evidence was legion. Across European liberal democracies, electoral turn out rose consistently in the 1950s. More or less stabilised between then and the 1980s, took a slight dip in the 90s and entered rapid decline at the beginning of this century. Electoral volatility, the measure of stability in party systems, was also more or less stable for most of the post-war period (with some important exceptions) but the emergence of new parties with significant support and the (partial) eclipse of the old. Simultaneously, voters were leaving behind partisan loyalties and becoming more mercenary in their voting habits, and by the end of the century party membership as a percentage of voters had halved, on average. Nevertheless one interesting trend is in party systems given to fragmentation is that in first order (i.e. general) elections they tend to band together in alliances or blocs that more or less reflect the traditional left/right divide. Italy was a prime example of this until recently.

Can we identify some key drivers of this disillusionment? For Mair, a key development was the development of the 'catch-all party'. As parties in democracies have an interest in winning votes and therefore seats for its candidates, there is a competitive necessity to grow the party's electorate. The quickest and surest means for doing this is by adopting policies and manifestos that appeal to the widest possible range of people. New Labour is the archetypal example, but it's something everyone's had a go at. The problem is if all parties submit to this competitive logic, the core of their identities and coalition of interests are increasingly displaced, parties tend to converge around a centre ground where most of the electorate are (perceived to be) located, and for voters they become more or less indistinguishable. To test whether this was the case, Mair reviews data on the number of coalition governments and similarities of manifestos and what do you know. The number of coalition governments have increased over time and statements of intent have grown broadly similar.

The additional problem of catch-all parties are their tendency to empower party elites as distance grows between them, the party membership and their constituencies. With their orientation toward office, the relationships between leaders and members - what political scientists refer to as the linkage function tethering politicians to broad constituencies of voters - are attenuated and what happens at home in the local party or local authority area is small beer compared to "real politics" at the national level. Readers can think of plenty of UK MPs who fit this mould. Facilitating this 'autonomisation' further is the displacing of donors by state funding, either on a payment-by-election-results basis (like Germany) or benefits in kind, such as access to broadcast media and free party political advertising. The result is the party-in-the-institutions is privileged over the party-in-the-country.

In many ways, the European Union is an instantiation and enabler of these trends. As an elite project from the outset, it was effectively born as a post-democratic institution. This was a place where economic and, increasingly, political integration was planned out and executed according to expert advice, decision-making, and according to their time tables. There is, of course, the European Parliament. Staffed by appointees from member state parliaments between 1952 and 1979, and directly elected thereafter it is still the case that the body is not sovereign. It has legislative power but does not possess the powers to propose legislation, and is more an elected consultative body. Furthermore, as far as Mair was concerned, it is a democratic body without a demos. There is no pan-European popular politics, which is reflected in the quota system by which EU members states return MEPs. Therefore elections to the parliament are largely seen as pointless and most voters are in the dark about its responsibilities and functions. Worst, for Mair, because it exemplifies the disconnect of voters and party elites it is vulnerable to populist insurgencies who use the language of anti-politics and the opportunity of its elections to try and blow the system up, and getting a slice of electoral office for themselves.

While an accurate summary of the era of post-politics with plenty of insights, particularly as regards the EU, arguably this period has passed. Or, to be more accurate, is in the process of passing. In Britain, in the wake of the Scottish referendum the political party started making a come back. The trend has since continued. The SNP experienced its surge in membership, followed by the Greens, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats. The relationship to their constituencies appear to be a more active one as well. The parties have rediscovered that responding to the concerns of their constituencies at the expense of an exclusive concern with the structures of governance is the key to political rejuvenation and, especially in the SNP and Labour cases, vital for electoral success. In Germany, the centrist coalition of Merkel's CDU/CSU with the Social Democrats have helped solidify the right populist insurgency of the AfD, but more significantly has put booster rockets under the Greens. France is seeing the centre besieged by a noisy and violent street movement that rejects all conventional politics as establishment politics. But the process is unfolding unevenly. In the UK, the Tories are untouched by the return of mass politics. They can assemble a mass voter constituency but their capacity to do so diminishes daily as their party organisation is rapidly decomposing. This is because they have become disarticulated from a mass constituency, and presently show no means of recovery let alone an awareness of their predicament.

In short, it turns out the solution to anti-politics or post-politics was more politics all along. There are still a lot of problems Mair identified that hang around. Mass politics might be returning, but turnouts and penetration of the electorate by party memberships remain at historic lows (despite their upward trajectories). The old elites habituated to the old ways are kicking around and causing trouble, and mass indifference and cynicism remains an obstacle, but it can be overcome by doing the painstaking campaigning work and community organising that built mass parties in the first place. Nevertheless, the era of ruling the void looks like it's at an end. The job now is to fill it. With what and whom is up to us.

Wednesday 6 February 2019

A Special Place in Hell

Unwise his comments may be from the standpoint of diplomatic protocol, it's difficult to disagree with Donald Tusk. There should be a special place for Brexiteers who lied, peddled racist politics, and hitched themselves to the Leave bandwagon for entirely selfish reasons. Space must also be reserved on the damnation list for the former Prime Minister for failing to order any contingency planning in case Leave won the referendum. And when we think about the current occupant of the highest office? Oh boy.

Of course, the Brexiteers love it when any European politician or bureaucrat goes off on one about Brexit. They take up the comments and spin themselves and plucky old Britain as hard done to by the nasty foreigner in the hope it plays well with what they consider to be "the country". The always absurd Andrea Leadsom demanded an apology from Tusk, and Jacob Rees-Mogg tweeted some bollocks about St Thomas Aquinas. This will be followed by outraged editorials (my money's on the Express to produce the most frothing), and a few pub bores and kippers are bound to get themselves in a lather about it all. Meanwhile most people are going to look on with bemusement and wondering when this whole Brexit mess is going to get sorted.

Someone else who benefits from Tusk's cuss is Theresa May. Never the most consistent of Prime Ministers, she lived up to her reputation of being somewhat elastic with her word during her speech to Northern Ireland businesses on Tuesday. Now, bear in mind what has happened in politics of late. May's deal went down to a historic defeat. Faced with the Scylla of caving in to the Brexiteers on the hard right, and the Charybdis of a sensible customs-union based Brexit that already commands the majority of the Commons, as ever May put her party interest first and whipped her troops into supporting a new negotiating stance that re-opens the Irish backstop. Keen Brexit watchers will recall that the backstop was entirely her own invention in the first place, but such is politics. And so May is going in to bat for putting a time limit on the insurance policy in case her government proves incapable of striking a trade deal with the EU. Except she's not. She has assured Northern Ireland business that the UK isn't leaving the EU without some permutation of a backstop to prevent the return of the hard border. Eh? In her own words:

There is no suggestion that we are not going to ensure that in the future there is provision for this – it has been called an insurance policy, the backstop – that ensures that if the future relationship is not in place by the end of the implementation period, there will be arrangements in place to ensure that we deliver no hard border.

This isn't what she signed on to when May renewed her alliance with the ERG. For them, moaning about the inviolability of the UK is just cover because they feel compelled to hide their true intentions. Offered concessions at the Brexit Select Committee around a legal guarantee that Britain would not be bound in perpetuity to the backstop agreement should it be triggered, Andrea Jenkyns and John Whittingdale rejected it out of hand. No deal remains their objective, and there's nothing Brussels can do to persuade them to come to an arrangement. If this is resolved, this wing of the ERG will find some other reason to oppose a deal.

Given May's equivocation over the compact they thought was signed and sealed, they're getting a taste of what Michel Barnier has put up with these last couple of years. And yet the gnashing and the whingeing has curiously absented itself. Are they biting their lips out of deference to May going to Brussels for negotiations? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. Last week, it was continuity remain locked in a bitter dispute. This week's it's the Brexiteers' turn. As Alex Wickham reports, Tory party unity over the so-called Malthouse Compromise has frayed already. Central is the claim that a scheduled trip to Northern Ireland organised by the Alternative Arrangements Working Group (the outfit tasked to come up with a solution to the border issue) saw leading Brexiteers pull out because they were due to meet with civil servants, business and local politicians who would tell them what no deal means. It's interesting how power can never stomach its truth. They felt they were being stitched up, and so cancelled their flight yesterday afternoon. More interestingly for connoisseurs of Tory in-fighting, this is symptomatic of an internal ERG split on what concessions would be acceptable. Some, as per Jenkyns and Whittingdale are demanding the removal of a backstop entirely as a condition of their support because, you know, the risk of a return to violence and misery is a price worth paying for the ERG's tax haven fantasies. Others accept it but are on the time-limited wagon. What a shame. Or, as one Tory noted, "It is ironic that something supposed to overcome division within the Conservative Party has caused further division". Quite.

Don't know about you, but I can't get enough of the Tory party volatility. At the rate things are going, Theresa May could go into her meeting on Thursday with Jean-Claude Juncker promising to negotiate out the backstop, and reveal to the world how she's signed up to a full UK-wide customs union Brexit with a year-long extension to Article 50. To be honest, I doubt May fully knows what she's doing from one day to the next. But it doesn't matter for her. The shilly-shallying and the games playing, the scuttling backwards and forwards to Dublin and Brussels does achieve one thing: it keeps winding the clock down to when enough Tory and Labour MPs feel compelled to support her deal. We know her game, she knows her game, and she knows we know and we know she knows, but none of this is stopping the zombie-like resurrection of her deal and her steering of the country to the brink.